Reading ““Crow Mountain”” by Can Xue

Crow Mountain.” Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Asymptote, July 2015.


When you read Can Xue’’s story ““Crow Mountain,”” you’’re reading about a young girl who wishes to investigate a place. It’’s called Crow Mountain, but it’’s really a derelict building. Still, it holds some allure for her. Why is it called Crow Mountain when it’’s really something else? When her parents first show her the building, it’’s as if they are introducing her to the enigma, but they pull her away, perhaps because they know she is not ready for the experience.

Eventually, the girl, named Juhua, meets an older friend, Qinglian, who knows about Crow Mountain and offers to take her there. Qinglian tells Juhua that her uncle is actually the gatekeeper at Crow Mountain, so she has an in. Juhua admires her friend very much. Qinglian is older, more sophisticated, and quite beautiful. Beside her, Juhua feels very plain. There’’s also the matter of Qinglian’’s art form—–the embroidery that she practices in secret with her widowed mother. One day Juhua catches a glimpse of something that takes her breath away–—a double-sided embroidery with a waterfall on one side and the sea on the other. Qinglian quickly hides the piece in its basket, saying that it is not for Juhua’’s eyes.

Nevertheless, Qinglian makes good on her offer to take Juhua to Crow Mountain. They travel to the old building on a city bus. When they knock for the uncle, no one answers. The door is ajar, and Qinglian says that it is all right to go in. That’’s when all hell breaks loose. Nothing on Crow Mountain is as it seems. For Juhua, it’’s a complete loss of reference points. However, Qinglian seems to be having a completely different experience. She’’s comfortable on Crow Mountain and climbs confidently up a path. Juhua is terrified and yet intrigued by floors that aren’’t really floors; by a beam of light that, when pierced by a hand, causes a cawing of unseen crows; by small birds that fall in the beam of light; by a lizard-like thing that can float in the air, by an uncle who is a giant with legs as large as columns. She loses Qinglian, feels an electrical shock through her body, gets bitten by the lizard, and is even unconscious for a brief period of time.

At the end of the story, there is a return to the ordinary world. The uncle really is a gatekeeper with a small room where he sleeps beneath a mosquito net and reads ancient books at a table. Qinglian talks a little bit about her experience on Crow Mountain. She has picked and eaten cherries. She has, perhaps, been to the summit, whereas Juhua wandered around in darkness and saw something completely different. They return home by bus–—a return to ordinary life.

Despite her fear, Juhua feels that she now shares a profound secret with Quinglian, that something extraordinary actually happened to her, and that she is eager to explore more new things in spite of the danger. She also decides not to tell her parents about the outing. It’’s as if she fears that they would disapprove and forbid her ever going again. Qinglian warns her not to talk about it nor ask too many questions about what she saw there.

This story, like many of Can Xue’s stories, is about a character who takes off to investigate something intriguing or interesting, and then finds herself in a place where the usual rules of human life don’’t hold. There’’s a skewed strangeness in these situations. Yet there’’s also an upward striving toward another kind of knowledge. During these interludes when the individual ceases to engage in herd behavior, another order of experience always intervenes. The ordinary world falls away, and the characters catch a glimpse of their spiritual selves, the selves that haven’’t necessarily been conditioned by the use and wear of everyday life.

For me, the story is about the journey of the artist. In order to create, the artist must supersede both training and a priori ideas. She must purposely place herself into a situation in which the world is not solid, into a world that is as yet undefined and unmade. “Crow Mountain” is about human capacity, not so much about conscious imagination, but about the human capacity to receive, to make contact with that unmade place, and then to experience there things that are fresh, perhaps pleasant, perhaps frightening, maybe even oddly skewed. Certainly the authentic experience of Crow Mountain turns out to be unique–—nothing anyone else could have actually told or predicted ahead of time.

One characteristic of Juhua is that, unlike Qinglian, who is more adept and perhaps the true artist, Juhua is concerned about status. She compares herself to Qinglian. She tries to judge things. She doesn’’t understand why Qinglian doesn’’t show off her beautiful embroidery or brag about her uncle who is really a giant. She thinks these things would be worth telling everyone about, and the result would be that others would be jealous of her just as she is jealous of Qinglian. Yet in the end, she decides to keep her own secret and she doesn’’t tell anyone that she has gone to Crow Mountain. It feels too personal and almost sacred. She has gained an interior space that didn’’t exist before.

People would have a hard time trusting Qinglian. She just is this thing. She has the capability of guiding Juhua to Crow Mountain, but once there, Qinglian has no control over what Juhua experiences. We tend to want our literature grounded in the “real” world–—in a world that most people can understand. Stories have trajectories. There are rules to follow about plot and characterization. We want the offering of a scenario and a resolution that satisfies our need for order. We want a clear understanding of motive and a solid realization of the place where the events are occurring. This is not what Can Xue offers. Instead, the real story is hidden and can seem incomprehensible. But it is not completely hidden.

At the end, we know that while Juhua returns to the safety of her parents’ home, she still has a hunger for Crow Mountain and is probably already determined to return with or without Qinglian. Once the bird has left its cage, it’’s had a dizzying taste of freedom, and so Juhua i’s not likely to return to her old ways of dealing with the world.

In fact, all the characters in the story could be read as different aspects of a single character. After a striving upwards that seems to disorient our perceptions of every-day reality, there’’s a kind of balance that asserts itself in the end. Each division of the self is necessary–—the guide, the pilgrim, the uncle, the mother, the father. Each has a role to play in the life of a fully alive and creative human being. It’’s a lot to think about–—and that may be the point. Crow Mountain is not about our usual ways of thinking at all. To enter Crow Mountain is to open our selves to the unknown.

Qinglian guides people to Crow Mountain. She does not control what they experience there. She can’’t put limits on it or define it. They experience something that they might find pleasant or unpleasant—–something that is so personal that they probably cannot put it into words. In some sense, Qinglian is a bit of a bully. She refuses to answer any questions about Crow Mountain. She takes Juhua there but she doesn’’t even try to help Juhua make sense of her experience at Crow Mountain. In fact, she tells her not to talk about it. It is something that just needs to be lived.