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China’s Punitive Past Colors Writer & Work

Alumni Feature

  • Qiu Xiaolong Disappearing Shanghai

    In his 2012 “Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life,” Qiu Xiaolong and photographer Howard W. French show what continues to be lost in Shanghai due to modernization. (Courtesy image)

Disappearing Shanghai

While Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen mysteries depict modern Shanghai’s powerful party cadres, “big buck” ­capitalists and high-rise towers, the policeman passes much of his time in the ­homey restaurants, tea houses and lanes of old Shanghai. Further, Qiu’s 2010 Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai and his 2012 ­Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life, with ­photos by Howard W. French, also work to show what continues to be lost to modernization.

The former, a collection of linked vignettes that was previously a bestseller in France (Cité de la Poussière Rouge) and Germany (Das Tor zur Roten Gasse), depicts the struggles of the inhabitants of one small lane in Shanghai, Red Dust Lane, from the rise of Mao to capitalism’s rehabilitation. The reader glimpses traditional ­Shanghai life — which Qiu himself had witnessed while growing up on a nearby lane — from housing-assignment politics to cricket fighting, from tofu making to crab cooking.

As in all of Qiu’s books, food plays a primary role. “It is a tradition of Chinese culture to place importance on food,” he says, “which should be enjoyed at leisure. ‘To eat first,’ says Confucius.”

We also see aspects of the Cultural Revolution and how the ­capricious Communists made and destroyed people — a history that has been lost in large part on Chinese youth. “In Chinese textbooks much of the past has been omitted,” Qiu says, “so young people are ignorant of the Cultural Revolution,” when an ­estimated 20 million Chinese died through starvation, ­persecution and imprisonment.

To address that gap, Qiu is planning to expand Years of Red Dust to a three-volume set that his publisher, St. Martin’s Press, is ­marketing as textbooks. “I am trying to keep alive the history from 1949 to the present, to write a different kind of history book,” Qiu says. A number of universities here have already adopted Years of Red Dust for Chinese studies, but penetrating the Chinese market may prove difficult.

It has been translated and published by Hong Kong Chinese University Press for the traditional-Chinese-character market (Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan), and several mainland publishers are interested in the Chinese translation for the simplified-Chinese-character market (the mainland and Singapore). “But with some of the historical issues touched in the collection still being avoided in the official media, it has not been published on the mainland yet,” Qiu says.

In Disappearing Shanghai, Qiu’s poems ­accompany black-and-white photographs of the dying lanes of Shanghai taken by Howard W. French, who worked as the Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times from 2003 to 2008. The images — generally portraits of working-class people at home and on the old, ­narrow streets — preserve the traditional Shanghai that Qiu strives to keep alive in his writing.

One photo shows a shirtless man sitting on a makeshift bed in a poor, cluttered room, gazing afar. There Qiu has penned the poem “Night Thought,” in imitation of Li Bai (701–762), a Tang dynasty poet: “The bright moon light on the bed / appears like frost in the field far way. / He glances up at the fair moon, / looking down he thinks of home.”

Likewise, Qiu, in his work, seems always to be contemplating home.


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China’s Punitive Past Colors Writer & Work Qiu Xiaolong, PhD ’95, is author of a series of internationally acclaimed mystery novels exposing the historic brutality and ongoing corruption of the Chinese Communist Party.
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