This interview was first published on 27th May 2007 in The Star
By DAPHNE LEE
LAST year, The Wall Street Journal published its list of five best political novels. In first place was Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister. At number three was Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine.
The book, published in 2000, was the debut novel of Qiu, and the first in what was to become a detective series set in present-day Shanghai featuring Chief Inspector Chen, a police officer with a love for food and poetry.
“It was not my intention to write a political novel, or a series for that matter – that was my publisher’s idea,” says Qiu during a recent interview conducted while in transit in Kuala Lumpur, on his way to a book festival in Shanghai. The 54-year-old author is based in St Louis, Missouri, United States, with his wife and 16-year-old daughter. (His friends apparently call him Joe, according to a report.) Having earned an M.A. in Western literature from the Chinese Academy of Social Science in the early 1980s, Qiu had initially gone to Washington University in 1988 as a visiting scholar, but his planned one-year stint was extended following the violence at Tiananmen Square the following year. He earned a doctorate from the university in 1996 and currently teaches literature there.
A visit to his native Shanghai in 1995 prompted a desire to write about modern China. Qiu had been writing poetry, but found that a murder mystery allowed him more freedom to explore sociological and cultural themes in the context of the rapid changes in China’s economic and political scenes.
“Americans, including publishers, have a set idea of what books on China should be about. They even have a set idea of what China is like, “he says. “They are stuck in the period of the Cultural Revolution. It is a popular topic and stereotypes from that era abound.”
Qiu feels that Ha Jin (Waiting, 1999, War Trash, 2004) is one of the few Chinese authors who are truly addressing what is happening in China right now and his own intention is also to address issues faced by modern Chinese.
“An inspiration for me is the novels (by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall),” says Qiu. “They are Swedish and more than crime novels they give a taste of Swedish life and culture. That is what I hope my books can do.Death of a Red Heroine started out as a novel about social problems but grew into a mystery.
Inspector Chen, Qiu’s hero, has a tricky job – ensuring that justice is served while toeing the (communist) party line. “As time goes by, he’s forced to become less idealistic. He’s a survivor in the system and, not only that, he’s thriving. He’s had to be over-cautious. He has learnt to compromise.”
Qiu continues, with a grin, “It makes him perhaps less likeable, but also more believable.”
Like many fictional detectives, Chen has an artistic side. While Sherlock Holmes played the violin and Inspector Morse nursed a passion for Elgar and Bizet, Chen is a lover of classical Chinese poetry. So is Qiu who, in 2003, published a collection of translated classical Chinese love poems (A Treasury of Chinese Love Poems).
Chen, like his creator, read English literature at university. On completing his degree, he was assigned to the police force. Although this is not a career he would have chosen for himself, there is a scene in Death of a Red Heroine in which he muses that there is a better chance of him effecting change as a cop than as a poet or lecturer.
Nevertheless, his true love is never far from his thoughts and even informs his thoughts and speech, causing him to sound rather ridiculous at times, like when he thinks of himself “flourishing the Jade Dragon sword” a la lines in a Tang dynasty poem.
Frequently though, the awkwardness in syntax and vocabulary is caused by directly translating from Chinese.
“I did this on purpose,” says Qiu. “Some of the things said by my characters are cliches. People of course talk in cliches all the time, but good writing should avoid cliches. However, what is cliched in one language is maybe not so in another. What is common usage in Chinese might be fresh and interesting for an English native speaker who would never speak that way.”
His novels – Death of A Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002),When Red Is Black (2004) and A Case of Two Cities (2006) – have sold over 700,000 and been translated into 16 languages, including Chinese. The fifth, Red Mandarin Dress, is due out this November.
As Inspector Chen specialises in cases with political links and the plots of the first two titles are based on real cases, Qiu fully expected the changes and cuts that his books have suffered at the hands of the Chinese censors:
“Shanghai has been changed to “H” city. Street names have been changed and what are considered politically sensitive words have been removed. The title of the second book, A Loyal Character Dancer, indicated that it was about the Cultural Revolution and so it was changed to the more neutral Farewell Song.”
The books have, nevertheless, sold well in China. His biggest fans, however, are French and German. The latter group may sign up for an Inspector Chen tour of Shanghai. A German publisher also recently approached Qiu to co-write a food-themed book based on Inspector Chen’s love for food and the detective novels’ detailed descriptions of sumptuous feasts. The yet-to-be-titled book will be published in 2008.
“The publishers wanted a cook book by Inspector Chen, but it evolved into a personal reflection on Chinese culture and food. One of the things I really miss about China is the food. It is like (Marcel) Proust writing about madeleines (in Remembrance of Things Past). When I write or think about Chinese food I am home again.”