The Case of the Shanghai Shamus

A shy St. Louis poet pens subversive detective stories set in his communist homeland.

Qiu Xiaolong came to writing the hard way: As the son of a confirmed capitalist during China's Cultural Revolution, he was forced to write his father's confession speech. The year was 1968 — two years into Chairman Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Qiu had looked on as his father penned a confession speech, mounted a small stage, and owned up to his sins before a group of Red Guards — groups of communists empowered by Mao to try "class enemies" at independent tribunals.

This time was different. Qiu's father had recently undergone cataract surgery: "He could hardly move because he was blindfolded, so I was called into the hospital to help him write the confession and help him stand before Chairman Mao's portrait. At that time it was just something I had to do," Qiu recalls. "But afterward, when I thought about it — ironically, you may say that this kind of gave me confidence: My writing may not be that bad, because nobody found fault with my writing."

It's little wonder this episode remains vivid. Qiu's creative and personal life has long been shaped by the politics of his native China. It was politics that first pushed him to write and study poetry, and later induced him to immigrate to the United States. Politics compelled him to write in English, and, ultimately, prompted him to switch genres.

photoillustration by sarah norwood, portrait by je
Poet Qiu Xiaolong has found success in St. Louis and beyond as a mystery novelist.
Jennifer Silverberg
Poet Qiu Xiaolong has found success in St. Louis and beyond as a mystery novelist.

These days, Qiu, 53, lives in an immaculate home at the end of a well-tended St. Louis County cul-de-sac, where he bangs out some of the world's most acclaimed...detective novels. The books are about much more than chasing down perps, though. Qiu's poetry-quoting anti-hero, Inspector Chen, navigates the corrupt world of Chinese officialdom, exposing the Communist Party's privileged bureaucratic class. Along the way, Qiu limns a portrait of China in transition, and the fine line many average Chinese must walk between appearing loyal to party ideals while embracing the modernizing influence of the West.

His debut, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), not only won accolades as a mystery but was also named by The Wall Street Journal as the third-best political book of all time, ahead of such classics as Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

Qiu Xiaolong (pronounced chew shao-long) is a slight man with a full head of brown hair, gold-rimmed glasses, a thick singsong accent and a gentle disposition. Given his burgeoning reputation as a mystery writer, it would be tempting to view his life as one geared toward the role of expatriate novelist. But in fact, Qiu is an accidental citizen.

As a boy his loyalties were profoundly confused. He grew up in Shanghai, where his father had run a perfume factory before Mao came to power. In addition to his father's routine arrests, Qiu himself was branded a "black puppy" by his classmates: the offspring of a confirmed (or "black") capitalist, and a potential enemy of the state. He resented his father for this stigma, but he also felt the allegiances of a loyal son.

"I remember the Red Guard coming to my family and searching for things they believed were bourgeoisie, decadent, counter-revolutionary — older stuff. They took away money, jewelry, books. Anything old, they took away. They searched my whole family for two days," Qiu recalls. "Even things like electric fans — at that time that was considered luxurious in China. They said working-class people didn't need that sort of luxury."

The raid had a profound effect on Qiu's mother, who suffered a nervous breakdown soon after. "She never fully recovered," Qiu says. "My father always told us that my mother was a really capable person, but after the Cultural Revolution she became nervous about a lot of things. She retreated into her shell and wanted very little contact with the outside world."

As a student, Qiu was slated to go to the countryside to be "re-educated" by peasant farmers. Most of his schoolmates left for various outlying provinces. But Qiu developed chronic bronchitis and was spared the trip.

As the Cultural Revolution dragged into the 1970s, jobs became scarce. Because Qiu had never undergone re-education, he was unable to attend college. At eighteen, out of work and officially suffering from bronchitis, he joined a group of students who were teaching themselves English in a city park.

"I was still theoretically sick, so I went to the park to practice tai chi — then by chance began studying English," Qiu recounts. "At that time it was not a good idea to study English, and I remember that my mother followed me to the park in secrecy. She did not know what I was doing. After a few years I was able to read some English novels. That helped me a lot. That made it much more exciting. It wasn't just a language; it was a literature."

Qiu spent hours in the park reading English novels. One book in particular pricked his political conscience: Random Harvest (1941), a family drama set in the years following World War I, by popular British novelist James Hilton. He remembers reading about a group of English soldiers who are sent on a doomed mission so their country can win the war. "I had an argument with a friend of mine whose family was also [politically blackballed]. He still believed. Even though he suffered discrimination, as long as it was for the Cultural Revolution, he thought some people should be sacrificed for that great purpose. I asked him why. Who gets to choose? You can say that in order to win a war anything can be justified. But what about us? We did nothing wrong. We were just born into these families."

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