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Red Cop in Red China

Qiu Xiaolong’s Novels on the Cusp of Communism and Capitalism

Jonah Raskin (jonah.raskin [at] is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism (Monthly Review Press) and a dozen other books including Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He teaches media law and American literature at Sonoma State University.

The books reviewed here are Qiu Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), 464 pages, $14.00; A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), 360 pages, $14.00; When Red Is Black (2004), 320 pages, $13.00, all published in New York by Soho Crime; and A Case of Two Cities (2006), 320 pages, $13.95; Red Mandarin Dress (2007), 320 pages, $13.95; The Mao Case (2009), 304 pages, $13.99, all published in New York by Minotaur Books.

Qiu Xiaolong—the prolific Chinese novelist born 1953 in Shanghai and a resident of the United States since 1988—has made a fetish of the word and the color red, not surprisingly, since he writes about Red China. Three of his innovative novels include red in the title: Death of a Red Heroine (2000), When Red Is Black (2004), and Red Mandarin Dress (2007). In all three of these books, the main character is a sensitive, poetry loving, yet tough-minded police inspector who works for the Shanghai Police Bureau; he’s on the city payroll and doesn’t work as a free-lance private eye for hire.

The same inspector, none the worse for wear, appears in three other crime novels that don’t include the word red in the title: A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), A Case of Two Cities (2006)—which plays on the title of Dickens’s 1859 novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities—and The Mao Case (2009). All six books have come to be known as the “Inspector Chen Series,” and they’ve quickly attracted devoted fans. One other book by Xiaolong, a short story collection entitled Years of Red Dust (2010), also has the word red in the title, and perhaps brings to a resounding conclusion the red thread, or theme, that he followed for a decade.

The books in the Inspector Chen series are set, for the most part, in Shanghai in the 1990s, a time when Chinese society was coming apart at the seams, and crime insinuated itself in the widening gap between the disintegrating institutions of the old Communist order, and the newly emerging structures of capitalism. If I might be permitted to wax sociological for a moment, I’d say that the world in Xiaolong’s novels is one that straddles free-market enterprise and a consumer mentality on the one hand, and state-run industries and adherence to the collective on the other. In this maddening world, citizens lose their footing, and blackmail and murder find a home.

It’s a volatile, violent territory in which cops and criminals, the innocent and the guilty, operate according to their own individual codes of honor—or dishonor, as the case may be. Watching them wriggle, squirm, conspire, and lie is a delight, and Xiaolong’s attention to details—the make and color of a car, or the crabs in a pot on a kitchen stove for example—conjures up a rich and complex portrait of an entire society in transition that’s reminiscent of some classics of nineteenth century French literature, such as Stendhal’s The Red and The Black (1830).

In Xiaolong’s Shanghai, Russian commissars have long since packed their bags and returned to Moscow, while the red-white-and-blue Americans, including tourists, have arrived in force, bringing with them American business methods, words, phrases, and customs—like having a night cap (a Manhattan, for example) before going to sleep. “Socialism and capitalism, side by side,” the author writes tersely in Death of a Red Heroine, the first and most ambitious of the Chen books, “a peaceful coexistence.” In the same work, a former professor of literature offers Chen a quotation from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, to explain the crisis in Chinese society. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” she says. “It’s the Modern Age.”

Indeed, in Xiaolong’s novels, things and people fall apart dramatically; the old Communist Party of Mao is no longer at the center of the society, and Mao’s political heirs can’t hold everything and everyone together. In fact, the children of old party cadre are drawn to the lifestyles of the rich and the famous; their lifestyles are truly decadent, even by Western capitalist standards, and criminal as well. Still, if the society itself has no center, Xiaolong’s novels do, and that center, which is both moral and aesthetic, is Chen, a Chinese Communist cop who is a truly original character.

Chen is a most welcome addition to the cast of cops and detectives in literature, among them Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe who walks the mean streets of Los Angeles, and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade who prowls the alleys of San Francisco. Chen is no second-hand copy. He’s Chinese through and through, a creature of Shanghai society, and a product of Chinese history. When we first meet him, he’s a thirty-something bachelor with a promising career ahead of him and the proverbial bright future, if only he doesn’t run afoul of Communist Party authorities, or rock the boat that the Party means to maintain.

Unlike Marlowe and Spade, he doesn’t have his own downtown office. And unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s British detective, Sherlock Holmes, who has Dr. Watson as his foil, Chen has no loyal sidekick to share his quarters and follow his thoughts, though he has friends and comrades in whom he confides his hunches and speculations. Then, too, unlike his British and American literary predecessors, he harnesses all the latest technology to solve crimes.

No magnifying glass for him to hunt for fingerprints. He uses faxes, computers, data bases, cell phones and payphones (when he doesn’t want anyone to wiretap him), cameras, photographs, government documents, and all the newest gadgets of the library; though it’s the human element, not the latest technology, that makes the crucial difference in his line of work. He knows when to be a tough cop and when to be a gentle cop; when to ask pointed questions and when to back off.

Chen, of course, has contradictions, in the sense that Mao used the word in his essay, “On Contradiction,” though Chen doesn’t spout Mao or adhere to official Communist ideology. Early in Death of a Red Heroine, the author says of Chen’s Spartan living space, “There was no portrait of Chairman Mao in this apartment.” Granted, he belongs to the Chinese Communist Party, but that’s in part because membership in the Party shields him and enables him to go on living and working. To succeed, he has to play the political game, and he plays it like a pro.

He’s not an opportunist, however, but rather a man with a code of honor. Loyal and incorruptible, he believes in social equality and he works for genuine justice. Unlike Spade and Marlowe and other American detectives—who become part of the “nastiness” in the society around them—Chen does not take on the rapacious qualities of Shanghai’s new capitalist individualists. In a sense, Chen is more of a thoroughgoing communist than the loyal Communist Party members. Though he doesn’t believe in “isms,” Marxism has rubbed off on him, and he can’t help but view Chinese society through the prism of Marx as a class society with class conflicts and crimes of class. In part, he’s a reflection of the author’s own sense of himself as a skeptic and critical thinker. “I may be more or less like Chief Inspector Chen,” Xiaolong observed in an interview with Professor Jamieson Spencer, who teaches English literature at St. Louis Community College. Xiaolong added that, like Chen, he was “An intellectual questioning and being questioned all the time.”

A rigid political commissar would probably say that Chen has “bourgeois tendencies,” and those accusations are leveled at him in the course of Death of a Red Heroine. He has a habit of invoking the “Confucian truisms” he learned from his father who worked as a professor and was jailed during the Cultural Revolution, and he often writes his own poetry, and recites ancient Chinese and modern American verse. In his spare time, he translates English and American modernist writers into Chinese, for the love of it, as well as for extra cash. As a cop, he’s a translator in a metaphorical sense; his job demands that he translate the invisible into the visible, and the shadowy and the subterranean into the light of day.

Everywhere he ventures, he ferrets out the facts. When he has to, he flashes his badge and gains access to places that would otherwise be off-limits. What’s surprising is the extent to which the Chinese authorities—at least in Xiaolong’s novels, if not in real life—protect the privacy of private citizens. (There’s a fascinating passage in the book, in which the characters discuss the English word “privacy” and agree that it’s a challenge to translate it into Chinese.)

Chen can’t and doesn’t simply storm into an apartment, or gain immediate access to information—a list of telephone numbers, for example—that he assumes will help him in his police work. He obtains permission from the proper authorities; he asks nicely, and he doesn’t slap or push anyone around as Hammett’s Sam Spade does. Chen’s manners help. All around him, the citizens of Shanghai cooperate with his investigations, so if he’s the hero of the book, he shares that distinction with China and the Chinese people.

As for the “red heroine” who is referred to in the title of the novel, Death of a Red Heroine, she’s an enigma from the start, and not until the very end does the reader learn the truth about her. At no time does she appear alive in the novel—though she’s viewed in flashbacks—and after her death, the police can’t even identify her by name. Her autopsy reveals that she has had sex shortly before her murder. In the novel’s first electrifying sentence, Xiaolong writes, “The body was found at 4:40 P.M., on May 11, 1990, in Baili Canal, an out-of-the-way canal, about twenty miles to the west of Shanghai.” In the next sentence, he introduces readers to one of Inspector Chen’s colleagues on the police force, and an old friend named Gao Ziling. Then, in the long paragraph that follows, Xiaolong mentions in passing, “a nuclear test center,” “the Cultural Revolution,” and “an American company in Shanghai.”

On the first page of the novel, Xiaolong introduces, with real pizzazz, the key themes that will propel the story. Then, for the next 463 pages, the author weaves together the threads that make up the novel: the conspicuous life and the murky death of the red heroine, a Communist Party member and darling of the media named Guan; the story of Detective Chen and the journey he takes to solve the mystery, which also makes him aware of his own divided self; and the life-and-death struggles of Communist China, a nation with two conflicted identities. Like Guan—the “red heroine”—China has a public face that’s displayed to the world, and a private face that’s largely hidden. Like Guan, the country has an image it presents in the media and a very different underground reality.

The detective novel has long been a vehicle to skewer the hypocrisy, sham, and cant of bourgeois society. Granted, Edgar Allen Poe, the father of modern detective fiction, didn’t have an overtly political agenda in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but by the time the genre reached Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s, it took on a decidedly Marxist cast. Hammett—the author of Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930)—was a Marxist and a member of the American Communist Party. Working as a Pinkerton detective and writing detective stories pushed him toward Marx. Later, he went to prison rather than name names during McCarthyism. Raymond Chandler continued the subversive tradition in his novel The Big Sleep (1939), which deconstructs a Los Angeles patriarch who owns oil wells, collects orchids, and can’t control his disobedient daughters. At times, Hollywood has used the detective story and the murder mystery to mirror the abuse of systemic authority, as in Roman Polanski’s film noir, Chinatown (1974)—which came out in the wake of Watergate—that combines incest and murder with the machinations of the California Water and Power Agency, and that ends with a police cover-up.

In the Chen novels, Xiaolong shows that the detective is a valuable character to expose the hidden flaws of Communist society, to connect crimes in high places with criminality in low places, and link violations of the human soul to transgressions against the human community. Because Guan has had sex shortly before she’s murdered, the crime is labeled “sexual.” Because she’s a Communist, it’s a political case. Sex and politics are inextricably linked in Death of a Red Heroine. By noting the explicit details about Guan’s affair with a married man, Xiaolong goes behind the puritanical façade of Chinese society to reveal a pit of steamy sex. The model Communist turns out to be a bourgeois mistress.

With stories about crime and communism percolating in his head, it’s no wonder that the author left China and settled in the United States. Still, if I might tweak the cliché, it seems that, while he took himself out of China, he couldn’t take China out of his identity. In some ways, Xiaolong became more Chinese in the United States than he would have been had he remained in China. He’s certainly recreated China in his novels, and if he lives in Missouri every day, his head is definitely in Shanghai.

Chen’s journey to solve the murder of Guan takes him across the Chinese landscape to Guangzhou, where he gathers valuable clues about the main suspect, Wu, a photographer, a celebrity, and the son of a venerable Communist Party member. Chen glimpses the upper echelons of the society—the wealth, privilege, and arrogance. He also travels down into the world of marginalized men and women living by their wits and with their own bodies in the sex industry.

Xiaolong does a masterful job, tying together in an artistic knot the themes that he introduces in the opening section of Death of a Red Heroine. His dogged detective moves ahead inexorably to solve the murder, while the author puts together all the key pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of a society that’s half Communist and half capitalist. Chen himself becomes the subject of an official Communist Party inquiry. The watcher is watched, the investigator is investigated, as the case takes him dangerously close to the inner circles of the Communist Party. In the view of some Party members, Chen’s police work could damage the Party as well as its self-image, and the society it wants to preserve.

The denouement is gripping and suspenseful—as well done as anything of the kind in the detective novels of Hammett and Chandler, and in another field of literature, the big novels of society by Balzac and Stendhal. Ironies abound, and they’re enjoyable to watch as they unfold. Chen is removed from his position as inspector, withdrawn from the Guan case, and promoted to a better-paying job as director of Shanghai Metropolitan Traffic Control. It’s when he’s off the case that he solves it, managing to find the last crucial piece of evidence.

Inspector Chen learns to fuse his two identities: one as a dedicated cop investigating the murder of one Communist by another Communist; the other as a Communist Party member himself. At a key moment, he reaches out to a former lover in Beijing with connections to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Fortunately, the Beijing Central Committee intercedes in the case, punishing the guilty, and making sure that justice of a sort is done. Chen doesn’t receive any official credit for his part in the resolution of the case. He’s kept out of the newspaper stories that depict the killer as both a bourgeois decadent and the corrupt son of an old guard Communist. The Party cleans house and saves face.

Readers might ask, is Death of a Red Heroine anti-communist propaganda? I have thought a lot about that question and I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t. In fact, the novel offers one the most sympathetic portraits of a Communist in any literature. As a dedicated Party member, Chen can even feel nostalgic about the old days before the Cultural Revolution, and before China took the road to capitalism, and money became primary. Moreover, the old-line Communists, including those who proudly call themselves “Bolsheviks,” aid and abet him every step of the way, whether overtly or covertly. Readers of William Hinton’s classic Fanshen (1966) will no doubt remember the vivid descriptions of the inner workings of the Party at the local and national level. Xiaolong presents a no less complex portrait of the push and pull inside the Communist Party, and there’s even praise in the novel for Deng Xiaoping.

Granted, the author of the Inspector Chen series is himself no Communist, but one might accurately call him a historical materialist, a humanist, and a thoroughgoing dialectician. One of the many pleasures of reading his novels is the texture of daily life that they provide. They feel authentic, and seem real in the way that only a writer intimately and profoundly connected to Chinese society could hope to know and understand. In the Chen novels, we see China through Chinese, not Western eyes, and China as a multifaceted society.

Xiaolong appreciates the attractions of poetry and culture, as well as politics and economics. Death of a Red Heroine is enhanced by the poems in the text and by the allusions to T.S. Eliot. The women characters—the wives of the cops, as well as a woman reporter and a woman Communist Party member—play significant roles, and they’re as complex as the men. “Women hold up half of Heaven,” an old Chinese proverb goes, and they certainly hold up much of the world in the Chen novels.

By the end of the book, it’s hard not to love the protagonist or at least like him a lot, though it’s clear that he’s imperfect: a workaholic who hugs the cases he investigates too tightly, and who projects himself into the lives of others because his own life often seems far too prosaic for him. Fortunately, he has his poetry and his imagination to turn to, and, while he finds a lover at the end of the novel and while she brings him joy, he also has his own devoted mother to turn to. In the next-to-last scene of the book, Chen visits her, and she encourages him to continue his police work and “do something for the country.”

In the final scene, Chen walks the streets of Shanghai, the “unreal city” that he loves, and spies “a peddler frying dumplings in a gigantic wok over a wheeled gas burner.” He tells himself that it’s a “familiar scene from his childhood, only a coal stove would have been used back then.” Chen knows that China has changed irrevocably, and that in many ways, as Death of a Red Heroine shows, it’s a society in which people are better off, materially—better housed and better fed—than they were in 1949, because of the Communist Party. Xiaolong brings to life the monumental improvements in contemporary China. He’s clearly bitter about the Cultural Revolution, but unlike many other contemporary Chinese writers, he doesn’t allow his bitterness to overwhelm him. He has a sense of balance and a sense of humor.

At the end of the story, Chief Inspector Chen begins a new life. Indeed, he returns in five subsequent novels that American readers—and readers around the world—can discover, as they plunge into a world of mystery and crime, love and passion, murder and creation. In The Mao Case, Chen deals with the legacy of Chairman Mao, and in When Red Is Black, he addresses the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. At the start of Death of a Red Heroine, Xiaolong didn’t know how to write a detective novel; by the time he reached the end, he had become a master of his craft.

That mastery continues in the sequels that take his contradictory Chinese Communist cop into new and fascinating cases, and that show that Xiaolong is as significant a writer about contemporary China as William Hinton and Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star Over China. In his own way, he’s as bold and original a political writer as they, and on almost every page he’s a consummate artist, too.

2010, Volume 62, Issue 05 (October)
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