Caveat lector. You’ll have a decision to make when you start reading Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China. Will you willpower yourself to one story a night and savor each paragraph, immersing deeply in an alternate world? Or will you forego sleep and race through, riding the momentum of breathtaking inventions and repetitions that strike deeply into the core of what it is to be human?
Each chapter is the story of a particular species of beast—Sorrowful, Impasse, Thousand League, Returning, and more—in the fictional city of Yong’an, China. These beasts seem to live alongside humankind, if not in harmony, though it’s clear that they aren’t considered equals as much as objects of inquiry, interest and, at times, fear. Yan Ge’s descriptions of the species in question lead each chapter, offering a mix of physical features and personal characteristics, all with the comment that they are like “regular people.”
“Sacrificial beasts are melancholy by nature, drawn to high places and low temperatures. In the distant past, they could be found on mountain peaks. They are tall and dark-skinned, with pale blue eyes and thin lips. Their earlobes hang low, and have a sawtoothed edge. In all other respects, they are like regular people.”
The multiple temporalities of the different species offer a heady reading experience, which is anchored by the details Yan Ge metes out, another sign of her assured storytelling. Every time she writes: “they are regular people”—especially with that stealthy qualifier “regular”—she’s establishing a connection with us. When she details that Joyous beasts “love breakfast cereal and plain water, and dislike greasy, strong-tasting foods” and that they “enjoy fantasy novels, and hate maths,” readers are immediately engaged on a personal level, regardless of whether or not they like or fear or hate the same things.
What is “regular” becomes a central question in this novel, and the steadily darkening Us/Other contemplations are resonant of our own dangerous political and societal struggles, without being heavy-handed. Yan Ge explores questions about consciousness, mortality and humanity with a delicate touch, but is always a storyteller first.
The nameless protagonist is also a writer, with an increasingly complicated personal life that organically seeps into the plot of the novel, though perhaps plot is too traditional a word for this unusual narrative. In investigating these beasts’ stories, there are revelations about the narrator that have been hidden even from her.
“‘It takes destiny for a human to tame a beast,’ I said…[yet] In the end, who knows who’s taming whom.’” The question of what is a human and what is a beast, and the value that society places upon such categorizations is one of the major throughlines of this novel. One character could be our stand-in: “I’ve read everything you’ve written about beasts,’ he said. ‘You make it all sound so real. The beasts are more human than the humans, and the humans are beastlier than the beasts.’”
Our narrator is simultaneously mesmerized by the stories she hears and reports on, which adds a layer of intricacy. Yan Ge is both playful and serious about the roles and responsibilities of writers, as well as her place in the novel we are reading: “Storytellers are irresponsible. All we do is make things up from existing events. As for the actual stuff of life, we know absolutely nothing about it.”
Yan Ge also has something to say about the act of writing itself, and the vulnerability it demands. There are dangers for those who immerse themselves in their stories. “I must be the most foolish author in the world, slicing my heart open and displaying it to strangers, but none of you know — no one does — that all my beasts have vanished, and now no one believes they were real, and no one even understands why I laid them out for you. I don’t understand it myself.”
Subtly but surely, the stories become thematically bleaker as the novel progresses, and our increasing knowledge of the abuse, exile, and deaths of the beasts is paralleled by dangers to the human population. There are suicides, murders, disappearances. The narrator’s parentage, her love affairs, even the very world she lives in become shaded, at times menacing, and increasingly complicated.
“Did my mother lie to me, or did my professor? I had no way of knowing. The dead are separated from the living. If the child in this story wasn’t me, then who was it? Where was she now? I needed answers. I had to ask every person who could possibly separate the truth from the myths for me.”
Even as our protagonist is tumbled about like a new leaf in a sudden squall, the real storyteller, Yan Ge, is in precise control of the narrative, especially necessary if we are to reside and believe in this world. In her delicate and powerful hands, readers will not want to leave.
One could term these stories Scheherazadean, but that doesn’t do them nor their author, justice. Yan Ge—who writes in Sichuanese, Mandarin and English—and her talented translator Jeremy Tiang have created a mesmerizing experience that speaks to both our wonder at “once upon a times” as well as our deepest examinations of what is beastly and humane in our world and ourselves: “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.’” By the end of the book, readers will question what is real and illusory, and quite likely, their deepest held beliefs about the self and our origin stories.
Humanity often refers to the better aspects of people, but this novel suggests a necessary reframing of that notion. Is it our beasts that are our best natures? The otherness in us, the differences, that we beat down literally and figuratively with such rage and fear, and a decided lack of sympathy?
With Yan Ge’s poetic prose and limitless imagination, this would have been a satisfying novel even if it were solely a series of exquisite tales and allegories, but her scope and talent arrow far beyond such boundaries. Herein are mysteries, histories, love affairs, heartbreak, abusers and saviors. Often what appears to be a surety, with a twist of shadow or light, turns new and startling, causing readers to rethink the story—as well as their own stories—entirely. In this world, our world, humans are the strangest beasts of all.
Near the end of the book, the narrator writes: “all we have are stories.” But only an author of great skill, style, and soul creates stories as remarkable as these. I question our world, my life: what is illusory? What is real? And how would I ever know, given how easily we can be fooled into believing the safest narrative, even if it is not the most accurate?
It’s a more beautiful world because of these remarkable, unforgettable stories. That I’m sure of. That I know.
Strange Beasts of China
By Yan Ge, Translated by Jeremy Tiang
Melville House Publishing
Published July 13, 2021
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and an Editor-at-Large at Chicago Review of Books, Mandana Chaffa’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies. She serves on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.