The Case of the Shanghai Shamus

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

By the time Mao died in 1976, Qiu was fluent in English. The universities reopened, and Qiu, due in no small part to his language skills, scored well on the college entrance exam. That year, he enrolled in Eastern China Normal University in Shanghai, before transferring to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, where he earned a master's degree in English literature.

Upon graduation Qiu began working at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where he translated most of T.S. Eliot's work, contributed scholarly articles and wrote his own poetry.

"I knew his stuff though a handful of his poems," says Robert Hegel, a professor of Chinese literature at Washington University who had read Qiu's poetry in translation. "China was re-engaging with the world, and he was highlighted as one of the bright new poets. Qiu Xiaolong was the standout among the younger generation."

Qiu's Inspector Chen series has been translated into sixteen languages, including Chinese.
Qiu's Inspector Chen series has been translated into sixteen languages, including Chinese.
"I [look] at mystery more as a framework," says Qiu. "Poetry is really convenient for writing about personal feelings and emotion, but if you want to write about society at large and all of the change, a mystery's a more convenient tool."
Jennifer Silverberg
"I [look] at mystery more as a framework," says Qiu. "Poetry is really convenient for writing about personal feelings and emotion, but if you want to write about society at large and all of the change, a mystery's a more convenient tool."

In 1988 Qiu made two momentous decisions. First, he married Wang Lijun. Second, he decided to apply for a Ford Foundation Fellowship. His hope? To research the work of T.S. Eliot in the poet's birthplace.

"The modernists had been considered bourgeoisie decadent. So Chinese readers did not know anything about them," Qiu says. "Eliot opened a new possibility of writing poetry for me. During the Cultural Revolution, all the poems were revolutionary or they were romantic, but Eliot had this impersonal theory. He would work and work and work on the piece and craft it. It was totally different. It also taught me how to separate myself from the poem — that was important."

Equally important was the lucky fact that Washington University had an exchange program with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. With Hegel's assistance, Qiu won the fellowship. He arrived in St. Louis alone, having left a young wife and a promising career back in China. In a matter of months, his life was again thrown into upheaval, this time by the massacre in Tiananmen Square.


Living with fellow Chinese academics thousands of miles away from Shanghai, Qiu was left to watch TV reports of Chinese government troops marching on Tiananmen Square and opening fire on student protestors. He'd never seen anything like it; he didn't know what it meant.

"I was really sad — depressed," Qiu recalls. "I'd watch things on TV, and I remember that one of my roommates just sat on the couch wrapped in a blanket, but I didn't think [my life was] really going to change."

As it turned out, it wasn't the Chinese government's bloody crackdown that altered Qiu's future. It was something infinitely smaller: his decision to volunteer to fry egg rolls at an outdoor kiosk during a July 4, 1989, festival beneath the Gateway Arch on the St. Louis riverfront. Proceeds from the sale of those egg rolls were earmarked for the Chinese student protestors. The event was covered by the Voice of America.

With a wife and family still in China, Qiu made sure not to speak with the reporter, but as a prominent Chinese poet, his name was mentioned in the subsequent broadcast. Later he called his sister back in China. She refused to speak clearly on the phone. Qiu soon learned why: The Shanghai police had paid her a visit. "They told her to tell me to behave myself."

There were other signs that trouble awaited him in China. Although he was scheduled to have a book of his poetry published in China — he already had the galleys — after word got out that he was supporting the Chinese students, the state-run publishing house informed him that it would not publish the book.

"That's when I changed my plan. I knew it was totally out of the question for me to publish in China. So I started writing in English," Qiu says. He also began making hurried arrangements for his wife to join him in America. "It was an extremely difficult decision. When I came over here, I did not even think about staying on. But things were very different. People were talking about a civil war breaking out in China. It wasn't a time to plan in a slow way. It was instinctive. We had to get out. We did not even dare to think what would happen if she couldn't get out."

Wang Lijun had little trouble exiting China. She joined him in the States that year, and Qiu soon enrolled in Washington University's doctoral program in comparative literature. One year later the couple had their only child, Julia, who is now seventeen.

In 1995 Qiu received his doctorate. That same year he returned to China for the first time since he'd left seven years earlier. The trip was a revelation. The country had changed immensely, and Qiu, who'd continued to write poetry all through graduate school, realized he wanted to write about contemporary China.

Once again, the politics of his homeland caused an upheaval in Qiu's creative life. He abandoned verse in favor of a genre considered by many its temperamental and technical opposite: the detective novel.

"Poetry is really convenient for writing about personal feelings and emotion, but if you want to write about society at large and all of the change, a mystery's a more convenient tool," explains Qiu. "A cop needs to walk around, knock on people's doors and talk to various people. This particular cop is very helpful because he's an intellectual. He's not only going to catch a murderer; he also tries to think what's wrong historically, socially, culturally — in what kind of a context did this tragedy occur?"

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