Watching ‘China’s Strange Beasts’ With Liquor, Smoke and Sleuthing


by Yan Ge
Translated by Jeremy Tiang

The word “cryptozoology” has an air of scientific rigor, evoking decoded gene sequences and impeccably preserved fossils. But in practice, it is a pseudoscience that focuses on human myths. The cryptozoologist navigates a maze of rumors, conjectures and hallucinations to get to the Minotaur, be it Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. The journey is inevitably inward; Minotaur is always us.

Yan Ge’s novel “China’s Strange Beasts” embraces cryptozoology’s ethos of self-deception and adventure, and stages the fictional Chinese city of Yong’an as a hub of evasive creatures simply called “monsters.” They coexist with humans in seemingly endless arrangements but blend in different lifetimes. Some have distinctive, restricted diets (“honey, rice wine, eggs, and cauliflower”); some are shapeshifters; and others are immortal. All are classified by an adjective (“thriving beast”, “thousand league beast”) rather than an ethnic identity or name, a schema that adds to their obscurity. Fixtures and legends, monsters seem to be both invading Yong’an and leaving a visible footprint, a lack of environment.

Published in China in 2006 and now translated by Jeremy Tiang, “Weird Monsters” is Yan’s second novel to precede the raunchy, frenzied “Chili Bean Butter Clan.” It is her fifth novel, but readers of her first novel translated into English will notice a stark difference in style. There is side characterize That his early novels were “obsessed with structure” is a perfectly valid accusation here. He organized the book as an animal book, with each chapter focusing on a particular monster or community and the anonymous narrator’s encounter with it.

The narrator, cryptozoologist, cigarette, booze, and high-prank writer, and newspaper columnist are the strength of the book. His sarcastic, melancholy voice and bottomless curiosity fill him with wonder and rumination. Supposedly a descendant of the weary private eye of the noir novels, he sneaks around his sprawling, strange city with a mixture of awe and fear. But compared to his witty solitary ancestors, he’s definitely more of a sea-dwelling fish thinking about changing currents, rather than being a guide or an outcast from the world he’s observing.

The atmosphere of “China’s Strange Beasts” is delightful. In the narrator’s futile quest to catalog monsters, Yan captures the fluidity of city life, the way urban space defies definition even for those determined to make sense of it. Yong’an’s riddles have no basis, so the narrator constantly revises his understanding of animals and himself. Man and beast exist in a constant flux with tectonic regularity, colliding, merging and disintegrating.

Unfortunately, the book does not build on this friction. By looking so closely at the zoo’s taxonomic framework and treating each episode as a separate case study, Yan presents repetitive narrative rhythms, such as the narrator going to his favorite bar for clues or calling his former zoology professor for advice. These repetitions are probably inconspicuous in a story collection, but in a novel they are unnecessary; the narrator seems to reset each episode. The symmetrical nature of the book also highlights the lack of interaction between different groups of monsters hermetically sealed from one another, despite the frequent mention of their ubiquity. Yan resorts to the strangeness of creatures without investigating their existence; We rarely learn how animals view themselves, other animals, or humanity. While Yong’an is full of mood and mystery, it lacks culture.

At the end of the novel, the narrator declares the emptiness of the city as a virtue. “This vast city, animals coming and going, it’s all a mystery,” he says. An odd conclusion for a decryption saga, but it fits with the book’s determination to ask questions rather than solve them. Some mirages are meant to endure.


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