Qiu Xiaolong

Qui Xiaolong

Photo by Howard French

Co-sponsors: First Year Center, University Libraries

”Picture a boy of 19, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

This awakening, experienced by the narrator in the Class of 2022’s Common Read novel, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” by Dai Sijie, dramatically illustrates the redeeming nature of great literature and serves as a prime example of why authoritarian governments ban books — because stories free the mind to think and feel as an individual, while simultaneously introducing universal truths.

The semi-autobiographical story centers around two teen age boys who fall for a beautiful but illiterate local seamstress while undergoing their forced ‘re-education’ process on a remote mountain in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. Under Mao Zedong’s harsh regime, reading literature was considered anti-proletarian and books other than those containing Community party propaganda were outlawed.

When the pair stumbles upon a suitcase full of smuggled classic Western novels and read Balzac’s “Ursule Mirouet,” they experience an intellectual and emotional transformation and decide to share their new treasure with the seamstress.

Common Read Lecture

As someone who lived through this brutal era in Chinese history, and as a contemporary of Dai, the prolific author, translator and poet Qiu Xiaolong will share his unique personal perspective for the Assembly Series’ annual Common Reading Program Lecture.

His talk, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: Books Make Readers,” will begin at 5 PM in Graham Chapel.

Victims of the Cultural Revolution

There are more than a few similarities between Qiu and his literary colleague, Dai. Qiu, who earned his PhD in comparative literature from Washington University in 1995 and taught Chinese literature and comparative literature here, was born in 1953; Dai was just one year younger. They came into being at the dawn of the “Mao era” that ushered in the massive agrarian land reform and industry expansion movements. They were small children when the Great Leap Forward was instituted; teenagers when the Cultural Revolution began in earnest; and young adults by the time Dai was sent to the mountains of Sichuan Province in 1971 to be re-educated by the “virtuous peasants.”

Both were among the 12 million “black puppies” – children of professionals deemed enemies of the people – whose lives were upended by the blacklisting. But Dai wasn’t as lucky as Qiu, who escaped the fate of those condemned to years of back-breaking labor.

What happened to Qiu, growing up in Shanghai during these formative years, was harrowing in a different way but no less inhumane. The family was made to suffer simply because his father owned a small perfume factory, marking him a class enemy. He was subsequently denied medical treatment simply because his “confession” of being a bourgeois capitalist wasn’t deemed suitably contrite.

So at the age of 13, Qiu had no choice but to save the family and his father by writing an acceptable confession for him.

“My sick father had to be mass criticized, to stand on stage as a target, where people denounced him and chanted slogans for hours. Standing beside for his support, I tried imagining myself into a human crutch, stiff, sturdy, unbreakable, without thinking or feeling. The effort was not that successful,” Qiu remembered in his new booklet, “Stories about Inspector Chen and Me.”

Ten years after Qiu’s traumatic experience, as the Cultural Revolution came to an end upon Mao’s death in 1976, Communist leaders began to loosen the bonds of ideological dogma and instituted major economic reforms. Members of disgraced families, such as Qiu and Dai, were allowed to proceed with their education.

China’s Emerging Superpower

In 1988, Qiu, already an established translator of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study abroad. He chose to study in Eliot’s hometown of St. Louis, fully intending to return to China at the conclusion of his fellowship. But history intervened once again when the Tiananmen Square tragedy created another round of wholesale persecutions, and Qiu decided to stay put and study for a doctoral degree at Washington University.

From his adopted home several thousands of miles away, Qiu watched with growing apprehension the dramatic changes taking place in his homeland, and how the newly emerging crony capitalistic economy under the one-Party authoritarian was creating a schizophrenic country. As a writer and poet, he sought a way to capture the conflicting culture of the times.

Detective Chen Mysteries

Thus was born Qiu’s popular mystery series starring Detective Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department, who bears a striking resemblance to the author. As the NPR book reviewer Maureen Corrigan explained:

“Like his creator, Inspector Chen is, at heart, a poet who thinks deeply about things: In particular, Chen ruminates over the human costs of China’s rush to transform itself into a superpower. The series explores the dark underside of both communism and capitalism. In past outings, Chen, a Communist Party loyalist, has been drawn into murky ethical dilemmas where upholding the law and the dicta of the party would pit him against intellectuals, social activists and other dissidents working for the common good.”

Readers were introduced to Detective Chen in “Death of a Red Heroine,” published in 2000; his eleventh in the series, “Hold Your Breath, China” will soon be published, first in Italy and France. They have been translated into 20 languages with more than 2 million copies sold.

Poetry/Essays

Qiu also continues to publish poetry, his own as well as collections of his favorite Chinese classics. In addition, his oeuvre includes a collection of linked stories called “Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai,” which “Publisher’s Weekly” described as “transportive, and readers will feel as though they’ve traveled through China’s history. He captures the mood of this fascinating country through its most ordinary citizens.”

In 2012, Qiu collaborated with the eminent photojournalist Howard French to capture his beloved Shanghai, caught between old and new, capitalist and communist, private and public, Chinese and international, in “Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.”

To learn more about Qiu and his books, visit his website, quixiaolong.com

Further Reading

Washington Magazine: China’s Punitive Past Colors Writer & Work

Shanghai Daily: Real drama inspires crime author

About Dai Sijie

Novelist and filmmaker Dai was born in Chengdu, Sichuan in 1954. He moved to France in 1984 on a scholarship to study art, then turned to filmmaking. Before writing “Balzac,” in French, he made three critically-acclaimed films. When first published in 2000, it became an international best-selling novel and has been translated into more than 25 languages, and finally into Dai’s mother tongue after the movie adaptation, which he adapted and directed, was released in 2002.

To read more about Dai and the Common Read novel, visit Artistic Odyssey: Film to Fiction to Film and A Suitcase Education, both in the New York Times.