Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China

By Ksenia Shcherbino

It is as human to move from one place to another in search of a better life, as it is to divide the world into categories of “us” and “them.” However, there is no universal definition of a ‘migrant’. Migrants are not inherently vulnerable. However, they often find themselves marginalized in the host country and are perceived by some to threaten national identity, economy, social cohesion and cultural norms. As Saskia Bonjour and Sebastien Chouvin warn us, “discourses on migration, integration and citizenship are inevitably classed, because representations of Self and Other are inevitably classed [1]”. Practices of inclusion/exclusion are based on power dynamics which are rarely fair and more often than not based on a set of prejudices, including racial prejudices that perpetuate inequality and can lock the families in the boundaries of their ‘migrant’ status for generations. Hence, children of ‘migrants’ are continued to be seen by some members of society as migrants as well despite being born in the country or having lived there for most of their lives, thus reinforcing cultural alienation and inequality. Further, the continuity of colonialist discourse fuels dehumanisation of migrants. Read through this lens of colonialism, Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China offers a unique experience of sieving through the questions of migration, acceptance, domination and hybridity in the body of a chimera, a creature of fantasy. The book keeps asking the readers to re-evaluate the ideas of power and possession, speech and silence. Who colonised who, are humans nothing but the former beasts who have conquered the land and re-written its history? Who has the right of speech? Is silence a way of telling a story by the marginalised (beasts)? The entwined story of memory and oblivion for monsters and humans in Strange Beasts of China turns the narrative into a battlefield of falsifiable identities and historical assumptions. “This vast city, the beasts that come and go, all of this, is a secret,” muses Yan Ge’s narrator. “No one knows why they come or why they go, why they meet or why they leave. These are all enormous, distant mysteries [2]”. Yan Ge’s Yong’an is a postcolonial space where the story of subjugation of the beasts, or the struggle for de/re-territorialisation is already part of history, and the question that haunts both humans and beasts is the same that haunts in our day and time: how the interdependence of colonisers and the colonised has shaped – and continues shaping – our understanding of the world [3].

If race is “a cultural category of difference that is contextually constructed as essential and natural – as residing within the very body of the individual – and is thus generally tied… to a set of somatic, physiognomic and even generic character traits [4]”, then beasts are fictional examples of racialized subjects. Their histories in the book illuminate certain tropes of immigration debates: racially and socially ‘other’, they have come from somewhere else and settled within the boundaries of Yong’an, it is unclear if they fled war, ecological catastrophe or some other disaster; or even if they became displaced in their own homelands, ousted by the more successful (human) species. They live in diasporic communities, mostly on the outskirts of the city, in the neglected areas. Despite all the detailed discriminatory classifications, people of Yong’an don’t know much about the beasts, and as far as humans are concerned, the beast species are interchangeable. Other than that, as the narrator keeps reminding us, the beasts are just like ordinary people.

Having left their home space and not yet having been assimilated in full, they are, by definition, liminal creatures, poised on the border, in-between the two worlds, and are equally shaped by both forces, the ‘mother’ identity and the ‘host’ one. Yet, as Homi Bhabha notes elsewhere, it is “the migrant culture of ‘in-between’, the minority position, … moves the question of culture’s appropriation… towards an encounter with the ambivalent process of splitting and hybridity that marks the identification with culture’s difference [5]”. For Bhabha, liminality is an expression of cultural hybridity, raising the discourse of borders and boundaries between races, genders or classes. The coloniser and the colonised find themselves in the process of constant transgression. Their relationship is characterized by complex negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities emerging through/ during historical transformation. Yan Ge’s beasts are shown in the process of precisely this negotiation. Multiple temporalities and palimpsest narratives enhance this feeling of uncertainty. The book starts with the death of a beast, and deaths mark the culmination of almost every story, told by the narrator. Yet possibilities opened by the constant renegotiation of identity and authority enable readings of the novel that are full of hope and love.

Migrant narratives tend to offer bipolar visions of the interaction between migrants and locals [6]. On one hand, they reinstate the idea of hospitality where a migrant is a guest in a host nation. On the other, it imbues such encounters with possibilities of violence, rejection, and mutual destruction. Using Mireille Rosello’s apt description, “the host devours the guest, the guest invades the host, or the host and the guest are radically changed by the encounter, either to the host or to the guests’ detriment [7]”. Our intrinsically xenophobic ideas find manifestation in prevalent political anti-immigration acts as Pasqua laws in France in the nineties or “hostile environment” immigration policies in the UK, EU or the USA. The language used by the right wing media and politicians dehumanizes migrants by implicitly comparing them to animals or insects, e.g. alluding to encroaching masses, that could overwhelm the presumed unity of “us [8]”. The same sentiment as in David Cameron’s “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”, prompts the Narrator’s professor to dismiss the massacre of sacrificial beasts: “There are too many of them, how could we have killed them all? [9]”. The same feeling is echoed in the words of another character in Strange Beasts of China : “How many beasts are there in Yong’an City. In the end, who knows who’s taming whom.” [10]

The novel critiques anti-immigrant rhetoric by caricaturing links between beasts and “chain gangs, farmhands, and prostitutes [11]”. It satirises intrinsic fears of “our” culture being “devoured” or “diluted”.

Yan Ge’s narrator repeats like a mantra – “other than that they are like humans.” But this tiny difference is enough to perpetuate genocidal forms of oppression. The beasts never fight back, and their lives never matter – “if one species died out, there’d be others to take its place, not to mention all the hybrids [12]” Extermination policies always feel close: be it through hormones to suppress ‘bestiality’, or mass ‘euthanasia’ for presumed dangerous influence. This possible future is glimpsed when the narrator sees her professor’s collection of beasts as specimens under the glass vitrines, almost like coffins.

Yet throughout the story beasts as a collective prove to be resilient and adaptive. Even though the novel’s post-colonial world is skewed towards the colonisers, and “neoliberal globalization does not entail a “borderless world” but rather an increased regulation of the strategies of inclusion and exclusion in order to ensure the reproduction of inequality [13]” both sides are changed through interaction.

Yan Ge’s beasts have become an intrinsic part of Yong’an. Structurally the book alternates between encyclopaedic descriptions listing brief facts about appearance, habitat and characteristic traits, stories told to the narrator by other people, and immediate adventures of the narrator. This patchwork of narratives accentuates hybridity and interdependence between beasts and humans.

As Yan Ge’s narrator laments early on, if beasts disappear: “everyone would give up their hollow pursuits, and there’d be no myths, no beasts, no history, no fantasy. The government would rattle along, printing money. Yong’an would truly become an international metropolis”. Human citizens of Yong’an City happily exploit the beasts: they wear clothes woven by beasts; they let the beasts guard their houses and educate their children; they even take beautiful beast girls as wives, as they can mate with people and produce human offspring. The humans of Yong’an control not only beasts’ bodies, but their speech and memory. “Apart from humanity everything else was just material, food, foes – and all could be destroyed [14]”.

It is not a coincidence that the book starts with the explanation of how the word “beast”(兽) changed its meaning to denote an absence of humanity. The human body became regarded as the intrinsic centre of knowledge, control and ownership, the beast’s – as carnal, violent, raw, dispossessed, “open to mastery, available for use, for husbandry, for numbering, branding, cataloguing, possession, penetration [15]”. The beasts’ colonised bodies are prized for their productive and reproductive value, and often likened to domesticated cattle that have no autonomous agency. Even when the difference between the coloniser and the colonised is almost imperceptible in the novel, there would always be a “striking feature” that marks the latter as excluded from society [16]. “Their faces are the same as ours [17], despairs the narrator, only to hear in reply “They’re just beasts, not humans.”

Male sacrificial beasts are the embodiment of the enslaved male body, in the novel they are often brutally and senselessly murdered. Their skin, “criss-crossed with scars, like furrows on a piece of farmland[18]”. Yan Ge equals them to primordial gods, who were enslaved by trickery and massacred for the sake of humanity: “The sacrificial beasts were godly beasts… humans tempted the females into slaughtering the males, slitting their tongues to leave them mute… ultimately, the sacrificial beasts died out , and as a result, mankind inherited the world [19]”. As Elleke Boehmer describes elsewhere, “the enslaved or indentured body was often an engraved body, a bloodied form. Its mutilation denotes one of the more extreme forms of colonial marking and subjection [20]”.

If sacrificial beast’s bodies are subject to racialized murderous violence, female beasts’ bodies are subjected to sexual exploitation and rape. Female sorrowful beasts are praised for their beauty, almost human-like qualities and ability to rear human children. Their feelings are not taken into consideration nor are they asked about consent. Having a docile and beautiful beast-wife is a status symbol among the elites: “ They don’t know who they were… they sat in their sumptuous living rooms, waiting for their husbands to come home, then disrobe and got into bed with them, perpetuating the human race [21]”. Such practices are also genocidal, as beasts are forced to mate with humans producing only human offspring. Moreover, beasts taken as mates must undergo hypnosis or surgery “to eliminate her beastly memory, and have monthly hormone shots to suppress her beastly nature”. One of the most disturbing images of the book is the death of a sorrowful beast from allergic reaction to the hormone shots, the outlines of her human child visible through the translucent skin of her belly.

The ultimate stage of objectification is the complete commodification in the very literal sense of flourishing beasts. Flourishing beasts have furniture made out of their bodies. They are taught to yearn to be killed and call it their true form: “I died before I was born. I was hacked into pieces and turned into a chair. My limbs were ripped apart, my entrails mutilated. One day, a man bought me for a lot of money… he gazed at me and talked, touching my face and kissing me [22]” – starts the story of a flourishing beast. Heartsick beasts are not just commodified, but robbed of any identity of their own. They are sold in shops as embryos and are shaped according to a photo provided by the buyer . One of the characters has it resemble a movie star he had an affair with. The beasts are bought as companions for children of the elite (or anyone who can afford it), and are to be discarded and destroyed five years later, so as not to become a burden. The narrator refers to them as “terra nullius” – a dispensable reflection of human wants.

The beasts’ dispossession extends further, they are robbed of language, stories and memories. As mentioned earlier, the stories of the beasts are framed by encyclopaedic entries, a reference to The Classic of Mountains and Seas, a classic Chinese text that inspired Yan Ge. The opening and the closing entries differ slightly, and often tell the story from different perspectives and list conflicting details. Yet the beasts themselves are never given a voice. They are always described as beings of little words, mute or unable to speak human languages, perceived as “dumb and inarticulate”. The narrator sympathises with the beasts and takes it upon herself to tell but also, crucially, sell their stories. Moreover, the authenticity of the narratives is gradually destroyed by voices of ‘authority’ – the professor, his student Zheng Liang, the newspaper editor, who conspires to turn lived experiences into a marketable fantasy genre.

Even when it is the beast who asks the narrator to tell their story, it is never in their words that it is passed on. The stories are altered by the narrator to reflect her fantasies, sometimes completely ignoring the facts or original message. In her version of the impasse beast story, the beast falls in love with a human and devours itself in front of her until there is nothing but a beating heart left. When she reads this story to the impasse beast, he compliments her story-telling skills. A dubious compliment, taken to account that he asked her to write a story of his tribe; instead, the narrator used the material to explore her own fantasies about love.

To the narrator beasts’ language resembles animal or bird sounds, they chirp, emit piercing shrill cries, shriek like birds, squawk like birds, moan, rumble, growl. Even if they speak human languages, their speech is described as mellifluous and sing-ey, not quite capable of proper communication. The beasts of Yong’an do not speak languages of their own, despite being cultured and often seen reading books. On various occasions the narrator repeats that her stories are read by both beasts and humans. The parallel with birds reminds me of Ted Chiang’s parrots, who say “I speak, therefore I am […] I doubt the humans will have deciphered our language before we’re gone. So the extinction of my species doesn’t just mean the loss of a group of birds. It’s also the disappearance of our language, our rituals, our traditions. It’s the silencing of our voice [23].” This silencing of their voice is not just an authoritarian re-writing of history, it is an attempt to erase cultural identities.

Not just the voice is taken from the beasts – their memory, along with their ability to record their past, is stolen as well. As sorrowful beasts, they are drugged to stop remembering who they are, as sacrificial beasts slaughtered, their histories crossed out of memory or re-written to comply with human needs. And, of course, humans are unreliable historians. The narrator recognizes this problem: “when people in Yong’an talked about beasts, they told stories about meeting or spotting these creatures, slicing them up or analysing them, but no one ever wanted to know what kind of lives they had.” [24]

The problem of cultural destruction as the price of assimilation is best seen through the story of thousand-league beasts who leave neither artefacts nor documents behind them. They are born knowing their past and their future, but “when they’re grown, their memories fade and their brains weaken, until they are no different from ordinary humans…Despite their wisdom, they come to appear foolish, and people question if they deserve such a lofty name.” The story of these beasts centres around assimilation as their children born of matings with humans do not forget, yet unwilling to carry this burden of cultural memory they become “walking corpses, witnessing the desolation of the world” and end their lives [25]. Yet the silencing can never be complete. Stories are resilient to silence. There’s always a whisper, a trace of a story to follow. Via obvious – or subtle – acts of resistance beasts reclaim their agency.

For the beasts, their ability to survive is already an act of resistance. So is their ability to keep silent. Not telling a story is different from not having one. By refusing to participate in the authoritarian narrative, the beasts deny it authority or at least authenticity. Silence, preserves the (un)speaker’s liminality, takes them beyond the borders of the expressed. Unwillingness to speak points to the unspeakability of the subject. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese considers murder, self-mutilation and infanticide as acts of resistance [26]. In this sense, self-mutilation of male sacrificial beasts, and even the slicing of their tongues performed by their female partners, are acts of resistance, radical ways of keeping control over their story, and protecting it from misuse.

It is not surprising that when the flourishing beast, turned into a chair and technically not even “alive,” manages to kill Zhong Liang’s uncle, she bites off his tongue and hides it. Even if the narrator suggests that it was done out of jealousy as the beast felt that the man fell in love with another woman, I believe another interpretation is possible. As quoted by Elleke Boehmer, in J.M.Coetzee’s Foe Friday, “as representative of the enslaved ‘wholly other’ is a figure literally silenced, made dumb like Philomel in the myth, his tongue plucked out [27]”. Mutilated tongue implies a specific revenge, depriving the master of the ability to tell his story.

Physical violence is not the only way in the novel by which beasts reclaim something that was taken from them. Impasse beasts do not take anything from humans. Instead, they give – they care for people and support them, cook for them, and clean their houses. They take away all the bad emotions, they eat human despair which magically makes their mane grow – so you would imagine them to be benefactors of humanity. At least, that’s what humans who tamed them believe in, – shortly after they encounter the beast, they feel happier and healthier than they have ever been. Yet “the humans whose despair they feast on grow euphoric, but empty, too. Not knowing despair they become vulnerable, and so die easily [28]”. Impasse beasts create a bond similar to maternal, and characterised by complete dependence of the human as the beast makes them feel recognized and loved. Once the bond is disrupted with their disappearance, humans usually commit suicide. The narrator herself almost dies after her encounter with an impasse beast – curiously enough, he disappears not long after her failed attempt to write a “truthful” story of his tribe.

If impasse beasts can exercise subversive power by developing emotional bonds with a human, other beasts exploit physical attraction. They reclaim their bodies by reversing the whole foundation of their relationship with humans. Thus, sorrowful beasts are taken as desirable partners, without any consideration of their feelings. Yet it is the very act of dominance and total access that enables victims to hack their persecutors. Through the act of making love male sorrowful beasts devour their human partners and become their human likeness. They digest the consciousness of their lovers (a parallel of what was done to tranquilized and medicated female sorrowful beasts) and ultimately become new female beasts, generation after generation. The narrator starts the story of her painter friend Lefty, who tamed a sorrowful beast – but it turns out it was the beast who tamed her. When she died and the government performed an autopsy, they found it was a male sorrowful beast with the half-digested remains of the real Lefty.

There is a certain aura of invisibility about the beasts, that is reminiscent of Bhabha’s discussion of immigrants [29]. Indeed, beasts are (socially) invisible – people don’t know much about them. “They sutured together his tongue, pumped him full of hormones to change his brain chemistry, altered his bodily functions, until he could live like a human being [30]”, yet deep under all those transformations he stands an heir to both races, beast and human.

And that’s how beasts reclaim their cultural landscape – they reconstruct it. The book ends in a travesty of disguises and disclosures, beasts revealed human, and human revealed beasts. The ending rewrites an earlier statement “The beasts grew foolish and now do not know they are beasts, nor do they recognize humans as people… What good fortune for the beasts, to lack intelligence; how cursed humans are, that they possess it [31]”. The mimicry is so perfect that for the good half of the book we don’t even doubt the identity of the main characters. Yet they embody Bhabha’s hybridity without succumbing to acculturation, they do not lose sight of what they are and what matters.

And this leaves us with the final question – who is the narrator? “We are strangers to each other. You don’t know my story, and I don’t know yours. We poured our hearts into our own stories, but never shared them with each other [32]”, she addresses the missing Zhong Liang, and with him all her readers, beasts and humans.

We have no doubts about the authorship of the text, yet the question of identity – and authorial control – seems less certain. The narrator herself struggles with these questions. Throughout the book she grows increasingly detached and critical of humanity. Her real, liminal identity emerges through her growing uprootedness. “I had nowhere to call home,” she says, and it reads as “no home with humans” – it is only with the beasts that she forms meaningful links. Moreover, as her bestial ancestry is gradually revealed, her own body becomes a site of hybridity. “Borders are not stable lines or points in space: Being a border involves experiencing the border as central part of one’s own life story and memory [33],” suggests Filippo Menozzi elsewhere. Closer to the end of the story she acknowledges: “I had no story of my own. I had used the life I had to understand his story, her story, their story [34]”. Yet through writing, she recuperates the lost history and creates a historical genealogy not only for the beasts, but for herself as well. Her transformation from a passive researcher/ folklore collector into an active protagonist of her own story as a beast offers an opportunity of redemption. She becomes, using an apt description of Fernandez, “a cross-dresser as a symbol of the postcolonial subject who appropriates and subverts cultural and social codes to manipulate authoritarian social practices of a colonial state [35]. The story of the beasts becomes her own story, and by recovering and recounting their fables, she constructs a broader conciliatory re-conceptualisation of human-beast relationship.

“Autobiographical memories can not be embodied by another person… but once verbalised… they can be exchanged, shared, corroborated, confirmed, corrected, disputed, and even appropriated [36]”, and in this sense, she reverses all pre-settled ideas of “home”, “continuity”, “territory” and “community.” Through her re-enactment, the story of each of the beasts becomes a part of collective memory of both humans and beasts. For both the narrator and her readers it is a painful experience of rebirth. Through shared readings they construct a shared identity. And while the beasts she wrote about vanished, their stories give a chance to beasts and humans to learn to live together in the future.

References

[1] Bojour, Saskia, Chouvin, Sebastien, “Social Class, Migration Policy and Migrant Strategies: An Introduction”, in International Migration, 56: 5-18, https://doi.org/10.1111/imig.12469

[2] Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, (Tilted Axis Press, 2020), p. 313.

[3] A very interesting argument about the reassessment of immigration crisis through the lens of postcolonialism can be found here; http://ftvms2103252016.blogspot.com/2016/05/postcolonialism-post-colonialism-and.html

[4] Silverstein, Paul A. “Immigrant Racialization and the New Savage Slot: Race, Migration, and Immigration in the New Europe.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (2005): 363–84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25064890.

[5] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 224

[6] See, for example, Fazal, Tanweer. “Migrant, Home and Politics: Bihari Labour in the Metropolis.” Indian Anthropologist, vol. 46, no. 2, Indian Anthropological Association, 2016, pp. 93–110, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26493884; or, an even more “bodily” description of migrants as organs transplanted into the host organism in Rosello, Mireille. “‘Wanted’: Organs, Passports and the Integrity of the Transient’s Body.” Paragraph, vol. 32, no. 1, Edinburgh University Press, 2009, pp. 15–31, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43151903.

[7] Rosello, Mireille, “‘Wanted’: Organs, Passports and the Integrity of the Transient’s Body.” Paragraph, vol. 32, no. 1, Edinburgh University Press, 2009, pp. 15–31, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43151903. Similar ideas also discussed in Rosello, Mireille, Postcolonial Hospitality. The Immigrant as Guest (California: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 275,

[8] See, for example, an analysis of anti-immigration language in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/10/migration-debate-metaphors-swarms-floods-marauders-migrants

[9] Yan Ge, p. 90

[10] Ibid, p. 13

[11] Ibid, p.97

[12] Ibid, p. 78

[13] Menozzi, Filippo. “Ethics at the Border: Transmitting Migrant Experiences.” in Decker, Jessica Elbert, Winchock, Dylan, eds. Borderlands and Liminal Subjects: Transgressing the Limits in Philosophy and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) .pp. 36-37

[14] Yan Ge, opus cit. p. 91

[15] Boehmer, Elleke. “Transfiguring: Colonial Body into Postcolonial Narrative.” In Stories of Women (Manchester University Press, 2013). Open access https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/9781526125965/9781526125965.xml, accessed on 16.10.2021, p. 129

[16] See a quotation of Freud in Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October, vol. 28, The MIT Press, 1984, pp. 125–33, https://doi.org/10.2307/778467, p. 130

[17] Yan Ge, opus cit., p. 72

[18] Ibid, p. 91

[19] Ibid, p. 94

[20] Boehmer, Elleke, opus cit. , p.130

[21] Here and later Yan Ge, opus cit, p. 18

[22] Ibid, p. 148

[23] Chiang, Ted, “The Great Silence” in Chiang Ted, Exhalation (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2019), p 234.

[24] Yan Ge, opus cit., p. 108

[25] Ibid, p. 182

[26] Bhabha, opus cit., p. 16

[27] Boehmer, opus cit., p. 130

[28] Yan Ge, opus cit., p.121

[29] See Bhabha, opus cit, p. 47-49.

[30] Yan Ge, opus cit., p. 89.

[31] Ibid, pp.304-305.

[32] Ibid, p. 293.

[33] Menozzi, Filippo. “Ethics at the Border: Transmitting Migrant Experiences.” in Decker, Jessica Elbert, Winchock, Dylan, eds. Borderlands and Liminal Subjects: Transgressing the Limits in Philosophy and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) .pp. 36-37

[34] Yan Ge, opus cit., p. 309

[35] Fernández, Salvador C. “A Search for Colonial Histories: The Conquest by Yxta Maya Murray”, in Decker, Jessica Elbert, Winchock, Dylan, eds. Borderlands and Liminal Subjects: Transgressing the Limits in Philosophy and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 98

[36] Assmann, Aleida. “Transformations between History and Memory.” Social Research, vol. 75, no. 1, The New School, 2008, pp. 49–72, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40972052.

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