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Book Review: When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong

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When I think of cheap labor, industrial pollution, and a burgeoning economy, the C-word inevitably comes to mind. I’ve heard of China’s new state-of-the-art bullet trains, seen footage of their futuristic skyscrapers, and wonder how in the world they got there so fast. A perception exists that this Eastern giant is nipping at our heels.

I thought it would be fitting to review a book that features China’s new capitalist culture within the context of a novel. When Red is Black by Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong (Death of a Red Heroine and Loyal Character Dancer) does exactly that. Set in 1990s Shanghai when China was in the early stages of its capitalist binge, the novel portrays a country still living under the bureaucratic clutches of communism but engaged full-throttle on its own brand of capitalism.

The protagonist is Chief Inspector Chen Cao of Shanghai’s Special Branch Bureau, a detective unit that handles politically sensitive cases. When a former Red Guard is found murdered in her cramped Shikumen apartment, Inspector Chen is asked to investigate the homicide. The victim turns out to be a denounced intellectual condemned to the labor camps during the Cultural Revolution, who had recently published an autobiographical novel critical of the government. Fearing bad publicity locally and abroad, the Party, portrayed as a paranoid and corrupt bureaucracy, pressures Inspector Chen and his partner Guangming to wrap up the case. But as the investigators delve deeper into a homicide that has the outward appearance of a government involvement, one can’t help but notice the bureaucratic red tape they have to endure to get important pieces of information needed to solve the case.

Complicating matters for Inspector Chen is a lucrative project he took on from an entrepreneur with triad connections to translate a real estate development proposal from Chinese to English, putting Chen in conflict with his own conscience (as a sideline, Chen is also a writer, a poet, and a translator of American literature). But such is the way things are done in the new China, a sort of quid-pro-quo-I-pat-your-back-you-pat-mine type of culture. Chen is no exception to that. In past investigations, he has used the man as a source of valuable triad information to solve the case.

What sets When Red is Black apart is the glimpse the reader gets of the emerging get-rich-quick culture in China, which at times resembles capitalism on steroids. Everyone is on the hustle to become the latest “Mr. Big Bucks,” the name people use to describe the new entrepreneurs. One gets the sense that something is not right, that amidst the economic bustle is a stark disparity between the few nouveau riche who live in luxurious excess and the rest of the populace, pitifully crammed in their tiny urban cubicles subsisting on rice and a scrap of meat. References about the Party’s effort to undo many of ex-Chairman Mao’s damaging initiatives are flawlessly embedded in the narrative. This is especially true of the Cultural Revolution during which millions of educated youths were sent to provincial labor camps to be re-educated by the proletariat, the ill-effects of which linger in the general psyche.

The narrative of When Red is Black is clean and achieves an authentic Chinese voice without having to resort to dialect. Descriptions of Shanghai are luminous. One could almost smell the pork buns steaming in the communal outdoor kitchen or feel claustrophobic in the overcrowded Shikumen dwellings, which are basically confiscated private mansions subdivided into 10- by 10-foot apartment units. Though the plot is simple and Chen’s penchant for quoting Chinese philosophers gets old sometimes, When Red is Black is nevertheless an engaging novel from which the reader can catch a glimpse of the capitalist China phenomenon.

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