: An interview with Qiu Xiaolong

cover60279-mediumWelcome Qiu Xiaolong. Thanks for accepting my interview. Tell us something about you. Who is Qiu Xiaolong? Strengths and weaknesses.

A: Thank you for talking to me. Who is Qiu Xiaolong—which reminds me of a similar question in the new Inspector Chen novel: who is or becomes Inspector Chen? Well, just some basic info here about myself. An accidental novelist writing about China in English. Accidental in that during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, the Chinese government banning my poetry collection made me write in another language, in another country, and in another genre. That may actually point to some of strengths and weaknesses in the Inspector Chen series. I’ve been trained as a poet rather than as a novelist, much less as a crime novelist writing in the non-native language, but it’s ironic that these disadvantages sometimes turn, at least partially or unexpectedly, into advantages at this global age.

A curiosity: what is your name and your surname?

A: My name means “little dragon.” I was born in the year of dragon, so my parents gave me the name. It’s quite a common one as a dragon is a lucky symbol in the Chinese mythology. As for the Chinese family names, they usually don’t mean anything. My family name Oiu is a relatively rare one.

Tell us something about your background, your studies, your childhood.

A: I was born in Shanghai, of a businessman family background, which at the time was condemned as “black, capitalist” in the light of Mao’s class struggle theory, and as a result, I suffered discrimination and humiliation for being a “black puppy.” The ending of my primary school years coincided with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when all the schools were shut down for young people to “make revolution,” so I hardly studied anything those years except Mao’s “little red book.” Shortly afterward, as a “waiting-for-recovery educated youth” in Mao’s campaign of “educated youth going to the countryside for the re-education from the poor and lower-middle class peasants,” I was out of school, out of job. It was then that I started studying English by myself in Bund Park. And thanks to that, after the Cultural Revolution, I was able to pass the college entrance test with a high English score, and then to get my first MA in western literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

A: It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific time. It’s probably during the period that I was studying English in the park.  Those days I happened to get hold of some novels in English, reading of which opened a new world to me, and gave me the initial urge to write something myself.

Shanghai Redemption is a new story of Inspector Chen Cao. It begins in a cemetery for the fastivity of Qingming, when Chen, under the rain, meets a woman. How it continues? What it’s the role of this woman?

A: Shanghai Redemption starts with the scene of Inspector Chen’s visiting the cemetery during Qingming festival. It’s sort of symbolic. Chen feels so bad about letting down his Confucianist scholar father because of his choosing a different path—a Party member cop instead of a scholar. And in the meantime, Chen’s getting more and more disillusioned of his career under the system with the Party’s interest placed above everything else, though not yet willing to quit even when deprived of his inspectorship. The woman he meets there precipitates him further into the crisis through her requesting his help in an investigation that involves high ranking Party officials connected to the top.

Shanghai Redemption is a story of imagination but in the same time it is inspired by the real scandal involving Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing, and Wang Lijun, the city’s former police chief. Do you want to tell to our readers, who there are not informed, the real facts behind your story?

A: Among the real facts behind my story: Bo was a member of the powerful Party Central Politburo and Party Secretary of Chongqing City, a Red Prince rising fast to the very top with a large number of Maoist followers, but because of a disastrous international scandal involving the murder of a British businessman by his wife, and the fleeing of his once trusted Chongqing police chief into the American consulate, Bo was brought down by his rivals in a fierce power struggle in the Forbidden City. He was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to life imprisonment. Incidentally, Bo was my schoolmate at the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing in the early eighties. We hardly mixed there, but one day he borrowed my favorite Ping Pong bat, I remember, without ever returning it. For a Red Prince, it was perhaps nothing. But it’s perhaps not too stretched to say that a lot more these Red Princes take for granted—even the whole of China—as rightfully theirs.

To what extent the Cultural Revolution has changed, in your opinion, the destiny of China?

A: The Cultural Revolution was such a national disaster (1966-1976) with millions of people killed, so many more persecuted or affected in unimaginable ways, and the country’s economy practically destroyed. Consequently, Mao’s ideology and practice of “the continuous revolution under the proletarian dictatorship” and of “the class struggle throughout the period of China’s socialism” seemed to be totally discredited, so I believed that as a result of the disastrous lesson, there would never be a second Cultural Revolution for China. Just a couple of years ago, however, the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned about the prospect of another Cultural Revolution in connection with the leftist conspiracy by Bo. In spite of his fall, the ominous possibility recognized by Wen’s seems to be more and more realistically feasible with all other Red Princes in power in a desperate fight for the preservation of their authoritarian dynasty.

What was the most laboroius part during the writing of this book?

A: As mentioned, the writing of the book was partially inspired by the Bo Xilai scandal. Some of the details in real life proved to be even more unbelievable or unimaginable than in fiction. For instance, Bo slapping Wang’s face (allegedly because of the latter’s affair with his wife) has been described as a slap that dramatically changed China’s fate. Without which Wang would not have sneaked into the American consulate, seeing that as the only chance for survival by making the case into such a huge international scandal, the Beijing authorities could not have covered it up, and sure enough, Bo fell because of it. I could not resist the temptation of including such a detail into the novel, but Chen is a too honest cop to have resorted to that devilish trick. That proved to be one of the most laborious parts in writing the book.

Did the Chinese government allow the publication of your books in China?  

A: The Beijing government allowed the translation and publication of some of my books in China. Not too surprisingly, however, they made cuts and changes without my permission. For instance, in spite of the importance of Shanghai for my books, the censorship officials declared the murder stories cannot have happened in Shanghai, and they changed it to “H city” (H in English) in the Chinese text. I protested repeatedly in vain, so I decided not to give the translation rights any more to the publisher who could not promise to keep Shanghai in the Chinese text.

What poems have you returned to most often over the course of writing of this book? Chen is a poet too, right?

A: Chen is a poet and translator. Originally, I would have him quote from T. S. Eliot more than anybody else, but my American publisher worried about the cost for the copy right. So I turn to the classical Chinese poems composed in the Tang and Song dynasties, more than a thousand years ago, with which I don’t have to worry about the copy right issues. And I myself translate them into English. What’s more, I also write poems for the lyrical intensity need in the midst of the narration under the name of Inspector Chen too, which become an organic part of the novels. A collection titled Poems of Inspector Chen is also coming out in Italian.

Do you have favorite contemporary authors?

A: Among poets, T. S. Eliot, among crime novelists, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and Andrea Camilleri.

Back in school, was there a  teacher who was a particular inspiration to you?

A: Perhaps Bian Zilin more than anybody else, a poet as well as a Shakespeare translator and scholar.  I studied “western poetry” under him in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, but he influenced me much more as a poet, maintaining that one should be capable of writing poems before trying to be a critic or translator. Coincidentally, he himself also wrote a novel in English before 1949, which late became one of inspirations for me when I decided to try my hand on the first Inspector Chen novel in English.

Do you feel that critics have influenced your work?

A: Yes, they have. For instance, they have made the sociological emphasis in my crime novels a more conscious one. And more justifiable too.

Do you enjoy touring for literary promotion? Tell to our Italian readers something of amusing about these meetings.

A: One thing really enjoyable about touring for literary promotion is the opportunity to meet and talk with the readers. And Italian readers are so warm and wonderful. Quite a number of them are now connected with me on Facebook. During one of the tours, I remember, I was recognized by two Italian readers walking along the street. So we walked and talked for quite a distance. They told me they wished Inspector Chen could soon settle down, but then added that as long as he’s relatively happy, they would be happy for him. They’re so into the character, I feel obliged to go on with his adventure, particularly with so much happening in China today.

Will you come in Italy to introduce your novels?

A: I’ve come to Italy a couple of times. As for the future visit plans, I’m working with my publisher. In late April, I may come to Milan for a TV program, and then in mid-June, to festival PAROLARIO in Como. I’m looking forward to the visits. And several Italian readers already contacted me on Facebook for possible meetings,

Do you think your novels contribute to the process of cultural change taking place in China, or at least improve the perception abroad of what is the Chinese universe?

A: Regarding the possibility of improving the perception abroad of what is happening in China, I think so. I have talked with many western readers, and that’s what they have told me. Just a couple of months ago, there’s an Italian “tourist group” going to China, “following the footsteps of Inspector Chen,” and I was so happy to talk to them through the skype, answering their questions as they sat in a Shanghai cafe. As for any possible contribution to the process of cultural changes taking place in China, I hope so. But things in China are difficult to tell.

Finally, the inevitable question. Are you currently working on a new novel? Any other projects?

A: Actually, I’ve already finished the ms. of a new Inspector Chen novel, originally titled Becoming Inspector Chen. The French edition, with the title changed to Once upon a Time, Inspector Chen, is coming out this October, which is a retrospective novel of linked stories, quite different in its structure. I’ve been since working on another one, with “Inspector” Chen working on a case under the cover of writing a Judge Dee story which subverts one penned by Van Gulik. Again, it’s quite experimental, with the two investigations inspiring and contradicting each other while in a parallel.

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