Thursday, November 30, 2006

When red was noir -- "A Case of Two Cities" by Qiu Xiaolong

A Case of Two Cities is the fourth of Qiu Xiaolong's novels about Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. Like its predecessors, including the superlatively good Death of a Red Heroine, it offers rueful portraits of social upheaval in a China that embraces capitalism with the morality of Tammany Hall, the business sense of Al Capone, and the tender mercies of Margaret Thatcher.

Its themes may resonate with fans of American crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, a time when municipal corruption was shocking enough to interest crime novelists. Here, a Shanghai official with unsavory connections addresses Chen:

"(P)eople know a lot about you, our poet chief inspector. Someone just told me about your hongyan zhiji, not only in Beijing, but in the United States."

It came like a seemingly effortless blow delivered by a tai chi master: we know everything about you, so you’d better watch out."

Hongyan zhiji, Qiu tells us, is "a classical literary term meaning an attractive female friend who appreciates and understands you: not necessarily a girlfriend, but definitely with such a connotation – an archetypal dream for lonely, unappreciated scholars ancient China." (Qiu is a poet and a translator of Chinese poetry, and his protagonist, Chen, shares those literary interests and draws inspiration and warning from them.)

Here’s Chen describing his preparation for the visit with the menacing official:

Mang went out of his way, providing inside information about the area’s potential: a list of the properties bought by senior Party officials. Such purchases were an unmistakable message that the property value would soon rise because of city development plans known only to those officials.

As mentioned above, Qiu shares an interest in municipal corruption with certain American crime authors, but he tempers their burning, righteous anger with an understanding of the ways of the corrupt. He notes the understandable desire of talented, ambitious Communist Party functionaries to break free of party shackles and go into business for themselves, even as he writes with horror of their corruption. And he has great sympathy for those left behind by China’s unstoppable economic and political changes.

Inspector Chen’s China reminds me in a small way of the world of American newspapers, of which I am a part, at least for a few more hours. Publishers struggle mightily to cope with the challenges they face in changing markets – and they use their struggles as an excuse to intimidate, threaten and demoralize their workers. Change is happening, and it may be inevitable. But the inevitability of change does nothing to ease the pain of those who suffer from it.

Peace!

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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14 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter, unfortunately Maggie Thatcher was a necessary evil considering the situation in the UK at the time.
We do miss Maggie now although she was unpopular in her later years in power. The problem is that her successors Major, Blair and the PM elect Brown are the Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan of British politics.

Inspector Chen's China and your description of the world of American newspapers seem to have a lot in common with the situation for employees in the National Health Service.

I do hope your day improves.

November 30, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. As a matter of fact, my day has just got worse on the labor front. The Teamsters, who represent our drivers, have knuckled under to the company, deserted us, and agreed to extend contract talks. We could have a split between our union and the Teamsters as well as between the national Teamsters and the local Teamsters.

Margaret Thatcher may have been necessary and even inevitable. So, perhaps, is China's current headlong plunge into capitalism. But the Chinese changes bring with them mining disasters, environmental cataclysyms, social displacement and official corruption. Thatcher's medicine, too, had rather unpleasant side effects and, as I recall, she took a rather unseemly pleasure in inflicting pain, necessary though the pain may have been.

I'll still prefer humorous Australian crime novels as my strike reading. That, and Tang dynasty poetry, particularly Po Chu-i's late poems of resignation, detachment, acceptance, and joy in small, very small, things

November 30, 2006  
Anonymous maxine said...

Norm! You are here! In the blogosphere! What about the cricket then? Have you abandoned it in disgust? I thought we weren't going to see you until it was all over and the fat lady has sung. Gee, what about that first test -- what happened? My poor sister (who flew over to watch it).

Peter -- sorry about your day/work life. I sympathise deeply. In my long experience, the NUJ (national union of journalists) has never helped much either. Unions seem to have their own agenda. Probably enough said on that score, bit off topic.

November 30, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks, Maxine. Hey, I'm the one who got off topic here. My own union is helping in this case; it's a "brother" union that seems to be letting us down.

Maybe I can follow cricket via the Internet in my newly idle hours.

It's odd, but there is a buzz of excitement in the newsroom. I'd have expected deathly silence, but I guess people are excited that something -- anything -- may finally happen

November 30, 2006  
Anonymous Carl said...

An Australian newspaper (of the Murdoch persuasion, it must be said) recently compared ediorial staff numbers of major US newspapers with papers in the UK and Australia. On the face of it, American newspapers employ at least twice as many journalists on a jourmalist per copy sold basis.

Can this be so, Peter? Are you feather-bedded? Or do you get two American journalist for the price of one Pom or Aussie?

December 01, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Hmm, I agree wholeheartedly with part of what you wrote. It indeed must be said that that newspaper was of the Murdoch persuasion.

Are we feather-bedded? A determined, management-funded study could come to such a conclusion. I mean, I don't stagger home in exhaustion each night. Before my newspaper started slashing, it won many, many Pulitzer prizes and had reporters in cities worldwide. Now, prizes are a fairy-tale from a distant time, and our foreign staff consists of a single reporter. So, we were feather-bedded, but rip out a few feathers, and you risk killing the bed.

We could probably save money be reducing the reporting staff to zero and filling the newspaper with copy from wire services and with theater reviews and poetry written by high schools students (we already do some of the latter in our local zoned editions.) So, yes, I'd say we are feather-bedded.

December 01, 2006  
Anonymous Carl said...

Come, come, Peter. The question is one of productivity: do many major US papers, possibly including your own – just possibly, you understand– have low levels of editorial productivity? The highly-regarded Melbourne Age, not a Murdoch paper, employs about one hundred copy-editors (including section editors) and sells about one-and-half million papers a week. That's 15,000 copies for every production staffer.

How does your paper compare? (And this is about crime without borders?)

December 01, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

"Come, come"? I can practically hear you chuckling indulgently.

I've never quite understood the concept of productivity as applied to publications, but using your standard, my paper is far more productive than the Age. We sell a little under 2.5 million papers a week, and we have about fifty-four copy editors. Throw in section editors, and we might be close to seventy.

December 01, 2006  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Peter, in relation to the last few comment exchanges above, and a question dear to your heart I believe-- what about copy (sub) editors? I'm curious to know about the "cutback" and "featherbedding" aspects to that, in your view.

December 01, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Maxine, I think I'll reply via private e-mail -- or start a separate blog for work-related matters. I don't want to forget what this blog is for.

Peter

December 01, 2006  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter, we need another blog to discuss cricket!
Maxine the second test had not started until midnight last night. I am faltering and only woke up at 6.00 am to watch the last session.
Back on to the subject of China, I see $1.6 billion has gone missing in Shanghai, and the local party chief Chen Liangyu may be the culprit. Apparently Qiu Xiaohua, the government's chief statistician, syphoned off a mere $6.3 million for his mistress. It is lucky they are not real capitalists!

December 01, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

How many mistresses do you suppose Chen Liangyu has?

December 01, 2006  
Anonymous andrea said...

I have read "When red is black". I like it very much. Qiu Xiaolong is a very interesting author. Expecially able to describe the new and the old China.

December 30, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for you comment. I found your comment about When Red Is Black, and I printed it out. It will be a lesson in Italian for me. Here is an interesting interview with Qiu: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15953694/site/newsweek/

Have you read his first novel, Death of a Red Heroine? I recommend it highly.

December 30, 2006  

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