Death of a Red Heroine is on the one hand a fairly standard police procedural novel, as Chief Inspector Chen and Detective Yu of the Shanghai Police Bureau investigate the case of a murdered young woman who is found in a body bag in the river, at a remote fishing spot. Although the cause of death is clear, there are very few clues about the identity of the woman. The police department is overwhelmed with cases, so nobody other than Chen seems interested in following up the case of the woman, but Chen feels compelled to continue. Eventually, she is identified as Guan Hongying, literally translated as “red heroine”, a “national model worker” at the cosmetics stand in the First Department Store. Although written in 2000, the novel is set in 1990, not all that long after the end of Mao’s infamous repatriation programme where “educated scholars” were sent to become peasants and/or to labour camps. These are the days of Deng, in which these people had been largely “rehabilitated” and redeployed to the cities, in order to stimulate the ruined economy resulting from Mao’s policies. Guan is literally a poster child for the regime, selected as a “model” for her fellows and held up as the epitome of how a good communist worker and party-member should live her life. Her fame means that an outcome to the investigation of her death becomes a priority for Chen’s superiors. Chen and Yu are almost completely frustrated, however, as Guan seems to have been excessively conscientious about her work and her party activities, and to have had no social life whatsoever. One of the main themes of the novel is how Chen and Yu, aided by an engaging small collection of friends and relations, persist in their determination to find out who killed Guan and to make that person face justice.
An equally important part of the novel is to make the reader experience life in China of the time as it was for the ordinary people. We see events through the eyes of several of the characters, mainly Chen and Yu, but also Yu’s wife and his father, “Old Hunter”, and Chen’s friends “Overseas Chinese” Lu and journalist Wang Feng. By witnessing the way these people live, we understand how much the social intervention of the government and the communist party deeply affects every aspect of their lives. Everyone lives in a tiny room (if they are lucky), whether single or a family. Beds and tables are folded up and put away as appropriate. A “kitchen” is a gas cylinder and a stove in a corridor where everyone in a block of flats has to cook. People have been assigned jobs on a political whim or because of their contacts, not because of talent. The cost of goods is state-controlled, so everyone is poor (those whose money was taken by Mao had it returned when repatriated by Deng’s administration, but only at the new exchange rate of a fraction of its old worth). Nobody quite knows who has independent thought and who is reporting to the party. Chen himself is a translator of mystery novels (including Ruth Rendell) so earns a bit of money that way. He’s also a relatively well-known poet, and has achieved some fame owing to having his work published in the newspapers. Throughout the book, Chen and others speak lines of poetry from the ancient world to the modern, beautiful lines that are open to subtle interpretations. This is really their only way to communicate about their emotions, because so many activities are forbidden or illegal. Finally, everybody is enthusiastic about food. People have dinner parties and go to the markets to buy the most amazing variety of zoological specimens, and eat delicacies from all parts of the bodies of these organisms. All through the novel, people communicate via eating and drinking, whether a basic cup of tea made by putting a jasmine flower from the hair into a cup of warm water, or a banquet in a private room in an exclusive restaurant, which costs several months’ salary.
I have to admit to finding this novel rather hard going. The writing style does not flow easily and the book is long – 460 pages. The crime story is satisfactorily resolved, but at the outset it takes Chen about 200 pages to check out a couple of things that I thought he should have done right off the bat, both of which break the deadlock in the investigation. The third obvious thing I thought he should have done does not occur to him right until near the end of the novel, and leads directly to the solution. I can understand that the author needed to pace these discoveries in order to tell the rest of his story, but I didn’t find it convincing that these avenues did not occur to Chen, especially as he translates crime fiction of the calibre of Ruth Rendell, which should have given him some tips. The social saga is again rather repetitive and drawn-out as one reads it, with a very slow pace in the first half. The text comes more alive in the second half of the book, as Yu drops his suspicion of Chen and people’s true motivations are revealed.
Nevertheless, in retrospect I think this book will stick in my mind, if for no other reason than the vividly but subtly portrayed accounts of a society in microcosm: the terrible crimes against the people committed by the government, both in the repression of the workers and the corruption that allows the children of the higher officials to lead lives of pampered luxury next to the squalor of everyone else. Yet the book is by no means an angry indictment: it is told from the point of view of people who have no other experience, and in many cases indulge in much humour about their predicament. In 1990, the international expansion of China to the West was only just beginning; mobile phones and the internet were not known. Although some of the characters resent their life-situation more than others, they all have their own ways of finding aspects of their lives to enjoy, perhaps a spouse or child, or a favourite recipe, or an appreciation of literary works.
Profile of the author at January Magazine.