One morning in the late 1990s, Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau took a walk in the Bund Park. It was in this park, some twenty-plus years prior that he had exchanged taiji practice for studying English, as the result of someone having left a textbook on a bench. A lover of poetry, Chen studied the Tang dynasty classics as well as English poets like T. S. Eliot. He had even published his own poetry. This morning, however, he found not poetry, but a dead body, hacked in numerous places with axes.
When he arrived at the Bureau, Party Secretary Li summoned him to his office. A Chinese man named Feng had been smuggled into the U.S., had been caught by U.S. police, and had agreed to testify against the smuggler triad on condition of his wife joining him in the U.S. The U.S. government had requested cooperation from Beijing, which had agreed. Chen’s job was to make sure that the U.S. Marshall coming to escort Feng’s wife Wen had a positive stay in China. After many protests from Chen that he was not suited for the job, Li stated that this was not a job he could refuse.
The U.S. Marshall was Catherine Rohr, a young woman in her late twenties and who had studied Chinese in university. Chen’s English was quite good, and Rohr’s Chinese was good conversationally. Chen took an instant liking to her (at least in form). Chen made sure Rohr’s needs were well provided for (the department had a special fund for this), but had more difficulty with the sightseeing part, because Rohr wanted to experience “the real China.” So he took her to eat at more local places.
In the meantime, Feng’s wife had disappeared, and no one could find her. Rohr insisted on being part of the investigation, since it was supposed to be a joint action between the two countries, and Chen ran out of solid objections. After clearing it with Party Secretary Li, Chen found some people with a tenuous connection to Wen that the two could interview. He sent his right hand man, Inspector Yu to Wen’s village in Fujian.
Inspector Yu found the police in Wen’s village in no haste to investigate. He also noticed that the interviewees seemed to be unwilling to say much and suspected that they were not comfortable saying things in the police chief’s hearing. So Yu took a rescheduling as an opportunity to start interviewing by himself. The interview was in his hotel room, and a lunch service arrived, unrequested, at his door. Owing to apparently not realizing he was in a murder mystery, Yu ate the lunch with his interviewee. Fortunately, he did not eat the crab dish, which hospitalized the interviewee instead. Later, out of thanks for Yu’s quick action saving his life, the interviewee gave Yu a tip of where a Flying Axes triad member could be found in a compromising position. Yu exploited this to get information from the triad member.
In Shanghai, Chen and Rohr interview two people, and each time Rohr encounters an accident: the first time a speeding motorcyle would have hit her except for Chen’s taiji move pivoting her away, and the second time she put her foot through a stair and sprained her ankle. The latter led Chen to Ma’s traditional medicine pharmacy. Ma and his wife had run a bookstore, but he had a copy of Dr. Zhivago on sale, and during the Cultural Revolution this lead to his being denounced and twenty years of prison. Since he was only allowed to take a medical dictionary with him, he went into the medical practice after his release, although it took some intervening by a then Detective Chen to get his license.
Between the interviews and Yu’s investigation, it became clear that Wen was a beautiful, vivacious leader in high school in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, but when she went for youth education in the countryside Feng took advantage of her, and then he had to marry he as a result of getting her pregnant. The marriage was not good, as Feng was a cruel man. He refused to work, so Wen had to make a living in the factory. Wen broke all ties with friends and classmates in Shanghai, and was a recluse even in the village. One day a classmate of hers, Liu, happened to visit the factory as a reporter for a Shanghai magazine, recognized her, and wrote a poetic account of the workers there. On the day of her disappearance she had received a call from Feng saying that she was in danger. (The village only had one house with a telephone, so conversations were fairly public.) She had left the village immediately.
Despite Party Secretary Li’s subtle suggestion that a continued investigation would drag up details that reflected poorly on the image the Party wished to portray (namely, the disaster of the Cultural Revolution), Chen continued investigating, but in a more roundabout way. The missing person notice for Wen had turned up one candidate, so they tracked her down. She was not Wen, and the conversation revealed unseemly details about a forced abortion, which really upset Rohr. Even worse, the woman was killed by a triad shortly after they talked with her.
Ma called to suggest that the owner of the Dynasty karaoke parlor, Gu, had inside information on the triads. Chen took Rohr on his visit to Gu, requesting that she go along with whatever he did. With Rohr on his arm, he requested a private room. Then he asked for Gu to visit him. They exchanged veiled introductions, with Chen suggesting that in exchange for information he could maybe help Gu out. Gu suggested that an approval for a parking lot nearby would be helpful, and then “remembered” that a Hong Kong triad member had mentioned searching for a woman, whose description was similar to that of Wen. Gu had taken Rohr to be Chen’s American girlfriend, and Rohr played the part, to suggest that “Chief Inspector Chen had his weaknesses.” Truth be told, there was a part of each of them that sort of wanted it to be true.
Later Chen took Rohr to a friend of his who ran a Russian restaurant, where they had an excellent meal, as always, as well as guanxi-banter with the owner. On their way out Chen noticed someone with an unusual green cellphone looking at them. Rohr wanted to go shopping in a fake goods market (another thing that inconsistent with the image the Party wanted to project). She browsed a while, and then Chen saw a man with a green phone. He immediately purchased an item without bargaining, and asked to be left alone with Rohr in the changing room for a while. He and Rohr left out the back door while the police raided the market.
Chen decided he needed to talk to Liu, who lived in Suzhou. He had a conversation about this with Rohr, along with an explanation of Chinese poems, and a wistfulness of the attraction the he had to Rohr, that she seemed to return in some measure. In Suzhou, Rohr insisted in staying in a picturesque old-style hotel. Normally this would be impossible, as foreigners could only stay in certain quality hotels, but Chief Inspector Chen’s rank enabled exceptions. Even the best room, which the hotel insisted Rohr take, was quite small.
The next day Chen told her he wanted to visit his father’s grave, and since Rohr insisted on coming with him, he took her along. He did not tell her that only wives or fiancees accompanied a man visiting his parent’s grave. They were mobbed by old women wanting to sell them things and Chen left almost immediately, since he would not have any peace. Then they returned to Suzhou, where they spent the evening in one of Suzhou’s famous gardens. The subject of poetry came up again, and Chen recited some lines that a Tang dynasty poet had written about a bridge and the woman he loved. The meaning was not entirely clear to Rohr.
The day after, they visited Liu at his sumptuous house. After a woman invited them in, Chen asserted that the she was Wen. She did not deny it, but claimed sanctuary at Liu’s house and refused to go to the U.S., despite Rohr’s pleas. When Liu came back, Chen had a conversation with him alone, and told him the situation. He also told him that the triad was looking for Wen, and would not stop until they found her; she could not be safe in his house. Liu had a crush on Wen in high school, but his father had owned a business before 1949 so his family was below lower class, and she was a beautiful star; hence romance was impossible. As they left for their education by labor, Wen had invited him to be part of the character dance (involving holding a Chinese character as part of a dance in support of the Cultural Revolution). He had written a poem for her, and after accidentally visiting her factory, he was able to send her a copy of the published poem, along with his business card. Since he had shown some concern for her, she fled to his office.
Meanwhile, Wen cooked a sumptuous meal, with the help of Rohr. Wen was also on much better terms with Rohr, as a result. Chen and Rohr had a conversation with Wen, outlining that she could not remain safe at Liu’s house, that her murder by the triad would cause problems for Liu, and that going to the U.S. would be the only safe option, despite the fact that she would have to live with a cruel husband. She eventually agreed, with many tears, on the condition that she return to her village to pack up her few things.
Chen, Rohr, and Wen returned to the village. The local police did not pick them up at the station, as Chen had requested. When they got to Wen’s house, the first thing she got was a small package of factory chemicals, “as a memory of her life here,” she said. Almost immediately, a large number of Flying Axes triad members appeared, with no guns but with lots of axes. Chen killed several of them with his pistol, but since he was low on ammunition, he sent Rohr and Wen out the back door with his pistol while he threw Molotov cocktails he made from Wen’s factory supplies. About that time the local police finally showed up, with apologies and a barely passable excuse.
Chen suggested to Yu that Rohr would enjoy an authentic home-cooked meal, but that his apartment was too disorganized to invite her himself. So Yu invited Rohr and Chen over, and his wife Peiqin, an excellent cook, made a dinner that Rohr thoroughly enjoyed. Chen announced that the Building Committee had finally seen fit to bestow Yu with his own apartment (officially promised housing being in short supply), to the great joy of Peiqin. Both Chen and Rohr had to leave relatively early, which led Yu and his wife to speculate over Chen and Rohr’s relationship. Chen was around forty, and it was time for him to settle down; Yu noted that he seemed to enjoy Rohr. Chen’s mother, earlier in the book, had also suggested that he settle down, perhaps with the well-connected Beijing girl that he was ostensibly dating, although that relationship was extremely strained as a result of one of his previous investigations that had brought down someone related to her. Peiqin said that a relationship with an American was out of the question as the culture was too different. Chen himself regretted that a Chief Inspector having a relationship with an American would not be looked on favorably by Internal Security; they had already reported him when he put a necklace on Rohr (at her request) that he had bought for her.
Li, Chen, Yu, Liu, Rohr, and a low-level colleague named Qian all accompanied Wen to the airport. Chen told Wen that she could not take the poison that she took from her house to kill her husband with her. A little surprised he knew, she agreed after some persuading and promised of protection from Rohr. Rohr asked Chen how he knew. He pointed out that the she had specifically made a comment when picking up the bottle of chemicals, as if she were explaining an action, but the action need not have been explained. She also failed to get anything else from the house, even after the fight.
Wen asked for some time alone with Liu, and Chen took the opportunity to explain everything to everyone involved. Chen made the observation that Qian’s unusual green phone was similar to that he’d seen in the marketplace. Party Secretary Li responded favorably to the decisions Chen had made without consulting him, with Li quoting chengyu (pithy Chinese sayings referencing classic Chinese stories) about generals on the field not needing to consult with headquarters and other similar sentiments. Chen and Rohr meet alone to wrap up loose ends and say goodbye, although then romantic tension between them is not at all wrapped up, and remains like the wistful romance of a Tang dynasty poem. Wen and Rohr fly back to New York, where Rohr has promised Wen that she will personally ensure that Wen is safe.
Qiu has done an excellent job with this book. A fugitive to the U.S. because of the connections he had to the Tian’anmen Square “incident,” which occurred while he was studying T.S. Eliot in the U.S., Qiu writes in English, which is impressive. His English writing is quite good, and even more impressively, he seems to have a good understanding of how Americans think. Of course, the main characters are Chinese, set in the transition to capitalism, so the characters are very true to life (at least based on my personal experiences in China). Each character has just enough history to suggest a world existing beyond the pages of the book, but not so much as to be burdensome. Each person has a unique and distinctive personality, even relatively minor characters. Because relationships are integral to the life of a mainland Chinese person, important relationships are highlighted, and even Qiu even includes subtleties within the relationship. The result is that the people in the book are very lush. By contrast, the outward scenery is richly described, but succinctly; rich, but in the background.
The story-telling is expertly done. Elements of each character are slowly revealed, but in a context that feels almost revelatory, like pictures from a NASA probe that reveal an increasingly intrigue portrait of a planet over time. At the end of most novels you find that every loose thread has been tidied up and the book is entirely self-contained and tidy. Qiu avoids this unnatural feeling. Some of the details simply give more flavor to the people and remain “unused.” Even the details that are used have a natural feeling to them, although perhaps that is because it is a little unclear which details have actually been used. The plot itself flows at a steady pace, slowly being unraveled, but unlike, say, Dorothy Sayers, the mechanics of the plot are less obvious. I think this is because the lush details of the characters and their place within the chaos and pain of the Cultural Revolution focus one’s empathy on the characters rather than the plot. In fact, I found the characters’ lives as interesting as the plot. Perhaps this is simply because I am much less familiar with Chinese individuals’ stories than I am with Western culture, even Imperial British nobility from a century ago (e.g. Dorothy Sayers), but I think much of it has to do with Qiu’s rich characterization.
The only part I found difficult to believe was that a young American women would fall in love (even partially) with a forty-year old Chinese man. While Chief Inspector Chen is certainly the most interesting mainland Chinese man I have encountered, my personal experience having conversations with Chinese men make me think it quite unlikely that an American woman of any sort would fall in love with a Chinese man (although I do know several that have), let alone the sort of woman that would be a U.S. Marshall. In two weeks. The only explanation for Rohr’s attraction would be if she were starved for connection at home. On the other hand, you know from the beginning how the relationship will end up, if only because of the nature of the poetry quoted. On my first trip to China we watched a Chinese movie in which a love triangle ended with one person dead, and the woman as an opium addict. My team leader complained about the nature of love in Chinese culture—true love exists, but is inaccessible. I do not know if he was correct about his broader statement, but certainly every Chinese film I have seen ends with the lovers separated or dead. Qiu keeps to tradition here.
Qiu has to explain quite a bit of Chinese culture, as his audience is Western. Unlike, say, Jules Verne, who has long didactic excursions, Qiu is impressively succinct. He frequently explains cultural elements in a casual sentence, and longer explanations are usually worked in a relational context. He also has to explain how relationships work in Chinese business and politics. These unfold gradually like a plot of their own, but not without a subtle sarcastic background. Sure, the government runs on relationships, and even a dedicated good cop like Chen has to sully himself with favors to gangsters, but Chen is clear that he does not like it, and Qiu is clear about the mismatches between Communist Party theory and Communist Party reality. Party Secretary Li, himself, seems over-the-top in his statements, although whether that is simply because Communist Party language is over-the-top or because of intentionality on Qiu’s part is unclear to me.
I loved this book. The characters are rich and with fit my experience in China, but you also get to peer inside of the Party machinery that no American will ever see. The characters become real people, whom you sympathize with and wish the best for, just like the real people I met in China. Qiu even weaves the pain of the Cultural Revolution into part of the rich fabric of people’s lives while at the same time bringing light on the disaster and how it continues to affect people long after the events are finished. Qiu has written a story that elegantly and eloquently captures a portrait of China; the plot almost seems to exist for the sake for the portrait. I struggle to say exactly why, but Qiu is certainly a hundred-year author. Whether his books will resonate with the American public over a hundred years remains to be seen, but the quality is certainly there.