The Case of the Shanghai Shamus

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

Qiu Xiaolong

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.

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."

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."

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?"

His early efforts were hardly polished. "It was more like a sampler: a little bit of this, and a little bit of that," Qiu says. "I had to have something to hold it together, so I looked at mystery more as a framework."

The sudden change in literary modes caught his friends and colleagues off guard. "We didn't know he was writing that novel until he told us that the manuscript was accepted," says Leslie Cheng, a friend who met Qiu in a writers' group.

That novel, which went on to become Death of a Red Heroine, has now been translated into sixteen languages and made Qiu an instant celebrity in the world of mystery authors. Critics also took note of Qiu's genre-bending fiction. This year England's Guardian newspaper placed the novel atop its top ten list of Asian crime fiction. Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Melanie Kirkpatrick called the book "an intriguing detective yarn as well as a commentary on how the Communist Party remains the controlling force in most aspects of ordinary life in China," adding, "Qiu can write so accurately about life in the new China because he was born and grew up there; he can write so candidly because he now lives in the U.S."

Nor has Qiu slowed his pace. Over the past seven years, he has churned out four more Inspector Chen novels; a fifth, Red Mandarin Dress, is slated for release in November. To date, the Inspector Chen series has sold more than 700,000 copies. This breakout success allowed Qiu to quit teaching at Washington University a few years ago to concentrate full-time on his writing. He's particularly loved in Europe, where his new novel has already been published in advance of the U.S. edition. Amazingly, Qiu has never had a literary agent and manages all of his publishing contracts alone.

He also continues to pursue his poetry. In 2003 Qiu published a collection called Lines Around China. That same year he translated and edited Treasury of Chinese Love Poems, a bilingual collection.

Even more telling are the literary proclivities of Inspector Chen, one of the only gumshoes in the history of the genre to have published a book of poetry. In fact, Chen is something closer to a detective-poet in nature. He quotes verse — often at length — and shares with his creator an adoration of the work of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

But that, Qiu insists, is about the extent of their similarities. The author and his protagonist have made very different choices in their lives. "I never was a cop. I never was a party member. He's part of the system, even though he does not identify with the party," Qiu says. "In a way I imagine through Chen what I might have done had I stayed in China. Idealistically, I would like him to do much more, more courageously, more decisively, though I understand that he has to work within the system. He of course has his excuses, and so do I — but they are just excuses."

His novels evoke the same ambivalent response. "[Qiu] is kind of subversive. His novels are set in China, and there's no such thing as justice in the end, because the legal system is so flawed in China," his friend Leslie Cheng observes. "You always have mixed feelings at the end of his novels. The means he uses to solve his case in the first novel is through his political connections; it's pretty corrupt. So you cannot call that triumph. There's always this melancholy: He solved the case, but what's the real significance?"

Hegel, the man who helped Qiu first come to St. Louis, says inspector Chen's political entanglements are what makes Qiu's crime fiction quintessentially Chinese: "Chinese literature has always been engaged with major political questions. So when Qiu Xiaolong writes about corruption, he's writing as a Chinese writer: Even his protagonist is hooked into it, and he can't really get out. Inspector Chen has moral scruples, but the question is how much can he compromise his integrity and still get by? At what point does he have to say no, and at what risk?"

Most Western writers never have to think in such absolutist terms. "If one wanted to serve in any administration in the U.S., you'd have to make certain compromises or get out of it," Hegel observes. "But in China there's no place to get out to; there never really has been. The choice has always been you either opt out of the system entirely, or you deal with it."

The tension between Chen's need to toe the party line and his poetic sensibilities makes for some jarring passages. In his third book, A Loyal Character Dancer, the detective confers with a party official about his investigation:

"There are not many young officers like you nowadays," Huang concluded emphatically. "The Party counts on you, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen."

"I understand. Whatever the Party wants me to do, I will do, even if I have to go through mountains of knives and seas of fire." He thought of two Tang dynasty lines. Beholden to your making a general of me on the stage of gold,/flourishing the Jade Dragon sword, I'll fight for you to the end. The old minister had not only recommended him for the job, but also called him at home, personally, to discuss the case. "I won't let you down, Minister Huang."

Qiu no longer struggles with his loyalty to the Communist Party. But he remains devoted to the city he left two decades ago. Qiu makes frequent trips to Shanghai and other Chinese cities. Thanks to a satellite dish perched on his deck, he also watches several official Chinese news channels at home, and he reads Chinese newspapers on the Internet.

Qiu says it's possible to know more about what's happening inside of China as an expatriate: "There may be a lot of information on the Web, but in China if you key in a person's name, it's often blocked — and you cannot really learn much from the official publications. So in a way I know more about what's wrong with a Shanghai political boss than my friends in China." He's not afraid to use recent events in China as fodder, either. Death of a Red Heroine was based in part on an actual sex and drug scandal from the early 1990s.

Such intrigue makes for page-turning novels. But Chinese government censors have greeted his tales less enthusiastically. Qiu recalls what happened when it came time to translate his first book into Chinese. "I asked them: 'Are you sure you won't have any problems with this?' And they assured me there wouldn't be a problem. Then one or two months later they phoned me and said they had a problem. They said a censorship official had said this could not have happened in Shanghai, so they had to change it. They ended up using the English letter 'H' instead of the name 'Shanghai.' Whenever some sentence offends a censor, they'll just cut it out."

That comes as no surprise to Keith Kahla, Qiu's American editor. Says Kahla: "He's not consciously trying to put forth a political point of view, but in a society that is dominated by politics, everything is political."

Just behind Qiu's St. Louis County home is a pond where, at the end of the workday, he likes to go fishing for crappie and bluegill. Although you can hear the rumble of nearby Interstate 270, it's a placid little pond, ringed by houses and dotted by the occasional dinghy. Casting a line into the water, Qiu notes that it's not so easy to go fishing in Shanghai — you generally need a car, which very few Shanghaiese possess.

At times like these, Qiu can't help but reflect on the historical flukes that have guided him to literary success in the middle of America. What if he'd never begun studying English in a park so many years ago? Would he have scored high enough to attend college? Would he have been able to study T.S. Eliot, the man who ultimately led him to St. Louis? What if he'd simply stayed in China?

"I try to think what I would have been doing myself. Maybe I would have been like Chen, still working in China. Not as a cop. But maybe I would have been like him, working within the system," Qiu says. "If that's the case, what he does — is that enough for my idealistic standards? Would I be satisfied?"

He makes another cast into the pond. When his shiny red bobber dives beneath the surface, he yanks hard on the rod. Sometimes he comes up with a bluegill. Other times, like now, he simply recasts.

"The problem with that life is if you stay in the system for really long, then you will no longer be you," Qiu says softly. "You'll just see yourself as part of the party system. That's what's happening to some of my friends.

"I hope it doesn't happen to Chen anytime soon."

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