By Shuang Xuetao
Translated by Jeremy Tiang
A con man in northeast China has been called a “porcelain shredder.” The term comes from an age-old trick in the antiques trade: set breakable objects on a shaky note and let them knock over by the clumsy reach of an unsuspecting shopper. The scam – you break it, you buy it – clears shelves faster than waiting for a collector with a fat wallet.
Few characters in ‘Rouge Street’, a suite of three novellas by Chinese author Shuang Xuetao, have the illusion that the hustle and bustle of everyday life becomes much better than a good confidence trick. Such is life for them on the outskirts of Shenyang, an industrial center of 7.5 million people in what is sometimes referred to as China’s Rust Belt. The region struggled during the economic restructuring in the 1990s, when the Soviet-style state-owned enterprises of the 1950s – coal, textile and steel plants – were converted. For many workers, the change was its own kind of scam, breaking the so-called iron rice bowl of lifelong employment under communism.
Shuang’s Book, his first book translated into English — and deftly by Jeremy Tiang — is named after the run-down neighborhood he knows well. He gives voice to an intriguing cast of characters left behind by China’s economic miracle. They struggle to get out of their bleak reality in search of light, efforts that sometimes have a religious overtone: a woman finds a way to repay the goodwill of a stranger who saved her father’s life during the Cultural Revolution; a young protagonist follows a madman’s prophecy and unravels a murder mystery; a washed up worker helps a young idealist to realize his dream.
Rouge Street is not a particularly polite or hopeful place. It revolves around personal vendettas and blood feuds rather than fair trials. Women and children are regularly beaten up, and their husbands and fathers are just as likely to be victims of violence as initiators. Shuang pulls nothing out of it, and the reader has much to gain by stepping into this world of sober brutality, mystery and intrigue, unexpected humor, and small but meaningful acts of personal honor.
Those pitiful deeds are the only way the powerless can balance the world for themselves. In the third novella, “Moses in the Plain,” a teacher calls out Exodus’ reprisals to comfort her student: after you, those who have not made room for you are all punished.” These words take on greater meaning at the end of the story, after the student becomes a person of interest in a serial murder case. Shuang once said that he tore a head of hair from a girl’s scalp during a child fight, and that the 10-year-old retaliated by dismantling his family’s front door at night, in the dead of winter. You are never too young or too old to fight for what is yours, his stories remind us. “Rouge Street” offers humble hopes and a fleeting sense of restored harmony, while avoiding any moral high ground or grand narrative. Rather than taking a bird’s-eye view, Shuang sets his gaze on the level of his characters.
China’s Rust Belt is a distant reality even for most Chinese. With his candid yet intriguing portraits of the Northeast, 38-year-old Shuang belongs to a small cohort of writers in the region who emerged from decades of breathless growth feeling more forced than fed. His work has captivated readers for this reason, not to mention the distinctive use of a Northeastern dialect and its colloquialism (not easy to capture in translation); the oil stench from factory floors and chimneys maintained by workers who built Mao’s China; the brutal, icy winters where tales of revenge and murder abound; the less-than-nostalgic memory of the Sino-Soviet friendship in the 1950s; and the obscuration of that past as China pushed for market reforms in the 1990s and 2000s.
Shuang explores these elements in stories of outcasts, murderers and ordinary people who, despite everything, still want meaning – and sometimes religious redemption. From start to finish his scope is close to the ground, his language sparsely emotional and unobtrusive. He never backs down. That’s why we don’t look away.