Book Review: “The Strange Beasts of China” – An Exuberant Chinese Fantasy

By Maxwell Olin Massa

The fiery imagination of the volume is strong enough to compensate for the flaws in its translation.

Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge. Translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang. Maison Melville, 240 pages, $ 25.99.

Strange Beasts of China (异兽 å¿—, lit. “Record of Strange Beasts”) is a work of fantasy fiction by Yan Ge (颜 æ­Œ), a bilingual Szechuan author with a doctorate in comparative literature. Is this a collection of connected short stories or an episodic novel? Hard to say. And is it important? Each chapter tells the story of a supernatural creature who lives in Yong’an (永安), an imaginary Chinese metropolis. The Beasts are memorably charismatic, and that’s good, as they have to overcome decisions made by translator Jeremy Tiang that undermine the book’s appeal to English-speaking readers. Yet the fiery imagination of the volume is strong enough to make up for the flaws in its translation.

Yan is a prolific author and her work has been well received in her home country. Strange Beasts of China worked very well at the national level: it was first published in series in the literary magazine Youth literature (青年 文学) and later published as a collection. The protagonist, a cryptozoologist turned novelist, is the same in every tale, but the beast in each of the fables is the star, and they don’t continue. There are nine described beasts in total, all living or having lived in the city of Yong’an: sad beasts, happy beasts, sacrificial beasts, dead end beasts, flourishing beasts… The author takes full advantage of the originality of its conception: each the beast is given distinctive characteristics, a mixture of modern circumstances, from another world and the strange. For example, the sad beasts live in a housing estate that was originally built to be dormitories for workers at a cotton mill. Creatures are gentle by nature: they “love cauliflower and mung beans, vanilla ice cream, and tangerine pudding. They fear trains, bitter gourds and satellite TV. Yan serves up a lot of charming whimsy, with touches of Borges-inspired wit. But short stories also have their dark sides. Yan’s inhuman beasts reminded me of the New Crobuzon people of China Mieville Perdido Street Station, but painted with a softer brush.

Unfortunately, English-speaking readers’ appreciation of the Beasts of Yan is undermined by the decisions made by the editor and translator. No footnote is provided to explain crucial Chinese cultural references. For example, there is a character named Zhong Liang, whose father is called Zhong Kui. Other than a passing comment in the text indicating that this name is “elegant”, there is nothing to indicate that the nickname is revealing. Zhong Kui is a figure of Chinese religion; he is a renowned demon slayer. In a book about mythical creatures, readers should be made aware that a character is named after a beast slayer. Other allusions are overlooked: in the first story, “Sorrowful Beasts”, two beasts are named Cloud and Rain. It would be helpful for English speakers to know that “clouds and rain” (云雨) is a classic euphemism for sex. A good understanding of history calls for understanding this sensual connection. An English speaker without any training in Chinese literary culture would completely miss this resonance.

In addition, Tiang smoothed out the difficult points of the author’s prose style. The opening segment of each story features a brief description of the beast that will be highlighted. The section describes the physiology of the creature, its habits, etc. I vaguely remembered passages from the Classic of mountains and seas (山海经), and I was delighted to find that Yan recognized this connection in an interview with the London Chinese Science Fiction Group. But, in this article, she notes that these sections were written in classical Chinese in the original, which is the equivalent of the country’s Latin. Depending on who you ask, these passages are written either in a very ancient register or in a completely different language! Tiang harmonized these intros to fit the tone of the rest of the book. And this approach raises a question about dialogue – has that been steamrolled as well? Yan is known for her use of the Szechuan dialect; his writing has a strong local flavor. Granted, it would be very difficult to convey this idiosyncrasy in English, but it is essential that the translator at least give it a try.

Finally, it’s worth speculating on Yan’s intention in writing this delightfully weird tome. Strange Beasts of China Frequently draws inspiration from Buddhist images, but the stories never become doctrinal. Yan may wanted to introduce the idea of tiryagyoni-gati (Chushengdao (畜生 道) in Chinese) in his story, which is one of the six realms of existence. This realm encompasses animal life, and it is possible for human beings to perceive it: unlike the other four realms, gods (devas), asuras, hungry ghosts, and hell. By writing stories about these unusual beasts, the protagonist looks into a realm of samsara, recording the experiences of a distinct reality. And, because compassion for all sensory life is an essential part of the four cardinal Buddhist virtues of brahma-vihara (å›› 无量 心) (kindness (maitrÄ«), compassion (karuṇā), joy (pÄ«ti) and detachment (upekṣā)), the Buddhist connotations of the story may tap into the religion’s popularity in contemporary China.

Strange Beasts of China is frustrating work in English. The fantasy is worth reading, even given the gaps in the translation, but the version reminds me of a Chinese phrase,, which means “scratch an itch in your boot”, that is to say, to feel something weakly and to be only partially satisfied. Melville House should be applauded for its decision to bring such a wonderful achievement in continental fiction to the English-speaking market, but it would have been even better to have had a more thorough inspection of the beasts on display.

Maxwell Olin Massa is a graduate of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and is currently working as a policy analyst in the DC area. In addition to having written on the rule of law, he is also an editor for Third factor magazine and published Apollo’s House, a novel of ideas, with Whiskey Tit Books in 2020. He was even a Chinese TV host for a year once upon a time.

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