Monday, August 11, 2008

All Eyes Trained On Beijing

The Eye of Jade
by Diane Wei Liang

Rating: ***

Culture Shock: ****

To celebrate Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, for the next two weeks I am going to review novels set in modern day China. This is the first.

Although you may not be aware of this, but there are quite a few English language mystery novels featuring hard-boiled Chinese detectives. Two that come to mind are Zhong Fong by Canadian author David Rotenberg and Inspector Chen by Qiu Xiaolong. Both of these detectives are male and both work, for good or ill, within the confines of the Communist system in Shanghai .

The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang gives us a new protagonist in this otherwise brutal profession: a female private detective living in Beijing. Mei Wang, a former member of the Communist Party’s Ministry for Public Security opens her own private detective agency against the wishes of her sister and her mother, both whom feel she doesn’t have enough guanxi, or contacts, to make it in business. She is far from being a hard-boiled style of detective, though she does ply through the seedy streets of Beijing. Instead, she represents the clash of cultures; the battle which is going on in modern China everyday. She is a modern, female capitalist finding her way through the maze of China’s Communist traditions.

I enjoyed reading this book. It does not read like a conventional mystery novel. After introducing us to Mei, it meanders through her life taking us on a trip into her past and to her sister wedding before plunging us into the main mystery involving her uncle's request to find the Eye of Jade, a jade seal lost during the Cultural Revolution.

When the plots do run into each other, the collision is satisfying and says a lot about life in modern China . Some readers might get frustrated waiting for so long for the author to get to the point, but the details about Chinese society under Communist rule and good character development will keep the astute reader turning the pages.

This book is an easy and breezy read for the summer cottage. I await the second Mei Wang novel, Paper Butterfly, due out in May, 2009.

Rating: ***

Culture Shock: **** Details about guanxi and life in modern China are well detailed and easy to understand.

This Week's Reason to Read: The Ancient Ship by Zhang Wei

Originally published in 1987, two years before the Tiananmen Square protests, Zhang Wei's award-winning novel is the story of three generations of the Sui, Zhao, and Li families following the creation of the People's Republic in 1949. It is a bold examination of a society in turmoil, the struggle of oppressed people to control their own fate, and the clash between tradition and modernization. Translated into English for the very first time, The Ancient Ship is a revolutionary work of Chinese fiction that speaks to people across the globe. It was released to Canadian booksellers on August 8, 2008, just in time for the Beijing Olympics.

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