Qui Xiaolong, China: Shadows Over Shanghai
In modern-day Shanghai, it’s the best of times or the worst of times depending on which side of the cultural and political divide you’re on. As fallout from China’s Cultural Revolution continues to rain down and the country races toward modernization, one pragmatic, poetry-loving detective battles corruption, censorship and political pressure to bring all manner of criminals to justice. Newsweek hails Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen mysteries as “one of the freshest and most unpredictable commentaries on modern China.”
Arguably the most successful author of detective stories set in his native country, Shanghai-born Chinese ex-pat Qiu started his literary career as an award-winning poet and translator. Qiu came to the United States as a Ford Foundation Fellow in 1988, earning a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Following the bloody 1989 anti-democracy crackdown at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, he resolved to stay on in the US and began writing in English.
Though he confesses a fondness for mystery writing’s linear narrative structure (“start with a body and end with resolution”), Qiu continues to write and translate poetry. He lives with his wife and daughter in St. Louis.
Scene of the Crime: Shanghai
Once known as the “Whore of the Orient,” China’s largest city—still “wild, bustling, corrupt” in the words of the Asia Times—is the setting for all of Qiu’s mysteries. Always changing, never sleeping, Shanghai is ground zero for China’s race toward modernization. As the site of the country’s first contact with the West, what better portal through which to view the underside—with its attendant moral decay and rampant materialism—of China in transition?
Interestingly, although Qiu’s novels have been translated into Chinese and are available in mainland China, they are heavily censored and the city name has been changed from Shanghai to “S-City.”
Chief Inspector Chen Cao
A poet detective in the mold of Scotland Yard’s Adam Dalgliesh with a yen for Chinese comfort food, Chen heads the Shanghai Police Department’s “Special Case” group, investigating those cases considered “sensitive” by the Party. He’s an honest cop who struggles to stay true to himself in the face of pressure from above to exchange personal ethics for political expediency. As he fights crime and corruption against a backdrop of social upheaval and nostalgia for the past, Chen’s shrewd but gentle everyman embodies the complex duality that characterizes a new and rising China.
How difficult was it to begin writing in English? When you’re writing, are you thinking in English or Chinese?
I started writing in English in 1989, after what had happened in Tiananmen Square that summer. I was banned from publishing in Chinese. And because of it, I had no choice but to struggle with English, though it was really difficult. Nowadays, while working on the novels, I think in English, but it can still be difficult, often with problems unimaginable to a native speaker. For instance, in Red Mandarin Dress, I had a hard time describing some clothing style in detail. My wife talks to me about her shopping only in Chinese. So I had to consult my daughter Julia, who was born here.
Having said that, I want to add that it is not always a disadvantage for a non-native speaker to write in English. For me, the Chinese, still in the subconscious, appears to provide an alternative sensibility to the English writing. For one thing, phrases and expressions overused in one language may become vivid and refreshing in another, not to mention the other experimental other possibilities in syntax and structure.
How do you think the current global economic crisis will affect what you’ve said is a “rampant materialism” that has taken hold in China?
The current global economic crisis has certainly affected China, but regarding the “rampant materialism,” the situation may be complicated. To a considerable extent, it has developed out of the ideological disillusion after the Cultural Revolution. With the demise of Confucianism and Maoism, it’s largely “a spiritual vacuum,” as sometimes described in Chinese media. Walking about in Shanghai, you may see more luxurious brand stores with people busy in conspicuous consumption than anywhere else. Prior to the global economic crisis, ironically, a small number of Chinese intellectuals looked to the capitalist culture for support of their values, and now people are reading a newly-released bestseller entitled China Pissed Off, denouncing and decrying the evils revealed in the crisis of the West. So it’s possible that materialism may grow more rampant, even self-justified, that is, provided the economy does not crash in China in the short term.
How did you decide to take up mystery writing, and who was the inspiration for Inspector Chen?
In 1995, I traveled back to China for the first time after leaving in 1988. I was so impressed by the changes that had been taking place there. I wrote a long poem about it, but poetry being perhaps more of a vehicle for expression of personal feeling rather than for description of a whole society in transition. I thought about trying my hand at fiction. Having not written a novel before, I had organizational problems, so I turned to the mystery as a structural framework, into which I put in all the material. In this, I was inspired by two Swedish writers, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, especially with their sociological approach.
My daughter Julia, was reading Nancy Drew when I started writing, but she was soon converted by Harry Potter. She kept complaining about Inspector Chen being not nearly as good. It’s inspirational, if you really want to see it that way, to have a daughter continuously putting down your work. Fortunately or not, she has not said so for quite a long while.
You’re one of several writers in this feature who began their literary careers as poets. What do you feel like your poetry background specially brings to your mysteries?
Many poets love to read mysteries. Some also try their hands in the genre, like Richard Hugo and my friend Mona Van Duyn too, who called herself a “whodunit addict.” According to her, the poetry background enabled me to produce a cop writing poems in the midst of an investigation, and occasionally even finding clues or inspirations in lines. Unlike P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh, who, though claimed as a poet, does not really write, Inspector Chen’s adhering to poetry introduces an existentialist marginality to a world of murder and mayhem, even though the poetic vision may represents no more like an oasis in mirage. It’s not my invention, however, to bring poetry into fiction. In classical Chinese novels, it is common to start a chapter with one poem, and to end it with another, plus several more in the middle for lyrical intensity. And I also have to admit, it is also an opportunity to smuggle in my own poems, which may be available to more readers with the help of Inspector Chen.
What do you hope readers will take away from your novels?
A lot, I hope. As some of the readers have told me, they have enjoyed a mystery, and at the same time, learned something about China. (Interestingly, a German tourist company has been doing a program called “Follow Inspector Chen to Shanghai” for years, staying at the hotels, visiting the parks, dining at the restaurants, all of them mentioned in the series.) But for me, I’ve also tried to explore with the cases something behind or above them. “The rampant materialism”, for instance, as you have just mentioned, the unbridled corruption in the one-Party system, the spiritual vacuum after the Cultural Revolution, the dramatic upheaval of the value system in a transitional society... For Inspector Chen, it is not enough to investigate just for the sake of whodunit; it is imperative for him to contemplate what social, historical circumstances produce the tragedies.
The Inspector Chen Novels
- Death of a Red Heroine (2000)
- A Loyal Character Dancer (2002)
- When Red Is Black (2004)
- A Case of Two Cities (2006)
- Red Mandarin Dress (2007)
- The Mao Case (2009)
Funding for MASTERPIECE is provided by Viking River Cruises and Audible with additional support from public television viewers and contributors to The Masterpiece Trust, created to help ensure the series' future.
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.