Shuang Xuetao: Writing Rouge Street, a Home for Exiles of Chinese Modernity

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Author photograph by Ying Xiyuan.

Several times during our Zoom call, Shuang Xuetao excuses himself to fill his mug with water; he’s hungover from a night of drinking, he explains. I’m nervous enough to need a drink myself, I joke. After all, how often does someone get the chance to interview one of the most promising Chinese writers of his generation?

Shuang doesn’t miss a beat; he just asks what time it is where I am (11 p.m. in Connecticut), then says, grinning, “Perfect time to start drinking.”

He is a writer, I soon discover, to whom the art of the undersell comes so naturally, you are almost taken in by his rough-hewn, guileless persona. But when we talk craft, I detect traces of erudition hidden in his populism. He criticizes China’s literary fiction for being too cloistered and academic; I find out later that many of his short stories premiered in well-received Chinese literary journals. He jokes that Jeremy Tiang, his translator, speaks better Mandarin than he, then demonstrates his love for local vernaculars and a suspicion of “official registers,” of which Mandarin is exemplary. He defends genre fiction and the tastes of ordinary people, but the words of Ivan Turgenev and Lu Xun — two luminaries of “high literature” — fill his characters’ psyches.

Alongside Ban Yu and Zheng Zhi, Shuang is a representative of China’s New Dongbei Literature. Born in the 1980s, this cohort of writers came of age during the country’s transition from planned economy to free market, raised by parents cut loose from jobs at state-owned enterprises and thrown into the cruelties of the free market, who were left with the dilemma of preserving their dignity or stooping to make ends meet.

If Zheng is the internet-savvy entertainer, and Ban the wisecracking folklorist, then Shuang is the magical realist. In Rouge Street — Shuang’s new collection and the first to be translated into English — gritty Chinese rust-belt scenes are punctuated by the supernatural. In “The Aeronaut,” a story about the Icarus-like fall of three generations of Chinese men, a bird-boned protagonist who survived a thousand-foot drop pursues his dream to build a jetpack. “Bright Hall,” an exploration of the afterlives of the Cultural Revolution, involves a Manichean showdown for the soul of its main character between an ex-convict-turned-pastor and a malevolent deity masquerading as an old Red Guard — the embodiment of decades, even centuries, of perverse official power. “Moses on the Plain” follows a nameless Shenyang vigilante, fired from a factory job and smoldering like one of Louis Cha’s Kung Fu antiheroes, as he assassinates government cronies who have been harassing downtrodden Northeasterners.

It is this final story which expresses the sentiment that accrues among those for whom the miracle of reform has been a curse. “Hope isn’t evenly distributed,” says one disgruntled character, a cab driver, to his passenger, a morally compromised entrepreneur. “People like you hoard it all.” When the entrepreneur dismisses a group of working-class protesters trying to halt the toppling of a statue of Mao, calling them nostalgic, the cab driver vehemently disagrees. They are not nostalgic, but buruyi — a phrase that Jeremy Tiang’s supple, judicious, and lucid translation renders as “upset.” I would merely add the footnote that buruyi is not just an emotion; it is a structure of feeling, best embodied by poet-officials (like Fang Yue, who popularized the phrase) who were exiled by emperors who failed to see their contributions.

The most sympathetic of Shuang’s characters share this affliction: they are abandoned by the state, by their biological families, by the socialist lifeworlds that nourished them. They collect along Rouge Street, a road that spirals like a mosquito coil beyond the edges of metropolitan Shenyang. It is that road, along which Shuang himself grew up, that provides temporary respite for criminals, orphans, heretics, and minor deities — all exiles from Chinese modernity.

Henry Zhang for Guernica

Guernica: There are many types of faiths competing in “Bright Hall,” but the main conflict seems to be between Pastor Lin and the Monstrous Fish at the bottom of the lake (both, significantly, wear wide-brimmed hats). What do they represent? Why does the human pastor die while the monster escapes within an inch of its life?

Shuang: As for the creature at the bottom of the lake, any given historical problem begins far before its actual manifestation [and] belongs to an earlier era. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution were gestating far before it began; the monstrous fish grew fat on all the scraps thrown into the water by the townspeople, like the dregs of hotpot, stuck to the bottom of the vessel. Pastor Lin, I think, acts in good faith. He tries to do things for others, not for himself. But the monster in the lake is different: it thinks it’s gotten a hold of the absolute truth, and that has made it capricious, cruel, selfish. But it’s a powerful and ancient force, one that predates the Cultural Revolution.

Guernica: When I first moved to Beijing, I was so hopeful about the literary scene, but then I met a Chinese poet I admired at a workshop, and all he wanted to do was talk about how much money he made, what sorts of famous people he’d met abroad. Later, my professor told me that in the new millennium, Chinese literature had split into “pure” or literary fiction and mass entertainment, like internet novels. One wonderful thing about reading Rouge Street is that it balances a literary sensibility and mass entertainment. How do you strike this balance?

Shuang: I don’t necessarily agree with the category of “pure literary fiction.” It feels overly academic, at least in China. In my experience, China has a lot of people who read fiction — and not just “literary types,” as though you need to be a kind of specialist to enjoy literature. I’ve always felt a bit suspicious of this view. Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with genre fiction; it’s a kind of introduction to more literary fiction for many writers, myself included. I’m an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes. At some point I also moved on to more difficult works, but of course, some people don’t move on, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not telling younger authors to go totally commercial, but I also think that if Sinophone literature could truly be reduced to the internet novel then it would be over. But there are plenty of ordinary Chinese folks who love reading all sorts of things. Many of them have higher standards for writing than writers themselves. Without those readers, there’s no way I’d be able to support myself. Sure, some of them might stop reading fiction entirely for a bit, but if something really good comes out, you can be sure that they’ll buy it. And that’s perfectly valid.

One other unique thing about China’s literary world is how much importance it places on translated literature — how many of us cut our teeth on such literature. I know that in the States, the majority of books being read are written in English. For you, foreign literature is a kind of supplement to the system. But from the outset, we’ve got to engage in vicious competition with an enormous amount of translated literature. This has to do with the relative youth of the Chinese vernacular: intellectuals and writers have been inventing a new idiom and grammar for just a hundred years, since the May Fourth Movement. But it’s been a bumpy process, and our vernacular tradition was interrupted several times by revolutionary slogans, language that is not particularly conducive to personal expression. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, Mainland China began to import literature in translation. Sometimes I’ll take stock of how many Sinophone writers I’ve read in a year, and I’m usually ashamed by the number — never enough.

Guernica: You mentioned “revolutionary slogans” and how inimical they are to personal expression. Many of your characters themselves seem to be struggling against such language, too. Is this a problem even in contemporary China, which has abandoned many former socialist principles?

Shuang: One of the professors at the talk [at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies] was Zhang Xuexin. He used this word, tuwei — to break out of encircling enemy troops. This is obviously a kind of military language, and he said it automatically, without thinking: that we Northeastern Chinese writers need to “break out.” But I can’t figure out exactly who it is that’s encircled us. I think that this kind of theoretical abstraction takes us farther from the essence of literature. I think it’s our duty as writers to refine the language, make it purer.

Guernica: In the talk you gave at Harvard, you mentioned that your family once lived in Rouge Street, that sprawling shantytown located between Shenyang’s metropolitan area and its rural outskirts — a fact you were loath to share with your classmates. Can you sketch out Northeast China’s history for readers who are less familiar with it?

Shuang: Sure. Northeast China — I’m from Liaoning, Shenyang in particular — is a haven for migrants. Maybe this will resonate with Americans. Farmers whose crops failed, people going through a famine — these were the people who’d strike out towards the northeast, or cross the Shanhai Pass, it’s called. My maternal grandfather was one of these people. Northeast China’s soil is incredibly rich; legend has it that you could grow a field with a handful of seeds. My paternal grandfather came because of a government subsidy aimed at encouraging people to settle the area. His dad, my great-grandfather, was actually a chef in the retinue of Henry Puyi, the last emperor. When the Qing government was overthrown, he went with Puyi to Manchukuo — where the emperor ruled as a Japanese puppet — and kept cooking for him. My paternal grandfather worked at a printing factory in Harbin, and when the factory moved to Shenyang — every single nut and bolt, transported to Shenyang — he went with it. The factories then, they weren’t just factories; they were like cities. They employed tens of thousands of workers, fed and housed their families. Shenyang was then known as the republic’s favorite child. After 1949, it was the center of the country’s heavy industry. My parents were sent-down youth — they graduated middle school and went to the countryside to “strengthen themselves.” But when they returned to Shenyang, they were assigned to work in a small tractor factory. It was an iron rice bowl, a guaranteed job, and it was very respectable. You had a dormitory, a hospital, a movie theater, public baths. People were filled with pride at the thought that they were building modern China. You didn’t have to worry about competition, about other factories making yours go belly-up; you just did what the state instructed.

Guernica: After the romance of Northeast China’s industrialization came the tragedy of its deindustrialization. How did this affect your family?

Shuang: In the early ’90s, in the new market economy, private factories started cropping up in coastal cities, especially Shenzhen. The damage to Northeastern Chinese factories was lethal. They seemed like outdated, cumbersome things, saddled with too heavy a workload and too many workers to support, and clumsy beside the smaller, more flexible factories in the south. All these enormous factories had to be downsized or dismantled, meaning that a lot of workers suddenly became redundant. If you could find a job at a different factory, great, but if you couldn’t, you were without a job. It was called “stepping down from your post” back then; no one said “losing your job.” This was excruciating to people in my parents’ generation. They never imagined these factories would be in jeopardy; they’d staked their lives on them. My dad found a different factory to work at, but my mother had to sell snacks, corn on the cob and tea eggs.

Guernica: I’m reminded here of the character of Li Shoulian in “Moses on the Plain,” who refuses to take a friend’s money for his daughter’s school tuition because of his dignity. Clinging bitterly to a kind of older value system, he says, “If Chairman Mao were still around, would the Party behave like this?”

Shuang: These workers — of course their dignity mattered. To be a worker was something you used to be proud of. Of course, it was built on a certain collective vision. When you were forced to “step down from your post,” the foundations of that vision crumbled, but it remained, a kind of lonely, privatized pride. For example, if you could assemble a certain piece of machinery extremely well, you were like a high-quality screw. But if you changed jobs, you had to learn a new set of skills, and no matter how good a screw you were, they might not need you. There were a lot of people like Li Shoulian, people who lived in that past. But Zhuang Dezeng, an opportunistic former Red Guard and Li’s neighbor, is someone who’s very adaptable. There’s nothing he totally believes in either, but he’s very good at learning new things; he’s got an entrepreneurial brain. This is something my parents’ generation really lacked.

Guernica: What do you think is your role as a writer?

Shuang: I think I’m a very lucky person. For most of my life, I never wrote a single word. I wasn’t one of those artsy kids who liked to read, and I never felt like I had to be a novelist. I just took tests. I studied law in college. In freshman year, I tried to join a literary club, because I’d been pretty good at writing essays in high school and I liked to read, but I was rejected. They thought I wasn’t good enough. So after that I pretty much resigned myself to that fact and spent most of my free time in college playing mahjong and soccer. After graduating, I went to work at a bank for five years.

The reason I suddenly decided to write fiction was that I saw an advertisement for a Taiwanese literary competition, saw how much the prize money was, and decided to enter. Then, I won. Imagine being a little kid, doing something and immediately being given a little prize; of course you’d want to keep doing it.

Of course, I really love to write — to see the lines grow on the page. But slowly, as I kept at it, I realized that I did feel a certain responsibility. I think what China desperately needs now is different voices — more honest, idiosyncratic ones. There are steps I’d like to take to make this a reality. For one, I’ve been thinking about a literary magazine. One of my friends used to run a magazine called Carp, but it’s been out of print for several years, and I’ve been wondering whether we can revive it. Literary magazines are very hard to run in Mainland China, because people here prefer to read short story collections or novels. The number of traditional Chinese literary periodicals is dwindling each year, and out of the remainder, the truly successful ones are even fewer. In addition to that, I’ve been thinking about a series of workshops for talented younger writers, to get them in one place and give them the push they need to start producing. The US must have a lot of this stuff, right? But the important thing is for them to be self-sufficient. We don’t want to live just on charity — relying on [philanthropic] foundations, for example. These types of funding are helpful, but they aren’t enough.

Guernica: In “The Aeronaut,” the protagonist is flipping through a drawer in his childhood room when he finds a dakou cassette tape — and what does dakou mean, by the way?

Shuang: Dakou means cutout. Sellers would cut a notch into their cases to show that they were worthless, but then they’d somehow get shipped to China and smuggled out of customs as garbage, then sold on little blankets outside of primary schools. Despite the damaged cases, they played fine. You could buy cassettes from all these different places, from Latin America or Africa. We had no idea what the writing on the cases said, but we’d take them home and listen to them. It was a really interesting time.

Guernica: One of the cassettes has the picture of “some white guy playing a saxophone.” Is this Kenny G?

Shuang: Does the novella mention his name? I don’t remember writing a name.

Guernica: No, you don’t mention a name. But I’m asking because Kenny G does feel so Chinese, in a way. For a while in the 2000s, you could hear his music everywhere, even in the third-tier city where my grandparents lived. Funny thing, too, is that Kenny G is what various venues play now when they’re closing shop — when it’s time to say goodbye.

Shuang: The guy with the long hair? Holding a saxophone?

Guernica: Yes.

Shuang: Right, I see, Kenny G. That’s him.