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March 28, 2007

Dim sum, detection and ideology: A Loyal Character Dancer - Qiu Xialong

Posted by Helen Szamuely

A Loyal Character Dancer
by Qiu Xialong
Sceptre, 2006
Hardback, 18.99; Paperback, 7.99

The Inspector Chen mysteries written by a Chinese writer, poet and translator, who has lived in the United States since 1989 have been coming out in that country since 2000. The fourth one of them has just appeared and it is something of a mystery as to why it has taken them so long to cross the Pond.

A Loyal Character Dancer is the second one in the series with the Chief Inspector, a politically astute but fairly honest officer, manoeuvring his way through triads, police corruption, party intrigues and a complicated relationship with an attractive US Marshal, Catherine Rohn. Word is that the two of them meet again in the most recent volume, A Case of Two Cities, this time in the United States.

The novel deals with Shanghai in the nineties where many things are changing, some for the better, some for the worse, or so it seems to people who find the transition bewildering. There are shops and restaurants but the police are still all-powerful and the party line has to be adhered to. The shadow of past horrors like the Cultural Revolution, still darkens many lives and the continuing hardships and difficulties are well described.

In an interview Qiu Xialong said that he did not like Chief Inspector Chen because the man was so much part of the system but he would not mind sharing dim sum with him as the party would end up paying for it. And, presumably, because Chen is shown as a gourmet, highly knowledgeable about Chinese food. Indeed, some of the meals he shares with Catherine Rohn are mouthwatering and there is a good deal of tea-drinking.

Qiu Xialong is unfair to his own creation. Chen is a much more attractive character than that and his problems and vacillations are easily understood if one puts them into the perspective of the Chinese system. After all, the only time one of the novels was published in Chinese, every dubious reference to the Communist system was taken out and the place was changed from Shanghai to some mythical Chinese city.

The term "loyal character dancer" refers back to the Cultural Revolution when all music and dancing was forbidden except for the one dance that showed immeasurable loyalty to Chairman Mao. In the background to the events of the book is the story of one young and pretty Red Guard cadre who, unexpectedly, became a victim of the events herself (thus, no doubt, preventing her participation in some of the public tortures and humiliations inflicted on many of those who had been described as "taking the capitalist road").

Wen Liping, the former loyal character dancer disappears as she is about to join her husband in the United States, where he, a small-fry member of a triad that specializes in smuggling people out of China into America, is about to give crucial evidence against the boss of the outfit. The novel tells of Chief Inspector Chen and Marshal Rohn pursuing one trail after another to find Wen as well as the various horrific adventures they and those they meet go through.

Chen has to deal with two triads, two police forces in separate cities, both honeycombed with corruption, the Internal Security and its agents, and the intrigues within the Communist Party as well as a rather dubious subordinate, his love for Chinese poetry and the emotions aroused by his American colleague. Unsurprisingly, the author, though he weaves the various strands together very skilfully, loses track from time to time. At least one crucial episode during the pursuit of Wen that involves bandits, corrupt police and assorted peasants, makes no sense at all.

Then there is the question of Marshal Rohn's knowledge of Chinese. It is understandable that she becomes more certain and confident in the language that she had not spoken for several years previously, as she converses with various people (not Chen who speaks English) but does her confidence really develop within three or four days to the point when she can take part in police interrogation? I suspect not.

It seems mean to bring up detailed criticisms of this kind when talking of an obviously excellent and exciting novel but I live in some hope that one day publishers will once again start editing the novels they take on, pointing out the discrepancies to the authors.

Editorial laxity aside, this is a superb series: tightly knitted plots, interesting characters and a fascinating picture of China in transition and of its dark underbelly, the peasantry in the villages for whom the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution never really ended. And, as so often, in detective stories, the description of the food makes the reading even more pleasurable.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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