Murder in the Middle Kingdom: Mysteries in China

Throughout Chinas long and turbulent history crime, punishment, and justice have been prominent literary and societal themes. Some of the worlds most ancient tales of detection are found in the cases of venerable Chinese magistrates such as Judge Bao (see Susan Blader, translator, Tales of Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants, Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 1998) and Judge Dee (see Robert van Gulik, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, Dover publications, New York, 1976). Magistrate tales have always been popular in China and remain so even today. An excellent selection of such stories can also be found in Y.W. Ma and Joseph Lau, Traditional Chinese Stories (Columbia University Press, New York, 1978).  The modern detective story (zhentan xiaoshuo), however, arrived in China at the end of the 19th Century.  As a genre, mysteries have been looked down upon by the literati and the intelligentsia in general as low literature, and all too frequently, the prevailing government has been wary of such work, believing it created a negative image of the state.

In the pre-communist period the mystery genre became very popular among literate Chinese. By the late 1890s Western translations and home-grown detective stories became very common. For example one of the most widely circulated journals, The Short Story Magazine  (Xiaoshuo Yuebao), published Conan Doyle's The Disappearance of Lady Carfax and Poe's Gold Bug in 1913. A large number of indigenously written mysteries appeared in the magazine from 1910 to 1914. The publishers stated that they wanted to promote logical thinking and thus crime and detective stories were important in that solutions were achieved via empirical investigations and without supernatural interventions. Sherlock Holmes became especially popular and Chinese writers produced many local imitations of the Baker Street sleuth.

From the start of Communist Party rule in 1949 until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 the small amount of crime fiction published was essentially anti-capitalist sleuthing by government agents - stories heavily influenced by Soviet propaganda literature (see my earlier column on Russian/Soviet mysteries). This material was, in fact, counterespionage literature. The official government line was that detectives such as Sherlock Holmes were necessitated by evil and unjust bourgeois societies and crime fiction aroused a base lust for sex and violence.

Following Mao's death, crime fiction, essentially genuine police procedurals, burst on to the literary landscape. The genre flourished because it had been popular earlier with the literate Chinese but it also served the goals of the new regime of Deng Xiaoping. Much of the writing fellinto the category of 'literature of the wounded' (shanghen wenxue) in which many of the wrongs committed by the evil Gang of Four, led by Mao's wife, were righted. Consequently the stories focused on corrupt policeman, judges and procurators in the justice system and the injustice they inflicted on innocent individuals. Other stories featured upright officials who had remained untainted by the corruption of the period. Very little of this work is available in English although a sample may be found in The Wounded (G. Barnes and B. Lee, translators, Joint Publishing Company, Hong Kong, 1979).

The post-Mao period also led to the importation of a spate of translations from the West and the works of Doyle, Christie, Hammett and others were published by the hundreds of thousands. Domestic writers also produced work that provided peeks into the social pathologies of Chinese society - from corrupt officials to evil teenagers. Most of these domestic stories were awkward caricatures of Western mysteries employing all the somewhat dated conventions of early 20th century crime fiction.  Many were melodramas that were part love story, part drama, and part crime detection.  Some of this literature was even acceptable to the literary elite, particularly if it emphasized the rule of law and exposed the corruption of public officials.

After the late 1970s the status of crime fiction altered from time to time in rhythm with government policies. For example, there was a brief tightening in 1983 as a result of a campaign against spiritual pollution. But as China opened itself to to the globalized economy all types of popular literature flourished. There is even a booming unofficial publishing system. The most recent development in popular literature is an avant-garde movement and crime stories are well represented in this body of work. This literature significantly departs from past work in that it emphasizes violence, gore, and cruelty. One of the leading writers currently is Wang Shuo who has written a series featuring a police investigator named Shan Liren. His first full-length novel was Living Dangerously (published in 1989 but not available in English), a murder mystery in which values are turned upside down. His novel, Playing for Thrills: A Mystery, is available in English (Morrow, 1997) and provides a fascinating insight into a stratum of Chinese society known as 'liumang', defined loosely as hoodlums, loafers or socially idle people. The novel is only incidentally a murder mystery but a good example of the contemporary style and filled with criminality. A very intriguing and creative short story by Ge Fei, "Mr. Wu You" is available in English in Jing Wang, editor, China's Avant-Garde Fiction (Duke University press, 1998). A very bloody murder tale can also be found in Yu Hua, One Kind of reality in David Der-Wei Wang and Jeanne Tai, Running Wild:New Chinese Writers (Columbia University Press, 1994). Some other materials of interest include Jia Pingwa's novel, Turbulence (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1991), and Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro (Knopf, N.Y., 1983). For readers of Chinese see Cen Ying, A Selection of Mainland Chinese Detective Stories (Tongjin, Hong Kong, 1981). For an excellent and detailed discussion of crime fiction in China from the late 1970s to 1981 see Jeffrey C. Kinkley, Crime Fiction in AfterMao: Chinese Literature and Society 1979-1981 (Harvard University Press, 1985).

The Chinese mystery has obviously evolved in a cauldron of great pain and upheaval but does have a number of very distinguishing characteristics. Most of the stories are police procedurals, especially since 1949 (although there is an incipient trend toward new types of sleuths such as journalists and teachers). Most important and in contrast to Western crime fiction in which the emphasis is on solving the crime, the Chinese mystery has always focused on the quest for justice and especially punishment for evils committed. Today the tumultuous events transpiring in China are radically altering the environment for crime fiction as well as other literature. The famous Chinese curse warns, "may you live in interesting times." These are certainly such times in China today and thus it is impossible to predict accurately the future of the mystery in the Middle Kingdom. There is no doubt, however, that it will thrive in some interesting form.

China like most other countries of the world, however, is a mystery lover's domain. We can only hope that soon non-Chinese language readers will have more access to the sleuths of one of the oldest, most distinguished and rapidly changing cultures in the world.


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