The Chinese Detective Story

In the West we consider the first true detective story to be Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, which was published in 1841, and the first mystery novel to be The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins published in 1868 – though some argue for The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix published in 1862. However, these modern stories, starring such famous characters as Poe’s Auguste Dupin, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, actually represented a significant change in direction in the evolution of crime fiction worldwide, in that these characters concerned themselves solely with the solving of the crime almost as an intellectual puzzle, having nothing much at all to say about justice or what is meant by a just society. In recent years, in the West, the pendulum has swung again and once more crime writers are at the forefront of exploring social themes such as inequality, corruption and injustice. The same has to be said for the Chinese detective story which, though heavily influenced by the ‘modern’ Western detective story after the turn of the 20th Century with writers such as Conan Doyle being translated into Chinese, has never strayed too far from confronting issues of morality and what is meant by the Rule of Law.

The Chinese detective story has deep roots. Its antecedents can be found in Chinese myths and legends, and certainly by the Tang Dynasty (618-907CE) the Chinese had developed a taste for stories centred on criminal cases. It is in the Song Dynasty (960-1279CE), though, that a specific genre known as gong’an appeared – gong’an referring both to the court case and the bench in a magistrate’s office – in which a magistrate as the protagonist both investigates criminal cases and issues a judgement. These crime novels were among the first in China to be written in the vernacular, by which I mean that they were written in the language of the time rather than in the language of the Classics as was usual if a scholar wished to be taken seriously in literary circles.

These gong’an novels usually featured fictional representations of real-life judges such as Di Renjie (630-700CE) – more commonly known in the West as Judge Dee – and Bao Zheng (999-1062CE). These men, famous in their day for being highly astute and incorruptible, become, in popular literature, what is known as ‘pure officials’ (qingguan): heroic figures who will not be turned aside from their determination to enforce the Rule of Law and to bring the guilty – no matter what their status in society – to justice. In essence, these men have always been viewed by the Chinese people as resolute defenders of the highest spiritual and moral values of Chinese culture. It is into this gong’an tradition that I introduce my own Magistrate Zhu, who is attempting to bring justice to the often recalcitrant people of Tranquil Mountain towards the end of the 11th Century, and the slightly darker and more morally complex figure of Superintendent Philip Ye, who works the Homicide beat in the metropolis that is the modern Chengdu.

It was the renowned Dutch sinologist and diplomat Robert Van Gulik, translator of the 19th Century Chinese crime novel Di Gong’an (Cases of Judge Dee) and the creator of his own beloved series of Judge Dee detective novels, who summarised the five main characteristics of the traditional gong’an crime novel:

  • The perpetrator of the crime is usually introduced to the reader at the very start of the story together with the motive that led to the crime being committed, the excitement being for the reader the game of chess played between the detective in trying to catch the criminal and the criminal in trying to avoid being caught.
  • It is common for the detective to receive help and assistance from supernatural agencies.
  • There is a passionate attention to detail, the novels filled with poems, philosophical digressions and with court papers quoted in full, and the novels therefore being very lengthy and running to hundreds of chapters.
  • There is a whole host of characters, the novels much more heavily populated than those crime novels written in the West.
  • Little is left to the imagination of the Chinese reader, including the gruesome detail of any punishment meted out to the guilty party at the end of the story.

In writing The Magistriate Zhu Mysteries and The Philip Ye novels it has been, and remains, my intention to keep as much as I can to the tradition of the gong’an novel and yet retain the interest of the modern reader by not giving too much away at the beginning of the story and certainly not describing in excruciating detail the final comeuppance of any villain. It also remains my intention to demonstrate that no matter how much Magistrate Zhu and Philip Ye might wish to be seen as ‘pure officials’, they are in fact as flawed and as human as each and every one of us – which in my view makes for much more engaging fiction.

Article by Laurence Westwood

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