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).