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Five Spice Street by Can Xue

Five Spice Street tells the story of a street in an unnamed city whose inhabitants speculate on the life of a mysterious Madam X. The novel interweaves their endless suppositions into a work that is at once political parable and surreal fantasia. Some think X is 50 years old; others that she is 22. Some believe she has occult powers and has thereby enslaved the young men of the street; others think she is a clever trickster playing mind games with the common people. Who is Madam X? How has she brought the good people of Five Spice Street to their knees either in worship or in exasperation? The unknown narrator takes no sides in the endlessinterplay of visions, arguments, and opinions. The investigation rages, as the street becomes a Walpurgisnacht of speculations, fantasies, and prejudices. Madam X is a vehicle whereby the people bare their souls, through whom they reveal themselves even as they try to penetrate the mystery of her extraordinary powers.

Five Spice Street is one of the most astonishing novels of the past twenty years. Exploring the collective consciousness of this little street of ordinary people, Can Xue penetrates the deepest existential anxieties of the present day—whether in China or in the West—where the inevitable impermanence of identity struggles with the narrative within which identity must compose itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300167962
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/24/2012
Series: Margellos World Republic of Letters Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,179,591
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, author of many novels and short works of fiction in Chinese. She lives in Beijing.

Read an Excerpt

Five Spice Street



Copyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12227-5

Chapter One


When it comes to Madam X's age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person's guess is as good as another's. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she's about fifty (for now, let's fix it at fifty); at the other, she's twenty-two.

The one who says she's about fifty is a much-admired forty-five-year-old widow, plump and pretty. Her husband died years ago. It's said that she often sees Madam X making herself up in her room, applying "powder an inch thick" that "completely masks the wrinkles in her neck"-a neck "almost without flesh." What is the widow's vantage point for spying? She indignantly "refuses to divulge it." The writer would like to interject something about this lovely widow. She's classy, a cut above others, and plays a pivotal role in this story. She's influenced the writer his whole life, and he, in turn, has always paid her special respect.

The one who says Madam X is twenty-two is himself twenty-two. In his words, one foggy morning, he "chanced to meet" Madam X by a well; "unexpectedly, she gave him a winsome smile," "revealing a mouthful of white teeth." And from the "uninhibited melody" of her laughter, "the sturdiness" of her teeth, the "sexiness" of her appearance,and various other factors, he concluded that Madam X couldn't be a day over twenty-two. This guy works in a factory that produces coal briquettes, and that's what he said to a neighbor as he squatted in the public toilet after getting off work and washing away the coal dust. "Hmmm," the neighbor wondered. On closer examination, why did he say precisely twenty-two, and not twenty-one or twenty-three? Neighbors see each other all the time, so why hide behind this "chance meeting"? There must be something shameful. Not to mention words that always mean trouble, like "foggy" and "sexiness." Clearly, we must discount much of what he said.

And then there are the twenty-six other opinions, each with some validity. One respectable middle-aged man is worth mentioning. He's a good, loyal friend of Madam X's husband. Whenever someone mentions his good friend's wife, he pulls at the person's sleeve and solemnly proclaims that Madam X is thirty-five, because he's "seen her ID card with his own eyes" (X's family were outsiders on Five Spice Street). His voice would quaver. He would grow livid, but no one appreciated his chivalry. Instead, they thought he was "poking his nose into other people's business"; he was a "hypocrite"; maybe he had even "tasted the sugarplum as well." The man "grew thinner by the day" from this vilification. Dyspepsia gave him bad breath. The one who divulged this was the widow's good friend, a graceful and charming forty-eight-year-old woman.

Once at twilight, these longtime doubts and suspicions seemed to reach a resolution, but it was short-lived. In fact, there were two resolutions. The crowd was split into contending factions. No conclusion could be reached.

It was dusk on a sultry summer day. After dinner, everyone was sitting out on the street to enjoy the cool breeze when suddenly "two balls of white light," like meteors, streamed in the air and Madam X's white silk skirt that "shone all through with light" flashed in front of them. The little boy was also dressed in white, but no one could tell what the material was. When their astonishment subsided, people clamored. The faction of young and middle-aged men led by the young coal worker asserted that Madam X was about twenty-eight. And judging from her "graceful, slender" figure, the "smooth softness" of her arms and legs, and various other factors, they decided that indeed she was "even younger." But the crowd of young and middle-aged women led by the much-admired widow asserted that Madam X was "more than forty-five." Through close inspection, they discovered that her neck had been disguised. Indeed, in several places there were "pores as large as grains of rice" and "layer upon layer of flabby skin." They accused the men of "shamelessly peeking under the woman's skirt." Enlightened, the men inquired with great delight into the particulars of the women's "close inspection." The commotion went on for about two hours. Madam X's husband's good friend constituted a faction by himself: he took on the whole crowd, and several athletic young men knocked him to the ground. He "burst into tears." When it was over, the widow hopped onto a stone table and, thrusting out her full breasts, shouted that she wanted "to uphold the values of traditional aesthetics."

Madam X's age became a major issue on our street. When anyone left a group, he stood his own ground, and so at least twenty-eight different views flourished. No one wanted to argue continuously anymore. Madam X's husband, a thirty-eight-year-old stud, also-without rhyme or reason-simply accepted the young coal worker's view that his wife was twenty-two and not thirty-five, as his good friend had insisted on the basis of her ID card. Weighed down by habit and inertia, he was always tender and affectionate toward his wife. It's said that from the very beginning he "couldn't see a single blemish in her." Consequently, we judged his opinion the most unbelievable, because "it seemed that he didn't use his eyes to look at the truth; he let his imagination run wild. His head was filled with optimism." (These are the widow's words; the facts narrated later bear out the brilliance of her perception.)

The mystery of Madam X's age wasn't resolved, and later, more and more doubts arose. The day after hearing that Madam X and a certain Mr. Q, an office clerk, were involved in a furtive, sneaky way, the much-admired widow secretly entered her room and stole a look at her ID card. She noticed that the column with her age had been artfully altered, but the evidence left by the alteration not only confirmed the widow's estimate, it "proved it precisely." At the same time, another of X's husband's friends-a young man with sideburns -declared that Madam X wasn't thirty-five, but thirty-two, because he and Madam X had been born in the same year and had been childhood sweethearts. Their parents had even considered betrothing them. As for X, in her youth, she had always been shy and tender with him. It was only because he hadn't yet understood male-female relationships that he hadn't allowed their relationship to develop. How could X suddenly have become three years older than he? Several other guys also tried to muddy the waters. Apart from the twenty-eight opinions already noted, one said she was thirty-seven and a half, another said forty-six and a half, another said twenty-nine and a half, and the last claimed twenty-six and a half. With the addition of a half-year's difference, the issue became very profound and philosophical.

Though the matter remains unresolved, let's take her husband's good friend's investigation into her ID card and postulate that she's thirty-five. This is expedient for a number of reasons: we don't have to consider her a young girl (after all, her son is already six years old), nor do we have to consider her an older woman (even though some, like the widow, calculate she was about fifty, which didn't necessarily mean that she was an "older" woman-a subtle difference. The widow is precise and knows the nuances of language). As for her husband, he's free to think she's twenty-two if he likes. No one has the right to interfere. We can only wait for him to "wake up" on his own (the widow's words). The stream of drivel from the young coal worker and the guys who deliberately muddied the waters is worth even less. They were merely satisfying their own needs without offering an ounce of sincerity.

The controversy about her age was part of a generally vague and contradictory image of Madam X. She is a middle-aged woman, very thin, with white teeth, a neck that's either slender or flabby, skin that's either smooth or rough, a voice that's either melodious or wild, and a body that's either sexy or devoid of sex. When this obscure image takes us by surprise and "discloses its true face," everything unfathomable becomes clear, but only for an instant. Let's put it aside for now.

We can't approve of her husband's impression, because it raises the most questions. Although he's tall and sturdy, and knows how to handle himself around other people, when talk turns to his wife he acts in a feminine, even servile way. Indeed, when he talks, he suddenly becomes stupefied, as if having a seizure. He forgets the thread of the conversation and suggests that you play "hopscotch" with him. Right away he finds some chalk to draw a grid on the ground. If you refuse, he just forgets about you and throws himself into hopscotch.

The image of Madam X's adulterer (that's the way everyone referred to Mr. Q) was the most shocking of all. Out of a sense of duty, the much-admired widow had torn open a letter of his to Madam X. The letter revealed that the first time Mr. Q looked at X's face, he saw only one immense continuously flickering saffron-colored eyeball. Then he swooned and couldn't see a thing. To the very end of the scandal, he never got a good look at Madam X. He didn't because he couldn't. When Madam X was in front of him, all he could see was one saffron-colored eyeball, and when that eyeball flickered, hot tears welled up in his eyes. How could he see clearly? Perhaps his letter was deliberately mystifying, designed to win favor with Madam X's odd, shadowy mentality. Maybe it was code or double-talk.

The odd thing is that Madam X's confession echoed his, and it preceded their acquaintance. (This information is supplied by Madam X's colleague. Madam X loved unburdening herself in nonsensical ways and could hold nothing back. She was uninhibited with this woman, whose temperament was diametrically opposed to hers. If it had been possible, she would have "unburdened herself to the whole world.") Back then, she sat in her gloomy room, happily preening and boasting, "The reason my eyeballs are so exceptional is that I pay them close attention. I'm not kidding. I observe them constantly in a mirror-even when walking, I always carry a small round mirror and constantly take it out for a look. I'd really love to see what they're like when I'm sleeping. It's impossible, but I just wonder what they're up to. What is so hard at work behind these lenses? I've done research on their excretions. I have a microscope, which I bought especially for this purpose. I'm simply fascinated and have made a lot of headway. I've also collected some mirrors for my little darling Bao (note: her only son). When he gets a little older, I want to get him interested in his own eyeballs. Everyone says that eyes are windows to the soul, but no one thinks about this window. They forget this window and let it collect dust until it's changed beyond recognition." She blinked as she talked, and kept raising her eyebrows for emphasis.

Although she stressed this often, her colleague saw no proof of her supernatural ability, nor did anyone else on the whole of Five Spice Street-including her husband, who cherished his wife very much. Was Mr. Q the only person who recognized Madam X's supernatural power? Maybe this isn't exactly right, because the world is a lot larger than Five Spice Street. Moreover, judging by the coal worker's statement, didn't X have a certain indefinable "sex appeal"? Who could guarantee that men outside Five Spice Street wouldn't notice her supernatural sexual power when smitten by her? How could you dismiss this possibility just because her husband didn't see it?

Or-another take on it: we certainly aren't suggesting that Mr. Q's perception of Madam X's supernatural power amounts to understanding her completely and profoundly. Rather, he understands her only superficially, in a one-dimensional way. Q has one major failing: he doesn't like to inquire into another person's background and never asks about anyone's business. He prefers to be alone, where he can speak his thoughts out loud and fancy himself a passionate lover. Mr. Q and Madam X became acquainted by chance and later consorted with each other for six months, but he's never known her real age. In this respect, Mr. Q isn't like Madam X's husband, who assumes she's twenty-two, but probably is closer to the truth in postulating that she's twenty-eight or twenty-nine. Of course, this is partly out of selfishness and desire, but we won't go into this for the moment.

Speaking of Mr. Q's superficial understanding of Madam X and the absurdity of their relationship, we can illustrate this with a dialogue supplied by Madam X's colleague.

X: I don't have to look for you intentionally. You'll surely come. (X playfully affected a drowsy expression.)

Q: Through the crowds of people, I've always walked toward your eyes. I'm confused and muddled, seeing nothing, including you. (Q was acting like an idiot, like a dolt.)

X: We'll meet each other every Wednesday at a certain intersection. Even if we wanted to avoid this, we couldn't.

Q: Perhaps I'll turn into a long-tailed pheasant; then I'll be able to perch on a high tree limb.

The colleague reinforced this dialogue with the following information: every time they met, their talk seemed a continuation of their last conversation; it was also completely meaningless nonsense, always on the same topic. What's more, each time, neither greeted the other, as if they were continuing their previous encounter. But when they talked, it was as if-apart from crazy talk-anything else (for example, greetings, introductions, remarks about the things around them) was superfluous, discordant. At this point, the colleague covered half her mouth and said in a thin voice, "Is this a sort of 'concealed person'-'The Invisible'?" With that, her hair stood on end, and she didn't dare continue.

As for Mr. Q's looks, although there aren't as many opinions about it as about Madam X's age, opinions do differ here on Five Spice Street. We need to stress a little something: our people don't really like talking about a man's appearance, because they embrace the proverb: There's no such thing as an ugly man. So what does Mr. Q look like? All we have to rely on is the odd adjective and a few unintentional changes in the tone of people's conversations.

The first to produce an impression of Mr. Q's looks was the widow's forty-eight-year-old friend. She thought "there was nothing remarkable" about Mr. Q (she curled her lip and spat). She "couldn't even remember what he looked like," "he seemed to be a big dumb guy," "anyhow, he couldn't be more ordinary." After saying this, she felt she'd lost some dignity and immediately changed the subject. She began talking of the miraculous effects of qigong. As she spoke, she tossed her head, as if to rid her mind of "disturbing thoughts."

On the surface, the women of Five Spice Street had no interest in Mr. Q's looks, never mind observing him in detail. If you put the question to them directly, they would answer in three words: he is ugly. Did the women of Five Spice Street never make eye contact with Mr. Q? Actually, that's not the case. After all, those adjectives and the strange tone of voice used to describe him were almost all produced by these women. Speaking of Q, they hedged and evaded, talking lightly and indirectly. Doesn't this show tremendous interest and sensitivity? Sometimes they affected indifference. One might raise the topic, circle all around it, and then return to sounding out a second person so that this second person would bring up what the first had wanted to say. Thus, they enjoyed a sense of satisfaction.

All of Five Spice Street's women were masters of this conversational art. For example, the widow's female friend, after talking at length about qigong, touched on ethnography, leading to a line from a folk song: "Southern Women and Northern Men." When the other person fully understood this line, she would shift the topic from northern men to a man of big stature. Then, both would come around to the issue of Q's looks. Through suggestive language they bounced this topic back and forth until dark, when each happily exclaimed, "I had a really good time today!"


Excerpted from Five Spice Street by CAN XUE Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preliminaries 1 Madam X's Age and Mr. Q's Looks....................3
2 Madam X's Occupations....................20
3 Madam X's and the Widow's Differing Opinions about "Sex"....................48
4 Mr. Q and His Family....................68
5 The Failure of Reeducation....................77
6 Madam X Talks Abstractly of Her Experiences with Men....................85
The Way Things Are Done 1 A Few Opinions about the Story's Beginning....................99
2 Some Implications....................151
3 The Tails' Confessions....................187
4 Mr. Q's Character....................196
5 Madam X Is Up a Creek....................211
6 Who Made the First Move?....................216
7 How to Wrap Up All the Issues Left Hanging....................244
8 The Rationality of the Widow's Historical Contribution and Status....................270
9 The Vague Positions of Mr. Q and Madam X's Husband....................283
10 How We Reversed the Negative and Elected Madam X Our Representative....................305
11 Madam X's Steps Are Buoyant; On Broad Five Spice Street, She Walks toward Tomorrow....................319

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