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'Bean Paste' saga goes right to China's guts

Novelist Yan Ge's bawdy debut in English shows Sichuan in the raw

Chinese novelist Yan Ge is now transitioning to writing in English. (Photo by Lisa Whalen)

NORWICH, U.K. -- In the midst of China's communist revolution Mao Zedong declared, "An army without culture is a dull-witted army, and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy."

In "The Chilli Bean Paste Clan," her first novel translated into English, Chinese author Yan Ge depicts a decidedly capitalist China that Mao might not recognize, peopled not by masses of model workers but by striving, grasping men who are not above cheating on their wives and employers or cursing family pressures and personal predicaments in language as saucy as it is irreverent.

An encounter with Yan, through her writing and in person, shows this confident voice of a new social order to be anything but dull-witted. "When I first showed this book with all its curse words and dirty jokes to my father I thought he might just smash my laptop," the 32-year-old said from the safety of Norwich, England, where she is enrolled in the prestigious Master of Fine Arts course at the University of East Anglia -- a program that has produced a number of Booker Prize winners, including Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.

"Bean Paste" is the second of four novels (the first, "May Queen" appeared only in Chinese, the next two are in train) that Yan says are "based on life in each of the four main streets" of her hometown of Pixian -- a village near Chengdu, Sichuan, that is indeed famed for its bean paste. In the part of town dominated by the bean paste factory she explores social climbing and sexual appetites through the prism of an invented "Dad," also known as Xue Shengqiang.

Yan Ge's "The Chilli Bean Paste Clan," translated by Nicky Harman, is published by Balestier Press.

This larger-than-life character's daily drinking and preoccupations with saving "face," placating a family matriarch and hiding his mistress, are recounted in excruciating detail. Local as his pleasures and concerns may be, he comes off as a Chinese Falstaff, as well as a Rabelaisian everyman -- a Chinese answer to the 16th century French writer, monk and Greek scholar -- to whom readers throughout the world will relate.

"The original title in Chinese was 'Our Family,'" Yan says, "not so much because these are really my relatives, but to stress that I am no better than the people in my town -- and fiction has no right to judge or preach about their behavior." This may explain why she seems able to penetrate the mind and desires of her very male protagonist -- though she bristles at being labeled a "woman writer," quipping, "I don't want to be put in some Special Olympics for the handicapped."

To call Yan an emerging writer would be entirely inaccurate. This prolific prodigy has already won a following in China with 12 novels in Chinese, and has written numerous stories that have won prizes and appeared in "Harvest" or other prestigious literary journals. A naturally talented writer who was first published at nine years old (when a teacher placed a remarkably mature essay in a Chengdu newspaper) she was strongly encouraged by her teacher parents, who named her Dai Yuexing, from a Chinese Jin dynasty poem about "walking under the moon with the moon as your hat." She chose her less fanciful pen name as an act of rebellion against such lofty family pressures.

Unlike "Bean Paste" Yan's previous work is marked by shifts between many styles and genres, because, she says, "I was trying to challenge myself to do very hard things like [writing about] the gods in Greek mythology that I loved as a child." Yan admits that her publishers "were always complaining that I was confusing my readers and diluting my brand," but she gained a regular following among teenagers and a reputation as a "writer's writer." Defying the vagaries of the marketplace, she insists, "I can always survive as a writer because I am a vegetarian. I could live on pumpkins because I love them so much."

Yan is now transitioning to writing in English, though she claims this has less to do with "some political move toward the center of world literature" than reaching for the necessary language to describe her recent years living in Dublin with her Irish husband, whom she met in China. With a somewhat mischievous chuckle she adds that she will soon appear in "Being Various," an anthology of short stories by "new Irish writers" to be published by Faber & Faber.

"When I cross the bridge," she declares about her new identity and life, "I burn the bridge behind me." However, when it comes to capturing and completing her quartet about small town life in Sichuan, she says that she will never abandon her use of Sichuan dialect. And while the next installment will be set on a street housing government offices, she says her "Chekhovian hero is a very minor official and far from politics."

In a striking comment on changing times, Yan says her current status as an overseas Chinese conveys no advantages. "Here, I live in a bubble of anxiety about the future -- Brexit, global warming. It got so depressing my husband and I had to cancel our subscription to The New Yorker," she jokes. "But when I return to China, everyone is so optimistic. They feel lucky to be living in the greatest time of our history. And they all ask me when I'm coming back, what I'm doing over there."

With distance, she concedes, has come a change of approach to her writing. "I don't necessarily have more freedom, I have never worried about censorship. But I do spend more time thinking about my culture as a whole -- and what it means to be a Chinese."

As a result, "The Chilli Bean Paste Clan" presents a highly entertaining collective portrait of the spiritual state of China, ridden with greed and moral ambiguities. If there is a major flaw, it is that the author's non-stop flow of cynical snarls, perfect putdowns and frequent sexual innuendos are nearly impossible to recreate in another language. "This book was probably my greatest challenge," says Nicky Harman, the veteran British translator. "There was no way I could find equivalents in English for all her imagery and metaphors for bodily functions."

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