I have a mixed feeling about the transformation of the materialist era

Years of Red Dust

Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai in 1953. During the Cultural Revolution, his father was the target of revolutionaries and he was forbidden to go to class. He is the author of the famous detective series featuring Inspector Chen, as well as the Red Dust Lane cycle.

In France, you are famous for the series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao. What motivated you to write these stories?

I had intended to write books about the Chinese society in transition—with all the questions and problems. I came to find the sociology-oriented detective series serving my purpose exceptionally well. After all, a police officer is the most convenient to walk around, knock on people’s doors, check into files not easily accessible to ordinary people, and raise the questions. Particularly so for a thinking cop who is not contended with being a simple tool for crime-solving, but tries to look into the sociological, political, and cultural circumstances in which crimes take place.

Are evening conversations the basis of Chinese literature?

Evening conversations and story-telling are certainly part of the basis of Chinese literature. Especially of classical Chinese literature. The literature of the Ming and Qing dynasties may be said as developing from story-telling in the market fare or in the neighborhood.

« The feng shui of the inner city is unrivaled ». Could you explain this sentence to a Westerner?

It may be difficult to explain feng shui to some readers. To put it simply or a bit too simplistically, the special location of some place (or thing) with its corresponding energy that affects other things. For Red Dust Lane, some people may believe that because of its special feng shui, the lane can produce extraordinary people, and that the people there can tell wonderful stories that may last a long time.

« We are nothing like the testifying narrator. We interact with the story. » What is Qiu Xiaolong’s part in these stories?

That’s a good question. Sometimes, the author’s voice merges into a collective “we”, a collective voice of the lane at a particular time. But there’s no need to identify the author’s voice with any of them. It is impersonal, with a subtle interactivity among the different parts. To be more specific, the sentence here means that the story-tellers in the lane are not just ordinary narrators, Because they live in the lane, they also play a part (though not directly) or even a character in the stories about the lane.
On the other hand, the stories might also have subtle impact on the story-tellers as well, who learn something from the tales, and then later on, with the change of times, who may also acquire a different perspective because of the tales.

The history of Communist China is unpredictable, but, apparently, always at the expense of the individual, of the family. Did I get this right?

Always at the expense of the individual (and for that matter, of the family too) if in confrontation of the Party’s interests. In China, the Party’s interests are beyond and above all. So the history may be seen as such a development, though unpredictable in its course.

Like Chen, are you inflexible with the transformations of our materialist era?

To say the least, I have a mixed feeling about the transformation of the materialist era. In China, the transformation is even more shocking considering the “proletarian” years of the Cultural Revolution under Mao. That does mean any nostalgia for those years—simply in terms of contrast. In the last analysis, China’s materialistic era may also be seen, among other things, as a result of the bankruptcy of the traditional ideological discourse. People no longer have anything else to believe in. They can only grasp whatever material they can hold in their hand.

You write about Shanghai while living in the US. Isn’t it a bit difficult?

It is difficult, but at the same time, it’s not without some unexpected advantages. For one, the distance which makes it possible for a writer to observe more comprehensively. And in my case, also a sort of combined perspective: both the insider (as a Chinese) and an outsider (as one lives outside), which gives a sort of tension to the narrative.