Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sunday, June 5 morning 8:30am

Sunday June 5 blog 3

Speaking of returning to the past...the theme of the search for a steady guide through a time of transition was first introduced in our meeting with faculty of Tsinghua University on their lovely campus in Beijing. We met with faculty representing psychology, sociology, Chinese language and literature, English stylistics and several other  subjects. We were able to learn a lot from one another just by introducing ourselves and talking about our interests. This is where I first pulled "zhentan xiaoshuo" out of my hat.

What we so easily call "detective fiction" (and can be relatively sure we all understand what we're referring to) is difficult even to name in Chinese. "Zuian xaoishuo" is "crime fiction," a broader category. Each time I have used the term to describe the rather specialized interest I have developed people cast light and lively looks at each other and they often laugh. Perhaps it is my pronunciation? Or maybe it is surprise? Embarrassment? They do know what I'm talking about though, as the names Sherlock Holmes and Robert Van Gulik (author of the Judge Dee novels) are then brought up. Step 1 in my research project is to find someone to help me understand this reaction.

From what I understand from the little research I have been able to do, when we say "private investigator" or "private eye" and believe we understand each other in our culture, we are speaking of a kind of work that has a more complex reception in China. If I understand correctly, one cannot hang out a shingle saying "Private investigator" in China. It is not legal to openly operate in a way that parallels or challenges the official legal system. One can, however, be an "information consultant" and operate carefully and discreetly to go where the official system doesn't go, won't go, or can't go. I'm sure There are Chinese authors writing what we would recognize as texts of private detection, but finding them isn't simply a matter of a Google search. Particularly since Google itself is not a welcome presence in China!

The only native Chinese authors whose work in this genre I really know are now living and publishing outside of China, Qiu Xiaolong in the US and Diane Wei Liang in England. Both the high and low versions of detective fiction give us a very interesting look at the border where the official version of the law meets reality, often revealing the shortcomings of either the law (its restrictiveness or the corruption of its enforcement) or of social reality (exotic personal failings or small mis-steps that lead to slippery slopes) or, often, both. My challenge is to find the "true true" name of this writing in contemporary China and to gain access to those entertaining but dangerous stories.

All periods are transitional periods but some transitions are more dramatic than others. Right now, the Chinese people are navigating very dramatic change and trying to do it without capsizing. At the risk of taking my seafaring metaphor too far, I would say they are trying to find materials to build a rudder that will steer their craft safely and steadily through this time. Stories about crime and the limits of law are unlikely to be welcome additions to the "official version" of this period's history because they are likely reveal uncomfortable truths.

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