Monday, January 23, 2012

Can Xue: Strange Tales from a Neo-Classical Chinese Studio

Reading literature in translation I sometimes discover an element from the work’s culture of origin not immediately apparent from the work itself - a cultural practice, historical event, engagement with a literary precursor - which, once recognized, places the work in a richer context.

In a bookstore in China last year, I was drawn to a beguiling title, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by 17th century writer Pu Songling. The book seemed too good to pass up, especially since it also promised a treasure trove of Chinese ghost stories of the sort I’d first encountered in Lafcadio Hearn’s Some Chinese Ghost Stories (not realizing that several of Hearn’s tales came from Pu Songling). Living up to its promise, Pu’s collection contained weird, captivating tales filled with ghosts, superstitions, odd temporal shifts, physical transformations and bizarre events of large and small magnitude, often pervaded by a sense of foreboding and death.

Weeks later, as I began reading contemporary Chinese author Can Xue, I was startled at the seamlessness of the transition from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio to Can’s Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories. For all of its contemporary experimental qualities and relation to 20th century influences, Can’s work of wild imagination, complex moods and delirious images clearly owed a tremendous debt to Pu Songling and a long line of other explorers of the supernatural and fantastic in Chinese literature.

Can has described herself as a “neo-classical” writer (which should have been enough of a clue), but without my having first stumbled onto Pu Songling and Hearn, I might have missed this connection between her work and these old stories. As in those tales, in Can’s stories the most bizarre of events unfold in an almost matter-of-fact, reportorial way, with naturalistically flat emotion, at least in the telling. If naturalist narratives stress the determined factuality of the world, then Can’s narrative style might be called “supernaturalist” – a similarly rooted approach in which reception to the supernatural and to the merely natural are scarcely distinguishable, a continuum rather than a separate realm. Strange phenomena and weird emanations from nature fill Can’s intricate, dreamlike tales, which usually take place in and around a village (to the extent that they can be said to “take place” anywhere other than some indeterminate psychological terrain) and often feature a young person entangled in some way with an older person or persons. They also usually involve ghosts and superstition, the grotesque and the decadent, with death nearly always in close proximity, and in this way resonate strongly with their classical precursors.  

What sets Can’s tales apart is the strongly modern sensibility and resistance to interpretation picked up on by many of the reviews of her work that I’ve read, which often center on one or both of two aspects of her work while (with notable exceptions[1]) saying little to nothing about her Chinese precedents. The first is to remark upon Can’s striking originality and reference her more immediate Western influences, including Borges, Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Garcia Marquez (though in interviews Can has been dismissive of both magical realism and Garcia Marquez). As regards Borges and Kafka, the influences are obvious and acknowledged. Can has, in fact, written a full length book on Kafka, and her debt to him comes across through individuals mostly at the mercy of forces larger than themselves, of obscure networks of restrictions, illegible codes and blindly-followed traditions, of subjection to baffling human and natural phenomena that her characters confront with a mixture of mystification, adaptation, and submission. They roll with the situations they confront, but largely from a lack of alternatives. In these tightly constructed, intensely concentrated tales, one feels the sense of labyrinthine entrapment and abstractly directed activity as one finds, for example, in Kafka’s knotty, claustrophobic masterpiece, “The Burrow.”

Many of the 14 pieces in the Blue Light in the Sky interweave similar motifs, characters, and tone. Regarding the last, there’s not much joy in these stories; rather, the tone is slightly menacing, dark and disjointed, a shudder of horror behind a calm and mostly acquiescent narrative voice whose mild protests, when they occur, seem to dissipate into fog and echo back upon themselves. Unlike in the work of surrealist writers whose images deliberately detach from reality, the surrealistic elements here seem to serve as elaborate, two-handled, multi-sided metaphors for structuring interior, psychological states in a manner that gives them the plausibility of dreams despite their impossible, supernatural qualities.  

Despite this structuring of interiority, another common tack in reviews is an attempt to place Can’s work in a contemporary political context, awkwardly slotting her work into a Western framework that gazes on China from a distance (sometimes with alarmingly stereotypical assumptions). But there’s almost nothing explicitly recognizable about modern China in Can’s tales, or even any sense that she’s a writer overtly concerned with social or political issues. She herself has explicitly denied (perhaps disingenuously) not only a political element, but also that her stories even deal with the external world at all. The confusion may arise from the fact that the conceits she presents, through the encompassing sweep of her prodigious imagination (which seems to pick up something of everything it touches, like some literary katamari damacy), nonetheless manage to reflect, usually metaphorically and at a severely oblique slant, a wide range of problems with which contemporary China is wrestling: mass displacements from the countryside to the cities, rapid modernization and construction, environmental and cultural degradation and destruction, the fracturing of tradition in confrontation with rapid change, and a panoply of psychiatric pathologies (that China holds among the world’s highest rates of psychiatric disorder seems amply if indirectly reflected in Can’s stories). In the story “Snake Island,” for example (a title shared by one of Pu Songling’s tales), the narrator - in a standard theme from the repertoire of Chinese literature - returns to his native village after 30 years’ absence, but when he arrives, everything looks “completely wrong.”

The strange thing was that no matter how I combed through my memory, no matter how I stared at the scenery, I couldn’t call back that old village. As soon as I got off the bus, I thought I’d recognize the mountain road that went through our village – that twisting cobblestone road that I’d taken countless times from childhood to young adulthood. But – where was the road? Even the mountain had disappeared. In the open country stretching to the horizon was a walled community of bungalows in garish colors There weren’t even many trees near the houses. Wondering if I’d come to the wrong place, I went to ask a farmer’s wife. ‘Snake Island?’ She squinted, responding in the village dialect that I hadn’t heard in ages. ‘This is it.’

Nothing in the story fixes it in a precise time or explicitly alludes to particulars of modern China. But one can recognize the obliterating sense of dislocation the story depicts, a prominent feature of the psychological landscape in a country where an estimated 1.5 million people were uprooted from the banks of the Yangtze to accommodate the Three Gorges Dam, and where a vast, gleaming city like Shenzhen, with a population of over 12 million, was, just 30 years ago, a fishing village of a few hundred people.

But such oblique intimations of China’s modern situation are incidental in Can’s fiction. One glimpses these external elements as casual features of her literary landscapes, not as social criticism, and only via the interstices in narratives that read in most other ways like classical folk tales retooled to reflect the corrosive effects of the modern world and given new form by Can’s fertile imagination.

“Scenes Inside the Dilapidated Walls,” for example, seems to show off Can’s melding of the tone and supernaturalism of Chinese ghost stories with her modern influences. The young narrator and an isolated nameless old man, together beneath a stark sun that grows colder each day, unwillingly keep a lonely watch over some dilapidated walls (reminiscent of Borges’ “The Circular Ruins”) while waiting for a particular old woman to pass by. They spend the interminable hours trying out different ways to alleviate the boredom and increasing chill, including by telling one another “dull stories.” Both are drawn to the dilapidated walls, the old man with an addiction to sticking his head between its cracks, where he repeatedly makes startling discoveries, including, one day, beautiful flies with wings “like a rainbow” – a surprising novelty under the constancy of “this monotonous burning sun and clear sky.” As in most of Can’s tales, the action seems to carry little of the significance of her story, which is borne instead by a complex metaphorical language without clear referents. As the old man in the story says of a metaphor that has suddenly occurred to him (in the way Can’s own metaphors often seem like inspired conceits), “To tell the truth, this is a metaphor I thought up on the spur of the moment. My life now is like a metaphor covering a metaphor, or you could say a metaphor within another metaphor. This other metaphor is concealed in an even bigger metaphor.” While it’s purposefully unclear what the “bigger metaphor” of the story might be – and one strength of Can’s stories is their defiance of interpretation while at the same time magnifying the possibilities for interpretation – one could even see the tale as a potent image of the state of contemporary literature and of the effort to create something new and meaningful in a world where literary language, in its relation to a dilapidated past marked by erasures, elisions and revisions, offers traces of well-traveled, forking paths as well as new literary figurations that bubble up from a seemingly endless and mysterious fount, but where actual communication has become more difficult and assurance of meaning more unstable. As the young narrator of the story says at one point, “I was constantly bothered by the question: do our voices reach the outside world?”  In the end, these two persons, as suspended in indeterminacy as Lucky and Pozzo at the end of Waiting for Godot, come to see the absent old woman for whom they wait as their only “wisp of a connection to the outside world…our only thread.” But where is she?

Can’s brief afterword, entitled “A Particular Sort of Story,” presents an intriguing description of her artistic process. In it, she insists again that her work deals not with the external world but with the internal, arising through an almost shamanistic process combining instinct and spiritual practice. Can describes a kind of spiritual, dialectical poetics by which opposing elements get pushed to their extreme limits as a way of generating maximum poetic effect and “strangeness” via an “acceleration of mystery” (physicists take note). Can’s method seems to be a rigidly devotional matter of opening herself up to impersonal, unmediated eruptions from the subconscious; it’s telling that she frequently refers to herself in the third person in interviews, as though she is merely a disparate facet of or channel for some larger source of the collective unconscious, not the active agent of her works. Her method resolutely opposes a strict rationality, affirming the value of elements beyond the merely empirical. But at the same time, there is a rigor in Can’s method that she asserts in a provocative final sentence, in which she insists (with a frustrating lack of elaboration) that her spiritual, creative “neo-classical” process stands in diametric opposition to what gets translated here as “jungle culture.”

For all its undeniable originality in process as well as in product, Can Xue’s work also clearly owes as much of a debt to the “old dilapidated walls” of her Chinese literary predecessors as to those of her acknowledged modern influences. But as an artistic response to a complex world, Can’s work is as strangely resonant as one is likely to find in contemporary literature. Reading Pu Songling and then Can Xue in the wake of my own most recent visit to China left me thinking about Susan Sontag’s comment when asked why she would put on Waiting for Godot in such a challenging place as Sarajevo during the 1993 siege. Her reply has stayed with me since, and seems fitting for Can Xue’s relation to modern China: “There are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.”[2] If there is no intended or direct correspondence between Can’s stories and contemporary China - where the rapidity of change, the violent upheavals of progress and the contrasts and tensions between opposing elements reach awe-inspiring extremes arguably unmatched anywhere else on the planet - one might understandably claim that nothing illuminates the significance of Can Xue’s stories more than the “sense of reality” one can experience in modern China itself.

Much of the source material I consulted for this review can be found at MIT’s Can Xue web site - - an invaluable resource for information on the writer and her work). 

[1] i.e. here
[2] New York Review of Books, October 21, 1993


  1. I am just avoiding most of what you wrote, but: have you read Jonathan Spence's The Death of Woman Wang. Pu Songling is a major source for Spence's history, an ingeniously used source. Super book.

  2. I liked the Pu Songling so much that it's earned a place next to the bed; those stories just make for terrific bed-time reading. So I'll definitely add the Spence book to the pile, thanks.

  3. Interesting. The artist as channel. She sounds fascinating but I could imagine that this type of writing and thinking isn't apprecited in China these days. Too spiritual or spiritualistic.
    I hadn't heard of Pu Songling either but I'll have to see whether some of his stories are in a collection of Chinese ghost stories I have. I'm very curious to see how they differ from Japanese ghosts stories.
    Both books sound so tempting.

  4. Caroline - my understanding is that Can Xue is actually highly respected in China and widely read (well, in as much as good literature gets widely read anywhere). While her method may be spiritual, the results are hardly what one might associate with that term. Let me know if you get around to reading either of these works. I really loved the weird tales of Pu Songling, which had me thinking at times of 18th century Japanese writer Uyeda Akinari's fantastic Tales of Moonlight and Rain. One element that seems to be common to all of them is the continuum between the natural and supernatural.

  5. This is fascinating. Caroline linked me here as I just put a review of Pu Songling's Strange Tales up on my blog. It's fascinating to see how he continues to be an influence.

    1. Many thanks. This is actually the second time this week that Pu Songling has come to my attention again. Miguel at the St. Orberose blog has some great posts up about works that Jorge Luis Borges selected to be published for his "Library of Babel" series, and I was astonished to see that of the 29 volumes, one of them is devoted to Pu Songling. Great stuff, isn't it?