Located in Shanghai in 1990, briefly after the Tiananmen events and following the political and economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping, Qiu’s Death of a Red Heroine follows Chief Inspector Chen Cao’s investigation into the murder of Guan Hongying, the Model Worker of the title (‘hong’ means ‘red’ and ‘ying’ means ‘heroine’ in Mandarin Chinese). The novel provides an impressionistic portrayal of Shanghai while it reveals the problems still afflicting China in the 1990s in spite of the fact that the country is “finally making great strides in economic reform. With the GNP growing annually in double digits, people [are] starting to have a better life” (Qiu 2000: 341).
As Chen Cao conducts his investigation, we not only witness the social reality of the country, characterized by “corruption, unemployment, inflation, housing shortages [or] traffic congestion” (Qiu 2000: 58). We also observe the crimes “smouldering in the heart of the city,” including “robberies, each bigger than the other,” rapes and prostitution “even in the upper area of the city” (Qiu 2000: 108). Chinese society is fractured. Politicians and their children (HCC, High Cadre Children) and the new rich “live in luxury beyond ordinary people’s dreams” (Qiu 2000: 55) but workers are laid off and many people have a hard time making ends meet. Ordinary citizens’ life is tough, a condition that is made worse since people are haunted by the memories of the country’s traumatic past and the atrocities committed during Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution. Also, the novel brings to the fore the repression by the government and its efforts to maintain tight control over the citizenry. The Party’s interests are uppermost and those in charge manipulate information so as not to destabilize the emerging prosperity and political stability in times of transition.