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Five Minutes with...Qiu Xiaolong

As the Shanghai International Literary Festival kicks off this month, the city is besieged by authors from around the world. For St. Louis, Missouri-based Qiu Xiaolong, creator of the award-winning Inspector Chen detective novel series, it is a return to the place of his birth. Initially a poet and academic with a penchant for T.S. Eliot, Qiu’s crime fiction sheds light on the hidden turmoil of a rapidly modernising China. The author spoke with TALK about his remarkable character and muse in the lead up to the city’s premier literary event.

You were originally a scholar of English poetry; what turned you on to writing crime novels and inspired the character of Inspector Chen?

I used to write and translate poetry. I left for the United States in 1988 and started writing in English the next year, and I still wrote only poems at the time. In 1996, I came back to China for the first time after seven or eight years; I was so impressed by the changes that had been taking place here. I thought I should write about the society in transition. I did have a long poem published afterward, but I was not really satisfied with it. Perhaps poetry works better as a means for personal emotion, but not so well with such a large subject as China in transition. I then thought about writing a novel instead. But because I had not written fiction before, I had problems putting pieces into a whole. In that way, mystery as a genre came to my rescue. It provided me something like a ready-made structure and into the framework I could put what I wanted to say. And in the course of writing, I also found a cop character convenient for serving my original purpose. For his investigation, Inspector Chen has to walk around, knock on people’s doors and raise all sorts of questions. As a thinking cop, he does not confine his effort simply to whodunit, but always with a focus on a larger social and political background too. And then one book led to another, and to my own surprise, into a series now.

In your books the city of Shanghai is a character in and of itself. What is it about this city that makes it such a powerful muse for your narratives?

Yes, the city of Shanghai is a character in itself. In history, Shanghai was one of the cities opened earliest to the West. And in recent years, all the dramatic changes in the city make it so symbolic of the incredible transformation in China – the contrasts and contradictions of the old and new, of the east and west, of the good and evil – and you may even say what happens to the city is also emblematic of the tension and struggle happening inside Inspector Chen.

A major thematic thread in your fictional work is the struggle to come to terms with the changing realities of modern China. How do you think Shanghai is coping with this transformation?

Yes, I agree with your point about that being one of the “thematic threads”. To some extent, it may also be seen as my personal effort to come to terms with the changing realities of modern China. I come back quite regularly, you know. At least once a year, and every time I’m impressed but also confused with some new changes. As for your question, that’s a big one. For Inspector Chen, he is pleased with the material improvement in people’s lives (if you compare it to that of the Cultural Revolution), but it is also increasingly difficult for people to tell the difference between the material and materialistic pursuance, even more so with a general spiritual vacuum in the background.

As I understand it, Inspector Chen returns this year in Don’t Cry, Tai Lake. What can your legions of fans expect?

It’s quite a different book. I like to try something new in each one in the series. And as you may guess from the title, a major part of the story happens near Tai Lake, which is not far from Shanghai. If you happen to have visited the lake a couple of years ago, you may probably guess the background of the book.


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