Murder and Magic Realism: A Rising Literary Star Mines China’s Rust Belt

For a long time during Shuang Xuetao’s early teenage years, he wondered what hidden disaster had befallen his family.

His parents, proud workers at a tractor factory in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, stopped going to work, and the family moved into an empty factory storage room to save money on rent.

But they rarely talked about what had happened, and Mr. Shuang worried that some special shame had struck his family alone.

It was not until later that he learned about the mass layoffs that swept northeastern China in the 1990s, during the country’s shift from a planned economy toward a market-based one. The region had been China’s industrial heartland, but suddenly millions of laborers were left unemployed. Crime and poverty rose. Even today, the region, sometimes called China’s Rust Belt, has not fully recovered.

The legacy of that communal suffering animates the writing of Mr. Shuang, now 40 and one of China’s most celebrated young authors. For his short stories chronicling the economic decline of his hometown, and the mass disillusionment that followed, he has been hailed for bringing attention to a time and people that China’s public imagination had long written off.

His stories also dwell on individuals’ isolation within that collective experience. His characters disappear from their neighbors’ lives without saying goodbye or, in one of his trademark magical realist twists, they trek through the northeast’s heavy blizzards and find themselves in a cell at the bottom of a lake.

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