Sunday, September 18, 2011
Qiu Xiaolong on the Turbulent History of Red Dust Lane
In his book, “Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai (St. Martin’s Press, $25), the Chinese-American writer Qiu Xiaolong chronicles 56 years in the life of one urban neighborhood in China, from the victory of the Communists in 1949 through the political repression of the 1950s, the brutal Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and finally to the 21st century, where China melds no-holds-barred capitalism with its totalitarian system.
In the crowded Red Dust Lane, Qiu introduces readers to Big Bowl, a man who confesses to murdering his still-alive wife. There is Professor Fu, whose European cap changes his life, and the Tofu Worker Poet Bao, who becomes an accidental literary figure, comparing capitalist roaders to stinky tofu. Along the way, the families living on Red Dust Lane suffer the contradictory political movements during the painful birth of modern China, from Mao’s anti-rightist campaign that imprisoned intellectuals to the rampaging Red Guards, terrorizing the population. One villain is Old Hunchback Fang, a vicious Party loyalist who destroys the lives of students by sending them to the countryside for hard labor. In the new capitalist China, he gets his comeuppance. In his stories, Qiu presents a witty and humane portrait of individuals faced with the turbulent changes and often catastrophic government policies, and shows how the residents of Red Dust Lane continue to survive.
Qiu Xiaolong, 57, is the author of the popular Inspector Chen mysteries series, which are set in his native Shanghai. Qiu spoke by telephone with freelance writer Dylan Foley from his home in St. Louis, Missouri.
Q. Did you live near Red Dust Lane when you were growing up in Shanghai?
A. I lived less than a minute away, so I grew up with many of the children that lived there. A lot of the characters are based on people I knew, and I used the nicknames of some, like Big Bowl. My father had a small business owner and was persecuted for it. Decades later, the whole political climate had changed. It was glorious to be rich. My father had suffered for nothing. The meaning of life is so ironic.
Q. What was your view of Old Hunchback Fang?
A. He was a real person, and he destroyed the lives of many people. I was afraid of him, for I was an “educated” student. One day, he might show up under my window screaming “You must go to the countryside!” He really believed he was carrying out Mao’s instructions. He didn’t see how cruel and destructive he was being. Decades later, I was in Shanghai and someone pointed him out to me, where he was working at a snack shop. He was more shrunken and all illusions of power were gone. I was a little sad for him, for he was also a victim of all the political movements of China.
Q. Where did the Tofu Worker Poet Bao come from?
A. He was also from real life, a worker elevated to being a poet. In the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese poetry was basically political slogans. I knew him at the Shanghai Institute of Social Sciences. As times changed, he couldn’t work there anymore. He eventually went back to making tofu.
Q. Why do you write stories about the abuses of the Cultural Revolution and other political disasters under Chairman Mao?
A. In China, that part of history is in danger of being wiped out. That’s upsetting for me. A lot of Chinese writers now write about China in the 1930s or the present time, but they don’t write about the Cultural Revolution. A Mainland Chinese publisher told me, “You write too much about these times. We don’t want to get in trouble.” In my stories, I want to keep some history. For young Chinese, it is difficult for them to recognize these tumultuous events happened. They are not in the history books.
(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2010)