Cover image of "When Red Is Black," a novel about China in transition.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

When Red Is Black paints a vivid picture of China in transition.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao is an “emerging cadre” in the Chinese Communist Party, a published poet of some renown, and the head of the politically sensitive Special Investigations Squad of the Shanghai Police Bureau. Many regard him as an important man. But his boss, Party Secretary Li, calls the shots. And when Inspector Chen is on vacation and a new case arises that demands quick action, Li assigns Inspector Yu Guangming of Chen’s squad to take it on. Someone has murdered a “dissident writer” in her home, and Li insists Yu solve the case rapidly to forestall rumors and negative foreign press speculation that the government has murdered her. Of course, when the matter proves stubbornly resistant to solution, Inspector Chen will have no choice but to get involved as well. And the murder of Yin Lige now threatens to undermine his relationship with Party Secretary Li.

The Cultural Revolution weighs heavily on this case

When Red Is Black is the third in a series of police procedurals that has now grown to thirteen books published from 2000 to 2023. All three of the first entries in the series emphasize the imprint of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 on Chinese society. Events that take place even decades later stem directly from the terrors and injustices of that era—and that includes the major crimes that Inspector Chen and his team take on in the early 1990s.

That’s certainly true in the case of Yin Lige’s murder. Her designation as a “dissident writer” lies in her close relationship with an older man in the village to which both had been banished during the madness of the 1960s. He was a famous poet whose work as an English-language translator had cast him into disfavor with the Party. And her novel about him, Death of a Chinese Professor, raised sensitive questions. The Party declined to allow a second printing.

When Red Is Black (Inspector Chen #3) by Qiu Xiaolong (2005) 322 pages ★★★★☆

Two photos showing the contrast between Shanghai in 1990 and in 2010, a dramatic rendering of China in transition
In the early 1990s, Shanghai appeared little changed on the surface from its early days. Just twenty years later, it was a wholly different place. And the changes are even more dramatic today, another fourteen years later. The red circle shows the clock tower on the old Customs House on the Bund (waterfront boulevard) in downtown Shanghai. Image: Anneliese Nielsen – X

A novel set in “interesting times”

Author Qiu Xiaolong has chosen the early 1990s in which to ground his series—one of those “interesting times” cited in that apocryphal ancient Chinese curse. It was midway between the launch of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s and the emergence three decades later of the economic powerhouse that resulted. Shanghai in the early 1990s was in the early stages of its transition to the vibrant world-class city it has become. It was a treacherous time to be Chinese. No one could be sure what the new Party line would permit or how long it would last. After all, Tiananmen Square had been but two or three years earlier.

With the shackles of Maoism now loosened, private business was on the rise, and state-owned enterprises were finding it difficult to compete. Old-timers clung to the certainties of the Mao era, while younger people basked in the newfound freedom. In When Red Is Black, Qiu dramatizes these and similar trends through his characters. The result is a vivid portrait of a society undergoing wrenching change. Along the way, too, he explores the food, the architecture, the poetry, and the patterns of home life in early 90s’ Shanghai.

About the author

Photo of Qiu Xiaolong on a Chinese city street, author of this novel about China in transition
Qiu Xiaolong in China. Image: Washington University

Qiu Xiaolong‘s bio on his author website reads in part as follows: “Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He published prize-winning poetry, translation and criticism in Chinese in the eighties, and became a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association. In 1988, he came to the United States as a Ford Foundation Fellow, started writing in English, and obtained a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Washington University. . . He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.” Wikipedia lists thirteen novels in the Inspector Chen series as well as four other books and seven volumes of poetry translations.

This series is included in The best mystery series set in Asia.

Previously I reviewed the first two novels in this series:

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