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 â€” this was great material, it revealed the richness, the unspeakable darkness of human nature â€” 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.

China in September: An Excess Male

Maggie Shen King grew up in Taiwan but is now living in the US and writing in English. Nevertheless, since her novel An Excess Male takes place in a 2030 China that has to grapple with the consequences of its one child policy, I thought it was more than appropriate to include her in the China in September reading plans.

This was a really excellent, enjoyable read set in a recognisable near-future, a companion piece in some ways to The Handmaid’s Tale. Labelled as science fiction, I would consider it speculative fiction, the ‘what if’ scenario with the focus far more on the characters and their relationships, the technology only slightly more advanced than what we have nowadays but still chillingly plausible.

The premise itself is simple: China’s long-running one-child policy (revoked since the book was published in 2017), combined with the cultural preference for male heirs, has led to a severe shortage of women in this imagined 2030 scenario. Polyandry is therefore common, with men having to save up for years if not decades for a dowry, but many are left on the sidelines, at the mercy of state intervention. They are allowed to engage in regulated war games to let off any pent-up frustrations, are assigned a Helpmate to engage in monthly (or so) sex, and are periodically checked for sexual cleanliness in the most intrusive manner. They are also regarded with suspicion – could they be Willfully Sterile (i.e. homosexual), which is against the law, or perhaps one of the Lost Boys (introverted personality with no social skills and perhaps some mental health conditions), in which case they should not marry, for fear they might pass on their condition to their children.

Wei-guo is a personal trainer with a touching belief that as long as he continues to work hard, live by the rules and save money, his chance at marriage will come. He’s finally saved up enough money and goes to a matchmaker to find a suitable family – albeit only for the least prestigious of husband roles, namely the third husband (only recently allowed by law). The family he meets is not at all prepossessing at first: Hann, the first husband, is an imposing but cold businessman, the second husband is his younger brother, a taciturn computer specialist and inveterate gamer who wants to be known as XX. Yet Wei-guo feels an instant attraction to the wife May-ling, and even seems to get on well with her boisterous toddler son BeiBei, shunned by everyone at the playground.

However, it turns out this is a family with dangerous secrets. May-ling comes from a family of ‘daughter breeders’, who sell off their prized assets to the highest bidder. So the parents of Hann and XX, who long suspected their sons were not ‘normal’, paid very well to protect them by giving them the semblance of a normal family life. It turns out that Hann is gay and XX is what might be called an incel nowadays, and all of them would be severely punished if the state found out about their true situation. Can they trust Wei-guo to keep their secrets, especially in a state where surveillance is a given and none of your colleagues, friends or neighbours can be trusted?

The first part of this novel – in actual fact, three quarters of it – is all about the gradual burgeoining of the relationships between the four main characters, and is told from their alternating viewpoints. The world-building is subtle, rather than the main focus. Science-fiction or action fans will perhaps be disappointed that the fighting climax and rebellion come very late in the book. But this is precisely what I liked about it: it’s an exploration of the complexities of love, family, sense of belonging, about being allowed to show your true colours. It is also about the claustrophobia of living in a state that so heavily regulates your personal life, which needless to say resonated with me.

A book that throws up many interesting questions, with well-developed characters that I found myself truly caring for. I’m not sure why this hasn’t achieved the same buzz as The Power or The Last, for example, because it is absolutely deserving of it.

China in September: Shanghai Then and Now

This month I’ve been meaning to read mainly Chinese writers – as it happens, all women in translation, so my #WITMonth continues.

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution and Other Stories (transl. Julia Lovell, Karen Kingsbury, Janet Ng, Simon Patton and Eva Hung)

Eileen Chang had a brief moment of fame in Japan-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War, which she was never quite able to replicate later, when she moved to Hong Kong and then to the United States. She became a recluse; sadly, her body was found in her apartment in LA several days after she died in 1995.

However, her posthumous success in China has been phenomenal. Her essays and stories were rediscovered in the 1970/80s and she became one of the most influential writers for younger authors in Taiwan, Hong Kong and finally mainland China, but she is not that well known in the West, even after director Ang Lee adapted her story Lust, Caution into a film in 2007. Although she is not an overtly political writer and has occasionally been criticised for focusing almost exclusively on the lives of women, there is no one to match her sharp observational skills. She not only manages to give us a slice of life of a certain period in Shanghai’s history, but also captures issues of class, exploitation and gender expectations in a way that feels perenially relevant. The stories are often very funny, for example In the Waiting Room, with quirky and diverse characters such as you would expect to find in a doctor’s waiting room, but far more willing to open up about their personal lives and worries than anything you might encounter in England.

Above all, I like the way she describes the simmering resentments and misunderstandings between East and West in cosmopolitan Shanghai. My favourite story in this slim volume is Steamed Osmanthus Flower, in which a Chinese housekeeper navigates the tricky relationship with her English master, while simultaneously trying to keep her husband and child content.

The title story Lust, Caution is about an affair but also a tale of war-time espionage and an assassination attempt. Apparently, it took nearly twenty years to write, and it shows: each word is so precise, so perfectly placed, the dialogue is so sparkling and full of innuendo. This is perhaps the most openly ‘political’ of her stories, but it shows how ordinary people’s everyday lives are being shaped (and sometimes destroyed) by politics rather than arguing for or against a particular political thesis.

Zhou Wei Hui: Shanghai Baby, transl. Bruce Humes

By way of contrast, Zhou Wei Hui’s novel set in late 1990s Shanghai has little of Chang’s subtlety or awareness of the complexity of East/West relations. It is the story of Coco, a young woman who aspires to be a writer, and who is torn between two men: her romance with a Chinese boyfriend who is impotent and her sexual entanglements with a married German. The Shanghai she describes certainly doesn’t correspond to any images of China you might still have lingering in your head: people in Mao suits riding bicycles or struggling to make ends meet. This is the Shanghai of the well-off, a consumer’s paradise, a city full of nightclubs and drugs, a ‘feminine’ city as the narrator describes it, in comparison to the macho cities of northern China. Coco and her friends think nothing of hopping onto a plane at short notice to attend a concert by a band in Beijing.

Ironically, the hedonistic lifestyle she describes was regarded with suspicion by the Chinese authorities and the book was banned shortly after publication for its immoral nature and irreverent style. There is nothing there that is very shocking to a Western reader: a lot of sex, a lot of drug-taking, but the details are not prurient or voyeuristic. It is clear that the author admires Western culture – there are several quotes from Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, Milan Kundera but also from various musicians, but overall the style is pedestrian, while trying achingly hard to be hipsterish (if the term was in existence back in 2000 when this was first published). It is a young person’s book, so perhaps I am being a little harsh: it reminded me of the so-called millenial writers like Otessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney (neither of whom I’ve read exhaustively because… they bore me. I am not the target age group, I think.) But, needless to say, there are plenty of people who love those English-speaking writers, so you might love this book. It certainly helps to dismantle some stereotypes and shows a Chinese society in flux.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Slap to…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

The starting point for May is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. A controversial and marmite book when it first appeared in 2008, it certainly established Tsiolkas’ reputation as a frank and uncompromising critic of Australian society beneath the easy-going, laid-back surface.

I haven’t read The Slap, but I was utterly charmed by Christos when I met him at the Livres sur le quai festival in Morges in 2015. I have read other novels by him and I am linking up to Barracuda, the story of a working-class lad trying to escape his upbringing through his talents as a swimmer. Shockingly frank and unsentimental look at Australia’s so-called ‘classless’ society.

Another book which explores notions of class and takes place in a school (as large chunks of Barracuda does) is Different Class by Joanne Harris. Set in St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, it returns to the fate of eccentric Latin master Roy Straitley who was persuaded to delay his retirement for a year – but begins to regret his decision with the appointment of a fashionable new Head, who was one of his nightmareish former pupils.

Joanne Harris is of course most famous for her book Chocolat, and another book with a strong link to chocolate is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which is a love story underlining the strong sensuous link between cooking and lust (or perhaps cooking as a sublimation of passion), and the prevalence of chocolate in Mexican cuisine.

Another Mexican writer I have discovered more recently is Valeria Luiselli. Her Faces in the Crowd is the story of an obsession, as the narrator, a somewhat harassed mother and writer in Mexico City, tries to remember her life in New York and her growing fascination with the life and poetry of Gilberto Owen (who was a real historical figure).

The title of the book above refers to an Ezra Pound poem, so my next link is to his volume of Cantos, which influenced me profoundly in my love for poetry and for exploring other cultures, despite what I later came to find out about his anti-semitism and collaboration with the Fascists.

Perhaps another reason why I liked Pound when I was younger was for his stylish and unconventional translations of Chinese poetry, so my last link is to one of the Chinese classics which we all had to read when I studied Japanese at university, Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid 18th century during the Qing dynasty. The opening poem of this epic family saga says all there is to say about the fine line between fiction and reality:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

So that was a whirlwind world tour – from Australia to the United Kingdom to Mexico to New York City to China. Where do your literary connections take you?