Saturday, January 28, 2017

He Jiahong and His "Detective" Hong Jun--Contemporary Chinese Detective Fiction

After long silence...Happy Year of the Rooster!

This article on He Jiahong and his fictional "detective" character, Hong Jun, will be appearing later in 2017 in Sleuths, Private Eyes, and Policemen: An International Compendium of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives edited by Eric Sandberg and published by Rowman and Littlefield. Sandberg teaches at Oulu University in Finland.

Hong Jun
He Jiahong, 1953-
“China is different, Mr. Zheng. The rule of law is still young and we have to tread carefully.”[1]

Crime writing in China has an ancient history preserved in gong’an, or crime-case tales, dating back to the 11th century. Until recently, though, when asked about detective fiction, many Chinese readers would reply ‘Sherlock Holmes.’ Through the efforts of He Jiahong, however, contemporary China now has a home-grown investigator, attorney Hong Jun.[2] Unlike ex-patriate authors like Qiu Xiaolong (USA) and Diane Wei Liang (UK), He Jiahong lives and works in China. He has taught university in Beijing, and practiced law since completing his doctorate in America, an accomplishment he shares with his creation. The Hong Jun series is set in the late 20th century, a period of accelerated change in China. This temporal context is a significant choice, because rapid social and economic change stresses legal systems; the law changes more slowly than the culture surrounding it. Few characters in the novels are interested in the past, but, ironically, the causes of current problems often lie in that neglected history.
In the 1990s, Hong Jun returned to China from America and set up a private legal practice, instead of following the more common route of becoming a prosecutor and employee of the state. Educated in both Chinese and American law and experienced in both cultures, he is an effective guide to how their legal and cultural practices and expectations differ.  Mature and handsome, with a fondness for American blues music, Hong is only thirty when his career begins in Hanging Devils (2015). In this and the next novel, Black Holes (2014), his character—calm, fair-minded, and moral but not priggish––is consistent. He brings fresh ideas to the practice of law in China, but he is not above flirting with his competent, attractive secretary, Song Jia. When offered a men’s night out, though, including a massage with ‘extras,’ Hong declines because the situation is morally and ethically questionable. His pursuit of justice stems from this moral and ethical sense and, with some difficulty, he holds himself to the standards he hopes will come to characterize the Chinese legal profession.
Much of the excitement of the books comes from the readers’ discovery of a very different system of law, one in which assumptions taken for granted in many nations are simply not applicable. As part of a changing system, Hong must often explain his role to his clients; they express surprise that he is independent of the state and earns his living from clients’ fees. As Hong explains, “the law requires the police, prosecutors and the courts to scrutinize each other, and provide checks and balances,” but attorneys as defenders of the accused or of victims of legal errors are cautiously being introduced into a Chinese tradition that is ‘inquisitorial’ rather than adversarial.[3] Take for example, the question every case involves in some form: “Did the police beat you?”[4]  While the answer is always no, the question signals underlying assumptions in the system. Before accepting any case, Hong investigates whether it is legitimate, because lawyers are expected to argue based on truth, not on allegiance to their clients, and it is this process that aligns him with the detective tradition. He questions witnesses, examines records of prior interrogations, and accepts no physical evidence at face value. In Hanging Devils, he investigates a ten-year-old rape and murder conviction that may have been a miscarriage of justice. In Black Holes, he is hired to defend a young stock trader who is accused of fraud. In the process of investigating both cases, Hong is drawn back to the period of the Cultural Revolution and the Educated Youth movement that sent young people from urban areas into rural districts.
The resentments and crimes of the past may be the initial motives, but when joined with blind ambition or unthinking greed, they fuel present misdeeds. In each case, Hong takes the extra investigative steps that the police skipped, or examines evidence that, when approached with an open mind, yields contradictions and new interpretations. Given his modern education, he is also aware of new forensic techniques such as the analysis of blood types and DNA. He is cautious and sensitive to the implications of his findings, but generally he discovers human weakness––such as greed, ruthless ambition, sexual indiscretion, or errors based on emotion or immaturity––behind the crimes he investigates. He believes that any system based on human action will involve mistakes; for instance, he frequently finds civil servants asleep at their desks or otherwise inattentive to their duties. Then there is the legal system itself, which Hong sometimes compares to American practices “where it was normal to challenge verdicts, and where procedural justice and the protection of individual rights were so revered [. . .]. Hong Jun knew that, under the prevailing Chinese legal system, it was far easier for the courts to allow a wrongful verdict to stand than to get it overturned. Righting past wrongs was a propaganda slogan, pretense being cheaper than practice.”[5] Hong consciously tries to lead by example and model the ethical behavior and concern for justice that he believes eventually will be part of the Chinese legal system at all levels.
Hong Jun allows readers to look into the Chinese legal system, which may seem mysterious and remote to most of them. He too, must navigate the system and, in order to do his job well, he must consider its basis in tradition and the pressure it is under in ‘new China.’ Hong’s cases provide much-needed context for understanding the challenges faced by China in both the past and the present.

Selected Bibliography
Hanging Devils (2015)
Black Holes (2014)
Rebecca Martin
Pace University

[1] He Jiahong, Hanging Devils, (Melbourne: Penguin Australia, 2015), 10.
[2] Jiahong’s Hong Jun series includes five novels, with the first two currently available in English.
[3] He, Hanging Devils, 76; Elisa Nesossi, “He Jiahong: Working Between Law and Literature,” The China Story, September 28, 2012, accessed April 15, 2016,
[4] He, Black Holes, (Melbourne: Penguin Australia, 2014), 258; Hanging Devils, 91.
[5] Hanging Devils, 97-8.

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