A Rare Conversation with the Cult Chinese Writer Xi Xi
"Xi Xi, Like Her Work, is Not Easy to Pin Down"
I first became entranced with Xi Xi through one of her most famous short stories, “A Girl Like Me,” about a young woman working as a make-up artist for the dead. The girl sits in a café, struggling with the uneasy love of a man who doesn’t really know her and his anticipated reaction to her secret life in the morgue. Xi Xi’s gentle subversion of what is normal and monstrous had all the mastery of an Angela Carter story.
“Oh everyone loves her,” my Chinese professor told me, adding that Xi Xi has had an almost cult-like following in the Chinese speaking world since publishing her first story in 1965.
What little of her work that is available in English (two short story collections, two novels and a recently published book of poetry Not Written Words) provides a tantalizing teaser for what lies out of reach: seven novels, 21 short story and essay collections, several screenplays (including a re-telling of West Side Story), her therapeutic memoir Elegy for a Breast. The titles for her newspaper columns alone give a sense of her enchanting range: “Movies and Me,” “My Scrawling Room,” “The Flower Column,” “Ear man,” and “How Xi Xi views soccer.” Most recently she published The Teddy Bear Chronicles, a hybrid text in which her own handcrafted bears complement myths from our real and imagined past.
It’s a dexterity of form reflected in her pen name (her real name is Zhang Yan). In Chinese xi (西) means west. Doubled up, the characters 西西, resemble the legs of a girl playing hopscotch, she says. And this reflects one of Xi Xi’s most distinctive tools; her use of “childlike perception” to zoom in on liminal, overlooked characters and to glimpse grand historical narratives afresh: she has often reinterpreted fairytales to challenge social mores, most notably Hong Kong’s disputed status and the traditional happily-ever-after narratives imposed upon young women.
Xi Xi, like her work, is not easy to pin down. She doesn’t use a computer, so our interview unfolded at analog pace: her friend delivered my emailed questions and, once she’d written her answers (using her left hand after her right was damaged during surgery for breast cancer), he typed them up and sent them back to me to be translated. Here she is:
Megan Walsh: What motivates you to write?
Xi Xi: So long as I have my pen and paper then I can write, no matter the time or place. That’s the training that years as a daily newspaper columnist give you. Because the place I live is small and cramped, I used to pull up a chair in the middle of the kitchen, put my piece of paper on it, sit on a small stool—and write like that. Whatever it takes, I’ll write. But as I’ve got older I’ve more energy in the morning for writing and I don’t write in the evenings, otherwise I can’t sleep.
MW: In your poem “What I’m Thinking of Is Not Written Words” you write “I believe that life/Will always be more transcendent than words.” You are a writer of screenplays, poetry, essays, columns, short stories, novels, as well as a maker of handicrafts. Do you have a medium with which you have the greatest affinity?
Xi Xi: Different times and different feelings require their own modes of expression. You need to figure out which method is most appropriate. It’s hard to say if there’s one with which I feel the greatest affinity, but I do know from experience that I tend least towards screenplays, I wrote them for only a short time. The problem is that it’s not something you can do alone.
If I was able to produce and direct my own scripts, they’d feel more like my own creation, but scriptwriting usually requires the help of too many other people. Writing is a solitary pursuit. If you don’t like your own company, you probably can’t be a writer. Some scripts are born out of collaborative discussions, more in line with popular culture. Literary works are completely different; you fight those battles alone. When I lost the use of my right hand, I had to switch to my left hand to write, I couldn’t use a computer, so I had to rely on the help of professional typists or I’d sometimes talk through ideas with friends and ask them to do some research for me, but when it comes to the actual writing it’s something I can only do alone.
MW: Your style has often been described as “fairytale realism”? Can you tell me a little bit about your interest in fairytales and the ways in which they can illuminate day-to-day experience?
Xi Xi: Fairytale realism only really applies to some of my novels and stories, and they are not written with children or young people in mind. Of course, as a child I read many fairytales. But it was only when I revisited them as an adult that I realized most of the famous stories by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm or, say, Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince were not necessarily written for children either; they are tragic, terrifying and often profound. As is the case in life, they’re not about the happy-ever-after marriage of the prince and princess, that’s moment real life begins.
MW: In much of your work, especially the early short stories such as “A Girl Like Me” and “The Cold” and even more subtly in poems such as “Pebble” and “Butterflies are Lightsome Things” you challenge in very different ways this fairytale notion of romantic love. Can you talk a little bit more about this?
Xi Xi: I don’t consider myself a feminist, but early on I found myself thinking a lot about the difficulties that face women. I started reading the books of Simone de Beauvoir. I was very aware that, traditionally, Chinese women are expected to get married, leave home and obey their husband. There are several sayings in Chinese to that effect (for example; “A women must make herself beautiful for her sweetheart”) and there is the set of basic moral principles specifically for women in Confucianism known as “The Three Obediences and Four Virtues” 三从四德. It is underpinned by the legacy of coverture, in which a woman is under the legal authority of her husband. Fundamentally, women have not been considered independent, complete beings, and historically marriage has been among the biggest culprits.
Many romantic novels simply strengthen this pipedream of the happy-ever-after wedding, encouraging girls to pursue love and making them believe that nothing comes above it. In the end they became their husband’s wife, the mother of children—they didn’t belong to themselves.
MW: Your work and, as you have just said, your resistance to traditional patriarchal narratives would suggest to me that you are a feminist. What do you think it is about the word “feminism” that you do not associate with?
Xi Xi: My understanding of so-called “isms” is that they have a set of comprehensive principles to which you must subscribe in word and deed. I don’t subscribe to any “isms”; I am only looking at women from my own viewpoint. For me, the only differences between men and women are biological. Women have been exploited, just as people have been discriminated against for the color of their skin or the language they speak. Women are always put into a separate mold. Here we say writers, unless she’s a woman in which case she’s a “female writer”—there are no “male writers.” I think we should be beyond talking about “men” and “women.”
MW: It has been said that a generic difference between western and eastern narratives is a protagonist’s relationship with fate. As someone who draws on such a broad range of influences, from Latin American magical realism to Japanese fiction, as well as Chinese legend and history—do you think such generalizations can be made?
Xi Xi: I’m not familiar with this notion and I’m not too sure of the grounds of this argument. It could be that Chinese tradition has been heavily restrictive, in which the concept of “fate” or the “mandate of heaven” is used as an excuse when one encounters setbacks.
Perhaps one of my friends phrased it best. He said that when Chinese people said something is “under the mandate of heaven,” it tended towards “man acts in accordance with heaven,” but in the West, the tendency has been towards heaven bending to the will of man. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.
Everything that is thought to be predetermined leads to inertia and a disregard for progress and improvement, it requires courage to transform our environment. My short stories “A Girl Like Me” and “The Cold” have different openings—the two protagonists must obey their fate, but their fate is not the same. Throughout each narrative they begin to wake up, begin to resist, until the eventually become their own master.“Everything that is thought to be predetermined leads to inertia and a disregard for progress and improvement.”
MW: Your work embraces playful, inventive and subversive points of view that draw greater attention to those on the margins, to children, to animals and even inanimate objects—is this a conscious decision? And, if so, is it a way to challenge these social and cultural mores?
Xi Xi: Yes, this is an enduring idea. You need alternatives to mainstream voices, and to give them greater parity with others.
MW: How much did your time as a primary school teacher influence you?
Xi Xi: I’ve no idea to what extent teaching has shaped things, but I’ve always got on well with my students, and they have greatly benefited me. No one student is the same, each has distinctive and valuable ideas and opinions, and they should be listened to respectfully.
One’s outlook and ideas don’t necessarily evolve or mature with age; we grow older but not necessarily wiser. Adults tend to become “worldly-wise,” they have the benefit of experience and, of course, without awareness of the dangers manifest in day-to-day life, it’s hard to know the difference between right and wrong. There is a famous saying by Zen master Qingyuan Weixin: “Mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers.” This concept represents the first realm. After he starts meditating, he realizes that the world is much more complex and, after greater contemplation, given that it is unclear how to disentangle such complexity, the phrase becomes “mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers”; the second realm. Finally, he arrives at the third realm, able to lucidly see the complex ways of the world, he returns to his original concept that “mountains are once more mountains and rivers are rivers.”
If you want to achieve this third realm, you need to go through the challenge and corrosion of the original idea that “mountains are mountains.” This doesn’t mean I’ve reached the third realm, but it’s what I’m searching for, it’s what I long for. I sometimes try to see the world with the eyes of a child, which of course is not equal to that of a child, but I believe all artists should use this state of mind to see the world.
MW: In Marvels of a Floating City you use paintings by Magritte to reimagine Hong Kong, while in The Fertile Town Chalk Circle you have rewritten an old Judge Bao story (China’s 13th century Sherlock Holmes) to explore the existential challenges Hong Kong has faced under British and Chinese rule. How much has living in Hong Kong shaped you and your writing?
Xi Xi: Marvels of a Floating City was written in 1986, a year after the Sino-British Joint Declaration (in which it was agreed between Premier Zhao Ziyang of China and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to hand sovereignty over Hong Kong back to China with effect from 1 July 1997). At that time, I’d come across a news story about a little girl called Mary who was in the middle of a custody battle that had go to an international tribunal between the Netherlands and Sweden. It struck me that we don’t believe that children have their own minds. Why hadn’t her opinion been sought?
Mary’s case can be seen as a prelude to another story of mine Fertile Town Chalk Circle in which I turned to a child’s point of view to write it, keeping in mind both the original Judge Bao play “The Chalk Circle” by Li Qianfu as well as Brecht’s reworking of it in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In the past, captured in stories like King Solomon or Judge Bao, the winner in this particular situation would always be the parents. Brecht’s breakthrough was that he gave the victory to the child’s adoptive mother rather than her biological one. I then re-wrote this classic story to imagine what the person over whom everyone else is pushing and pulling is feeling. He may be a child, but he still has something to say
MW: This year marked 20 years since “the handover” of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China. How has your city changed and what do you imagine it will be like in 20 years time?
Xi Xi: It’s impossible to say in a few sentences the spiritual and physical changes that have taken place. But I’ve continued to write for these past 20 years and would rather use literature as the medium to explore what’s happened. As far as the future goes, I’m sorry, I can’t predict that.
MW: It has been said that fairytales are the science fiction of the past. Recently you have been in conversation with your friend and fellow writer Ho Fuk Yan about sci-fi and novels—could you give me a sense of the kind of things you’re discussing? Is sci-fi also your way to reimagine or predict the future?
Sci-fi is one way of articulating the modern age and, yes, these stories make us re-imagine or predict the future, but others hold a mirror to the present. Technology is a double-edged sword these days; many stories are no longer optimistic about its future and assume a much more anxious, ominous tone.
MW: Could you tell me a little bit about your latest sci-fi story “Stardust”—what is it about? And do you share this creeping pessimism about the future? What in particular influences your outlook?
Xi Xi: A type of fine star dust from outer space falls to earth and befriends humans. As it watches us and comes to better understand us, it offers its own perspectives on humanity. It’s hard to say whether this is an optimistic or pessimistic view of things, I only want to affirm what it means to be a human being, which is what the majority of art and literature does: it shows that the subtleties of human emotion and human touch are still things that science and technology, artificial intelligence cannot achieve, even though they are used to write poetry, paint, and play chess better than humans.
MW: You wrote about your battle with breast cancer in Elegy for a Breast. In it you described yourself as “illiterate” when it came to your own body. Was this process something akin to narrative therapy or was it more a process of learning to read or translate the relationship between mind and body?
Xi Xi: I was sick for many years and, to a degree, I became used to it. I also discovered that the mind and body don’t communicate well. When the body encounters problems, it gives you a signal, it warns you, but in the past I always ignored it. Only when I became sick did I pay greater attention to it. I put the treatment process into writing, which was in itself a form of self-therapy, but I hoped that others might also benefit from it too. We have to learn how to read and understand ourselves, to achieve some balance between mind and body. In the past, especially in Chinese culture, we have put particular emphasis on the life of the mind and neglected the body.
MW: You started making handicrafts as a way to treat complications in your right hand following surgery. This includes various ornately dressed teddy bears representing different figures from legend and history, which became the impetus for your book The Teddy Bear Chronicles. In the process of re-writing the story of each character and hand-crafting each representative bear, do you think different muscles lead to different thoughts?
Xi Xi: Due to complications from surgery, my right hand deteriorated and I had to stop writing for a while. So I learnt to make puppets, teddy bears, and monkeys instead. Of course they aren’t comparable to those made by real artisans, but the process enabled me to still work with my ideas. Sometimes you pick up a pen, at other times it’s a piece of cloth or mohair.
In the course of life, one encounters twists and turns, setbacks, the biggest one being illness. I lost hope. But you can’t despair, you mustn’t be afraid, there is always a way forward—I still have my left hand to write, and in ten years it’s helped me to write a lot of stories. I’m just slower than I used to be. Whether or not this has produced different thoughts, I don’t know. If it has it’s probably less to do with my physiological difficulties and more to do with my age.
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