One Man’s Revolution: “On Years of Red Dust” by Qiu Xiaolong

Tom Nolan – The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
Misfortune begets fortune, the Chinese sage Laotzu wrote in the fifth century B.C. In the 21st century, Qiu Xiaolong, the Chinese-born author of police-detective novels featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, provides proof.
The first time the 57-year-old Mr. Qiu guessed he had a gift for his eventual vocation was when, as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, he penned a mandatory confession for his ailing father, condemned by the government as a “capitalist” for pre-1949 business activities.
Ryan Inzana
“You had to say, ‘I committed a crime by exploiting workers,'” Mr. Qiu, now a St. Louis resident and a U.S. citizen, recalls. “You needed to put in the details of which bad thing you have done.” Mr. Qiu’s father was recovering from eye surgery and “so he sort of dictated. I was worried: Maybe, you know, the Red Guard will [say], ‘It won’t do—you have to write another confession, another confession.’ But when they read it, they said it’s OK. So I thought, well, maybe my writing is all right.”
Mr. Qiu grew up in a Shanghai neighborhood poor in amenities but rich in humanity. “You might not even have [indoor] toilet,” he says. “Whatever circumstance . . . [people there] were contented. Most families, they just sit outside, and they would talk: They tell stories, wave their fans—they enjoy life!”
Many memories of that time and place inform Mr. Qiu’s latest book, “Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai,” a moving work of mainstream fiction published Tuesday by St. Martin’s Press.
The book’s stories, ostensibly oral anecdotes prompted by items chalked on a communal blackboard “newspaper,” recount incidents—sad, happy, comical, tragic—involving various residents from 1949 to 2005: ordinary folk whose lives are shaped by larger events, from the Korean War through the Cultural Revolution, from Nixon’s Chinese visit to the current financial boom.
Having chronic bronchitis during the ’60s spared Mr. Qiu from “re-education” in the countryside with other youngsters from “black” families. He knew many who suffered back then, though—including his elder brother.
“He had infantile polio when he was a year old,” the author says. “Even though he was handicapped, he went to school, and he still had hope and dream for his life. But during the Cultural Revolution, of course my father was ‘black’ and out, and my elder brother—people used to help him, because he was handicapped—suddenly nobody want to do anything with him. So I believe he give up, psychologically.” His brother is still alive; Mr. Qiu pays for his care in Shanghai. “Maybe I was just lucky, you know; I was able to write.”
Mr. Qiu loved books, he says, from an early age. “But those years, it could already be dangerous or at least politically incorrect, so my father kind of locked away all the books. But as kid, I had my ways of opening a lock, right? It’s really like the forbidden fruit: ‘You don’t want me to read it? I will read it!’ And it was fun.”
He read classical Chinese works and Chinese translations of semisanctioned American and English writers: Shakespeare, Jack London, Mark Twain. And then there were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: “They were so marvelous! It was like another world to me.”
Mr. Qiu recalls during the Cultural Revolution concealing a volume of Holmes stories beneath the red-plastic cover of “The Quotations of Chairman Mao.” By then, he says—between his 15th and 20th years—books of any sort were hard to come by. “So I start the practice of exchanging books with my friends: You read mine for one day, I read yours. If the labor-party official found you do that, you got into trouble.”
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