A Loyal Character Dancer

by Qiu Xiaolong

Published by Soho Press

360 pages, 2002








"I'm trying to do something quite realistic. I'm not trying to portray China as black as possible. I want my books to be something like a window through which people can look at China."









Tales of mystery occur everywhere. But mystery stories do not. Born and nurtured in Europe -- with a little American midwifery from Edgar Allan Poe (who's generally credited with having invented the modern detective tale) -- the genre has not traveled well beyond the West.

True, translations of popular mystery novels are available worldwide, but it's rare for a non-Western author to espouse the writing of crime fiction. (Japan is a notable exception, having produced such novelists as Akimhsu Takagi, Shotano Ikenami and Seicho Matsumoto.) More often, mysteries set in far-flung lands turn out to be written by Westerners.

China, for example, has been the subject of such varied Western wordsmiths as Robert van Gulik (the Judge Dee series, set in the 7th century), Christopher West (the Inspector Wang Anzhuang series, set in contemporary Beijing) and Eliot Pattison (the Shan Tao Wun series, taking as its backdrop modern Tibet). This is diverse company, made more intriguing by the recent addition of a China-born author, Qiu Xiaolong. His Inspector Chen Cao novels (of which there are two so far), set in 1990s Shanghai, use murder and political intrigue to explore the rapidly changing society of modern China.

Qiu's Death of a Red Heroine (2000) and A Loyal Character Dancer (2002) are conventional in their constructions of plot, place and time. But they're unusual in their vivid sense of an author exploring an alien genre, fusing it with Chinese literary traditions and taking it with him to strange new places. Reading these books feels a bit like learning to play a musical instrument: awkward spots alternating with moments of limpid lyricism. In the end, the overall result is fascinating enough to make the rough edges forgivable.

* * *

A 48-year-old Shanghai native, Qiu Xiaolong (pronounced "chew-shao-long") managed to avoid the brunt of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which began in the 1960s, by having the good fortune to fall ill with bronchitis at age 16. Bedridden, Qiu had to stay in the city while his peers, under Mao's "re-education" program -- part of a campaign to restore the vitality of communism -- trooped off to the countryside to forget their urban schooling and learn the hardscrabble life of peasants.

Qiu tried to fill his convalescent days by practicing tai chi in Shanghai's famous Bund Park. "I didn't make much progress," he admits ruefully. "I was not limber." Seated today on a bench in a sunlit San Francisco park, the still slightly stiff Qiu casts admiring glances at people playing Frisbee and doing yoga. In the middle of a West Coast book tour, it's not easy for him to find the time to head for a park. But when Qiu was young, his hours were empty. One day in the Bund Park, the adolescent Qiu noticed some people studying English in a book. That was the end of tai chi, and the beginning of an interest that eventually grew into an academic specialty in modernist poetry.

In 1988, Qiu came to the United States on a Ford Foundation grant, choosing to study at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, because of his enthusiasm for the poet T.S. Eliot, who was born in that river city. A year later, after the government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Qiu decided not to return to China. He managed to get his wife, Wang Lijun, out of the country ("It was a little bit scary," he recalls, "but not that difficult"), and today they live with their teenage daughter, Julia, in St. Louis.

In his books, however, Qiu writes about the kind of life he might have led had he stayed in China. His detective, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, is another Shanghai native who, as a bored youth, also tried to practice tai chi in the Bund. He, too, gave it up one day -- in his case, when he came across a battered English textbook lying on a bench. Like his creator, Chen is a poet with a fondness for the modernist writers of Eliot's generation. He likes mysteries, as well, and even earns a little side income translating Western crime fiction into Chinese.

But after Chen earned a degree in English, he didn't become a professor or a writer. Instead, the government assigned him to the Shanghai Police Bureau. As a detective and member of the Communist Party, Chen is in charge of the "special case squad," a police division responsible for handling any crime involving politics. Naturally, the politics tend to trump the police work, and Chen's life is a delicate dance between trying to be an honest cop and trying to stay on the right side of the Party.

His rather amusing speech habits reflect this uneasy balance, alternating between bursts of wistful poetry and rounds of banal Partyspeak. Typical is this exchange from A Loyal Character Dancer, in which a Party minister checks up on Chen's current investigation:

"There are not many young officers like you nowadays," Huang concluded emphatically. "The Party counts on you, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen."

"I understand. Whatever the Party wants me to do, I will do, even if I have to go through mountains of knives and seas of fire." He thought of two Tang dynasty lines. Beholden to your making a general of me on the stage of gold,/flourishing the Jade Dragon sword, I'll fight for you to the end. The old minister had not only recommended him for the job, but also called him at home, personally, to discuss the case. "I won't let you down, Minister Huang."

As he put down the receiver, however, Chief Inspector Chen felt far from flourishing the Jade Dragon sword.

Despite frequent frustrations with his career, his bosses and China in general, Chen never calls it quits. He's got a job to do: trying to help people in a time of rapid cultural, economic and political development. He admits as much to himself in Death of a Red Heroine, when he reflects that he might "make a more realistic difference as a chief inspector than just as a poet." Of course, this same impulse is what inspired Qiu to write the Chen books in the first place.

"I feel the obligation to write about the change taking place in the country where I have lived for 30 years," Qiu explains. "I can teach by using others' books, but why not write books by myself?"

Contemporary China is a country moving both backward and forward, a communist land attempting both to foster and ignore the growth of capitalism within its borders. For some, especially the young, the rise of capitalism is liberating. But for others -- including those in power -- it's unsettling and threatening.

In his two fictional outings thus far, Chen investigates cases that give his government a great deal of discomfort. In Death of a Red Heroine, it's several prominent Party members getting themselves mixed up in a sex scandal; in A Loyal Character Dancer, it's the government's embarrassing inability to crack down on China's entrenched (and vicious) human-smuggling gangs. (Both plots, says Qiu, are based on actual cases.) Everything about these investigations exudes the sickly sweet smell of corruption in the halls of power; it's not surprising that Chen has bouts of revulsion about his occupation. The wonder is the corresponding vibrancy of life on his nation's streets, where corruption is just as rife.

The father of Chen's partner, a retired cop nicknamed Old Hunter, spends the first novel eking out a living from a meager pension. By the second book, thanks to Chen's stint as Shanghai's traffic director, Old Hunter has been appointed as an honorary traffic advisor, complete with salary. Nepotism? Sure. But it's hard to fault Qiu's characters, who live on the slimmest of incomes, for taking advantage of the system. And it's understandable that they don't consider themselves corrupt, as an outburst by Old Hunter in A Loyal Character Dancer proves:

"Things are falling apart! The beast of corruption is moving in all over the country. Good people lack conviction. To accomplish anything in today's society, they have to go about in two ways -- the black way and the white way."

Of course, everybody juggles whatever the competing systems -- old communism (the white way) and new capitalism (the black way) -- have to offer. With luck, an enterprising family might earn itself the luxury of a two-room apartment, or a parking spot, or a night out on the town. Life in China, as Qiu portrays it, is a jumble of staggering extremes that passes for normal.

Take the enormous contrast, for example, between the meager meals that Chen usually eats -- bowls of leftover rice and instant noodles are typical -- and the fabulous feasts that he gets to sample when the government, or a wealthy capitalist friend, foots the bill:

In Guangzhou, Chen had heard, there was nothing with four legs that people had not found a way to turn into a delicacy. And he was witnessing such a miracle: Omelet with river clams, meatballs of four happiness, fried rice field eel, peeled shrimp in tomato containers, eight-treasure rice, shark's fin soup, a whole turtle with brown sauce, and bean curd stuffed with crabmeat.

"Eating is important in China," Qiu says simply. "It's more ordinary to talk about eating. In the 1980s, an ordinary family would spend more than half their income on food. When I visit China today, my friends will take me out for a big dinner. They have to, or lose face. And they will pay half a month's salary to cover it."

There's not much of a middle road in Chen's world. And what Qiu calls "the ironical causality of life," or happenstance, determines the fate of many. For most of Chen's (and Qiu's) peers, the great happenstance of their lives was the Cultural Revolution. Chen's partner, Detective Yu Guangming, and Yu's wife, Peiqin, fell in love as teenagers, when they were sent off to the countryside together. And the loyal character dancer of the second novel is a brilliant, beautiful woman whose life was ruined by the events of those years. China may be glittering with new capitalism, but Qiu makes sure that his readers don't forget the dark underside of the country's history and politics.

"I'm trying to do something quite realistic," Qiu asserts. "I'm not trying to portray China as black as possible. I want my books to be something like a window through which people can look at China."

Qiu expresses admiration for the work of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a Swedish husband-and-wife writing team whose police procedurals, set in 1960s Sweden and featuring detective Martin Beck, were also books of social analysis. "In their books, being a detective is not something glamorous," remarks Qiu. "It's full of hard work and frustration. And the end often comes as something unexpected."

The policeman aspect of Chen, Qiu adds, is based on the career of a friend. "He majored in English, and was then assigned to the police," the author explains. "He's doing something along the lines of 'gathering information related to the English language' for the police. For example, say you are a Chinese writer and your book is being translated into English, and you visit the U.S. and are interviewed -- all this, the government wants to know about." Qiu smiles wryly. "My friend said to me once, 'We have a lot of information on you.' I didn't ask more."

The Inspector Chen books are currently being translated into Chinese, and if all goes well, Death of a Red Heroine will be published in China early next year. Naturally, Qiu is a bit wary about the kind of reception his novels might receive in his homeland. "My editor in China said, 'We have to do an operation on your book,'" he recalls. "Hopefully, it's not too large an operation."

Qiu also has a new work in English due to be published by Hippocrene Books, titled A Treasury of Chinese Love Poems. It's a collection of his own translations of some of his favorite classical verse. The idea, he says, came from a fan who turned up at a reading he gave in St. Louis.

"She had actually memorized all the poems in [Death of a Red Heroine]," Qiu marvels. "She said she couldn't read other translations of Chinese poems; she wasn't really getting it. And I thought, maybe it was a problem of translation. When I translate, I try to make the poem not only loyal to the original, but also an English poem."

To a Western reader, the characters in Qiu's novels quote poetry with unusual frequency. It's not just the intellectual Chen who has a weakness for the lyrical; everybody quotes Confucius, and draws regularly on a battery of colorful proverbs. (The Chinese equivalent of "slippery as a snake," for example, is the much more vivid "slippery as a rice paddy eel.") Even Peiqin, the wife of the blue-collar cop Yu, insists on a day trip to a garden evocative of her favorite poetry-laden novel, the Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber. And the poignant conclusion of A Loyal Character Dancer turns on the discovery and interpretation of a poem about the Cultural Revolution.

"Most novels in China contain much more poetry [than Western novels]," explains Qiu. "At the start of the chapter, at the end, and in the middle -- and sometimes they use a poem to introduce a new character. I tried to keep this kind of Chinese tradition."

Using poetry, Qiu observes, can be a way of discreetly revealing character. "China has a self-effacing culture," he says. "It's better not to say what you want to say immediately. Often, Chen wants to say something, but not say too much. And when it is difficult to say something in prose, sometimes people try to say it in poetry."

This is true, certainly, of Qiu himself. He's polite and pleasantly formal, ready to talk about his books and his life, but with a certain distance. It's only when the conversation turns to poetry -- in particular, the works of Eliot, Louis MacNeice and other modernist writers -- that he clearly grows comfortable. His eyes light up, his arm gestures grow expansive, he starts to laugh. Poetry is his proxy.

So it took a certain amount of literary daring for Qiu to introduce a Westerner in A Loyal Character Dancer -- a dramatic player who says what she means, directly and without hesitation. Inspector Catherine Rohn is a U.S. marshal sent over to China to escort a material witness, Wen Liping, back to the States. (Wen's husband fled China for America, where he agreed to testify against the gang who smuggled him out of China in exchange for his wife's immigration. But his wife has gone missing, and Chen is in charge of finding her.) Rohn is beautiful, intelligent and fluent in Chinese. She also knows when Chen is trying to save face for the government (most of the time) and when he is trying not to let his feelings show (all of the time). And Chen is both uncomfortable and charmed.

"In Death of a Red Heroine, I tried to look at China from an inside point of view," says Qiu. "In A Loyal Character Dancer, I wanted to introduce another point of view, from the outside. But I also wanted to try to change the way Chinese think of Americans. So Catherine was useful from both angles."

Catherine Rohn has a third purpose, as well: she serves as the stand-in for Western readers. An awkwardness in Death of a Red Heroine was the characters' habit of explaining facts and customs that might go over the heads of foreigners, but were second nature to the characters themselves. (Why, for example, would a Shanghai native need to remind another Shanghai native that, 10 years previously, taxis had been scarce on the city's streets?) With the introduction of Catherine, who knows the Chinese language and some Chinese literature, but not too much about today's China, the reader has a convenient and credible questioner on the scene. Somebody to ask, what does the phrase "born under a peach tree" mean? Or, what's a loyal character dancer? And why do people cheer at the start of a traditional Chinese opera? (Alas, Catherine is not present at the meal featuring the meatballs of four happiness and eight-treasure rice, so those delicacies remain a mystery.) Yes, it's a device, but since these books are transparent studies of modern Chinese society, it's a welcome one.

"For me to write a novel -- it's hard," Qiu confides. "I'm a bit of a perfectionist; it's easier for me to write a poem. In a detective novel, you don't have to go out of your way to create the structure. It's already there: in the beginning a dead body, a detective starts looking around, in the end a criminal caught and justice done."

* * *

A third Chen book is already in the works, but Qiu is also devoting his time now to a non-detective novel about China. "It covers 50 years, from 1949 to 2000 or so," the author explains. "It's about a group of neighbors on one street, and their overlapping stories. The main character in one story might be a minor character in another. I like the idea that the narrative point of view can be unreliable, and I like the structure, but it's really hard."

He also hopes to get back to China in the near future, not only to absorb the current culture there but to study it for future books. However, after all his years in the United States, Qiu isn't sure how much time he really wants to spend in the land of his birth. "I keep in constant touch with my friends in China," he says. "I read Chinese newspapers; the Internet is great for that. But it's becoming more and more meaningful for me to write in English here. And I really want to write whatever I want to write. Things that couldn't be published in China."

Things like unexpurgated Inspector Chen novels, for one. His readers in the West can only hope that Qiu will decide to follow Chen down many more of those crowded Shanghai streets. | November 2002


Caroline Cummins is a Berkeley, California, writer and frequent contributor to January Magazine.