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CRIME STORY: why mystery fiction set in China has captured the public’s imagination (cover story)
From Judge Dee to Inspector Chen, a different look at the recent crop of China's detective fiction hitting the bookstores

From THAT'S SHANGHAI January 2008 Print & Web Edition


By Mina Choi











A tough new school of detective fiction has muscled aside works by self-help gurus, China experts and the like. This new wave of crime novelists, including Qiu Xiaolong, Diane Wei Liang, He Jiahong, Lisa See and Catherine Sampson, has won a fast-growing fan base with provocative titles -- Red Mandarin Dress, Eye of the Jade and The Pool of Unease – and twisted tales of mystery.
In part, readers are attracted by just that, the mystery. But to solve the puzzle of this growing interest in detective fiction with China themes, we must first go back to origins of the detective genre.

Many fans of the genre claim that detective/mystery fiction began in the 1840’s with Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Others claim that it started earlier, in France, with writers such as Francois Vidocq. But for the general public, it was Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet published in 1887, that really established the genre. Indeed, Arthur Conan Doyle, along with Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers, still rank as the top names in mystery fiction. Later, in the 1930s, hard-boiled American writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain added additional spice to the genre.

However, China has its own claim as the founder of detective fiction, one dating all the way back to the Tang Dynasty: the story of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An), an important official in the Tang Court who worked as a District Magistrate, as recorded in the Old History of the Tang Dynasty (circa 945 AD). That, in turn, inspired Robert van Gulik’s popular series of Judge Dee novels beginning in 1949. A Dutch scholar and diplomat who wrote in six languages, van Gulik first discovered Judge Dee while doing research on China’s legal documents. After rifling through obscure documents such as Parallel Cases from under the Pear-tree: A 13th Century Manual of Jurisprudence and Detection, a compilation of 144 legal cases which van Gulik painstakingly translated, van Gulik spotted an 18th-century account of Judge Dee titled Four great strange cases during Empress Wu Zetian’s reign (690-705 AD). After translating this work, he then started to write his unique version of the detective hero Judge Dee.

The Judge Dee series boasts 15 books and eight short stories. All the books are still in print and fans swear by them. Titles such as Murder in Canton and The Chinese Gold Murders paint a quaint picture of “ancient” China. What some readers don’t realize is that the portrait of Tang Dynasty China, as imagined by van Gulik, is anachronistic: Judge Dee is really operating in a Ming Dynasty environment, the era that the scholar van Gulik was most knowledgeable about.

It is from this 1000-year old tradition of “Justice Fiction”, as some have named the genre, from which the current darling of detective fiction, Qiu Xiaolong, hails. “Many people have told me that they can guess who the murderer is half way through my novel,” says Qiu, ”but my stories pay homage to the justice tradition of China. Writers like van Gulik also wrote in this tradition. My stories are not just whodunits. They’re also about how to bring these people to justice -- how to punish him.”

Born in Shanghai and raised in Huangpu District, Qiu left China in 1988 to study abroad and has since remained in America. His detective hero, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, of the Shanghai Police Department, embodies many of the characteristics of that Qiu espouses himself; a poet and a scholar specializing in Chinese classics, Inspector Chen is a police officer in name only. When he is not trying to solve a murder, he’s writing poems and researching papers on Tang Dynasty poems. Qiu says that the character of Chen was modeled on a classmate who studied English literature, but found himself working in the Police Department due to lack of other opportunities.

Qiu Xialong’s Inspector Chen mysteries (with five titles already in print) are some of the most rewarding detective stories set in China because Qiu writes deftly in English yet displays a deep, cultural knowledge of Shanghai. Readers can almost smell the leaky gas stove burner in his latest novel Red Mandarin Dress, while the passages in When Red is Black gives insight on the deep inner workings of the guanxi system and ‘giving face’ in China.

Writing in English (Qiu also writes in Chinese), says the author, gives new vigor to his writing. “Certain ideas or idioms are clichés in Chinese, but expressed in English, they become unusual and fresh.” It’s not just the language that is fresh; the character also becomes fresh. Says Qiu, “One fan pointed out how he has never seen a detective who thinks so often about his mother and calls her regularly. But that is how a Shanghai guy would behave, so that’s how Inspector Chen behaves.”
Qiu’s research methods for his novels are simple: he just takes long, slow walks through Shanghai to “feel” the city. He chats up people and visits local restaurants. When asked about his research methods for police procedures, Qiu admits that some aspects were cribbed from Chinese television series. In any case, when he began his writing career, he didn’t intend to write a mystery. “Originally, I wanted to write about the sociological changes taking place in China.” But since he had never written prose before, Qiu needed a structure, and the mystery genre seemed right—it begins with a murder, and ends with a solution. Moreover, writing is Qiu’s way of paying homage to the city he loves. “Some people say that I have a Shanghai complex,” he says. “Shanghai will always be my spiritual home no matter where I live.”

Diane Wei Liang, the author of The Eye of Jade, a mystery set in Beijing that uncovers the antique smuggling trade, also draws upon personal experience. Though she lives in London, Liang says that she visits Beijing often to see her family. What is unusual about Liang’s mystery is that it features a female detective, Mei, a woman who has set up shop after being fired from the Ministry of Public Security. For Liang, this first novel emerged after a talk with her agent who thought there must be an entertaining way of introducing readers to issues of contemporary China.

The goriest of the current crop of mysteries is Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease, which begins with a beheaded body dumped in an icy lake. For Sampson, a British journalist-turned-novelist who has been living in China for more than 16 years, this novel is the third appearance of her protagonist Robyn Ballantyne, who has hitherto never set foot in the Middle Kingdom. When asked about her inspiration for her novel, Sampson says, “China to me is endlessly intriguing and fascinating, but it is a very real place, and I want to give my readers a taste of that reality, which is sometimes very gritty.”

One theme that is common to all these mystery novels is the Cultural Revolution. Whether it directly influences the murder mystery or serves as a backdrop, the era is pervasive. “History does matter, even if people don’t talk about it,” says Liang.

That said, He Jiahong, 54, draws on reality and his first-hand knowledge of evidence and criminal justice procedures. From 1969-1977, He spent eight years working on a farm in Heilongjiang Province. He later studied law at Renmin University and took a doctoral degree at Northwestern Law School in Illinois. The hero of his four novels, the lawyer Hong Jun is much like the author, a man who pursues justice at whatever cost. In The Madwoman, for example, the first of He’s works to be translated in English (all four, The Evils in the Stock Market, The Enigma of the Dragon Eye Stone and The Mysterious Ancient Painting, have been translated in French) He’s protagonist investigates the case of an innocent man who’s been put in jail, but the author skillfully relates the issue to wider problems in Chinese society.

Since he began writing in 1994, He says that “generally speaking, most of my books are shaped according to my personal experience, as well as actual legal cases. Because I majored in criminal investigation and evidence, I usually rely on my professional research and case study.” Which is not to suggest that his writing is at all dry. Indeed, His prose makes liberal use of colourful Beijing colloquialisms and each of the main characters has a unique and strong personality. The appeal of his work, according to the author, “is its larger-than-life characters, the element of suspense and, of course, the plot. Other than that, the aim is to present the reader with an anatomy of life.”
For Lisa See, a US author of five novels set in China, three of them mystery titles including Dragon Bones, The Interior and The Flower Net, writing serves as a way for her to explore her heritage. Although she doesn’t look Chinese (she is one eighth Chinese), See feels drawn to China because of her extended Chinese family in California. The catalyst for the first of See’s China-based mysteries came when her husband took on a case on which the Ministry of Public Security and the FBI were cooperating. She got to accompany her husband and observe the interactions. “My favorite night was in Beijing, when we all ended up in a karaoke bar and suddenly there were all these Beijing men singing in their best tenor voices. I thought: I really have to put this in a novel.”

But See’s latest two novels have not been mysteries. Snow Flower and Secret Fan is about nu shi, a secret woman’s writing, set in 19th-century Southwestern Hunan and Peony in Love tells the tale of a love-stricken young girl against the backdrop of Tang Xianzu's opera The Peony Pavilion in 17th-century China.

Still, there’s no denying crime fiction set in China is growing in popularity. One might wonder why a poet and a Ph.D. scholar such as Qiu is writing Inspector Chen mysteries? Or why a journalist is writing a grisly murder mysteries? Perhaps See puts it the best, “If I can get the page-turning aspect into the novel, then along the way, I can explore so many places, people, politics and environments that the readers would otherwise never have taken an interest in.”

In short, detective/mystery novels allow highbrows a vehicle to express their views in a lowbrow genre. Writers can sneak in the poetry, the classical allusions, the history and the sociological observations, but the lowbrows won’t notice. And that, indeed, may be the ultimate red herring.

For a complete list of Articles on Books by Mina Choi click HERE