Bean paste is a stable of Asian cuisine but I suspect for Westerners it’s an acquired taste. I tried the sweet variety a few times when I happened to be in China during the Moon Cake festival when the tradition is to present friends, colleagues and families with baked pastries filled with a paste made from red bean paste. (international brands like Haagen Daz have muscled in with an ice-cream version).
But my colleagues wanted me to experience the traditional version. The texture was fine but I would have liked a little extra sweetness. Nothing to really dislike but would I swap them for the British tradition of Hot Cross Buns? Sorry but no.
However, I never got to try the hot, spicy version of bean paste, a concoction relished by the inhabitants of Yan Ge’s fictional town of Pringle in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. The spicier and the more the paste makes them sweat, the better they like it.
The thing is, the townsfolk grew up with a hole in their tongues. In fact, they were almost born eating Sichuan pepper powder. Even rice porridge needed mala: the numbing, tingling ma of Sichuan pepper and the hot, spicy la of the chilli. They could not imagine life without that numbing-hot duo.
The paste is made in huge fermentation vats which contain “a bubbling mixture of broad beans which had been left to go mouldy to which were added crushed chilli pepper and seasonings like star anise, bay leaves and great handfuls of salt. As the days went by in the hot sunshine, the chilli peppers fermented, releasing their oil and a smell which was at first fragrant, then sour.”
It’s upon this product that the fortune of the Duan-Xue family is based. Youngest son Shengqiang was destined from an early age to run the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, got to leave the town and become a university professor and his sister Coral Xue built a career as a TV news presenter.
The matriarch of the family, the formidable “Gran”, is approaching her eightieth birthday so the siblings re-unite to organise a celebration that must be grand and classy, as befitting the family’s status, but absolutely not tacky. Skeletons come out of the closet and old rivalries are re-awakened as the big day gets nearer.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a tale of a family with secrets. It’s told through the eyes of Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and his glamorous wife Anqin. It’s clear she looks upon her father with affection yet the tone is irreverent for Xingxing holds no illusions about his propensity to drink and smoke heavily nor his serial womanising. Sex, nights out with his friends and plenty of food are what keep him sane as he tries to juggle the demands of his wife and mother (and keep his mistress hidden). The result is a series of humorous incidents which culminate in a personal crisis for Shengqiang and a threat to his mother’s reputation.
I found my sympathies going towards Shengqiang despite his attitude towards women. As a young man his bossy mother pushed into a lowly job at the chilli bean factory , insisting he had to earn his spurs the hard way, stirring the giant fermentation vessels Little wonder that Shengqiang has always felt he was second fiddle to his brother whose achievements his mother never lets him forget. His mother even chose his wife for him, deciding that Anqin’s family associations with the Party could help further her own family’s fortunes.
Shengqiang longs for a time when life was so much simpler. When he could hang out with his gang, play poker, get drunk and end up in a fight. But he, like the town in which he grew up has changed. Gone are the stalls and pushcarts where he could get noodles or cold dressed rabbit and chilli turnips spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes and griddled buns. Gone too are the scissor menders and knife-grinders. Even the familiar faces from his boyhood have gone in the name of ‘progress.’
… the whole of Pringle Town had changed. The cypresses and camphor trees of his childhood had been chopped down, the squeezed-in streets had been wrenched wider (but only a tad) and bright blue railings kept motorized and non motorized vehicles apart. … The result was that neither ars nor bicycles could get through. And as if that were not bad enough, the edges of the streets were ostentatiously ‘greened’ with saplings brought in from god knows where. … Worst of all the passers-by changed. It dawned on Dad that, without him being aware of it happening, the people walking up and down the street were strangers.
I suspect many of us who lived in small towns have seen similar declines as family-owned shops have been edged out by the big brands clustered on the fringes in souless precincts.
If only Dad had been allowed to tell his own story. Having his daughter as the narraor proved an issue for me. I know omniscient narrators can’t be everywhere and we make some allowances when they still relay conversations that they couldn’t possibly have heard. Xingxing tries to get around this by occasionally slipping in a remark about how she got her information from her parents, her gran and her father It’s believable up to a point but the further I got into the book, the more this issue niggled. No matter how close a relationship she had with Shengqiang I can’t believe he would have shared that amount of detail about his visits to a prostitute when he was younger or how he sated his sexual appetite with his mistress.
Words Without Borders described The Chilli Bean Paste Clan as China’s “best untranslated book” when it was published in 2014. It’s taken four years for the English translation by Nicky Harman to appear via Balestier Press. Asymptote Book Club members like myself got to read it when the club chose it for their May selection. It’s not a book I would have chosen personally although I would like to read more works by Chinese authors. I enjoyed it overall – it fitted my mood at the time – though its not a book I am likely to recall in a few year’s time.
Yan Ge has twelve young adult books to her name. She has been called one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. She is the winner of an English PEN award. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is intended as the first part of a trilogy of adult fiction
Maybe I was spoiled by the brilliance of Wild Swans by Jung Chang but any thoughts that The Good Women of China by Xinran would be similarly revealing about the lives of Chinese women today were sadly quashed.
Xinran is a journalist who worked for eight years as a presenter at a Chinese radio station. Touched by many letters she received from women she persuaded her bosses to let her reveal some of their stories. It was a bold move because some of those stories were critical of Chinese society and it’s ruling elite — exactly the kind of story subject to the country’s strictly enforced censorship rules. Though Deng Xiaoping had started a process of opening up the country in 1983, it was still risky to discuss personal issues in the media. But Xinran prevailed. She was, she said:
… trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breath after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years.
Over time she began pushing the boundaries, taking a risk that one mistake – even one comment – could endanger her career if not her freedom. Such was the popularity of her program that the radio station had to install four answering machines so women could call in and record their comments. Words on the Night Breeze became famous through the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. Xinran was hailed as the first female presenter to ‘lift the veil’ of Chinese women and delve into the reality of their lives. Her programme dealt with sexual abuse, attitudes towards disability, forcible removal of children from their mothers and a practice of pushing intelligent women into unhappy marriages with government leaders — marriages they could not leave because of the resulting damage to the husband’s reputation. Her stories concerned women of all different classes and ages and degrees of experience.
The most moving for me was the story of Xiao Ying, a survivor of an earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 which killed 300,000 people. In the subsequent chaos she was gang raped by soldiers. When her mother found her in a ditch, she kept pulling down her trousers, closing her eyes and humming. Xiao Ying was sent for psychiatric treatment. She seemed better after two and a half years, but the day before her parents were due to take her home, she hanged herself. She was 16.
Xinran was deeply affected by what she discovered, travelling the breadth of the country to track down some of the women whose stories she had heard. One of them lived in a poor shack next to the radio station, keeping body and soul alive by scavenging though Xinran discovered her son was a wealthy party official. Another woman she found in a remote hotel in shock after meeting again the boyfriend from whom she’d been separated 45 years earlier. Xinran sat with her throughout the night, slowly giving the woman the courage to speak about her life.
Centuries of obedience to the principles of “Three Submissions and the Four Virtues” (submission to fathers, husbands and sons), followed by years of political turmoil had made women terrified of talking openly about their feelings. Xinran won their trust and, through her compassion and ability to listen. Repeatedly they told her that she gave them a space in which to express themselves without fearing blame or other negative reactions.
If the ability to tell their stories, changed these women, hearing them also changed Xinran. Her youthful enthusiasm gave way to pain the more she learned and the more she understood.
At times a kind of numbness would come over me from all the suffering I had encountered, as if a callus were forming within me. Then I would hear another story and my feelings would be stirred up all over again.
By 1997, after a particularly traumatic visit to a community where women were denied sanitary product, whose wombs had collapsed through constant childcare, the pain became too much and Xinran left China for England. She wanted, she said to breathe new air and to feel what it was like to live in a free society. But she didn’t want to abandon the women who’d been encouraged by her programme – so she wrote her book to teach the west what it meant to be a woman in China.
It’s a worthy cause and there is little doubt that Xinran gave hope to thousands of women whose stories she heard and the millions more who listened to her programme. But it doesn’t make for a very good book. By the very nature of its subject The Good Women of China is an episodic book and each of the 15 personal stories she relates is touching. But it lacks objectivity and analysis. Instead of stepping back from a story and reflecting what this tells us about Chinese society, she’s onto the next example and the next and the next. Without analysis and reflection on whether these conditions have changed, it’s hard to comprehend if these are isolated examples or how representative they are of real life. Reading this book left me with too many unanswered questions.
About the book: The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is translated by Esther Tyldesley. It was published in 2002 by Chatto and Windus in the UK.
About the author: Xinran (the name means “with pleasure” ) was born in Beijing in 1958 and lived with her wealthy family until the Cultural Revolution separated them when she was seven. After working in a military university she became a radio journalist. Her talk show, Words on the Night Breeze, started in 1988; within three weeks she was receiving 100 letters a day, mostly from women. She moved to the UK in 1997, where she compiled their stories in The Good Women of China. Xinran is a columnist for national newspapers in the UK.
Why I read this book: I’ve been fortunate enough through my job to visit China and to meet many people from that country. The stories of their culture and how this is under pressure as the country becomes an economic power house and a force in international affairs, has fascinated me. I thought The Good Women of China would help me better understand the people of this country. This book is part of my 20booksofsummer reading list.
I’m surprised there hasn’t been much on line chatter about Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Amidst the chatter about the contenders for the 2016 Man Booker Prize she seems to have been overlooked and yet this is one novel that deserves to be read more widely.
This is a novel about what happens when a political regime flex its ideological muscles and dictate how individuals should live their lives. The regime in question is the Communist Party of China under the direction of Chairman Mao and his successors. If you’ve read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, you’ll already have a good grounding in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the disastrous consequences of projects like The Great Leap Forward.
Thien’s novel covers some of the same historical period as Chang’s account but is more contemporary since it includes the build up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.
This is an astonishingly ambitious novel not only because of the vast swathe of history that Thien covers but because of the large number of characters she introduces and the blend of fact and fiction. Her characters are people who are who leap off the page and in whose company you delight. – from the wonderfully named Big Mother Knife and Swirl to the unassuming Sparrow (one of the musicians) and his talented daughter Zhuli. They have to manoeuvre every subtle change in ideology, trying to make sense of their world and all the time longing to keep hold of the western music they revere.
The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.
I know some bloggers thought some sections the book dragged but that wasn’t my experience. It’s definitely a book that you have to read with full attention because of its dual time narrative which switches between and the vast array of ideas woven into the text. Thien seems to have constructed her narrative along musical principles. She introduces a motif or a theme; explores it, expands it and then lets it fade away only to return to it at a later stage though in a slightly different note. So compellingly does she write about the music adored by Sparrow, his daughter and his mentee that I felt compelled to get a copy of some of the key pieces – especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations whose recordings by Glenn Gould with whom the trio feel a particular affinity.
There is another musical reference which I didn’t discover until reading a few other reviews of the novel. The title is an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”
Author: Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Published: 2016 by Granta Books.
Length: 473 pages
My copy: Provided by Shiny News Books for whom I wrote a more detailed review
During the Maoist regime of 1970’s China, reactionary individuals were packed off to the countryside to be cleansed of their bourgeois attitudes and made ideologically pure through daily toil and close contact with the peasant stock.
For the two central characters of Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, their exile in a remote village close to Tibet provides an education far removed from that desired by the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. A chance encounter leads them to a suitcase full of forbidden books by Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert. They devour the books huddled over an oil lamp in their barren room, often reading throughout the night until the first light of dawn. Literature becomes their passion and a way of escaping the desperation of their situation.
When the Little Seamstress enters their lives, their passion for books and their passionate desire and love of this beautiful tailor’s daughter coalesce. She too goes through a process of education but the result is not one the boys expect and the experience has a profound effect on their lives.
In essence this is a story of the joy and despair of young love or of ‘love against all the odds’. It’s a poignant tale but what stops if from being overly sugary is the way Sijie interjects humour into his narrative. In the very first scene the two boys convince the village headman that the violin sonata they play is called “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao”. Later they sit on a filthy bed, feeling the lice creeping up their legs to hear some true songs of the mountain peasants only to find they are meaningless and bawdy ditties.
Though it’s a slim book – more of a novella really at only 160 pages – but it packs in a lot of symbolism. The themes and motifs of the books they read in many ways parallel the experience of the trio with their references to exile and illicit love. When a snake bites the hand of the seamstress leaving a permanent star, we get an early warning signal that this Garden of Eden is likely to become a lost paradise before the book is over.
If I have a gripe with the book it’s the treatment of the ending. It felt as if the author had run out of steam after recounting a moment which is the dramatic turning point of the story – and couldn’t find a way of finishing expect to do a quick summary of what happened subsequently. It was disappointing to find the lives of these three engaging characters dismissed so rapidly.
By accident, this week has found me reading novels set in far flung corners of the world.
Last weekend I started to read Midnight’s Children, the 1991 Man Booker prize novel by Salman Rushdie. It’s set in India on the cusp of that country’s independence from Britain. The book opens with the birth of the central character Saleem Sinai at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment the newly in dependent nation is born. it then goes back in time to look at the lives of Saleem’s ancestors including his grandfather doctor. One thing the two have in common is a large nose and an uncanny sense of smell that enables them to detect when something is not quite right.
This is not an easy read – I find I can only absorb it in small doses and keep forgetting who each of the characters are – so as light relief I began reading a book that has been on my shelves for more than a year. Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress is a first novel by Dai Sijie, a writer who lived through the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1970s but now lives in France. It’s a poignant ‘coming of age’ novel set in a remote mountainside village near Tibet where the narrator and his friend Luo are sent as teenagers to be ‘re-educated’ by living among the peasants. The narrator is a ‘fine musician’ who entertains the villagers with renditions of Mozart sonatas though since all Western culture is banned he has to pretend the music is written in praise of Chairman Mao. His friend Luo is a gifted storyteller. They both fall in love with the beautiful daughter of a tailor and with books by Balzac and Dumas they discover another boy has kept hidden. It’s a mesmerising story about a painful period in China’s history – a story made even more touching when I discovered that it’s semi autobiographical since Sijie himself was also subjected to the same re-education program.
From two of the world’s current economic powerhouses, my reading took me this week back to the cultural and economic powerhouse of ancient Greece with an adventure into reading some Greek tragedy. I’ve put Medea and some of the other plays written by the Greek dramatist 400 years BC onto my reading list for the Classics Club challenge, thinking that you couldn’t get more classic than this. I was expecting something rather complex in terms of language or meaning but was very pleasantly to find how readable it was and how its themes still resonate today. The central of Medea reminded me a little of Lady Macbeth in the way they view murder as a means to an end but at least Lady M experiences remorse where Medea seems to feel none. You can read the review here.