Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

A Selection of Poems by Inspector Chen

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

A Selection of Poems by Inspector Chen

Article excerpt

Qiu Xiaolong (ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.) was born in Shanghai in 1953. His family had been middle class-his father ran a perfume factory, but lost this business during the Cultural Revolution. Qiu began to study English with an informal group of students.

He eventually attended East China Normal University in Shanghai, and from there he went on to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, where he earned an MA in English literature. After graduation Qiu began writing poetry and translating Western poets such as Yeats and Eliot. His verse won a number of awards and earned him membership in the Chinese Writers Association. A book of his poetry was accepted for publication. Robert Hegel, a professor of Chinese at Washington University, said of Qiu, "China was re-engaging with the world, and he was highlighted as one of the bright new poets. Qiu Xiaolong was the standout among the younger generation." In 1988 he won a Ford Foundation Fellowship to go to St. Louis to research a book on Eliot. He decided to stay in America and began writing in English. He also enrolled as a doctoral student at Washington University, getting his PhD in English in 1995. During this period, Qiu decided to shiftfrom poetry to fiction- detective novels in particular. As he put it, "Poetry is really convenient for writing about personal feelings and emotion, but if you want to write about society at large and all of the change, a mystery's a more convenient tool . . . a cop needs to walk around, knock on people's doors, and talk to various people."1

The mystery format provided a framework to discuss political conditions in China, as well as the economic, social, cultural, and culinary scene. Detective fiction was virtually unknown in China, though there have been fictive judges (e.g., Judge Dee) who solved mysteries. Qiu himself first encountered the mystery through Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Since there are no private detectives in China, it was necessary for Qiu to write police procedurals like those of Maj Sjöwell and Per Wahlöö, other favorite authors of his. Sjöwell and Wahlöö, the husband and wife team who began the now immensely popular Nordic noir genre, are the authors behind the detective Martin Beck, whose cynicism, gloominess, integrity, and habit of independent thinking remind one of Qiu's Chen Cao. Both the Chen and the Beck mysteries are full of sociological and political observations.

Like Martin Beck, Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police exemplifies the archetypal fictional detective: he is an existentially authentic loner, a man of integrity trying to survive in a bureaucratic and often corrupt system. He is attractive to women but incapable of having long-term relationships with them. In order to keep his job, Chen must balance being a loyal party member while holding fast to his personal sense of integrity and justice. He is able to survive in the world of big bucks and party politics, but he remains above it. Chen's code owes much to Confucius. His father was a Confucian scholar, and Chen himself is steeped in the ethics of education, family loyalty, and devotion to duty. He may be a party member, but when faced with an ethical problem, Chen calls upon the sayings of Confucius.

Chen is also quite similar to Qiu himself. Even while working as a cop, Chen pursues his literary studies and constantly cites classical Chinese verse in response to contemporary situations. However, Chen, like Qiu, writes poetry that stylistically owes more to Eliot and Yeats than it does to classical Chinese verse.

Qiu published the first Chen mystery, Death of a Red Heroine, in 2000, the ninth, Shanghai Redemption, in 2015. The Wall Street Journal called Death of a Red Heroine "one of the five best political novels of all time."2 The series has sold over a million copies and been translated into twenty languages. No history could give a clearer picture of contemporary China. The series is a vivid and perceptive chronicle of life in twenty-first-century China as the country emerges as a superpower, a capitalist colossus. …

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