Classicist and Avant-Garde Can Xue

October 15, 2010
Editor: Zhao Chenxi

Can Xue, born Deng Xiaohua on May 30, 1953 in Changsha, capital of south China's Hunan Province, is the only woman associated with the male-dominated avante-garde school that appeared in China around 1985. Edgy and highly strung since childhood, she dropped out of education in 1966 at the start of the 'cultural revolution'.

Classicist and Avant-Garde Can Xue
Can Xue []
Jill of All Trades

The pseudonym Can Xue means 'dirty snow that refuses to melt' an image the writer thinks of as analogous with her personality. 

Her first job was at a local factory in 1970. Over the next eight years she worked as miller, assembler, lathe worker, and even barefoot doctor. Although her own education went no further than primary school, she also worked as a substitute teacher of English at a local middle school.

"I studied English on a semiconductor. I have no particular talent for languages but had patience enough to learn by repeating words and phrases over and over again. Both my brother and I inherited our father's strong sense of logic, so I found it easy to capture the inner structure of a sentence and teach myself the language," Can Xue explained.

Classicist and Avant-Garde Can Xue
Young Can Xue []
Can Xue thinks of herself as a vital person capable of overcoming both physical challenges and spiritual dilemmas. She has also had ascetic tendencies since childhood. She recalls feeling envious at the age of eleven or twelve at the sight of someone carrying a shoulder pole. Willing to take on hardships in the belief that suffering would make her stronger, she began carrying 25 kg – her own weight -- of coal in two bamboo baskets. By age 13, when she weighed 30 kg, she had enlarged her daily load to 35 kg.

In 1978 Can Xue married a young intellectual who had been sent to the countryside to experience manual labor, and who became a self-taught carpenter. In 1982, by that time a mother, she joined in the tide of reform and opening up' and became a self-employed tailor, her sole asset a creaky treadle sewing-machine. She learned to make clothes in a similar way as she did English, by deconstructing clothes and putting them back together again. Within three months she was doing a roaring trade.

Can Xue always treasured literature as a source of spiritual freedom but also saw no shame in pursuing material wealth. But she never imagined she would earn a good living as a writer. It was in 1983 that, acting on impulse, she wrote her first novel Huang Ni Street. Publishing her maiden work was not easy. As she said, "None of the well-known magazines was interested."Eventually Ding Ling, one of China's most influential contemporary woman writers, agreed in 1985 to serialize Huang Ni Street in her magazine China, an avant-garde platform for young writers.

Before long Can Xue's writings drew the attention of overseas literati. In 1986, as she recalls, "My works began to enter literary circles in Japan and the US," and in 1988 Huang Ni Street went on the market in Taiwan.

In 1988, at the age of 36, Can Xue met the secretary of Changsha Municipal Committee of the CPC who recommended her to the Hunan Writers Association, "I earned 60 yuan (US$9) a month -- a considerable sum for a common worker in China at that time." Membership normally entailed a probationary period, but Can Xue, impatient to become fully fledged, went to the association president and asked for an early promotion. Her request was not well received.

Critic without Borders

Classicist and Avant-Garde Can Xue
Can Xue's representative works include the short stories Mountain Hut, Bubble on the Dirty Water, A-Mei's Sorrows on A Bright Sunny Day, In the Wild, The Bull, My Things in That World, Dialogue in the Paradise and Window, the medium length novel Huang Ni Street and Old Clouds, and the epic novel A Breakthrough Performance.

Her works have been selected as teaching materials at Harvard and at Chuo University in Tokyo. About 20 years ago the literature department of a prestigious university invited her to study for master's degree, but she declined because, "I had to take care of my son" (now a post doctoral student of chemistry in the US). Having made this sacrifice, Can Xue awards herself 70 points on a scale of 100 for her role as mother.

Regarded as a representative of avant-garde literature whose works focus on women's mentality and the deeper spiritual world, Can Xue's distinctive style lends her a unique presence in the Chinese literary world. 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. She has also written criticisms of Western classics, reinterpreting through artistic conceit and personal experience the works of Kafka, Borges, Goethe, Shakespeare, Dante and other classical writers. Her literary approach has influenced Chinese women writers such as Lin Bai and Chen Ran.

Can Xue's interpretation of western classics can itself be interpreted as worship of a common tradition. The covert path of spiritual fantasy, human passion and self-analysis that constitutes the soul of western classics winds its way from Greek mythology, Homer's epics, the Bible, the Divine Comedy to Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Kafka and Borges through to Can Xue. "My works belong to modernism, but modernism originates in the past, so there is always a classic undercurrent to my novels. It only occurred to me in recent years that I've been absorbing the nutrients of western culture to fight against our own literary conventions." Can Xue sees the Chinese tradition of fantasy, which is an important basis for good literature, at a level that links objects with subjective feelings – an approach far removed from the depths of symbolism and metaphor. The encounter between Can Xue's active subconscious and her innate ability to create dreams in the western tradition of fantasy creates a disturbingly extraordinary effect.

Can Xue has also written none too favorably about the works of her Chinese literary contemporaries.
Her latest work Can Xue's View on Literature sets out some of her controversial opinions. One that has made waves is her belief that China must learn from the West if its literature is to evolve into maturity. Chinese culture, she believes, is characterized by self-satisfaction and self-appreciation and lacks self-analysis. She is critical in this respect of respected Chinese writers such as Wang Meng. As for young Chinese writers, they seem to her to lack idealism – a quality her generation has displayed in all they have done despite slim prospects of success.

An advocate of pure literature, she takes every opportunity to publicize it. Proactive on the Internet since 2002, she regularly submits articles to literary websites and chats with their netizens. Acting as moderator of a New Youth forum discussion board is her way of keeping in touch with young people upon whom Can Xue pins her hopes to bring her works, and pure literature, to the literary foreground in the future.

Classicist and Avant-Garde Can Xue
Fame is the Spur

Can Xue is overtly intent on celebrity. "I want to prove my existence. I'm convinced that my works are important, and need to expand my influence enough to make more people read them. I need fame to achieve that." Now 57, Can Xue takes pride in being known in the literary world and is aware of every public mention of her name. "I scan magazines, newspapers and the Internet to see how my works are received. I find criticism motivates my creation."

Can Xue has never received a prize for literature, but does not seem to mind. She follows the Nobel Prize but only, she says, for entertainment. There were rumors that she was among the nominees for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

It was at around the age of 42 that Can Xue suffered a writer's block and began to write literary criticism. "I began reading the classic works of Borges, Dante and Goethe again and again and it suddenly occurred to me that I could write literary criticism." By the time her six works in this vein had been published, she had overcome her writer's block.

'Contradiction' is a recurring theme in Huang Ni Street, and also in her upcoming epic The Frontier and autobiography Art and My Childhood. "I feel I have personified contradiction since childhood as I feel simultaneously lonely but not alone. This earthly world always troubles me because I am conscious of being in perpetual conflict with it. To deal with this I need to go through the process of transforming anguish, confusion and uncertainty into calmness and perseverance. My works are a reflection of this process."

(Source: Translated by

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