China in September: Chilli Bean Paste and Noisy Families

A Chinese friend once told me: ‘We Chinese families are very noisy, you know.’ and I certainly spotted the contrast between people on streets in China (jostling, laughing, chatting you up) and Japan (carefully respecting the distance – at least, if you are a foreigner). Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Past Clan certainly dials up the volume on this story about a dysfunctional family in a small provincial town in Sichuan, a landlocked province in the south-west of China, renowned for its extremely spicy food.

The Xue-Duan family runs a chilli bean paste factory in this town and the main character (known as Dad, because it is his daughter who is telling the story, although it is in fact more like a third person narrative) is a bon viveur, who likes to smoke, eat, drink and mess around with women. He is also foul-mouthed, selfish and not very considerate of the women in his life (his mother Gran, his wife Mum, his mistress Jasmine and his daughter). Yet, despite the comfortable life he has created for himself, he is still envious of his siblings who managed to escape from their humdrum home town and the eagle eyes of their mother.

As the family starts preparing for their matriarch’s 80th birthday, and his siblings return home, Dad’s life gets less and less comfortable and old bitterness and memories start to resurface. By the end of the book, Dad gets a sort of come-uppance and the reader realises just what a sad creature he really is. (Although no doubt some women will feel that he hasn’t been punished enough.)

Interestingly, when the novel was first published in China, many readers were very surprised that the author was a woman, because they felt it was describing all too well the world in which men can get away with anything. Here is what the author has to say about that:

I wrote this book because, as a young female writer, I have encountered many, many men who have behaved in such an ugly way. I can think of many scenarios in my early twenties where, as a writer, I was thrilled — this was great material, it revealed the richness, the unspeakable darkness of human nature — but as a woman, I was absolutely traumatized. People often are surprised that this book is written by a woman. Actually, this book is a traumatized woman wanting to get back at those men by writing a story like this. It is venting, an expression of my anger, a therapeutic experience.

At first I was very angry. But it is important not to hold any moral judgement when you’re writing a novel. When I was writing this book, I passed no judgements on my characters, and I was actually surprised to feel the anger when I reread it. But I think my anger vanished as I wrote on. In the end I truly liked Xue Shengqiang. He is a misogynist, but once you get over it, you can see the other sides of him, his loyalty to his family and friends, his cowardice and kindness. In the end, I reconciled with him.

The book is full of local dialect and slang, so it must have been truly tricky to translate. I’m sure the ‘dude talk’ that the translator Nicky Harman has introduced is probably the closest stylistic approximation of this, but it does sound irritating (and perhaps too Western) at times.

It was fun, operatic, over the top – a sort of soap opera set in a rapidly changing town and society. Not my favourite of the Chinese reads this month (that would be Eileen Chang), but certainly more interesting than Shanghai Baby. One final little tidbit of information: the author now lives in Ireland with her Irish husband and has started writing in English. However, she says she refuses to write about China in English.

10 thoughts on “China in September: Chilli Bean Paste and Noisy Families”

  1. Sounds very much in contrast to your other Chinese reading recently, Marina. Interesting that the author managed to almost distance herself from her subject matter until she re-read. I’m not sure I would manage that level of objectivity. As for the westernised slang – I empathise. I don’t quite know what I would expect a translator do do, but I would find that jars quite a bit. The complexity of translation…

    1. When translating myself, I tend to opt for something that sounds natural in the target language, rather than a very literal translation (which might sound very foreign to an English language reader). So I have some sympathy for the choices that Nicky Harman made, but it did grate at times. Very hard to pull off!

  2. I just encountered ‘wow’ in a translation of an Indonesian book written in 1860. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember ever seeing ‘wow’ in an English novel of that period.
    It’s bloopers like this that make me realise how good most of the translations I read really are because most of them not only get the language right but also the culture and the era.

    1. Ah, yes, that’s an added layer of complexity – getting the language of the period right as well. I mean, how exasperated do we get with Jane Austen adaptations that seem to be pandering too much to a contemporary audience and introduce words the author would never have used? (Or maybe it’s just me who’s irritated by the current Sanditon adaptation?) So why should we get it wrong with translated fiction?

      1. Well, far be it for me to tell translators how to do their job, I’m in awe of (and grateful to) anyone who can translate a whole book! But I’ve met a fair few of these lovely people at a translation seminar ( via AALITRA) that I go to each year – and what strikes me every time is that these people, no matter the language, are generally very knowledgeable about the country’s culture and history, more so (obviously) the older they are. But China is an interesting case because, after all, even the Chinese themselves don’t know much about their history because of state censorship, and the lasting effects of the Cultural Revolution probably mean that they don’t have ‘literary memory’ of their writings of the past. Not even in the way that everyone knows who Dickens and Austen and Shakespeare are, and can even quote them, even if they’ve never read any of it.

  3. This sounds like a really interesting look at that society, Marina Sofia. I really do like her comment about not making moral judgements as an author; I imagine that must add to the story. I like the premise, too. And, now you mention it, I’m intrigued by what it must be like to try to translate the colloquialisms and slang. From the few translations I’ve done, I know that’s hard!

    1. This was an Asymptote Book Club choice from a year or so ago (but I never got a chance to read it) and it is much more light-hearted and mainstream fiction than many of their previous choices. But I like the contrast and the insight it gives into a messy, hustling, rapidly transforming society.

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