Yan Ge’s novel, translated by Jeremy Tiang, is a fantastical exploration of life, love, relationships, and the beast-like nature of humans.
Relationships are complicated things. There are so many unspoken rules and rituals that we’re expected to know and follow, and yet no one dares ask any questions about them. Are these just mating routines or initiations into social groups? Why do we blindly follow these customs? How do we come to know them without learning them?
With our heads down and blinkers on, we go through life obsessed about the details of the little pocket of our world that is a tangled mess of relationships – family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances – built on these dances that seem to be choreographed just for us. These experiences are what we deem to be real, satisfied with believing that outside, the world is filled only with fiction, our obsession with our personal truths distracting us from the beauty of the world around us.
When I finished reading Strange Beasts of China, I wrote the passages above. As I started writing this review, I kept coming back to them, trying to understand why I wrote them so that I may explain how they reflect the book, for me. It’s simple and complicated at the same time.
The book opens with a definition of the word ‘beast’ in Chinese, ‘shòu’:
‘Originally used to describe the act of hunting, the meaning of the word shifted over time to the object of the hunt, the prey. More than a neutral word for animal, shòu denotes the absence of humanity, and carries the connotations of savagery and wildness.’
Our protagonist is a failed cryptozoologist who is commissioned to write about the fabled beasts of the (fictional) city of Yong’an, creatures who live alongside humans in near inconspicuousness. Some have lived among humans since ancient times, and others have been artificially engineered more recently. Their relationships with humans are often difficult – with humans constantly trying to tame, analyse, or control the beasts – and always complicated. Written from a first-person perspective, every chapter is a short story that introduces a new beast species, delving into the protagonist’s relationship with it, and how she comes to know of it well enough to write about it. Sometimes it is a matter of research that brings her to the beast, other times it’s a family matter, or even serendipity. Each time the connection is intense and liminal, and brings us closer to understanding her as our writer and narrator that little bit better, while the fantastical concept of the beasts is vividly drawn. The language used to describe them, though, is somewhat plain, giving a bizarrely beautiful effect that is complemented by Jeremy Tiang’s elegant translation.
The book begins with the sorrowful beasts who never smile, as they die when they do; their story is like an incomplete retelling of Romeo and Juliet where one dies but the other survives, raising the question of whether humans and beasts can love each other. The answer is yes, but only if you accept that love transcends life. This first story introduces our writer’s ambiguous relationship with her professor, who we suspect has a personal relationship to her, given the inferred link with the sorrowful beasts and love. This narrative of their relationship is not concluded until near the end of the book, with the story of the heartsick beasts who are now manufactured, though there is legend that they were around in ancient times. They are designed to be loyal and loving, and have the sole purpose of serving their owners for five years. Like children’s toys that mimic pets, these beasts are bought from stores and can take the face of any chosen person. Only through these beasts is our writer able to learn the truth about her past and her relationship with her professor.
The third main character is introduced in the story of the sacrificial beasts: Zhong Liang, the professor’s student who is sent to help our writer in her research. Together they find the sacrificial beasts and our writer learns that while the beasts loved to destroy each other over and over until death, they did so to martyr themselves for mankind to inherit the world, earning them their name. This sacrifice is not unlike that of the impasse beasts in the next story, who eat despair. No one dare kill one, for the despair it has eaten in the course of its life will surge out all at once. Creatures of few words, they came to Yong’an to be teachers to the most wicked orphans in the city.
Through other stories, of the joyous beasts, the flourishing beasts and the thousand league beasts, we are brought close to the climax of the book with the prime beasts, who live short and difficult lives. Our writer, having injured herself, enlists Zhong Liang’s help to type up her latest assignment while she dictates, and through her dictation we are treated to the development of a parallel story, that which our writer is writing about the prime beasts. Both stories – the writer’s own and the story we are reading in the chapter – come together with the knowledge that the female prime beasts, to save their children from suffering, would kill their young, and those who survive would slaughter their parents and feast on their flesh. The book ends with the returning beasts who are small and feeble, but who have the good fortune to lack intelligence. We start to realise that humans are the true beasts; “Every one of us had beast blood, pure or half or a quarter or one part in ten thousand. We reeked of beast stench.”
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 I read the book, I was reminded of the days of my youth, as a teenager and a young adult. It was a phase in my life when I was lured by the novelty of the feelings relationships conjured, the mystical patterns of engagement, and fretted over my actions – the whole experience a strange documentary in my memory now, not unlike this book. Perhaps that feeling is unique to youth, and as we age, we come to accept that the world outside of our experiences isn’t that different, or beastly anymore.
Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang, is published by Tilted Axis Press and is available to order online.
Feature image: detail from book cover, courtesy of Tilted Axis Press