Mu Xin, An Empty Room (2011)


Mu Xin, An Empty Room, translated by Toming Jun Liu, New York: New Directions, 2011. (short from as expediency, walking, loss, memory, essay form)

by Jane McArthur, 16 April 2020.


Brief delicately balanced pieces. A measured contemplation of things, situations, experiences, behaviours, from which thoughts flow and often unexpected connections are made.


In the Afterword, the translator Toming Jun Liu, describes how he worked closely over ten years with Mu Xin to realise this collection, selected from more than twenty books written in Chinese. The translator likens Mu Xin’s writings to sanwen, (p.148), a stylistic form which resists classification but can be loosely understood as crossing between poetry, fiction and essay genres. These works also encompass elements of Mu Xin’s own life, although the “I” is never expressed in the autobiographical form.


Born in 1927 in Wuzhen, Zheijiang Province, Mu Xin is an artist and a writer. He lived in China until 1982 when he went into exile in New York, returning to his home town in 2006. During the Cultural Revolution he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for eighteen months, held in an old air raid shelter. This experience is described in a fragment of text Notes from Underground which form the ‘spine’ of the book around which the collection revolves and to which references are made in other fragments. During the Cultural Revolution, most of his manuscripts and paintings were destroyed.


Mu Xin was able to write in prison, using paper which he was given for writing his confessions. These he secreted in his padded jacket and which accompanied him into the outside world on his release. The short form in this collection was for a time in his life therefore a matter of expediency as well as to become a stylistic choice.


Walking, closely observing and the thoughts that ensue is a strand which runs through the collection, alongside childhood, memory, family, the nature of love, life in exile.

Of particular note are:

          The Moment Childhood Vanishes

          An Empty Room

          Notes From The Underground

          The Boy Next Door


          Windsor Cemetery



This is the only work that is available in English, except a catalogue of his paintings and prison notes available online from the University of Edinburgh library until July 2020.

Alexandra Munroe (Editor), The Art of Mu Xin: Landscape Paintings and Prison Notes, New Haven : Yale University Art Gallery ; Chicago : David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2001.

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