A native of Beijing, author Diane Wei Liang now lives in London, where she writes her mystery novels in English. But though she simplifies some of the Chinese names and details in her books for the benefit of her foreign audience, Liang's fiction is still steeped in the sights and sounds of her homeland.
On a recent visit, we wandered through Beijing's maze of alleyways, known as hutongs, where Liang's fictional detective, Mei Wang, hunts down leads — and avoids becoming hunted herself, as was the case in Liang's second novel, Paper Butterfly.
In Paper Butterfly, Wang attends the wake of an old hutong dweller who died under mysterious circumstances, then finds herself lost — and being followed — in the alleyways.
"The way that she could find her way around [the hutong] was actually by looking up right here, at the drum tower," says Liang, referring to the structure that hutong residents used for centuries to tell time.
Before becoming a private investigator, Wang was a policewoman in China's Ministry of Public Security. But she abandoned the position when her boss asked her to perform a personal favor that she disagreed with. Instead, detective Wang did what many other people did in the early 1990s — she decided to xiahai — jump into the sea of private enterprise. For Wang, it meant throwing away the key to the elite life for which she was groomed.
"[The job with the Ministry] was absolutely a springboard for a better marriage and a better life," says Liang. "By giving that up, she really had turned her back on the privilege and the luxury that her old job could provide."
China in the early 1990s was caught up in a headlong race toward a market economy. Private investigation firms were technically illegal, but Chinese needed PIs to shadow unfaithful spouses, extract debts and provide protection that the state couldn't. As a result, Liang's detective often has to navigate through moral and legal gray areas.
"She's constantly in danger of being discovered, being found out and being turned in by someone who's against her," says Liang. "And there's a huge sense of danger and suspense in terms of her as a private detective, without even stepping into a crime scene."
When Wang is not searching for facts and solving crimes, she's often acting as amateur historian, tracing people and events from the Cultural Revolution. In The Eye of Jade, Liang's first novel featuring the detective, Wang tries to understand her relationship with her father by remembering the year she spent with him in a labor camp in the early 1970s.
"That was the last time she saw her father, as a 6-year-old," says Liang. "Her father died in the later years, when he was further sent into prison for what he had allegedly done, and that was the dark secret — why he was sent to prison, and who played a part in it."
To write this part of the book, Liang drew on her own experiences as a child. The author spent time with her parents in a May 7th Cadre School, where intellectuals were forced to do manual labor. Some two decades later, as a student at Beijing University, she participated in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
Liang recalls that on the night before the Tiananmen massacre, the students were terrified that soldiers had already surrounded them, and were lurking in the buildings that surround the square.
"The security which we built was by holding hands and standing all the way around the square. It was probably not going to make much difference if there were soldiers coming out of these giant, dark buildings from behind us," says Liang.
Tiananmen was a formative experience for the fictional Wang, too. But at the time, Wang was working as a cop, on the opposite side of the author who created her.
"And she felt torn, all her friends from her university were demonstrating while she was with the police, and they cracked down on it. So for [Wang], it was a real baggage that she's been carrying," says Liang.
All the "baggage" works to make Wang a more complex and interesting character. As for Liang, she says she's now writing a third installment of the Mei Wang series, updating her character and Beijing for the new century.