Death of a Red Heroine by Qui Xiaolong is set in China in the 1990s. It's a long book and I'm only part way through it, but there's a lot to think about while reading and I decided to start writing about it now.
The author teaches literature in the US, where he was studying at the time of the Tiananmen riots. He decided to stay, and was successful in bringing his wife from China. This was his first novel, and features Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a policeman with poetic leanings. Chen, who has been "fast-tracked" into promotion as the result of new government policy, is called upon to investigate the murder of National Model Worker Guan Hongying. Guan, like Chen, is a cadre, a Party member, an exemplar of loyalty to the Party and its values. It gradually becomes evident, however, that this young woman whose glowing public life contrasts with an apparently hermit-like private existence, might not be all she seems.
Set in Shanghai, part of the fascination of this book is its evocation of a completely different world. Its slow pace allows time for descriptions of places and circumstance; for instance, of Chen's "spacious" new apartment - a room with a gas stove in the corridor and a toilet cubicle with a coldwater shower - and to contrast it with Guan's dormitory, where she shares a floor with eleven families and is resented for her aloofness and for having a private room all to herself. Chen regards himself as immensely fortunate to have been allocated the apartment, as the housing shortages at the time meant that single people were usually given rooms in dorms on a temporary basis, yet would find themselves still there many years later. The privations are not only physical: Chen's subordinate, Yu and his wife Pienqin, were young teenagers towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, and were sent with the other "educated youth" to distant country regions to be re-educated by the peasants. While there they lived together but did not marry, since only single people were permitted to return to the cities: if they married in the country, they would be expected to settle down there.
A brief but particularly bleak scene depicts Chen's visit to Guan's mother, an Alzheimer's sufferer who is, unusually, resident in a nursing home. The author sketches her background succinctly but poignantly:
The old woman's life had been a tough one, as he had learned from the file. An arranged marriage in her childhood, and then for years her husband had worked as a high-school teacher in Chengdu, while she was a worker in Shanghai Number 6 Textile Mill. The distance between the two required more than two days' travel by train. Once a year was all he could have afforded to visit her. In the fifties, job relocation was out of the question for either of them.I know that things are changing in China, some of them very fast. But there are still areas, at least according to programmes I have seen on television, where people work very hard, for very little reward, where the comforts we take for granted are, ironically, what they see on television. I find myself, too, pondering the Party system, about which I infer we will learn much in the course of Chen's investigations. Guan's efforts as a National Model Worker have been so tireless that she has met Den Xioaping, has attended conferences and seminars, has - according to her manager and co-workers - worked without cease on behalf of the other staff in the First Department Store where she ran the cosmetics department. What, though, has this cost her? One of her neighbours, a retired model teacher, observes, "Once you're a role model, you're model-shaped [. . .] Back in the dorm, why should she continue to play her role and serve her neighbors the way she served her customers? She was just too tired to mix with her neighbors. That could have caused her unpopularity."
He insisted on helping her back to her room. The room, holding a dozen iron beds, appeared congested. The aisle between them was so narrow that one could only stand sideways. . . . A period to a life story. One of the ordinary Chinese people, working hard, getting little, not complaining, and suffering a lot.
Chen also interviews a old man who supplements his pension by working for the Residents' Committee in Guan's dorm. This committee, we are told, organises activity outside work: weekly political study, daycare, distributing ration coupons and allocating birth permits, and so on, but their most important role is to report on the residents to the local police department. This is a system which formalises voluntary work so that it becomes mandatory. All that is generous and spontaneous about helping others becomes, rather, obligation. I don't doubt for a moment that Chinese people can be kind and generous, but I fear that those who are, out of love for their fellows, are also those who most risk being labelled "decadent". Similarly, in this novel, we observe how ideology constrains creativity, since Chen is content that what poetry he has published will be politically correct, rather than risk a career which, we are given to understand, would not have been his first choice.
What makes a society function as a cohesive and supportive unit is a fascinating subject, and Qiu Xiaolong is drawing an absorbing picture of what happens when particular ideologies are followed too rigidly. Later books, I gather, follow Chen on investigations to the US and, if Death of a Red Heroine lives up to its promise, I shall follow his career with interest.