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The ambiguity which is China

Published on 23 June 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

QIU Xiaolong has published another “Chief Inspector CHEN” mystery with the title “Enigma of China.” There is nothing wrong with the book – except the title, which was probably chosen to lure jaded readers.

Let me explain. The term “enigma” coms from the Greek (αινιγμα) via Latin, and means: “A dark, obscure, or inexplicable saying; a riddle; a statement, the hidden meaning of which is to be discovered or guessed.” In Greek mythology, the Sphinx guarded the passage and asked a riddle: whoever failed to solve the riddle lost his life. The Sphinx is a composite being whose image is portrayed all over the world.


(Male purushamriga or Indian sphinx guarding the entrance of the Shri Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram)

Riddles may be devilishly difficult, but can be solved – Oedipus did so. Mysteries, on the other hand, have no pre-established solution awaiting discovery – they are inherently ambiguous or they are, if you like, open-ended and indeterminate.

Without revealing the details of the plot, I can state that QIU’s novel ends in a mystery: thanks to the sleuthing skills and luck of Chief Inspector Chen one knows the circumstances that led to murder, but one does not know whether justice will prevail or not. Muses Chief Inspector Chen. “When I give the evidence left by Zhou to the Central Party Discipline Committee in Beijing, they might choose to act on it, or to do nothing at all. Whatever they do, it’ll be what is in their political interest at that moment, possibly for all the right reasons, or maybe for all the wrong ones. For them, justice is like a colored ball in a magician’s hand; it’s capable of changing in a heartbeat.”[1] This is not China’s enigma, this is China’s ambiguity.

In the most general sense, the novel is about the struggle between networks of people: some networks are corrupt and vicious, others are virtuous. Chief Inspector Chen faces corrupt connections – a “chain of crabs bound together on a straw rope.” This is a metaphor for those who help each other in profiting from their official position in the Shanghai City Government: tied together by their guilty deeds, their destinies are intertwined, leading to murder. Chen discovers the circumstances of the murders thanks to the many selfless connections he has established over time and the self-effacing networks of netizens carrying out “human-flesh searches” on the net[2] and discovering wrongdoings of party officials or Big Buck people.

This is all Chief Inspector Chen can or will do – the metaphor in the book for this success is his being served “a deshelled steamed blue crab, still in crab shape, with the legs and claws arranged meticulously. The platter contained chunks of liquor-immersed raw crab.”[3]

Chief Inspector’s Chen’s decision not to force the evidence of murder into the open, but to hand over the evidence and let the Central Party Discipline Committee in Beijing take the lead reflects the advice he gets from his high-placed mentor there: “I’ve been reading Wang Yangming.[4] Your father was a neo-Confucianist, so you must be familiar with Wang Yangming. I particularly like a poem he wrote in his youth:

“The mountains nearby make the moon appear small,

so you think the mountains larger than the moon.

If you have a view stretching out to the horizon,

you’ll see the mountains against the magnificent moon.”

While reading the poem, I thought of you. You too, should have a view reaching all the way to the horizon. You’re an experienced police officer and you know better. At your age, Wang Yangming was already playing an important role in maintaining the well-being of his country.”[5] While trusting the center, Chief Inspector Chen takes precautions: he entrusts a trusted netizen to blow the whistle, should anything untoward happen to him.

While leading into the novel with a categorical, Western-style indictment of China (“China has a one-party system, with absolute power, absolute media control, and an absolute highway to corruption. People have to do something, right? (Kindle Locations 472-473)), the author subtly advances the counter-argument through the narrative. In the end, it seems to me, the author affirms and denies the need for “harmony” in China, just as he affirms and denies connections. The ambiguity reaches down into the personal sphere. Lianping, a journalist who is attracted to Chief Inspector Chen, nevertheless accepts a marriage proposal which will give her security, if not total emotional satisfaction.

Chief Inspector Chen’s mother articulates the (Buddhist) religious underpinnings: “I’ve been reading the Buddhist scripture, you know. It says that things may be difficult for people to see through. It’s simply because everything is only appearance, like a dream, like a bubble, like a dewdrop, like lightning. (…) Perhaps it’s also like a painting. When you are deeply involved in it, you never really have perspective on it. You never really see yourself in the painting. Once you gain some distance, you might become aware of something you never saw before. Enlightenment comes when you’re no longer part of anything.” (Kindle Locations 3308-3313).

But Chen’s mother tempers this worldview when she quotes her husband’s Confucianism: “There are things a man will do, and things he will not do,’” she said. “It’s that simple, and that’s all there is to it.” This is no “deepity,” but the understanding that when everything changes and is ambiguous, only the context, not the (Western) abstract category, can be a guide.

[1] Xiaolong QIU (2013). Enigma of China: An Inspector Chen Novel (Inspector Chen Cao) (Kindle Locations 3896-3899). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition

[2]. “As for the term human-flesh search, it was originally used to describe an information search that is human-powered rather than computer-driven. The netizens— the most dedicated Web users— sift through clues, help each other, and share information, intent on tracking down the target information one way or another. But the popular meaning nowadays is that it is not just a search by humans but also a search for humans, one which plays out online but is intended to have real-world consequences.” Xiaolong QIU (2013). Enigma of China: An Inspector Chen Novel (Inspector Chen Cao) (Kindle Locations 452-455). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] There is another delightful food metaphor for Chief Inspector Chen’s working methods. His work is akin to “cross-bridge food.” “Do you know the story about it?” the proprietor asked good-naturedly and went on without waiting for an answer. “In the old days, a scholar was preparing for the civil service examination on a secluded island in Yunnan. His capable wife had to carry his meals across the bridge to him. Among his favorite foods was a bowl of rice noodle soup with assorted toppings. But because of the time it took to deliver them, the noodles lost their flavor, having sat too long in the soup. So she put the steaming hot chicken soup in a special container, the toppings and noodles in two others, and then mixed them after arriving at her husband’s place. That way, the noodles and the toppings still tasted fresh. Revitalized by the delicious noodles, the scholar threw himself back into his preparations and eventually passed the examination. So it’s called cross-bridge—” Xiaolong QIU (2013-06-18). Enigma of China: An Inspector Chen Novel (Inspector Chen Cao) (Kindle Locations 1182-1189). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wang_Yangming

[5] Xiaolong QIU (2013-06-18). Enigma of China: An Inspector Chen Novel (Inspector Chen Cao) (Kindle Locations 2946-2952). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

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