I won’t say that an interest in criminal activity led me to a career teaching and writing about China, but books about death, detective work and other themes with links to noir genres certainly played a role in steering me toward my chosen profession. More specifically, browsing the campus bookstore shelves at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, in an effort to decide which history class to take, one thing that tipped the odds in favor of the course on China that Michael Freeman was offering was a list of assigned readings that included titles that appealed to the whodunit lover in me.
One of the books of this sort I saw on the shelf under the course’s number was The Death of Woman Wang. It was a slim volume by Jonathan Spence, someone I’d never heard of (nothing special, as I couldn’t have named a single China specialist at the time). I’d later discover, of course, that he was a rising star in modern Chinese history, and had begun to stand out as having a special flair for writing experimental works of non-fiction that employed some of the techniques and provided many of the pleasures more commonly associated with novels.
The other title that caught my eye was in fact a novel, The Chinese Bell Murders. It was described on the cover as part of a series featuring Judge Dee, a legendary 7th century magistrate known for his sagacity and shrewdness. The book’s author was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch Sinologist who I’d later discover was very versatile indeed, since his other publications included a history of ancient Chinese sexual practices (with the steamiest parts rendered in Latin) and a translation of an 18th century Chinese work of fiction (featuring the same Judge Dee who became the protagonist of his series).
Flipping through the pages of both books, I was intrigued by the way their authors used tales of intrigue and investigation, violence and vengeance, murder and mystery to bring the Chinese past alive. I took the course — and never regretted doing so. And, sure enough, though we read some other very good books for the class, those two made the most lasting impression on me. I would find myself musing over and over again at specific details from each work. I was intrigued by the introduction Woman Wang provided to the role of fox spirits in Chinese folklore, for example, and by how van Gulik filled his plot with tidbits about social life in imperial China. The thing that I remember most vividly now about my first reading of The Chinese Bell Murders was its discussion of a highly organized guild, complete with a designated leader, which was made up not of artisans who pursued a single craft, but rather of beggars.
As I moved from taking classes on Chinese history to teaching them, I naturally began assigning Woman Wang, The Chinese Bell Murders or sometimes both of them. I’ve also always kept my eye out for new books, novels and works of non-fiction alike, that can bring the past to life in similarly effective ways, not necessarily via tales of crime and detection — but a noir twist never hurts.
Given that I sometimes teach courses that focus specifically on Shanghai, I’ve been spoiled for choices when it comes to books of this kind. Non-fiction, accessible studies of the city’s past to assign to undergraduates with noir tastes include Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai and Lynn Pan’s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise. On the fiction side, there’s everything from Malraux’s Man’s Fate, if dealing with the 1920s, to the books in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, if dealing with the last few decades. (Of course, especially in the wake of recent publications such as Paul French’s Midnight in Peking, on the non-fiction side, and Catherine Sampson’s The Slaughter Pavilion, on the fiction side, Beijing is not without its options for those who prefer to teach about that city.)
I’m not sure how often a political scientist or sociologist puts either a mystery novel or a book of non-fiction noir on his or her syllabus, but it strikes me that there are a lot of good options out there to choose from these days for those so inclined. Some of the works I’m thinking of, including analyses of the Bo Xilai case, have already been discussed on this blog or on the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books, while others will be dealt with in one place or the other in the coming weeks and months (so stay tuned). Here, though, I’ll just end by describing one work of noir, very broadly defined, that came out in 2011 but that I just got around to reading: Lisa Brackmann’s Rock Paper Tiger.
I picked it up recently because I’d enjoyed the same author’s Hour of the Rat, her second novel detailing the adventures of Rock Paper Tiger protagonist Ellie McEnroe, an Iraq War vet adrift in Beijing. I was curious to learn about McEnroe’s backstory and simply thought that, based on having read the sequel, Rock Paper Tiger would make me laugh, give me things to think about, and have a propulsive plot. It lived up to my expectations on all those fronts.
I also came away from it musing on what might stick in a student’s mind, the way that beggar’s guild stuck in mine after reading The Chinese Bell Murders, if Rock Paper Tiger were assigned fifty years hence by a professor teaching a class on China circa 2011. There are lots of possibilities, for Brackmann is good at slipping in engaging descriptions of diverse social and cultural phenomena, from the material and propaganda detritus left over from the intense build-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, to the role of thuggish para-police units known as chengguan in Chinese urban life.
If I had to choose one thing, however, that might make a particular impact on a college student of the future who stumbled into a Chinese history class the way I did back in the late 1970s, it might be Brackmann’s description of the multiple functions of karaoke bars. Here’s how she limns their role: “Karaoke bars usually have a lot more than just karaoke going on. Prostitution, drugs, bribery — they’re the Amazon.com of vice.”
She goes on to describe one specific karaoke establishment that was “more ambitious” than most, in terms of its look from the outside at least. “It’s called ‘The Parthenon,’” she writes, “and it looks like a Greek temple — that is, if the temple’s architects had dropped a lot of acid before they built it. Marble columns with flashing strings of green and red diodes snaking around them, naked statuary lit by colored spotlights, and a fountain that dances around vaguely in time with the latest Taiwanese pop blaring from the outdoor speakers.”
Surely, given his interest in both crime and sex, this would be a passage that would catch van Gulik’s eye as well as that of my imagined student. Or rather, would have caught it, had he lived long enough to be able to read of Ellie McEnroe joining Judge Dee, Inspector Chen, and many others in the ever-longer list of protagonists of crime novels set in China.