Yan Ge (author) and Jeremy Tiang (translator), Strange Beasts of China, Tilted Axis Press, 2020. 314 pgs.
Each of the stories in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China begins with the creatures’ peculiar tastes. Sorrowful beasts love vanilla ice cream and tangerine pudding, but fear bitter gourd and satellite TV. Joyous beasts enjoy breakfast cereal and fantasy novels, and have a strong dislike for maths. Other than their physical attributes, which take the forms of gills and scales, elongated necks and vibrant skin, they seem “just like regular people”—a phrase to recur as the narrator, a cryptozoologist-turned-novelist, acts on her editor’s commission to uncover the stories of different species of beasts, who love, mourn and make a living the same way people do.
The novel is set in the fictional city of Yong’an, an up-and-coming industrial metropolis, its development paralleling that of some actual cities in China today. No more than seven decades old, Yong’an is replete with tall buildings and magnificent streets, and is home to wanderers and exiles: people and beasts in search of better lives. In many cases, to be a beast is to be fetishised or marginalised. Flourishing beasts grow from saplings, and so some live out their days as rare, snow-white furniture sought after by the rich. Short, ugly and withdrawn, impasse beasts exist as lowly labour and get sold almost-rotten food, yet consider being in Yong’an a “good life” for the simple reason that they have enough to eat.
While technically a novel, Strange Beasts of China is structured so that each story is mostly complete in itself. Prior to the book’s publicationin English, translated by Jeremy Tiang, some stories were already featured in That We May Live, a collection of speculative Chinese fiction released last spring, and in the Fall 2017 issue of Two Lines, a journal of world writing in translation. As for the Chinese original Yi Shou Zhi 《异兽志》, it was published in 2006 when Yan was just 21, and before then, part of the work was serialised in Youth Literature magazine, which may have contributed to the plot’s steadfast pacing.
In each chapter, the narrator encounters a different species, sometimes with the help of Zhong Liang, her former professor’s pampered but enthusiastic sidekick, sometimes by magical realist turns of events as the beasts approach her to pass their tales. Like a bestiary, every story begins with zoological enquiry before progressing to unravel the beasts’ secrets. The true mystery, however, is the narrator’s backstory, a thread that grows prominent and ties all the chapters together. As she delves deeper into the world of beasts, the narrator learns more about her complicated love-hate relationship with her professor, a renowned cryptozoologist, as well as her own—and other characters’—hybrid existence.
With Strange Beasts of China now available more than a decade since the Chinese original was published, this sense of discovery, or rediscovery, persists in Tiang’s translation. Tiang’s use of short, simple sentences is a manoeuvre harder than it appears and does well to propel tension as the narrative moves toward its reveal. The rhythm of the prose and slight turns of phrase also capture the book’s humour and the bold abandon of young characters living in bustling Yong’an. On the eve of publication, Yan tweeted to say that with Tiang’s rendition, she experienced once more “the unconcealed rebellion, cynicism, bravery and romanticism of being painfully young”—and indeed, many of the characters would much rather outdrink one another at their resident bar than have to figure out the conundrums of their identities and others’. Yet with their jobs and other motivations, they charge head-on into unforeseen circumstances, perhaps in ways impossible for those who have grown to know the ills of society.
At one point, a reader-admirer says to the narrator: “You make it all sound so real. The beasts are more human than the humans, and the humans are beastlier than the beasts.” Deeply embedded in the way societies function, human savagery and greed are justified by the rhetoric of commerce, scientific advancement and social unity. In Yong’an, they arise as cruel, surreal situations—a contrast to the city’s name, which means “eternal peace”—that also speak to the power structures of our own world. For instance, it is common for female sorrowful beasts—who die if they laugh, hence their name—to become the wives of tycoons and elites, since their beauty makes them highly desirable. Taking the opportunity to monetise this demand, the government regulates these marriages via a strict ballot system and introduces behaviour-changing hormone injections, so that the wives remain beautiful but not wild. Female sorrowful beasts do not get to remain as themselves—and if they happen to be allergic, only death awaits, but not before they put on a show. As Rain, a victim of the allergy, runs screeching through the streets in pain, what she gets is not help but a TV station van chasing after her in the hopes of capturing a sorrowful beast’s smile, said to captivate humans for generations. Even in moments of absolute torture, the beasts remain spectacles for the human gaze.
The more she investigates, the more the narrator perpetuates a simmering anger and incredulousness, satirising the city’s modern inauthenticity and describing its horrific descent to madness—what seems to me the climax of the novel. When unrest breaks out in Southeast Asia, the government becomes afraid that citizens coming back from the region would carry with them the spirit of revolution, as if it were a contagion. As a cautionary measure, it orders a decree to euthanise all returnees at the airport “for the greater good”, including the narrator’s relatives, who were on holiday. The insanity is only outdone by devastating support for the plan, which the narrator witnesses as she rushes to save her family:
A crowd marched boldly on City Hall, humans and beasts intermingled, office workers, businessmen and women, and civil servants. A sea of bodies—adults, youths, and even children—resplendent in their brightly coloured clothes, all of them waving banners and chanting, ‘Good behaviour in Yong’an! Politeness, not violence! Make them disappear!’ Images of one disaster after another in the tropical country flashed onto a giant screen… The best and brightest of Yong’an, its most essential workers, were the force behind this movement. As for the rest of us—vagrants and fugitives, peasants and artists—we looked on from a distance. Soon we, too, would be swallowed whole.Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China, translated by Jeremy Tiang.
From beastly instincts to human ploys, one thing is clear: those who are living and those in power are capable of survival at all costs. Thrown into the middle of it all, the narrator is both observer and agent. Where does one stand amid complex systems of oppression to resist harm, and at what cost? What is it that we pass on when we form relationships and alliances, however small and temporary? More than the beasts and their mysteries, Strange Beasts of China stretches out the tender links between parent and child, lovers and friends, who cannot always remain. It expresses the joys and sorrows of being by yourself in a maddening metropolis, and of feeling estranged yet connected to your origins in previously unthinkable ways. As the narrator concludes, stories are fleeting, and yet they are all we have. A plethora of tales, bringing individuals together with how strangely we are alive.
How to cite: Leung, Jacqueline. “The Unconcealed Rebellion, Cynicism, Bravery and Romanticism of Being Painfully Young: Reviewing Strange Beasts of China.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 16 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/16/strange-beasts/.
Jacqueline Leung is a writer and a translator from Hong Kong. She is Asymptote’s Hong Kong editor-at-large and Cicada’s translations editor. Her work has appeared in ArtAsiaPacific, the Asian Review of Books, Artomity and Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine. Visit her website for more information.