October 27, 2020
Recently (just last week!) I had a Cocktail Talk from Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, which if you missed, you should read, and in the past, I’ve had Qiu Xiaolong Cocktail Talks, from it as well as other books featuring Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen (and his partner Detective Yu, and other reoccurring characters), and you should read those Cocktail Talks, too, as well as reading the books they come from, if you’re interested in well-written mysteries, modern Chinese cultural expositions, classical Chinese poetry, or food, because all of that flows through the books like fine wine. Enigma of China is nearer the latter stages of the series (to date), and is a definite page turner. But where we’re Cocktail Talking from today is a part focused a little more on Wang Xizi than modern day, Wang being a poet from the Jin dynasty. Chen is visiting a place famous for Wang associations, and talks about a wine-poem game Wang and other poets played. A wine-poem game!
“It’s here. This is Lanting,” he exclaimed. “Wang and the other poets gathered at this stream, engaged in a wine-poem game.”
“A wine-poem game?
“They let wine cups flow down from the head of the stream. If a cup came to a stop in front of someone, he had to write a poem. If he failed to do so, he had to drink three cups as punishment. The poems were then collected, and Want composed a preface to the collection. He must have been very drunk, flourishing his brush pen inspired by the exquisite scene.
–Qiu Xiaolong, Enigma of China
October 20, 2020
I’ve had a Death of a Red Heroine Cocktail Talk post, years ago, and a few other Cocktail Talks from Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series, which is a fantastic melding of police mysteries, poetry, epicurean delights, and great insights into changing Chinese culture starting in the late 80s, and focusing mainly on Shanghai, but moving around China here and there. They’re very enveloping and involving reads, and Death of a Red Heroine is the very first, and a fine (as you might guess) way to start the series – you’ll want to read them all, in a row. I recently (like I do with books I like lots) re-read it, and now am plowing fast into a few other Inspector Chen’s, too. And, I found another Cocktail Talk-worthy quote in the re-reading, which is both a good hangover note, and a good look into the books in a way, not that it comes from Chen (or his partner, the wonderful Detective Yu, who is a co-star really, with lots of plot coming from his point-of-view), but from a classic Chinese poet, as the books are dotted with quotes. This one is from Liu Yong, from the Song dynasty.
Where shall I find myself
Tonight, waking from the hangover –
The riverbank lined with weeping willows,
The moon sinking, the dawn rising on a breeze.
Year after year, I will be far,
Far away from you.
All the beautiful scenes are unfolding,
But to no avail:
Oh, to whom can I speak
Oh this ever-enchanting landscape?
–Liu Yong, quoted in Death of a Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong
July 19, 2016
I’ve had a few Cocktail Talks from the Inspector Chen series by Qiu Xiaolong – if you haven’t seen them, well, you probably want to go check them out. In the same way, if you haven’t read the Chief Inspector Chen books, then you should check them out too, as they’re not only good mysteries, but great portraits of a China going through huge changes from the 90s on a bit. They’re also packed with poetry (Chen’s a poet, too), and an incredible array of food (he’s a gourmet as well). Good stuff. I’ve recently been re-reading the lot of them, in order. Right now, I’m in the middle of The Mao Case, and came across a poem written by the Chief Inspector himself (if I can get a little meta), part of which I thought would make a good Cocktail Talk:
The fragrance of jasmine in your hair
and then in my teacup, that evening,
when you thought me drunk, an orange
pinwheel turning at the rice paper window.
– Qiu Xiaolong, The Mao Case
January 8, 2012
In an earlier Cocktail Talk post, I had a quote from Qiu Xiaolong’s book Death of a Red Heroine (which I highly recommended then and still do now), and talked a bit about the author and his main character in the series, Shanghai poet and Chief Inspector Chen (though Chen’s second-in-command Detective Yu gets a lot of deserved face time on the page, too, with chapters often switching off with the two as alternating protagonists). So, for more background, go read that post. Cause here I just want to get straight into this quote, which is from a book in the series called A Case of Two Cities, which takes place not only in late 20th century Shanghai but also Los Angeles and St. Louis. This quote is actually Chen remembering “a short poem by Wang Han, an eighth-century Tang dynasty poet,” and would have made a dandy addition to In Their Cups: An Anthology of Poems About Drinking Places, Drinkers, and Drinks had I known of it.
Oh the mellow wine shimmering
in the luminous stone cup!
I am going to drink
on the horse
when the army Pipa starts
urging me to charge out.
Oh, do not laugh
if I fall dead
drink in the battlefield.
How many soldiers
have really come back home
since time immemorial?
–Wang Han, quoted in Qiu Xiaolong’s A Case of Two Cities
November 19, 2011
It’s rare, in the mystery book genre, to find a protagonist that drinks. Oh, wait, you see that all the time. What’s really rare is a protagonist that writes poetry, or reads poetry, or reads at all, really. However, in Qiu Xiaolong’s wonderful Death of a Red Heroine, the main character, Chief Inspector Chen is a writer as well as a cop, and is always sprinkling in lines from classic Chinese poems into his conversations and thoughts. And, the mystery itself is good, while the setting and surroundings (late 80s China) are describing in a manner that’s both poetic and immersive. Add in a sidekick (Detective Yu) who’s got some sass in him and a whole host of intriguing surrounding characters (there’s even one called Overseas Chinese Lu) and intricate food descriptions and the following quote and you’ll be able to guess that I strongly suggest you read the book, for gosh sakes.
Behind him, across Zhongshan Road, stood the Peace Hotel with its black-and-red pinnacled roof. He had fantastized about spending an evening there in the jazz bar, in Wang’s company, with the musicians doing a great job with their piano, horns, and drums, and the waiters, starched napkins over their arms, serving Bloody Marys, Manhattans, Black Russians . . .
—Death of a Red Heroine, Qiu Xiaolong