“The Invisible Valley” - A novel by Su Wei

January 8, 2018

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

Read an excerpt

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.


March 16, Shanghai Literary Festival

March 24, Macau Literary Festival

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

“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


“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

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.

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