Where is China’s Balzac?

China’s economic renaissance and renewed cultural confidence have not yet been matched by a creative re-awakening. So argues this review essay, which considers the comparative globalisation of ‘Eng Lit,’ departing from an unpretentious detective story set in Shanghai.

‘Death of A Red Heroine’
by Qiu Xiaolong
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2000, 465 pp.

This engaging and readable crime novel, set in Shanghai in 1990, gives more human and humane insight into post-Maoist China than half a dozen volumes of foreign punditry. And quite right too: isn’t that what literature is for—to illuminate life in ways that only the artist does?

Qiu’s basic approach is familiar from Hollywood: a principled cop, trying to unravel a sleazy and difficult case, is under bureaucratic and political pressure from his leaders. In Western treatments the ‘political’ dimension is usually to do with a mayoral election or the discovery of graft higher up the command chain; here, it is of course the Communist Party system.

When the strangled corpse of a nubile woman ‘model worker’ is discovered in a canal outside Shanghai, Party officials assume it must be a ‘political’ case, some kind of counterrevolutionary plot. The Party Secretary of the Police Department orders young Inspector Chen Cao—who is himself a promising, new kind of model police officer—to conduct the investigation along these lines. When Chen’s enquiries point to a different, scandalous explanation he is promoted off the case in a sideways move, becoming district head of traffic police. (A nicely Chinese touch; in the Hollywood template he would at this stage of the plot be demoted to issuing parking tickets or suspended from duty and next seen snoring on a sofa beside an empty bourbon bottle.) Chen perseveres in his investigation without authorisation, but when the final pieces fall in place the case becomes re-politicised because national authorities seize upon it to kick start a new, political-moral campaign.

The whodunit question is solved quite early on and, although the motive remains unclear until near the end, it is not this detail that keeps the reader engaged for 465 pages. The story relies more on the deepening moral and political ambiguities in what is never a clear or simple struggle between good and evil.

Chen and his detective peers have no wish to get mixed up in politics. No-one rails against the system (although several characters express disgust at the unearned privileges and elite decadence of the sons and daughters of high-ranking officials.). Nor is there anything inhumane, unreasonable or corrupt about the Party Secretary; he is simply the local link to the unpredictable political heavens over which even he has no sway. All of this is the accepted context within which (rather than against which) Chen and other protagonists try to discover what the right thing is—the right model for human decency and professional duty in an imperfect and unpredictable world.

This quest for personal integrity is no abstract thing but grounded in a real life of touching ordinariness and in a city that is still quite austere. Cameos of Shanghai citizens are given space alongside the central portrait of Chen’s own, modest life and circle. We meet his friends through a housewarming dinner in the little apartment assigned to him by his work-unit (to the envy and astonishment of colleagues, for he is unmarried); and we follow a developing friendship with a subordinate, a tentative romance, and the enthusiasms of a gourmet friend who opens a restaurant. (He represents irrepressible Shanghainese entrepreneurialism: ready to ‘jump into the sea’ and negotiate the market’s choppy waters long before it is entirely safe to do so.) Food makes regular and detailed appearances in the story, as those who know China would expect—in marked contrast, again, to the NYPD detective making do with a culturally barren hot-dog.

And along with food there is poetry. Inspector Chen himself is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in national newspapers. This theme adds more than just individuality and incidental colour. On the one hand, it is a reminder of things in Chinese civilisation that have endured through the upheavals of the last two centuries. On the other, it is the multi-dimensionality of Chen that gives him the insight and understanding to be a good cop—able, for example, to imagine the loneliness of the model worker, her need for private escape from the public model status. (‘Imagination,’ wrote Shelley in his 1821 ‘Defense of Poesy,’ ‘Is the chief instrument of moral good; and poetry contributes to the effect by acting upon the cause.’)

The reader is thus treated along the way to snatches of verse that Chen is prone to ponder and cite, to the occasional consternation of his junior officers. Such as this, Qiu’s own translation of a poem by Cui Hu (writing in the Tang dynasty):

This door, this day
—Last year your blushing face,
And the blushing faces
Of the peach blossoms reflecting
Yours. This door, this day
—This year, where are you,
You in the peach blossoms?
The peach blossoms still
Here, giggling
At the spring breeze


It is no mean feat to turn this 1,500 year old quatrain, with exactly seven Chinese characters in each line, into something accessible to modern English speakers. (Perhaps too accessible: for this in fact reads not unlike translations of, say, the 20th century Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, thus dissolving the distinctiveness of the Tang genre. I am not sure either that ‘giggling’ works in the penultimate line; the onomatopoeia breaks the visual spell, and ‘giggle’ is too light a counterpoint for the weight of separation.)

Qiu’s wider achievement is also a kind of interpretation—rendering the Shanghai of the early 1990s accessible to international readers. This too could be overdone by flattening out too aggressively the distinctiveness of the Chinese political system. But Qiu succeeds in casting light on the system while enabling us to see the people who live under it as ordinary and recognisable, not as orientally exotic; and this points to the fact that, although the quest for personal integrity in a badly arranged world may at present be an intensely Chinese concern, it is also clearly universal.

Diaspora and World Lit.

Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai in 1953 but has lived in the United States since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. He writes his novels in English (although some have been translated into Chinese), and he also publishes poetry in Chinese. ‘Death of a Red Heroine’ was the first of what has become an Inspector Chen series that now comprises five novels.

Several other émigré Chinese authors have also chosen to write in Western languages. Prominent examples include Ha Jin (born in Liaoning in 1956, resident in the United States since 1985), whose ‘Waiting’ won the 1999 US National Book Award; and Dai Sijie (born 1954, resident in France since 1984). Dai, also a film director, turned his story of Cultural Revolution ‘sent-down’ youth, ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’ (originally written in French) into a successful, 2002 Chinese language movie. He has since enjoyed further success with the funny and poignant ‘Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch’ (2003) and last year published a new novel, ‘Par Une Nuit Où La Lune Ne S’est Pas Levée.’

Competent work has also come from writers who were born in, rather than emigrated into, the (34-million strong) Chinese diaspora. Exemplary are three women of the same generation as Qiu, Ha and Dai: Amy Tan and Gish Jen (born in the United States) and Lisa See (born in Paris but raised in the US). Their work is invariably thoughtful, often moving and often funny, with an understandable (although not exclusive) emphasis on personal and family identity.

These are solid contributions to a body of immigrant and diaspora literature that has grown steadily over the last 30 years, that now encompasses writers from every continent, and that both reflects and advances the remaking of Western societies.

I grew up in the almost entirely white southeast England of the 1960s and with an entirely white literary canon. British universities in those days frowned even upon the idea of including American authors in the honour rolls of Eng. Lit. The Irish, by dint of recent historical possession and a surfeit of genius, were less grudgingly accommodated; but emerging African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o remained all but invisible in Britain. The closest I got to distant places and other races was the work of canonical, white writers like Joseph Conrad (who was Polish by birth and did not make Britain his adoptive home and English his medium of choice until he had completed 20 years of seafaring adventure), E M Forster and Graham Greene, who were themselves interested in the world beyond Dover. And I was almost wholly ignorant of the black and Asian people who laboured on the lower rungs of the British economy.

But by the 1970s some ‘foreign’ writers—pre-eminently, V S Naipaul, a Trinidadian immigrant to the UK whose Indian grandfather went as an indentured labourer to the Caribbean—were beginning to describe other worlds in new, English voices, and to considerable critical acclaim. Other immigrant authors soon followed: Salman Rushdie (born in Mumbai in 1947); Timothy Mo (born in Hong Kong in 1950); Kazuo Ishiguro (born in Nagasaki in 1954); Nadeem Aslam (born in Gujranwala, Pakistan, in 1966); and so too did British-born writers such as Hanif Kureishi (b. 1954), Monica Ali (b. 1967) and Gautam Malkani (b. 1976). These authors punched well above their UK ethnic weight and made much of what was flowing from white pens seem parochial and insipid. They also gave educated white Brits a window onto the lives of people raised at the same time and on the same small island as them, only a few dozen miles—and yet worlds—away. The same has happened to a somewhat lesser but still significant extent in mainland Europe, with many North African and Arab authors choosing to write in French or German.

The globalisation of, especially, the English language novel continues apace. Notable recent successes include the bestselling ‘The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini (born in Kabul in 1965) and the prize-winning ‘The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears’ by Dinaw Mengestu (born in Addis Ababa in 1978), both raised in the United States.

This thriving world literature in English may to some extent reflect changes in a publishing industry that increasingly seeks to reach global rather than national markets. (And with sound commercial reason: there are more readers of English in India than in England and, if it hasn't already happened, Chinese readers of English will soon outstrip the UK market too.) It may also be that, even if literacy is in relative decline in the West, those Westerners who do still read books increasingly demand ‘edutainment’—work that will inform, not just amuse, them. But it is certainly also the case that people with a foot in more than one world, and able to examine the interstices between them, have some of the most interesting stories to tell, and a perspective that is in keeping with the globalising spirit of the age.

But where are the dragons?

Returning to China, all of this invites the question where modern literature in Chinese is going. Are there, somewhere, Chinese authors who are capturing and illuminating the epic transformations and immense fissures in ‘reform era’ mainland society?

Europe’s painful 19th century journey into capitalist modernity was a period of rapidly spreading literacy and astonishing literary fertility. In Britain, the all-white Victorian canon was extraordinarily rich: the Bronte sisters, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot writing within a few short decades of each other. France at the same time produced Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo, Maupassant, Stendhal, Zola; Russia Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev.

Is China now producing, or likely to produce, writers of comparable stature? I know little of the field, not being a fluent reader of Chinese. But to judge from what is available in translation this does not appears to be a time of great literary fertility (although it may be that the global publishing industry has not yet tapped into talent that does exist.) There are notable figures: Gao Xingjian, whose ‘Soul Mountain’ won the Nobel Prize for literature; Ma Jian, whose ‘Beijing Coma,’ published this year, offers a fictionalised account of the Tiananmen massacre. But these do not seem in quite the same league as Balzac, Dostoevsky or George Eliot.

It is, of course, arguable that European novelists since the mid 20th century have not achieved the same stature as their forebears either. Indeed, in the 1970s, before the influx of new, diaspora blood, it was fashionable to declare the novel form exhausted. The world does now have new forms of popular, artistic expression: notably, film; and it is perhaps to these that we should look for Chinese portraits of the era.

It may also be that the sheer weight of China’s own, classical canon in some way inhibits innovation in Chinese; the shadows of the ancients are so long that it is hard to step out of them. This encapsulates China’s generic struggle for cultural modernisation without loss of continuity. It can be seen to some extent in Inspector Chen’s own poetic efforts: it is hard, at any rate, to believe that his immersion in classical forms can readily be reconciled with his attempt to convey in verse the experiences of a late 20th century Shanghai cop on the beat. (There are frequent references to Chen’s poem on this subject but we do not get to read it.)

Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the simple conclusion that China’s political illiberality is a significant drag on national creativity. Eng. Lit., like the English language itself, has been extended and enriched by (willingly or otherwise) embracing foreigners: from the highly influential Conrad through colonial subjects to, now, more recent immigrants and refugees. China, by contrast, chases away its own talent, with those who are successful on the international stage tending to be anathematised at home—such that Ma Jian ends up in exile in London, Gao Xingjian in Paris, while a host of others resort to the English tongue. This is a shame in both senses of the word.

Nick Young
October 4 2008, Kampala