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A Breakthrough Performance: Being Human on Can Xue’s Five Spice Street

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

Of the many forms of literary experimentation that arose in China during the 1980s, Can Xue’s writing stands out as some of the strangest and most enigmatic. This article intends to examine her most significant work from that period, Five Spice Street (Wuxiang jie; first published under the title Breakthrough Performance [Tuwei biaoyan]), in light of one of the major intellectual concerns in literature at the time: the question of the human. Through a close reading of the novel, I investigate the ways in which Can Xue interrogates and destabilizes the notion of the human with regard to the relationship between subject and object, corporeality, animality, sexuality, language, and time. Overall, I suggest that while Can Xue succeeds in offering a unique and provocative conceptualization of the human in Five Spice Street, she also refrains from “breaking through” the general realm of humanist discourse current at the time.

Affiliations: 1: Department of East Asian Studies, New York University


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