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).
“The Maoist spin was that Holmes battled evil brought about by capitalist greed and bourgeois injustice – which he sort of did”
Holmes was a hit. Late 19th century English logical reasoning was popular with the early 20th century Chinese government’s desire to encourage more empirical investigation of issues, given that the country had in 1911 changed from dynastic to republican rule. Conan Doyle’s characters moved to the screen, too, when director Li Pingqian directed (and starred in) The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1931 – which swapped London for Shanghai as a setting, but featured a lot of pensive thinking and logical deduction. In the 1920s and 30s Holmes was reinvented, copied and adapted in various ways. The bestselling author Cheng Xiaoqing created Huo Sang, a Chinese version of Sherlock Holmes complete with a sidekick, Bao Lang who, like Dr Watson, narrates the stories and provides a useful foil. There’s even a Moriarty-like nemesis, called the “South-China Swallow.”
Sherlock was also to survive The Curious Case of the Bamboo Curtain, and continued to be published after 1949. The Maoist spin was that Holmes battled evil brought about by capitalist greed and bourgeois injustice – which he sort of did, sometimes, if you think about it. In a time of relative hunger for foreign literature, as well as much else, Holmes and Watson kept their Chinese fan base, and never really lost it. A new economic era in the 1980s saw a raft of new translations and re-issues. Once the internet age began, we also saw the emergence of Sherlockian fan fiction, much of it “slash fiction” which focuses on the homo-erotic possibilities of the Holmes-Watson relationship.
I can illustrate China’s obsession with Holmes with a personal anecdote from the mid-1990s. A colleague and I found ourselves wandering along a deserted back street in Beijing in what were then the wild desolate areas of the city beyond the Second Ring Road (nowadays considered quite central). We were on a quest to find out if a couple of tough-looking Beijingers we’d met in London really wanted to start a joint venture with a British firm to disseminate Chinese statistics to the world. In London the two had seemed a bit shabby, with ill-fitting suits, scuffed shoes and a fair amount of dandruff. In the course of the meeting they had smoked more cigarettes than London has tube stations. Nobody had taken them seriously, and they were politely shown the door at every big market research firm in town. At my company, we were more interested.
Their Beijing office didn’t inspire confidence: a jerry-built rookery covered in white lavatory tiles, with blue-tinted windows, rickety furniture, extremely large telephones, overflowing ashtrays and not a computer in sight. To cut a long story short, we did a sort-of deal and then retired to a restaurant to seal our new shaky partnership. The place served Tibetan food and after all the talk of percentage splits, royalties and company formation details we entered the dangerous waters of small talk. We got off to a bad start by mentioning Tibet. The Chinese were ready for that and countered with British policy (as it then was) in Northern Ireland. We changed tack – soccer. Our new Chinese best friends were all Crystal Palace fans (a British team based in South London that had signed a Chinese player and so had a disproportionately large number of Beijing fans.) That kept us going for a bit, but not all that long.
“The Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society quizzed us on how bad London fog was these days and whether we’d got round to paving the streets yet”
Soccer trivia exhausted, things picked up when one of their party – a jovial man who looked more like he’d come to fit you a new water boiler than one of China’s chief statisticians – leaned across the table and informed us that he was Chairman of Beijing’s Sherlock Holmes Society. Everyone at the table nodded effusively, as if he’d announced he was China’s new Ambassador to the UK. As former English schoolboys we felt that at last we were on safe ground – Holmes, Watson, Mrs Hudson and Victorian crime solving. What didn’t we know about England’s greatest consulting detective, the good doctor and the canon of Conan Doyle? Quite a lot, as it turned out. The guy was a Holmes genius – every story, character, detail memorised. (To be honest, he didn’t seem altogether clear that Holmes was fictional.) But he was sad: during his trip to London their itinerary had been so busy he hadn’t had a chance to visit Baker Street and pay homage to his idol.
On a trip back to London a couple of months later I stopped by the rather tacky Sherlock Holmes gift shop on Baker Street, and picked up a bag of Sherlockian (as Holmes fans are known) souvenirs: key rings, fridge magnets and a mouse pad with a picture of a deerstalker hat on it. On a return visit to the boondocks of Beijing, the bag was handed over and our joint venture was sealed with copious amounts of beer in a bar with random members of the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society, who quizzed us on how bad London fog was these days and whether we’d got round to paving the streets yet. It worked far better, and was a lot cheaper, than a Rolex and a Montblanc pen.
Ultimately my outlay of the equivalent of $20 at the Sherlock gift shop got us nowhere. A couple of months later the two guys disappeared. Their offices were empty, their phones disconnected and I’ve never heard trace of them since. Still, I like to think that Sherlock mouse mat still gets a bit of use, and that my business partner of about fifteen minutes was tuning in to Youku to watch Curly Fu and Peanut. ∎