Who is Can Xue, the Chinese writer in the running for a Nobel Prize for literature?

Alice Yan

She has been tipped by bookies as a front runner to win this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, but writer Can Xue is barely known in her own country.

Hunan-based news website Rednet.cn reported on Monday that British odds comparison site NicerOdds had found Can was the fourth favourite to win the award among bookmakers, tied with Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who has long been a strong candidate to win the prize.

The English website of Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published under the auspices of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, reported on Monday that Chinese eyes were on Can for the award, whose winner will be announced on Thursday.

There will be two Nobel Prize winners for literature this year, after last year’s award was postponed following a sexual assault scandal.

Can slipped back to joint 11th favourite on Wednesday as her odds lengthened, but led a group of Chinese contenders who included author Yu Hua and poet Yang Lian. Canadian writer Anne Carson had remained the bookmakers’ favourite for several days.

The topic “Who is Chinese writer Can Xue?” has been trending on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, with 140 million views.

Despite the buzz around her internationally, Can has won few plaudits in mainland China and her books are rarely available through major online domestic retailers.

However, her works had been translated in many countries, including Japan, the United States, France, Italy and Germany, and she had been dubbed China’s Franz Kafka, Rednet.cn reported. Some elite Western universities have listed her books as texts for literature students.

Can was born Deng Xiaohua in 1953 in Changsha, capital of the central province of Hunan. Leaving education after primary school, she became – like most people of her generation – a factory worker, and was also a tailor and “barefoot doctor” – an unlicensed village doctor in China.

Her first novel was published in 1985 and she has so far written seven million Chinese characters, in a style that has been referred to as “experimental literature”.

The pen name Can Xue means “remaining snow” in Chinese. Can has explained that the name has two implications: snow on the top of high mountains, and dirty snow that has been trampled on. The writer has said that she hopes her work can combine the two meanings.

According to the Yangtse Evening News, Chen Xiaozhen, an editor at Can’s publisher Hunan Wenyi Publishing House, has read much of Can’s work but does not claim to understand her. He was quoted as attributing this to Can’s “unlimited imagination, narration that reads like sleep-talking, in addition to fragmented and non-logical stories”.

“This style [puts off] many readers, but also makes Can Xue unique,” Chen said.

Can taught herself English and has been reading the original versions of English novels for the past two decades after thinking that their Chinese translations were inferior.

Chen said Can had always handwritten her work, and wrote for only an hour per day, producing about 800 to 900 words.

She “does not use a mobile phone or [Chinese social media app] WeChat”, further lowering her profile and deepening the mystery around her, he said.

There has been only one mainland Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature: Mo Yan, in 2012.

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