Q&A With Author Can Xue on the State of Chinese Literature
Deng Xiaohua — the person behind the pseudonym Can Xue — was born in 1953. Her father was persecuted following 1957’s anti-rightist movement, and she could not continue her studies beyond elementary school. Through her love for reading, she taught herself about literature and poetry, and developed an interest in Western classics.
Can Xue began writing in the 1980s. Of her hundreds of published novels, novellas, short stories, and other works, several have been translated into English. Last year her novel “The Last Lover” won the Best Translated Book Award for fiction, an award by the book translation press of the University of Rochester in the U.S.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Zang Jixian: Your works are gaining a large readership in the English-speaking world. What would you say are the reasons?
Can Xue: It’s mostly because I integrate a lot of Western cultural elements in my work. I believe I’m doing the best job among Chinese writers in that aspect. Therefore, foreign readers can accept my work as literature. I think this is very rare, and it brings me much joy. My approach is different from that of other authors.
Zang Jixian: Did your parents influence your interest in Western literature?
Can Xue: Definitely. Because my father used to study Marxism, we had copies of philosophy books like “Das Kapital.” I got interested and started reading them when I was little. I remember going through “Kapital” when I was about 14. It was a positive influence; it laid a foundation for me. That’s why I ended up writing a different kind of literature. People couldn’t figure out what it was. People thought that I was like an actor playing them, and that I could only write a few things and be done. But I’ve been in such an atmosphere since childhood, soaking it up, and eventually it came out in the form of literature.
Zang Jixian: What did you mean when you said “Chinese people are materialistic”?
Can Xue: I am a dualist. I’m talking about the spirit, too, when I say “matter.” Matter and spirit are inseparable to dualists. The West has raised the spiritual dimension to its peak, yet they have yet to start paying attention to the dimension of matter. So we are now at the juncture of history, where our ancient culture is given an opportunity to shine. This is what I believe: We can develop the material dimension and counterbalance the spiritual dimension.
I think the world’s ultimate struggle is no more than the struggle between matter and the spirit. I am a dualist, as opposed to the monism in the West that puts spirit over matter. Their materialism wasn’t really focusing on the actual matter either, because that kind of materialism is not a spiritual kind of materialism. The kind of materialism I’m talking about is the embodiment of spirit, the kind of spirit with quality. So that’s why it’s different from Hegel and Kant. My “patterns” are also patterns with quality, rather than the abstract kinds. They’re more powerful. They came straight out of the earth.
Zang Jixian: There was much fervor towards Western literature in China in the 1980s. Do you think that had a positive impact on new literary works?
Can Xue: Of course. I came out of that wave myself. A lot of excellent work came out of it, including work by Yu Hua, Zhang Xiaobo, and Liang Xiaobin. Their novels and prose back then were some of the best in the world. But then we stopped learning from Western literature and said that we can learn much more from Chinese literature. The general attitude was, “How can we learn from others before we finish learning from our own?”
Zang Jixian: You mentioned in another interview that Chinese people lack a kind of self-awareness toward daily life. Can you elaborate?
Can Xue: Chinese people aren’t good at self-analysis. They have a habit of following the crowd like a swarm of bees. It’s the essence of our culture. For instance, Chinese students abroad always gather together wherever they are. Individuality is still an unattainable concept for the Chinese people. People lack self-awareness. Everything they do is because “everyone’s doing it.” Buying a house, buying a car, making money. A scholar said something like this: “Looking at ourselves is the hardest thing to do.”
Zang Jixian: Do you think this is also the reason why there is a lack of introspection and self-criticism in Chinese literature?
Can Xue: Yes, the lack of spiritual things. Western literature has really reached the pinnacle when it comes to the spiritual. Now I look back, and I believe that we have to bring the matter side of things to its peak. We’re at a turning point now, and we are facing the greatest opportunities and challenges.
Zang Jixian: Could you evaluate the current situation of China’s literary world?
Can Xue: I’ve said it before: I have no hope, and I don’t feel like evaluating it.
Zang Jixian: Do you communicate much with other writers?
Can Xue: I don’t.
Zang Jixian: How come?
Can Xue: Because they don’t like what I do, and I don’t like their stuff either. I’ve only reviewed a few authors: Yu Hua, Zhang Xiaobo, Liang Xiaobin, all of whom I appreciate. Although some of them also stopped taking writing seriously and stopped creating better work.
Yu Hua started early, but he changed course later. Many of those people couldn’t continue, so they stopped writing altogether. They have to take some responsibility. Of course, it also has to do with the atmosphere. There is no support for originality, which is sometimes even suppressed.
And then Liang Xiaobin was so poor that everyone had to support him financially. Society isn’t paying attention to those people anymore, so his situation doesn’t allow him to create. Society doesn’t protect him. He lives in misery. It’s very dangerous when a nation doesn’t care about its literature.
Zang Jixian: You said before that the atmosphere in the Chinese literary world is no good, that it’s all about the “club,” where everyone is singing praises of one another. Is that why there isn’t any good literary criticism in China?
Can Xue: Everyone else is only conserving the old. If you’re not going back to tradition with them, then you’re the outlier, which means you’re marginalized and ignored. Then you’re just left alone. Liang Xiaobin is just like that, left alone.
Zang Jixian: Why do you say that you’re writing for two or three decades in the future?
Can Xue: I write for the young people of today. In 20, 30 years, they’ll be mature. I write for those people, plus the progressive of the Chinese people. Except there aren’t a lot of progressive people, so I didn’t mention them.
Zang Jixian: So why do you put your hope in the young?
Can Xue: There are very few progressive Chinese people right now, so I pin my hopes on the young. They are in their 20s now. In another 20 years, when they encounter problems spiritually, or when materialism cannot meet their needs, they might pick up one of my books, because I write to empower people, to make them independent, to develop their qualities as human beings. I put a lot of emphasis on the description of human qualities in my new book, “Gift from Mother Darkness.” To be an independent human, to stand tall on earth, what kind of qualities should one have? I made some predictions. People say that I’m only speaking of utopia, but I think I’m all about reality.
A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.
(Header image: Can Xue during an interview in Changsha, Hunan province, Sept. 28, 2015. Zhang Di/VCG)