Qiu Xiaolong

Inspector Chen Cao - 1990s Shanghai, China

"A Loyal Character Dancer"

(reviewed by Sudheer Apte JUN 01, 2004)

A Loyal Character Dancer by Qui Xialong

As in his earlier adventure from Qiu Xiaolong's first novel Death of a Red Heroine, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau starts his new one with a body, a murder victim in Shanghai's Bund Park. And just as before, our intellectual, self-aware policeman hero makes an introspective, personal journey as he solves the case. But compared to its predecessor, A Loyal Character Dancer has a more tightly focused plot, more twists, and even more interesting characters, making it a deeper, more satisfying novel.

The main characters here belong to the generation of educated urban youth in the seventies sent by Mao to the countryside after high school, to learn from the peasants. Different characters meet different fates, and we meet them in the present time, circa 2002. Their experiences, their conflicts, and their regrets about roads not taken, form an undercurrent throughout the plot.

The title of the novel refers to a dance popular during Mao's revolution, indeed the only kind of dance allowed, in which the dancer holds a paper heart with a character drawn on it, standing for loyalty to the chairman. A beautiful young girl named Wen Liping, the queen of her high school class and a Red Guard cadre, is a leading member of the district's song-and-dance ensemble. The girl enthusiastically embraces Mao's re-education program and goes to the countryside as one of the educated youth. But the trajectory of her promising life takes a tragic turn that leaves her an impoverished and abandoned peasant wife at forty.

The high-stakes Chinese politics that was the focus of the Model Worker case in the author's previous novel is here also, but it happens mostly behind the scenes. Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a rising star in the Party, is given a special assignment that is not the Bund Park murder case, but instead an international human smuggling racket case that the U.S. government needs help with. The woman Wen Liping, for complicated reasons, needs to be urgently extradited to the United States from her humble home in a remote village in Fujian province. Clearance for this has come from the highest levels in Beijing. The United States government has sent a Federal Marshal to China to help Wen get a visa quickly and escort her. Inspector Chen must receive and entertain the American at a five-star hotel in Shanghai. "An important job,'' says Chen's politically savvy boss, "We know we can count on you, Chief Inspector Chen.''

Of course, there are complications: Wen goes mysteriously missing, which is deeply embarrassing to Chen's superiors, and the American Marshal happens to be an attractive young woman named Catherine Rohn with some background in Chinese literature, someone Chen can easily relate to both as a cop and as an aficionado. For much of the story, the good Inspector plies her with plenty of Tang period poetry over elaborate dinners during their search for the missing person while avoiding criminal gangs and an internal investigation.

Besides the wonderful locations and food descriptions woven into the plot, A Loyal Character Dancer has some of the same characters from the earlier novel, more fully developed here. Chen's trusted Detective Yu Guangming and his wife Peiqin appear here again with their tiny apartment and large hearts. We learn they are also from the generation of Mao's "educated youth;" they, too, had met in the countryside and gotten married while there.

The police case is finally solved in a satisfactory manner for all concerned, especially so for the minister in Beijing who has directly talked to Chen over his boss's head. Inspector Chen makes plans on how to best report the case so as to further his own career. More and more, Chen is becoming an expert mover of the system, and he knows it. At the same time, the events and the tradeoffs he has had to make during the case, and the effects it has had on the lives of several people including himself, bring him more melancholy.

This internal tension between the cop and the Party wheel is explored several times, especially in conversations Chief Inspector Chen has with the American policewoman. As in the earlier novel, this is the magic ingredient that lifts A Loyal Character Dancer from remaining an ordinary police mystery in an exotic setting to becoming a worthy read. At the end, Chief Inspector Chen wonders if he is "himself a loyal character dancer, in a different time and place?" And you know exactly what he means.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews

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About the Author:

Qiu XialolongQiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai in 1953. In 1977, shortly after the Cultural Revolution, he entered the East Chinese Normal University, and he did graduate study in the Chinese Academy of Social Science and got his M.A. in Western literature. Before arriving in the United States in 1988, Xiaolong published prize-winning poetry, translations and criticism in Chinese and was a member of the Chinese Writers' Association. After emigrating, Qiu began writing in English and earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Today, he continues to reside in St. Louis with his wife Wang Lijun and daughter Julia and teaches at Washington University.

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