Can Xue was born in 1953 and brought up by her somewhat squeamish grandma who also had some strange habits. The unusual life experiences left Can Xue with special characteristics.
Formerly a tailor by trade, Can Xue (whose real name is Deng Xiao-hua) only began writing fiction seriously in 1983. Can Xue (translated as "the dirty snow that refuses to melt") prolifically writes avant-garde short stories, novellas, novels, and critical commentaries on writers who have influenced her Gothic magic, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Dante.
Her first Chinese work was published in 1985 while the English translation of Dialogues in Paradise, Can Xue's first collection of lyrical stories, appeared in 1989, followed by two novellas, Old Floating Cloud in 1991 and The Embroidered Shoes Collection of stories in 1997.
Can Xue's Soul Literature
Can Xue says her literature is soul literature that focuses on the human soul, not the outside superficial world. She has readily admitted to not being very concerned with national or even superficial political problems. Rather, she is interested in the psyche, which has revolutionary implications given China's previous artistic climate of socialist realism. She strongly aligns herself with Kafka and Borges, both of whom are part of the magical realist tradition.
She says she writes with the most feeling in contemporary Chinese literature, as she releases her reason and senses into unconscious writing. "When I write, I always imagine a person behind me, editing my words. This person controls my writing, so I think all of my work is from this conscience. There is always one very abstract person in my head. I battle with myself and the characters in my works."
She emphatically subscribes to the belief that "there is another world parallel to this blunt reality, and this dream world is much bigger and deeper. The soul world is much more important than this realistic world. Chinese people connect to the spirit of the self. Self-realization has been an important concept from ancient times until today."
Rejecting the real world, she expels all outside forces to write of the internal soul world. "I believe if you want to change the world, you have to change your soul first," Can Xue added enthusiastically. Expressing distaste for contemporary American literature, she added, "What I write dances from my heart. The writer fights with the self, but you can't control yourself to write."
A Plant of China and the West
Can Xue blends aspects of Chinese culture with modern Western influences in her works. "My works are like a plant," she explained.
"My ideas grow up in the West but I dig them up to replant in China's deep soil, a rich history of 5,000 years. My works aren't like those from the West or from China, bur rather my own creation. Chinese culture is from my heart. I was born here. I live here. I don't need to learn what is from my heart."
Franz Kafka has been one of Can Xue's major influences in her writing ever since his works were introduced to China in 1983. Can especially enjoys The Castle. His early works, The Metamorphosis, are more immature in her eyes. Can wrote an article in The Great Wall in her critical collection on Kafka, entitled The Castle of the Soul. She thinks most Chinese critics wrongly claim Kafka writes of realism and anti-capitalism. His stories, in her point of view, are literature of the soul. Can Xue's other key inspiration comes from Borges's works and Dante's The Divine Comedy.
Writing of the Irrational
Rather than focus on the socio-political in her works, Can Xue prefers to write of the irrational, proclaiming "no one else is writing like me in China." She draws the reader into a world of the grotesque and the surreal, of uncertain spaces and indeterminate identities, of sexual menace and psychological disorientation. These novellas are about life in post-Mao China, but not the China of social realism or of Western fantasy. Like Yellow Mud Street and Old Floating Cloud, her works explore Chinese reality through images of the absurd, sudden, and illogical juxtapositions, and the limitless transformations induced by a unique imagination.
Can Xue believes the darkness breeds the light. "Every human is a sinner. We all have the potential for good and evil, darkness and light, for beautiful yet complicated stories. But Chinese culture comes from my heart."
"I don't need to consciously learn what comes from my heart," she claims.
She holds a high opinion of her unique place in Chinese literature, yet she maintains a balanced humility. She does feel some women writers are threatened by her style, though she is friendly with Wang Anyi, possibly the most popular woman writer in China now. Can Xue explained that her friend is popular "because she is safer in her writing, but I disagree with how she promotes traditional Chinese culture. It's not necessarily a good thing to please everyone."
Hut on the Mountain
(excerpt, translated by Ronald Janssen and Jian Zhang)
On the bleak and barren mountain behind our house stood a wooden hut. Day after day I busied myself by tidying up my desk drawers. When I wasn't doing that I would sit in the armchair, my hands on my knees, listening to the tumultuous sounds of the north wind whipping against the fir-bark roof of the hut and the howling of the wolves echoing in the valleys.
"Huh, you'll never get done with those drawers," said Mother, forcing a smile. "Not in your lifetime."
"There's something wrong with everyone's ears," I said with suppressed annoyance. "There are so many thieves wandering about our house in the moonlight, when I turn on the light I can see countless tiny holes poked by fingers in the window screens. In the next room, Father and you snore terribly, rattling the utensils in the kitchen cabinet. Then I kick about in my bed, turn my swollen head on the pillow and hear the man locked up in the hut banging furiously against the door. This goes on till daybreak."
"You give me a terrible start," Mother said, "every time you come into my room looking for things." She fixed her eyes on me as she backed toward the door. I saw the flesh of one of her cheeks contort ridiculously.
One day I decided to go up the mountain to find out what on earth was the trouble. As soon as the wind let up, I began to climb. I climbed and climbed for a long time. The sunshine made me dizzy. Tiny white flames were flickering among the pebbles. I wandered about, coughing all the time. The salty sweat from my forehead was streaming into my eyes. I couldn't see or hear anything. When I reached home, I stood outside the door for a while and saw that the person reflected in the mirror had mud on her shoes and dark purple pouches under her eyes.
"It's some disease," I heard them snickering in the dark.
When my eyes became adapted to the darkness inside, they'd hidden themselves-laughing in their hiding places. I discovered they had made a mess of my desk drawers while I was out. A few dead moths and dragonflies were scattered on the floor-they knew only too well that these were treasures to me.
"They sorted the things in the drawers for you," little sister told me, "when you were out." She stared at me, her left eye turning green.
"I hear wolves howling," I deliberately tried to scare her. "They keep running around the house. Sometimes they poke their heads in though the cracks in the door. These things always happen after dusk. You get so scared in your dreams that cold sweat drips from the soles of your feet. Everyone in this house sweats this way in his sleep. You have only to see how damp the quilts are."
I felt upset because some of the things in my desk drawers were missing. Keeping her eyes on the floor, Mother pretended she knew nothing about it. But I had a feeling she was glaring ferociously at the back of my head since the spot would become numb and swollen whenever she did that. I also knew they had buried a box with my chess set by the well behind the house. They had done it many times, but each time I would dig the chess set out. When I dug for it, they would turn on the light and poke their heads out the window. In the face of my defiance they always tried to remain calm.
(chinaculture December 6, 2005)