Tag Archives: Chinese

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge is my September choice in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. As the title suggests a family features strongly in this Chinese novel, set in a small town as the family gathers to celebrate Gran’s eightieth birthday. Secrets are revealed, truths exposed and even the grandmother has some surprises to reveal.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan

Pingle Town is a small town in West China. It has four streets: North, South, East and West. It has grown recently, becoming more prosperous, partly because of the success of the Chilli Bean Paste Factory, but also sharing the increasing prosperity of China as a whole. The Factory is owned by the Duan-Xue clan, directed by Shengqiang but everything is controlled by his mother the matriarch.

The novel is narrated by Shengqiang’s daughter, who is in a psychiatric hospital, but that is all we know about her. For the most part we follow Shengqiang, called Dad by the narrator. He is one of the most selfish, oaf-fish and unaware main characters in fiction. He gradually understands what is going on around him, having assumed he knew it all and that he was in charge.

He has a mistress, Jasmine, and is married. The widowed Gran has three children and he is her youngest. His older brother, Uncle, is not married, and is a professor of Maths in a university some way away. His single state is a cause of consternation. Aunty Coral is trying to divorce her husband. Jasmine falls pregnant. Shengqiang’s  wife threatens divorce. Matters come to a head as the siblings arrange a party for the 80thbirthday of their mother.

Shengqiang is motivated by his appetite for sex, food and drink. He also likes controlling people and uses money to do this. His mother manipulates him to her own ends, believing that family reputation is important for the success of the Chilli Bean Paste Factory.

This novel is lively and perceptive about corrosive aspects of family relationships. It sagged a little as Dad went on yet another bender with his bros, or found another young woman irresistible. I found it frustrating that the narrator’s part in all of this was never explained, and did not appear to have a role beyond reporting.

But as an exploration of a small town with its long histories, its rivalries and friendships, it was enjoyable. The description of food, a focus of much of Dad’s activities, was splendid. Almost every chapter has some delightful description of a meal. Here is an example.

There was a steaming, simmering hotpot of ribs, white fish head, chilli peppers and green Sichuan pepper, to which they gradually added pieces of swamp eel, brains and meatballs, potato and shitake mushrooms, and slices of bamboo shoots. (199)

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, originally published in 2013. Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman and published by Balestier Press in 2018. 276pp.

I was sent this book from the Asymptote book club.

Winner of the English PEN Translation Award.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.

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Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Choosing a novel by a woman in translation is not an easy task, as I have complained before. There are few reviews in newspapers or on blogs. I find recommendations in lists by other readers, and from organisations that support translations. I notice that animals feature in several titles (see the polar bear), and since it is several months since I read anything translated from Chinese, this is my choice for this month’s women in translation post.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin was translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The story of Notes of a Crocodile

Set in Taipei in the last years of the 1990s, the central character is a young woman, finding it hard to understand her sexual identity within her group of friends. Lazi falls for a young woman, a student who is a few years older than her. Shui Ling is an obsession for the narrator. Their relationship blows hot and cold and Lazi is confused both by her feelings and by Shui Ling’s reactions.

Her other friends are also finding their way in the difficult time. Meng Sheng is a charismatic young man, challenging, wayward and rich. He and his partner Chu Kuang are both experimenting with their sexuality. These two young men reappear in her life from time to time, often high on drugs or inebriated. And two young women friends are also finding it hard to maintain their intense friendship. The affectionate Tun Tun and her companion Zhi Rou. Finally, Lazi meets a woman, Xiao Fan, who cares for her, but is herself so damaged that a painful split is inevitable. Without apparent studying, Lazi graduates, celebrates alone, but having learned about her desires and the raw places her desires take her to.

The structure of Notes of a Crocodile

The novel is presented as a mash-up of diary entries, fantasies or short stories on the subject of crocodiles or notes. The innovative post-modern style partly explains Qiu Miaojin’s cult status. The crocodile elements of the novel provide a different beat to the painful narrative of Lazi’s life. The crocodile is trying to pass as a human. In crocodile world, the media are in a frenzy to discover crocodiles, and everything about them. Lazi’s crocodile has been living a lonely life, believing s/he (it is hard to ascertain the gender of crocodiles apparently) is alone in the world. But about half way through the novel the crocodile finds an ad from the Crocodile Club for a Christmas Eve gathering.

When the crocodile discovered the ad, it was so excited that it didn’t sleep for days. It had never occurred to the crocodile that there were other crocodiles, and what’s more they had already formed a club! Could that possibly mean there was a place to go and others to talk to? As it sucked on the corners of its comforter, giant teardrops welled up in its eye. (139)

The crocodile theme relates to how LGBT people were seen in Taiwan in the late 1990s. The country was not long out of martial rule. Heterosexuality had been the only acceptable form of human sexual behaviour. But the LGBT people were demanding recognition and rights. The playful argument of pro- and anti-croc reveals the basic level of the discussion.

For more on the context of Notes of a Crocodile, see the comments by Ari Larissa Heinrich in Consider the Crocodile: Qiu Miaojin’s Lesbian Bestiary, in the LA Review of Books.

Reading Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

I did not find Notes of a Crocodile an easy read in part because there were so few connections to my experience. Qiu Miaojin (1969 – 1995) was Chinese, from Taiwan. The story she recounts was about the university years of her characters. She was a lesbian, writing about the lesbian experience in Taipei at that time.

The experience recalled my lack connection I experienced when I read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – all angsty, endless picking over the smallest of interactions, and appealing to another readership. Qiu Miaojin references Murakami on the first page, and later tells us Lazi took a copy of Norwegian Wood as she flees from another break up with Shui Ling.

The intensity of the failing relationships became wearing. So did her attempts to change her life, undertaken in the knowledge that she would fail.

For my entire life, I had been inherently attracted to women. That desire, regardless of whether it was realized, had long tormented me. Desire and torment were two opposing forces constantly chafing me, inside and out. I knew full well that my change of diet was futile. I was a prisoner of my own nature, and one with no recourse. This time, however I was determined to liberate myself. (182-3)

Sadly Qiu Miaojin committed suicide when she was only 26. Notes of a Crocodile was published posthumously. She gained something of a cult following. I do not expect to pick up her other novel, Last word from Montmartre, very soon.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin New York Review Books (1994) 242pp

Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translation from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Next month (April) I plan to read Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of novels by women in translation?

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