Story Club

Discussion: Pain14 min read

Chen Xiwo answers questions on his agonizing story


Editor’s note: In January we republished the story ‘Pain’ by controversial Chinese writer Chen Xiwo. If you haven’t read this brilliant and thought-provoking short story already, we advise you do so now, as below Chen answers questions from readers and our editorial team, alongside the story’s translator Nicky Harman and its publisher Harvey Thomlinson. If you’re curious to read more, buy Chen’s collection in translation, The Book of Sins. – Alec Ash


Brian L. Hayes asks: Although the protagonist encounters numerous types of pain – physical pain, humiliation, the passing of her father – it is her inability to find even a single confidant that is the most soul-crushing. I’m not sure if that is Chen’s way of making a general statement about morality in modern Chinese society: the idea that everybody is in it for themselves, and people don’t really care for and understand each other? Or perhaps everybody is so busy that they just fix problems instead of understanding the underlying causes.

Chen Xiwo: Interpersonal relations matter in China. Modernity’s break with tradition was incomplete and old ways persist, so China is still a society based on interpersonal relations. That’s ‘interpersonal’ and not ‘human’ relations. Human relations are intimate, while interpersonal relations are instrumental. This is one root of China’s current moral crisis, which is far from just a modern malaise. Even where there’s love, there’s a dearth of deep communication. Did you notice that my protagonist is an only child? China’s lack of mutual understanding was made more acute by the one-child policy.

Nicky Harman: I’m struggling to see this story as any kind of allegory for society. To me, it’s inward-looking: a forensic examination of mental and physical pain and neurosis in one girl/woman. It’s terribly painful to read because it speaks to common human experiences, but I just can’t see it as social commentary. Still, I’m willing to re-think that.

Nick Stember asks: While the story is obviously set in China, and many parts speak to the specific concerns of a Chinese audience, do you also see it speaking to readers outside of China? (For my part, as an American, I’m thinking about opiate abuse, and the probably universal experience of feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, not measuring up).

Chen Xiwo: After the story’s translation, a few foreign readers mentioned to me that it expressed their pain and anxieties. This made me glad. Lu Xun’s short story ‘The True Story of Ah Q’ created a [character] ‘type.’ In China everyone maintains that the character of Q is typically Chinese, but when a French version came out, Romain Rolland said that Q was also French. My view is that a good literary work shouldn’t be limited by territoriality (usually the writer’s own country) but should shed light on universal concerns and our common human condition.

Nicky Harman: It spoke to me as a woman, and as a human being. In fact it completely spooked me. What got to me more than anything else was the fact that while the girl is genuinely unhappy and in pain, she also comes across as incredibly manipulative. You’re sympathising genuinely with her and then this: “‘I’m in pain!’ I cried. ‘Where?’ ‘Everywhere!’ Of course, I wasn’t in any pain at all. I was just making it up.” There’s nothing ‘Chinese’ about this character: she is simply a human being with all the usual human complexities. Chen is very skilfull in portraying her; it’s one of the aspects of his writing I most admire. But the prohibitions on prescribing opioids in China is country-specific and will, I think, surprise many readers.

Brian L. Hayes asks: Many people in the speaker’s position turn to religion as a way to cope. It is striking that religion is absent from this story. Is this Chen’s way of saying that Chinese society has lost spirituality?

Chen Xiwo: We shouldn’t be afraid to say that Chinese spiritual life is atheistic. Many Chinese practice Buddhism, but they do so only because they seek Buddha’s intercession, and in return they promise their gratitude. That’s how it went when I passed the university entrance exam. Afterwards, I set out a few joss sticks, paper money, and wine and food as tribute. I didn’t dare not to, for fear of Buddha’s reprisal. My dues paid, it was done, and I was done with Buddha. Our spirituality is such that we turn to God in times of hardship, but we do not become followers. God is transactional. Many problems in Chinese society may be ascribed to a lack of faith; the Chinese soul is a muddle.

Steve Bewcyk asks: Is this story an allegory for modern Chinese history? The mother and father remind me of the Qing dynasty era, with the father dying taking opiates, and the mother standing in the ruins of the Summer Palace. Meanwhile the child wants to be happy but is “in pain ever since I was born.” Is Chen trying to say China is a crazy b!tch with f**ked up parents?

Chen Xiwo: The story is basically an allegory. As a writer always tormented by his nation’s plight, my work can’t be a mere rendering of everyday life, a faithful telling of an ordinary China story. My ‘China story’ has historical symbolism. The Chinese nation has endured calamities, and met near catastrophe, while always dreaming of rising from the ruins. It feels like there is an urgency about national rejuvenation that reaches the level of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and makes it hard for us to develop sanely from generation to generation.

“The Chinese soul is a muddle”

Alec Ash asks: This is one of few stories by you with a female protagonist. Would it have been just as effective if it were a boy not a girl, or is there something about the nature of the pain (period pain is mentioned, for one) or the narrative intent that makes it gender specific?

Chen Xiwo: At the start, I thought about the question of the narrator’s sex. Usually – being a man myself – it seems apt for me to choose a male narrator or lead. Moreover, I live with pain almost constantly: deep into all kinds of torment, about which I can write penetratingly. Finally, though, I came down on the side of a female narrator. This created problems for myself; I realised that very clearly. Challenges, however, are what a writer must seek. The story is allegorical, and the pain is not particular but generalized. The narrator’s unceasing venting embodies my belief that women’s lives are more painful than men’s, and women have the right to complain. Her sensitivity had writerly advantages, in that I could delineate her pain more acutely. Women also have more patience, but patience isn’t numbness. Because you can put up with pain it doesn’t mean that you don’t suffer. The sensitive must endure, and this is what I wanted to convey.

Nicky Harman: I think it would be a very different story if the protagonist was male. Obsessing about one’s body in adolescence is common to both genders, but manifests itself in completely different ways. Think of Sue Townsend’s book The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, although Adrian Mole is comic rather than tragic. I know ‘Pain’ follows the protagonist into adulthood, but it’s like she never grows up; she stays adolescent forever.

Anne Henochowicz asks: The narrator’s pretense at pain when she calls on her father’s assistant throws into question all of her horrific experiences prior to that point. Yet I believe her – if anything, at the moment she’s acting she just doesn’t realize the agony she lives with constantly. How did this anti-hero form in your mind and develop on the page?

Chen Xiwo: I’ve been around long enough to know that anything solemn becomes a joke. When I read Milan Kundera, he could have been writing about me. I no longer believe anything is solemn in this world, and heroes are solemn stuff. Supposed heroes are a romantic era delusion – back then people believed in ideals, but idealism is bust. Modernism refutes traditional values but simply to refute is insufficient. I perceive the overarching absurdity of a world completely without reason. Take pain: it may be rational to feel it, but to feel pain and at the same time to realise its performative aspects, is like a regression from modernity. Regression is a form of rebellion, but groundless rebellion, because we are cheating ourselves. With this story, only when I wrote about pain as performance did I feel satisfied. As a Chinese person I live amid a tumult of tradition, modernism and post-modernism, a ferment of groundless rebellion. Thanks to the illogicality of Chinese, I can express this paradox.

Steve Bewcyk asks: Who are your biggest literary influences, and how did they influence you? Was this story inspired by any other particular writer or work?

Chen XiwoDostoyevski and Kafka are my favourites. Dostoyevski is said to be a very religious writer, and [in his lecture on Crime and Punishment] Nabokov uses a moralist’s standpoint to critique the scene from ‘Crime and Punishment’ of Raskolnikov and Sonia reading the bible together. These moral pariahs, a murderer and a prostitute, wouldn’t have much hope of going to heaven. But he missed how Dostoeyski was using an absurd piety to make god a mere figurehead. Dostoyevski is really showing an impossibility, and this kind of writer is highly appealing to me.

Kafka has a short story called ‘A Hunger Artist’ which also deals with a similar theme, as does Chinese writer Lu Xun’s early work ‘Weeds’. Such works are masterpieces. Of course to say they influenced me is not to say that they shaped my gloomy world view. I was a gloomy type from an early age, and as soon as I started writing it was like this, with no need for any other writer’s influence. For me it is natural, and I wouldn’t know how to write any other way. In the 1970s, ‘scar’ literature was popular in China; earnest condemnations of the cultural revolution; but even back then I wrote a novel much like ‘Pain’; of course it couldn’t be published, and there were those who said I couldn’t write at all; that was the verdict, but I just kept on in that vein all the way to today. With this story, there was no specific inspiration except that I was tortured by physical pain, and using that as a link to the pain of our times, and bringing out that symbolism.

“I was a gloomy type from an early age”

Nick Stember asks Chen Xiwo: Your story juxtaposes general anxieties (about material possessions and social status) with the specific anxieties of the protagonist as she goes through puberty. While the protagonist is punished for resorting to drugs to treat the latter, how does “city-building, share-trading, property-holding, piano-playing, English classes, Peking opera classes, the internet economy and the virtual world” address – or fail to address – the former?

Chen Xiwo: The story links an individual’s personal problems with common social problems, making personal anxieties an allegory for general ones. ‘Pain’ doesn’t only address physical problems, but moral and spiritual ones: spiritual pains, or rather misgivings, are not merely anxieties about material wealth or social status, but encompass anxieties around prosperity. My novels rarely describe poverty. Like Mo Yan, I hope to get beyond that to more intrinsic issues, which are much more important to a China which has reached a certain level of development. But these anxieties are all impossible to resolve, and it’s not for a novelist to find answers. I am very pessimistic. To a large extent, human history is a story of struggle, but it’s like wearing handcuffs; the more we struggle, the tighter the cuffs.

There is a parable about a cat that was made to eat chili peppers. It was once very popular in China, because people vented their helplessness and despair through ridicule. The cat doesn’t eat the peppers, and so people stuffed them in its arse. It felt pain, which it relieved by licking its arse, with the result that the pepper spread – but it must keep licking, because its arse hurt. The more it hurt the more it licked; the more it licked, the more it felt pain.

Anne Henochowicz asks Nicky Harman: Your translation has a wonderful rhythm to it that gives a sense of urgency to the narrator’s story. Her tirades against the world are punctuated by single words: “I was just in pain. Pain. Pure pain!” and “Pethidine!” What is the rhythm of the original story? How have you captured that here, and how much of it did you have to let go?

Nicky Harman: The urgency is there in the original. I almost feel like I didn’t add anything, I just got carried along by it. Of course, it wasn’t quite as easy as that. But why would one translate the sentence, “我只是疼!疼!纯粹的疼!” as anything other than “I was just in pain. Pain. Pure pain!”? I was also helped by the alliteration between “Pain!” and “Pethedine,” an alliteration that didn’t exist in the Chinese (‘Pethidine’ is the UK name for ‘Dolantin’). In a way, my task was relatively easy: the rhythms were already there in the Chinese, and the alliteration happened serendipitously. That said, I regard dialogue (or in this case, interior monologue) as a huge challenge. The words must sound natural, like someone has actually said, or thought, them. So I always pay attention to that aspect of translating.

Alec Ash asks Harvey Thomlinson: You have been instrumental in publishing Chen Xiwo in English. But how has his work been received in China? Which stories are published, which ones are banned, and has he suffered any repercussions for his controversial subject matter and the social criticism implicit in his short stories?

Harvey Thomlinson: Chen recently spoke out about the kindergarten scandal – which epitomizes the unspoken moral ugliness at the heart of society that he feels driven to call out – and as a result his works have been banned, his university has been ordered to suspend him, and he is under investigation, which could have life-changing consequences. Those repercussions, though, may be insignificant compared with the spiritual price he pays for his unflinching focus on the darkness of life. He’s one of those writers who sees the skull beneath the skin. For many years he went unpublished.

Even when, in the early 2000s, he began to win recognition and prizes, his work divided opinion due to its supposed ‘anti-humanism’ and a preoccupation with dark sexuality. In the China context his pessimistic line of metaphysics is not particularly common but perhaps it shows the influence of Japan, where he read a lot of books after his parents got him out of China in 1989. If you want a way into his work that doesn’t involve incest – the theme of his most notorious novella ‘I Love My Mum’ – I would recommend ‘Going to Heaven,’ a story of a village undertaker’s son which evokes rural Chinese life with every bit as much nuanced power as a Mo Yan or Su Tong, but infused with Chen’s distinctive outlook. Or if reading Chinese is an option try ‘My Mother’, which starts with a woman setting out to kill her mother in a hospital bed. This sounds sensationalist but what really grips is Chen’s mature perception in rendering the details of the mother-daughter relationship. That story crops up in 2014 collection of which ‘Pain’ is the titular item, and a pure expression of his world view. ∎

Header: The Torment of Saint Anthony, by Michelangelo, a free-use image from Wikipedia.