The Thrill of a Stranger6 min read

Kassy Lee unpicks Xiao Shui’s poetry in Stories from the Bohai Sea


In the West, we’re taught that Chinese people value their family and their familial relationships above all else. Confucian values are supposed to impose order on society: son obeys father, wife obeys husband, and everyone obeys the emperor. Unlike the individualism of the West, Chinese society is built on filial piety, or so the story goes. After years of social upheaval, however, how are Chinese families coming to terms with domestic migration? One answer can be found in the work of contemporary poet Xiao Shui.

Xiao Shui’s poems evoke many manifestations of failed family structures. In his poem, ‘Temple of Solitary Joy,’ a father leaves his family bankrupt after he disappears. The son and mother are forced to sell off their only house and take up residence in a hotel. Everything in the house must be sold off to the debt collector, except for the family portrait on the wall. Even this glimmer of hope is quickly dashed: “Barely two weeks had passed,” we learn, “when his mother quietly left their little hotel for her hometown.” Bereft of the ties that have traditionally kept Chinese society intact for centuries, the son is left broke, and homeless, with only his family portrait in tow.

Another instance of dislocation occurs in Xiao Shui’s poem, ‘Light on the Borderline,’ which begins with a woman who is discharged from rehab for the third time, with no sign of her family. The woman walks until she is offered a ride from a truck driver. In typical Xiao Shui fashion, although we aren’t privy to the interior emotions of this woman, we learn that she ends up marrying the truck driver and having his children. He’s the first person to provide a semblance of caring and respect, and she decides to make a family with him. At the end of the poem though, Xiao Shui warns that “the story is not so simple.”

Perhaps that’s because it’s not just the breakdown of family ties that has left the characters of Xiao Shui’s poems unmoored. Their relationships are beset by mobility and abandonment. In Xiao Shui’s poems, everyone is on their way to somewhere else. In ‘Wandering Soul,’ for example, the protagonist rides a taxi with another man. Before we know what the relationship between the two men is, the man leans in to kiss the protagonist, immediately becoming “distant again, like a stone evaporating from a stone.” We are told that the man is “finally leaving China,” headed for an airport hotel to “once more experience the thrill of a stranger.” While the original Chinese implies both the thrill of being with stranger and the thrill of being a stranger oneself, brings to mind Albert Camus’s novel of the same name. The protagonist of The Stranger, Meursault, is equally indifferent and detached as the inhabitants of Xiao Shui’s poems, and France in the 1940s was experiencing similar social upheaval as China today: the move to cities and the disappearance of the traditions that once held society together.

Likewise, in another poem, ‘Misty Room,’ the protagonist is having hotpot with friends when a unnamed figure asks ‘her’ to accompany ‘him’ to the Airport Express Line. Again, we’re unsure of the pair’s relationship, but we can infer that the protagonist is leaving for somewhere else. As the subway pulls into the station she says, “I’m leaving for Hong Kong,” as if preempting his goodbye with her own. She then brings up the down payment to their apartment, implying they are lovers, or roommates. Floating untethered through the world, they leave each other behind — an apt description, perhaps, of the individuals in Xiao Shui’s poems, where characters are referred to by personal pronouns, rather than names. Ambiguous ‘he’s and ‘she’s riddle the text, pairing unidentified individuals off into unidentified relationships. Despite furtive kisses in taxis, secret love affairs, and snowstorm rendezvous, we really never know how these people relate to one another. Love is left behind at the speed of a bullet train.

Floating isn’t always metaphorical in Xiao Shui’s poetry, however. In ‘Doomsday Phenology’ the protagonist recalls taking a ferry into town to restock the small grocery his family ran: “When her ferry reached the center of the lake, the engine switched off, we would quietly float.” To float without the noise of the engine, the speaker is free to observe the egrets on the shore and the tides slowly covering and uncovering the houses in the marsh. In ‘Fang Xiang Middle School,’ meanwhile, the speaker observes that, “the shimmering white steamships looked like they were fastened to the sea, forever stuck there.” Together these images take the act of floating as both a solution to contemporary wandering and also at the same time a trap, leaving the subjects rootless, without direction or control.

Likewise void of any identifying marks, the individuals in Xiao Shui’s poems are left featureless and emotionless. We never learn the color of ‘her’ hair and whether or not ‘he’ likes to eat hot pot or if ‘he’ is happy to wander around Tianjin or if ‘he’ was sad when his mother deserted him. In contrast, people’s occupations are identified. In particular, he mothers and fathers of this world are characterized by their jobs. Take, for example, ‘Doomsday Phenology’ where “my family lived near the reservoir, my father a lumberjack, my mother a small grocer.” We see the pattern repeat in “Wandering Soul” when “his mother, a painter, remarried a retired general.” While it might seem odd that only the older generation is the one identified by occupation in Xiao Shui’s poems, but in the context of Chinese history, it makes perfect sense. In the heyday of Maoism, one’s role in the economic system superseded family ties. Xiao Shui’s poems show the disconnect between the two generations: one that grew up in the communist past and the one growing up in the capitalist present.

What is perhaps the most striking and beautiful aspect of Xiao Shui’s poetry, is that his detailed use of place grounds us in the present. We always know, down to the road, where people are: “the seaside plaza on Second Street,” “the underground barbecue on Zhongshan Road,” or the Airport Express line near Dongzhimen. While details like this risk alienating readers, I suspect for most they pass by unnoticed. I may not know who or why this person is at the Lama Temple, but I know he’s there observing the ash falling from sticks on incense. The speaker himself may not even know why he chose to spend his 21st birthday in Tianjin, but it’s enough to know he’s out there somewhere, wandering the streets.

The specificity of place highlights the instability of the characters, allowing us to know where they are, but not who they are. Nameless and anonymous, relationships in Xiao Shui’s poems in Stories from the Bohai Sea are set against the backdrop of a world where we pass one another by, where the past is filled with abandonment, and the future holds only uncertainty. How can we live and love in the in-between?


For a further taste, read ten of the poems in Xiao Shui’s collection for yourself in our previous post, Stories from the Bohai Sea, courtesy of Spittoon Literary Magazine