Qiu Xiaolong’s mystery novels are set and thematically centered in Shanghai in the 1990’s, when the nation was making a swift transition from a centrally planned economy to an open marketplace based on capitalism. Although the novels are not told exclusively from the point of view of Chief Inspector Chen Cao, he is the primary means by which Qiu exposes the deep turmoil of that transition. The fictional detective serves as a alter ego for the author, whose concern for his hometown informs nearly all of his writing. However, as Qiu insisted to interviewers, Chen differs markedly in character from him. In fact, Qiu remarked that he does not much care for his protagonist. Chen is loosely based on a friend of Qiu, a literature student who became a police officer. Like modern China, Chen makes his uncertain way in life by struggling with fundamental contradictions. From these contradictions emerge the specific themes of the Chen series.
Chen is dutiful and loyal. He values his relations to those around him, especially his partner, Detective Yu Guangming; Yu’s father, Old Hunter; and Yu’s wife, Peiqin. Accordingly, he is modest and generous, but his high rank means he must often keep information from them and expose them to dangers during the course of his investigations for the special cases squad of the Shanghai Police Bureau. In that position he is a Communist Party member, and his first loyalty requires him always to act in the “interest of the party.” His job is politically delicate in that he must solve cases even when the solutions might expose the party to internal or international criticism, and yet he must prevent such exposure. Moreover, Chen’s dedication to his job brings him into unintentional conflict with his mother, for whom he maintains a deep devotion, as Chinese traditional values require. His mother wants him to marry and produce grandchildren, but he lacks both the time for romance and the inclination to dwell on his own desires.
Nowhere does the conflict between traditional values and modern life become more evident than in Chen’s dealings with corruption. Corruption permeates Qiu’s novels, reflecting the widespread pursuit of selfish interest by government leaders, bureaucrats, and businesspeople at all levels in China. In A Case of Two Cities (2006), in the course of investigating a scandal involving Xing Xing, a businessman made wealthy through his connections to high-ranking party members, Chen discovers that the Communist Party wishes to make the businessman a scapegoat, punishing him but not changing the underlying corruption. He finds that corruption goes beyond the party, being ingrained in Chinese society. The characters in A Case of Two Cities speak of a “white way” and a “black way” to accomplish nearly every public action—the officially approved or legal means in contrast with the underground, black-market way, often involving bribery. Chen himself engages in corrupt practices because of his loyalty to friends. For example, he uses his clout as a chief inspector to get a job as a traffic monitor for his partner’s father, Old Hunter, a retired police officer who cannot survive on his pension. He also does favors for several businessmen who help him, at least one of whom has connections to organized crime.
As Qiu vividly shows, the white-way and black-way conflict arises from the rapid economic and social change in China. The oldest generation, represented by Old Hunter, spent their lives with an “iron rice bowl” economy, guaranteed a job and health care from cradle to grave. The Communist Party taught them to believe that everyone should receive equal treatment. The liberalizing economic policies of Deng Xiaoping changed that. Proclaiming that it is “glorious to be wealthy,” Deng encouraged entrepreneurship and capitalism. It bewildered the older generation, but many of those who grew up during and...
(The entire section is 1600 words.)