29 Analysis by M. Cogbill

Amalia M. Cogbill

Red Mandarin Dress


Created by Qiu Xiaolong, Inspector Chen Cao is a detective of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The author Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, and he became known for poetry and as a writer in China before he moved to the United States. He currently resides in St. Louis, Missouri where he teaches literature at Washington University. Qiu currently has twelve books in his Inspector Chen mystery series, one of the books in this series is called Red Mandarin Dress which was released in 2007. In this mystery novel, Inspector Chen gets a case of a serial killer killing women, and dumping their bodies in public places. One thing that makes this serial killer unique is that the killer dresses the bodies of these women in red mandarin dresses. In addition to its unique serial killer mystery, there are other unique aspects such as the character of Inspector Chen, as well as the politics and culture featured in the book. One thing that the readers of this mystery novel may notice is the similarities between Inspector Chen Cao, the main character and Qiu Xiaolong, the author. In addition to the similarities of character and creator; Qiu Xiaolong, the author uses his character of Inspector Chen to introduce readers to Chinese culture


Inspector Chen Cao:

Inspector Chen Cao is the main protagonist in Red Mandarin Dress. In the world of literary detectives, Inspector Chen is unique especially when compared to American literary male detectives. With American fiction male detectives such as James Patterson’s Alex Cross or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, it is not uncommon to read about these characters drinking coffee or an alcoholic beverage; however, Inspector Chen cannot tolerate either of these, and this is one of the aspects that makes him unique to readers. Another side to Inspector Chen that makes him unique is a literary side. Just like his creator, Inspector Chen is very literate, and he is a poet. He studied English at Beijing Foreign Language University; he has written a translation of T. S. Eliot’ poetry, and he writes poetry when he is not working as a police officer. The backstory of Inspector Chen is that he wanted to be an English scholar; however, at the time of his graduation from university, the government at the time would assign employment, and the government assigned Chen to be a police officer. When reading this mystery novel, one will notice that there are some similarities between the main character and the author. For example, one similarity between Inspector Chen and the author Qiu, is that they have degrees in literature. In Red Mandarin Dress, there is a scene in which Inspector Chen is telling his superior that he has enrolled in a literature program at the Shanghai University, and why this program is important to him as his superior does not understand Inspector Chen’s interest in a program that does not involve police business. “‘Literature used to be my major- English literature. To be a competent investigator in today’s society. one has to acquire as much knowledge as possible.”’ (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 6). This scene demonstrates the literature scholar of Inspector Chen. Like his protagonist, Qiu Xiaolong is a scholar of literature. He has a Ph. D. in comparative literature from Washington University in St. Louis. His main character Inspector Chen has a degree in English literature from Beijing University. In addition to being literature scholars, both Inspector Chen and Qiu Xiaolong are both published poets. When he is not doing police work, Inspector Chen studies and writes poetry. He is a published poet, he has published some of his own work, and he has published translations. One example of this is that Inspector Chen has published a translation of T. S. Eliot’s poetry. His creator Qiu Xiaolong is also a poet and an expert of T.S. Eliot. He has had some poetry books published such as Lines Around China and 100 Classic Chinese Poems. The latter of these examples is a translation, which is another similarity between the main protagonist and the author. In other words, one can see a bit of the author in this character, they are both literature scholars, poets, and have published translations of poetry. The point is that it is clear that the author put a bit of himself into his main character, which in general, is not uncommon for writers to do. While Qiu Xiaolong may not be solving mysteries, it is obvious that literature and poetry are important aspects that he put into his main protagonist Inspector Chen. While both Inspector Chen and Qiu are literary scholars, there is a difference. Inspector Chen is a big fan of classical Chinese poetry, the author Qiu Xiaolong is not. “It is everywhere. What is the reason? Is it a one-party rule? Is it something deeper in Chinese culture, because a legal culture does not have deep roots? Is it absolute power corrupting absolutely? The chief inspector does not have all the answers. Like all Chinese, he is just coming to terms with all that is changing around him.” (Qiu Xiaolong, “For Creator of Inspector Chen, China is a Tough Case to Crack”, New York Times. 2007). As Chen would say, “Literature is of significance for a thousand autumns.” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 11).  Another similarity in this novel between the author and the main character has to do with the Cultural Revolution. Both Inspector Chen and Qiu Xiaolong have been affected by this historic era of China. At the time of the Cultural Revolution, Qiu Xiaolong was in his teen years, when he was sixteen, Qiu became ill with bronchitis. This resulted Qiu avoiding being sent to the countryside to be re-educated. Like his creator, Inspector Chen was growing up at the time of the revolution. Perhaps it is because the Cultural Revolution occurred during his adolescent years, Qiu Xiaolong made this historical event a part of this mystery novel. Historical events that people experience when they are young, can greatly influence them.  In Qiu Xiaolong’s case, he chose to make this historical era, a part of his main character.


Analysis of the Color Red:

Red Mandarin Dress is the fifth book in the Inspector Chen Cao series. In this mystery, a serial killer is murdering young women. Before dumping the bodies of these women in public places, the killer dresses the body in a red mandarin dress, hence the title. One can argue that there is symbolism in this and the color red in general.  Of all colors, why did the author of this novel choose to make the mandarin dresses red? He could have chosen blue or pink, but he chose red. There are three reasons to make the mandarin dresses red. One reason is because red is the symbol of China. In other words, the color red is important in Chinese culture, so it would make sense to make the dresses red. The other reason to make the mandarin dresses red in this novel, is because the color red stands out. In the mystery novel Red Mandarin Dress, the serial killer is disposing of the bodies of these women in public places. It is obvious that the killer is not trying to hide these bodies. In fact, the killer wants the bodies found quickly, so it would make sense to choose a red mandarin dress, it is a color that stands out.  “There he glimpsed an alien object, red and white, in the pale ring of the island lamplight.” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p 2). The killer wants to bring attention to the woman who has been killed, and where he or she has dumped it. “What he had taken as a white lotus root turned into a shapely human leg glistening with dewdrops. Nor was it a sack, but a red mandarin dress that encased the body of a young woman, probably in her early twenties.” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 4). Psychologically, red is a color that people notice. Statistically, red cars get pulled over by the police than any other color. The point is that the killer wanted these bodies of these women to be found quickly, because he or she was trying to send a message and make a point. “‘Murder! Red mandarin dress murder!” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 4). A third reason to make the mandarin dresses red in this mystery novel has to do with the reader. On the cover of this book, the color red is featured on the front. There is part of a woman on the front cover, she has red around the base of her neck, and she has on red lipstick. This is important to consumers, because it is eye-catching. Whether this book is on the shelf of a library or bookstore, or if a person sees this title advertised for Kindle or Audible, they will notice this book, because the color red on the cover. Thus, the color red is very important in this novel.


Analysis: Politics

When reading the mystery novel Red Mandarin Dress, one should take note of politics in the book. The author Qiu Xiaolong shows the readers what politics were like in 1990s Shanghai. Shanghai is considered to be the birthplace of communism in China. Throughout the book Red Mandarin Dress, politics play a crucial role in. It becomes very clear in the first chapter during a scene in which Inspector is awakened by a phone call from a man named Zhong Baoguo from the Shanghai Legal System Reform Committee. “That particular committee, a new institution under the Shanghai People’s Congress, exercised no direct authority over him, had never contacted him,” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 5). From this scene, readers can already get the sense that politics are important in this book and in Shanghai. In this scene, Zhong Baoguo is calling Inspector Chen to request that he, Chen look into a legal case though the outcome is Chen turns down the request as he is about to go on vacation. In the second chapter of this book, there is a scene in which the character of Yu, who is Chen’s partner, has been summoned to the office of a superior named Inspector Liao by a Party Secretary. The three characters have a meeting about the case that is plot of the book. They discuss that fact that the newspapers in Shanghai have been referring to the killer as “The first serial sex murder in Shanghai,” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 16). The conversation goes on with, “because of media control, they had never been reported.” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 16). This conversation shows that government has some control over the media, and that the government cares about what the media reports to the people. ‘“These murders are a slap in the face to the police bureau… The Class enemy is trying to sabotage the great progress in our reform, damaging the social stability by causing panic among the people. So let us focus on those with deep-rooted hatred for government.’” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 17). This quote from Party Secretary Li, demonstrates that government cares very much about the media, what the media reports, and what the people read. In this chapter, it was not until the Party Secretary left the room, that the inspectors Yu and Liao were able to discuss the case. Another example of politics in this book is in chapter three. There is a scene in which Inspector Chen is having a conversation with an old friend of his who owns a restaurant. Chen’s friend suggests to him that he leave the police force, and come work with him, because Chen has connections. “But Chen knew better. His connections came from his position. Once out of that position, most of his “friends” would evaporate into thin air.” (Qiu, Red Mandarin Dress, p. 26). This scene demonstrates that Chen has connections and privileges simply, because he works in police force. In other words, Chen’s job and the politics go hand-in-hand. These connections include his friends and his apartment. This is a very political time period, in which Red Mandarin Dress takes place, which is 1990s Shanghai.




Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong, is a mystery novel about a serial killer who murders young women, dresses them in red mandarin dresses, and dump their bodies in public places. It is a novel where its main protagonist Inspector Chen who has a lot in common with his creator Qiu Xiaolong such as poetry and literature. Red Mandarin Dress is a novel where the color red and politics play important roles. These features are the elements that make this mystery novel worth reading.


























Works Cited

  • Cummins Caroline, “Qiu Xiaolong & the Chinese Enigma”, January Magazine. 2002.
  • French Howard W. “For Inspector Chen, China Is a Tough Case to Crack”, New York Times. 2007.
  • Qiu Xiaolong. Red Mandarin Dress. 2009
  • Velie Alan R. “The Detective Novels of Qiu Xiaolong”, World Literature Today Vol. 83, Issue 3. 2009





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Analysis by M. Cogbill Copyright © 2022 by Amalia M. Cogbill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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