Strange Beasts of China left me strangely affected. Yan Ge’s novel received quite a bit of acclaim for a book of speculative fiction. Of course whether or not it is speculative fiction is open to debate. The narrator, an unnamed former graduate student, makes her living by writing about the “strange beasts” of the fictional city of Yong’an. Uncertain of where she fits, she’s been researching any number of creatures that resemble humans in various aspects, and who lived often hidden lives among the population of the city. Her relationships revolve around people who, and this may be a spoiler, often turn out to be beasts. It could almost be a parable. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The word “cryptozoologist” occurs in the copy and it was blurbed by a couple of horror writers.
It’s not really a horror novel, though. There’s some action and even a bit of violence—not too explicit—and some well-executed twists. I wasn’t sure where the story was going, but I found myself eagerly awaiting the opportunity to pick the book back up again. One of the truths of our species is that we find ways of othering those who are different than we are. Othering so that we can fear and mistreat them. And feel superior. That’s why this story feels so much like a parable to me. The beasts aren’t really monsters, but then, monsters are really us. What matters is how we treat them. Yan Ge handles them with sensitivity—her narrator, after all, is very interested in these beasts—and our suspicions grow as the novel goes on. We shouldn’t be judging here.
That this book should come out even as American attitudes toward China veered decidedly toward “othering” (the book was published in Chinese back in 2006, but appeared in English in 2020), is significant. There are reasons to fear the autocratic government of China, but a significant portion of Americans seem to favor the autocratic style over democracy. So it is that parables continue to be made. We live on a planet with billions of other human beings, each with cultures, hopes, and dreams. They may look a little different and thy may speak in ways that we don’t immediately understand, at least not without some effort, but they are just as human as those who speak English and who live in their own fictional cities isolated by a couple of oceans. Strange Beasts of China really made me think.