To understand modern China, read Qiu Xiaolong’s crime fiction

Chinese writer Qiu Xiaolong/Wikimedia Commons

A unique look at China

The story of China’s economic miracle is widely known, so it is futile to recollect it here. What is lesser known — and perhaps that is the English-speaking world’s failing — is the many contradictions within Chinese society that have been brought about by economic reforms, growth in wealth, and subsequent income disparities. Because of our inability to understand the language, and because our views on China are formed mostly through the Western media, we tend to focus on the single-party system of governance and the state of individual liberties. In India, the view is driven by a security perspective; the memories of the 1962 war remain fresh, and the fears of a Chinese “encirclement” drive most reportage from the country in the media here.

Mirror image

In many ways, Inspector Chen is Qiu Xiaolong’s mirror image. Like his creation, Qiu too studied poetry in Beijing, translating Eliot. His father was branded a “class enemy” during the Cultural Revolution for running a small perfume factory. “[B]ack home one evening, he lurched with a sudden limp, almost fell, and another evening, his face showed undisguisable large bruises like a rotten persimmon,” Qiu writes. “With all of us gone to bed, he still had to work and rework on something called ‘guilty plea’, under the broken lamp late into the night, three or four evenings a week.”

An unusual protagonist

One senses these experiences while reading the Chen novels. The chief inspector is in many ways a dissident who operates within the system. His upright pursuit of the truth often finds him at odds with party officials, but he survives through a combination of connections — guanxi, networks that are paramount to success in China — and a clear conscience. Perhaps it’s also because he knows he has a backup plan — to be a translator, or to join the restaurant business with a friend — that he can pursue police work without being bothered by the politics.

Old Shanghai market/Wikimedia commons

Failed romances

Qiu’s works have been criticised in China as pandering to the West’s imagination of the country. Perhaps that can be held true for any diaspora writer. But the fact that The Global Times, the official mouthpiece of the party, recommended Enigma of China, the eighth Chen novel, as one of its summer reads of 2013, and that the novels have been translated into Chinese, suggests that the criticism may be limited. For a non-Chinese reader, however, the politics of his writing is not the issue. What’s more bothersome for the reader are the repetitive allusions to a grand romance for Inspector Chen in each of the books, only for him to fail. The investigations also follow a similar structural course, so one gets a sense of familiarity while reading the series, not really a desired outcome in detective fiction.

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Amish Raj Mulmi

Amish Raj Mulmi

Consulting Editor @ Writers' Side Literary Agency. Writes mostly on books & publishing, and Nepali history. More at amishmulmi.wordpress.com