[REVIEW] “𝑆𝑡𝑟𝑎𝑛𝑔𝑒 𝐵𝑒𝑎𝑠𝑡𝑠 𝑜𝑓 𝐶ℎ𝑖𝑛𝑎: Harnessing 𝑍ℎ𝑖𝑔𝑢𝑎𝑖 and Magic Realism to Satirise Othering” by Cyril Camus

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Yan Ge (author) and Jeremy Tiang (translator), Strange Beasts of China, Tilted Axis Press, 2020. 314 pgs.

My previous Cha review of a Chinese novel of the fantastic highlighted the ways in which that 19th-century novel (Zou Tao’s The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain) drew on the older literary tradition of zhiguai, among others, to craft a composite novel of greater length than any zhiguai narrative, conveying a mood of combination and summary of all the aspects of a recurring figure of zhiguai: the fox spirit.

In her 2005 article “Haunted Fiction: Modern Chinese Literature and the Supernatural”, Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg identifies zhiguai as a body of reference that is also core to the aesthetics of China’s modern and postmodern literature of the fantastic, i.e. fantastic novels published from the 1980s onwards. Among the recurring features of zhiguai tales that she cites as tropes of more recent fantastic works, there are “forebodings, dreams of premonition, metamorphoses, […] magical objects, and […] the deliberate blurring of borderlines between fantasy and reality” or the “breakdown of […] the distinction between animate and inanimate objects.” Those themes are important aspects of the novel that this review aims to explore, a novel that was first published a year after Wedell-Wedellsborg’s study, and which several commentators, including the novel’s author herself, have characterised as an example of “magical realism”, “magical realist” or “magic-realist”. That particular label refers to an approach to fiction and narrative that “interweave[s] […] a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements”, and it “is used to describe the prose fiction of Jorge Luis Borges […], as well as […] Gabriel García Márquez”, among others. As it happens, “Borges, Márquez, […] and others” are another literary source and template that Wedell-Wedellsborg credits, besides zhiguai, for inspiring the modern trends of Chinese fantastic literature. For those reasons, an examination of the relationships between the novel under review and the models of zhiguai and magic realism seems to be a good starting point to understand what this particular work brings to the table.

Yan Ge is an acclaimed Sichuan-born writer who first published a short story collection at seventeen, and who has lived in Europe since 2015, first in Dublin, and now in Norwich. Her third novel was first published in China in 2006 by CITIC Publishing Group 中信出版社, under the title 兽志》 (Record of Strange Beasts), and its English translation, by Jeremy Tiang, entitled Strange Beasts of China, was published in 2021 by Tilted Axis Press.

At first glimpse, Strange Beasts of China seems to be a series of zany but dark stories or tales, about different imaginary species of “beasts”, that are not parts of a greater cohesive narrative, and are only connected by their similar theme (types of “beasts”), by the fact that they take place in the same fictional modern Chinese town, Yong’an, and by the presence of an embodied, first-person narrator who is common to all of them, a writer who specialises in reporting/fictionalising what she sees, hears or finds out about the various kinds of “beasts” of Yong’an, both in her novels and in her column in “the local newspaper” (which is unnamed, and may or may not be the Yong’an Daily, a local newspaper that is sometimes cited).

So someone who is just beginning to read Yan’s book could not be faulted for believing they have stumbled upon an urban/modern parody/transcontextualisation of the ancient genre of the mythical bestiary, akin to many parts of the Classic of Mountains and Seas, presented in a narratorial form similar to that of G.K. Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades (1905) or of Lawrence Durrell’s short story collections about Antrobus—Esprit de Corps (1957), Stiff Upper Lip (1958), and Sauve Qui Peut (1966) (as explained in carlym_35’s comment at the bottom of this page). Such a premise is already promising and intriguing, but, as one progresses through the chapters, the book proves much less episodic and much more novelistic in structure than it first appears. Indeed, it becomes clear that the digressions about the narrator’s fraught relationships with her fellow human Yong’an citizens, combined with her fascination with beasts illustrated throughout, and her increasing personal involvement in the affairs of the beasts she writes about, add up to a gradual lifting of the veil of secrecy that covers her own origins. Her distant and now late mother is revealed to have been romantically involved, before the narrator’s birth, with the famous and powerful zoology professor who later taught the narrator at Yong’an University, when she studied zoology before dropping out. The narrator also finds out more and more suggestions or proof, as the novel draws to its end, that her irritable former professor (who has become her late former professor by the end of the book) was actually her biological father, that her best friend was really a beast who had undergone surgery (performed by the zoology professor) to be able to pass as human, and that all of the human residents of Yong’an may actually be beasts who have forgotten they are beasts, while the only real humans might be one specific species of beasts called “returning beasts”, who live hidden, under the city, and are believed by the citizenry to be psychopomps of some sort. (To be clear, what the narrator studied at Yong’an U, and what the professor specialises in, is Yong’an’s strange beasts, not real extradiegetic animals like peacocks or dolphins, which leads some commentators (including the publisher) to rephrase the subject title as “cryptozoology”, even though that term is never used in the novel, and most of the beasts do not hide from human view, nor is their existence unacknowledged by science in the book’s diegesis, so their status is not really that of cryptids like America’s Bigfoot, Scotland’s Nessie or China’s Yeren (野人).)

The creatures discussed include sorrowful beasts (which cannot smile, because it causes them to die when they do; the female can mate with male humans and produce human children, so they are married off to rich humans, and the chapter ends up revealing that male sorrowful beasts can also mate with women during a full moon, but then a green mouth they have on their belly devours their partner, and the male beast transforms into a female beast and a perfect lookalike to his human victim, which is what happens to an acquaintance of the narrator’s); joyous beasts (which take possession of humans when they are children, and eat them from inside during a very long lifetime; then they leave their—by then dead—hosts in the shape of a beautiful, phoenix-like bird); sacrificial beasts (which are named after a legend according to which they sacrificed themselves a long time ago so that humans could inherit the world; additionally, male sacrificial beasts kill themselves in very gory, spectacular ways every month, and since each of those monthly suicides inspires a bunch of humans to do the same, the city decides to kill off all the sacrificial beasts to put an end to their deadly influence—although it is later revealed that the male sacrificial beasts do not actually commit suicide, and that it is humans who have persuaded female sacrificial beasts to murder their male mates to keep sacrificial beasts’ population growth checked); impasse beasts (which themselves get “tamed” by humans—as one of them is by the narrator—and become very helpful, loving, apparently nurturing, reassuring companions but are actually feeding off their human tamer’s despair; when they leave, the human has no despair left, which makes them hazardously careless, so those humans usually die soon after; moreover, whenever an impasse beast dies, all the despair they have consumed is released out of them, resulting in a civil war, and that’s why impasse beasts constantly move from town to town, fleeing the chaos and violence they have caused); flourishing beasts (which are grown like plants, then cut into pieces that are buried like seeds when they die, and if the new sprouts do not grow into new beasts, they are cut down and turned into luxury furniture for wealthy humans); thousand league beasts (which were reportedly able to see a thousand leagues in the distance and a thousand years in the future, and are supposed to be extinct, but the discovery of two of their skeletons by a pair of archaeologists may lead some to rethink that assumption, and others to their deaths); heartsick beasts (which were artificially created by humans and are manufactured to be bought as companions and role models for human children—and the buyers can choose what face the beast will have when they buy it; once the human child that owns them grows up, the heartsick beasts are recycled into food, Soylent Green-like, but since their skin was also designed to be poisonous so that the kids would not eat them when they are young; this leads to issues, like an epidemic of violence, unrest and murder, and a no less brutal and murderous crackdown from the authorities); prime beasts (whose “fate” is to kill their parents, for fear that their parents might kill them, because their mothers did take the habit of bestowing mercy killings on their children, as, historically, prime beasts are “descendants from criminals” and used to spend most of their lives in captivity); and the aforementioned returning beasts.

Each chapter starts with a description of the species of beasts it will be about. Those descriptions are written in a matter-of-fact tone, mimicking a scientific/classificatory notice and combining details about the beasts’ distinctive physical features, and about things they like or dislike, especially with regard to food. The tone clashes with the seemingly odd and random contents of those descriptive notices: sorrowful beasts “love cauliflower and mung beans, vanilla ice cream and tangerine pudding”, they “fear trains, bitter gourd and satellite TV” and the male ones have “scales on the inside of their left calves and fins attached to their right ears”; joyous beasts “love breakfast cereal and plain water, and dislike greasy, strong-tasting foods”, they “enjoy fantasy novels, and hate maths” and they look “no different in appearance from a human child of six or seven, apart from a slightly longer left arm with five to seven claws at the wrist”. Those sound like earnest biology textbook entries about a Lewis Carrollesque version of evolutionary taxonomy, or about mildly mutated specimens of Jack Kirby’s Deviants. To add to the reader’s puzzlement, each of those expository entries invariably ends with the conclusion: “Other than that, they’re just like regular people”, which may seem a strange way of ending a paragraph in which you have listed significant ways in which the subject is not like regular people (again, “fins attached to their right ears”—not to mention that impasse beasts also have fins, albeit between their toes), but the present review will offer, later, an opportunity to interpret this leitmotiv in light of the symbolic and ideological framework of the stories.

As far as their connections with zhiguai and magic realism are concerned, these introductory passages foreshadow what is a crucial aspect of the mood encountered in the rest of the stories: “the deliberate blurring of borderlines between fantasy and reality”—which is both a feature of zhiguai according to Wedell-Wedellsborg, and a defining characteristic of magic or “magical” realism according to Maggie Ann Bowers (2004), who describes “magic realism” as “art that attempts to produce a clear depiction of reality that includes a presentation of the mysterious elements of everyday life”, “magical realism” as “narrative art that presents extraordinary occurrences as an ordinary part of everyday reality”, and “magic(al) realism”—the subject of her study—as “the artistic concept that encapsulates aspects of both magic realism and magical realism”. Quoting from Lois Zamora and Wendy Faris’s 1995 book on the subject, Bowers adds that “magical realism” basically refers to “narrative fiction that includes magical happenings in a realist matter-of-fact narrative, whereby, ‘the supernatural is not a simple or obvious matter, but it is an ordinary matter, and everyday occurrence—admitted, accepted, and integrated into the rationality and materiality of literary realism’”. So, in concrete terms, it could be described as a version of fantasy fiction that completely shatters the distinction between “high fantasy”, i.e., tales of imaginary lands where the supernatural is the norm (or, in the famous words of Marshall Tymn, Kenneth Zahorski and Robert H. Boyer’s 1979 essay “On Fantasy”, “[t]he worlds of high fantasy are secondary worlds, such as the Forest Sauvage, Middle Earth, or Prydain, and they manifest a consistent order that is explainable in terms of the supernatural”) and “low fantasy”, i.e., the confrontation of the supernatural with a context representing the ordinary and rational reality (or, as Tymn, Zahorski and Boyer put it, “On the other hand, the world of low fantasy is the primary world—this real world we live in”).[1] Instead of being describable in terms of one or the other, magic, or magical, realism actually hybridises the two, by depicting a world in which the supernatural occurs in a context representing the ordinary and rational reality; yet nobody is shocked, as the supernatural occurrence is seen as completely normal.

In Strange Beasts of China, this is encapsulated by those chapter introductions, in the manner of National Geographic or L’Encyclopédie du savoir relatif et absolu, about the beasts, but it is also obvious, more generally, in the way Yong’an is described. Indeed, the town is, as previously mentioned, fictional, and full of outlandish fictional species of humanoid “beasts”, so it does meet the main requirements to be depicted as part of a very typical “secondary world”, as Tymn, Zahorski and Boyer call the supernatural-filled imaginary settings of high fantasy works, using a terminology borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1964 essay “On Fairy Stories”. Yet, it is depicted as part of the “primary world”: it is part of the Luoding District, which doesn’t exist but sounds like a Chinese geographical subdivision and has the name of an actual town in Guangdong province. China itself is largely unnamed, as the country where the story takes place, and it is not even named in the original title of the novel, but it is featured prominently in the title of Tiang’s translation, and there is one passage in which a young woman is described as having a “flat Chinese face that only grew animated when she smiled”. The characters have the kinds of activities those of many modern novels set in the primary world would have: hanging out in a bar, reading the local newspaper, writing columns for it, attending a university, carrying out research at the municipal archives, flying back from a holiday trip, working in a factory, in a shop, and so on. There are also references to other, foreign parts of the diegesis, which are clearly not otherworldly, from the point of view of the “primary world”—e.g., the narrator’s relatives’ trip to “South East Asia”; Zhong Liang (the zoology professor’s protégé) asking the narrator “Do you prefer Japanese cuisine or Korean barbecue?” or the mention of “French windows” in a brief description of Zhong Liang’s parents’ living room. This sounds decidedly not like the border countries of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, or any of the regions in Novoland (九州) (Pan Haitian et al). Finally, there are passages that, for all their usefulness in terms of plot, feel like digressions that help build up a realist setting and mood. This may be epitomised by those few lines explaining how Yong’an’s local textile industry fares economically, as a way of establishing male sorrowful beasts’ condition as exploited labour:

The Ping Le Cotton Mill stood along the lower reaches of the Peacock River. It produced well-stitched blankets, bed sheets and towels to be shipped far and wide. Because the male beasts were so skilled with their hands, they held sway here, more or less dominating the market in Yong’an City. But their lives were hard, because the government imposed such high taxes on them.

Yet, for all those visible signs of “primary-worldliness” and strokes of 21st-century literary realism, everyday reality in Yong’an is also described as follows, without any acknowledgement of a contradiction between the two aspects of the depiction: “[n]ights in Yong’an City were full of animal cries of no discernible origin”; “[t]his city is too full of monsters, too enchanting, too bewitching”; “Yong’an City has countless beasts, some identical to human beings, some truly monstrous”; “Prime beasts have […] gills shaped like bamboo leaves on their neck. Their lips are purplish, their hair reddish, and on their backs are breathing holes in the shape of crescent moons, about an inch long and covered by translucent red skin” etc. The aforementioned fact that the study of the city’s strange beasts is consistently called “zoology” and not “cryptozoology” is a glaring example of how the clash of “realism” and “magic” is never acknowledged, is actually not, in this instance, a “clash” at all, but a seamless hybridity of genres—that can nevertheless be jarring for readers who are not used to venturing outside clear-cut low fantasy and high fantasy works.

Among the other tropes of zhiguai identified by Wedell-Wedellsborg as recurring features of today’s Chinese fantastic literature (and which are also part of the array of supernatural events that put the “magic” into “magic realism”), Strange Beasts of China also contains “metamorphoses, […] magical objects, and” the “breakdown of […] the distinction between animate and inanimate objects” (instances of which have already been cited: the metamorphosis of femicidal male sorrowful beasts into female sorrowful beasts that are also their victims’ lookalikes, the metamorphosis of joyous beasts into birds, or magical objects that belong simultaneously in the realm of the animate and inanimate, such as the sentient, potentially smiling and seductive, potentially jealous and murderous, furniture that results from a dead flourishing beast’s ungrown sprouts) as well as “forebodings, dreams of premonition” (the narrator dreams of the joyous beast she saw on a photo before getting involved in a search for a missing woman who will prove to be that very joyous beast, then another dream about the beast provides clues in advance to the writer, as to the birdlike aspects of the beast’s nature; Zhong Liang searches for a woman he dreamed of, only to find out that she’s a heartsick beast he had as a playmate when he was a child; finally, when she is hiding at the temple flourishing beasts attend to, the narrator dreams of a figure resembling her mother, “young but with pure white hair”, and seemingly in pain, “as if [the narrator specifies] ants were nibbling at her entrails”; this dream actually foreshadows several twists and turns of that particular story, i.e., the death of one of the flourishing beasts, from an insect infestation, and the revelation of the actual reason why Zhong Liang’s uncle Zhong Ren is obsessively trying to convince the narrator to marry him: he is madly in love with a flourishing beast that has been turned into a white luxury chair for him, and whose face is carved in the back, and alive, and looks like the narrator’s mother and hence, like the narrator—as flourishing beasts grow to resemble the humans who look after them when they are young saplings, and the narrator’s mother used to take care of many of them).

As was pointed out in my review of The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain, zhiguai stories were often designed, in part, as a pretext for delivering moral reflections. According to Leo Tak-hung Chan, they were “didactic”—either they “engaged in […] proselytizing efforts” or they “promoted morality.” Magic realism is also a genre known for wearing on its sleeves philosophical and ideological purposes, such as “writ[ing] against totalitarian regimes […] [or] systems (e.g. colonialism)”. In the case of Strange Beasts of China, there are both “micro-philosophical” points that are made in some of the various “stories of beasts” (like, for example, in the impasse beasts’ story, the idea that every part of an individual’s personality is important and must be cherished, even their sadness), and a “macro-philosophical” idea that is present throughout. The latter has been analysed and very convincingly argued for by Ksenia Shcherbino in her BSFApublished essay “Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China” (2021).

In that essay, Shcherbino depicts Yan’s novel as a “unique experience of sieving through the questions of migration, acceptance, domination and hybridity in the body of a chimera, a creature of fantasy”, and Yong’an as a “postcolonial space where the story of subjugation of the beasts, or the struggle for de/re territorialisation is already part of history, and the question that haunts both humans and beasts is the same that haunts in our day and time: how the interdependence of colonisers and the colonised has shaped—and continues shaping—our understanding of the world”. In other words, Strange Beasts of China creates and explores a highly symbolic diegesis in which the experience of the beasts, as described through the lens of the narrator’s outsider’s viewpoint, stands for the experience of both colonised natives and migrants from colonised places roaming the coloniser’s “home country,” while Yong’an stands for a bit of both, “home country” and colonised place—in proportions that remain difficult to ascertain, as all the “secrets” uncovered by the narrator and her sidekicks (the zoology professor and Zhong Liang) in the course of the novel’s overarching story are secrets because of the original trauma of subjugation and racist violence from which they sprung (as in the case of the fraught relations of mutual murders between parents and children among prime beasts, because of the original systematic captivity of that particular species), or of actual manipulation of history and of public memory to try to erase the coloniser’s act of subjugation behind seemingly endogenic violence (as in the case of the so-called “suicides” of male sacrificial beasts).

In this perspective, the way the beasts are depicted to the reader (through the classificatory notices introducing each story, with their emphasis on the oddities of their bodies and behaviours even as the message claims to be that “they’re just like regular people”) appears to be a clever satire of the process of othering as it manifests in oppressive discourse towards marginalised communities such as migrants and colonised people (i.e., the “stereotyping and racialisation” of designated objects of discourse, which are thus “defin[ed] […] as ‘Others’” so as to implicitly elevate the Otherer/stereotyper/racialiser to the status of “sovereign subject”). In this case, of course, the beasts are the “Others” of a mainstream scientific discourse built by humans to “other” those subjugated, marginalised, colonised beings. Actually, the very fact that the stories of beasts are systematically mediated by the outsider’s viewpoint of the narrator is part of that very mimicry of the othering process, as Shcherbino points out: “Even when it is the beast who asks the narrator to tell their story, it is never in their words that it is passed on. The stories are altered by the narrator to reflect her fantasies, sometimes completely ignoring the facts or original message.

Many other aspects of the violence that has been inflicted on colonised and marginalised communities find their way into the novel, from literal genocide like the mass killing of sacrificial beasts agreed on by the town council at the end of their story, to the kind of quiet chemical/surgical genocide that becomes manifest when we are told that female sorrowful beasts who marry rich male humans must “undergo hypnosis or surgery to eliminate [their] beastly memory, and have monthly hormone shots to suppress [their] beastly nature,” or when Zhong Liang reveals to the narrator that her drinking companion Charley is a beast who was subjected to the same kinds of medical procedures to “change his brain chemistry, alter[…] his bodily functions, until he could live like a human being.”

There is at least one other compelling kind of daily subjugation that the beasts, like the marginalised “Others” of racist, classist, sexist and colonialist discourse and policy, have to contend with. That form of oppression is their commodification. That includes exploitation of their labour force (as was mentioned earlier concerning the male sorrowful beasts’ manufacturing toil, and one could add, for example, the employment of impasse beasts as educators in difficult schools), the commercial exploitation of their stories (by the narrator), and sexual exploitation (in the case of female sorrowful beasts in particular). Furthermore, there are at least two instances in which Shcherbino’s postcolonial study’s evocation of “[t]he beasts’ colonised bodies […], […] often likened to domesticated cattle that have no autonomous agency”, can be seen as intertwined with another of Wedell-Wedellsborg’s zhiguai traits that she lists in her own essay: “the literal realisation of metaphoric language”. Indeed, heartsick beasts and flourishing beasts are not just treated as commodities, in the world-town of Strange Beasts of China: they are, very literally, commodities, as the former are man-made and mass-produced as glorified pets or docile playmates, then recycled as food (a most horrifying mixture of the premises of Gattaca, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Soylent Green, which very rightly prompts Dr. Rachel Franklin to call that story “one of the most dystopian stories” in her World Literature Today review of the book), and the latter are transformed into luxury furniture (and even worse, as Shcherbino points out, “taught to yearn to be killed and call it their true form”). So, in both cases, what is usually a metaphor that can only be taken literally by slavery apologists (these living, breathing, intelligent, sensitive and self-conscious individuals are objects, made to be owned and used) is literal, in the novel’s world, through the very inclusion of the supernatural that makes it a fantasy, or a magic realist, novel. Thus fantasy/magic realism itself is revealed to be part of the process of othering that results from depicting the beasts from the narrow viewpoint of a “human” narrator, even as the notions of “humans” and “beasts” are so vague that the novel ends up suggesting that the “humans” of its story are beasts that forgot what they are. In the meantime, though, before this revelation, heartsick beasts and flourishing beasts seem to be the perfect constructs to justify the subjugation of beasts by “humans” (and the narrator, a perfect propagandist and apologist for Yong’an’s systemic oppression of those that Yong’anites call “beasts”). That theme of a whole society framing the beasts as the Other to better oppress them is actually announced at the very onset of the book, through an epigraph that explains the meaning and etymology of 兽, the word from the original title that is rendered as “beast” in Jeremy Tiang’s translation. First it says “Originally used to describe the act of hunting, the meaning of the word shifted over time to the object of the hunt, the prey”, which establishes early on that, no matter how scary and dangerous the beasts will be made to seem, the reader must keep in mind that they are the victims, the oppressed, the “prey” of the predatory society and culture of “humans”. Then, the short text ends up pointing out that, “[m]ore than a neutral word for animal, 兽 denotes the absence of humanity, and carries the connotations of savagery and wildness,” thus explicitly describing, from the start, one of the aspects or methods of othering that will be at play through the whole story: dehumanisation.

From that presentation, the novel could appear to the prospective reader as unmitigatedly grim and basically a political horror novel. In many ways, it is, actually, a political horror novel—among other things, though. For example, it is also a novel about relationships, as Yen Ooi suggests in her review, by prefacing it with a quotation of two paragraphs of the novel that try to express the elusive nature of people’s ties with their “family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances”. As she interprets it, the novel is about relationships insofar as it is about the narrator’s opportunities to get to know the beasts, and how it makes her grow as a person, and leads the reader to get to know her (“Each time the connection is intense and liminal, and brings us closer to understanding her as our writer and narrator that little bit better”), as well as the evolution of the relationships of the narrator with two of her fellow humans, a complex father figure and a tentative love interest (“Though the beasts are the central theme to the book, the true story is about our protagonist and her relationship with her elusive ex-professor and his student, Zhong Liang. The beasts’ characteristics give us an opportunity to reflect on our human traits, knowing that the difference between beasts and humans is negligible, and allow our writer to uncover her own stories and truths, particularly with regard to her past with the professor and her future with Zhong Liang”).

As should be clear from the previous paragraphs, it does not seem fair to claim that the narrator’s relationships and growth as a person are “the true story” (italics mine), and that the stories of the beasts are but a symbolic pretext to structure this intimate Bildungsroman. Rather, the two aspects of the story, what could be called its dark postcolonial politics and the poignant heart embodied by its protagonist’s late coming of age, are intertwined in many ways, and thus equally contribute to the richness of the novel. For instance, Shcherbino gives several examples of how the novel is (also) a story of relationships even from the perspective of her postcolonial interpretation. Indeed, she argues, “beasts can exercise subversive power by developing emotional bonds with a human”. Her main examples of that are the case of impasse beasts—which “create a bond similar to maternal, and characterised by complete dependence of the human as the beast makes them feel recognised and loved”, so much so that the human becomes incapable of functioning properly, and swiftly falls to their death, “[o]nce the bond is disrupted”—and the case of male sorrowful beasts—which “exploit physical attraction” to reverse the relationship of violence and dominance between them and their human “colonisers”, taking complete control of the body and agency of those who claimed to be entitled to control them:

Thus, sorrowful beasts are taken as desirable partners, without any consideration of their feelings. Yet it is the very act of dominance and total access that enables victims to hack their persecutors. Through the act of making love male sorrowful beasts devour their human partners and become their human likeness. They digest the consciousness of their lovers (a parallel of what was done to tranquilized and medicated female sorrowful beasts) and ultimately become new female beasts, generation after generation. The narrator starts the story of her painter friend Lefty, who tamed a sorrowful beast—but it turns out it was the beast who tamed her.

One story thread that I would argue is central, and encompasses both Yen’s emphasis on the narrator’s relationships and growth and Shcherbino’s emphasis on the beasts’ complex relationships of postcolonial “hybridity and interdependence” with their human “colonisers”, is what I perceive as the narrator’s desperate and relatively implicit quest for a family, and, hence, for a community to belong to. I think that is probably one of the main aspects of her characterisation: since she was a child, she has suffered from not knowing her father at all, and not really knowing her mother all that well either. The importance of that childhood trauma becomes particularly clear when the end of the novel reveals the kind of information she lacked and needed to get in order to move on with her life: “My father and mother. How did they fall in love? Why couldn’t they stay together? I didn’t know, but that didn’t matter. They loved each other, and they loved me. That was enough” (italics mine).

Her mother is depicted as a wise figure, whose advice and thoughts pepper the protagonist’s narrative, implying that she has left a deep impression on her daughter (“My mother had smiled and said, ‘We’ll be dead, but new people will arrive. Back to the beginning, on and on. As for us, we’ll meet again in the distance, perhaps as strangers who once brushed past each other’”; “Sometimes I dreamt of my mother telling me stories of beasts”; “My mother told me long ago that beasts are beasts, and that no matter what, will always be different from humans”; “My mother used to say: ‘Never cry, or your tears will water your sorrow and it’ll grow.’”) Some of her reported aphorisms are actually expressions of the philosophical underpinnings of the novel (“My mother used to tell me, ‘You can’t be sure that beasts aren’t people, or that people aren’t just another type of beast”; “My mother would say, ‘The beasts all want to eat people, just as people eat them’.”) At the same time, that tenderly overwhelming mother figure is also absent at the time the story takes place, as she died a decade ago. Yet she’s also omnipresent, not only because her words have “colonised” her daughter’s speech, but also because several characters are her lookalikes in the flourishing beasts’ story—and that is also a testament to the deep impression she has left on the flourishing beasts she used to know—along with the way they talk about her, as with Methuselah’s “It’s been ten years, and I still miss her a lot”.

Most importantly, she becomes a more ambiguous figure, more aloof, secretive, and less positive, when she is revealed to have told the narrator a very serious lie about her own origin—a lie that ends up endangering her, and, at the very least, causes her more distress. That occurs during the prime beasts’ story. In that chapter, a prime beast is trying to kill the narrator, and has already mugged and injured her, because she has reached out to the community of prime beasts to claim that she is, herself, a hybrid of a human and a prime beast—as her mother told her when she was a child—and to ask to become part of the community. As a result, in conformity with the prime beasts’ “tradition” of parents and children killing each other, one of the beasts tries to kill the narrator to protect her alleged prime beast father, whom, he assumes, she will try to kill. In the end, the “father” saves her by revealing that this whole story is a lie, and that is when the narrator starts to realise who her real father is.

With this network of secrets, lies and disappointments in her background, the narrator is depicted, through most of the novel, as a loner who spends most of her time getting drunk at the Dolphin Bar, and the relationships she actually builds all have a sense, about them, of looking for a family and/or community. Thus, she clings (reciprocally) to an irritable, demanding, sometimes helpful and supportive, often manipulative, unhelpful and insulting, father figure, who she does not even yet know is her actual biological father (the zoology professor). When an infatuated old man (Zhong Liang’s uncle) starts to harass her, she finds refuge in the motherly and sisterly environment of the flourishing beasts’ temple (which is not only motherly and sisterly in its general atmosphere, but is symbolically tied to the narrator’s actual mother—not only because she spent a lot of time there, but also, we learn, because she died there). Her best friend Charley is a kind of brotherly figure, as they met when she was still a zoology student, became fast friends and have remained so until the time of the novel’s story (and he is even explicitly compared to a brother in the book: “Charley brought me home and poured me a glass of milk, then put me to bed like a big brother”), and, when he disappears into an asylum to avoid being killed with the rest of the sacrificial beasts, she finds refuge (a dangerous one) in the fatherly/motherly care of an impasse beast (tellingly, he ingratiates himself with her by claiming that she reminds him of his daughter; likewise, an earlier, brief passage in which she tames a sacrificial beast also references family as an ideal she pursues: as they sleep together, she comments, “His heat, like my mother’s, soothed me to sleep”). Finally, she tries to join the community of prime beasts, falsely believing that she is blood-related to some of them, that her father is one of their kind, and she only finds some kind of peace when she uncovers enough of her parents’ secrets to be reassured that they both loved her despite their strange, distant, secretive behaviour towards her. In the meantime, some of her most intense involvements with other people are related to protecting her cousin, her cousin’s husband and, especially, their daughter, the narrator’s young niece, Lucia (first, she tries to prevent the latter’s sadness at the mass killing of sacrificial beasts at the end of their story, by interceding with the zoology professor to try to prevent the mass killing itself; then she actually saves the little family from being put to death themselves in the story of heartsick beasts, when the city of Yong’an decides, in order to avoid a contagion of violence, to execute all the holidaymakers who have just flown back from South East Asia). This craving for family ties is also, like most of the subtexts of the book, explicitly evoked when the narrator’s thoughts on family appear, just before we are first introduced to her niece: “families were a great institution. Like the roots of a tree, they gave you life and sustained you, and even when you died, you stayed rooted.”

Now, several of those interactions are actually part of the dynamic of oppression/othering/commodification/dehumanisation that has been noted earlier, as they involve the narrator and other humans casually using the beasts for their own benefit, without necessarily realising that they are using them. When the narrator tries to save the sacrificial beasts for the sake of her niece, the relationship that her niece has with the beasts is actually that of a young visitor at a zoo with the caged animals she goes watch at the zoo. The young child might feel tenderness, empathy towards the beasts, but that does not change the fact that they are displayed for her entertainment, and thus dehumanised and commodified. Likewise, when the narrator enjoys the flourishing beasts’ hospitality and fidelity to her mother’s memory, that relationship is clearly destined to only last until Zhong Liang’s uncle leaves the narrator alone. She might claim to “like” Locust, one of the young beasts whom she befriends at the temple, and that “[f]inally, [her] heart [is] at rest” in the company of those kind-hearted, half-vegetal priestesses, and “tears [may] beg[i]n rolling down [Locust’s] cheeks” when she learns that the narrator will soon leave, but that does not change the fact that the narrator wanted to join this family/community for as long as they would be useful to her, and once the flourishing beasts’ care and hospitality becomes less useful as the circumstances change, at once, as Methuselah puts it, the narrator is “just happy […] [that n]ow she can leave […] [and] go drinking and partying again”.

That is not to say that the protagonist is characterised as a hypocritical oppressor who willingly mistreats the beasts while only posturing as their ally among humans. At no point can the character be suspected of harbouring immoral designs: she is constantly shown as trying to be caring, as being genuinely distressed at the idea of mass killing (be it of beasts or humans—or birds, as it seems that Yong’an’s authorities are so fond of massacres that they have also engaged into what the narrator calls a “ridiculous campaign to get rid of all the birds”), and deeply hurt by every loss of a friend or any kind of loved one that happens throughout the book (including, in particular, Charley, and later the professor). So the indictment those transactional relationships call for is not so much the indictment of the narrator, as it is the indictment of the society she lives in, and the place it reserves for the beasts in the lives of humans like the narrator. It does mean, though, that the quest for family and community that drives the narrator is inextricable from the postcolonial dance of hidden and open oppression, subversion, ambivalent hybridity and transactional alliances analysed by Ksenia Shcherbino. The experience of the narrator with prime beasts, in particular, and the lie her mother told her about her origins, were reminiscent, to me, of a similar postcolonial experience that has been exemplified several times in recent years, in the context of the United States: those people who have assumed throughout their lives that they are part Native American, usually because of the longstanding claims of some parent or relative, and regardless of whether either genealogy or Native American nations’ acknowledgement actually back those claims. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was, a few years ago, at the centre of such a controversy, as has been, more recently, the late Sacheen Littlefeather.

Finally, there is also a lot of humour in the book, which is another way in which the grimness of the satire is mitigated for the reader. Most of it has to do with the characterisation of the narrator too. Indeed, her wry humour is regularly displayed in the narrative and descriptive style. Thus, she uses the vocabulary of fashion to describe the influence of sacrificial beasts’ fake suicides on impressionable humans: “The sacrificial beasts were trendsetters in the world of suicide, just like when fashion magazines predict that black will be the hottest colour of the fall/winter season or that goths will be back in style.” She also makes up absurdly petty motivations for odd behaviours she observes: “I don’t know when people stopped saying goodbye. Anything to cut down on phone bills.” She even phrases her description of a nightmare she had as an explicit parody of slapstick cinema: “That night, I dreamed about being at university again. Like a dark joke, my professor inexplicably forced me to buy every garlic scape in the city—or he’d drop me from his classes, and I’d never graduate. Like Charlie Chaplin, I scurried around with no expression, grabbing every tin I could find” (italics mine). Often, bitter sarcasm gives more colour to her description and characterisation of others, especially Zhong Liang (“my professor’s latest lapdog”) or the professor (“My face was yellowish and devoid of expression, my eyes were dark. If my professor could have seen me like this, he’d definitely have a string of insults ready”).

Predictably, a character with that kind of personality also often displays it in the witty one-liners she constantly hurls at the people she talks to. Thus, when Zhong Liang offers her a “large box of instant noodles”, she mischievously protests: “Zhong Liang, are you trying to murder your elders? There’s got to be enough preservatives in here to turn me into a mummy.” After she has questioned the professor’s ability to find information the way he used to, he has replied “That’s right, you’ve aggravated me into old age!” and he has later called back with some information he found, she cheekily deduces: “So you’re rejuvenated.”

This wry wit is combined with a fierce and unapologetic passion for alcohol (“We drank all evening,” “So many sweet memories. Me and Charley at the Dolphin Bar, the two of us matching a table of fifteen, shot for shot,” “All April, I drank alone at the Dolphin Bar. Every single night ended with me drunk and sprawled on the table asleep, or else quietly spewing my guts out in the toilet,” “One night, as I was downing my eleventh drink,” “I bought [Zhong Liang] a drink; he held his liquor well. I could have made a bad boy out of him—but then would I get in trouble with my professor?”) and, despite her craving for family and community, a no less fierce and resolute will to remain (or appear) self-reliant—as, when the impasse beast first starts to live at her place and take care of her, her first response is: “You’ll have to leave after this meal. I’m used to living alone, and I don’t need a tame beast.” (Later, after she has been assaulted by a prime beast, Zhong Liang jokes about that aspect of her personality—albeit in a cheekily sexist fashion: “You’ve been eating solidly for three hours now, you pig! So you got mugged—you don’t get to sit around gorging yourself! Don’t give up on yourself just because you’re a spinster”—italics mine) While reading the novel, I felt that this whole characterisation, every aspect of it, makes Yan’s narrator a kind of forerunner to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedic character Fleabag. That dry humour certainly contributes to the aesthetic richness of the experience of dwelling into this fully-formed, magic-realist world full of zhiguai, dystopian and postcolonial elements that make up for an equally thoughtful and entertaining read, replete with shudders, laughter and poignancy, as well as food for righteous indignation, but also, as Shcherbino suggests, “hope and love” inspired by the “possibilities opened by the constant renegotiation of identity and authority” in a literary space where the othered beasts are clearly, in the end, “just like regular people,” and where “[y]ou can’t be sure that beasts aren’t people, or that people aren’t just another type of beast”.

[1] Tymn, Zahorski and Boyer’s “low fantasy” actually corresponds to what is usually called “le fantastique” (i.e., “the fantastic”) in French, whereas “high fantasy” is what French readers, writers and theorists have long called “le merveilleux” (i.e., “the marvellous”), but also very often call, nowadays, “la fantasy,” as Jacques Baudou explains in his 2005 essay La Fantasy. Tzvetan Todorov summarises that traditional definition of the fantastic as a French equivalent for “low fantasy” as follows: “In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, without devils, sylphides or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world”—even though the whole point of his own essay The Fantastic (1970) was to devise a new, more convoluted definition of that term (“Either the devil is an illusion, an imaginary being; or else he really exists […]. The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous”) which has not superseded the traditional definition in everyday or even literary or academic use, as shown by Jacques Baudou’s example—but also, for instance, that of Michel Houellebecq, as in his 1991 essay on H.P. Lovecraft, he describes the typical beginning of a classic “récit fantastique” (“fantastic narrative”) in the “traditional” terms” although Dorna Khazeni unhelpfully translated “récit fantastique” as “weird story” in the English version of the essay.

Other reviews on the same work in Cha:

How to cite: Camus, Cyril. “Strange Beasts of China: Harnessing Zhiguai and Magic Realism to Satirise Othering”Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 16 Nov. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/11/16/beasts.


picture Cyril Camus.jpg

Cyril Camus teaches English to post-secondary students at Ozenne High School in Toulouse and is an associate member of the Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes research group of Toulouse University. He wrote Mythe et fabulation dans la fiction fantastique et merveilleuse de Neil Gaiman (2018), a monograph on Neil Gaiman’s works, Sang de Boeuf (Bouchers et acteurs) (2019), a historical horror novel about the Grand Guignol Theatre, and academic papers on Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, comics, music, rewritings of Shakespeare, and postmodern fantasy. He also co-edited a 2021 journal issue on the themes of societal and environmental collapse in fantasy and science fiction. Visit his website for more information.

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