Qiu Xiaolong, author of the Inspector Chen mysteries, came to the United States as a Ford Foundation Fellow in 1988, earning a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Following the bloody 1989 anti-democracy crackdown at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, he resolved to stay on in the US and began writing in English.
From his Q & A with PBS:
How difficult was it to begin writing in English? When you’re writing, are you thinking in English or Chinese?The Inspector Chen mysteries appear among Jonathan Fenby's top books on modern China and on Catherine Sampson's top ten list of Asian crime fiction.
I started writing in English in 1989, after what had happened in Tiananmen Square that summer. I was banned from publishing in Chinese. And because of it, I had no choice but to struggle with English, though it was really difficult. Nowadays, while working on the novels, I think in English, but it can still be difficult, often with problems unimaginable to a native speaker. For instance, in Red Mandarin Dress, I had a hard time describing some clothing style in detail. My wife talks to me about her shopping only in Chinese. So I had to consult my daughter Julia, who was born here.
Having said that, I want to add that it is not always a disadvantage for a non-native speaker to write in English. For me, the Chinese, still in the subconscious, appears to provide an alternative sensibility to the English writing. For one thing, phrases and expressions overused in one language may become vivid and refreshing in another, not to mention the other experimental other possibilities in syntax and structure.
How do you think the current global economic crisis will affect what you’ve said is a “rampant materialism” that has taken hold in China?
The current global economic crisis has certainly affected China, but regarding the “rampant materialism,” the situation may be complicated. To a considerable extent, it has developed out of the ideological disillusion after the Cultural Revolution. With the demise of Confucianism and Maoism, it’s largely “a spiritual vacuum,” as sometimes described in Chinese media. Walking about in Shanghai, you may see more luxurious brand stores with people busy in conspicuous consumption than anywhere else. Prior to the global economic crisis, ironically, a small number of Chinese intellectuals looked to the capitalist culture for support of their values, and now people are reading a newly-released bestseller entitled China Pissed Off, denouncing and decrying the evils revealed in the crisis of the West. So it’s possible that materialism may grow more rampant, even self-justified, that is, provided the economy does not crash in China in the short term.
How did you decide to take up mystery writing, and who was the inspiration for Inspector Chen?