Red Mandarin Dress: an Inspector Chen Mystery.

I really enjoyed The Red Mandarin Dress (again, available cheap on Amazon and in kindle), though irreconcilable confusion and contradictions seem to be a deliberate theme.  The title, and most of the book, insists on using term “mandarin dress” though  the item they describe was introduced by the Manchurians, and wasn’t associated with Chinese culture until the 1920’s or 30’s which he explains (60), but why not teach his audience the appropriate term, qipao by using it more often? (sometimes the dress is called a cheongsam – but in Taiwan it’s a qipao.)  The text illuminates the etymology of the dress name, but still calls it a mandarin dress, despite demonstrating how inappropriate the term is.  Teaching western audiences about China while catering to misunderstandings walks an uncomfortable line.  Like handing out fortune cookies in China.  (Fortune cookies are and American invention – by an Chinese immigrant businessman in San Francisco.   The are largely  unknown in China). Xiaolong hit on something by describing the paradoxically modest and sexual effect  of the dress- when properly worn -and put it into words better than I could, “the essence of the mandarin dress aesthetic is subtle suggestiveness” (61). This contradiction, like harmony in conflict, permeates the text. And Inspector Chen is put under more stress than in any book I’ve read so far, from political machinations and from a serial killing sexual deviant.

The author explores the alien nature of psychological study in China, in a tense thriller.  He also offers readers a lesson in Chinese fashion, in addition to the customary treatment of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.  From the dedication, it looks like the author, Qiu Xiaolong, may have lost a brother in it.  Xiaolong uses the tale to bring Freud and Jung to bear on Chinese culture, and explains along the way how psychology has been -suspect if not outright forbidden in China.  Chen, through his postmodern approach to classic literature throughout the story, criticizes the recurrent theme of the femme fatale or devil woman in Chinese myth and literature, and explains it in the context of arranged marriages and Confucian ideals.  Romantic love, and what it means in a Chinese context also recurs throughout the book.

Again we have a Deus Ex Machina that works for me, but might seem difficult for western readers.  Chinese culture thinks about ghosts differently than we do – it means something different.  Chen even discusses his Confucian belief (or lack thereof) in the afterlife (173).

This novel deals more with the sex trade, and the scene in the brothel in Chapter 25 sounded like stories I’ve heard  – but with a luckier outcome for Inspector Chen.  It probably helped that a) he was Chinese, and b) it was Dongzhi night – the longest night of the year.  I don’t know yet what DongZhi is.  Maybe it isn’t observed in Taiwan – or we need to get some Chinese and Taiwanese people to read this book.   I wish he’d provide the Chinese characters for the Chinese words he brings so deftly into his stories.   He also touches on the importance of burning ghost money, but he doesn’t call it that.  I could hold forth on ghost money – but probably shouldn’t.

There’s good information on yin and yang – and hard core exotic food that can be cruel and hard to read.  Chen relates the food to Yin and Yang and shows how food is medicine to Chinese thinking.

Note: Shanghai Lady cigarette poster from .  I haven’t found any cultural revolution posters with the qipao  – and the dress was iconic in Shanghai in the 20’s and 30’s – according to the novel and this blog.  If you’ve ever driven the highways in Taiwan and noticed the Betel Nut stands…