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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rattling skeletons in China's political closet


THE MAO CASE by Qiu Xiaolong. St. Martin's Minotaur, New York: 303 pages, 2009, $24.95 (cloth)

A famous Chinese aphorism goes, "Yingxiong nan guo meiren guan (It is difficult for a hero to pass by [i.e. disregard] the gate of a beauty)."

That was apparently the case with the late Mao Zedong, whose personal physician published a postmortem account of Mao's declining years that revealed the revolutionary credited with founding the modern Chinese state boasted a legendary sexual appetite, which he sustained well into his dotage.

Qiu Xiaolong's mysteries, starting from "Death of a Red Heroine" in 2000, have focused on the legacy of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the radical purges inspired by Mao that led to a decade of political anarchy in China and destroyed the lives of millions.

As a teenager in Shanghai, Qiu witnessed these events firsthand, and his mysteries are populated by the shattered victims and perpetrators from that era.

"The Mao Case" focuses on Mao himself, and indirectly on his spouse, former actress Jiang Qing, who served as the Cultural Revolution's grand inquisitor. Was Madame Mao's feminine jealousy the catalyst that drove her revolutionary zeal?

Shanghai Police Chief Inspector Chen Cao is assigned by a party bigwig to investigate a young woman named Jiao, granddaughter of a famous actress with whom Mao supposedly conducted a dalliance in the 1930s. While having no visible means of support, Jiao's been living a bit too comfortably, and party officials suspect she may possess some heirloom or artifact whose exposure might tarnish Mao's reputation. So Chen, a scholar of classic poetry as well as a decent cop who commands the loyalty of his subordinates, investigates the tragic backgrounds of three generations of Shanghainese women, and several murders, while performing his balancing act on a political tightrope.

Using poetic metaphors Qiu artfully intertwines past and present so as to place Mao's womanizing within the historical context. When flawed romances caused dynasties to totter, as they often did, China's literati typically adopted the Sampson-and-Delilah analogy, blaming the women as the seductresses rather than condemning the "heroes" who seduced them.

While the killer is apprehended, the motive for his crimes seems a bit implausible — unless the reader is willing to accept that the book's conclusion is intended as allegorical. Dedicated to "Mao's victims," Qiu's latest casts a harsh new light on Mao, using the facet of his callous attitudes toward the women in his life to underscore his ruthlessness and disregard for human life in general.



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