Can Xue: The Embroidered Shoes

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Can Xue The Embroidered Shoes
  • Название:
    The Embroidered Shoes
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    Henry Holt and Co.
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    Современная проза / на английском языке
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The Embroidered Shoes: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Can Xue (pronounced "tsan shway") is considered by many to be the most spirited, fearless, radical fiction writer to come out of contemporary China. Even her name is marked by tenacity (it's a pen name referring to dirty, leftover snow that refuses to melt). Her most important work to date, The Embroidered Shoes is a collection of lyrical, irreverent, sassy, wise, maddening, celebratory tales in which she explores the themes central to our contemporary lives: mortality, memory, imagination, and alienation. At times constructed like a set of graduated Chinese boxes, these New Gothic ghost stories build into philosophical and psychological conundrums that we ponder long after reading the final page. A doctor-detective-warrior who sleeps like a hippo in a cistern! A homicidal maniac housewife whose husband winds up in the hospital with a stomach full of very fine needles! These and many more strange, yet strangely recognizable, characters populate Can Xue's dream-ridden, transcendental territories. Written between 1986 and 1994, ten years after the death of Chairman Mao and during and following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, The Embroidered Shoes is a life-affirming testament to the creative spirit.

Can Xue: другие книги автора

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Can Xue

The Embroidered Shoes


Several of these stories have been published previously in Chinese and/or English. The following stories have appeared in the mainland Chinese journals noted: “The Embroidered Shoes and the Vexation of Old Lady Yuan Si” in Seagull (, Hǎiōu), November 1986; “Apple Tree in the Corridor” in Bell Mountain (, Zhōngshān), June 1987; “Two Unidentifiable Persons” in The Writer (, Zuòjiā), February 1989; “A Strange Kind of Brain Damage” in Special Economic Zone Literature (, Tèqūwénxué), January 1990; “The Child Who Raised Poisonous Snakes” in Harvest (, shōuhuò), June 1991; “Anonymities” in Beijing Literature (, Běijīng wénxué), March 1994.

In addition, the following stories have appeared in the U.S. literary journal Conjunctions: “The Embroidered Shoes and the Vexation of Old Lady Yuan Si” and “The Child Who Raised Poisonous Snakes” in issue 18 (1992); “Two Unidentifiable Persons” in issue 21 (1993); “A Dreamland Never Described” and “Anonymities” in issue 23 (1994); and “Homecoming” in issue 28 (1997); and an excerpt from “Apple Tree in the Corridor” has appeared in Grand Street (1997).


My neighbor, old lady Yuan Si, is a garbage collector. Though her business is nothing more than picking up trash, she is an iron-willed old dame.

Not long ago, old lady Yuan Si started to terrorize me. Every night after I turned off the light, this woman would barge in, her hair disheveled. She’d ransack my bedroom, smashing mirrors and cups, and then the light reflecting from the shards would drive her into a rage. She’d tear my quilt from the bed rudely and stare into my eyes with a flashlight for a long time. After all this, she would pee right there in the middle of my room. I was totally exhausted by her incursions, which were causing me to grow thinner and thinner, and weaker and weaker, day by day, until finally I was nothing but skin and bones.

Once I tried to lock my door and even pushed a table up against it to block it. As a result, she could only scream and shout outside. Then she found a hole and started to dig away at the brick wall of my house making heart-stopping, thunderous sounds. In the end, I had to open the door and let her in. Another time, I locked my door as early as dusk and hid myself in my neighbor’s house and slept the whole night. Early in the morning I returned home. As soon as I opened the door she dashed in ahead of me. It turned out that she had waited throughout the night just outside my house.

Suddenly she stopped coming, and this lasted for more than ten days.

* * *

Tonight she came on schedule, but she behaved differently. She hopped about on one foot for a while. She giggled and laughed in the darkness, then suddenly took off her shoes and sat on my bed. She grabbed my shoulder with one hand and with the other she chopped at me with force. It hurt so much that I jumped up in pain. Then she said, “The most difficult part is persistence, hey?”


“The whole truth about this business is going to be revealed, and I am overjoyed! Have you noticed the shoes I’m wearing?”


“Let me tell you about it in detail. For more than ten days, I’ve been hunting for them in your room. I was suspicious of everyone and felt terribly upset. It was not until recently that an idea came to me out of the blue: I would adopt a strategy of subtle indirection — and unexpectedly the problem has been completely solved. The focus of the problem is this pair of shoes, this pair of shiny, brilliant embroidered shoes. This pair of shoes is the fate of my life. Now that the objects have returned to their original owner, everything will be as clear as daylight. Justice will win a victory and the bright sun will shine over my head…”

“So you mean you don’t need to come to my place anymore?” I asked hesitantly, secretly hoping for a positive answer.

“Why not? How can you be so naive? So insensitive? From now on I will come every day and tell you the story in detail. There’s a host of little details. Whenever I think of getting the chance to tell others about it from beginning to end, I become so excited that I tremble. This is like a secret in a treasure gourd that cannot be told in half a year or even a whole year. Now I’ve found something interesting to do!”

She shouted with joy and sat down right on my chest. Taking out that damned flashlight, she studied my eyeballs. I became dizzy and muddleheaded and felt a yellow coating develop on my tongue.

“I’m a garbage collector,” she said slowly, taking her flashlight away. Her glance was vague but emotional. “When she was young, Old Lady Li was also a garbage collector. Later on she became successful. Do you know why? This involves a profound question. And the question is rooted in this pair of embroidered shoes. Please look carefully at this pair of shoes.”

Using one foot she dug underneath the bed for her shoes. She tried for a long time, and then she showed them to me with her flashlight. They were no more than a pair of rotten wooden thongs.

“What do you think of them? Aren’t they a pair of magic shoes? I have a kind of premonition, a kind of confidence. Now I need only close my eyes and all of those things that happened in the past seem as though they took place just yesterday. As I lie here concentrating, the tears begin to flow.

“The thing happened on an April day. Even now I can smell the fragrance of the earth. Early in the morning, I was about to leave the house dragging a willow basket behind me. Then she came. Her face was rosy — she was a TB patient and her face was never red, but that day, I don’t know why, her face was really rosy. She stared at me meaningfully for a while and suddenly raised the issue of borrowing my pair of embroidered shoes. At the time, you know, I was young and naive without any idea of the viciousness of the sophisticated world. Of course, I lent the shoes to her without hesitation. I was even hoping she would ask me for something else. The rooster was crowing outside the door, and I was so touched by my own generosity that my eyes became all red. I wanted to jump up and embrace her.

“At that moment, a gentleman passed by my window. He was a buyer for the salvage station. He glanced at me attentively with a kind of moist look that resembled a drizzle. I’d bet he was even in a daze for a while. Why should he look at me? Why should he look at me instead of her? Why should his glance go through her to look at me? I did not understand at all at that time. I was too pure, as pure as a pool of water.

“That night I slept soundly. In the morning when I woke up I heard the hooting of an owl and I found myself in a bad mood. It turned out that everything had changed unexpectedly in my dream. It turned out that evil had defeated virtue and the devil had won the crown. From that day on, our female swindler rose to success!

“From that day on I fell into an abyss thousands of feet deep. Out of my wits, I ran to the door of her straw hut and drummed on it with all my might. I drummed and drummed until the backs of my hands were swollen. Suddenly I raised my head and found that the door was locked. There was a small slip of paper tacked on the door that read HOUSE FOR RENT. I fell to the threshold and cried out.

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