Strange Beasts of China

Each chapter of Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China (translated by Jeremy Tiang) begins with what seems to be an entry from a bestiary. Sorrowful beasts, we are told “are gentle by nature and prefer the cold and the dark”; joyous beasts “only have a single gender”; and thousand league beasts “have been extinct a long time.” They end with further information, often relevant to the events of the story, but whether this is simply the second part of the entry, or what has been learned from the events described is unclear. These entries reflect the dual nature of the narrator: on the one hand she is a writer producing the story under a print deadline; on the other had she is a zoologist, having studied under a nameless professor who still seems to hold a powerful influence over her life.

There is something of the comic book adventure to these stories, which is not to say they are not serious. It’s partly down to their episodic nature, with each story revealing a new beast, and partly down to the recurring characters. The professor may be a useful source of knowledge but he is also “self-important, self-centred, self-serving, and downright selfish,” as well as frequently short-tempered:

“I can’t believe I taught a loser like you. Imagine ending up a novelist!”

At the same time, he clearly has a soft spot for the narrator:

“The prof always says of his students, he’s proudest of you.”

The exact nature of their past relationship is never made entirely clear. A running joke, where the professor arranges to meet her but doesn’t appear, begins in the second story. Instead he sends one of his students (“his latest lapdog”), Zhong Liang, even when he asks her out for a meal. Zhong becomes her ‘sidekick’ for the remaining stories, “a young, handsome man, even his fake smile was dazzling”. Much is made of Zhong’s youth (in his first appearance he spends most of the time blushing) which precludes any romantic involvement with the narrator. When he invites her to a family gathering and she jokes, “Are you asking me to be your girlfriend?” he replies:

“‘I wouldn’t dare’…which meant, You’re too old for me.”

We learn more about the characters as the stories progress, but they do not develop, staying within their role, which further adds to adventure serial format. The narrator may not have a secret headquarters, but she does have the Dolphin bar.

The beasts themselves are the work of a powerful imagination, entirely distinct while at the same time developing the idea of what it means to be a beast. We are told that fifty years ago, “Yong’an had a great many beasts, and human beings were just one breed among them.” Then war broke out between humans and beasts and beasts disappeared, in many cases believed extinct. As the stories show, however, many beasts remain, often hidden among humans. In some cases, this means taking on a human identity, in others, literally becoming a person. The artist Lefty turns out to be sorrowful beast:

“…the government carried out an autopsy on her corpse, and in her faintly green belly they found the teeth that hadn’t yet broken down, and the half-digested remains of the real Lefty’s body.”

The joyous beast, we discover, “spends most of its existence as a parasite in a human host. It loves to feed on children.” It seems that the narrator’s mother is right when she says:

“The beasts all want to eat people, just as people eat them.”

Beasts act according to their nature, but humans have choice. Beast are exploited by humans, as, for example, flourishing beasts who are turned into furniture:

“Those whose limbs had just sprouted were still tough, and could be turned into tables. Those whose faces had started showing were softer and could provide natural cushioning when made into armchairs.”

The artificially produced heartsick beasts are used as little more than pets. Despite this, the stories contain numerous relationships between beasts and humans showing that love is possible.

Strange Beasts of China is powered by imagination, but each story has an emotional core, and humour and sadness frequently play out together. If it feels fresh and unfettered then that is perhaps because, as Yan Ge has said, it was her first book and one where she wrote without rules. Even those who are normally averse to fantasy, should find something to treasure in its curious menagerie.

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9 Responses to “Strange Beasts of China”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    oh like sound of this one Grant seems like one i would like

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds great Grant! Tilted Axis are a publisher I’ve yet to explore.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds very inventive and cleverly constructed. I couldn’t help but think of Yoko Ogawa’s collection ‘Revenge’ as I was reading your piece. Different principles, perhaps (in terms of how the stories link together), but also ingeniously structured. I’m definitely intrigued!

    • 1streading Says:

      Is Revenge linked by theme or does it have recurring characters? I can’t remember! I’ve read story collections when characters reappear but this one is more like a serial.

  4. Radz Pandit Says:

    I haven’t read a Tilted Axis title yet, but I have this one and looking forward to it.

  5. International Booker Prize Predictions 2021 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] new readers it attracted to something rather unique. I would also enjoy the addition of Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China (tr. Jeremy Tiang) as it would add a little wildness and variety, as, if what I’ve read is true, […]

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