Detecting Chinese Modernities: Rupture and Continuity in
Modern Chinese Detective Fiction (1896-1949)

By Yan Wei

Reviewed by Jeffrey Kinkley

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December, 2020)

Yan Wei, Detecting Chinese Modernities: Rupture and Continuity in Modern Chinese Detective Fiction (1896-1949) Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2020. 283 pp. ISBN 978-90-04-43127-0 (hardback), 978-90-04-43128-7 (e-book).

China has known and loved the “detective story” formula of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle for more than 120 years. Detecting Chinese Modernities, a thoughtful, instructive, and well-researched monograph by Yan Wei, notes that after the first translation of a Sherlock Holmes story appeared in 1896, “detective fiction immediately became the most novel and popular Western literary genre among Chinese readers” (33). The mystery stories that swamped Chinese publishing in the first decade of the twentieth century were mostly translations, adaptations, and imitations, but soon Chinese authors contributed their own styles to the global fiction phenomenon. “The popularity of native Chinese detective fiction crested during the Republican period, in the 1920s to 1940s—the ‘golden age’ of the genre,” Wei affirms (4). After 1949, native crime and detective fiction fell on hard times, not only in the PRC, where it was banned for political reasons, but throughout the Sinophone world. Meanwhile detective novels flourished in Japan, in quantity and quality. Translations of them are bestsellers in the PRC today.

Wei’s monograph examines the first five decades of Western-style detective fiction in China, 1896-1949. Hers is the first major new study of the subject to come into print in twenty years. I am not aware of a comparable recent contribution in Chinese. Ph. D. dissertations about the subject from Ruijuan Hao (University of California, Riverside, 2012) and Jin Liu (University of California, San Diego, 2016) are available online. Wei’s bibliography includes the former work, along with the essential prior writings of King-fai Tam, Eva Hung, Leo Ou-fan Lee, Patrick Hanan, Perry Link, and others; classic references in Chinese by Chen Pingyuan and Fan Boqun; and Timothy C. Wong’s Sherlock in Shanghai (Hawai’i, 2006), which translates eight whodunits by Cheng Xiaoqing 程小青 (1893-1976), most of which star Huo Sang 霍桑, “The Sherlock Holmes of the East.” Wong’s Stories for Saturday (Hawai’i, 2003) serves up another 15 stories, mostly from the 1920s, in detective and other popular genres. Reviews of those anthologies, by Alexander Des Forges (2007) and John Christopher Hamm (2004), respectively, are available on the MCLC website.

Yan Wei’s literary history is driven by close readings of selected texts. She argues that detective fiction in China experienced “rupture and continuity” early in the twentieth century, the rupture roughly coinciding with the transition from the Qing to the Republic. The book is organized accordingly. The first half provides translations and original fiction by late Qing literary authors as representative case studies in the adaptation of Western literary forms and the use of them not just to entertain, but also to encourage the renewal of Chinese culture. The second, longer half of Detecting Chinese Modernities provides a broad overview of the more Westernized detective fiction of the 1920s to1940s (Wei’s survey underscores the fact that short stories outnumbered novels during these decades).

Following an Introduction that presents the book’s argument, chapter 1 analyzes three late Qing translations from the first decade of the twentieth century, all done by famous Chinese literary men of the time. The case studies are: (1) Lin Shu’s rendition of Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet that draws out the chivalric aspects of the plot’s morally ambivalent perpetrator even more poignantly than it relates Holmes’ detection of his crimes; (2) Zhou Guisheng’s 周桂笙 translation, with intertextual asides by Wu Jianren 吳趼人, of Fortuné du Boisgobey’s Margot la balafrée (In the serpent’s coils), which adds moral commentary by both Chinese interlocutors; and (3) Zhou Zuoren’s 周作人 translation of Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” in which Wei sees echoes of Zhou’s attraction in his own essay-writing to quwei 趣味 (taste or knowledge that delights). As in the Yan Fu 嚴復 translations Benjamin Schwartz analyzed, Western words and advocacies, once put into late Qing idioms, could still embody not-so-new preconceptions of the translator. Translation studies scholars interested in the “domestication” of texts for a target audience will find much here of interest.

Chapter 2 proceeds to analyses of original creations by China’s early twentieth-century authors, plus an older work that Wu Jianren brought back into circulation. In order: (1) The famous chapters of Liu E’s 劉鶚 The Travels of Lao Can (老殘遊記, 1905) in which Lao Can plays Sherlock Holmes to solve a case of apparent poisonings; (2) Lin Shu’s 林紓 original and little-studied novel, The Shining Light in the Sea of Aggrieved Cases (冤海靈光; 1915), which Wei presents as a variation on the gong’an 公案 (court case) novel with Western whodunit characteristics; (3) A locked-room puzzler titled “The Shouzhen” (守貞) that Wu Jianren selected from a Qing dynasty anthology of zhiguai 志怪 (stories of the strange) for his own 1902 anthology of Chinese Detective Cases (中國偵探案). The shouzhen is a legendary chastity-protecting and death-dealing creature that can reside in female sex organs. Here Wei compares Chinese and Western styles of detection and makes insightful comparisons to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe’s locked-room mystery in which the perpetrator is similarly exotic (it is an orangutan); (4) Chinese Female Detectives (中國女偵探, 1901), by the male writer and famous historian Lü Simian 呂思勉. This story collection features heroes the author called “Chinese female Sherlock Holmeses.”

These works exemplify what Wei considers the first of two successive modes of Sino-Western hybridization, namely “mixing the investigative procedures and suspenseful narratives of the canon of Western detective fiction with traditional Chinese narrative forms, judicial customs, and epistemology” (233). The traditional Chinese elements were already unstable, however, including the gong’an syndrome, whose wise examining magistrate heroes had morphed into leaders of armed bands in later Qing works. Other old templates included the zhiguai gestalt; the didactic imperative; particular conventions for naming chapters, introducing characters, signaling dialogue to follow, and so forth; and digression, including direct address of the reader and other metatextual commentary by the author, even self-criticism and pingdian 評點 or authorized interjections by third parties (today we might call it “trolling condoned by the Original Poster”); many readers will recall C. T. Hsia’s criticism of these characteristics. The detective narratives were in classical Chinese, apart from those embedded in chapter-driven novels.

The second mode that Wei investigates was dominant in the Republican era and more Westernized. It featured new narrative patterns with tighter unity of plot and focus, more Western-style detective heroes, intertextual references to Western culture including movies, and representations of how science might improve one’s approach to life. Wei meanwhile analyzes how these stories “vividly depict the cultural anxieties and social changes experienced by the Chinese” (233). Chapter 4, featuring stories by Cheng Xiaoqing with a break-away to a story by Chen Diexian 陳碟仙 (aka Tianxuwosheng 天虛我生), argues that the authors were fostering what Wang Hui 王晖 has called a “community of scientific discourse,” through detective stories highlighting forensic attention to fingerprints, supposed criminal physiognomies, and psychoanalysis. It was a scientistic outlook whose vocabulary was not wholly inconsistent with neo-Confucian vocabulary for ways of investigating and knowing. Chapter 4 analyzes chivalric aspects of the socially uplifting morality of Huo Sang, whose creator Cheng Xiaoqing espoused the universal love of Mozi 墨子 (in addition to being Christian). The discussion also includes Sun Liaohong’s 孫了紅 hero detective Lu Ping 魯平, a trickster and burglar hero resembling Arsène Lupin (Maurice Leblanc’s anti-Sherlock Holmes and gentleman burglar), whom Wei finds to be carrying forward the temerity of Robber Zhi 盜跖 of the Zhuangzi. Chapter 5 argues that the Cheng Xiaoqing and Sun Liaohong stories showcase Leo Ou-fan Lee’s “Shanghai modern” sensibility through their cosmopolitan and cutting-edge settings: modern roads, dance halls, coffeehouses, swimming pools, Western movie theaters, and the like. A modernistic crime story by Shi Zhecun 施蟄存 nails down the point. Lee himself has not been so keen on Cheng Xiaoqing’s works, Wei admits. I think we must agree that Cheng’s writing, which tied up every loose end, could be prosaic at times.

Chapter 6 then discusses how domestic crimes come into the plots. Works by Cheng Xiaoqing are at issue again, along with some by lesser-known authors including Yu Tianfen 俞天憤, Zhang Biwu 張碧梧, and Zheng Dike 鄭狄克. The focus here is on the Chinese family, including its concubines, servants, and changing values, and on the neighborhoods, row houses (石庫門), and street peddlers familiar in more recent nostalgic highbrow Chinese literature set in Shanghai. These chapters evidence Wei’s broad reading in the genre. An even fuller picture of Cheng Xiaoqing’s and Sun Liaohong’s creativity can be found in the notes—which, happily, Brill displays at the foot of the page. A seventh, concluding chapter provides a glimpse of the rather weak follow-ons of the genre in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a brief discussion of the Judge Dee novels written in English by Robert van Gulik. The footnotes contain interesting observations on changes in that author’s writing.

Detecting Chinese Modernities in effect adds a new chapter to the masterful study of thematic and narrative innovation in late Qing fiction, Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1848-1911 (Stanford, 1997), by David Der-wei Wang, who was Wei’s mentor for the Harvard dissertation that preceded this book. Wang analyzes four genres of the late Qing, an era whose start he defined back into the mid-nineteenth century, as did Patrick Hanan, who focused on the role of translations and foreign influences in comparable works, in essays collected in his Chinese Fiction of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Columbia, 2004). Wang’s four literary types are not quite the same as those categorized in Lu Xun’s 魯迅 Brief History of Chinese Fiction (中國小說史略): they are “depravity romance” and courtesan novels, “chivalric and court-case” cycles, “grotesque exposé,” and “science fantasy.” Now we can add the detective fiction discussed in the early chapters of Yan Wei’s book. It was the biggest category in the late-late Qing, measured by circulation. Wang depicts his late Qing types as modern or protomodern genres that paved the way for modernities alternative to the West’s, and also as antecedents of 1990s highbrow literary works by authors as diverse as Zhu Tianwen 朱天文, Su Tong 苏童, Jia Pingwa 贾平凹, and Wang Anyi 王安忆. Today we can read Wang’s chapters on the four late Qing literary types (five, adding Wei’s, and there could be others, such as humor and satire) as predecessors not just of mainstream fiction, but particularly of later popular and leisure-time reading matter. The respective latter-day genres would include: (1) popular romances of the early Republic (called “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly” fiction), news of courtesans in the press, and novels by Zhang Henshui 張恨水 (romances exist again today, but they are little studied); (2) chivalric or martial arts novels, from Xiang Kairan 向愷然 to Jin Yong 金庸 and fellow spirits; (3) nonfiction tales of corruption in the press during Republican times, which may have inherited the earlier qianze 譴責, or muckraking trend. This was reprised by post-Mao anticorruption fiction. A separate branch would be horror and paranormal tales, whose past and present exponents are little studied, though such tendencies have a big presence in PRC crime fiction today; (4) science fiction, which was weak during the Republic, but now is the queen of all the genres in status, thanks to Liu Cixin 刘慈欣 et al. Popular science writing might be considered the immediate successor to late Qing science fantasy, and it was followed in the early Mao years by fiction imbued with popular science themes. The late Ye Yonglie 叶永烈 wrote some of it, and in post-Mao times he plugged it into whodunits for young adults starring a “scientific Sherlock Holmes”—grist for Wei’s mill; (5) Wei’s Republican-era “second-mode” detective fiction would be the successor to the late-late Qing “first-mode” works she analyzes. In post-Mao times, Western-style detective fiction finally recovered from its forced diminution, with police detectives taking the place of private eyes, and it found a new Chinese niche readership. However, it remains as unprestigious now as it was during the Republic, when critics no longer regarded detective fiction as a reform literature, but instead as vacuous “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly” writing. A broader question of literary history would be: To what extent did the popular genres mix, cross-fertilize, or stay in their own lanes during the turbulent twentieth century, in their texts, venues, and public reception and perception?

Yan Wei furthers David Wang’s discourse of a hybrid modernity in the late Qing that was strong in those days but experienced one or another kind of repression in later years. Yet she also finds that Chinese detective stories in the Republic were more modern than their predecessors in the first mode. This is the “rupture” in the genre. Still, there were continuities. Both late-late Qing and Republican detective fiction were utilitarian and didactic, and the authors agreed on what needed reform: a corrupt bureaucracy, ineffective legal system, and bad legal culture, as well as the timeless and universal human foibles of greed, deception, and family rivalry. The stories of both the late-late Qing and Republic also evinced continuity in their longing to restore certain traditional values, in contrast to their sympathetic fascination with the material culture and liberating aspects of modern urban society. Perry Link’s Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies (California, 1981) emphasizes these contradictions. And Wei cites relevant writings by Stephen Knight, author of Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (Macmillan, 1980), which contend that detective fiction generally upholds conservative social values. Perhaps that encouraged her feeling that, “Viewed from a broader perspective, Chinese [Republican-era] detective fiction belongs to the popular literature known as Mandarin Duck and Butterfly fiction” (5). But what does that term signify, if it is not simply a pejorative for fiction outside the May Fourth writers’ self-defined mainstream? The Butterfly works and their authors were not so conventionally iconoclastic and committed to cultural or political revolution. However, the objects, mores, and conflicts subjected to the Butterfly “gaze” already tended to be modern ones, as analyzed by Link for the 1910s, and in the fiction written still earlier, as David Wang and Yan Wei argue. I think that is their point.

A big factor in the rupture, I believe, was change in the language and style of urban and popular fiction, which moved away from linguistic and formatting forms that came to be seen as archaic, whether the language was the literary Chinese styles of Lin Shu and Xu Zhenya 徐枕亞 or the not-really-spoken though regionally flavored vernaculars of Liu E and Wu Jianren. Cheng Xiaoqing wrote his early works in literary Chinese, then translated them into the quickly developing Modern Standard Chinese of the May Fourth writers. He, Sun Liaohong, and most of their colleagues wrote in a contemporary vernacular forever after. It suited their scientistic and progressive outlook on life, and their interests in forensic techniques, psychoanalysis, and Western fashion. Wei notes the synergy of Cheng Xiaoqing’s vernacular style with Western criminology and its language, and gives careful attention to the very different language of Zhou Zuoren’s 1904 translation of the Poe story, but I think a fuller emphasis on language, style, and punctuation would define the rupture as a continuing process postdating the Qing, even though the linguistic transformation began well before, in the “long late Qing” as defined by David Wang and Patrick Hanan. Early twentieth century detective fiction would be somewhere in the middle, not to speak of the separate path of martial arts fiction, the other gong’an offshoot analyzed by John Christopher Hamm in The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang (Columbia, 2019). The May Fourthers did not of course accept purveyors of any popular or commercial fiction as true writers, however modern their language or up-to-date and patriotic their values. Lucky for the detective fiction authors who wrote in modern Mandarin styles (many of whom were Shanghainese), they had their own magazines and publishers, just as the older-style popular writers had Red Rose (紅玫瑰) and Saturday (禮拜六) magazine.

Detecting Chinese Modernities maintains high standards of scholarship and has a useful index and character list. Chinese characters and kanji appear in the bibliography (the one place in the book that does not transpose the r and the second e in my first name). Wei cites China’s Republican-era detective fiction mostly in reprint editions, though older printings also appear in the bibliography. I cannot judge the importance of that; there are textual discrepancies among different reprints of Cheng Xiaoqing’s works, but I have mostly worked with reprints, too. Wei (6), like Ruijuan Hao before her (13), slightly mistook my use of the word “shadows” in relation to Republican-era detective stories, in Chinese Justice, the Fiction (Stanford, 2000). There, I emphasize that Cheng Xiaoqing and Sun Liaohong wrote “in the shadow of a stronger nation’s culture” (173), not that their stories were shadows. That is, Britain and France’s history of bullying China might have added to the “anxiety of influence” of Chinese writers who paid so much homage to Conan Doyle and Leblanc. Likewise, France was in the shadow of Britain when those European authors wrote.

Yan Wei’s book offers interesting Sino-Western comparative insights, derived from her reading of 150 works by over 25 authors (10). Another project for future studies would be still more comparative analysis, of detective and popular writings from China with those of other nations undergoing momentous cultural transformations, including Japan. “Modernity” and “modernities” remain undefined terms, except in particular circumstances or in relation to “tradition,” but that is the case in most academic writing about Chinese literature, and it is not as big an issue here as the book title might suggest. Detecting Chinese Modernities is an original and substantial contribution to our understanding of the global detective genre in its several different Chinese guises.

Jeffrey C. Kinkley
Portland State University