Chinese Puzzle

St. Louis author Qiu Xiaolong's new book is as much an examination of social and political upheaval in Chinese society as it is a mystery novel

The mystery genre was also a calculated strategy, offering the lyric poet, writing in his second language, "a ready-made framework. I had never written a novel before, so if I wanted to write another kind of story, I may have to struggle, but with the mystery, it's relatively easy. It's just a beginning and an end -- you solve the mystery."

Red Heroine is far more complex than Qiu's offhand outline. When the novel begins, Chen, with the title of "chief inspector" and the acquisition of his modern apartment, has attained a level of status uncommon in the "classless" People's Republic. But with the discovery of a woman's body in a distant canal, Chen enters into an investigation that forces him to see a China his comfort had granted him the privilege to ignore. Red Heroine follows a peeling-the- onion narrative as Chen follows the murder trail from the polluted canal to the mansions of exalted party leaders' families. Through the vehicle of the detective's investigation, Qiu describes a People's Republic precariously stretched between the boom created by economic reforms and the stern ideological principles of the "old Bolsheviks."

More than to create a suspenseful whodunit, Qiu wrote Red Heroine to explore the old-socialist/new-capitalist tensions that currently are central to his rapidly evolving homeland. To better explain those tensions, Qiu's characters frequently refer to their relationship to the epochal event of recent Chinese history, the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Chairman Mao's great social experiment, which closed schools and all elements of modernization and sent the youth of China into the countryside to rediscover true socialism working alongside rural peasants. "I know there are some books about the Cultural Revolution in English written by Chinese authors," Qiu admits. "Even so, I don't think that is a topic that has been really explored. In China, people have written about it, but there are problems. It's a subject you have to write about most carefully.

"In the past, before the communists, people believed in Confucius. Then afterward, they believed in Mao. After Cultural Revolution, now what?" -- Qiu Xiaolong, author of Death of a Red Heroine
Jennifer Silverberg
"In the past, before the communists, people believed in Confucius. Then afterward, they believed in Mao. After Cultural Revolution, now what?" -- Qiu Xiaolong, author of Death of a Red Heroine

"This book is written about contemporary China, but I still believe the problems and the phenomena -- a lot of things we can't really understand unless we have the cultural aspect, how and why people behave like this. In recent years, the one thing that is most noteworthy is how some people are just materialistic. But again, with the Cultural Revolution, people lost hope in politics. They do not believe in this kind of thing anymore.

"In the past, before the communists, people believed in Confucius. Then afterward, they believed in Mao. After Cultural Revolution, now what? Maybe the only thing they have is money -- that's most important. They believe in that. That is the cause of some problems."

Qiu compares the Cultural Revolution to the Holocaust in terms of the scope of its impact on those who were caught within it and the historical wake of its aftermath, which continues to be felt. "There was no escaping it," he reflects. Qiu was an elementary-school student when the revolution began. Schools were closed, and when they were reopened, the only text was Quotations from Chairman Mao, "the little red book." Qiu's family came under special scrutiny. His father owned a perfume business, which made him a criminal, a capitalist enemy of the people. While Qiu's father was recovering from eye surgery in a Shanghai hospital, he was removed by the police to appear before a people's court, standing for hours, his eyes bandaged, admitting his guilt beneath a portrait of Chairman Mao. The young Qiu was present, holding his father so he wouldn't collapse.

Fortunately, in retrospect, Qiu contracted bronchitis and so was allowed to remain in the city. With schools closed and with, literally, nothing to do, the enterprising youth taught himself English "on a bench by the Huangpu River." When schools reopened and calls for modernization became the new slogans, Qiu was ahead of many of his classmates, majoring in English and American literature. He came to Washington University in 1988 as a Ford Foundation fellow, choosing St. Louis because he was working on a book on Eliot.

Modern Chinese history consists of dramatic events, and in 1989 came another that would radically change the course of the country and Qiu's life -- the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. By chance, he was working at the VP Fair (now Fair St. Louis), selling egg rolls at a charity booth, when he overheard his name on a Voice of America broadcast, described as "a published poet who supported the democratic movement in China." From that moment, he knew a return home was risky. A month later, Qiu managed to bring his wife to America, an accomplishment -- given the political turmoil of the time -- that suggests real elements of mystery and suspense, of which Qiu only says, "It was difficult. We did everything possible. At that time, we did not know if there would be civil war."

Qiu says that the Tiananmen tragedy made him confront aspects of the People's Republic he had managed to neglect before -- again, not unlike his chief inspector. Qiu feels ambivalence toward China, as does Chen, one who sees not only the corruption that has tarnished the old ideals but the corruption of the new profiteers as well.

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