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Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of Several Million Chinese Fans

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Image from ChinaSmack.

By Paul French

After a hiatus of a couple of decades China’s love affair with England’s greatest consulting detective is apparently back on. The BBC’s hit show Sherlock is a smash with Chinese viewers – Youku, a Chinese video-hosting website similar to YouTube, is screening the series and within hours of it screening in the UK on New Year’s Day, some 4.72 million Chinese had logged on to watch the latest installment, eager to find out how Holmes dodged death after plunging off the roof of London’s St. Bart’s Hospital at the end of the previous season. Weibo, China’s Twitter, was filled with chatter about the show by fans of “Curly Fu” and “Peanut” (the nicknames given by Chinese fans to Holmes and Watson, because they resemble the Chinese pronunciation of their names).

Holmes mania however is not new in China…It may have been a bit muted of late, owing to the range of books to read and programs to watch dealing with other characters since the burgeoning of popular culture consumption options in recent decades, thanks both to liberalization and piracy.  The Chinese love affair with the famous residents of 221B Baker Street, now renewed, goes back much further than crazes for other imports, from sitcoms like Friends to more recent shows like Breaking Bad, which have carved out sizable viewing niches in China.

I can illustrate this clearly via a personal anecdote from the mid-1990s.  A colleague and I found ourselves wandering along a deserted back street in Beijing in what were then the wild desolate areas of the city beyond the Second Ring Road (nowadays considered quite central, since the city extends out past the Sixth Ring Road!). We were on a quest to solve a mystery – did a couple of tough looking Beijing guys we’d met in London a year before really want to set up a joint venture with a British firm to disseminate Chinese statistics to the world? In London the two had seemed a bit shabby, with ill-fitting suits, scuffed shoes, and a fair bit of dandruff and in the course of a meeting they had smoked more cigarettes than London has tube stations. Nobody had taken them seriously and they’d been politely shown the door at every big market research firm in town. We thought they might be interesting to work with.

Their office didn’t inspire confidence – a jerry-built rookery covered in white lavatory tiles, with blue-tinted windows, rickety furniture, extremely large telephones, overflowing ashtrays and not a computer in sight. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we did a sort-of deal and then retired, inevitably, to a restaurant to seal our new shaky partnership. The place served Tibetan food and after all the talk of percentage splits, royalties and company formation details we entered the dangerous waters of small talk. We got off to a bad start by mentioning Tibet. The Chinese were ready for that and countered with British policy (as it then was) in Northern Ireland. We changed tack – soccer. Our new Chinese best friends were all Crystal Palace fans. (Note to American readers: that’s a rather obscure –it’s not at all obscure! – British team based in South London that had for some reason signed a Chinese player and so had a disproportionately large number of hard core Beijing fans.) That kept us going for a bit, but not all that long.

Soccer trivia exhausted, things finally picked up when one of their party – a large, jovial man who looked more like he’d come to fit you a new water boiler than one of China’s chief statisticians – leaned across the table and informed us that he was the Chairman of Beijing’s Sherlock Holmes Society. Everyone at the table nodded effusively as if he’d just announced he was China’s new Ambassador to the UK. As former English schoolboys we felt that at last we were on safe ground – Holmes, Watson, Mrs Hudson and Victorian crime solving. What didn’t we know about England’s greatest consulting detective, the good doctor and the canon of Conan Doyle? Well, quite a lot, as it turned out. The guy was a Holmes genius – every story, character, detail memorised. But he was sad – during his trip to London their itinerary had been so busy he hadn’t had a chance to visit Baker Street and pay homage to his idol (to be honest, he didn’t seem altogether clear that Holmes was fictional).

On a trip back to London a couple of months later I stopped by the rather tacky Sherlock Holmes gift shop on Baker Street and picked up a bag of Sherlockian  (as Holmes fans are known) souvenirs – key rings, fridge magnets and, at the time, a wonderful new invention: a mouse pad with a picture of a deerstalker hat on it. A return visit to the boondocks of Beijing ensued, the bag was handed over and our exciting statistical joint venture was sealed with copious amounts of beer in a bar with a bunch of random members of the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society who quizzed us (in those days before Chinese outbound travel became a hot topic) on how bad London fog was these days and whether we’d got round to paving the streets yet. Quite honestly it worked far better, and was a lot cheaper, than a Rolex and a Montblanc pen!

Ultimately my outlay of about the equivalent of US $20 at the Sherlock gift shop got us nowhere. A couple of months later the two guys disappeared; their offices were empty, their phones disconnected and I’ve never heard trace of them since. Still, I like to think that Sherlock mouse mat still gets a bit of use and that my old business partner of about fifteen minutes was tuned in to Youku to watch Curly Fu the other night.

As my brief business partner could have told you, Sherlockian deduction first came to China in 1896 – about a century before my Baker Street key rings arrived! That’s when Holmes was first introduced to Chinese readers in translations of four stories published in the Current Affairs newspaper. So popular were they with readers that in 1916 the Zhonghua Book Company published The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, which included 44 stories that rendered Conan Doyle’s prose into classical Chinese (wenyanwen).

Holmes was a hit! Conan Doyle’s late nineteenth century English logical reasoning was popular with an early twentieth-century Chinese government’s desire to encourage more empirical investigation of issues within a country that in 1911 had changed from dynastic to republic rule. Conan Doyle’s characters moved to the screen, too, when director Li Pingqian directed (and starred in) The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1931 – a film that wasn’t pure Conan Doyle by any means (it swapped London for Shanghai as a setting) but featured a lot of pensive thinking and logical deduction. In the 1920s and ‘30s Holmes was reinvented, copied, and adapted in various ways. Cheng Xiaoqing was a bestselling author who created Huo Sang, a Shanghai Sherlock Holmes complete with a sidekick, Bao Lang who, like Dr Watson, narrates the stories and provides a useful foil. There’s a nemesis of Moriarty-like proportions too – “The South-China Swallow.”

Holmes was also to survive The Curious Case of the Falling Bamboo Curtain and went on being published after 1949. The Maoist spin was that Holmes often battled evil brought about by capitalist greed and bourgeois injustice, which he sort of did, sometimes, if you think about it. In a time of relative hunger for foreign literature, as well as much else, Holmes and Watson retained their Chinese fan base. The men and women I was later to meet for beer in the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society all began their love affair with Conan Doyle’s stories in the dark days of Maoism.

And Holmes never really left China. A new economic era in the 1980s saw a raft of new translations and re-issues as well as, once we got into the internet age, the emergence of Sherlockian fan fiction, much of which evidently focuses on one possible aspect of the Holmes-Watson relationship not usually played up in the West: the homo-erotic.

The often somewhat lumbering behemoth of the BBC has shown itself rather deft and fleet of foot in China with Sherlock. Faced with The Case of the Pirate DVD Seller and the Mystery of the Illegal Download Site, the Beeb has done some logical thinking and shrewd deduction of its own by screening Sherlock (with official Chinese subtitles) via Youku (which paid a licensing fee to the BBC) just hours after its British screening. Had they waited a few minutes more, they knew, the illegal downloads and bootleg DVDs would have hit the streets. Thankfully it seems today’s new crop of Chinese Sherlockians couldn’t wait even that long for their fix of the further adventures of Curly Fu and Peanut.

Why wait a few hours rather than make it available in China right when it first aired in Britain? Well, unlike a good Holmes mystery, China’s TV panjandrums don’t like surprise endings. The censors had to check for any anti-China content. This was a big issue, as this was Holmes’s return from the dead, and as any good Sherlockian knows he’d spent the years after his tumble over the Reichenbach Falls in that rather contentious spot of Tibet. Does our modern day Sherlock opt for a trip to Tibet and some “me time” in a monastery? Sorry, American viewers (without illegal DVD sellers on every street corner) will have to wait till January 19 for PBS to screen series 3 of Sherlock.


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