A Special Kind of Performance: Can Xue On The Course Of A Chinese Writer

We’ve asked some of our favorite international authors to write about literary communities and cultures around the globe. We’re bringing you their essays in a new ten-part series: The Writing Life Around the World. The fifth installment is by Chinese author Can Xue.

Beijing, China
translated by Jonathan Griffith

I have been fascinated by performances since I was three years old. But in my younger days my performances were very special — I performed in my mind. So no one around me knew my secret dramas.

Sometimes alone in my room, I would begin my drama. There was a fire and a lot of smoke in my home, and my grandma was too sick to move, so I supported her by her arm and ran out of the room with her. How happy both of us were!

Or sometimes at midnight, a tiger was chasing after me. I ran and ran, exhausted. Then I closed my eyes and said to myself: “Jump!” And I did jump, down from a steep cliff. I knew I would still be alive. When I woke (I always woke at the crucial moment), I found that I was.

The time came that I went to a primary school. My teacher was a poor young man; his face was not good-looking. It seemed that no young woman would be happy to get married to him. In the classroom, I listened to him, but my thoughts went in another direction. I would help him, to make him happy. One day I wrote a beautiful composition; it was so beautiful that it made a sensation in the school. “Whose student is she?” people asked. “Teacher Wen! Teacher Wen!”

Teacher Wen and I were very happy, and we went to the playground to take a walk. We talked and talked and talked…Of course the whole thing never happened in real life. My performances became longer and more complicated the older I grew.

Then came my thirteenth or fourteenth year. I began reading fiction and science fiction, and some of them were great books. Reading this fiction made me long to love someone. But who? My family was very poor. The authorities had put my father in a program of “reeducation through labor” (cleaning the library). In daily life, most people gave me supercilious looks when I went out in public. Additionally, I had lost my chance of receiving an education at a school.

All this meant that I could only come into contact with a few girls around me. So I stayed at home alone most of the time. I went to a small eating establishment nearby for my simple lunch and supper twice a day. One day (that was a shining day) when I returned from the eating establishment, I saw a healthy boy playing basketball on the playground. He was a little older than I was. I thought he was beautiful. I became so excited that my face blushed with shyness. Of course, he didn’t pay attention to me at all — boys were always like that. That night at home, I was so happy with the chance meeting. When I lay in the dark, the scenes of us appeared in my mind again and again. I worked out all kinds of new scenes in which the boy and I came face-to-face. My life of paradise lasted for the whole summer. Every day when I walked near the playground, I listened attentively to the sound made by the bouncing basketball. As I walked across the playground, I dared not turn my face; I had to pretend that I wasn’t paying any attention to him. How vigorous and nimble he was! What a beautiful body! Last night I had been in the park with him. We sat in the meadow, watching doves in the sky. But like all teenagers in those times, we didn’t touch each other. I only touched him with my eyes in my mind.

Time flew. One day the boy disappeared from the playground. He never reappeared, but my drama lasted for a whole other year.

* * *

Why did I learn to make clothes?…I badly needed time for my performances.

I didn’t begin writing until I was almost thirty years old. During that time I had been a “barefoot doctor,” a worker at a small workshop in a lane, and a temporary teacher. My last job before I became a writer was as a self-employed tailor. Why did I learn to make clothes? One reason was because my husband and I wanted to earn money to feed our child and ourselves. But the main reason was that I badly needed time for my performances. That was my ideal since my early childhood, and I had never forgotten it, even for a minute. And my husband helped me to realize the ideal. Time is money.

Both of us learned to make clothes according to a magazine called Dress-cutting and Sewing. We worked hard from morning to midnight every day. After half a year, we became two tailors — worthy of the name. The apartment changed into a workshop, and we even hired three helpers. We began earning some money. That was 1983, and at that time only a few people in cities owned their own business. But we made it. It was not much money, and our work was very hard.

* * *

…our customers always interrupted my writing. So my time was fragmentary — ten minutes, fifteen minutes…

In the same year, I began writing at a sewing machine. A strange thing happened: I found that when I was writing fiction, I didn’t need to work out plots or a structure or anything beforehand. No matter, a short piece or a long piece, it was the same. I just sat down and wrote without thinking. That’s all. Back then during the daytime, our customers always interrupted my writing. So my time was fragmentary — ten minutes, fifteen minutes, a half hour at most. In the evening, my four-year-old son (he was naughty) occupied almost all of my time.

So during these ten minutes, fifteen minutes, or half hour, I even managed to write a small novel — my maiden work. And the plot went smoothly in the novel! It was a perfect whole.

I was so amazed, What I achieved was something that I hadn’t expected — when I wanted to perform, I performed; when I decided to stop, I stopped. But I could always come back to it. How strange! I thought maybe I was a little bit like those ancient poets, who could write their poetry in an open county while they drank wine, or talked with their friends, or just stayed alone in a beautiful scenery. It seemed they could write any time they wanted. But not quite. It seemed that there was a logic that pushed my pen forward, as if it was impossible for me to write down wrong words and sentences. All of the plots and dialogues that I wrote down were so right, so beautiful, just like my childhood performances. The only difference was that I did it more sober-mindedly and with greater determination now. I found that I enjoyed these activities so much that I wrote every day, even when our business was so busy. It was not long after that I understood that my writing was a special kind of performance — a performance of one’s soul.

* * *

Writing fiction freely was dangerous in those dark days in China.

For all of my life, my soul has longed to go out. But the opportunity didn’t present itself until I was thirty years old. How miserable but at the same time how lucky it was! Writing fiction freely was dangerous in those dark days in China. But I was given the chance at long last. The long waiting made one so vigorous and original, it was impossible to do wrong.

Like the dancer Isadora Duncan, I didn’t need to work out things in advance because for me writing was the most natural thing to do. When I no longer needed to worry so much about money — that was after writing for five years — I just made a rule for myself: write for an hour every day, usually in the morning when I finished my running. Every day — one hour, no more, no less. No matter what I wrote — a story, or a novel — I wrote it smoothly, then left it as it was. The next day, I wrote from where I had left off the day before. I would hold a pen in my hand, think for a minute or two, at most five minutes; then the first sentence would appear in my mind. I wrote it down. Then the second sentence appeared, the third … How happy I was!

I felt that I lived a dual life. It was my worldly life that fed my performances, and at the same time, it was performance that gave the meaning to my worldly life.

The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. My kingdom of fiction grew larger and larger, its boundary extending in every direction. Gradually I understood: since I was a dancer of the soul, this sort of performance just couldn’t stop. It was impossible. Another thing that occurred was that my personality began to change so much after I became a dancer — it became brighter and brighter. I had always loved worldly life, and now I loved it more! Now to me, every day became so beautiful. Cooking a meal in the kitchen, cleaning the apartment, washing clothes, helping my son with his homework, going to the market to buy meat and vegetables, running in the rain four kilometers with an umbrella. My everyday life was arranged in perfect order, so I was full of vigor. I felt that I lived a dual life. It was my worldly life that fed my performances, and at the same time, it was performance that gave the meaning to my worldly life. I loved both. Actually I thought the two were one. I still think so today.

Sometimes as I recall my childhood performances, I ask myself, why did they happen? Why was it that the performances made me happiest? As I grow older, I know the answer: it is because I wanted to live a full life. I wanted my body and my soul to dance at the same time. I am a daughter of Greater Nature, a nimble daughter, so nimble that I heard Mother’s calling even at three years old. The calling was from that deep, dark place, and very few people have the ability to hear it, but I had. But this ability brought with it a great responsibility upon me when I grew up.

* * *

In my writing life, I have observed that there are other people besides myself who have heard the calling of Great Nature when they were very young. But they didn’t concentrate on it, so they lost it very easily and never heard it again. For example, in the 80’s in China, some writers wrote beautiful experimental fiction, but after three or four years, all of them returned to traditional writing. I know that for a writer it is very difficult to concentrate on your performance all the time. There are too many temptations in the world, and nowadays it is easy for a famous writer to get more money if he or she wants to by dropping experimental writing and choosing realistic stories or film and TV plays. Almost all of my colleagues turned toward that road.

Year in and year out, I found that I was the only writer from my generation who still wrote experimental fiction in China.

But for me, it was another story. From the beginning, I wrote just for my ideal. But what is a life devoted to this ideal? I think it should be this: giving a performance every day, reading beautiful books, enjoying beautiful things — sex, food, comfortable clothes, and so on — in short, making my life always happy and keeping myself always curious about the things around the world. That means I must keep my body in a healthy condition. That’s it. Money is important because it can buy time or prolong my life (I have a serious rheumatism). But I always know that I want to live a life that is worthy for me to live. Year in and year out, I found that I was the only writer from my generation who still wrote experimental fiction in China. I was so sad, but at the same time, I was so proud!

I am proud because this kind of performance needs a great talent and courage, and very few people can achieve this. Inspiration is not the only thing that the writer has to have; at the same time you must have a strong rational faculty, because you will be demanding of yourself to do a sort of very special thinking, and this sort of thinking is not reasoning. I now call it “material reasoning.” Maybe it is a little mysterious, but looking at my day’s performance and the performances of my childhood, you may get some clues.

“Material reasoning” is not just thinking — it’s doing. That is why I call it a performance. In that atmosphere when you move your body, your action is following a strict logic. You perceive the logical structure directly through your senses. The more you do it, the more the structure appears in various forms. But from my experience, one must do it often if one longs to see the structure. Slacking off for a year or two, it’s very possible that the structure disappears totally. This happened to two of my friends. Both of them were highly talented in experimental writing when they were very young. I think Great Nature is fair to every human being. She always gives you a gift that you are worthy of. But some people lose it even if they don’t perceive it.

* * *

Now I’m full of gratitude to our Great Nature. In 2015, I’m 62 years old and still brimming with inspiration. Except for taking part in literature activities abroad once or twice a year, I write almost every day. Writing gives me strong confidence, keeping my body healthy. I feel that my life has become some kind of music. Every morning as I open my eyes, I see the sun rising differently. To me, every day is a brand new day!

Usually I study Western philosophy and literature in the daytime. At eight o’clock in the evening (I changed my morning performance to evening ten years ago), I give a performance. That takes almost an hour. But some times forty-five minutes will be enough. I look at the words and the sentences in the notebook (from the beginning, I have always written in a notebook). Ah, they are so neat! The strange thing is that my handwriting is usually ugly when I write into a contract or on an envelope. But with fiction, my handwriting is neat and tidy. The notebooks are so beautiful as a whole. In the beginning I didn’t know I could write like that. Now I know that it’s Great Nature who gives me the ability and lets me write beautifully. Actually as I grow older every year, my hand often shakes when I’m writing. But as soon as I begin to perform, the words and sentences, as if hearing the calling, become full of life!

— Can Xue

A few questions for Can Xue about the writing life in China…

Electric Literature: In your essay, you describe working as a “barefoot doctor,” a teacher, a tailor. Your first stories were ‘written’ while you were working at a sewing machine. At what point were you able to put other jobs aside and to begin dedicating yourself to writing? What happened to allow that?

Can Xue: As I mentioned in the essay, in my fifth or sixth year of writing, I published some work overseas (in the United States, Japan, and Taiwan). So I got some money. And at that time it was a big amount (about $10,000 USD). My husband and I were so happy that I immediately decided not to make clothes anymore. (My husband kept making clothes, though not so many, and I was in charge of the housework.) My publishing abroad is an amazing story. Both my American translator and my Japanese translator found Can Xue’s stories from magazines published in China. Then they wrote to the publishing house in Changsha, and got in touch with me. Meanwhile, one of my good literary friends helped me to contact the government in Changsha, so that I could get a small stipend every month. After a year, the government approved my application as “a professional writer.” That means you can get a monthly salary from the Writers Association of Hunan Province (about $60 USD).

EL: How was your first work published? Have the means by which publishers in China discover new writers changed over the last few decades?

They thought the books were not “real,” ”formal” and standard literature. They also thought the books were not very ”healthy.”

CX: Although my first Chinese book was published in Taiwan in 1987, and the other two were published in the United States and Japan in 1989, the leaders of the literary circle and the publishing houses at that time weren’t that interested in Can Xue’s work. They thought the books were not “real,” “formal” and standard literature. They also thought the books were not very “healthy.” I think in the past two decades the publishers have changed a lot. Since 2000, I have published many works. As for the new writers, most of the publishers choose their works according to whether they are welcome to readers. Also, the leaders of the Writers Association like certain writers, and those writers get many opportunities. So some young experimental writers are in a very difficult situation. As to me, since I’m more and more famous in China, and some young readers love my work, it’s now easy for me to get my work published.

EL: Your stories are often set in abstract or fantastical spaces that are charged with powerful forces. Are there places in Beijing — streets, neighborhoods, landscapes — that have a special impact on you or whose energy, perhaps, has been instilled into your stories?

CX: Basically no. Because experimental writing is not that sort. But in deep structure, there may be some influence. I just don’t know at the moment. Maybe someday, when somebody researches my work, they will find some changes in my writing that are linked to my move from the South to Beijing. That would be interesting. To tell you the truth, I mostly stay in my apartment, which is in the suburbs, all year round. I go downtown once a year at most. (It’s been three years since I last went.) My husband does all shopping for our family. When you ask about the streets, the neighborhoods and so on, I really don’t know much.

EL: Which Chinese authors do you consider the most meaningful for the current-day avant-garde?

CX: For the current-day, only Can Xue’s works are the real experimental writing that sells in China, I’m afraid. Another one I can think of is Liang Xiaobin (1954- ), who writes very beautiful essays. But he is very poor and has a serious disease.

EL: You are a longtime student of Western literature and philosophy, and a good deal of your work has been published to acclaim in the U.S. and Europe. Have those connections to the West had any affect (negative or positive) on your success in China?

CX: The influence you mention comes in two ways: 1. Since I have published some books abroad (mainly in the U.S. and in Japan) and received some acclaim, publishers in China are more welcoming of my work than before. I know most of my readers are young people who love “pure” literature very much. So since 2000, the situation for Can Xue has changed a lot. Before 2000, I only published 4–5 books (from 1985–1999), and the sales were very very poor (maybe because they had almost no publicity). 2. The literary circles in China are very traditional, As I know, experimental literature is in a very difficult situation. The traditional circles in China don’t consider Can Xue’s works to be “good” literature, and they don’t advocate for them. So it’s hard for me to promote my works. Meanwhile if a young writer wants to write experiment works, it will be very difficult, almost impossible for him to get any financial support from literary organizations that are founded by the government.

EL: You are in the relatively rare position of being able to make an informed comparison of the contemporary literary scenes in China and in the U.S. Do they share many similarities?

The biggest problem for both country’s literature is a lack of will to innovate.

CX: Yes, I think so. The biggest problem for both country’s literature is a lack of will to innovate. I think most works in recent years are sentimental and superficial, even the worldly-wise ones. I can’t see any innovative spirit in those works. For the Chinese writers, it’s because their individual characters are weak; they think that our tradition is more relaxed and comfortable, and they would like to lie in the tradition and have sweet dreams. Actually the tradition that they think of is not a real tradition anymore, because it has been past, disappeared. How can one still call it a tradition? In my view, if you want a real literary tradition, your only way is to recreate it. I think maybe in the United States, the situation is the same?

EL: You’ve shown a rare willingness to critique the works of contemporary writers, often quite bluntly. Has that made things difficult for you professionally? Are you surprised that more writers don’t engage in that manner of critique? You seem to take your duties to the literature and the culture very seriously.

…when I get a chance, I will criticize them. I think that’s my work (I am a critic too) and the meaning of my existence.

CX: Yes, you are right, I always tell the truth. But people don’t like to hear it. So I often put myself in a difficult situation in the literary circles in my homeland. But I’m not the least surprised by the attitude of my colleagues. They are traditional people, and that sort always deals with things like this. Their works are much more welcome than mine. Basically they are not “angry” people. But still, when I get a chance, I will criticize them. I think that’s my work (I am a critic too) and the meaning of my existence.

EL: You’ve managed to connect with Western readers in a number of ways, in addition to your fiction — engaging in interviews, writing critical essays. How do you connect with your Chinese readers? What are the outlets and the means of reaching those readers, besides publishing fiction?

CX: Besides publishing fiction, I often give short articles to newspapers, discussing my views of literature, criticizing my colleagues. I know that not a few young people like my essays. I will continue my criticizing whenever I get a chance.

About the Author

Can Xue, pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, is the author of numerous short-story collections and four novels. Six of her works have been published in English, including Dialogues in Paradise (Northwestern University Press, 1989), Old Floating Cloud: Two Novelllas (Northwestern University Press, 1991), The Embroidered Shoes (Henry Holt, 1997), Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories (New Directions, 2006), Five Spice Street (Yale University Press, 2009), and Vertical Motion (Open Letter, 2011).

You can find all the essays from The Writing Life Around the World at Electric Literature.

Writing Life Around the World

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