Clare McCullough


Invisible Prison

In “Hut on the Mountain” by Can Xue we see an experimental story where there is no discernable plot, complex family relationships, and a crisis of identity all rooted in a historical allegory. “The term avant-garde refers to a progressive, cutting-edge movement in which new and often surprising ideas in art, literature, and other areas are developed.” (Caffrey) Can Xue falls into this category with ease with this experimental short story. Avant-garde by definition is iconoclastic, meaning it doesn’t fall into traditional story telling modes or expression. She uses a cutting Franz Kafka-influenced darkness and absurdity to tell her revealing nightmarish tales. In “Hut on the Mountain” Can Xue explores the plight of individuality within conformist context of Chinese society, especially during the Cultural Revolution.

Like Kafka, she doesn’t utilize any cohesive plot in this nightmarish world, and since there is no logical sequence of events, nothing makes sense. But, when viewed in the context of history it becomes clearer. This story is tethered to a significant socio-cultural event, the brutality of the Chinese Cultural revolution that officially occurred from 1966-1979. The cultural revolution was a time of almost civil-war like violence, torture, execution, and re-location of anyone who had dissident views from Mao’s “treasures”. Including the author’s family who was sent away from their home to live in a hut near a labor camp (Raschke). Mao’s little red book as it was often referred to taught that the destruction of the old was necessary. During this time, adherence to Maoist thought was paramount and in fact it was crucial for survival during this time. Anything that was regarded as old, often regarded succinctly as the “Four Olds,” meaning the vestiges of imperialism and feudalism, were to be destroyed.  Old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits were sought out by the military student group called the Red Guard. During this time, paranoia was rampant since anyone could report you and have dire consequences befall you. There was a culture of snitching on each other, regardless of relation. Old values such filial piety was given up in favor of the revolution. Everyone in Xue’s story is suspicious of each other, ready to give each other up.

Can Xue utilizes a stream-of-consciousness first person narration. This style of narration she wields with vigor, trapping us in the narrator’s limited point of view and making us subject to her rambling interior monologues. For her purposes this is particularly effective to explain the irrationality of the narrator’s mind. Both modern and illogical; inexplicable sights and sounds and all interactions are filtered through the first person. In fact, the narrator’s experiences are entirely isolated from her family in the story. It is that no one believes her or they ignore her completely. They are not experiencing at all what she is experiencing. “There’s something wrong with everyone’s ears” (383) This affect creates tension and a barrier between the narrator’s individual vision and the communal one of her family. The communal vision is used to discount the narrator’s own personal thoughts since she is the only one who sees and hears the events happening, and is completely ignored. Can Xue’s usage of this narration style creates a very subjective storyline. The fact that the entire story takes place in and around this hut on the mountain locks the reader into a social context, forcing her to interact with her suspicious family until the end. Compounding the use of setting and point of perspective juxtaposes the opposing sides of self and society. It is a monologue where a dichotomy appears between the “them” in this case the narrator’s family and the “us” of course referring the narrator.

Placed within cultural and personal context events of Hut on the Mountain takes on a darker meaning. Persecution of the individual is hard to escape, and the reader feels oppressed by the conditions and tone of the story that take place. A concrete description of madness starts to take on more form, “When my eyes became adapted to the darkness inside, they’d hidden themselves-laughing in their hiding places” (384). Individuality becomes a cage that Can Xue locks the reader in, never being allowed to glimpse anything from the outside. When the narrator does go outside it is described as so bright and so hot that she cannot see or hear anything expect for what she describes as “White pebbles glowing with flames” (386).

Her Mother represents the extreme views of the cultural revolution. The Mother and the narrator have a lot of contention over the narrator’s obsession of tending to her drawers. “‘Huh, you’ll never get done with those drawers’ said Mother, forcing a smile. ‘Not in your lifetime’” Drawers by definition store and organize materials for use. When the narrator is told that her desk drawers were sorted, and she finds missing papers, she gets very upset. Clearly this is something very dear to her since she keeps going back to it. I believe that the desk drawers symbolize her mind, imagination, and largely her private thoughts. By interfering with her drawers, her family is attempting to purge daughter of her private thoughts by going through her drawers, taking things out and reorganizing them.

But the Mother not only has influence on the narrator, but also holds sway over her father who symbolizes the intellectuals during the cultural revolution, “‘In fact, no scissors have ever fallen into the well. Your mother says positively that I’ve made a mistake’” Her Father who is obsessed with those pair of scissors tells the story of how he would lie away at night thinking of the scissors rusting at the bottom of the well. As a result of his obsession his hair on his left temple was turning gray. The father is an example of an older intellectual during the cultural revolution. The scissors were his old values, and when he tried to go back to the well to fish them out he tells the story of how his hands lost their grip and so the bucket fell to the bottom of the well and shattered into pieces. Everything that he had once held tightly in his grasp were now rusting at the bottom of a deep well. His wife consistently tells him to forget about it but he grows older and grieves persistently without the pair of scissors by his side.

Although not mentioned as much as the narrator’s parents, the little sister seems to be very blunt with her words, “Everything has its own cause from way back. Everything.” (385) This seems to be the only attempt at rationalization and explanation in the entire book. It hints at the history and paths that had brought the family together to be at this point. The two sides, narrator and family are mutually suspicious but linked together in relationship. The dominating forces of reality are internalized by the family, resulting in a nightmare of which had perhaps even inevitable causes from long ago.

Can Xue’s use of objects; scissors, drawers, chess set, quilts are steeped with symbolism. Her description of objects are projections of internal images of the narrator or allegorical explanations that parallel the Cultural Revolution. In the Cultural Revolution, books escaped by being buried and in the “Hut on the Mountain” the main character keeps digging up a chess set that her parents warn her from retrieving. “Every time you dig by the well and hit stone with a screeching sound, you make Mother and me feel as if we were hanging in midair. We shudder at the sound and kick with bare feet but can’t reach the ground” (385) I believe that the pursuit of intellect is represented by the chess set. The parent’s feelings are similar to that of a person being hung. During the Cultural Revolution it wasn’t only your actions that would get you into trouble but the actions of those around you. This is demonstrated by her insistence of digging the chess set out of the ground because it often made her parents feel disconnected from the earth and the sky. Can Xue’s description of objects reveal the real meaning of her piece. Private thoughts are represented by drawers, for example when the narrator starts to oil her drawers, her mother doesn’t pay attention because it makes no sound but even with this precaution, “the light suddenly went out. I heard mother’s sneering laugh in the next room” (385) She is constantly being watched by her family and they revel in the chance to be an obstacle in her pursuits.

Fear and cold sweat are juxtaposed to provide even further a feeling of uneasiness and paranoia. “You get so scared in your dreams that cold sweat drips from the soles of your feet. Everyone in this house sweats this way in his sleep. You have only to see how damp the quilts are.” (384) The quilts are soaked with sweat which further illustrates the constant anxiety the people who had experienced the revolution went through. When you sleep you are at your most vulnerable, and that’s why anxiety would affect the characters in such a way.

A motif of the narrator is that she is often sitting in her chair. The armchair represents the feeling of helplessness and invisible imprisonment of the narrator, “‘Bits of ice are forming in my stomach. When I sit down in my armchair I can hear them clinking away.’” (385) Her sitting in that chair is mentioned many times throughout the short story. The ice is indicative of the freezing of her innards in response to not being able to feel the warmth and safety of an open society. Her own family are her guards and all she can do is sit. The narrator sits in the chair with her hands on her knees doing nothing but listening to the “tumultuous sounds of the north wind whipping against the…hut, and the howling of the wolves echoing in the valleys.” (383) Even her father is a wolf, waiting to devour and mourning. The wolves are of course representative of the carnivorous forces that lurk in the valleys surrounding the hut.

Xue’s background: her family was sent away from a residential area to a tiny hut about ten by ten meters at the foot of Yueyushan Mountain (Raschke). Can Xue herself has had experiences dating from before the Cultural Revolution that would caution her from expressing her individuality. Her father was branded as an Ultra-rightest and so, her and her entire family were sent to live somewhere else to perform hard labor.

In the end the narrator goes up the mountain that day “There were no grapevines, nor any hut” (386) first sitting in a chair and then goes “into the white light” (386) escape from the communal vision, reality and authority. It is not a light that is comforting by any means. The white light symbolizes freedom where there is no family, no hut, nothing that would watch her silently, waiting to pounce like a wolf. But it is a loneliness and a blindness that will be difficult to eliminate. The Hut on the Mountain is a form of imprisonment since someone is banging on the door during the night to get out. The cultural resonance of individual images in the story and progression of discourse from strange but realistic unveil the internal self which simply vanishes under the dominance of the material reality and pressure of society to conform to the will of society.

All in all, the “Hut on the Mountain” is an allegorical tale in which the author uses family relationships, motifs, objects, an illogical plot progression, and first-person subjective narration to tell the real history of the Cultural Revolution. An exploration of identity crisis in conjunction with the persecution of the individual results in a Kafkaesque nightmare-scape that is Can Xue’s avant-garde short story.


Raschke, Debrah. “Can Xue’s “Hut on the Mountain”: Ghosts of China’s Cultural Revolution.” Short Story, vol. 21, no. 2, Fall2013, pp. 69-78. EBSCOhost,

Caffrey, Cait. “Avant-Garde.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2014. EBSCOhost,

Lau, Joseph S. M., and Howard Goldblatt. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press, 2007. Pp.383-386

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