Yellow River, Blue Pacific
Can Xue and Multinational Aesthetics
© 2006 Dennis Redmond
One of the singular paradoxes of the contemporary consumer culture is that the newer things look, the older they get. Never before has so much of the built infrastructure of human society been so pervasively new, everywhere from transport systems to urban dwellings, and shopping malls to cellphones. Yet this flood of innovation contains its own dialectical recoil. Far from abolishing history, marketized societies routinely cite, represent and narrate history on a scale impossible for preindustrial cultures to imagine. It is as if the less history is lived, the more it is narrated. Museums, schools and libraries memorialize the achievements of social history, while parks and environmental regulations preserve the treasures of natural history. More recently, the information culture of the late 20th century has rendered a century’s worth of recorded media accessible to the world via the Web.
This dialectic of innovation and historicization was experienced with particular intensity in the East Asian region. Whereas most Western European societies transformed themselves from predominantly rural-agrarian to urban-industrial societies in seventy years, Japan duplicated this feat in less than fifty years. South Korea and Taiwan took just forty years, and mainland China is on track to equal or better this pace.
China’s accelerated modernization is the crucial backdrop of Can Xue’s Yellow Mud Street (1983), one of the indispensable novels of the 20th century. Originally, Can Xue worked as an ironworker and a tailor in the Chinese city of Changsha in the 1970s. Following the death of Mao in 1976, she began writing bizarre, dream-like and electrifying stories, unlike anything else in the post-Maoist literary field. Yellow Mud Street synthesized an unruly admixture of mass media references, rural-agrarian registers and mass media quotations into one of the touchstone works of the multinational era.
There were two local preconditions for Can Xue’s achievement. First, the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping regime ended Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution and reconstructed China’s national cultural institutions. Long-censored works of art were recuperated, artists and intellectuals were rehabilitated, and universities, schools and journals were reopened. Second, Deng jump-started one of history’s biggest economic booms, by combining rural land reforms with intelligent state planning and carefully-guided integration into East Asia’s blossoming markets.
In response, China’s fledgling consumer culture took off, as hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers flocked to buy foreign consumer and media goods (especially imports from Hong Kong). The result was a renaissance of national aesthetic forms infused with the speculative energies of a multinational consumerism – something most apparent in the stark landscapes and lush visual eroticism of Yimou Zhang’s Red Sorghum (1987), the signature classic of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers.1
But whereas Zhang recuperated a wide range of multinational forms, ranging from the Italian spaghetti Western to the Hong Kong martial arts thriller, on behalf of a post-Maoist Chinese nationalism, Can Xue’s texts move in the opposite direction, i.e. from neo-national form to multinational content. One of the little-known reasons for this is social geography. Can Xue is a lifelong resident of Changsha, the capital city of Hunan, one of the interior provinces of southern China.
Formerly a sleepy provincial town, Changsha rose to prominence due to the exploits of its most famous prodigal son, Mao Zedong. (While Mao was born in a village near the town of Shaoshan, ninety kilometers southwest of Changsha, he moved to the city to attend middle school from 1911 to 1918, and forever afterwards held his adopted city in high esteem.) While Changsha prospered during the rural industrialization drives of the 1950s and 1960s, the Mao connection proved to be a far more mixed blessing during the Cultural Revolution, when the city became a magnet for Red Guards and factional violence. Following Mao’s death, Changsha nimbly diversified out of the ideology-industry and reinvented itself as a supplier of semi-processed goods for its next-door neighbor, Guangdong province, the industrial center of the Hong Kong boom.
Can Xue was thus in the perfect position to witness the transition from the Maoist cadre state to the Dengist developmental state, or more precisely, the transition from national-autarkic to multinational accumulation. In a phrase, Yellow Mud Street documents the moment when mainland China escaped from the dynastic prison-house of late Maoism, by jumping through the looking-glass of the 1970s media culture – only to land, much to its surprise, in the wonderland of Pacific Rim consumerism. This wonderland is not a mere metaphor, but accurately conveys the admixture of vertigo, dismay, and jubilation which accompanied the consumerization of post-Maoist China.
This vertigo is most apparent in Can Xue’s hallucinatory dialogues, which teem with amputated sentence-fragments, tinny propaganda slogans and random chitchat. The result is like a dozen simultaneous conversations from China’s past, present and future, all piped through a single telephone line. Can Xue has an acute ear for the meandering conversations and lapidary commentaries which circulate throughout crowds. One of her most characteristic techniques is to assemble such dialogues into symbolic soundscapes, which are as evocative and suggestive as the Fifth Generation’s visual landscapes.
All this may explain why Can Xue’s closest aesthetic model is neither Kafka’s Central European modernism nor Latin America’s magical realism, but rather the North American postmodernism of William S. Burroughs.2 Burroughs drew much of his material from his autobiographical experience as a US expatriate in neocolonial Latin America and colonial Northern Africa in the 1950s. His single greatest achievement, the Nova science fiction trilogy of the early 1960s, set the forms of the Cold War media culture in motion towards the content of the Third World revolutions of the post-Bandung era. Yellow Mud Street performs a similar miracle of triangulation between multinational form and national content, by shuttling between the categories of 1980s Hong Kong consumerism and 1970s Maoist mass mobilization. But where Burroughs modeled his hallucinatory landscapes on the US-dominated industrial plant of Latin America, Can Xue focuses on China’s autarkic industrialization, symbolized by Yellow Mud Street’s factory:
What products did the “S” Machinery Factory turn out? “Steel balls,” the people would answer. Every half month, several dozen cases of black things were carried from the factory. What was the use of these steel balls? Nobody could say. Pursue the inquiry and people would look you up and down suspiciously and ask, “Are you sent by somebody higher up?” If you didn’t leave at once, they would continue, “What do you think of rationalized management? Should the tradition of the old revolutionary base area be kept up?” They wouldn’t stop their questioning until your mind was dizzy with puzzles and you turned to flee.3
As a matter of biographical fact, Xue toiled for several years in a Changsha iron foundry during the Cultural Revolution. Yet what is most striking about this passage is not what it says about factory labor, but what it omits. There are no percentages, statistics, quotas, heroic Party commissars or model production workers. The clipped, spare sentences preserve the form of the official fact-finding mission or technocratic bulletin, while subtly disrupting its content. Instead of titles or ranks in the state bureaucracy, we are confronted with anonymous collectives (“people”, “nobody”, “they”, “you”). Most scandalous of all, this trail of dissociation concludes with a vertiginous flight of questions, rather than the mandatory affirmation of the Party line.
To fully appreciate the radicalism of this strategy, it’s worth emphasizing that the ideology of 1970s Maoism was mediated primarily by theatrical forms, everywhere from open-air radio broadcasts to Jiang Qing’s infamous model operas. Consider Anita Chan et. al.’s striking description of the arrival of radio broadcasting in a southern Chinese village in 1966:
The [state-run radio] system consisted of thirty loudspeakers positioned throughout the village, with four large ones installed in the village’s main meeting places. The volume was tuned loud enough that even while indoors people could hear the announcements...
The new broadcasting system altered the peasant’s lives in more than one way. Ao [the head village broadcaster] became the village’s relentless timekeeper. Despite collectivization, the peasants’ daily lives had not been regulated by the concept of time necessary to industrial life. In fact, in 1966, only two peasants in all of Chen Village owned watches. In the mornings, it often took an hour before all of a team’s members sauntered in to begin work. But with Ao’s announcements this changed: “Commune members, comrades, please note that it is now 7:30 AM. We hope that everyone will go as quickly as possible to your production team’s headquarters to study.” Rather than show disrespect for Mao’s sacred thought, peasants had to be sure they were on time for a few minutes of Mao quotes before the day’s labor was assigned.4
Sixteen years later, the exigencies of national-revolutionary mobilization had given way to multinational consumerism:
Most families had received electric fans; several possessed electric rice cookers; almost all wore Hong Kong fashions: “Folks no longer sew their own clothes; the sewing machines are going to rust.” By 1982, close to half of the village households had obtained gifts of Hitachi color television sets, with special built-in devices to receive both Chinese and Hong Kong programs. Families that only half a decade earlier had been obliged to participate frequently in night-time political meetings now instead spent their evenings glued to TV showings of Hong Kong’s soap operas, kungfu movies, and variety shows.5
One of the genuine achievements of the Chinese literary field in the 1980s was to bridge these two historical moments, by reappropriating Maoist forms across a wide range of literary and mediatic genres, everywhere from the stinging anti-corruption reportage of Liu Binyan to the historiographic revolution staged by Su Xiaokang’s celebrated TV documentary, River Elegy (1988).6 Can Xue’s own unique contribution here is what might be called a guerilla text-production, which has the most striking affinities to the guerilla industrialism of the township-village enterprises at the heart of the Deng boom:
Later on, Wang Si-ma recalled that a headless corpse had knocked on his back door before he climbed the tree. He knew a good thing had come as soon as he heard the knocking. That was why he set himself in the bucket. Once in his bucket, he heard firecrackers going off outside and saw gunsmoke rolling above his head. Afterward, in his dream, he sucked on a huge peach and unconsciously called out that rosy red name: “Wang Zi-guang?” This is where the first comments about Wang Zi-guang came from. It was a mysterious and obscure experience, impossible to grasp and ever-changing. Some people believed it was some kind of reflection, a rhapsody, an adhesive, a magic mirror…7
Wang Si-ma’s account oscillates between the objective waking dream and the subjective dream of awakening, just as the icon of Wang Zi-guang (the name literally means “first light”) oscillates between an objective symbol of enlightenment and the subjective experience of mediatization. Both moments converge in the cybernetic technologies familiar to readers of Burroughs. The reference to the headless corpse suggests a robotic body under electromechanical control, while Wang Si-ma himself, crammed into a teetering bucket, plays the role of the controlling brain or hardwired electronic template.
What is less clear is the precise location of these technologies. While the firecrackers and gunsmoke seem to mark the external space of the traditional holiday celebration or rural festival, the reference to the peach and the unconscious utterance point to the corporeal internalization of food and language, respectively. The mystery is solved by the final line. The hand-held mirror, the radio tune, and household glue describe an item which reproduces what already exists (like a mirror), carries tunes (like a radio), and binds texts together (like glue) – or what amounts to the portable boom box or Walkman.
Wang Si-Ma’s reverie is thus no mere daydream, it is a powerful First Broadcast through the cybernetic corpus of China’s embryonic consumer culture. This is confirmed by the ubiquitous conjunction of media tropes and body-parts scattered throughout the text, everywhere from quasi-Surrealist jars of ears to grotesque human loudspeakers straight out of Samuel Beckett.8 This suggests, in turn, that Wang Zi-guang is a symbolic speculation or meaning-to-be-named-later, or what amounts to the indigenous or Chinese version of the prestigious import or foreign culture-commodity.
Though we will have more to say about Wang Zi-guang in just a moment, it’s worth noting that Yellow Mud Street teems with such speculations, which transform bits and pieces of Maoist-era village culture into primordial icons of early multinational consumerism. One of the most striking examples here is the itinerant barber, a figure who reappears at several key points in the narrative:
A barber came bearing a greasy shoulder pole full of oils and a shining razor in his hand. He banged his equipment down right in front of the “S” factory gate and shouted, “Heads shaved!”
“Has it come?”
“It’s come, ah?”
“Heads shaved!” came the man’s shout again. His eyes were bulging and bloodshot. Everyone could feel the two beams of cold light from his eyeballs.
It was time. Hadn’t the bloodred color dyed the world between the sky and the earth? Wasn’t there a big spot of bright light lingering on the west wall? It was as red as fresh blood.9
In the context of 1980s Hong Kong, this might read as an elaborate parody of the mobile technology of hair-cutting, a.k.a. the electric shaver, within a Chinese culture still very much determined by the concept of “face” or collective social standing. Here, however, the barber’s penetrating gaze is described in terms of car headlights, rather than portable consumer electronics. Nor is it an accident that the logical referent of those headlights – the highway or road vehicle – is shorn away. Instead of a landscape of automotive modernization, brimming with plastic surfaces and advertising logos, we are confronted with a supersaturated world of color, dominated by textile fabrics.
The motorized gaze and the color-saturated textile are key visual categories of the Fifth Generation directors. Yimou Zhang’s Judou (1988) practically overflows with allegorical fabrics and dyed surfaces, while the concluding sequence of Red Sorghum contrasts a frontal shot of a machine-gun – the aggressive gaze of colonialism – with an allegorical shot of the peasant-revolutionary hero, dyed red by the setting sun.10 But Can Xue sets the motorized gaze and the textile fabric in motion towards something else:
Raising her head, she [old lady Qi] clapped her hands and queried with a flushed face, “Thousands of heads will roll?”
“A dead cat is again floating in the pond.”
“Thousands of human heads…”
“Disaster of bloody light…”
Everyone was gossiping while looking with fear at the bloodred light on the west wall.11
“Thousands of heads will roll” was the official euphemism for the Lin Biao incident in 1971, the first serious crack in the facade of Mao’s rule. (Lin Biao, one of the most senior figures of the Chinese revolution and a key member of Mao’s inner circle, attempted to flee China in the aftermath of an internal power-struggle, only to perish in a fatal plane crash.) Can Xue transforms the propaganda slogan from affirmative cliche into subversive question, capping an increasingly bizarre series of text-fragments with the memorable phrase, “Disaster of bloody light”. The sequence resembles an early film reel, halfway between the wall-posters of the Cultural Revolution and the grainy images of the first television sets.
What mediates between this broadcast and its audience of peasants-turned-factory workers is not a full-blown consumer culture per se, but rather its historical antecedent: the mass marketing campaigns of the Party-state. Can Xue will transform a number of these into Burroughs-style sketches or routines, satirizing everything from the compulsory workplace meeting to the public self-criticism.12 Perhaps her most telling critique takes a page from playwright Heiner Müller, who was a ferocious critic of Eastern Germany’s Party-state in his own right. In this passage, she contrasts the authority of the administrative document with the powerlessness of the administered audience:
After the second document came out, “S” factory people began to walk with their bodies turned sideways as if they all suffered from paralysis. They dared not remain still even when sitting down. They tried to hide from each other even when asleep. No one dared start an open conversation. They carried on all dialogue at great distance and with half-hidden faces. People would think in silence for a long time, focusing their eyes toward the sky. But from their mouths only the old threatening word leapt forth: “Who?”13
The final question echoes a key line in Müller’s 1973 play, Germania Death in Berlin, “Who am I.”14 But whereas Müller had an explicitly spatial allegory in mind, namely Berlin’s status as the productive border-zone between Western European consumerism and Eastern European autarky, Can Xue is identifying an allegorical temporality, or what we will call Maoist modernity. This last is rooted in the clash between the Party-state’s agenda of rapid industrialization, and the peasantry’s agenda of family self-sufficiency. Reduced to its starkest terms, Maoist modernity was the attempt to reconcile the geopolitical imperative of military-autarkic security with the peasant-local imperative of food security.
What makes Yellow Mud Street such an extraordinary text is its refusal to toss this modernity on the scrapheap for the greater glory of its successor, the Dengist ideology of normalization or Party-approved consumerism. Instead, Can Xue sets the resistances of Dengist consumerism in motion towards Maoist modernity. To do this, she will ingeniously play off Maoism’s key concept of space – the river-valley – against its notion of time. The river-valley is one of the most ubiquitous features of Maoism’s cultural imaginary, everywhere from depictions of the peasant masses as an unstoppable river-flood to the legendary river-crossings of the Long March, and from Mao’s title of “Great Helmsman” to his swimming expeditions.
Such narratives were grounded in an authentic social reality, namely, the dependence of the Chinese peasantry on hydroponics cultivation and rice-cereals, a mode of production requiring cyclical inputs of labor for planting and harvesting as well as seasonal floods for irrigation and fertilization. But whereas China’s 1980s media culture simply reversed the polarities of the river-valley narrative, by replacing the faith in a Great Helmsman with an equally fatuous faith in export-platform industrialism, Can Xue sublates the river-valley into the Pacific Rim entrepot. The result is an electrifying leap from agrarian form to urban content:
The sun looked like an egg yolk floating on the muddy yellow foam. Steeped in water, the small huts on the street resembled an army of black beetles. Across the street a female corpse lay in the water, soaked like a sponge.
The barber stood in the water naked from the waist up. He was slitting the throat of a cat; his body was stained with blood.15
The barber’s torso is clearly a satire of the Maoist-era model worker, i.e. the brawny uniformed cadre wielding a weapon or tool with steely determination. By contrast, the spectacle of dismembered animal carcasses and spattered gore has no direct equivalent in the Maoist canon per se. In fact, this is the canny reappropriation of one of the most significant media tropes of the 1970s, namely the horror film serial killer.16 It is no accident that every potentially national object in this passage turns into its overseas-foreign double or opposite: the model worker turns into the crazed murderer, the scorching sun turns into liquid egg yolk, clustered huts become mobile beetles, while the rejuvenating river-flood turns into a stagnant pool of putrefaction. Most shocking of all, the extended reprocessing of dead bodies turns into a terrifying phantasmagoria of their consumption:
Everyone was outside looking for something to eat. People were searching around full of hope, dipping into the water with their hands, believing they would finally find something. The water was hot. Searching again and again, they found a dead pig and several dead chickens bloated from the water. Dead things are not edible, yet someone insisted on eating them, saying it would be wasteful to throw them away. So, with Zhang Mie-zi taking the lead, people started to eat. They told themselves that these animals had not died of plague, but had drowned. The river water was clean; therefore, the animals were clean and edible. Once they started, there was no stopping them. People went out looking for things to eat every day, and they ate everything they could find.
The whole street suffered an epidemic. All the chickens died, and several cats went mad, howling day and night on the rooftops.17
This is essentially the 1980s version of Lu Xun’s classic short story Diary of a Madman, only with two key changes. First, the cannibalistic hunger of the semi-feudal family sphere has been displaced by the politicized hunger of the cadre-state (in economic terms, lineage accumulation is displaced by state-industrial accumulation). Second, the clarion call of China’s 1919 May 4th movement audible in Lu Xun’s text, with its revolutionary imperative to “save the children”, has been replaced by the mass-cultural motif of the howling cats.18 The mad cat is one of the most consistent symbols of a subversive gender-politics in Yellow Mud Street, and serves as the background accompaniment to everything from the purple wood sorrel which mysteriously grows on rooftops to scorching micropolitical denunciations of the patriarchal household.19
What needs to be asked, on the other hand, is why these scatological visions of the river-valley are as shocking as they are, given the paucity of corporeal violence in the novel. How is it that a chaotic array of scarabs, bats, vegetative and animal ordure can convey the visceral power and punch of a blockbuster horror film? This contradiction is not to be dismissed as mere caprice or excessive formalism on Can Xue’s part.20 What is at issue is the reorganization of national corporealities into multinational ones.
This reorganization begins with the belated arrival of the real-life Wang Zi-guang, a low-level party official in charge of a routine investigation of Yellow Mud Street. After encountering a series of bizarre obstacles, however, Wang Zi-guang vanishes. His successor, Secretary Zhu, links this disappearance to the earlier one of Wang Si-ma:
“For example, [says Secretary Zhu] the case of Wang Si-ma has already become a big mistake. We were so sure at the time, but now we can’t even confirm whether or not he was a real person. In the past, he was thought to be an old resident of Yellow Mud Street. It sounded like a fact. But false impressions are very likely to occur, particularly false impressions shared by many people. This is more terrible. I believe the first thing to ascertain is what kind of clothes Wang Zi-guang wore when he came to Yellow Mud Street. After this is clarified, other questions will take care of themselves. If there has never been such a man, no clothes would have been worn. This is number one. Number two, what is the relationship between Wang Zi-guang and Yellow Mud Street? Was he really a higher-up, or only the younger brother of Wang Si-ma?”21
More is at stake here than the pragmatic insight that the clothes make the cadre. The handcrafted or pre-industrial textile fabric is displaced by the multinational textile-commodity. This is the genesis of the cybernetic body-part glimpsed by Old Hu San, who sees a sawed-off arm floating in the river – that is to say, an instrument of production which is no longer an appendage of the surrealist mannequin, but not quite the cybernetic prosthesis, either.22 Put more concretely still, the production and consumption of animal carcasses has given way to the production and assembly of intermediate industrial products.
This is confirmed by one of the most impressive sequences of the novel, where Can Xue leverages China’s three economies – the mainland’s rural enterprises, Taiwan’s export-platform industries, and Hong Kong’s multinational media and service economy – from the unexpected standpoint of a fourth term:
The rain was strange. Its drops were as black as Chinese ink. The water smelled like sewage water from a shifting sand well. It wasn’t the first time they’d had strange rains. There’d been the dead fish rain and the rat rain. But never before had people seen such a dark, stinking, and endless rain. It rained on and on. “We’re living in a huge shifting sand well.” Old people were reminded of the analogy by looking at the sky. Immediately, they began to worry and sigh as if they were dying that very moment.23
Black rain is one of the premier ecological symbols of Japan’s accelerated post-WW II modernization, everywhere from Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary (1955) all the way to the toxic insect-clouds of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa (1984-1993) manga comic strip. Can Xue will refunction this Japanese natural history into a Chinese social history on two levels. First, the airborne destruction and postwar reconstruction of Japan’s urban spaces is displaced by the more subtle inundation of the Hunanese village by a rain of Party decrees, directives and bulletins. Second, the social dislocation of Japan’s postwar Americanization is replaced by the anomie of China’s post-Maoist consumerization.24
Significantly, Old Hu San’s prior vision of the floating cybernetic body-part is conjoined to the theme of mobility, hinting at the supply chain or parts distribution networks which were indeed flourishing in neighboring Guangdong province (though just beginning to take root in 1983 Changsha). What is crucial to remember is that these supply chains were largely the creation of village-township enterprises, located outside of the purview of the state-owned factory system. The result was a severe political and economic crisis in those factories. This is subtly relayed by Factory Director Wang’s fits of increasingly deranged behavior and eventual breakdown. A fruitless hunt across the factory grounds for a scurrying lizard results in this priceless scene:
Finally, he [Factory Director Wang] stopped, rolled his eyes, raised his chubby fist, and hammered downward through the air. He said, “All kinds of problems concerning Yellow Mud Street must be solved.”
“Absolutely! Absolutely!” Qi Er-gou jumped with joy and clapped his hands. “The day when we feel proud and elated is coming. I’m now feeling what being proud and elated is like. Comrades, what is your understanding of the director’s talk?”
The people looked stupefied and then put on an air of thinking hard. They stared blankly at the ceiling, when suddenly old lady Qi took the lead in applauding.
“Immense satisfaction, immense satisfaction.” Their palms grew red from clapping, and they pushed each other with joy. Someone said he was “beside himself with happiness” and stood on his hands. Others drummed their heads against the wall. The clamor lasted for some time.
“Lizard!” the director screamed oddly, his body trembling.25
The delightful misquotations of stock propaganda phrases and grotesque slapstick comedy (“Others drummed their heads against the wall”) converge in a reference to the most memorable industrial lizard of them all, Godzilla. The Americanized version of Inoshiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla rewrote the catastrophic shock of Japan’s wartime defeat and the thermonuclear anxieties of the US occupation into one of the founding documents of the East Asian media culture. Yet Godzilla’s arrival in the heart of rural China signals more than just the fateful transformation of the residents of Yellow Mud Street from agrarian villagers into urban consumers. By setting the space of the Chinese factory in motion towards the postwar Japanese media culture, Can Xue transforms the Maoist river-flood into the traffic jam of export-platform industrialization:
“What are they digging for in the middle of the street?” [asks the district head]
“Planting shaddock trees. They did that in the past also. That time they planted orange trees. Then they dug up the orange trees for cotton roses. Now they’re digging up the cotton roses for shaddocks. Yesterday when they were digging up the cotton roses, they found a woman’s hand which was said to have been chopped off and buried there by the barber. Since the municipal document ordering tree planting was issued, people are thinking of experimenting with planting trees in their kitchens. Even now they are digging the holes.”
The narrow street had been completely destroyed. No one could pass through. The district head sheltered himself from the dust with his straw hat and rubbed his eyes vigorously. Thus he advanced by feeling his way, leaning against the little huts along the street. He felt something as big as rice grains in his eyes. His eyes were so painful by now that he dared not open them. Suddenly he raised his head and saw a long black memorial banner hanging to the ground. He tried to read the words on the banner, but they were all surrounded by circles of dazzling light.26
The severed hand is most likely a glancing reference to the rehabilitation of Ding Ling, China’s great modernist woman writer, and we will see later how Can Xue acknowledges the specific forms of women’s writing which flourished in the Deng era. For the moment, though, it’s worth emphasizing that the proliferation of tree-planting from the streets into the kitchen signals the triumph of Dengist village-township entrepreneurialism over Maoist village autarky. The ideographs of the Maoist wall-poster crackle with the neon energies of 1980s consumerism, sparking a riot of luminosity which is painful to the unaccustomed eye.
To be sure, this luminosity is not yet coded in terms of video surfaces, i.e. multinational icons and brand-names. It is striking that Can Xue explicitly names this contradiction, by citing that staple of the Hong Kong martial arts films, the irascible martial arts monk. Predictably, the monk’s only message to the inhabitants of Yellow Mud Street is an incongruous bag of sand (a Hunanese pun: Changsha’s name literally means “Sandbank”).27 The media-savvy monk and the Hong Kong appliance converge in this parody of an open-air media broadcast, halfway between the propaganda bulletin and the commercial advertisement:
It turned out that the district head was Wang Si-ma! When the Yellow Mud Street residents woke up from their nightmares that morning and started thinking about it, the district head had already disappeared. The news was brought to the people by a monk with one eye. The monk sat under the eaves of old Hu San’s house. He wore a black robe, and his bony shoulders towered so high that from a distance he seemed to have three heads. As soon as the monk left, old lady Qi discovered two dead cats in the middle of the street. They were already rotten. A bloodred silk quilt cover hung right in the street, shining with red light. “Bad omen,” she thought, “Someone is trying to exploit the masses.”
“The ghost-pen...” somebody whispered.
The pop-eyed barber was approaching.28
Old Hu San disappears from the narrative, replaced by the juxtaposition of animal corpses with red silk, a.k.a. neo-national bodies and multinational surfaces. Intriguingly, this signals a whole series of fusions between neo-national character-types and their multinational successors. The folk healer and the service-worker, for example, merge into the figure of the young clerk at the Eternal Spring Drug Store,29 while the ideological purification campaign and the urban sanitation engineer mutate into the professional street-cleaner.30
The price to be paid for this transformation, of course, is the spatial and temporal disruption of the village. Not only is the agrarian cycle of birth and decay chronicled by old lady Song displaced by the mechanical clock-time of the bourgeoning metropolis,31 but the narrative spotlight shifts irrevocably from the “S” factory grounds to the “S” office building. The national village is upstaged by the global village:
A mob gathered in front of the “S” office building. They glared at the gray wall with their straw hats on. Because people used to pour water out the windows, under every window there was a slippery spot.
The direction of the wind had changed. It was now a west wind blowing thick black dirt like a storm. The wind smelled of fish.
Nobody could really tell if there were bats on the wall. The crying, a choking and sobbing, was carried by the wind from the cemetery. A bird screeched strangely from a crevice in the eaves.
“A black wing is sticking out of the second window,” old lady Song told a woman in the crowd nicknamed Excellent Situation. The woman had only half a face, the other half having been cut off by something.32
While Excellent Situation is clearly an ironic swipe at the Cultural Revolution, Can Xue’s use of meteorological registers has no real equivalent in the mainstream Chinese postmodernisms of the early 1980s. Certainly, the wind from the west reads like the allegorical arrival of export-platform industrialization in the Chinese hinterland, while the counterpoint between the half-faced woman and the faceless audience suggests the emergence of the urban crowd. Yet what links the realities of industrialization and urbanization is that strange new thing, the clouds of flying bats.
These are more than just the evolutionary descendants of the Factory Director’s bete noire, the lizard. In contrast to the semi-agrarian or neo-national corporealities depicted earlier in the novel, the flying bat signifies a multinational form capable of broadcasting content from several national spaces, simultaneously. This anticipates the editing innovations of the Hong Kong films of the 1970s and 1980s, which accessed several different mediatic forms (e.g. Hollywood noir, the French existential thriller, the Japanese samurai epic, and Chinese opera) simultaneously. Consider this startling sequence, which cites film noir and the neo-national barber on the grounds of the horror film:
Bats flew overhead. Dust arose. Everything looked dim and vague.
Under the bluish light of the bar, the shoulder pole of the barber appeared again, the razors sparkling.
“Several bats have died since you left. They’re all in the night stool now. It can’t hold any more,” the wife came over and complained. “Where are they from? Our window’s been closed tightly. Not even a mosquito can squeeze in...”
“Don’t sleep too deeply at night. The bats will suck your blood.”
The pop-eyed barber was asking someone in a fierce tone, “Close-cropped or bald? Shave, or a shave-and-a-wash?”
The next night, Old Yue’s wife woke up in pain. She discovered her hand had been nailed to the bedside. Blood dripped alongside the bed.
“Save me!” she screamed, half awake.
The next day, Old Yue disappeared. People said his disappearance was the continuation of a certain case.33
This passage makes more sense if we recall that the dead bats in the “S” factory were nailed to the wall.34 The bats are, in short, anagrams of cinematic bodies, the rough equivalent of the vast Sargasso sea of postcards, personal snapshots and magazine clippings generated by the consumer culture. It is striking that this piercing of mediatic bodies is accompanied by the piercing of the wife’s hand, the rewriting of the severed woman’s hand into the hand of the woman writer. Instead of uncritically lauding or castigating China’s newly minted consumer culture, Can Xue emphasizes the neo-patriarchal complicity of East Asia’s gleaming, high-tech consumerism with the gender orthodoxies of late Maoism. While the wounding of Old Yue’s wife precipitates an act of writing (the blood dripping on the floor) as well as a cry of protest, the true moment of transformation occurs when Old Yue disappears, i.e. the wife fights for her own autonomous identity, within the framework of the Party-state.
Perhaps the single most striking feature of the latter third of Can Xue’s text is the emergence of an urbanized female collectivity, whose shadowy presence forms a counterweight to the various male representatives of the party-state. This collectivity consists neither of the passive, obedient victims of Orientalist lore, nor the giggling schoolgirls on a permanent shopping spree so often depicted in the Hong Kong films and the Japanese mass media. They are peasants and rural agricultural workers, turned factory and office workers. Their arrival in China’s bourgeoning cities by the tens of millions signaled a true social revolution, as vast numbers of Chinese women left the rural household to become wage laborers.
One of the most striking aspects of this transformation was the rapid decline in China’s total fertility rate (the average number of children per child-bearing female) from 6.0 in 1970 to 3.3 in 1980.35 This was partly the result of decades of investment into public education and free health and social services, and partly due to a series of family planning campaigns launched in the 1970s and 1980s, which expanded access to birth control in many rural regions. Arguably, the early 1980s marked the point when demographic transition, urbanization, and China’s reintegration into the East Asian economy all reached a critical mass. It is as if the teeming urban masses suddenly began to perceive the world their collective labor produced, by accessing the cultural codes they themselves created, and thereby inventing new forms of self-representation:
When the district head rode his bicycle toward Yellow Mud Street, the people on the street suddenly realized he was a real person, though not Wang Si-ma. They felt relieved, as if a boulder had been lifted from their hearts. As a result, they returned to their old habits of teasing and making obscene jokes with each other, playing the fool, making all kinds of faces, shouting at each other, making empty shows of strength and so on. They became extremely ugly and frivolous.36
The district head, in short, turns out to be just another state employee. What distinguishes the crowd’s compensating frivolity from the kind highlighted in Natsume Soseki’s early 20th century classic To the Spring Equinox is its anchor in a specifically multinational consumer culture. A later scene notes that the district head is wearing Labor brand overshoes,37 while old lady Song observes that blandly functional cement tiles have replaced the picturesque straw roofs of the neighborhood huts.38 There are also broad hints of modernist-style slum-clearing and urban renewal projects, suggesting that the party-state is beginning to look like just another employer.39
This does not mean, as the neoliberals would like to think, that the Chinese state was retreating from the market. If anything, China’s effective control over its economy increased, thanks to the creation of dense layers of local and regional institutions, everywhere from township-village enterprises and municipally-owned real estate ventures to national universities and state-owned banks. This torrid infrastructural profusion is captured by a wonderful passage, whose superficial languor conceals subterranean torrents of industrial energy:
The little sun paled. The firmament was as shabby as a ragged tent.
A will-o’-the-wisp burned above the withered grass.
A will-o’-the-wisp shone on the nameless little purple flower.
The walls cracked, about to break.
The sinking huts were shorter than ever.
Carpenter ants bred madly.
Strange, muffled groans arose. Someone asked in a humming voice from underground, “Which year is this?”
The last man with a jar passed down the street. Blood dripped from the edge of the jar.
A cat rolled in the dust, pus streaming from its rotted belly. The shadow of a man whipped the cat ferociously with a branch.40
Rather than linking several sentence fragments into a single dialogue, Can Xue deploys a series of compact, semi-autonomous lines. Each of these is organized around a single visual motif or auditory cue specific to the landscape of industrialization. The will-o’-the-wisp, for example, hovers over the grass and the purple flower like an early flash camera or electric street light. The hazy outlines of traditional walls and huts vibrate with the sounds of demolition and construction, something reconfirmed by the reference to teeming ants and production schedules (“Which year is this”). Meanwhile the surrealist trope of the ear in the jar, a.k.a. the portable radio, is replaced by a televisual corporeality: the cat and the man’s shadow, or what amounts to an anagram of the television set with an antenna.
The overall effect is reminiscent of a birds-eye view of a major Chinese city in the midst of a construction boom, something the Hong Kong films might render as an extended crane or helicopter shot. This objective visual frame is endowed with its subjective content a few pages later, in a passage which bypasses both Latin American magical realism and the Hong Kong cinema culture from the perspective of something radically new:
Yellow Mud Street simply couldn’t escape its endless dreams.
They dreamed of spiders and flies; they dreamed of green grass at the foot of the wall, of long-horned beetles with spotted backs, of little purple flowers; they dreamed of everything having to do with summer. Bats and wasps flew over their heads. Their snores reverberated in the little pitch-black huts, shaking and cracking the black, dirt-covered windows. The little sun was pale, and several rust-colored clouds hung motionlessly over the ragged umbrella-like roofs.
They woke from their dreams with waxen faces and baggy eyes. They mumbled in confusion. “What did I dream this time? Now I’m really done for. My head bleeds night after night. It must have bled more than a barrel of blood.”
“This dream is lifelong once it starts.”
“Sometimes I try to wake up, but in vain.”
“With such high blood pressure, I hope I won’t die in my dream.”41
This is the text-based version of the video pan, or the movement through video (rather than cinematic) space. Probably the single most celebrated expression of this pan was Shigeru Miyamoto’s Mario videogame franchise for Nintendo’s mid-1980s console, where players scrolled through intricate two-dimensional worlds constructed out of simple visual elements (pipes, ladders, blocks and so forth), counterpointed by endlessly inventive sound-tracks which meshed seamlessly with the on-screen action. The great John Woo action thrillers of the 1980s, most notably The Killer (1989), did something similar, by synthesizing elements of film noir, the Hong Kong martial arts film, and the 1980s Hollywood action blockbuster into the multinational action epic.
Can Xue’s own version of the video pan mobilizes a range of disparate visual and auditory tropes into a single multinational constellation, best described as an informatic fantasm. This fantasm conjoins the spectacle of green grass, urban pathways, purple flowers, and summer insects to the whir of flying bats and sussurating wasps. This does not refer to the space of Chinese video per se, a space which did not formally emerge until somewhat later in the 1980s, but to its immediate precondition. Where Wang Zi-guang symbolized the zero-hour of China’s mass media, and where Wang Si-ma marked the emergence of a Chinese broadcasting audience, then Yellow Mud Street’s self-realization of its power to dream signals the emergence of mainland China’s media programming and content industries.
The closest comparable moment in the Hong Kong cinema is the final third of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994), which showcases Faye Wong’s superlative performance with musical samples of the Mamas and the Papas’ hit single California Dreaming. The dream in question is a utopian consumer culture which is American in form but somehow Chinese in content, something nicely confirmed by Faye Wong’s real-life status as a Cantopop music star. In the closing credits, Wong delivers one of the great all-time cover versions of Irish band The Cranberries’ signature hit, Dreams, transforming the ending into an electrifying beginning.
Yet if the outer limit of Chungking Express is the ideology of a Pacific Rim consumerism wherein Hong Kong’s culture industry can compete head-on with Hollywood, then Can Xue’s geopolitical location allows her to reach beyond Americanization as a form. She achieves this, paradoxically enough, by refusing to choose between China’s incipient culture industry, the Hong Kong mass media, or the competing foreign consumerisms of Japan, the EU or the US. Instead, Yellow Mud Street opens the door to the East Asian media culture of the future, by making the leap from multinational form to multinational content:
In the dead grass, the tiny, nameless purple flower was shining with a dim cold light.
The will-o’-the-wisp floated about, resembling thousands of eyes drifting in the air.
Half frozen, the mosquitoes doddered up and down along the window frames.
A nightmare, like a big black overcoat, paraded in the dim starlight.
Someone was digging in the garbage heap with a rusty spade, making an irritating sound.
The salty dust from the crematorium drifted down.42
This seemingly disjointed catalog displays, on closer examination, the most remarkable formal precision. Each multinational form is linked to its corresponding mediatic content. The utopian purple flowers gleam with their own inner light, hinting at Miyamoto’s animated characters, while the will-o’-the-wisps refer to the emergence of China’s news media. The mosquitoes trace out the outline of window frames, halfway between flickering TV screens and the earliest graphical interfaces. Even the parade of the anthropomorphic nightmare, the last echo of the barber, suggests the televised images of soldiers marching in formation. Most significant of all, the rusty spade, that symbol of excavation and archeology, punctuates the salty dust-clouds generating by the burning of bodies. Everywhere, agrarian-rural bodies dissolve into urban-industrial ones.
This is the moment, in short, that radio surfing turns into channel-hopping. Yellow Mud Street concludes with the arrival of a video subjectivity fully conversant with those channels, and able to switch rapidly between their codes. In one of the most provocative passages of the text, Can Xue highlights the theme of multinational corporeality in a new and unexpected way:
“Wang Si-ma is back.” Yang San yawned and listened carefully to the footsteps in the streets.
A nightmare circled in the starlight, a black, empty overcoat.
From the sky came the sound like someone gnawing at bones.
An owl gave a sudden cry, thrilling and soul stirring.
Dust fell from the incinerator like raindrops.
Dead rats and dead bats rotted on the ground.
The pale, shadowlike little ball was about to rise again – into the sky above the roofs of little huts resembling ragged umbrellas.
The little boy’s face was scaly like snakeskin. As he stretched out his hand I saw that it, too, was covered with scales. In the center of the back of his hand was a purple ulcer.
“So many cancer patients have died. They fall like poisoned rats,” he told me. He blinked his swollen, rotted red eyes, and concentrated on spitting out the dust collected between his teeth.
“There’s no such street,” he finally said in an empty, dull voice.43
In a First World consumer culture, the boy might symbolize the Nintendo children or computer hackers of the 1980s, who easily mastered information technologies baffling to grown adults. In the Chinese context, however, the reference to snake scales has quite a different resonance. The reference is to the literal and figurative offspring of Godzilla, that mightiest of East Asian allegories of multinationalization. On that level, the red ulcer and the boy’s documentary role suggest the blinking red LED and pushbutton controls of an electronic recording device – a phantasm of the earliest videorecorders.
Yet the symptomatic line break between the two passages does more than just bracket the spatial discontinuity between the village and the city. It is the suture between China’s rural-autarkic past and its urban-industrial future. The references to cancer patients and rat exterminators, a favorite Burroughs trope, point to the rise of medicalized bodies and the urban dwellings which house them. The result is a profound mutation of corporeality, corresponding to China’s transformation into the world’s most gigantic construction site. The boy’s ulcer is the East Asian version of the solar cancer of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine.44 It is the stigmata of the New.
Fittingly, Can Xue provides an appropriate coda, in the form of one final look at the sprawling expanse of 1980s China. The resulting vista, stretching from the Dengist developmental state all the way back to the vanished dynastic past, stands as one of the premier templates of the East Asian media culture:
I once tried to look for Yellow Mud Street. I spent such a long time in my search – several centuries, it seemed. The shards of my dream have fallen at my feet. The dream has been dead for a long, long time.
The setting sun, bats, scarabs, creeping oxalis, the remote and strange old roofs. The setting sun glows. This world is both dear and tender. The pale tips of the trees give off a blue smoke. The smoke smells strange. In the distance, dust fills the air like clouds. It envelops the tiny flamelike blue flowers. The blue flowers dance vaguely.45
The blue flowers could be the emanations of distant smokestacks or the flames of a gas stove, suggesting a panorama seen through the kitchen window of one of the new apartment blocks constructed by the 1980s boom, overlooking a traditional alleyway or district. While Can Xue acknowledges the weight of China’s five thousand years of history, what glimmers on the far horizon is something very different from a restored nation-state. It is, rather, the prospect of a future East Asian community, connected by technology, tourism and air travel, whose members are able to appreciate, understand and share their respective national histories. It is the vision of a multinational home, instead of a national homeland.
1. See Ni Zhen’s Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation. Transl. Chris Berry. Durham: Duke UP, 2002 (48-50, 102-111)
2. Can Xue is a devotee and translator of Kafka, but her variant of Chinese postmodernism is closer to Beckett’s late modernism than to Kafka’s Central European modernism. This is most evident in passages which directly reference Kafka’s texts:
All kinds of dreams – warm dreams, sweaty dreams – rose from the messy pile of rotten lumber and greasy boxes to form a web of dreams. These were accompanied by a host of snores resembling animal howls. (Yellow Mud Street 20)
What in Kafka would be an existential trope, bounded by a juridical signifier or an avatar of a nameless, prohibitionary Law, is abruptly short-circuited by the chorus of animal howls – learn from the peasants, indeed! A similar strategy is at work in the following passage:
“All night, I’ve been busy preparing the records of the Wang Zi-guang Case. It’s been going on for half a month now. Just look.” He pointed at a thick pile of papers covered with black dirt. An unidentified insect skittered across it. He laid his cheek on the pile emotionally, saying, “I’ve already written one million two hundred thousand words.” He pulled several pages from the pile and presented them to the district head. (Yellow Mud Street 53-54)
The reference to the quantitative number of words transforms the Kafkaesque bureaucrat into a reflexive satire of the Maoist culture-industry.
3. Yellow Mud Street (10)
4. Chan, Anita, Madsen, Richard and Unger, Jonathan. Chen Village Under Mao and Deng. UC California Press, Berkeley, 1992 (85-86)
5. Ibid. (276)
6. River Elegy, a six-part documentary broadcast on Chinese state television in 1988, became an overnight sensation thanks to a combination of spectacular visuals, taboo-breaking footage of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and a deft script which rewrote the visual archetypes of Chinese yellow earth and Pacific blue water into an Information Age allegory of autarkic stagnation versus Pacific Rim dynamism. For mainland Chinese viewers, the effect was probably like watching the Romance of the Three Kingdoms crash-land in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, i.e. the fall of dynastic time into geopolitical space.
7. Yellow Mud Street (14)
8. The jar of ears is directly linked to the category of the public rumor:
Rumors flew up and down Yellow Mud Street.
An old blind man came to the street. He walked here and there looking for something. Someone found a broken jar he had hidden. It was full of ears, and blood ran down the side. ( Yellow Mud Street 84)
Old Sun first appears in this scene:
If the Yellow Mud Street residents peeped out their windows at midnight, they could see a large black shape hanging from the dead tree in front of the inn. It looked like an ape, but it was Old Sun. (Yellow Mud Street 14-15)
Much later, Old Sun is arrested and temporarily displaced by the running commentaries of old lady Qi. Years later, Old Sun reappears at factory gates, i.e. the factory acquires its own loudspeaker:
Old Sun came back from jail in September and hanged himself on the iron gate of “S” factory. No one saw his corpse, but his voice was heard in the dark of night, “There’s an imperial robe. It’s true, comrades. What do you think about this? How’s the situation at present?” The moon cast its ghastly, bloodcurdling light on the sharp barbs of the gate. Flocks of bats cast huge shadows on the ground. (Yellow Mud Street 168)
9. Yellow Mud Street (21). Also note this later passage:
“Yesterday a headless man arrived at Yellow Mud Street. They say he was beheaded in the city. At midnight the barber passed by the street, holding human heads in his hands. They were all tied up with wire.” (Yellow Mud Street 101-102)
10. The implied message is very much the cinematic version of Mao’s famous address at the inauguration of the Chinese People’s Republic in 1949, which announced that “China has stood up.” This national allegory has a specific gender subcomponent: Grandpa’s lover, a woman named Nine, is killed in the firefight with the Japanese invaders, but her young son survives the battle to inherit the mantle of the peasant-national lineage. As a rule, Can Xue will react allergically to all such national gender ideologies.
11. Yellow Mud Street (22)
12. Two examples of these waking dreams will suffice:
Often Old Yue’s hoarse voice broke their fanciful dreams: “Meeting time now.”
This woke everyone up. Smoothing their clothes, they entered the meeting room. They managed to stay awake for the first few minutes, but after they listened a while their eyes clouded and their bodies relaxed. Then one man would slouch against his neighbor, and the man leaned on in turn leaned toward the next. Eventually, groups of five, six, seven, or eight were snoring like thunder.
This would last until the leader began to lecture about such important things as, “Someone in this audience is raising an owl!” or “The case of the bat must be thoroughly investigated!” or “A bloodstain has become visible on the wall,” and so on. Then people were startled awake. They nudged the bodies leaning against them, and those people in turn started awake. Sitting erect, muttering and complaining, they rubbed their eyes. And they listened, their tiny, round eyes open. But in less than half a minute, their eyes turned lifeless again. How could one punish them? Even “lightning will not strike the sleepy”. (Yellow Mud Street 39-40)
Here is a monologue by the district head:
“A few days ago, we explored a case of severe persecution in the district... Do you want to maintain the tradition of the old revolutionary base area or not? Please notice that I have only ten days left here. I intend to start with the case of Wang Si-ma, then go on to the real identification of Wang Zi-guang. The only effective approach is that put forward by Secretary Zhu’s plan, in which he focuses on the way Wang Zi-guang dressed. It goes without saying that the resistance to relocation is unimaginably strong. I can’t even decide if Wang Si-ma is a real person. The problem involved is impossible to clarify. The scope of the investigation has to be unbelievably wide. Nearly everyone on Yellow Mud Street seems to be a Wang Si-ma. We have to rely on the practical and realistic spirit, as well as the tradition of the old revolutionary base area...” (Yellow Mud Street 110)
13. Yellow Mud Street (25)
14. Heiner Müller. Germania Death in Berlin, pg ?? Rotbuch Verlag (my translation).
15. Yellow Mud Street (40-41)
16. The independent horror films of the early 1970s – especially Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre – made key contributions to the shot-cutting techniques and sound-editing of multinational video. Hooper’s classic was by no means a festival of gore, but generated narrative tension via compressed action sequences devoid of medium-range shots, a storyline which explicitly satirized the rapacious capitalism of the New South (the protagonist, Sally, is the prototypical female service-worker), and a strident, bone-jarring sound-track, replete with animal howls, mechanical gears and of course the infamous chainsaw.
17. Yellow Mud Street (41). It’s worth pointing out that Can Xue’s style has intriguing affinities to the lyric production of other South Asian societies undergoing rapid urbanization. Consider these lines from Bengali Indian poet Anuradha Mahapatra’s poem “City Nocturne,” written in 1983:
Through the hole in the poster on the wall,
On the madwoman’s rotting back, you can see
the starred nocturnal tracery of the city.”
Another Spring, Darkness. Selected Poems of Anuradha Mahapatra. Trans. by Carolyne Wright with Paramita Banerjee and Jyotirmoy Datta. Corvallis: Calyx Books, 1996. (27). The word translated as “tracery” means “alpana”, and refers to the rice-paste patterns which rural Bengali women finger-paint on walls and temples during festivals and holidays. This is the reappropriation of the Bollywood poster on behalf of a feminized public space, i.e. the madwoman signifies the unruly, uncontrollable corporeality of the city (West Bengal’s Kolkata in the case of Mahapatra, Hunan’s Changsha in the case of Can Xue).
18. Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman and other stories. [need additional info]
19. An early version of the mad cat:
A mad cat howled on the roof of the hut. The creeping wood sorrel had blossomed in little purple flowers, one bunch after another, shining in the sun. (Yellow Mud Street 45)
Much later, a caged cat belonging to a woman named Jiang Shui-ying symbolizes her imprisonment in an abusive relationship with her husband (“Jiang Shui-ying roared in the cage, her blue-veined hands clutching the bars of the cage, her eyes hollowed into two deep blue holes...” (Yellow Mud Street 166)). In the passage below, Can Xue ingeniously transforms the trope of “the red and the green”, a standard reference to women’s beauty in classical Chinese poetry, into the “red eyeballs and green eyeballs” of a cinematic patriarchy:
“Tomorrow morning I’m going to whip this cat to death with the branch of a tree. It’s lived long enough. Why should I feed it?” The man was talking. He was still looking outside toward the yard, deep in thought. Wrinkles piled up on his forehead.
A billow of smoke floated into the room from somewhere. The air became blue with the smell of mosquito-repellent incense.
“That’s the smell of burning corpses in the incinerator,” the man said, showing his long front teeth.
That night the cat yowled again. This time the sound was even more horrifying. It sounded as if the cat was chewing the bars of the cage. Jiang Shui-ying dashed to the street clutching her head with both hands. Her mind was full of red eyeballs and green eyeballs. (Yellow Mud Street 157)
20. The social and political anxieties unleashed by this mutation are most apparent in Jing Wang’s critique of Can Xue, which repudiates the latter as the ghost haunting the feast of Dengist China:
“[Can Xue] draws us step by step to the killing field located in the psyche of anonymous, historically unidentifiable victims. Hers is a vicious narrative circle that always brings us back, after a journey through the savage imagery of schizophrenia and cannibalism, to the same closure – the cemetery of the mind. Eternity reappears in the form of the blusterous vortex of violence. The dead, of course, are not resting in peace...
Can Xue’s distinctly paranoid persona is, within the confines of her nightmarish world, a self-consciously depoliticized and an empty, albeit psychically energized, form without content...
Her fictional logic is built on an inversion: violence is disengaged from history and internalized into a mere mental image that is ultimately fictitious.” Jing Wang, Editor. China’s Avant-Garde Fiction: An Anthology. Durham: Duke UP, 1998 (5-6)
We will argue that those mental images are by no means fictitious, but have a precise social referent, i.e. the image-culture of 1980s consumerism. Put another way, the danger emanating from Can Xue’s texts is that they are realer than the official version of reality itself.
21. Yellow Mud Street (47)
22. Can Xue even provides the body-part with its own bizarre sound-track:
At evening, a lump of something soft and white floated to his feet. He observed it for a long time but couldn’t see what it was. So he felt it with his hand. He probed it this way and that. All of a sudden it dawned on him that it was a human arm. At one pinch, water oozed from the flesh with a sound resembling sawing. (Yellow Mud Street 62-63)
This is the cue for the return of the threatening barber. Wisely, Old Hu San refuses the barber’s Mephistophelean offer:
From the darkness, two bloodred bulging eyes glared at him. The barber was standing in the rain, the blade of his knife flickering in the lightning.
A chill shot through Old Hu San. After some hesitation, he asked, “Who is dead?”
“That arm? I cut it off yesterday.”
“Something called Wang Zi-guang was once here.”
“Whose arm is it? Isn’t it shocking?”
“This rain. The flood is knee-high. Can there be leeches in the water? I’m frightened. Sleeping in the water, I always dream of leeches sneaking into my hair to suck my brain. Please tell me your opinion. Is there much hope for the rebels?”
“Since you’re so afraid of leeches, let me shave your head.” (Yellow Mud Street 62-63)
23. Yellow Mud Street (76)
24. Soon after, they started using evasive language to talk vaguely about some impending event connected with their feeling of approaching disaster, the kind of event that can only happen covertly, undetectable through appearances. Once, talking in a dream, Old Hu San cried out a word which seemed close to reality and yet at the same time remote from fact. At the moment, he was moving his night stool, making a screaking sound. Then he mumbled the word: “Relocate?” Everybody was stunned by the sound; they sank into their own private thoughts.
Then they went into a panic. (Yellow Mud Street 90).
Note the continuation of this motif, two pages later:
Everywhere was a rustling sound. The wind blew the Chinese fir bark from someone’s roof and a ragged mat from beside the sidewalk. It blew the garbage on the street into a whirl, and it broke a windowshade and tossed it into the sky. The strange wind frightened the residents of Yellow Mud Street. (Yellow Mud Street 92)
25. Yellow Mud Street (96)
26. Yellow Mud Street (103-104)
27. The monk paraphrases one of the most famous slogans of the Dengist era, to the effect that it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, i.e. revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, so long as it catches mice. :
One day a Taoist priest arrived. He sat down on the stone steps of the post office and put down his long, full bag. Then he took off his shoes and drummed them on the ground while shouting to the passersby, “This street is so boring!” Then he asked the telegraph clerk, who was leaning in the doorway, “Hey, are there white rats around here?” The clerk’s face turned white, and he spoke haltingly, “Are you a medical doctor? At the time of the plague, a doctor came. So many people died. Like mosquitoes, they fell down dead at one slight tap...”
The priest sat in the bar till dusk. He drank so much that he staggered when he left. He forgot his bag under the table. When the waiters opened it, they found it was full of sand from the river. It was so heavy that nobody could lift it.
The pop-eyed barber appeared again. He circled around the street at midnight, knocking on every windowframe with his razor. People were frightened half to death. The first thing they did when they got up in the morning was dash to the doors and windows to check the security of the bolts.
“A broad conspiracy of restoration is brewing on Yellow Mud Street,” Director Wang announced. (Yellow Mud Street 112)
28. Yellow Mud Street (123-124)
29. He sighed deeply and continued, “This street is very strange. I’ve been working this counter for ten years, and I always hear a clattering sound from underground. It never stops. Sometimes I think people are digging in the latrine, and sometimes I feel the digging is right under the drug counter. At night I’ve been awakened by the clattering and can’t get back to sleep. When I have to sleep in the drugstore, I always rig two wine bottles behind the door. If someone broke in, the bottles would make a noise. I’ve done this for ten years, but nothing has ever happened. Anyway, I keep doing it for safety’s sake. Who knows? Anything can happen because of one moment of carelessness... My hometown is in the countryside. We have a grape vine there. The sun looks like a golden cherry...” His talk was followed by his snore. (Yellow Mud Street 130)
30. Yellow Mud Street (133)
31. Note that the roof is identified with the theme of corporeality, as village space is reconverted into urban time:
“The roof has rotted through.” Old lady Song’s voice was muffled by the splitting sound coming from all directions. The roof straw fell like rotten meat all around her. In half an hour, every single straw was down, and the three rooms had become bright and light. Old lady Song and her husband sat on the biggest pile of rotten straw. She said loudly, “It’s like dead human flesh falling down.” They started to struggle, trying to push each other off the pile. This game was followed by their drooping heads and snoring.
The big clock in the city struck three times. The sound was quivering and prolonged.
(Yellow Mud Street 136)
A few paragraphs later, the Maoist era finally comes to an end, and the survivors of the Cultural Revolution open their eyes, as if awakening from a dream:
That night, more than a dozen roofs rotted through.
At dawn, some people pushed their way out of the rotten straw piles. They stood trembling against the wall and sneezed loudly.
A half-doglike creature dashed straight up the street.
“Head shaving...” The sound came from a great distance. It sounded half real, half fantastic. (Yellow Mud Street 137)
32. Yellow Mud Street (142).
33. Yellow Mud Street (147)
34. Yellow Mud Street (148)
35. Therese Hesketh, Ph.D., Li Lu, M.D., and Zhu Wei Xing, M.P.H. “The Effect of China’s One-Child Policy after 25 Years.” New England Journal of Medicine. Volume 353:1171-1176, September 15, 2005, Number 11. Accessed on Web January 26, 2006: http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/353/11/1171
36. Yellow Mud Street (153)
37. “Ichizo’s disposition is one that coils inwardly whenever he comes in contact with the world. Whenever he receives an impulse, it turns round and round, driving itself in more and more deeply and carving itself more and more finely into the recesses of his mind. And it distresses him that this encroachment upon his mind continues, knowing no bounds. He’s so worried about it that he prays for any escape whatever from this inner activity, but he’s dragged on by it as though it were a curse beyond his power to drive out. The time is going to come when he’ll inevitably collapse, totally alone, under his own mental exertion. He’s going to come to dread that moment. When it happens, he’ll be exhausted, like a madman. This is the great misfortune lying at the very core of his life. In order to turn it into a blessing, there’s no other way except to reverse the direction of his life and to make it uncoil outward. We must get him to use his eyes so that instead of carrying outside things into his head, he can look with his mind at things as they exist outside. He should find one thing under heaven – and a single thing is enough – which is so great or beautiful or gentle that it will engross his entire being. In a word, he has to become frivolous.” Natsume Soseki. To the Spring Equinox and Beyond. Translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein. Charles Tuttle: Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1985.
38. Yellow Mud Street (158). It’s worth comparing this moment with footnote 31, above.
39. In a fit of pique, the district head declares at one point, “The obstacle of Yellow Mud Street has to be wiped out!” Yellow Mud Street (163)
40. Yellow Mud Street (164).
41. Yellow Mud Street (167).
42. Yellow Mud Street (172)
43. Yellow Mud Street (173)
44. See the third section of Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine:
OPHELIA Do you still want to eat my heart, Hamlet. Laughs.
VOICE(S) from the coffin:
What you killed you should also love.
The dance becomes wilder and wilder. Laughter from the coffin. On a swing a Madonna with breast-cancer. Horatio opens an umbrella, embraces Hamlet. Freeze in the embrace under the umbrella. The breast-cancer shines like a sun.
45. Yellow Mud Street (174)