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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.

Mr. Shuang describes himself as both a participant in that time and a bystander — making him perhaps the ideal person to introduce it to a new generation of readers.

“That was my childhood,” said Mr. Shuang during an interview in Beijing, where he now lives. “So I was part of what was going on, but also didn’t necessarily understand it.”

The question of how to understand the region’s history has become especially relevant lately, as a wave of art about the northeast, known in Mandarin as Dongbei, has found widespread popularity. A television drama about a faded factory town was China’s top-rated show last year, and songs by Dongbei musicians have gone viral. Mr. Shuang in February published a new story collection, and a star-studded film adaptation of one of his novellas is due this year.

Cultural commentators have declared a “Dongbei Renaissance.” Some have suggested that young people see resonance between that time and China’s current economic slump.

Many stories set in the northeast, including Mr. Shuang’s, feature a gritty aesthetic of hulking smokestacks, blinding snow and ambient despair. When Mr. Shuang started writing, he rarely saw that face of the region represented.

Yet Mr. Shuang now worries that those features are being taken as stereotypes, or worse, gospel truth.

“Now that people have paid attention, I think we should remind them: This isn’t the real Shenyang,” he said. “It’s mine.”

The Shenyang where Mr. Shuang was born in 1983 was the biggest city in China’s most urbanized, prosperous region. State-backed factories churned out steel and heavy machinery, and their workers basked in the promise of lifelong job security. Mr. Shuang’s parents dropped him off each day at the factory preschool; the 7,000 employees enjoyed a factory hospital, movie theater and auditorium.

Then, in the 1990s, as Chinese leaders began allowing private companies to compete with the state-run behemoths, that idyll collapsed. Mr. Shuang’s mother began peddling tea eggs on the street.

Determined to earn a steady income, Mr. Shuang studied law at university, then joined a bank. But he soon grew bored. As a teenager, he’d found solace in Ernest Hemingway’s and J.D. Salinger’s lost young men. He started writing secretly at night, about his own lost young men.

At first, Mr. Shuang wrote about Shenyang because that was all he knew. But as he found an audience — winning several major writing contests — a sense of responsibility developed. “I said, OK, I want to help others better understand this place of ours. I want to leave a record of these people.”

A recurring cast of characters occupies many of his stories: tea egg sellers, cops, former workers trying with uneven success to reinvent themselves.

The three novellas in “Rouge Street,” the first collection of his work to be published in English, are set in a hardscrabble neighborhood roamed by young dropouts, “heads lolling, constantly smoking, still not starved to death.”

Mr. Shuang’s prose is vernacular, and he doesn’t shy away from the unsavory choices his characters make to survive. There are murderers and drunks. But he also lingers on the connections they forge, even if ultimately fleeting.

Religion is another motif. Roving pastors peddle hope to single mothers, and churches figure as local landmarks. Mr. Shuang’s best-known work is a 2015 novella called “Moses on the Plain.”

On its surface a murder mystery, its characters quote from the Book of Exodus as they mull revenge and redemption. In one scene, retired workers protest plans to replace a statue of Mao Zedong with a gaudy golden bird. The gathering is eerie, almost ritualistic: “A group of old people in work uniforms were walking down the middle of the road in somewhat ragged formation, absolutely silent.”

Mr. Shuang is not religious, but said he was fascinated by believers’ searches for meaning. He’d seen a similar search in his parents’ embrace of socialism. During the layoffs, he said, “it was not only their source of income that collapsed, but also a kind of faith.”

Jia Hangjia, the pen name of an essayist also from China’s northeast, said “Moses on the Plain” re-exposed a period that many had preferred to forget.

“It’s not like people processed what happened and then moved forward. They just buried it,” Mr. Jia said. “To dig these things back up and insist on some kind of airing, I think that was very brave.”

Mr. Shuang is hardly the first writer to mine China’s historical traumas. Renowned authors, like Mo Yan, the first Chinese national to win a Nobel in literature, have written about the scars of Mao’s failed collectivization campaigns, or the country’s one-child policy.

Still, northeastern China’s experience in the 1990s had received less literary attention. Censorship has also tightened — and only more so since Mr. Shuang began writing.

A commentary on Mr. Shuang’s and other northeastern writers’ success, published in a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, called their works “sincere.”

“But to wallow in this kind of writing,” the piece continued, “is what we don’t want to see. We need reflective literature, healing literature, literature that looks to the future and is full of vigor.”

A movie adaptation of “Moses on the Plain,” slated to premier in China in 2020, was delayed without explanation. It is now expected this year, with a more secular title: “Fire on the Plain.”

Mr. Shuang said he thought fiction writers still had a fair amount of latitude, because of their relatively small audiences. Just one line had been deleted from “Moses on the Plain,” he said: a character asking, “If Mao Zedong were still alive, would they dare?”

And Mr. Shuang is not an activist. His stories focus tightly on individuals and make little mention of the government.

Some critics have said they do not go far enough in probing the roots of that period’s pain. “He doesn’t talk about the why of history, the deeper historical meaning,” said Nie Zinan, an associate professor of literature at Shenyang Normal University.

But for Mr. Shuang, the expectation that he write about the northeast at all has grown burdensome. In the decade since he left Shenyang, his visits have grown less frequent. He now finds the city largely unrecognizable.

Zhang Yueran, Mr. Shuang’s wife and herself a prominent novelist, said the Dongbei label had “benefited him a lot.” But, she continued, “when an author wants to expand to a broader stage, of course you’ll feel restricted.”

Mr. Shuang has tried to shed those restrictions, with some of his recent stories set in the early 20th century. Others feature brooding writer figures in Beijing.

But he is quick to emphasize that these newer stories are just as representative of his current life as his earlier works were of his previous one. Which is to say, perhaps not at all.

“Fiction can’t be responsible for transmitting information,” he said. “As an author, I believe in telling the truth by lying.”

Siyi Zhao contributed research

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