The Invisible Valley

Su Wei Austin Woerner  - published April 2018

trade paper · 400 pages · $16 · 9781618731456 | ebook · 9781618731463

A teenager working in a mountain encampment during the Chinese Cultural Revolution stumbles upon an ambiguous utopia.

World Literature Today’s 75 Notable Translations of 2018

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Lu Beiping is one of 20 million young adults the Chinese government uproots and sends far from their homes for agricultural re-education. And Lu is bored and exhausted. While he pines for romance, instead he’s caught up in a forbidden religious tradition and married off to the foreman’s long-dead daughter so that her soul may rest. The foreman then sends him off to cattle duty up on Mudkettle Mountain, far away from everyone else.

On the mountain, Lu meets an outcast polyamorous family led by a matriarch, Jade, and one of her lovers, Kingfisher. They are woodcutters and practice their own idiosyncratic faith by which they claim to placate the serpent-demon sleeping in the belly of the mountains. Just as the village authorities get wind of Lu’s dalliances with the woodcutters, a typhoon rips through the valley. And deep in the jungle, a giant serpent may be stirring.

The Invisible Valley is a lyrical fable about the shapes into which human affection can be pressed in extreme circumstances; about what is natural and what is truly deviant; about the relationships between the human and the natural, the human and the divine, the self and the other.

Watch: an excerpt from a video of Austin Woerner telling the story of his life in translation and his relationship with Su Wei at Duke Kunshan in Shanghai, China.

Praise for The Invisible Valley

The Invisible Valley is an extraordinary novel. It opens, even to Chinese readers, the world of a southern hinterland, a world of rubber groves, mystery and superstition.  At the same time, the novel is intimately rooted in China’s modern history and resonates with universal implications. Austin Woerner’s vivid and supple translation has made it even more readable.”
— Ha Jin, winner of the National Book Award

“What a strange, magnificent book.”
— M. T. Anderson

“Su Wei’s The Invisible Valley is a remarkable work, pungent, funny, and mind-widening. Austin Woerner’s translation is nearly invisible: it erases all barriers of strangeness and places the reader deep within a Chinese experience that comes to seem as familiar to us as our own daily round — if ours too had ghost brides and very big snakes.”
— John Crowley, author of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr

“Su Wei’s The Invisible Valley is a rich romantic story told with sharp humor and filled with vivid descriptions of the lush, dense highlands of a remote Chinese tropical island. Translated with a light hand and subtle wit by Austin Woerner, the novel moves in quick graceful stages after its hapless young hero, Lu Beiping, discovers to his dismay that he’s been ghost-married to a dead girl. Bizarre folkways, rituals and superstitions abound, along with hints of a great serpent awakening. It’s a joy to read such a strange, wonderful tale by a Chinese master in this brisk and lucid translation.”
— Patrick McGrath, author of Asylum

“Su Wei’s remarkable novel The Invisible Valley has drawn praise in Chinese literary circles both inside and outside China. Su Wei belongs to the generation of Chinese writers who ‘went down to the countryside’ at the behest of Chairman Mao in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his novel was inspired by his personal experience in the wild, semi-tropical hills of Hainan Island in China’s far south.  The power of this natural background—typhoons, jungles, giant snakes, pungent odors, and more—pervades the work and melds into the vivid human characters that populate it.”
— Perry Link, Emeritus Professor of Chinese, Princeton University


The Invisible Valley is the product of a serendipitous encounter. It is a respectful portrait of real history, whose prose and storytelling give it a fantastical flourish. Su Wei’s challenging early life and Woerner’s pains-taking translation have resulted in a book that crosses that critical threshold where life is pushed to its limits.”
— Kevin McGeary, Los Angeles Review of Books

The Invisible Valley takes the reader along a journey full of mystery, magic, and political intrigue. The characters are full of nuance and contradiction, each keeping their own secrets. As each secret is revealed, the reader comes closer to understanding the larger picture. Combined with the balance between the natural and supernatural, this makes the novel interesting for any reader.”
— Amy Lantrip, World Literature Today

“There are books that you devour, slurping them up like thick stew, or a hearty noodle dish, because they’re so brilliant, so lulling in their language, yet so dense with events. So delicious. Invisible Valley is one such book.”
— Katya Kazbek, ABCInsane

“In The Invisible Valley, Su Wei asks us to broaden our definition of reality, as Lu does, in order to better understand the peoples and landscapes around us.” — SF in Translation

“Wei’s pleasantly picaresque novel, his first to be translated into English, deploys humor and drama as it exposes the harsh realities of China’s agricultural reeducation program in the 1960s through the experiences of one of its hapless young victims. Lu Beiping is a 21-year-old city dweller when the government sends him ‘down to the countryside’ to work on a rubber plantation on Hainan Island. Almost immediately he is tricked into a ‘ghost-marriage’ to the spirit of his foreman’s dead daughter, dispatched to herd cattle on Mudkettle Mountain, and befriended by a ragtag family of government-fearing ‘driftfolk’ who have fled to the wilderness. Bei (as he is nicknamed) feels as though he has fallen ‘from the bright outer world… into this dark, hidden place at the earth’s edge,’ and from his naïveté and inexperience arise most of the tale’s comic moments, as when Bei sweats so much during his duty as a cowherder that his feet become pungent enough to clear a room. The superstitions and customs of the driftfolk, and the atrocities recounted by one who saw his family massacred during the Cultural Revolution, give the book’s events a sense of the mystical and menacing. Western readers will find Wei’s novel a window to an unusual moment in his nation’s history. Though it sometimes defies understanding, that feels appropriate given the complexity of China’s Cultural Revolution.”
Publishers Weekly

“A sensuous coming-of-age story set in a jungle during China’s Cultural Revolution, this historical novel flirts with the fantastic.
Su’s first novel translated into English tells the story of Lu Beiping, a 21-year-old Cantonese city boy who, along with many of his peers, has been sent to the countryside for “reeducation through labor.” As with many stories set in that era, conflict results from a clash between the protagonist’s sense of himself, his comrades, and locals whose customs are foreign. And what would it all be without a scoop of romance for good measure? Early on, Lu is coerced into a “ghost marriage” with his foreman’s deceased daughter’s spirit, which allows her younger brother to marry. His fellow “re-eds” (translator Woerner’s deft rendering) mock him, but the foreman promotes him to the position of cowherd. Now isolated from the group, he spends long, lonely days and nights in the jungle with his animals until a boy who lives in the wilderness nearby introduces Lu to his family. Lu discovers a group of lumberjacks led by an enchanting woman named Jade. Soon they fall in love. Lu loses his virginity to her and becomes an honorary member of the family. Companionship and his newfound self-reliance give him a sense of contentment and confidence he had yet to experience, but his past won’t let him escape so easily. Despite some overlong descriptions, odd vocabulary, and a clunky frame narrative, the plot moves quickly. The novel’s high drama is matched by complex, colorful characters.
This unique adventure of youth, identity, and the natural world intoxicates with overlapping mysteries.”
Kirkus Reviews

“In 1960s China, life takes a dramatic turn for 21-year-old Le Beiping immediately after he is tricked into entering a “ghost marriage” with Han, the dead daughter of the foreman from his reeducation group. Sent off to work as a cattle herder in a remote area called Mudkettle Mountain, Lu meets Jade, a woman in a free, loving community of “driftfolk,” who has three children by three different men in the community. Lu is soon adopted into the group and enjoys the contentedly nudist lifestyle of several individuals there. Based on the author’s own experiences, the story may surprise readers expecting a ghost story, but what comes to light at the end is more shocking and gritty than anticipated. The vernacular of the driftfolk, well translated by Woerner, recalls Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; obviously these characters are not in the mainstream.”
Library Journal

“During China’s Cultural Revolution, Lu Beiping is sent down to a Hainan rubber plantation for reeducation. After being tricked into ghost-marrying the foreman’s dead daughter, he is sent to herd cattle outside the camp. In the mountain jungles, he can read forbidden books and meets a makeshift family of woodcutters who live on the edge of society, eking out a barely legal existence. A strict set of rules and laws on how to appease the local spirits govern their otherwise free-loving, carefree ways. When the details about Lu Beiping’s ghost bride’s death, the camp’s zealousness for Chairman Mao’s edicts, and the woodcutters’ lifestyle clash, the effect is more destructive than the typhoons that ravage the mountains. Although Wei’s tale lacks the magic realism of those by the renowned Chinese author Yan Lianke, readers will recognize the same ever-shifting ground as the memorable characters take the plot in unexpected directions. As an outsider, Lu Beiping (and by extension, the reader) finds himself constantly, if vaguely, aware that he is missing context and subtext. The truth slowly reveals itself in Wei’s lushly atmospheric and haunting novel.” Jennifer Rothschild, Booklist Online


March 16, Shanghai Literary Festival
March 24, Macau Literary Festival
July 12, 7 p.m. Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA (with Su Wei) [Facebook]
July 25, 7 p.m. Asian American Writers’ Workshop, NYC (with Su Wei)
July 28 at 7 p.m. Elliot Bay Books, Seattle, WA

About the Author

Like many Chinese writers of his generation, Su Wei spent his teenage years being “re-educated” through farm labor in the countryside, working for ten years on a rubber plantation in the mountains of tropical Hainan Island. He is known for his nonfiction essays as well as for his highly imaginative novels, which are seen as unique in their treatment of the Cultural Revolution. He left China in 1989, and since 1997 he has taught Chinese language and literature at Yale University. The Invisible Valley is his first book to be translated into English.

Austin Woerner is a Chinese-English literary translator. His works include two volumes of poetry, Doubled Shadows: Selected Poetry of Ouyang Jianghe and Phoenix. He served as English translation editor for the innovative Chinese literary journal Chutzpah!, and co-edited the short fiction anthology Chutzpah!: New Voices from China. He holds a BA in East Asian Studies from Yale and an MFA in creative writing from the New School.