Master of Arts in Liberal Arts (MALA)
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ended The Final Problem with Sherlock Holmes’ apparent death there was a mass outcry of protest from his fans to the point that myths still circulate about how young Victorian men wore black armbands in mourning. There was a reason why the Holmes stories had such a mass appeal: Sherlock Holmes, brilliant, asexual, emotionally reserved and eminently rational detective that he was, was in many ways the archetype of the ideal Victorian man. As such he struck a very deep chord with British society at the time, the extent of which his creator never quite seemed to have grasped. Given that Sherlock Holmes was a bipolar cocaine addict who would occasionally shoot up the walls of his shared apartment as a salute to the Queen while drinking this probably tells you all you need to know about the Victorians. During the 1920s and 1930s a Shanghai writer by the name of Cheng Xiaoqing wrote a series of stories about a Shanghai-based Chinese master detective character called Huo Sang. Cheng Xiaoqing, who had read the Holmes canon and translated it into Chinese, based his character on Holmes, albeit with Chinese characteristics. The stories were extremely popular in Shanghai at the time but received relatively little critical attention due to being seen as lowbrow literature aimed at popular audiences. More specifically he was classified as “a ‘Butterfly-Saturday’ writer: that is, one who was read avidly but not taken seriously” and moreover dismissed by more serious writers as a frivolous distraction from the contemporary issues of the day, dominated by pointless love stories and tales of knight-errantry. Cheng Xiaoqing believed that detective literature could be used as a sort of didactic device to teach the public how to think rationally and be good, modern Chinese citizens, and referred to his detective stories in essays as “popular science textbooks in disguise.” He argued that while art and literature in general could serve to promote “morality, law, order, utility, etc” detective stories had “an additional kind of value.” As he put it, “The material of detective stories places a particular emphasis on science and can expand the intelligence and rational mind of human beings, cultivate people’s observation, and increase and improve people’s social experience.” The stories are intensely moralistic, with the protagonist frequently commenting or passing judgment on contemporary social issues or debunking superstitions and ghost stories. Just as Holmes served as a sort of ideal British citizen, Huo Sang fulfilled a similar role as a model Republican Chinese citizen. Cheng Xiaoqing clearly had a message and an agenda in mind when he wrote these stories. Given that they proved popular enough to be adapted into at least one movie and a readership sufficient to be serialized in various literary journals for over a decade and a half it would seem that quite a few Chinese people found this message agreeable. Because of this it is worth asking why the stories were well-received and by whom. In doing so we can gain new insight into the thinking of Republican Chinese, particularly somewhat educated urbanites or xiaoshimin of Shanghai. This class, comprised of “small merchants, various kinds of clerks and secretaries, high school students, housewives and other modestly educated, marginally well-off urbanites,” was above the poor but far below the wealthy and outside the rarified academic circles of the true intellectual class. What they were was inextricably tied with the nucleus of the new Chinese state the Guomindang sought to build using cities like Shanghai as their laboratories. While not having the respectability or credentials of academia or holders of public office they were literate enough to be active consumers of the many newspapers and literary journals that competed for the new urban audience. They also had the leisure time and discretionary spending to seek such diversions and the numbers to make their wallets worth catering to. These were the people who read Cheng Xiaoqing’s stories and who their message was geared toward. As such, by reading the stories and comparing both the overt moral and political messages contained within and the ways in which the main character himself differs from the original Holmes we can use these stories as a window into the thinking of both the author and his readership and thereby gain new appreciation for the modernization and nation-building process in China prior to the Communist victory in 1949. In particular we can learn about how Western ideas regarding such issues as crime, justice and social disorder were received by the somewhat educated urban population at large.
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Cormier, Jordan, "A Study in Didactics" (2014). LSU Master's Theses. 4132.