Rich in intellectual detail, character and cuisine, this novel is a history lesson cast in the form of a mystery, part of an effort by many Chinese writers to exhume and examine their country’s Maoist past.
The Mao Case, by Qiu Xiaolong, 304 pages, Minotaur Books
Reviewed by Harvey Blume
Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police force, the main character of “The Mao Case” (and of five previous mystery novels by Qiu Xiaolong), is not your average cop. He moonlights as a translator of American mystery novels, writes poetry, and, if given a choice, would rather puzzle over the collected works of T.S. Eliot than chase criminals.
T.S. Eliot might at first seem like an unlikely Western favorite for a Shanghai policeman, but there is a kind of sense to it. Eliot is commonly referred to as the most Mandarin, as in high-toned, of twentieth-century English language poets. On a deeper level, Eliot imposed upon himself what can be conceived of as an essentially Confucian duty, namely to put his tradition’s texts in order, to define and maintain its canon. (Eliot’s buddy Ezra Pound went so far as to make Kung — aka Confucius — a major voice in his “Cantos”). That Chen can be moved to quote Prufrock one moment and Tang poetry the next makes him an intriguing character to stick with during China’s recent economic boom, which provides the setting for these novels.
The Communist Party has denied Chen a literary career, but won’t let him settle into the normal life of a police officer, either. Beijing bosses routinely disrupt Chen’s work by reassigning him to charged, politically sensitive cases. In the new book, the case in question has the power to embarrass the Party down to its Maoist roots.
Chen learns the rudiments of what will become the Mao case in a phone call from Beijing that comes just as he is about to enjoy a chef’s special — “pork intestine, lung, heart, and whatnot,” according to the waitress, steamed with homemade rice wine, “a specialty,” she points out, “of old Shanghai cuisine” that is not to be found outside her humble eatery. Here, as throughout, Qiu Xiaolong is very particular about what his characters eat, and he makes sure to feed them often. Cuisine helps Xiaolong’s plots along — if this were a film, food would be its movie music — but there is usually just a bit more food than his plots manage, well, to fully digest. There are recipes to think on though not necessarily to try at home.
Huang Keming, China’s new Minister of Public Security, called Chen to tell him that the Party has made it a priority to locate and recover a certain “something” Chairman Mao might have given to Shang Yunguan, a Shanghai actress with whom he danced and dallied in the 1950s and early 1960s. Chen protests that was a long time ago, and that if there ever was such a “something,” wouldn’t the Red Guards, who later ransacked Shang’s premises, have found it?
Huang impatiently overrules Chen. It is true that after Mao’s death, Madam Mao, The Great Helmsman’s insanely jealous widow, ordered Red Guards to torture Shang and that shortly afterwards Shang killed herself. But the story of the something didn’t necessarily end there. Shang had a daughter, Qian, to whom she might have passed something on. Qian, we learn, after likewise suffering severe political harassment, died in a car accident. And she, too, had a daughter. It is the recent behavior of Jiao, Shang’s granddaughter, that alarms the Party.
Jiao has recently quit a poorly paying job and is suddenly partying with “people from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Western Countries.” Is she trading on the worth of the Mao “something”? Is she cashing in on an item that could, in the wrong hands, undermine Communist rule? Chen must drop everything to find out.
The tale of Shang reminds Chen of other multi-generational Cultural Revolution tragedies he has known. “What had happened during those years,” he reflects, was “absurd, cruel . . . almost unbelievable.” He’s not eager to confront full catastrophe Maoism. After all, “he wasn’t a historian, he was a cop.” But he acknowledges that in recent years, “he’d found it more and more difficult, even as cop, to steer clear of the nation’s history under Mao.” And he’s not without the means to take Mao’s measure. Chen recalls that as a boy during the Cultural Revolution when he was studying English, the first sentence he learned was: “‘A long eternal life to Chairman Mao!’ Exactly the same phrase as was used with regard to the emperors for thousands of years.”
Chen’s investigation brings him into Mao’s secret history – the hidden Mao, well researched by Qiu Xiaolong — and eventually into Mao’s old bedroom near the Forbidden City. Mao’s custom-built, larger than king-size bed is still covered with his bedtime reading, which consists of well-thumbed chronicles of dynastic rule and dynastic succession.
Chen finds that Mao’s imperial manner extended beyond matters of state into his love life. “Paranoid that everybody was plotting against him,” Chen notes, Mao “killed . . . thousands of high-ranking Party officials who had been loyal to him.” A related pattern obtains to the succession of lovers and wives Mao left to be destroyed.
Mao’s love life surprises Chen somewhat less than the fact that even in the throes of its great capitalist boom, when fanatic moneymen have replaced fanatic Red Guards, China is suffering a Mao revival. This is brought home to Chen on a visit to a bookstore whose owner tells him that the volume most in demand at the moment happens to be none other than Mao’s “Little Red Book.”
Chen is astonished. “What?” he exclaims. “Billions of copies were printed back then. How can it be a rare or antique book?”
The bookseller explains that people ditched their “Little Red Books” as soon as the end of the Cultural Revolution permitted. But the volume is “coming back with a vengeance” because for “those left out of the materialist reforms, Mao is . . . a mythic figure again.”
The renewed cult of Mao is far from universal. It doesn’t extend to those of Chen’s friends and co-workers who barely survived forced labor camps, or to people who can’t forgive or forget what it meant to be accused of imperfect Mao worship. But a yearning to borrow what he imagines to be Mao’s imperial — son-of-heaven — virility drives one of Shanghai’s new money men to crime and madness. The madman leads Chen to the something he has been tracking. When he has it, he must decide whether to keep it hidden or to surrender it to the Communist Party, which has made such a fetish of it.
“The Mao Case” is an historical novel cast in the form of a mystery. Rich in intellectual detail, character — and cuisine — it joins the effort many Chinese writers are making, in a wide variety of genres, to exhume and examine their country’s Maoist past.
Qiu Xiaolong, after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, brought his family out of China to St Louis, where he was studying literature. He writes in English. “The Mao Case” begins with the dedication:
For the people that suffered under Mao.
The book ends with Chen, Qiu Xiaolong’s highly literate alter ego, reflecting on T. S. Eliot in a way that suggests why Eliot might be a balm for a Chinese writer. “With T. S. Eliot,” Chen thinks, “the personal went into a poem, into the manuscript of “The Waste Land”, but with Mao, the personal became a disaster for the whole nation.”