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Five Spice Street Can Xue, Karen Gernant, Zeping Chen

The Margellos World Republic of Letters
Publication date:
24 Apr 2009
Yale University Press
352 pages: 197 x 127 x 25mm
Sales territories:

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Five Spice Street is a novel about 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 common 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 dialectic of visions, arguments, and opinions. The investigation rages, the street becomes a Walpurgisnacht of speculations, fantasies, and prejudices. Madam X is a vehicle whereby the people bare their souls, through whom they reveal themselves even as they try to penetrate the mystery of her extraordinary powers.

Five Spice Street is 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.


When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ:  there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.

It was dusk on a sultry summer day. After dinner, everyone sat out on the street to enjoy the cool breeze when suddenly, two balls of white light like meteors streamed in the air, and Madam X’s white silk skirt that shone all through with light flashed before their eyes. The little boy was also dressed in white, but no one could tell what the material was.

Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, author of many novels and short works of fiction in Chinese. She lives in Beijing.

"[Xue] blends surrealism à la Dali with a hefty dose of existential angst. Prickly and provocative, Five Spice Street poses penetrating questions about the search for identity and the definition of self."—Booklist

“There’s no other writer in China like Can Xue . . . strange, surreal, and very compelling . . . [and] this novel is probably the best place to start.”—Chad Post, Publishers Weekly


Shortlisted for the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature given by World Literature Today

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