Shanghai Mysteries: A Q&A with Qiu Xiaolong

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I read a new Qiu Xiaolong Inspector Chen mystery, I often find myself thinking back to the first college course on China I took. This is because the professor offering the class, historian Michael Freeman, included a whodunit by the Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulick on his syllabus. That book was part of a series featuring Judge Dee, an upright magistrate based on an actual historical figure, Di Baoan. In writing his Judge Dee mysteries, van Gulick, a versatile author whose other publications included a study of ancient Chinese sexual practices, opened intriguing windows onto the social and cultural history of imperial China — comparable to those that Qiu’s Inspector Chen novels open onto contemporary Chinese politics and society. When we read the novel for that UC Santa Cruz class in the late 1970s, I was intrigued by its depiction of a beggar’s guild, which had a clear hierarchical structure and developed astutely pragmatic methods for getting alms from local merchants. Similarly, one thing that will surely stick in the minds of readers of Qiu’s new book, Shanghai Redemption, is its depiction of a wild evening in one of the eponymous city’s most hedonistic nightspots — an anything goes sort of club of the kind that existed in the metropolis before 1949. They ceased to be part of the local scene during the Mao years and early part of the Reform eras, but have gotten a new lease on life in the boom times of the last two decades.

To write his detective stories, van Gulick often took an extant Chinese literary text featuring Di Baoan as a starting point. He would then move elements of it around and make other alterations in order to craft a narrative he thought would be easier to follow and more satisfying to Western readers of detective stories than a straightforward translation. He also altered the identity of some villains; in too many of the original stories the Buddhist monk was the culprit, which took some of the, well, mystery out of the original Chinese mysteries. The Missouri-based Qiu, by contrast — a native of and frequent return visitor to Shanghai, where most of his Inspector Chen novels are set — often takes things he has experienced, heard, or read about and reworks them into whodunits. In Shanghai Redemption, for example, he fictionalizes some features of the scandals and purge of Bo Xilai, someone who rose to great heights within the Chinese political system before being tried and incarcerated — and Qiu met when they were attending the same university.

I recently caught up with Qiu by email. I asked him about Judge Dee, Bo Xilai, and also, as regular readers of this post will expect but others may find surprising, about Aldous Huxley:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Have you ever read the van Gulick Judge Dee novel, or read Chinese works or seen Chinese films featuring Di Baoan?

QIU XIAOLONG: I had read van Gulick’s Judge Dee novels before penning my Inspector Chen novels. His encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Chinese culture and society really impressed me. You’re surely right about his taking “an extant Chinese literary text featuring Di Baoan as a starting point.” In Poets and Murder, for instance, I recognized the poet as none other than the famous Tang dynasty courtesan / poet Yu Xuanji (844?-871?). I like her poems, having translated one for a classical Chinese poetry collection. The poem is titled “To Zi’an, Look out from the Riverside in Sadness” (the Zi’an in the title being the man who married her as a concubine; his wife made him dump Yu by sending her into a temple). Myriads of maple leaves / upon myriads of maple leaves / silhouetted against the bridge, / a few sails return late in the dusk.//How do I miss you? // My thoughts run like / the water in the West River, /flowing eastward, never-ending, / day and night. Van Gulick must have been inspired by the real-life crime of passion committed by the gifted, ill-starred beauty, but the fiction seems to be too harsh on her. After all, the investigation could have been colored by the prejudice against an independent, intelligent woman in the social and moral discourse of the time, and the judge who sentenced her was said to have tried to date her but got rejected. Dean Barrett, another novelist writing about China, recently suggested that I write new Judge Dee books, but with van Gulick before me, how do I dare? Still, I may try my hand at a novella about Inspector Chen reinvestigating the Yu Xuanji case, following the clues through her poems to a different conclusion, though it’s possible that the new conclusion could have been colored, in turn, by his own incorrigible romantic inclination. Also, in rereading Judge Dee and other gong’an novels, I’ve noticed something hardly discussed in the studies of the Chinese genre. Dee is a Judge, not a cop or a detective, and in real life, he once served as a prime minister; for that matter, in other Judge stories as well — the “judge,” not in the ordinary sense of the word, but in reality a high ranking official. That in itself speaks about the fact that, lacking an established legal system, a detective could do so little, it has to take a resourceful well-connected official to make a difference. So the suspense comes not just in whodunit, but also in the almost impossible mission to have the criminal punished against odds in the complicated power struggle. And I wonder whether my writing has been influenced, subconsciously, by that tradition. As for the present-day Chinese TV movies featuring Judge Dee, I have watched just an episode. The cultural depth and width animating the characters in the original work appear to be totally missing on the screen.

Did you know you would write a novel linked in some ways to Bo Xilai when he was riding high as head of the massive city of Chongqing or when you first read of his fall? Or did you only think of working him into a novel later?

When Bo Xilai began riding high in China’s political landscape, it did not come into my mind to write a novel linked to him, in spite of us being schoolmates at the graduate school of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the early ’80s. I could have totally forgotten about him but for his failure to return my favorite Double-Happiness racket after a Ping-Pong game there, though that was not something too surprising for the mentality of a “red prince” who would take whatever he liked as rightfully his — with his father being one of the most powerful Communist Party officials in the Forbidden City. But then with his frantic attempt to grab for more power by launching the political movement of “singing the red and smashing the black” — the “red” referring to the revolutionary songs of the Cultural Revolution, in praise of the Party or Mao, and the “black,” to the people targeted by the Party authorities for whatever political reasons — I began to pay closer attention. I shuddered at the memory of my father being persecuted with a blackboard hung around his neck, trembling in the midst of those red songs. Was Bo really trying to pull the clock back to the Cultural Revolution? If so, why? I started contemplating a new adventure for Inspector Chen with those questions hovering in the background. What propelled me into the book project was, ironically, a “private kitchen” dinner with friends about two or three weeks before the official announcement of Bo’s fall. During that suspenseful period, as you may remember, stories about the Bo’s scandal surfaced now and then online without being instantly blocked by the netcops. That’s extremely uncommon, suggesting something sinister at the top. As we talked about it, an American friend challenged me, “No publisher would accept it if you wrote a book with those unbelievable details, which would beat the wildest fantasy for any mystery readers.” So I started researching and writing in earnest. While fictionalizing, a writer usually intensifies by adding imagined twists and turns into the murderous conspiracy, but those real blood-congealing details in Bo’s case could too easily work into the third-or-fourth rate pulp fiction. I had to subtract instead. For instance, the overdramatic turn when Bo slapped Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief and Bo’s one-time right-hand man, who, supposedly a secret lover of Bo’s wife, then fled for fear of his life to the American Consulate, carrying criminal evidence against the Bos, particularly that of Bo’s wife murdering a Western businessman. Hence an international scandal too huge for the Beijing authorities to cover up. But here I would like to add: this is a book inspired by the Bos. It’s not about any specific persons or things; rather, it’s an exploration of the social and political circumstances that could have produced such hearts of darkness in Shanghai Redemption.

You often allude to T.S. Eliot in your novels, due to Inspector Chen being, like you, a translator of the poet. Am I right, though, in saying that you make the ties between the Chinese crime solver and Western writer a more central element of this novel than it has been in any earlier one?

I am a fan of T. S. Eliot. I allude to him frequently not just because I’ve learned a lot of the modernist techniques while translating his poems in the ‘80s, but also because his impersonal theory enabled me to write in a way different from the romantic tradition, i.e., the poet should not, and cannot, identify himself with the persona or speaker of the poem. And that, eventually, led to the creation of Inspector Chen — not me in spite of some idiosyncratic traits allegedly of mine, embracing the tension between the impersonal and personal. So you may say that’s like my way of paying tribute to Eliot. Incidentally, a new Chinese edition of Eliot came out about two years ago, including some of my translations, just like in Shanghai Redemption. Now it’s perceptive of you to note “the ties between the Chines crime solver and the Western poet as a more central element” of Shanghai Redemption than of the earlier books in the series. Indeed writing Shanghai Redemption repeatedly drew me back into The Waste Land, as the redemption theme runs through both the poem and the novel. In the dedication page, I quote, “Because I do not hope to turn again” by Guido Cavalcanti, a line which Eliot also quoted and used. It speaks so eloquently about Inspector Chen’s despair as he stands by the grave of his father, who envisioned an academic career for him, but he becomes a Party member cop instead, trying to justify his career with the belief that he could make a difference by working within the system, even though increasingly beset with doubts. (Almost a century ago, Eliot also felt so terrible about letting his father down for choosing a literature career in another country.) At the beginning of Shanghai Redemption, however, his illusion shattered, his position deprived, Chen comes to the realization that “the system has no place for a cop who puts justice above the interests of the Party.” So his is not just a personal crisis, nor was Eliot’s. Rather, about their times respectively. Here the haunting images of “the unreal city” get juxtaposed with those of the present-day Shanghai, where the system corruption, materialist decadence, sexual dissipation, brazen hypocrisy and spiritual bankruptcy overwhelm the “living dead.” If the ending of the poem still suggest hopes for redemption of humanity through spiritual quest, the ending of the novel is cynical, where Chen quotes a Tang dynasty poem about redemption through contingency of history (like the “Chinese history-changing slap” Bo gave Wang in fury with all the unexpected developments), the only possible hope under the authoritarian one-Party regime.

Okay, the question you know I’m going to ask: Have you read any or all of the Aldous Huxley books I brought up in my last post, which I know you read when it went online? These were, just to jog your memory, Brave New World, which I’ve often brought into my commentaries on contemporary China; After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, in which as in your book a memorable visit to a cemetery take place; and the non-fiction work Brave New World Revisited.

In 1978, at the entrance test for the MA program at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, I was asked to write an essay about a Western book, one of the options flashing through mind was Brave New World, which I had read in the Shanghai Library in preparation for the test, but not being that brave, I ended up playing safe and choosing another book instead — for reasons you may easily understand. Also, it was just after the ending of the Cultural Revolution, a period when a number of young people were still somewhat drawn toward the utopia of Marxist idealism. Like Chen in his pre-inspector days, I found myself too busy writing and translating poems, hardly having time to worry about anything else. It was not until years later, when I found myself staying in another country, working on one of the Inspector Chen novels that I felt the urge to revisit the Brave New World. It’s because of the political catchword “stability” or “stability maintenance,” which enables the Beijing government to justify the unjustifiable, making the investigations practically impossible for Inspector Chen. But the word is not a Chinese invention, I recalled, for I had caught it much earlier in Aldous Huxley’s book. Now when he wrote it, he did not exactly have China in mind. But a lot he predicted are realities now, like political propaganda, psychological manipulation, classical conditioning, all these a totalitarian regime uses to keep the people subservient and under control. A ready example in Shanghai Redemption is the political movement of singing the red, and I saw with my own eyes an old, feeble worker appearing instantly transformed, radiating with euphoria on TV after mumbling just half a red song. The battle Huxley waged against the loss of individuality and autonomy under the authoritarian government remains an uphill one in China today. In the next Inspector Chen novel, when he is just state-assigned to the Shanghai Police Bureau, Party Secretary Li gives him a political lecture: “Each of us should be like a screw, fastened contentedly wherever the Party government wants us to, functioning, shining on the State machine.” Seen in a totally positive light, it’s an echo from Diary of Lei Feng, a communist role model advocated by Mao in the ‘60s, and quite recently, by the government under Xi too, but what a night coming true for Huxley’s metaphor about the deprivation of the human individuality by the state like in a factory assembly line. A soulless screw indeed! I have not yet read Brave New World Revisited nor After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. I’m going to, and thank you for reminding me of them.

Finally, what are you planning to write next? Some readers may take it for granted that you’ll pen another Inspector Chen novel, but you’ve also done some quite different books lately. For example, you collaborated with Howard French on Disappearing Shanghai, a book made up of photographs and poems that Ting Guo recently discussed in a two-work Los Angeles Review of Books that also dealt with Jie Li’s Shanghai Homes, and you wrote Red Dust Years, a charming collection of vignettes of life in an alleyway, which I reviewed for Time magazine. So I’m not taking it for granted that your next publication will be a mystery.

While doing research for Shanghai Redemption, I was rereading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, in which I was particularly impressed by a sentence, “The process of coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like.” For the next book, consequently, it is tentatively titled Becoming Inspector Chen, or Constructing Inspector Chen (perhaps you may tell me which you like better). In postmodernist theories, one’s subjectivity is not a given, but in a continuous process of being constructed and reconstructed through the circumstances, in an intricate interrelationship of action and reaction with others. So it’s still a mystery — in a more general sense of the word — about things happening to Chen and others around him in his pre-inspector days. For the structure, it’s a novel with each chapter of an independent story related to Chen, directly or indirectly, linked in a chronological way, from the traumatic experience in his childhood, to the cases he unwillingly takes when first joining the force. The narration unfolds through a variety of angles, involving the first, second, and third person perspectives, juxtaposing the characters as “no man is an island, entire of itself.” Here you may be reminded of Years of Red Dust, but the new book is different for being more thematically unified. It is more experimental, also more rewarding, at least so to myself. As for the other book projects, Years of Red Dust II was completed, translated, published, and well-received in French and Italian. But the English manuscript remains unpublished because of its profit margin not comparable to the crime novels for the publishers. The same with The Poems of Inspector Chen, a collection of poems in the persona of Inspector Chen, which too is scheduled to come out in French and Italian first.

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