Sibling rivalry, misogyny, a powerful matriarch in a small town in which indiscretions are overlooked are universal themes explored in Yan Ge’s award winning The Chilli Bean Paste Clan.
Translated by Nicky Harman, the tale centres around Shengqiang, the youngest of three siblings who has worked his way up from the factory floor and groomed to become managing director of the family business, the Chilli bean paste factory. In the eyes of society Shengqiang has a seemingly perfect life, a beautiful wife, daughter, a chauffeur driven top of the range car, nights out with his male friends where women attend to all their salacious desires and of course a mistress. He’s the envy of all men and ostensibly attractive to other women in Pingle town. But as preparations begin for his mothers 80th birthday celebrations and with the return of his older brother Zhiming, an internationally renowned Maths Professor, Shengqiang’s perfect world begins to unravel. Narrated by his daughter, who we learn is in a psychiatric hospital, his life is filled with resentments towards his siblings and inner conflict as he tries to live up to the expectations of his mother and deceased father and ensuring that he maintains his status as ‘top dog’ with an image of respectability.
Winner of the 2017 English PEN Translates award, for much of the book there’s little to like about the central character Shengqiang or indeed the misogynistic society which most of us vehemently rail against. I felt urge to hand out helpline phone numbers and #metoo placards. But we don’t always have to like characters in fiction for a story to be compelling enough that we invest our time wanting to find out how the story ends and what happens to the characters. That the story and characters are believable and resonate is enough to remind us that we live in a complex world in which the hard-fought rights and values we expect to be upheld and understood remains elusive to many, even in our own communities.
Yan Ge does however furnish us with backstory’s which enable the reader to understand the behaviours of some of the characters. The head of the Xue’s household is Shengqiang’s mother, a matriarch who at best can be seen to have her children’s interests at heart or at worst seen as interfering, manipulative and calculating. Having lived through and lost everything during the cultural revolution, her rise to power is built upon careful reading of society and its’ rules, rules she’s at pains to impart to her children. Feared and respected in equal measure her complex relationship with her youngest son Shengqiang is the driving force behind this story. Shengqiang’s inner most thoughts interspersed in italics throughout the book, when not ruminating about his siblings, rests on his mother, in his eyes often cruel but often wise. Forever covering up Shengqiang’s indiscretions, she’s fully aware that appearances matter.
In her foreword, Yan Ge gives us a glimpse of the spark that set her on the path to writing this novel and realities of novel writing. The honesty with which she recalls the writing process ‘I know for a fact that I had no idea what I was doing and .. called myself a fraud’ mirrors the honesty she brings to the characters she knows from her own life and experiences growing up in small ‘Pingle-like’ town in China.
In her own words, she was only able to write this book once she had left her home town ‘a place I loved but could never return to’ ‘In telling the story the pain and anger has faded, leaving only faint images of kindness and joy.’ The Chilli Bean Paste Clan
Translated by Nicky Harman
Published by Balestier Press 2018
(Original published in 2013)