The Secret Lives of Women: Can Xue’s “Love in the New Millennium,” Translated from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen

By Ursula Deser Friedman


She is one of China’s most prominent novelists and a champion of experimental literature. Can Xue (残雪) is the pen name of the avant-garde writer and literary critic Deng Xiaohua (1953-). In Chinese, can xue means “residual snow,” a phrase describing, in Deng’s words, both “the dirty snow that refuses to melt” and “the purest snow at the top of a high mountain.” Can Xue defines her artistic mission as “waking people’s souls and “drawing information from Great Nature.” Love in the New Millennium, translated from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, is a mesmerizing, dreamlike novel structured as a collection of kaleidoscopic tales of love, loss, and the impermanence of the human condition.

The narrative’s gossamer threads weave a web of tangled romantic encounters, each tale beginning where the previous left off. Perspective and time are treated as fluid portholes, apt to shift at a whim, and all is awash in the ever-churning tides of paradox. Just when readers begin to gain a handle on the characters and their innermost secrets, the hazy, seething plot plunges onward, and the previous characters seemingly fade to the background, only to haunt subsequent chapters, a flock of ghosts from the future and harbingers of the past.

The novel revolves around a tightly knit circle of middle-aged cotton mill employees-turned sex workers. Niu Cuilan, A Si, Long Sixiang, Jin Zhu and Xiao Yuan are alternately revered and cursed by the male characters, whose boyish impetuousness, aimlessness and indecision provide a stark contrast to the women’s unfailing intuition, meticulous planning, and steely wills. The prostitutes journey from the hell of the cotton mill to the hot springs where they take their clients, and weave their own destinies by redefining the parameters of love. This is the story of a group of once downtrodden women taking their lives in their own hands, growing more in touch with their inner desires as they journey from confinement to freedom.

The book recounts, for example, the tale of the widow Niu Cuilan and her married lover Wei Bo, who mysteriously disappears, only to seek tranquility within the prison bars he calls home. Paradoxically, it is these very same bars that grant Wei Bo liberty and inner peace. Indeed, the search for freedom through deliberate confinement, calm in the midst of chaos, and transcendence through reconciling binary oppositions are the central paradoxes propelling the storyline forward.

The novel’s enigmatic lines ooze with paradox, a cornerstone of Chinese philosophy. For instance, Xiao Yuan remarks to her blind train mate Cricket, a living timepiece who revels in letting Xiao Yuan listen to the tick of his heartbeat: “I like to travel. Making a journey is the same as clinging to one place. If you settle down in your hometown, it feels instead as though you are drifting along” (128). The notion of seeking home and rest through a roaming, unfixed lifestyle is also one that is re-enacted over and over as the novel unfolds.

The notion of calm in the eye of the storm, or chaos-induced epiphany, is another central paradox of the novel. Cuilan’s former lover Xiao He, accompanied by Yuan Hei, A Si’s first lover, meet by chance in a bar, and the bar owner’s son invites them for a midnight boat ride on the river during a vicious storm. Despite nearly capsizing, or perhaps precisely because of the danger and trauma they face together, the pair gains newfound appreciation for life and love. Yet in direct opposition to the men’s passive encounters with chaos and terror in upheaval, the women actively seek out adventure and danger as an elixir of strength, cloaking themselves in disarray and pandemonium.

The third-person omniscient narration steeps the novel with a deliciously transparent feel, the light of the characters’ inner consciousness shining through the layers of fabric connecting each character’s story to the next. The deliberate absence of descriptions of characters’ outward appearance and background feeds the impermanent, yet timeless sheen of the novel. Many of the characters are tormented by an insatiable longing for their ancestral homes, made all the more mysterious by the vagueness of their geographical particulars.

The characters’ repeated hallucinations, ability to float, fly, and foresee their own destinies before events unfold, as well as the natural world’s uncanny capacity to mirror and predict the characters’ sprawling inner worlds, grant the novel echoes of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a likeness strengthened by the bouts of magical realism, sensory descriptions, and vivid metaphors cropping up at every turn. Dr. Liu’s lover Xiao Yuan (also Wei Bo’s wife), who lands a position as a geography teacher at Nest County’s No. 2 Middle School, is greeted by a seething cacophony of flora and fauna. In Nest County, the borders between human civilization and the natural world blur, as each villager plants a seething brood of flowers with magical properties.

Wasmoen’s translation is at once faithful, transformative, and provocative, earning the work a place on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize longlist. She preserves vestiges of the original Chinese syntax, often translating old Chinese adages word-for-word, in order to retain the flavor of the original. Wasmoen peppers the text with a humming soundtrack laden with onomatopoeia, faithfully chronicling the rustling sha sha of the train swooshing through the night (128), the hua hua hum behind the antique shop owner’s filing cabinet (147), the faint zi zi sound the phoenix-tail fern’s root hairs emit as they grow (229), the weng weng buzzing of the honey bees (234).

The Hemmingway-esque sparse dialogue, coupled with crystal-clear metaphor and sensory images, draws the reader right in. Can Xue speaks highly of Wasmoen’s translation: “The sentences were so neat and fluent, the images it evoked were so beautiful, sometimes I even thought that it’s me, but a better me, who has written down a new version of the novel.” Indeed, Wasmoen’s translated version takes on a life of its own, transforming, complementing, and reinventing the original. For example, in translating the section describing Xiao He’s imagined journey to the desolate Pear Mountain (symbolizing his passionate affair with Cuilan), Wasmoen creates a lucid rendering of a key question. The original reads “Could it be that only the love struck can chance upon coming close to fathoming the depths of their inner self?,” but Wasmoen cuts to the chase: “Can it be that people only approach the abyss of the inner self from a state of passion?”

In Love in the New Millennium, characters’ pasts are hardly baggage chaining them to a predestined fate, nor are they memories locked away like a distant fairytale, only to be reminisced upon passively. Rather, the female protagonists wear their twisted pasts proudly upon their sleeves, embrace uncertainty, and face their own mortality head-on. As Xiao Yuan astutely remarks:

Everything was in the past, but everything still remained with her. What she had first pursued turned out to be this ideal! Many events can only be understood after they happen! People cannot see what the murky future contains; instead they should be calm and seize hold of what lies before them in the present. (105)

It is this ability to live in the moment and turn over a fresh leaf in the face of unspeakable horrors that grant these women grit and wisdom in uncertain times.

Xue, Can. Love in the New Millennium. Translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. Yale University Press, 2018.

One comment

  1. What a gorgeous review of a novel which was so hard for me to grasp. Thank you for untying many knots for me.

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