Thursday, October 27, 2022

Pre-Revolution Chinese Detective Fiction

 From CrimeReads:

Mysteries and detective fiction are usually thought of as the inventions of Edgar Allan Poe, but the truth is that they have both been popular in China for over a thousand years. The Chinese have no clear place or person of origin for mysteries and detective fiction, the way the West has Poe, but what the Chinese do have are centuries’ more mysteries and detective stories than the West does.

The first Chinese proto-mysteries—that is, mysteries who some but not all of the elements of modern mystery fiction—were the “gong’an” (“court case”) stories. Told in the form of oral performances and puppetry shows, the gong’an began appearing during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Gong’an traditionally featured incorruptible government officials solving criminal cases and bringing about justice to the guilty and restoration to those who were wronged. Later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), gong’an plays and novels were among the most popular generic forms of Chinese literature, but they declined in popularity during the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). However, they experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 19th century, when they were combined with the “wuxia” (martial arts) genre to create novels which were both mysteries and martial arts action-adventure stories.

Near the end of the 19th century an influx of Western detective and mystery fiction changed how the Chinese viewed mysteries. In 1896 translations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories began to appear in the Shanghai newspaper Shiwubao. The stories were immediately popular, and over the next twenty years hundreds of English-language detective and mystery stories were translated and printed in Chinese newspapers and magazines. Scholars have estimated that of the approximately 1000 translations of Western fiction published between 1896 and 1911, at least half were translations of detective stories. The Holmes stories were the most popular and well-respected of the translated detective stories, so much so that an expensive 1916 collection of forty-four Holmes stories was reprinted twenty times through 1936.

Publications of translated Western detective stories slackened during the 1910s thanks to the turmoil and unrest following the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, but picked up again during the 1920s. What followed during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s is described by critics as the “golden age” of Chinese detective fiction, with a number of famous Chinese detective writers emerging and publishing their best work during those decades. Many of these stories were closely based on Western models, from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stores to Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles stories to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, but each imitation detective was made Chinese, and therefore new, in character, methods, milieu, and plots. (Read more.)


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