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In the words of the stereotype, China is big, complex and has a long history. In addition, the current political leadership is both authoritarian and secretive. So how can a non-specialist learn about China without reading hundreds of research papers and without learning Mandarin?
Such questions face even academic specialists on China. What readings does one assign to students or suggest to non-specialist friends? In the past, recommended books might include Nien Chung’s Life and Death in Shanghai (1987) or Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (1991). Fortunately, we now have a set of detective novels which provide an excellent entrée to understanding China.
Since 2000, Qiu Xiaolong has published nine novels that give excellent insights into China from the time of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution to the present. Qiu has created as his main character Detective Chen Cao, a man born in Shanghai during the early the 1950s to a university academic and his wife.
Despite this “poor” political background, Chen passes the university entrance exams and is one of China’s first university graduates after the Cultural Revolution. Although he has majored in English with a strong interest in poetry, Chen is assigned to work in the Shanghai Police Bureau.
Chen’s career in the Shanghai Police Bureau progresses smoothly. The Chinese Communist Party’s emphasis on formal education means that he moves ahead of older, career police officers. By the end of the eighth novel, he is also Deputy Party Secretary of the Shanghai Police Bureau.
Each of the cases in the novels has a political tinge. A model worker, a dissident writer, a factory manager, or a corrupt official mysteriously dies or is murdered. Several investigative organisations become involved, including the police force itself, Internal Security (which investigates the police but also tries to take over key political cases) as well as key party offices.
Because of politics, the party often tries to create an apparent solution to the cases which will satisfy the public, but which will not hurt the party’s image, interests and leadership.
Through his detective novels, Qiu raises many key issues of contemporary China. These include:
the terror and the waste of the Cultural Revolution
the creation of a “caste” system by Mao Zedong that meant a person’s status in life was determined by the status of their parents
competing bureaucracies in China
the ecological costs of making economic growth the key measure for judging political leaders
attempts to limit the interactions of Chinese with foreigners as well as to control the content of the messages given to the foreigners
the growth of the internet and its consequences in China during the late 1990s.
Chen Cao is a reasonably attractive character. He loves poetry, which he often uses, especially when talking to potential girlfriends and with older, literate people. In some ways, Chen resembles Qiu Xiaolong himself. Qiu was born in 1953 in Shanghai and clearly has based his academic career in the US around poetry and translation.
Chen’s main offsider is Detective Yu, an older policeman whose father is “Old Hunter”, an excellent policeman who retired in order to give his son his job. Detective Yu’s wife, Peiqin, a restaurant accountant, loves literature. Detective Yu and Peiqin were educated youth sent down to the countryside together during the Cultural Revolution and now have a good marriage. Despite initially resenting Chen’s rise, they have come to respect Chen’s abilities and the couple and Chen have become close friends.
Chen also has some Big Bucks friends, including Mr Gu and Overseas Chinese Lu, who have helped Chen solve cases. On occasion they tempt Chen financially, but Chen seems to remain reasonably honest. He does accept help getting his mother into a good hospital, but he gives a gift certificate for a large amount of money to the poor widow of a policeman killed during an investigation.
Despite his mother and Peiqin frequently telling Chen that he must have children (in accord with the words of Mencius), Chen never seems to get a permanent girlfriend, though he does meet some very interesting women and on occasion they even have sex.
Through the nine novels, however, Chen does not meet a woman who is both suitable and available. At the end of the eighth novel, which does not resolve the case, he could even end up with Lianping, a gorgeous journalist who has become engaged to a younger Mr Big Buck.
The recently published ninth volume is somewhat different. Chen is clearly under attack. Without giving too much away, the powerful new mayor emphasises old Maoist red songs and has a powerful wife who is an international lawyer. An American dies mysteriously as well.
China specialists will immediately see parallels to the recent case of Bo Xilai, who was mayor of Chongqing and challenged for the top leadership until ousted in 2012. Qiu clearly portrays the terror in the city under this radical rule.
The first novel begins in 1990 and the characters as well as the settings develop over time. I spent considerable time in Shanghai and the surrounding cities throughout the 1990s and can testify that the descriptions ring true.
In the novels, the changes as China leaves the “planned” economy and enters the “market” economy, the privatisation of the housing market, the great corruption, and the continuing leadership of the party reflect what was happening in Shanghai and elsewhere in China at the time.