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The detective novels of Qiu Xiaolong.


Qiu Xiaolong is a writer who fits the new globalized literary paradigm. His novels feature a detective, Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, who has a degree in English literature and a fondness for T. S. Eliot as well as classical Chinese literature. The books are dense with literary allusions and discussions of current Western critical theory and its usefulness, surprisingly, for solving crimes. Chen also uses traditional Chinese techniques like Buddhist meditation and brings to his work a combination of Confucian and communist devotion to duty and country.

The novels of Qiu Xiaolong transcend the normal American whodunits in that they are saturated with literature and literary theory. As the products of a Chinese American writer who was born and raised in Shanghai, now lives in St. Louis, has published in both English and Chinese, and currently writes in English about China, his novels are excellent examples of the new globalized literature.

Qiu was born in Shanghai in 1953. He became a writer, publishing poetry, translations, and literary criticism in China before coming to the United States as a Ford Foundation Fellow to study modernist poetry. Qiu earned a PhD in comparative literature from Washington University, and settled in St. Louis. Since his arrival in the United States he has published five murder mysteries, all centered in Shanghai: Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), and Red Mandarin Dress (2007).

Qiu's novels feature a highly literate detective, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. Chen, who majored in English at Beijing Foreign Language University, had hoped to be a scholar like his father, but the government, which assigned jobs at the time Chen graduated, made him a policeman. Undaunted, Chen applies the analytical skills that he had honed by explicating the poetry of T. S. Eliot to the task of solving murders. It may seem questionable that studying English literature would prepare someone to solve murders, but literary criticism and detection are related, both logically and historically. Hermeneutics, the art and science of interpretation, though as ancient as the Talmud in biblical criticism, is linked in literary criticism--at least in the English-speaking world--to the use of circumstantial evidence in legal proceedings, which began in the late eighteenth century. Using circumstantial evidence necessitated drawing conclusions from observable circumstances instead of relying on the testimony of witnesses--in other words, it involves detection. The hermeneutic tradition in English begins with Maurice Morgann, who wrote what amounts to a brief defending Falstaff against the charge of cowardice. Shortly afterward S. T. Coleridge and other English literary critics began using deductive practices to explore the psychology of characters in order to explicate literary works. Not long afterward the American Edgar Allan Poe and Englishman Wilkie Collins introduced the detective into anglophone literature. It is worth noting at this point that although the mystery novel seems today to be a Western form, like so much else in our world--gunpowder and printing, for instance--China had it before the West: Dee Goong An is an eighteenth-century novel based on the seventh-century detective Di Renjie. Westerners may know the work from the translation of Robert Van Gulik, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (1949).

In the works of Qiu Xiaolong, detective Chen Cao's reasoning skills, coupled with the knowledge of human behavior he derives from his study of classical Chinese and contemporary English literature, make him a highly effective sleuth. Given the current Chinese policy favoring those with a formal education, Chen makes chief inspector in a very short time. He doesn't abandon his literary interests, however: he still writes poetry, and even finds time to pursue a master's in classical Chinese literature in a special program at Shanghai University. His efforts result in his appointment as an executive member of the Writers Association.

Qiu's books are worth reading for many reasons--they are entertaining as mysteries; they give a great deal of insight into the culture and cuisine of contemporary China, especially Shanghai, as China transforms (factories booming, high-rises sprouting, soy soup eateries replaced by Starbucks); they provide information about the literary life of China, and the way that Chinese literature is viewed in the West. Of particular interest is the way Chen Cao uses literary criticism to solve murders, combining Western critical methods with elements of traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism and Buddhism. He does this to an extent in all his investigations, but the most extensive example is the way he uses a range of critical approaches--biographical, psychological, semiotic, and deconstructive, along with traditional Chinese practices like Buddhist meditation and Confucian discipline--to solve the case of the red mandarin dress, the eponymous item of the latest novel.

The crime to be solved in Red Mandarin Dress involves a serial killer, something previously unknown in Shanghai, who dresses his victims in red mandarin dresses, then dumps them in conspicuous spots where they are sure to be found quickly. Inspector Chen begins work on the first murder just as he starts a special graduate program in classical Chinese literature at Shanghai University. Chen is aware that "running an investigation could be like writing a paper," so he applies the techniques he learned as an English major. First of these is psychological criticism. Chen sets himself the task of determining what sort of man, having what sort of experiences, would attack beautiful young women, not have sex with them but instead kill them, then dress them in exotic and expensive dresses, and leave them where they were certain to be found. Freudian psychology is not widely practiced in the People's Republic, so Chen must rely on what he learned in his literary studies. Eventually he concludes that the killer has an Oedipus complex and that the victims are surrogates for his mother. The reason he doesn't have sex with them goes back to a trauma the killer suffered as a youth, when he barged into a room and discovered his mother having sex with a man she and the boy both despised. This trauma makes him impotent. The first victim, Chen discovers, is the daughter of the man who had sex with the killer's mother. The liberating feeling the killer experiences causes him to kill other young women in the same manner.

Chen confronts the killer with his thesis:
 I've mentioned the Oedipus complex, in
 which two aspects are mixed. Secret guilt
 and secret desire. For a boy in China in
 the sixties, the desire part could be more
 deeply embedded.

 Now the memory of her most desirable
 moment, the afternoon when she
 was wearing that mandarin dress, was
 juxtaposed with that of another moment,
 the most horrible memory, that of her
 having sex with another man. Unforgettable
 and unforgiveable because in his
 subconscious he substitutes himself as
 the one and only lover.... That's why he
 treated his victims as he did--the message
 was contradictory even to himself.

The killer, Jia Ming, objects: "I'm no expert or critic, but I don't think you can apply a Western theory to China without causing confusion." Chen persists, however, realizing that in this case the Oedipus complex has Chinese characteristics. For his first paper in his classical Chinese literature course, Chen has been reading love stories in which a woman turns from a lover to a ghost or demon.
 This story [that is, that of the murder] is
 different [from Oedipus]. And it happens
 to involve something I've been exploring
 in a literature paper. I've been analyzing
 several classical love stories in
 which beautiful and desirable women
 suddenly turn into monsters, like "The
 Story of Yingying" or "Artisan Cui and
 His Ghost Wife." No matter how desirable
 the woman is in the romantic sense,
 there's always the other side--which
 is disastrous to the man with her. Is it
 something deep in Chinese culture or in
 the Chinese collective unconscious? It's
 possible, especially when we take into
 consideration the institution of arranged
 marriage. Demonization of women, especially
 women involved in sexual love,
 is therefore understandable. So it's a
 twisted Oedipus message with Chinese

Chen's later reference to the demon lover as an "archetype," and his reference to the Chinese "collective unconscious," are concepts he borrows from Jungian criticism.

It is his study of the classical stories that gives Chen his first clues into the killer's thought processes. He realizes that "The Story of Ying-ying," and another story he reads, "The Story of Xiangru and Wenjun," effected what Chen calls a "deconstructive turn in the narration of the romance." In both stories the romantic theme is initially propounded, then denounced. This gives Chen an insight: "Chen was reminded, unexpectedly, of something in the red mandarin dress case: the killer's ambivalence or contradiction. The murderer stripped and killed the victims, but he put their bodies in expensive, elegant dresses." It is Chen's familiarity with deconstruction, particularly the tenet that if there is a major theme in a text, there will also exist a contradictory theme, often expressed in the imagery, that sets him on the right path in tracking the killer.


A major element in solving the murders is decoding the mystery of the red mandarin dress, understanding what Chen calls the "Mandarin dress semiotics." Mandarin dresses, tight-fitting dresses with slits in the sides, possibly introduced by the Manchu, became symbols of elegance before the Cultural Revolution. The semiotics of the mandarin dresses varied with the height of the slits. Chen is aware that understanding the dress as a symbol is crucial to his investigation, so he consults a man named Shen, an expert on Chinese clothing. Chen concludes that given the nature of the murders, whoever killed the victim "murdered the dress too." Armed with this information, Chen is able to determine a psychological profile of the killer.

Chen's literary studies help him determine a motive. As he learns more about the killer, Chen realizes that what seemed like a random series of events are motivated by revenge. The killer stalks the first victim and her family as Edmund Dantes stalks his enemies in The Count of Monte Cristo. It turns out the killer has read the book, one of the few Western novels popular during the Cultural Revolution, because it was a favorite of Madame Mao's.

But as much as Chen is affected by his study of Western critical thinking, he is still fundamentally Chinese, and his first breakthrough comes by applying traditional Buddhist practices. He visits a Buddhist temple, where a monk suggests that he forget all thoughts he had on the case to try to see it from a fresh perspective:
 So he took a deep breath, concentrating
 his mind on the dantian, a tiny spot above
 his navel. It was a technique he had
 learned in his Bund Park days. Gradually
 his energy seemed to start moving
 in harmony with the singular milieu of
 the temple.

The image of the red dress appears to him suddenly, but he sees it in a new way and realizes its symbolic significance. Here he makes a breakthrough, and unravels the case.

Chen's doggedness, his willingness to sacrifice everything to solve the case, is a result of his Confucian heritage. Chen's father had been a Confucian scholar, and Chen has been reading The Book of Rites, part of the Confucian canon. His Confucian sense of duty--country comes before everything--of course dovetails with his Marxist views--he is a party member--and so his duty to the state is his highest priority. That said, he does things his own way: one gets a strong sense of existential authenticity from Chen--he is a highly loyal cadre, but he does things his way, not usually the way his superiors would wish him to.

In short, Chen is a highly complex figure, particularly well developed for the protagonist of a mystery novel. Although he is at heart a very traditional Chinese, his education has given him a Western perspective, and he serves as an excellent literary example of the new globalized man.

Editorial note: For more examples of East-West cultural exchanges in crime fiction, see J. Madison Davis, "Interpreting the East to the West," WLT, November 2006, 13-15.

University of Oklahoma

Alan Velie, David Ross Boyd Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, teaches the Bible, American Indian literature, and Shakespeare. He has written and edited ten books and lectured in Europe, South America, Asia, and the United States. He adapted this article on Qiu Xiaolong from a talk he gave at the conference co-sponsored by WLT at Beijing Normal University last October.
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Title Annotation:CURRENTS
Author:Velie, Alan R.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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