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Five Spice Street

Five Spice Street

CAN XUE
KAREN GERNANT
CHEN SEPING
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1np918
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  • Book Info
    Five Spice Street
    Book Description:

    Five Spice Streettells 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 endless interplay 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 whomtheyreveal themselves even as they try to penetrate the mystery of her extraordinary powers.

    Five Spice Streetis 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14248-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preliminaries

    • 1 MADAM X’S AGE AND MR. Q’S LOOKS
      (pp. 3-19)

      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...

    • 2 MADAM X’S OCCUPATIONS
      (pp. 20-47)

      Madam X and her husband manage a small snack shop located on the corner. They sell sautéed broad beans, fried broad beans, five spice melon seeds, plain melon seeds, sautéed peanuts, fried peanuts, and so on. They employ no workers. Every day the husband goes somewhere and hauls back fresh broad beans, peanuts, and melon seeds. Then they wash, cook, and sell them. Generally, they’re extremely busy, and all year long, aromas waft from this corner. We’ve mentioned that Madam X and her family are outsiders. Before coming here, what kind of work did they do? They never want to...

    • 3 MADAM X’S AND THE WIDOW’S DIFFERING OPINIONS ABOUT “SEX”
      (pp. 48-67)

      It seems we’ve hinted that the much-admired widow was both frigid and chaste. However, don’t think that just because of this, she was some sexless saint. In fact, we’d better state just the opposite. She herself thinks so. She’s always been confident about this, and with good reason. First, there’s her figure. In the eyes of male connoisseurs, it’s “steamy hot.” Her breasts and buttocks are “uncommonly ample” and “provocative.” (These were a certain middle-aged man’s words, which the widow had noted down.) She was so innately stunning that even a dry stick would sense its male lust. (Of course,...

    • 4 MR. Q AND HIS FAMILY
      (pp. 68-76)

      Below a hill in the suburbs was a row of red brick bungalows: our Mr. Q and his wife and two sons lived in a small flat here. Mr. Q and his wife were both about thirty-eight or thirty-nine years old (in private, they adamantly considered themselves forty-five, having already seen everything there was to see in the world). They were affable and gentle—easy to be around. They both worked in government offices. After they returned home from an exhausting day, their tiredness was swept away by their lively sons (ages nine and eleven), who threw themselves at them....

    • 5 THE FAILURE OF REEDUCATION
      (pp. 77-84)

      One noon in the second year of Madam X’s “dispel boredom” movement, there was a small get-together at the lame woman’s home. More than a dozen charming, graceful women attended. This meeting wasn’t convened by anyone but was brought about by telepathy: it was a “coincidence.” These women were forthright like “feminists.” As soon as they sat down in the room, each began cursing someone. Because they were on the same wave length, they were doubly stimulated—they shared a bitter hatred of the enemy and fought in high spirits, all of them eager and determined to throw all their...

    • 6 MADAM X TALKS ABSTRACTLY OF HER EXPERIENCES WITH MEN
      (pp. 85-96)

      In her gloomy room, Madam X frequently talked about her experiences with men, mainly to her younger sister and the female colleague. It was her favorite topic. At such times, she looked as hesitant as a little child. Her voice was uncertain and her gestures feeble. She kept looking around, as if worried that someone would sneak in like a shadow. Nevertheless, according to what the two listeners leaked, what she said was shameless and crude. She could talk for a long time about each part of her ideal man’s body (of course such a person didn’t exist; according to...

  4. The Way Things Are Done

    • 1 A FEW OPINIONS ABOUT THE STORY’S BEGINNING
      (pp. 99-150)

      If an outsider asked ordinary people on Five Spice Street for details about this story, he might be surprised to learn that they wouldn’t even acknowledge there was any story. None would be willing to waste their breath on it. They’re all too busy, too preoccupied. If an outsider persisted, they’d fly into a rage, deeply insulted.

      “We all have a lot to do and can’t be bothered with this trivia. If you want to discuss techniques like developing color film or the relationship between the Constitution and the people—that’s something else: we have to get to the theoretical...

    • 2 SOME IMPLICATIONS
      (pp. 151-186)

      Now we are ready to enter the core of the story. We couldn’t objectively narrate this in a routine way: Traditional styles wouldn’t work; we had to innovate. Otherwise, people might start fighting for position. The walls might get damaged and the houses collapse. They might do anything. Or—who knows?—they might start quacking in unison like ducks, so no one could hear anyone else—quack from morning to night, and from night to morning, until you’d go crazy and give up. Over a long period, the furtive personal relationship between X and Q had become the spiritual sustenance...

    • 3 THE TAILS’ CONFESSIONS
      (pp. 187-195)

      Tail A: I’m also highly intelligent and cultured. I’m not badtempered, and I’m very forbearing. In general, no matter the circumstances, I don’t alter my opinions. But this was obscene (I say obscene, because something was covered up behind it). I was hit by a deathblow and I was duped; my self-confidence wavered. What kind of person am I? Am I a useless idler who’s been following a decent couple every evening just to create rumors and then finally has gotten nothing? Are they really so decent? Could it be that I’ve tailed them night after night just to prove...

    • 4 MR. Q’S CHARACTER
      (pp. 196-210)

      Preoccupied by the massive surveillance of Madam X and her family, we had ignored Mr. Q. His nerves showed signs of cracking. As time went on he became an invalid. A strong woman in our community who hadn’t participated in the tailing launched her own creative initiative. After days and nights of observing and re-flecting, she told us: two snakes were scrambling for control of Mr. Q’s body, which resulted in his becoming two completely different persons—one by day, one by night.

      One day, she hid in the bushes beside the road and saw Mr. Q leave his home....

    • 5 MADAM X IS UP A CREEK
      (pp. 211-215)

      Madam X sat in her gloomy room, carefully analyzing future developments and possibilities. She concluded that she was standing on a huge, creaking sheet of thin ice. A crack was widening. She was finished. Her sister said she could fly. If so, why didn’t she brush all of this off and leap into the air?

      “Ah, I can’t. You have no idea how much I’ve been drawn to all these things. I cared about nothing else.” As she said this, she pointed at her toes, indicating that her feet were stuck to the ice. “There’s nothing I can do.” It...

    • 6 WHO MADE THE FIRST MOVE?
      (pp. 216-243)

      After Madam X and Mr. Q snuck undetected into the dark granary, we imagined what happened next. There’s just one major unanswered question: who took the offensive—that is, who made the first move?

      At the meeting in the dark room, our elites approached this sensitive subject from three different perspectives. After vehement debate, the group finally agreed with the first speaker. They reached their conclusion through a systematic analysis based on comparative studies in the context of a grand historical vision. Several major scholars and sociologists, with important roles in Five Spice Street’s ideological realm, took part. The third...

    • 7 HOW TO WRAP UP ALL THE ISSUES LEFT HANGING
      (pp. 244-269)

      Having brought the story to this point, the writer has left innumerable issues hanging. The story cannot end here. Everyone on Five Spice Street knows it’s not over. So the writer must do his best to clarify the mess piece by piece. It has no beginning (“The Beginning” is merely an assumption), and has no ending, either. If earth and sun collide, the story may end but will no doubt begin again on another planet. The writer’s task is like boring into the maze of a gigantic anthill, but he cannot shirk it. He knows through experience that only the...

    • 8 THE RATIONALITY OF THE WIDOW’S HISTORICAL CONTRIBUTION AND STATUS
      (pp. 270-282)

      Throughout the story of our Five Spice Street, the widow has been a glittering presence, and we want to sum up her historical contributions and discuss her character.

      Thus far, we have described only her external image and physique, as well as the aspects of her character that derive from them. Our impression seems to be: her special stature and essence are responsible for her important position on Five Spice Street. This “specialness,” the source of her contributions, consists of her provocative sexual power, without which her contributions (rated almost as highly as those of the geniuses) would most likely...

    • 9 THE VAGUE POSITIONS OF MR. Q AND MADAM X’S HUSBAND
      (pp. 283-304)

      By now, we “have a good general idea” of Madam X. We’ve drawn the diagram of the maze from her birthplace to the valley or hillside where she is destined to go in the future. Though phantasmagoric, she can’t deviate much from the diagram.

      However, she isn’t our biggest problem. Rather, it’s the two who stick to her like shadows—Q and her husband. After further thought, we realized that these two are even more shadowy than Madam X. They are mere shadows—X’s shadows, two parasitic vines, parasites on X’s large, rootless tree, colorless and shapeless. X brought them...

    • 10 HOW WE REVERSED THE NEGATIVE AND ELECTED MADAM X OUR REPRESENTATIVE
      (pp. 305-318)

      Many people opposed electing Madam X the people’s representative, arguing that no one could get used to seeing our former antagonist on Five Spice Street in this high position. There was nothing strange in this opposition because new ways of thinking are always attacked, but after a few months, X entered the historical records as the people’s representative.

      The reader must think this very odd. Common sense tells us there’s something fishy in this alien from outer space, this dissident, whose murderous plot had been directed against the people, this abettor of juvenile delinquency, this hooligan with corrupt morals all...

    • 11 MADAM X’S STEPS ARE BUOYANT; ON BROAD FIVE SPICE STREET, SHE WALKS TOWARD TOMORROW
      (pp. 319-329)

      The writer has brought this complicated story close to its end. This morning, he met with Madam X, who had just been elected representative. The writer found but a slight wrinkle on her forehead, the mark of past years, yet it could be ignored. Madam X had not aged; she was still “hot.” And the writer speculated that even Dr. A (more than ten years older) might wish to marry her if she gave up her celibacy and A’s wife died. After all, he was still in good health and had an eminent position. Not to mention the young coal...