Yan Ge: 异兽志 (Strange Beasts of China)
There is a city in the south that is full of beasts — beasts who rage and love, gather and leave, just as humans do. You might think that this is the opening sentence but it is, in fact, the final sentence. It does, however, succinctly sum up the book.
Our narrator is a woman novelist though the publisher’s blurb (but not the book itself) calls her a cryptozoologist. The creatures the narrator studies and writes about are the eponymous strange beasts.
The novel is set in Yong’an. There are several places of that name in China, of which this is one. Yong means forever, which may or may not relevant.
Many of these beasts seem to be humanoid. We learn of their history: fifty or sixty years ago, Yong’an had a great many beasts, and human beings were just one breed among them; but then war broke out, and amid this unrest, people battled the beasts for an entire decade. … Most of the beasts vanished, driven to extinction.
We follow each one in turn. We invariably get a description of their habits and appearance, followed by the sentence otherwise, they’re just like regular people. The first ones we meet, for example, are the sorrowful beasts. We learn that they are gentle by nature, and prefer the cold and dark. They love cauliflower and mung beans, vanilla ice cream and tangerine pudding. They fear trains, bitter gourd and satellite TV. In other words, they seem to have peculiarities like other humans. They do differ in appearance from other humans somewhat. The males have scales on the insides of their left calves and fins attached to their right ears. The skin around their belly buttons is dark green. The females, while having their peculiarities, seem to have features found in some other humans. The one big differences for both sexes is they cannot smile. If they do, they die.
The male sorrowful beasts are skilled with their hands so they weave textiles, while the females are good-looking so they tend to work in retail. The females can mate with humans and, as they are often good-looking, they do so and can produce children. Indeed, they seem to be trophy wives for the local rich. The males, however, cannot mate with human females. The result was a lot of lonely males, as the women had married humans.
One feature they have is that for three days at the full moon, they lose the ability of human speech and squawk like birds instead. One of the laws introduced was,in order to marry humans, they had to have hormone shots to reduce their beastly nature. Our narrator is worried that this will kill them off.
Though males cannot mate with humans, Lefty, a woman artist and friend of the narrator, fell for a male sorrowful beast, called Cloud. He slept quietly at night, didn’t talk much, loved baths, and ate nothing but three vanilla ice creams a day. However, the relationship did not work out well for either of them.
Our narrator tells the story of each of the different beasts she meets. She does this to make a living – she is paid fairly well by her publisher and needs the money. However, inevitably, in each case she meets at least one of the beasts (in some cases, there are very few still extant). In most cases she becomes somewhat emotionally involved with the beasts.
Our narrator had studied zoology under a demanding but respected professor. The two now have a love-hate relationship. She no longer works as a zoologist and though the two contact one another frequently, it is generally not in a friendly manner. He has an assistant called Zhong Liang. Initially she considers him merely as an errand boy but she gradually learns that is more to him and the two become close.
The other main characters are her cousin and, in particular, the cousin’s young daughter, Lucia, to whom she is a good aunt; Charley, an inveterate gossip whom she had met when she was studying and who disappears only to reappear and Zhong Liang’s father. All of these characters get involved in the various beast stories.
One of the many fascinating things about this book is that all the beasts have one or more strange characteristics, which we could not begin to have imagined. There is the beast that is created by cutting up a dead beast into eight and planting the bits. They will grow like a plant (and the plant produces a wood that can be used for making furniture) but, if they survive, they will become beasts though, as with the the others, otherwise, they’re just like regular people. There are the beasts that look after the city of the dead, beneath Yong’an, those that have only one sex and never stop looking like children, the beast that lives inside a person’s body, gradually eating its way out over many years and is then released as a phoenix-like bird, the beasts whose main pleasure is destroying one another, the ones associated with a reform school, those that can see the future for the next thousand years and others.
While we are following our narrator and her writing and her meeting with the various beasts, there is a plot line going on, involving the origins of some of the key characters, our narrator included. Who are their parents, what is their relationship with one another and, in particular, how do they relate to the beasts?
Our heroine does not seem to have a particularly happy life. She is often in debt, often crying, often drunk and vomits more often than any literary hero or heroine I have come across. Her relationships, both romantic and otherwise, do not seem to work well. She is not the only one. Several key characters die, both human and beast.
So what is going on? Should we just take the book at face value? It is a very clever, very original, very imaginative story about imaginary beasts who co-mingle with humans, at least in one Chinese city. But is it meant to be symbolic?
The beasts are called beasts in both English and Chinese. Could this be a parable about how we treat animals. Animals are different from us. We eat them,we abuse them. Though we generally do not have sex with them, we can get very close to them. I live in a country where many people treat their pets far better than they treat their children.
Could it be a critique of racism? Clearly all over the world, people of a different race from the dominant race in a coutnry/region, are often badly treated and exploited. They are not generally eaten but obviously people of the dominant race can and do mingle with them, both sexually and otherwise.
Could it be simply a parable about people who are different from us, not by race or nationality, but, for example, by political viewpoint, religion or even simply because they support a different football team?
Perhaps the beasts are not meant to represent individuals but different facets of our characters and those of others. Many, probably most of us, can, at times, despise certain characteristics in others. For example, we have the beasts that like cultivation, those that are not very bright (they are always mentioned in the same breath as chain gangs, farmhands, and prostitutes, as a sort of lowly, coarse labour), those that are social and those that are not, those that are physically attractive and those that are not and so on.
Whichever way you choose to read the book, you will find this book a wonderful and creative read, which testifies to its author’s superb imagination.
First published in 2006 Zhong xin chu ban she
First English translation in 2020 by Tilted Axis
Translated by Jeremy Tiang