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Artwork by Mary Vaux Walcott, Smithsonian American Art Museum Collections, on Wikimedia Commons

The Universal Whole: A Conversation With Can Xue and Annelise Finegan Wasmoen

In Love in the New Millennium, celebrated experimental writer Can Xue tells the story of a group of women who inhabit a world of constant surveillance, where informants lurk in the flower beds and conspiracies abound.

In the wake of the paperback publication, Can Xue and translator Annelise Finegan Wasmoen talk about the marriage of Eastern and Western countries, the challenges of translating the grammatical particularities of Chinese, and the legacy of the book in raising fundamental questions of human nature.

Can Xue, you describe your surreal fictional environments as highly rational conjurings, while readers call them surreal. When you write, how do you approach the balance between reason and psychological drift?

CX: First of all I should explain my definition of this philosophical term reason. At the moment, I am writing a book on philosophy that takes as its core my unique definition and usage of this word. Far different than the philosophical distinctions of Kant, Hegel, Husserl and so on, I differentiate reason into theoretical reason and practical reason, and further posit the highest setting of epistemology as contradictory epistemology. The rationalists of Western philosophy have not truly differentiated this singular dimension of practical reason. They are monists of theoretical reason. Their cosmology is also unlike my theory in not putting forward a theory of contradiction. How, then, do I define practical reason? I think this is a function of the human body as well as what I formulate as the highest function—the function of Nature’s (the universe’s) material being, precisely and symmetrically corresponding to the theoretical reason put forward by Western rationalists.

 Therefore my philosophy is also a practical philosophy, namely, in operating creatively through physical functions (for example, the expression of emotional material in literature) to construct an ideal and material Nature. I have discovered through the practice of literature a native self-awareness possessed by myself and possessed—or that should be possessed in the future—by the Chinese people. Chinese people have a spontaneous tendency to see Nature as the self. We excel in practice (making things), but are deficient in theoretical summation and self-awareness, so we have not produced a high degree of self-awareness about our physical functioning even over several thousands of years. In this respect I seem to be a pioneer. When I wrote my first literary work at the age of thirty, I discovered that I have a kind of aptitude that is different than other authors: I just need to sit down and write to live immediately inside of my own Nature. I am one member within Nature; I am also the entirety of Nature. Next, I only need to squeeze my emotion and concentrate my discernment in order to break out into an obscure direction. That “breaking out” is full of challenges and joys as well as the full release of bodily desire. I have never considered a work’s structure and do not plan it out overall, but instead write down whatever I am thinking, writing where it goes and that is all. If my writing is interrupted, when I return to writing afterward I can continue again with what is next, joined together seamlessly.

The works that I write down all have the tight logic of emotional structure, but are also without the vestiges of intentionality, because I am “making things.” This kind of work has no blueprint. It takes shape through the operation of the limbs and the sensory organs on emotional material. The major force behind this practice is constructive impulse. A single literary work is the entirety of perfect rationality; all of my works together form a garland. This is my usage of practical reason. I have adored Western culture from when I was young, earnestly studying its literature and philosophy to lay a good foundation. I wield Western culture as a tool to awaken the sleeping native self-awareness within me, opening the path of my creativity. I call my creativity the expression of practical reason (and also practical intellect and perception). My practical reason is synonymous with the structure of my psyche. The characteristics of the two are creativity and constructiveness, and also humanity’s ancient instincts revived in the process of both Chinese and Western culture fusing inseparably and becoming each other’s mutual essence. The force behind the psychological structure of my creativity comes from practical perceptual intuition, intellectual intuition, and rational intuition. The unique approach of my creativity functions through intuition and the construction of intuitive graphics. In parallel to theoretical reason, this kind of active reason also functions as a parable. It is the mother of all of the inventions of natural science and the humanities. What it creates are the things that our Nature does not yet have, but should.

From remote, ancient times humanity began to make tools, plant crops, domesticate animals, and use primitive language to express feelings. These ancient functions of the trunk and its limbs (in short, the body) and people’s thinking and speculative functions together constitute the essential function of our being human. In my opinion, human nature is a contradiction, and all things within Nature are contradictions; I believe that I have a unique approach to deal with these contradictions. The Chinese are the most practical people, yet their extended time historically without communication with the world brought about a lack of self-awareness when it comes to this function, which has hindered the development of our own practical function. My works are breaking through that block, being the effort to establish a more comprehensive view of the universe and of philosophy.

In the Acknowledgements of Love in the New Millennium, you write “I think of this book as the fruit born of the love between Eastern and Western cultures, its images pushing forward a wholly new type of human self and mechanism of freedom.” Can Xue, can you elaborate on the characteristics of this new human self and freedom? Annelise, was there a particular translation in the book that exemplified the love between Eastern and Western cultures?

CX: I have believed for a long time that an ideal human self would possess the strengths of East and West. For myself individually, I am mainly taking the Chinese ethnicity to be Eastern, although of course there are other distinctions. Those parts of Western culture that I am passionate about are what my ethnicity lacks. For example, with respect to encouraging spiritual matters; for example, the capacity to reason; for example, the impulse to task risks or to create; and so on. This novel is the achievement of my study of Western culture. However, in reaching the new millennium, I have felt deeply that Western spiritual culture alone can no longer adapt to the demands of the world’s developments. I also discovered that Western culture had encountered a bottleneck in its own development.

The new millennium requires a blended culture, one that is stronger, richer, and has more knowingness and vitality. The pursuit of this blending has been abundantly revealed in my novel. I think that Chinese culture (or the Chinese culture of the future) can in this way supplement what Western culture lacks. The keyword to Love in the New Millennium is communication. This communication in the novel is the communication of love between men and women, but it is actually also the communication of all of humankind. I feel that, in the new millennium, humanity’s communication has become a major issue of life or death importance. Even though many Western novels also broach this subject, I think that the contradictory dialectic of communication is unique with a Chinese person like Can Xue. This is the contribution of an author after being enlightened to the world, along with my model of pursuing freedom that is different than the crowd. Westerners emphasize spiritual pursuits, and in expressing the relationship between people they emphasize communication that is conceptual; Chinese people emphasize materiality (or embodied functions), and what is expressed through human relationships is physical communication. These two kinds of communication combined together structure a contradictory human nature, both sides equally important, without the existence of a question of which is higher or lower. We Chinese people have an adage, “use the heart to compare hearts,” which says to consider the other as yourself. In this way there is communication between bodies and not solely communication of the spirit. Even if the other is an “enemy,” one should still imagine them as oneself and have physical exchange with them in practice.

Further, this practical communication extends to the natural world, that “Great Self,” such that animals, plants, the land, the sky, and so on become the objects of our communication. The communication of high art often fails, but even so, artists should not change their original intentions and instead carry on this kind of communication to the end, like the woman singer in Love in the New Millennium. Within my philosophical distinctions, freedom can only be produced by two kinds of communication, of the body and of the spirit, besides which there is no other way. That is to say that the exchange between bodies (the interaction of practical operations and emotional material) cannot be lacking. If you seek the sublimation and freedom of the human self, you must invest yourself in the practice of communication between the human and the things of nature, seeing other people (including enemies) and also things within nature as yourself, and maintaining these relationships. Regarding this kind of relationship, the depictions in my novel become more revealing through utopian idealism. Each achievement of communication is a model of freedom. For people who have never had physical communication with other people, their freedom is blocked in a deep sense. Human character and models of freedom in the new millennium are constructive. It is every artist’s duty to take definite action in striving to invest oneself in the work of communication.

The reality of the situation is that many Chinese people lack theoretical reason in communication with other people and only speak of superficial levels of communication in the physical sense (worldly-wise, unprincipled and overflowing with emotions, feudal and backward). Without a fundamental standard, or without the wisdom of ongoing contact, they cannot establish dynamic, progressive, healthy relationships between people. Many Westerners on the other hand are indifferent to emotion with regard to human relationships, never knowing the situation of the other party, or knowing what they are thinking, and insisting on abstract, rigid principles. When they encounter contradictions, if it isn’t investing themselves completely into seeking the way to resolve it, then it’s being slipshod, using one’s own views (theoretical principles) as the standard to cut through the knot and ruin the relationship. If these two great ancient cultures can absorb each other’s benefits and mutually take each other as their essence, the extent of humanity’s freedom will surely be greatly expanded.

AFW: When I think back on translating Can Xue’s brilliant Love in the New Millennium, some of the global currents recur to me, such as what the character Dr. Liu thinks of in Chapter 6 as “the world’s great interconnectedness […] this kind of interconnectedness [that] took place every minute and every second, similar to the working of the wind […] ‘No matter how the world develops, interconnection is always necessary’.” Meanwhile, cultural signifiers from both Eastern and Western culture pattern themselves throughout the novel: La Traviata, pachinko parlors, Chinese medicinal herbs.

For one thing, the novel doesn’t depict so much the concept of the male and female sexes in Chinese reality as a merging of the concepts in Chinese and Western cultures. The most typical example is Long Sixiang, along with Dr. Liu and Xiao Yuan, who all yearn for ‘true love,’ but also have a rational side. For another, Dr. Liu uses the methods of Western medicine to apply Chinese herbal medicine (scientifically), while taking a Chinese approach to treating pain—often regarding illness as a contradiction that should not be resolved, and using pain relief methods to treat illness—which develops the logical contradiction.

I think that these two points illustrate the author’s ideal worldview.

The novel and, by extension, the translation, is also very much about forms of communication which allow the response to be unexpected, in the way authors and translators communicate with readers, rather than preempted. Characters in Love in the New Millennium do not act or respond affectively in ways that are foreseeable, whether narratively or psychologically: they may have confidence “out of all proportion,” they discover themselves as other selves in each other’s eyes, they are constantly on the move and “circle again, for a different perspective.” Sometimes characters laugh in response to comprehension: “They glanced at each other and both laughed out loud until tears flowed from their eyes, and the two, both strangely embarrassed, turned their faces away to look in different directions.” This type of communication models various forms and aspects of cross-cultural engagement, especially textual forms. As language animals we use assumptions about meaning to organize our understanding, and in most fiction context helps to disambiguate lexical meaning. In Can Xue’s fiction, there may be little internal evidence as to whether a significant word or a suggestive passage points in one direction or another, so the translation needs to leave these choices open, these unknowns, unpredictable. In my favorite line from the novel, one of the women points out: “Your not understanding is understanding!”

Can Xue, you have often stated that your fundamental subject matter is universal human nature, while readers have interpreted reality in Love in the New Millennium as inherently female. How do you explore the relationship between gender, reality, and human nature across your work?

CX: If the novel Love in the New Millennium were interpreted as the author setting out to write a “fundamental” novel from an “inherently” female point of view, this would doubtless minimize the significance of this kind of novel greatly. I am an author with an extremely strong sense of universal wholes, and my Nature as a whole can be endlessly divided. This means that communication is everywhere in my writing, communication that takes place in every aspect of human nature. I explore in my fiction the most rational model of the development of human nature. Therefore, when I depict the psychology of female characters, I am actually also writing about the male sex, and the converse is true. For example, some readers in my country have felt that in the new novel that will soon be published in your country, The Enchanting Lives of Others, the male characters are particularly vivid and have depth. As is widely known, the main character of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a woman, yet in my reading of this work I can sense from beginning to end that this role is Tolstoy’s own ideal form of self-expression. It is good for female perspectives to be put forward in today’s society, but only with the awakening of all women, and their obtaining liberation, can this be truly brought about.

In addition, to do this, male perspectives must develop synchronously. We need to bring up large numbers of new men who have new thoughts and can defeat traditional points of view. Seen from the situation of countries around the globe, this has not been done enough, which is also a reason that feminism is worth advocating. My recent novels depict quite a few of the ideal form of male characters, and I believe that they also are myself. Several of the male characters in Love in the New Millennium—for example, Wei Bo, Doctor Liu, the antique dealer, etc.—all have a tendency toward becoming ideal. Doctor Liu especially has an appealing maleness, as a kind of allegorical character who belongs to the world of a future utopia. Meanwhile Xiao Yuan and the female singer are the personification of enchantment. Perhaps this kind of writing is what Western intellectuals often describe as “androgyny.” There is naturally a large distance between reality and fiction, which is also the reason why we need fiction. When we learn what is best through the communication of works of literature, we will consciously seek out the perfection of the human self in ordinary life.

Given the grammatical and linguistic particularities of the Chinese language, were there challenges in conveying the literary subtleties of Love in the New Millennium in such a direct language as English?

AFW: This is a difficult question, because I think of English as being so multivalent rather than direct, making it a matter of exchanging one kind of ambiguity for another. One of the key particularities in translating from Chinese into English is that Chinese branches mostly left and English mostly right, so a translator needs to dismantle and reconstruct the sentence order. For Love in the New Millennium, though, as readers have pointed out, I sometimes leave elements of the Chinese syntax in place to provide the reader with the same sequence of elements as they appear in Can Xue’s text, when it seems impactful to do so. In this way, in a larger sense, my hope is that English will eventually be influenced by Chinese on a linguistic level as well as a literary one. This of course goes back to your question about love between Eastern and Western cultures. 

It is often said that translation is the closest form of reading. That is especially true of emotional trajectory, because the arcs traversed are inevitable, already written and unavoidable. As Can Xue just noted, a work like Love in the New Millennium has the “tight logic of emotional structure,” and I have been privileged to go on emotional journeys with these characters and with the author, since Can Xue sees these characters—Cuilan and Weibo and A Si and Long Sixiang and all the rest—as extensions of a capacious self. Importantly, translation is a joyful, or at least consistently intriguing process. There is something joyous in the transference of words, phrases, sentences, works across languages, and with Love in the New Millennium there is the added dimension of the author’s drawing from across cultures to create a world of intrigue, secret histories, and hidden passageways.

Love in the New Millennium was originally published in English in 2018. How do you think the work’s significance has changed or stayed the same over time, and what is its legacy?

CX: I think that the influence of this novel will continue to grow along with its successive translations into different countries around the globe. This is because in the novel I raise the most fundamental questions about human nature and about our Nature (the universe). Most importantly, I put forward these questions from a Chinese author’s particular perspective, which is something that hadn’t yet happened in previous world literature. What model should we as humanity use to live within Nature? Why are our hungry and thirsty bodies always isolated from our spirits? What secret passageway is there between the two of them? What form should communication between people take to better release the body’s desires and attain the realm of freedom? Is purely conceptual freedom possible? Among all manner of worldly people, what kind of love can be called beautiful love? Do we as modern people still have other ways to make ourselves transcend the self, aside from religious feeling? These questions are all raised from the author’s life experience.

I believe that their answers must resort to action and cannot only be accessed through contemplation. We are dissatisfied with the world we live in, we want to transform this world, so, we should first transform our own approach to life. In this novel I offer some “Chinese prescriptions” to supply readers with alternatives. These are prescriptions found by a long-suffering patient during the long process of an illness. These prescriptions are in fact the product of Eastern culture and Western culture combining inseparably into one. My hope is that for readers this novel can inspire the spirit and the flesh and excite the creativity to invest themselves body and mind in constructing a world that belongs to us.

Can Xue is the pseudonym of celebrated experimental writer Deng Xiaohua, born in 1953 in the city of Changsha. She is the author of Love in the New MillenniumI Live in the Slums, and Five Spice Street, among other books. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is academic director and clinical associate professor of translation at NYU School of Professional Studies. 

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