At a point in A Case of Two Cities, Chinese writer Qiu Xiaolong’s fourth book to feature the poetry-loving Inspector Chen Cao, the detective recollects an eighth-century Tang dynasty poem:
Oh, do not laugh
if I fall dead
drunk in the battlefield.
How many soldiers
have come really back home
since time immemorial?
Inspector Chen has just been made a qinchai dacheng, “Emperor’s Special Envoy with an Imperial Sword”. An ex-government official embroiled in a corruption case has fled to the US and Chen has been given carte blanche to investigate the case. But Chen isn’t too pleased.
To be a special envoy in post-reform China is like “touching a tiger’s tail”, especially as the investigation has already claimed the life of a police officer. Chen is a reluctant detective, someone more at home translating Eliot and writing poetry, but as a chief inspector in the Shanghai police force, he has no choice. He then recalls a Confucian aphorism that perhaps summarises his dilemma: “Knowing that it is impossible to do so, he still tried to do so because it’s what he should do.”
A unique look at China
The story of China’s economic miracle is widely known, so it is futile to recollect it here. What is lesser known – and perhaps that is the English-speaking world’s failing – is the many contradictions within Chinese society that have been brought about by economic reforms, growth in wealth, and subsequent income disparities. Because of our inability to understand the language, and because our views on China are formed mostly through the Western media, we tend to focus on the single-party system of governance and the state of individual liberties. In India, the view is driven by a security perspective; the memories of the 1962 war remain fresh, and the fears of a Chinese “encirclement” drive most reportage from the country in the media here.
But in all this, we miss the human dimension of modern China. “Here, where everything is tinged with the mysterious logic of absurdist fiction, Kafka or Borges might feel quite at home,” writes Chinese writer Yu Hua in China in Ten Words, summarising a country where socialist principles and capitalist individualism are both alive, where “saving face” can sometimes be more important than the truth.
With crime writing, what matter more than the incident are the circumstances that it takes place in, and the motivations that force an individual’s hand. The best writing also tells us about the social conditions the crime is born in. The nine Inspector Chen novels are no different. To an outsider, they are an attempt to break down a post-reform, post-Tiananmen China, a civilisation that believes its rightful place in the global order was robbed from it by opium and imperialism, and seeks to regain it.
Chen is an unusual protagonist in crime writing in many ways. He is a poet and translator whose ambitions of a career in diplomacy are thwarted by an uncle who had been executed as a counter-revolutionary during the 1950s. Yu Hua’s absurdist state comes alive when Qiu writes in Death of a Red Heroine, “It was an uncle whom [Chen] had never seen but such a family connection was politically unthinkable for an aspirant to a diplomatic position.” Chen is subsequently assigned to the Shanghai Police Bureau, where his higher education and youth make him a rising star and allow him to advance to the post of chief inspector to the ire of others.
In many ways, Inspector Chen is Qiu Xiaolong’s mirror image. Like his creation, Qiu too studied poetry in Beijing, translating Eliot. His father was branded a “class enemy” during the Cultural Revolution for running a small perfume factory. “[B]ack home one evening, he lurched with a sudden limp, almost fell, and another evening, his face showed undisguisable large bruises like a rotten persimmon,” Qiu writes. “With all of us gone to bed, he still had to work and rework on something called ‘guilty plea’, under the broken lamp late into the night, three or four evenings a week.”
In the 1970s, Qiu began to learn English through novels like Random Harvest by James Hilton of Shangri-La fame. “It wasn’t just a language; it was a literature,” he told an interviewer. Qiu earned a Master’s degree in English, and in 1988, he won a fellowship to Washington University in St Louis, the birthplace of Eliot. The next year, the Tiananmen massacre took place. Qiu decided to sell fried egg rolls at an outdoor event, the proceeds of which were to go to the Chinese student protesters. After the event was covered by national press, in the tradition of absurdist literature, Chinese authorities earmarked him as a dissident. Security officials warned his sister he should “behave”, while a state-run publisher refused to bring out his book of poetry.
“That’s when I changed my plan,” he said. “I knew it was totally out of the question for me to publish in China. So I started writing in English.”. Qiu also arranged for his wife to join him in the US, and he enrolled himself in the doctorate program at the university, eventually settling in the US, where he now lives.
An unusual protagonist
One senses these experiences while reading the Chen novels. The chief inspector is in many ways a dissident who operates within the system. His upright pursuit of the truth often finds him at odds with party officials, but he survives through a combination of connections – guanxi, networks that are paramount to success in China – and a clear conscience. Perhaps it’s also because he knows he has a backup plan – to be a translator, or to join the restaurant business with a friend – that he can pursue police work without being bothered by the politics.
We first meet Chen in Death of a Red Heroine, where a young woman, a “national model worker” known to uphold the ideals of Chinese communism, is found dead. The novel introduces us to the phenomenon of “princelings”, children of high-ranking cadres in the Communist Party who derive power and wield influence through their parents’ positions. In subsequent books, Qiu explores themes that modern Chinese society is grappling with: environmental degradation by polluting industries, Mao’s legacy and the remnants of the Cultural Revolution, rampant real estate development, and corruption by high-ranking party officials. Inevitably, the cases that land up on his desk are those of “paramount importance to the party”. The truth is a Janus-faced beast in Qiu’s novels, and often Chen has to come to terms with a version the party is satisfied with.
Chen is also a gourmet and it is not uncommon to find him relishing exotic foods during the course of an investigation, such as a “Buddha’s Head” – “carved out of a white gourd, steamed in a bamboo steamer covered with a huge green lotus leaf…[and inside was] a fried sparrow-inside a grilled quail-inside a braised pigeon” – or a “Chairman Mao Special” – a bowl of fatty pork braised in soy sauce, which Mao was said to have eaten every day before the Communist victory over the Nationalists.
Qiu’s works have been criticised in China as pandering to the West’s imagination of the country. Perhaps that can be held true for any diaspora writer. But the fact that The Global Times, the official mouthpiece of the party, recommended Enigma of China, the eighth Chen novel, as one of its summer reads of 2013, and that the novels have been translated into Chinese, suggests that the criticism may be limited. For a non-Chinese reader, however, the politics of his writing is not the issue. What’s more bothersome for the reader are the repetitive allusions to a grand romance for Inspector Chen in each of the books, only for him to fail. The investigations also follow a similar structural course, so one gets a sense of familiarity while reading the series, not really a desired outcome in detective fiction.
Nonetheless, the novels need to be read as an insight into how modern China functions. During one of his investigations, Chen recalls a couplet from Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the four great Chinese classical novels: “When the fictional is real, the real is fictional, where there’s nothing, there’s everything”. Qiu could be talking about modern China itself.