Xue Shengqiang really has it tough. As head of the family, it’s his responsibility to run the chilli bean paste factory that has made his family one of the richest in Pingle, a small city in Sichuan. But his wife, increasingly, seems unhappy about his mistress and other women he philanders with. Shengqiang just wants to go out with his “bros” to drink, fondle hostesses and then have a nice home to go back to. Is that too much to ask? And why is it that despite all this hard work, Shengqiang’s elderly mother (the only one who still has a grip on Shengqiang’s leash) continues to think his brother, Duan Zhiming, is a better son than him, just because Zhiming is a university professor who left town? And then, on the eve of their mother’s 80th birthday, there’s Zhiming yet again, returned for some mysterious reason… and suddenly it seems nothing is going right, no matter how hard Shengqiang tries to fix it.
Once described by Nicky Harman in Words Without Borders as China’s “best untranslated book” (as we know, Harman would go on to translate the book), The Chilli Bean Paste Clan was a notable success upon its original publication in 2014, when the author was barely 20 years old—but, overseas, Yan Ge presents a challenge both to her translator and readers. Like Shengqiang, lurching inebriated from a night at the brothel, the novel’s stream-of-consciousness narrative might wind up pretty much anywhere. One moment we’re in the present; the next, we’re with Shengqiang in the early, better days of his marriage to Anqin, his long-suffering wife who—despite 20 years of philandering—continues to cook him dinner and take care of him when he’s sick. But sleeping with his wife might remind Shengqiang of Baby Girl, a prostitute on Pingle’s Fiftuan Yuan street whom Shengqiang, in his youth, had saved up all his money to visit… though, yet again, that damn brother of his had got to Baby Girl first. And Baby Girl had even given Zhiming a discount on account of his withered hand!
This erratic narrative flow could easily have resulted in a dull, scattered literary experiment—but The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is consistently energetic and compelling to read, even if it is mostly just Shengqiang going through a few fairly normal days. Shengqiang’s perspective gives every interaction a magnified, almost cartoonish intensity: he recoils at each hint of passive aggression, bristles at each new obligation, floods with emotion at every hint of affection. Each member of his large family soon becomes a distinct, comforting presence, wrapped in a blanket of oft-repeated family myth. Shengqiang’s insight into these people is limited, which means ours is as well. But there’s something fascinating or even essential in Yan Ge’s constant emphasis on just how little Shengqiang’s understanding has changed since he was young, or just how long a notion—no matter how bizarre—can linger in his head once it’s gotten stuck there.
One early scene made this clear in a way that seemed especially important to me. Our first glimpse of the family business finds a still-naive, adolescent Shengqiang sweating in the hot sun as he stirs vats of fermenting broad beans with his elderly instructor Chen Xiuliang. But no matter how Shengqiang gropes and thrusts amid that “strong, musky odour” of chilli oil and spices, he just can’t “make the beans happy”, until, at last, Chen tells him, “Shengqiang, you stir the beans like you fuck a woman”, and proceeds to demonstrate with pornographic intensity. Ever since, the funky smell of the bean paste has given Shengqiang an erection; and even today, when he walks past, “he can’t help sneaking glances at those perfectly aligned rows of bean-paste vats where he had had his sexual awakening” in the same way he can’t stop ogling every woman he passes.
All these years later, women still remind Shengqiang of fermenting bean paste, just like his brother still reminds him of Baby Girl, and the thought of his mother reminds him of a time, 40 years earlier, when his mother falsely accused Shengqiang of eating a piece of chicken; and even today, he hasn’t forgiven her for blaming him rather than Zhiming. Again and again, Yan Ge weaves this web of associations tighter. She seems to understand Shengqiang in a way few authors understand their characters. His mental geography has been mapped; his every thought has texture. Even his formidable lust reminds me of a child who—30 years later—is amazed to still be reaching his hand into the cookie jar. And this constant leaping between past and present, of a lifetime of memories wrapped around every inch of a small city, gives the novel the solidity of real life… plus the constant reminder that life really sucks.
Not all readers have liked Harman’s slangy, casual translation—which, interestingly, was the product of extensive, sometimes difficult collaboration with Yan Ge herself, who also writes fiction in English. The phrase “big as a bum cheek” occurs twice; men in the town are “cool dudes”; when Shengqiang gets in trouble, he’s in “deep doodoo”. Harman’s afterword mentions the challenge of the original Sichuan dialect and its barely translatable curses. Plus, how many ways does one language offer to say Shengqiang is getting horny again? However, scattered through the otherwise straightforward narration are bursts of touching, clever word usage, such as when young Shengqiang takes a bite of duck head: “The fat spurted out and ran down his chin. He felt as if he had 20 people all kissing him inside his mouth.” (44) And in the end, I felt the translation was one of the novel’s strengths. Yes, you can definitely tell it’s a translation—but how else could Harman capture all this energy and enthusiasm?
Occasionally even Shengqiang has regrets, like after that heart attack that leads to both his wife and mistress visiting him in the hospital, or sometimes when he’s so drunk he can barely stumble home. (He really has messed up! He should have treated his wife better!) In moments like these, he frequently looks back on Pingle and how it’s changed. Even here, his insight is limited, but the sombre resonance of his recollections hints at larger themes barely grasped. Once, Shengqiang used to know every street, every vendor… but today, all the townspeople shop at the supermarket. Why spend more when those fancy packages don’t change the taste? Shengqiang has been so busy with liquor and women he’s barely noticed all the new, shiny buildings coming up around him. But every day things feel less familiar. His belly keeps growing. And isn’t it sad, really, how things keep slipping away when all he wants to do is relax and have fun?
This, the novel seems to argue, is the psychology of patriarchy. Shengqiang’s world is cartoonish because this is all Pingle requires from him; he views women as toys because he’s never been forced to think of them another way. Essentially, he’s got the emotional maturity of Peter Griffin (yes, from Family Guy) but behaves like Don Draper—and, even less than Mad Men, it’s ambiguous whether the novel is a scathing critique of patriarchy, or a raucous celebration of “boys at play”. Readers on Goodreads and Amazon seemed mostly to struggle with the book; one reviewer mentioned that today we’re conditioned to “expect better”. In interviews, Yan Ge has clarified that she sees the book as being written by a “traumatised woman wanting to get back at those men by writing a story like this.” But she also inhabits the character so fully, so “subtly”, that she’s unwilling to point out thoughts that wouldn’t occur to Shengqiang himself.
I approached this novel expecting a realistic family drama in a small Chinese city; I had no idea I was in for a rollicking Phillip Roth-style sextravaganza. But the novel is also a penetrating unfiltered glimpse of life in a vanished time and place that has rarely been documented so well in English. I enjoyed every little ugly interaction, all the misunderstandings and little arguments; every description of eating hot pot and spicy dumplings and how the city has changed. Occasionally I even laughed out loud. It’s easy to see why the book was a success in China, where, under the more literal title “Our Home”, emphasis has been placed on its themes of family and the corrupting power of money. But it also requires a mindset English-speaking readers seem largely unwilling to give, and I suspect it’s far from the first major novel in translation to be overlooked because it fails to be exactly what we expect it to be.
How to cite: Muntz, Kyle. “The Numbing Funk of Desire: On Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Past Clan.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 26 May 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/05/26/chilli-bean-paste
Kyle Muntz is the author of The Pain Eater (forthcoming July 2022 from Clash Books) and Scary People (Eraserhead Press, 2015). In 2016 he received an MFA in fiction from the University of Notre Dame, in addition to winning the Sparks Prize for short fiction. Currently he teaches literature and writing at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou, China.