By Cheng Xiaoqing
Tr. by Timothy C. Wong
Reviewed by Alexander Des Forges
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2007)
Cheng Xiaoqing (1893-1976), the most popular author of Chinese detective fiction in the first half of the twentieth century, has begun over the past two decades to attract significant scholarly attention as well. As one of the most successful of the writers overlooked in the construction of the May Fourth canon, he is a figure of crucial importance to critics who aim to reassess the literary field of the 1920s and 1930s; Cheng’s Huo Sang stories in particular offer rich material for scholars who are interested in exploring comparative and postcolonial approaches to literature.
Huo Sang is literally Shanghai’s Sherlock Holmes–with his sidekick, Bao Lang, who like Watson narrates the stories and who is almost always a step or two behind, with a particular smoking habit, and of course with the ability to solve even the most bizarre crimes with his unparalleled powers of deduction. Timothy Wong’s Sherlock in Shanghai: Stories of Crime and Detection by Cheng Xiaoqing contains six of the Huo Sang stories, as well as two other stories by Cheng in which Huo Sang does not appear–in one of these, the central character is Huo Sang’s sometime nemesis, the South-China Swallow; the other is set in the countryside and stars a local storyteller as the detective figure.
Sherlock in Shanghai is a welcome addition to the rapidly diversifying field of Chinese literature in English translation. Cheng’s serviceable May Fourth-era vernacular is translated smoothly and accurately into English, with only a few moments where slightly forced equivalences to English clichés jar the reader. The stories are entertaining, and provide good examples of surprising deductive reasoning joined to action sequences and more general reflections on human nature, the state of contemporary society, and so on. A short account of Cheng Xiaoqing’s life placed at the end provides context for the reader who is unfamiliar with modern Chinese literature, and a brief bibliography identifies a number of avenues for the interested reader to access recent scholarship on the author and his works. A weak point is the preface, which reiterates conventional characterizations of “tradition” and “modernity,” “China” and “the West,” that the stories themselves frequently challenge in interesting ways. Sherlock in Shanghai would be ideal for undergraduate courses on modern Chinese literature and culture, and should encourage scholars of detective fiction in other languages and other contexts to take a broader comparative perspective into account.
Given Cheng Xiaoqing’s prodigious output (a 1940s edition of his Huo Sang stories ran to 30 volumes), this reader was left wanting more stories, especially stories that touch on the complex and turbulent political environment of the Republican era. A quick survey of the work of Arthur Conan Doyle reveals that the superiority of the private investigator to the police becomes most evident when the situation is too delicate to allow public disclosure of all the relevant details; Sherlock Holmes often receives requests for assistance on matters that are politically sensitive or concern an individual or family’s reputation. From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century reader, the Holmes cases that involve the competition between Britain and European powers are particularly striking in their ability to evoke the geopolitics of the day, while those in which discretion is necessary in order to protect an individual’s reputation give a strong sense of the late Victorian moral order. Wong emphasizes the latter type in his selection of stories for Sherlock in Shanghai : there are two stories in this translation collection–“The Shoe” and “The Other Photograph”–in which a woman’s reputation is threatened, and it is up to Huo Sang to save the day. But despite the fact that in many other Huo Sang stories the need for discretion turns on the complicated politics involved, Sherlock in Shanghaidoes not include any translations of stories that address the ongoing struggles for military and political power in Shanghai, and in China more generally.
The reader who is interested in the broader context in which the Huo Sang stories appeared and the influence that they had on other authors might also wish for at least one example of the adventures of Lu Ping, Sun Liaohong’s response to Huo Sang modeled on the Arsène Lupin stories in early twentieth-century France that answer and attempt to surpass Conan Doyle’s hero. Fortunately, Wong included a Lu Ping story in his previous translation collection, Stories for Saturday: Twentieth-Century Chinese Popular Fiction (Hawai’i, 2003) [MCLC Resource Center review by John Christopher Hamm]. Given the constraints of time (on the part of the translator and the reader) and money (on the part of the publisher and the reader), any reasonable attempt to translate the works of an author as prolific as Cheng Xiaoqing will necessarily leave many stories yet to be discovered in the original. An explanation of how the particular stories included in Sherlock in Shanghai were selected for translation would give the reader a better sense of the different ways in which they may be both representative and unrepresentative of the whole of Cheng Xiaoqing’s work.
In his preface, Wong cites Cheng’s retrospective assessment of his stories as “textbooks in disguise” (vii); indeed, the very format of detective fiction makes it a more effective vehicle for the advocacy of particular discourses on “human nature” and “society” than many of the types of narrative popular with May Fourth authors. Rather than serving as the poorly disguised structuring principles of works presented by narrators who are supposedly objective, these discourses are explicitly presented, even foregrounded, in the Huo Sang stories in the voice of an individual character, yet at the same time they are fundamental to the plot in that if the reader refuses to accede to their explanatory power, the very possibility of a satisfactory solution to the puzzle–the objective of reading a detective story to its conclusion–is called into question. The structural function of such discourses on “human nature” and “society” within the narrative itself is nearly identical in the work of Conan Doyle and Cheng Xiaoqing; the important differences appear in the specific content of these discourses. Although Holmes and Huo Sang are not far removed on the question of “human nature,” their approach to social change differs in striking ways: despite the rapid change to be found in turn-of-the-century London, for example, Holmes rarely comments on it, at least not overtly, giving the sense of an England that is in interesting ways almost timeless–a sense that has probably contributed to Holmes’ popularity over the course of the twentieth century. Huo Sang and Bao Lang, on the other hand, are much more likely to state that they are living in an era of significant social change, in which “old” ways are yielding inexorably to “new”; they are also far more likely to take active steps to ameliorate the divide between rich and poor, even in some cases working together with the South-China Swallow to “encourage” wealthy clients to donate some of their assets to charity. Cheng Xiaoqing’s stories make fascinating reading, and in addition allow us to broaden the scope of our study of Republican-era social thought beyond exchanges on the pages of elite journals and intellectual battles within the academy. We are fortunate that Huo Sang found not only a faithful friend and narrator, Bao Lang, but also a skilled and conscientious translator in Timothy Wong.
Alexander Des Forges
University of Massachusetts–Boston
 See, for example, Fan Boqun, Zhongguo zhentan zongjiang, Cheng Xiaoqing (Nanjing chubanshe, 1994); King-fai Tam, “The Detective Fiction of Ch’eng Hsiao-ch’ing,” Asia Major 3 rd series, 5, 1: 113-132; and Jeffrey Kinkley, Chinese Justice, The Fiction (Stanford University Press, 2000).