I recently finished reading the English translation of Zan Ge’s novel Strange Beasts of China. It was a wild, and at times uncomfortable ride. In turns beautiful and hideous, the book looks at the different sides of human nature using tales of beasts living alongside of us.
The concept of the book is that a former cryptozoology student has become an author somewhat famous for writing fanciful stories about the Strange Beasts who live in her city. The idea is that these different creatures once lived in abundance around the country but their populations have been largely depleted by the growth of humanity. In many ways these Strange Beasts appear human. They sport minor abnormalites like the odd claw, or gills, or maybe an extra mouth; but in general they walk amongst the humans going unnoticed. Each chapter focuses on a “true” story that the main character experiences in her life and then turns into a novel.
Each story focuses on a different type of beast. There are Flourishing Beasts who grow from the ground like trees and are sometimes murdered for their beautiful wood to make furniture. 1000 League Beasts can see a thousand leagues away and a thousand years into the future. Sorrowful Beasts cannot ever smile because if they do they will never stop smiling and then they will die. Of all the stories, the Heartsick Beasts were probably the most disturbing story for me. Each story begins one way and then ends another way. The chapters grow increasingly disturbing with their twists and surprises.
Outside of the various Beasts the author comes across, there are a couple of different characters who make repeat appearances throughout the novel as a whole. The unnamed author has a drinking buddy named Charlie who helps her search out different Beasts for her stories. The Professor is the author’s former mentor at school. Their relationship is very volatile with the Professor alternately helping our author with her research, and then telling her that all of her books are trash and she is a huge disappointment. The author’s sister and niece make repeat appearances as well, generally serving as a catalyst for specific stories. Finally there is one of the Professor’s current grad student, Jeong Yung who is conscripted by the Professor into helping the author with her various researches. Jeong Yung gradually grows closer to the author through their adventures becoming integral to her stories by the final chapter.
While I did really enjoy this book, it took me a while to read it. I mentioned in our livestream that I could only really read a chapter or two at a time. The chapters needed digesting. They deserve the time it takes to digest them. Also, the twists in the stories are sometimes very horrific. Trigger Warning for gore and suicide and cannibalism and other surprising violences. The book is not for the faint of heart. That said, I am not into gore or horror at all but did enjoy this book quite well. If this book were to be made into a drama, it would be a dark, horror drama. I would probably not watch it, but if done well it would probably be really good. If you’re looking for something a little different, a little dark, a little whimsical, and a little uncomfortable I definitely recommend giving Strange Beasts of China a try. I will for sure be on the lookout for more English translations of the author’s work.