In Qiu’s Becoming Inspector Chen (Severn, Mar.), Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau faces the possible end of his career.
Where did the character of Inspector Chen come from?
Initially, I had set out to write a novel about Chinese people’s hard time adjusting themselves to drastic changes after the ending of the Cultural Revolution, with the main character a poetry-loving intellectual who tries to do his independent thinking about the unprecedented social transformation and upheaval in China. I had written nothing but poems, so I encountered problems with the structure of the novel. It was then that the crime novels I had read came to my rescue. I found the genre conventionally came with a ready-made structure, and it served my purpose really well. To explore social problems in China, what could be more convenient than a cop who walks around the city, raises all the questions, and occasionally gains access to the secrets of the authoritarian regime?
How much has he changed since your initial conception of the character?
A lot. In the first book of the series, Chen is having a house-warming party, grateful to the Party authorities for the apartment assigned to him, and for the chief inspector position in the Shanghai Police Bureau. However, as he undertakes more investigations into the sordid politics under the authoritarian regime, he comes to see the light that all his “special cases” and “successful conclusions” are invariably controlled and manipulated by the political needs of the one-party government.
Are these books read in China?
The first three books of the Inspector Chen series have been translated into Chinese, but so many changes were done to the Chinese versions without my approval. For instance, these books are set in Shanghai, but the censorship officials declared that there’s no murder happening in Shanghai; in other words, any writing about the seamy side of Chinese society is considered as negative energy, so it has to be erased. As a result, Shanghai was renamed, and they also changed the recognizable names of its streets, restaurants, and hotels. For the same reason, any details regarded as politically sensitive got deleted. My Chinese publisher could not say no to the censorship system. He once organized a full newspaper page of reviews, but at the last minute, he got a phone call from some people above, saying there should not be any publicity in socialist China. I was so frustrated, I decided not to have any more Inspector Chen books published in China.