It has been said that the problem with poetry is that whatever poem you come up with, due to the limitations of the techniques at your disposal and the sheer devilish difficulty of writing, your poems will always fall short. The very best poem is always the poem that is yet to be written. Sigh…so poetry is difficult. Add copious amounts of poetry to a detective novel and what do you get? A damn difficult novel. Make that Chinese poetry and a Chinese detective and it gets incrementally worse. That is the problem with Shanghai Redemption, the ninth “Inspector Chen Cao” novel by QIU Xiaolong. How can one make sense of such an oddity, by the usual standards of the crime fiction genre? (Bear in mind that it is a best-selling, hugely popular oddity.)
Critic Sheng Yun’s interesting article in the London Review of Books, in 2017, helped me make a bit more sense of the writing style of Chinese authors, and Chinese settings. I learned that novels are not the most important literary genre in Chinese literature. The Chinese traditionally favour biji xiaoshuo, fictional sketches and notes, rather than full-length fiction narratives. This preference is an ancient tradition;
“Chinese elite has never really valued fiction. The Chinese word for novel, xiao shuo, literally means “small talk”. Poetry and essays are the carriers of Chinese intellectual heritage. For a long time vernacular storytelling was regarded as vulgar entertainment…when literary types get together they exchange poetry, calligraphy and ink drawings.” – Sheng Yun
The clues are in the poems
Drawing on this ancient preference for poetry, Qiu habitually includes poetry in his detective novels. However, this one is unusually dense: 20 classical poems in 301 pages – a new poem every +/- 15 pages. It really is bonkers, and since I’m a Bear Of Very Little Brain when it comes to Chinese poetry, it just baffled me.
And if the poems were just there for atmosphere, no problem, but the poems are clues to the characters and the plot, so require the reader’s attention and understanding. The quoted poems are not the only mentions of poetry. The plot also involves “Inspector Chen” almost being trapped in a set-up to discredit him, at a launch of his translations of the poems of T.S. Eliot (no less!); and a client, a singer of Suzhou opera, who frequently quotes snatches from librettos. And the character of Chen is aware of this obsession with poetry:
“Some lines by Li Jing came out of nowhere. The ex-chief inspector, annoyed with the impossible poet within himself, started tapping on his laptop sitting on the coffee table.” (p.302)
Indeed, for this novel, Qiu has written some charming poetry for his character, Chen. While the majority of the poems that he quotes are by Tang or Song Dynasty poets, particularly Du Mu (803 – 852 AD) and Li Bai (701 – 762 AD), Inspector Chen’s verses are more modern, in metaphor at least. The classical poems of course contain imagery of sadness, melancholy, beauty, neglect, the end-of-season-blues, and lost and neglected love. There are 6 mentions of lakes, 6 of a (beautiful, sad) woman, 7 of trees and falling leaves, 5 of the moon and stars and 4 each of birds, wine and wind.
“The little sparrow hops in
and out the tiny door
of the dainty bamboo cage,
parading about in the dust,
its wings rigorously disciplined,
capable nevermore of flying,
but only of flapping at the air.
A world of self-sufficient, self-containing, barred enclosure –
with rice, water, vegetables,
and light fresh air…enough
for its survival. What’s the point
of its breaking out, alone,
into the unknown?
Cheerful, it peeks back
at its aged benevolent master
with his face shrivelled
into a walnut of satisfied smile.
A flash of the sparrow’s wing
in the light. History keeps
depositing into the forgotten corner
of the park. What is meaningful
means only here and now,
in the little bird’s ecstatic jump
under his blurred gaze…”
(Inspector Chen’s poem, p. 180)
Here are all the poems, if you want to read them. Below are some of the poets who Qiu quotes in the novel.
Meaning of the poems in the novel
The particular poem quoted above establishes the dangerous situation in which Inspector Chen finds himself – he is like the sparrow, with his wings clipped, unable to fly away, and unable to fight the system that put him in that position – “what’s the point of its breaking out, alone, into the unknown?” Chen gets involved in a series of high-profile murders, or murders by high-profile people in Shanghai. But he solves them while he has officially been promoted to a position which has no power and in which he will not be involved in police work any more – a demotion in disguise. As the threats become more personal, Chen realizes he might be the last incorruptible cop left in Shanghai.
What’s in a (Chinese) name?
I really enjoyed the novel but found some aspects frustrating. It says a lot for Qiu’s skills as a writer that I appreciated it despite my frustrations.
Firstly, I don’t know enough about Chinese classical poetry to understand the significance of the poems. Secondly, I found the names of the characters very frustrating. I cannot tell the difference between Chinese first names and surnames/family names. They all sound the same to me. Also, I cannot tell from the name whether someone is male or female and where they come from. Instinctively, I can tell in English, and a couple of other languages, whether a name is a first or a surname, male or female, and roughly where that person may be from. But Chinese names confuse me completely. I get the characters mixed up and therefore have difficulty forming a picture of the character in my head. Sorry, but that’s the truth.
Recently, all hell broke loose when a curator from the British Museum claimed they “have to be careful about using too many” Asian names on exhibit labels, as they can be confusing to teenagers. Well, I’m not a teenager, just a Westerner, and I find them confusing.
For instance: In the author’s name, “Qiu Xiaolong”, as it is used in the details of this novel, is “Qiu” the first or the family name? And then of course, in Chinese, the family name comes first, then the first name.
So is it “Xiaolong Qiu” or “Qui Xiaolong”? In the Olympics, they get around that by spelling all surnames in capital letters. The characters call the main character “Chen”, or “Inspector Chen”, and his name is “Chen Cao”. So are they using his first name with his title, like “Inspector Endeavour”, as opposed to “Inspector Morse”? (That’s just plain wrong.) I assume I’ve been writing about Chinese authors and characters and getting everyone backwards, and I bet some Chinese readers are laughing their heads off about that.
After fishing about quite a bit, I found out, Mr. Qiu, that Qiu is your surname, and Xiaolong is your first name, and your brother’s name is Qiu Xiaowei. And the name on the cover of the book follows the Chinese format, despite it being published in English.
A lot of barriers to get over
This is the kind of thing that really confuses the heck out of me. I don’t even want to go into the meaning and the significance of the poems. Having checked up on each and every quote, yes, the background of the authors match the incidents in the novel where Qiu uses them. However, it is just hard to read, as beautiful as the lines are. Qiu puts many barriers in the way of the non-Chinese reader. No-one that I know, except one or two people, speaks in poetry quotes, and they certainly do not preach or declaim to one another as the characters in this novel do. Sometimes the characters talk so long and so detailed a manner to each other that I realize it is just impossible – no-one speaks so formally or so precisely.
This is perhaps the area where Qiu’s writing style falls short. He gets the internal monologues right, but the dialogue between characters really sounds plodding, like it’s going round and round in circles like an ox at a well, as Chinese-English translator Howard Goldblatt once said.
Chen and the women
That being said, Qiu’s settings and imagery are definitely exotic by Western standards and highly captivating – the peculiar restaurants, the weird food, night clubs, massage parlours, hackers, Shanghai social media, the politics and Party-speak, the ingenious forms and levels of corruption, and what passes for seduction. Yes, Inspector Chen, now out on his ear and playing the dutiful son tending to the family graves in the countryside, has a whole phalanx of admirers.
His supporters include two women with a soft spot for him, a client, “Qian”, who is a singer of Suzhou opera, or rather Kunqu opera from the area of Suzhou, and a salon owner, “Miss Bai”, whom he once helped out of a tight spot. Even the suspect in the case presents herself scantily clad and in need of comfort, while Qiu squirms. This woman, a “white tiger”, got involved with a “Big Buck” and this got her husband killed.
“A shroud of silence fell over the living room. The moonlight streamed through the flapping curtains and landed on her face, which was bleached of colour, yet infinitely touching.” (p.293)
It is definitely a romantic moment. Add to this Qiu’s penchant for using words like “lambent”, which means glowing, gleaming, or flickering with a soft radiance, and you have poetry as a theme and a poetical turn of phrase – and romantic poetry at that.
“She [Qian] took a slow sip at the tea, the morning light lambent in her eyes, a tiny greenish leaf between her lips. “ (p.118)
Miss Bai conducts an interview with Chen in a bathrobe, on her bed, and quotes his own poetry back at him, showing definite devotion, but…nothing happens. And she is also declining lambently:
“He gazed into her eyes rippling in the lambent lamplight, and behind her, the skyscrapers lit with the neon lights and signs, and vessels moving across the water.” (p. 169)
In the end, it is the beautiful singer, Qian, who looks charming in a blue mandarin dress, that Chen seems to fall for. But, as Chen quotes in one of the few English poems in the novel, “Had we but world enough, and time…” (p.166)
This line is from To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell, written in the 1650s. The poem also includes the more famous lines that are not quoted in the novel:
“The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.”
These words are particularly appropriate considering how Chen meets Qian and what happens to her (not to give too much away).
By the end of the book I had some idea of who had killed whom and why – but Qiu leaves the ending open – where will Inspector Chen go, and what will he do next? Will he stop working for the police and become a private investigator for real? Was this Qiu’s way of killing off his character? (There has not been another Inspector Chen novel after book 9, published in 2015.) Is the book’s epigraph a clue to the end of Inspector Chen? “Because I do not hope to turn again. – Guido Cavalcanti” – it would seem so.
About Qiu Xiaolong
Qiu has written many other novels, apart from the Inspector Chen series. He has a very good website, with a lot of useful information. Note that, apart from writing his own poetry, he has produced volumes of translations of classical Chinese poetry. So, he knows what he is talking about in this novel. In his embodiment as Inspector Chen, he has produced Poems of Inspector Chen. “The poems in the present collection are compiled chronologically. Some of them have appeared — either entirely or partially — in the Chen novels, but with his writing in a hurry under the stress of the job, he usually takes time later to revise them, so the poems here may show difference, sometimes substantial, from the original versions. And some of them, either written in his pre-inspector days, or conceived in fragments only in his mind, now appear for the first time in the collection here.” (Rtrvd. 2017-09-28)
PS: Inspector Chen films and radio
Many critics and readers have remarked that the Inspector Chen books would work well as films. In 2011, German film and documentary producers Wieland Schulz Keil and Cordula Paetzel announced that they and Australian producer Marion Macgowan had joined forces to acquire Qiu’s Inspector Chen novels, which they planned to turn into seven feature films. In 2012, they announced that the consortium had successfully obtained early stage financing for the first film, with the project title, A Case for Inspector Chen Cao. After that, there has been no more news, though BBC Radio 4 has produced dramatizations of three of the books.