Detective novels of Qiu Xiaolong

August 29th, 2009 by Lara

I’m pleased to find the local library in Singapore has some of Qiu Xiaolong’s detective novels, which feature a Chief Inspector of Police, Chen, who also happens to be a poet and English major. The novels are in translation (naturally, for me to read them); they take place in Shanghai in the 1990s, and have been appearing over the last 5-8 years in English.

I was remarking to my spouse yesterday that I no longer read detective novels for the plot; I read them for style, local information, attractive characters, and other stuff. (So I’ve turned into one of those people who reads the first few chapters and then read the ending, to see if it’s worth reading the bits in the middle – shame on me.) And the English-language style of Qiu’s novels is not all that great, but his books have lots of stuff that make them fun for me to read. I don’t know how much is interesting to Chinese people, but here’s my list of compelling categories:

Daily life for non-wealthy Shanghainese;
Descriptions of specifically Chinese occupations – hot-water seller, triad member, Party cadre, member of Writers’ Associations, police;
Intersection of government policy and propaganda with actual life (i.e., education, housing, corruption);
System of favors offered and returned, including the worth of various brands of cigarettes;
Retold history of China since 1949: life as a Red Guard, Cultural Revolution, Mao worship, Mao’s wives, Gang of Four, etc.;
Quotations of classical Chinese poetry;
Snippets of Chinese history, and how they morph into popular adages and attitudes – Cao Cao’s tomb-building (!), rules of the imperial household;
FOOD: from the crummiest leftover cold rice to reconstituted imperial banquets with braised camel’s paws (ew).

There’s also a combination of melancholy lost love, anxiety over Confucian values, and kung fu.

In short, these books have got everything! I don’t know how they appeal to Chinese readers, but they’re so full of lucidly-explained Chinese culture, that I like them quite a lot. I have found that, not having been brought up with Chinese culture, a lot of it is difficult to access unless I pester Mei with questions for hours. But reading Qiu Xiaolong works well, too!

BTW, Qiu has published collections of his English translations of Tang poetry as well.

6 Responses to “Detective novels of Qiu Xiaolong”

  1. AvatarMei

    This is very interesting, as I have never heard of Qiu’s detective novels before, and now I want to get some of them and read. Did a quick search on the net, and found that these novels are not in translation — they were written originally in English by Qiu (but a Chinese version has been published, in translation!).

    Without having read much into the actual text (just did a quick sample on Google Book), I can only say the cultural aspects described in the book are probably more particular to Shanghai than representative of Chinese culture in general. Shanghai is such a unique city in China, and it is generally considered to be highly westernized, especially in its value system.

    Qiu seems like a fascinating person himself.

  2. Avatarxgz

    Here is an NPR story about Qiu:
    Apparently he had been living in St. Louis but traveling regularly back to Shanghai.

  3. Avatarxgz

    Here is a very harsh criticism of Qiu’s work:

    An excerpt:


    I first read this book as a detective novel. Then I discovered that it at the same time is a collection of poems. Then I discovered once more that it is a tourist guide. Finally I discovered that it is another retelling of the folklore “Marrying a goddess.” In summary I was dizzied by this many-colored clothes wearing, different-element attaching cultural street vendor. I lost interest in all four topics altogether, and felt angered by it.

    I cannot make judgment myself on this yet. Probably should read a novel by him to see what it is really like. Here is an URL for the online version of a Chinese translation of one of his novels, Cité de la Poussière rouge, (Years of Red Dust, originally published in French):

  4. AvatarLara
    Author Comment

    Geez louise, this is one grumpy critic! S/he seems unhappy that it’s not a single genre but rather mixes things up a bit. Is this just a personal gripe, or do most readers expect a book to toe the line and stick to one thing only? I like it exactly because it’s a hodgepodge, but admittedly I’ve read so many books in the detective genre that the mixture seems more interesting to me.

    Thanks for the NPR link. I didn’t know Qiu lives in St. Louis, or that he writes in English. Now I do! Takes away the aura of someone writing under the constraints of Party guidance, though, which I have to say lent my reading a certain frisson before. Thinking of the author as someone who’s outside the fray, as it were, colors the whole reading experience a bit differently. Odd that it should be so.

  5. AvatarMei

    The review does seem quite harsh. I think the critic was showing the general mindset of Chinese literary criticism, that anything showing a hint of “pleasing bone” (媚骨) instantly loses its worth. From what i read so far on Google Book, Qiu has an obvious tendency to show off aspects of Chinese culture from an angle that interests the western audience and conforms to their expectations. It’s a book written very much with the audience in mind. As a result, a lot of the descriptions didn’t feel “real” even though he didn’t lie. To be generous, I had attributed that to the fact that Qiu is from Shanghai, which is very westernized in its values even before the communist government took power.

    Even though the books were written to please the western audience, I don’t see a problem with that. Writing (and other arts) are ultimately for entertainment, so what’s wrong with making it fun for the audience? The guy was writing in English, so obviously he wasn’t targeting the Chinese audience.

    Some of the Chinese critics gets too upset when the western evaluation of something does not agree with theirs. I read the Nobel-prize winning Chinese novel Soul Mountain, and it’s Chinese language writing as well as the expression of ideas are mediocre at best (we always joked that the French translator should get at least half of the prize money). But the Nobel is a western prize, and it’s obvious there are a different set of things people valued, so it’s silly to argue about that.

    Anyway, I’m not sure this is even what motivated the negative review, but it’s an aspect of cultural gap that came to my mind after reading that review.

    I don’t think the reviewer is objecting generally to a mixture of elements in a book, but to the underlying impression that the author was piling too many candies into it in an effort to please the audience. This impression is intensified by the apparent lack of necessity of these different elements to the character or plot development (i have to agree that the inclusion of Tang poems seemed unnatural).

  6. AvatarLara
    Author Comment

    Hm. I wonder what my reaction would be to an American in China writing a popular novel that depicted my culture as a mishmash of pleasing elements that didn’t necessarily make artistic sense.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Go back to Tales Across The Sea front page