Source: Chinese Literature of the Americas 紅杉林: 美洲華人文藝 (12.1, Spring 2017)
China: Loneliness behind Sound and Fury—– On Xue Yiwei’s Shenzheners
Reviewed by Amy Hawkins
There is a temptation commonly indulged amongst China watchers to bemoan the loss of the “real China”. With the rapid urbanisation and globalisation of the past few decades, China is, of course, not what it used to be. Where there were once stony paths and local residents nursing flasks of boiled water, you can now buy decaf soy lattes. The “locals” you meet in any given city in China are unlikely to be anything of the sort – one of the many demographic changes that have reshaped China’s landscape is the huge migration of people towards the cities and new economic centres of China. This is most evident at Chinese New Year, when tens of millions of people return to their hometowns to celebrate Spring Festival with their families, and become part of the biggest annual human migration in the world. The cities are deserted.
Shenzheners tells the stories of people from Shenzhen, the “youngest” city in China. For romantics who dream of China’s glory days of poverty and inaccessibility, Shenzhen is one of the top offenders. This port city that few had heard of 40 years ago when it was a tiny fishing village is now on a par with Shanghai as being one of China’s most important trade zones with the outside world. With this new infrastructure has come more money, more people, and more loneliness.
Loneliness seems to be the insistent undercurrent of Xue Yiwei’s protagonists, whose stories take place in but make little reference to their setting, underlining the detachment that comes from life as a migrant. Unlike other literary works that explore the lives of urban neighbours, such as Zadie Smith’s novel NW, set in northwest London, the characters don’t even overlap with each other. Each story contains within it thwarted relationships, demonstrating the difficulty of human connection in places of transience.
Xue’s language carries an austere simplicity that rather than drawing the reader in, leaves them with a slight shiver and sense of isolation, much like that of the characters. Take the older sister in the tale of ‘The Two Sisters’, for example: “One day at noon, when she was looking at her sallow face in the mirror, she suddenly thought of the weapons of mass destruction that the Americans had failed to find in Iraq…she felt resurrected”. We move suddenly from a personal to political reflection and back again, but with a measured stillness that hints at the tight control of the author, or the omniscient forces at work in cities of anonymity. Despite being rooted to Shenzhen, every story has some reference to the outside world or foreign literature. There is more to these characters’ experience of the world than they themselves realise.
In busy, crowded cities, stillness is a rural novelty. Other than in traffic jams, life in Shenzhen is a constant flow. Yet the characters in Shenzheners pursue tranquillity almost as much as they do human connection. Take ‘The Dramatist’ who meditates in a communal garden each morning: “Rain or shine, never missing a day, he stood there for about fifteen minutes, his head slightly down, his hands hanging by his sides…It was a silent prayer.” This particular story is an exemplar case of Xue’s fascination with anonymity. “Nobody knew where he was from,” observes the nameless narrator. “Nobody knew why he was living here (and by himself). Nobody knew whether he would stay here.” Does anybody know why they are in Shenzhen?
Similarly, stillness is something that is thrust upon the characters and inopportune moments in their frantic lives. “Her tempestuous affair was stillborn,” we learn about ‘The Physics Teacher’ – an opportunity for connection dashed before it has even begun.
“The dramatist’s reply was simple and candid,” Xue writes in ‘The Dramatist’. The same could be said of Shenzheners itself. This is Xue’s first major work to be translated into English, sensitively realised by Darryl Sterk. The stories in this collection are short and simple, and sometimes sweet. But there is a sense of solitude that permeates each of the characters, paying homage to the maxim that the loneliest place is in a crowd. As China changes and the cities grow, the reader is left wondering what will happen to all the people in the sound and the fury of this urbanisation and globalisation, as they move closer to each other while their emotional lives move further apart.
A bio: Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. She has been published in the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Sunday Times, Open Democracy, and others.