It’s spring, and love is in the air! (Supposedly.) That’s why this month, we chose Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue. If you’re looking for a romance novel or a rom-com, however, you might want to look elsewhere. Millennium is a highly surreal book that explores love in all its forms. The plot is a winding, interlaced narrative that includes informants, caves, sex workers and dreams. Don’t get distracted, or you might get caught in the maze yourself.
We’ll start with an overview of the book and some discussion questions that we’ll come back to as the month progresses. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!
Love in the New Millennium was originally published in China under the title 新世纪爱情故事 in 2013, and was translated into English in 2018. The book follows a number of different characters whose narratives are intertwined with one another. It begins with the affair of Cuilan and Wei Bo (the latter of whom has a wife already, but she gets her own chapter later on where she leaves him), and the rest of the novel bounces around to other people and other stories. All of the characters have some connection to Wei Bo, but what really unites them is that they’re all in search of love — romantic or otherwise — and they all live in a weird world of government informants, magical herbal medicines and characters who speak like wisened sages. It’s hard to tell how old anyone is because time is loosely dealt with. All in all, it’s a pretty surreal experience.
Reactions to Love in the New Millennium have been divisive. Can Xue has been called a “Chinese Kafka,” including by Can Xue herself, but this doesn’t really do justice to her own work. The novel is certainly not easily skimmable — its surreal enough that if you zone out for a paragraph, you can get very lost — but Millennium rewards the slow reader. Within the text is profound commentary on women’s empowerment, the concept of home and, of course, love.
Can Xue is the genderless pen name of Deng Xiaohua. Born in Changsha, China, in 1953, Can Xue had a difficult early life due to the political situation in China. Her father was accused of running an anti-Communist newspaper, and her family was evicted from their home. The situation only worsened for Can Xue and her family with the start of the Cultural Revolution, instigated by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966. During this time, she survived tuberculosis and intense poverty, and eventually found a job as a metalworker and then a tailor.
Can Xue started writing when she was 30 years old, publishing her first short story in 1985. Since then, she’s written several novels and more than 150 short stories and novellas, along with a few books of literary commentary. So far, only a small portion has been translated to English, but her work has reached international renown. In 2015, she won the Best Translated Book Award for The Last Lover and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for Love in the New Millennium.
Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is a translator who has worked to bring a number of Chinese works into English. In addition to Love in the New Millennium, she also worked with Can Xue on the 2014 translation of The Last Lover. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, and is currently an assistant professor of translation at New York University’s School of Professional Studies.
The label Chinese is given to the group of languages spoken in China, or more specifically all of the languages spoken on the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. While the varieties of Chinese are related to each other, they are not all mutually intelligible. For example, New Xiang Chinese — the language spoken in Can Xue’s birth city — is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin, which is the most widely spoken variety of Chinese.
If you count all the people who speak some variety of Chinese, it amounts to 1.4 billion, most of whom live within China itself. This then breaks down into people speaking 302 individual varieties. (As a side note, it can be difficult to decide whether to classify “languages” versus “dialects,” so that’s why we’re going with “varieties.”) These can be grouped into eight basic groups, including Mandarin, Cantonese and Gan.
- What was the experience of reading Love in the New Millennium like for you? Was it a struggle to make sense of the surrealism?
- The Mandarin Duck Suites were a common setting where married couples would go and move underground. What did you think of this commentary on married life?
- Another common setting was people’s hometowns, which were visited and discussed often. How did you see the role of the hometown? Does it relate to your own experience?
- Did any of the chapters specifically call out to you in any way?
- Can Xue is Chinese but has spent a lot of time in the Western literary tradition. How did you see the elements of East and West interacting in this book?
- The central character could be considered the man Wei Bo, but women fill the narrative. Ranging from the sex workers who left the cotton mill to find a better life to the Lady of the Camellias, who spent time in a mental institution, what did you think of the various women and their strengths?
- What is love? Baby don’t hurt me. Just kidding, but for real: How does love play in here? What are the strengths of romantic, sisterly and familial love?
Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Chinese language(s). Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.