In China, crime fiction and social harmony do not mix

Something was confirmed for me over the last couple of days that I’ve long suspected: crime fiction and authoritarian governments do not mix.

But before I explore this further, a little background is required.

On Friday night, I and over a thousand other people crammed into the Melbourne Town Hall for the Gala Night of Story Telling 2011: Voices from Elsewhere, organised by the Wheeler Centre.

Of the eight writers who spoke, my favourite story was Chinese writer Murong Xuecun’s parable about the power of traumatic historical events, in this case Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to distort the individual psyche, even long after they are over.

Murong was 28 and working as a sales manager for a car company in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and China’s fifth most populous city, when he started posting his first novel on the Internet.

The book, originally titled Chengdu Please Forget Me Tonight, focuses on three young men in newly capitalist Chengdu, their dead-end jobs, and relationships, their drinking, gambling and whoring.

It became a cult sensation among young middle class Chinese. It also landed him in a lot of trouble, especially when Murong refused to join the Chinese Writers Society, the state sponsored writers organisation.

In addition to selling through the roof in China, the book has been translated into English as Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu. It has also come out in French and German, with editions in Italian and Vietnamese in the works.

I haven’t read Leave me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, but I’m going to.

Anyway, apart from providing some fascinating insights into how young Chinese writers are using the Internet to avoid state censorship and reach audiences, Murong was able to answer a question that’s been nagging me for a while. Why is so little crime fiction coming out of China?

According to Murong, the answer is as follows:

1. The Chinese government does not encourage crime fiction.

2. This is because crime fiction is seen as conflicting with the aim of encouraging a “harmonious society”, one of the guiding principles of the ruling communist party.

3. Foreign crime fiction is available in translated versions and popular (Murong’s favourite is Lawrence Block), because while it is okay for Chinese people to read fictionalised accounts of crime in other countries, it is not okay for them to read similar accounts in their own.

Interestingly, the Chinese government’s tolerance towards foreign crime fiction does not extend to crime films (including those from Hong Kong). These are strictly forbidden, presumably because they can be consumed on a mass basis, although they are widely available on the black market.

It was not always so.

Doing a bit of research on the Internet, I came across this fascinating article on the history of crime fiction in China. This goes back several centuries and often featured clever and incorruptible judges using their wisdom and smarts to solve incredibly complex crimes.

The best known of these in the West is the historical judge Di Renjie, whose stories were translated and made famous by the Dutch diplomat and sinologist Robert van Gulik in 1949, and more recently by the 2010 motion picture, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Crime fiction was banned after the communist revolution in 1949. Mao branded private detection and crime “bourgeois” and the historical magistrate genre of crime “feudal”. These restrictions where briefly eased by Deng Xiaoping in 1978-80, giving rise to a new generation of investigative judges in the form of heroic public security personal who fought criminals with bad class backgrounds.

The current freeze on local crime fictions appears to date from 2007, when the communist party adopted the encouragement of social harmony as a key platform.

There are several Chinese authors writing crime fiction set in China, but they don’t live in China.

The best known of these is Qiu Xiaolong, who is Chinese born but now lives in the United States. His character is a poetry-sprouting cop called Chen Cao based in Shanghai. There are also a series of books featuring a female private detective in Beijing, by Diane Wei Liang. She is also based in the US.

Interviews with Qiu say that his work has been translated into Chinese, although Murong said it is not available locally.

Diane Wei Liang’s book, The Eye of Jade, is on my large to read pile of books. I’ve read one of Qiu’s books, A Case of Two Cities, in which Chen is assigned a high-level corruption case in which the principle figure has fled to the US beyond the reach of the Chinese authorities.

To each their own, but I found Chen’s constant spouting of poetry distracting and it broke up the pace. I was also dissatisfied that a large chunk of the book is set in LA, as I wanted it to focus on what was happening in Shanghai.

Murong Xuecun is speaking at the Wheeler Center, Monday 14 February, at 6.15pm. Details are here.


6 Responses

  1. There is a very good series of novels by Catherine Sampson, who lives in China. The series started off being about a tv journalist, but on book 3 she (the journalist) visits China and due to plot reasons, via her interpreter, meets a PI. The next two books are about the PI. I really like them, and they address very well the problems of being a PI in a country that does not want them, plus other soci0-political themes (but not overwhelming the story). The author has a blog but unfortunately though one can read it (in the UK) one is blocked from commenting on it. I’ve reviewed some of these books for Euro Crime.

    • Thanks for comment, Maxine. I wondered while I was writing the piece whether there might be other authors, Chinese or otherwise, who might be in China and writing crime fiction. That’s the great thing about crime fiction, there are so many people out there writing, you can never be guaranteed to have covered all of them.

      I’ll check out Sampson’s work. Does anyone else know of any other authors in China who are writing crime fiction? If so, I’d love to hear about them. Just leave a comment and I’ll follow up. Depending on the responses, i’d be keen to do a follow up post listing the other authors.


  2. Hi Andrew,thanks for that. hope to meet you in China when your book publised there.

  3. BTW, I’ve read The Eye of Jade, and one by Qiu, Death of a Red Heroine. I quite enjoyed them but not sufficiently to want very much to read more. The crime plots were not that good, the authors seemed more to want to write about aspects of life in China (which in itself is certainly interesting to me). But in the case of Death of…., the whole plot depended on a clue being hidden in a very obvious place and the people who were looking for it not finding it. There was an awful lot of book between the not finding and the finding! Even so, the exploration of the “Red Heroine” and her life was fascinating, as well as the pressures of the main character. The Eye of Jade has the interesting premise of a woman starting up a detective agency and having to have a male assistant as a sort of cover of respectability , so people think he is in charge. I don’t remember all that much about it except that the social observations of China were better than the crime plot.

    On Catherine Sampson, the first two books are not set in China but London, and I think were written before the author moved there. You can start reading them at book 3, though, when China becomes the main event, without losing anything.

  4. Pingback: Death of a Red Heroine | Pulp Curry

  5. Pingback: Mid-year reading report: The Thief, St Kilda Blues, Hanging Devils, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone | Pulp Curry

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