About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reflections on red Mandarin dresses

In my last post I reviewed the book Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong. As I started reading the book I was caught up in the visual image of a red Mandarin dress and looked up some images online. As I continued reading I realized the red Mandarin dress in which each young woman victim was placed after being murdered had great social and political significance in Communist China of the 1990’s.

A red Mandarin dress is instantly a Chinese image. They evoke to me slender Chinese women drawing the attention of all around them in the brilliant brocaded dress. Form fitting they have traditionally been individually made for the woman wearing the dress.

In the book Xiaolong outlines how Mandarin dresses of the early 1960’s usually had long sleeves and modest slits up the legs. They have a sensual attraction.

Current Mandarin dresses are more overtly sexual. They tend to have short sleeves or be sleeveless with no backs and side slits as high as the thigh. Online, almost all of the images I could find were of the current style.

Mandarin dresses were worn after the Communist takeover in 1949. It was not until the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched in 1966 that they disappeared for over a generation.

Comrade Yu’s wife, Peiqin, says of that time:

“In our middle school days, such a garment was out of the question, decadent and bourgeois and whatnot.”

It is harder to think of a greater fashion contrast from beautiful richly coloured Mandarin dresses than the thick drab unisex Mao suits that were worn by the Chinese people of the Cultural Revolution.

When China started liberalizing its economy and money began flowing through the nation the Mandarin dress made its return.

The placement of the women in red mandarin dresses provokes speculation among reporters in the book:

“One deemed it a political case, a protest against the reversal of values in socialist China for the mandarin dress, once condemned as a sign of capitalistic decadence, had become popular again.”

What puzzles the investigators is that the red mandarin dresses in which the young women were found were 1960’s conservative dresses. Why was the killer using traditional dresses? What could be so important to the killer that he places his victims, without underclothes, in ripped red Mandarin dresses with bosom buttons undone? The red Mandarin dresses have a symbolism to the killer that, if Chief Inspector Chen, can but decipher will allow him to find the serial killer.

The red Mandarin dresses draw an intense public interest to the murders that would never have been the same had the victims been dumped by the killer wearing Mao suits.

The book uses the red Mandarin dress as a powerful effective image – politically, culturally, sexually – that is at the heart of the mystery. When I see a red mandarin dress in the future I will think of Xiaolong’s book.
For readers interested in the role of clothes in books I recommend the Clothes in Books Blog (http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.ca/) where Moira has fascinating posts.


  1. Fascinating Bill, and thanks for the kind shoutout! As you rightly imply, this is right up my street. Lovely images, and the book sounds good.

  2. Bill - Thanks so much for the thoughtful discussion. I've always found it fascinating the way certain clothes convey such a lot about the person who wears them. It doesn't mean those messages are always accurate, but people do get them when they see certain clothes or clothes worn in a certain way.

  3. Moira: Thanks for the comment. I hope I will read a post on your fine blog about Red Mandarin Dress.

  4. Margot: Thanks for the comment. We draw more conclusions than we probably should from how people are dressed. Sherlock was, of course, acutely aware of the significance of the clothes worn by everyone around him.

    Someone I know well told me when he was in first year university that he wore his suit to write final exams because he was dressing for success!