Essays

Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of Several Million Chinese Fans

How Holmes came to China, and a run-in with the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society – Paul French

China’s long love affair with England’s greatest consulting detective is a mystery worth solving. The BBC hit show Sherlock, which ran from 2010-17, proved a smash with Chinese viewers: 4.72 million viewers watched one episode, eager to find out how Holmes dodged death after plunging off the roof of London’s St. Bart’s Hospital at the end of the previous season. Weibo, China’s Twitter, was filled with chatter about the show by fans of “Curly Fu” and “Peanut” (the nicknames given by Chinese fans to Holmes and Watson, because they sound like the Chinese pronunciation of their names).

The often lumbering behemoth of the BBC indeed showed itself rather fleet of foot in China. Faced with The Case of the Pirate DVD Seller and the Mystery of the Illegal Download Site, Auntie Beeb performed a shrewd deduction of its own by licensing Sherlock (with official Chinese subtitles) to Youku, a Chinese video streaming site, which screened it just hours after its British air time. (Had they waited even a few hours more, they knew, the illegal downloads and bootleg DVDs would have hit the streets.) But why not make it available in China at the same time it airs in Britain? Unlike a good detective mystery, China’s TV bosses don’t like surprise endings: the censors have to check for any anti-China content. This was a big issue in the first episode of season three – Holmes’s return from the dead – and as any good Sherlockian knows he spent the years after his tumble over the Reichenbach Falls in the contentious region of Tibet.

Holmes mania is not new to China, however. Sherlock Holmes was first introduced to Chinese readers in 1896, with translations of four stories appearing in Current Affairs newspaper. So popular were they with readers that in 1916 the Zhonghua Book Company published The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, featuring 44 stories that rendered Conan Doyle’s prose into classical Chinese (文言文 wenyanwen).

 

Essays

Qian Zhongshu Should Win the Nobel

Why the postwar novel Fortress Beseiged deserves a re-read – Brendan O’Kane

Qian Zhongshu is a tough pitch to win the Nobel prize in literature this year. He’s dead, for starters – traditionally an obstacle to many things, including winning Nobel prizes – and his total creative output consists solely of a few essays, several short stories, and a single novel. On the other hand, that novel, Fortress Besieged, seems to me to be the high-water mark of something significant, if hard to explain, so I’m going to make my best case for it being enough to secure Qian’s place in history. The book takes its title from a French proverb, sets its action in the China of the 1930s, and tracks the misfortunes of Fang Hongjian, a feckless, cowardly student returning from Europe with a mail-order doctorate in Chinese from an American university that exists only in the imagination of a crooked Irishman. It may be one of the most cosmopolitan books ever written; certainly it is, as literary critic C. T. Hsia said, one of the greatest Chinese novels of the 20th century.


We meet the protagonist, Fang Hongjian, in the summer of 1937 as he and his fellow Chinese students return to China aboard a French steamer. He livens up the journey by flirting unsuccessfully with two of the female passengers. In Shanghai, which has just fallen under Japanese occupation, Fang renews his acquaintance with one of the young women, a PhD named Miss Su – and promptly falls for her cousin. He clammily courts both women for a time before working up the nerve to break things off with Miss Su, who has been expecting Fang to propose to her. In retaliation, she destroys any chance he might have with her cousin.

 

Essays

A Song for Hong Kong

A brief history of Hong Kong's protest music – Alec Ash


Hong Kong has long been a city of song. In the 60s and 70s it was the music bars of Wan Chai and the neon-lit karaoke joints of Kowloon. In the 80s and 90s, Cantopop became central to the city’s cultural identity (as well being go-to KTV picks in mainland China, an important form of soft power). After the handover to China in 1997 Cantopop lost its mojo – supplanted by K-Pop – but over the last ten years a new musical form has come to Hong Kong: the protest song.

Song is often married to dissent, from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939, with its haunting arboreal imagery of lynching, to Bob Dylan’s 1963 ‘Masters of War’ at the height of US-Soviet tensions. In Hong Kong, musicians took up the mantle in response to Beijing’s slow encroachments on their freedoms, from the protest pop of Denise Ho (subject of a New Yorker profile just last year) to the crowd-sourced anthem of last year’s protests (see my LARB piece following a frontline fighter). Now a new security law muscled in by Beijing has muzzled them. To mark the city’s silencing – and in hope that its voice will still be heard – here are personal vignettes of four periods of the city’s recent history, through the prism of three songs and a silent coda.

Essays

Victor Hugo in China and Hong Kong

How China’s leadership and Hong Kong’s protesters have both embraced Hugo’s words – Amy Hawkins and Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Despite worldwide popularity, the 19th century French author Victor Hugo remains a mystery. His novels and the films they inspired are beloved from Hiroshima to Hanoi. When South Korean demonstrators toppled a corrupt president several years ago, one song their marches featured was “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables. In 2019, this anthem was among the rallying cries of Hong Kong activists. Meanwhile on the Chinese mainland, Beijing theatregoers flocked to a dramatization of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Shanghai art lovers took in a show dedicated to his “legendary life.”

Hugo’s current prominence across the People’s Republic of China is particularly intriguing. How can a writer linked to a song that has been key to anti-Beijing struggles in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement – one removed from Chinese music-streaming platforms – simultaneously be celebrated in China’s capital, where his fans include Xi Jinping himself? The answer lies in the multifaceted writings of Hugo, spread by globalization, relaying the struggle taking place in China and Hong Kong about what it means today to be both Chinese and a citizen of the world.

Essays

Waiting for Mulan

Reflecting on the original legend before the upcoming Disney movie – Anne Zlatow

Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan is off to a rough start, and it hasn’t even hit theaters yet. Directed by Niki Caro, the film was initially set to be released in 2018, following the anniversary of the 1998 animated original. Its world premiere has since been postponed three times, the second time just over two weeks before its release date. Ironically, the greatest challenge to the film’s release has been the pandemic that spread from the same city as the birthplace of Mulan’s star actress, Crystal Liu Yifei. As we look toward the current release date of August 21, it seems that as with many other recent Disney remakes, the treasured predecessor proves tough to beat – this time due to social and political influences beyond the screen. And while the remake’s stunning visuals will likely satisfy most viewers, supporters of Hong Kong’s protests against Beijing last year are already less inclined to give the film a chance.

During the 2019 protests, Crystal Liu Yifei – a Chinese national and patriot – was vocal about throwing support behind the Hong Kong police. This created a backlash from Hong Kongers against the film, and circulation of propaganda using her image (see right). Although Liu was chosen for the title role with consideration for her martial arts acting experience in Chinese films, her views of China and its politics have made her a polarizing figure. Along with her fighting and acrobatic skills, Liu brings a great deal of contemporary Chinese patriotism to the legend of Mulan – adding political complexity to a legend twisted and stretched into many forms for over a thousand years.