Crime Fiction & Social Harmony in China

Crime writer and Wheeler Centre Fellow Andrew Nette writes on Chinese crime fiction. 

Something was confirmed for me over the last couple of days that I’ve long suspected: crime fiction and authoritarian governments do not mix.

But before I explore this further, a little background is required.

On Friday night, I and over a thousand other people crammed into the Melbourne Town Hall for the Gala Night of Story Telling 2011: Voices from Elsewhere, organised by the Wheeler Centre.

Voices From Elsewhere: Murong Xuecun (English)

This is a translation (read by Dan Spielman); you can also watch a video of Murong Xuecun's original Chinese reading at the end of this article

Of the eight writers who spoke, my favourite story was Chinese writer Murong Xuecun’s parable about the power of traumatic historical events, in this case Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to distort the individual psyche, even long after they are over.

Murong was 28 and working as a sales manager for a car company in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and China’s fifth most populous city, when he started posting his first novel on the Internet.

The book, originally titled Chengdu Please Forget Me Tonight, focuses on three young men in newly capitalist Chengdu, their dead-end jobs, and relationships, their drinking, gambling and whoring.

There are several Chinese authors writing crime fiction set in China, but they don’t live in China.

It became a cult sensation among young middle class Chinese. It also landed him in a lot of trouble, especially when Murong refused to join the Chinese Writers Society, the state sponsored writers organisation.

In addition to selling through the roof in China, the book has been translated into English as Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu. It has also come out in French and German, with editions in Italian and Vietnamese in the works.

I haven’t read Leave me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, but I’m going to.

Anyway, apart from providing some fascinating insights into how young Chinese writers are using the Internet to avoid state censorship and reach audiences, Murong was able to answer a question that’s been nagging me for a while. Why is so little crime fiction coming out of China?

According to Murong, the answer is as follows:

  1. The Chinese government does not encourage crime fiction.

  2. This is because crime fiction is seen as conflicting with the aim of encouraging a “harmonious society”, one of the guiding principles of the ruling communist party.

  3. Foreign crime fiction is available in translated versions and popular (Murong’s favourite is Lawrence Block), because while it is okay for Chinese people to read fictionalised accounts of crime in other countries, it is not okay for them to read similar accounts in their own.

The current freeze on local crime fictions appears to date from 2007, when the communist party adopted the encouragement of social harmony as a key platform.

Interestingly, the Chinese government’s tolerance towards foreign crime fiction does not extend to crime films (including those from Hong Kong). These are strictly forbidden, presumably because they can be consumed on a mass basis, although they are widely available on the black market.

It was not always so.

Doing a bit of research on the Internet, I came across this fascinating article on the history of crime fiction in China. This goes back several centuries and often featured clever and incorruptible judges using their wisdom and smarts to solve incredibly complex crimes.

The best known of these in the West is the historical judge Di Renjie, whose stories were translated and made famous by the Dutch diplomat and sinologist Robert van Gulik in 1949, and more recently by the 2010 motion picture, ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’.

Crime fiction was banned after the communist revolution in 1949. Mao branded private detection and crime “bourgeois” and the historical magistrate genre of crime “feudal”. These restrictions were briefly eased by Deng Xiaoping in 1978-80, giving rise to a new generation of investigative judges in the form of heroic public security personnel who fought criminals with bad class backgrounds.

The current freeze on local crime fictions appears to date from 2007, when the communist party adopted the encouragement of social harmony as a key platform.

There are several Chinese authors writing crime fiction set in China, but they don’t live in China.

The best known of these is Qiu Xiaolong, who is Chinese born but now lives in the United States. His character is a poetry-sprouting cop called Chen Cao based in Shanghai. There are also a series of books featuring a female private detective in Beijing, by Diane Wei Liang. She is also based in the US.

Interviews with Qiu say that his work has been translated into Chinese, although Murong said it is not available locally. 

Voices From Elsewhere: Murong Xuecun (Chinese)

Murong Xuecun's story from our Gala Night of Storytelling, read in Chinese

Diane Wei Liang’s book, The Eye of Jade, is on my large to read pile of books. I’ve read one of Qiu’s books, A Case of Two Cities, in which Chen is assigned a high-level corruption case in which the principle figure has fled to the US beyond the reach of the Chinese authorities.

To each their own, but I found Chen’s constant spouting of poetry distracting and it broke up the pace. I was also dissatisfied that a large chunk of the book is set in LA, as I wanted it to focus on what was happening in Shanghai.

Portrait of Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist. His non-fiction has appeared in various print and online publications. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950–1980, forthcoming in 2015.

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