Lucky Number 8: The Top 8 Mysteries set in China
Crime, punishment, and corruption have always been prominent themes in Chinese literature. Operas and novels from the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) attest to the popularity of gong’an, case crime fiction. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee are 18th century detective stories inspired by true accounts of a crime-solving magistrate from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Such sources have provided a wealth of information to modern scholars about ancient justice systems, superstitions, interactions between different classes, and societal constraints.
After the Communist Revolution, crime fiction was banned for being both bourgeois and feudal – unless the story was about hunting down counterrevolutionaries.
In the years since Mao’s death, the genre’s popularity has been rising steadily and translations have made the most successful works available internationally. In contrast to Western whodunits, the emphasis in Chinese crime fiction tends to be on justice and punishment rather than on solving the crime. Crimes of passion feature less often than stories that highlight the human cost of China’s modernization policies, corruption, and rampant materialism.
China’s past 100 years have been ones of constant change impacting social norms, political climate, and the economy. Because of this, various segments of the Chinese population are very much products of a specific decade. To be authentic, a novel’s characters and their circumstances must reflect this.
Since Chinese crime fiction often brings together disparate elements of society to expose conflicts, bureaucracy, and the failings of the justice system, authors must deal with a complex set of interactions that are tricky to get right.
Done well, carefully-researched crime fiction can offer valuable perspectives into Chinese history, just like the gong’an tales of old.
Below are eight works of crime fiction set in China, selected for historical and social interest. The titles are from Chinese and Western authors and listed in the chronological order of their settings. For translated works, the date beside an author’s name indicates first publication in Chinese.
Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. Anonymous (18th century). Translated by Robert van Gulik (1949). This collection of linked stories is about three cases solved by a 7th century magistrate named Di Renjie (here called Judge Dee). In ancient China, magistrates were investigator, judge and prosecutor, all rolled into one. Di’s wisdom and incorruptibility made him a revered legend. Afterwards, van Gulik wrote a series of detective novels featuring Judge Dee.
Sherlock in Shanghai: Stories of Crime and Detection. Xiaoqin Cheng (1920s – 30s). Translated by Timothy C. Wong (2007). A selection of stories from a prolific author who applied the sincerest form of flattery to the Conan Doyle stories with a violin-playing detective and his sidekick. Cheng’s stories were very popular, but overlooked by the literati because serious authors wrote critiques of China, which was in the midst of social and political upheaval. Yet one of Cheng’s goals for his detective was to educate Chinese readers on the Western approach to problem-solving, through scientific observation and critical thinking. Cheng wanted individuals to improve China by improving their own thought process.
Death in Shanghai. M.J. Lee (2015). Set in 1928 Shanghai, this meticulously-researched novel features a pair of outsiders: a White Russian detective and his half-Chinese, half-Scottish assistant. Lee’s Shanghai of 1928 is beautifully detailed in its portrayal of this most seductive and improbable of cities at a time when it employed an international police force.
Playing for Thrills. Wang Shuo (1989). Translated by Howard Goldblatt. Set in the 1980s, the novel revolves around a murder that may or may not have happened ten years earlier and a suspect who may or may not have been responsible. Wang is China’s most prominent author of “hooligan literature”, which features cynical and disillusioned characters from the margins of society.
Death of a Red Heroine. Qiu Xiaolong (2003). Set in the 1990’s, this is the first in a successful series featuring the poetry-loving Chief Inspector Chen. The death of an unidentified woman turns out to be more complicated than just finding her murderer. Clues that point to involvement from senior Communist Party members make Chen question his loyalties, endangering his life. Modern China, its contradictions, and systemic corruption are key plot points for this author, who settled in the USA after the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989.
Hanging Devils. He Jiahong (2012). Translated by Duncan Hewitt (2014). In 1995, a young woman was raped and murdered in a mountain village, and her killer brought to justice. Ten years later, it seems the authorities may have convicted the wrong man. Lawyer Hong Jun must tangle with corrupt officials and the Chinese legal system to find the real killer. Author He Jiahong has the chops: law degrees from Chinese and American universities and a job as Director of the Institute of Evidence Law,
Night Heron. Adam Brookes (2014).Beijing is the new Berlin, according to former BBC correspondent Brookes. It’s 2009 and Peanut, once a respected professor, escapes from prison camp after 20 years of confinement. Peanut also used to spy for the British and now his only hope for escape is to get in touch with his former MI-6 handler. It’s a tale that warns about the emerging espionage-industrial complex but it also shows us characters sidelined by the Cultural Revolution, trying to fit back into contemporary China. Their numbers are legion.
A Perfect Crime. A Yi (2012). Translated by Anna Holmwood (2015). More a psychological exploration than a detective story, this story is about a murder, a bored young man, and his estrangement from a society where he feels his existence is pointless. Comparisons to Camus’ The Stranger are inevitable. In an interview, the author said he based his novel on a true case from his years as a police officer.