He Jiahong bustles into his book-filled office at Renmin University sprightly but relaxed, dressed down in sportswear for the summer break. The 59-year-old law professor is charmingly apologetic for being just a few minutes late. He has been held up organizing a trip to Australia, where he will lead a delegation of Chinese legal scholars on a university tour.
Thanks to his day job as a renowned expert in Chinese criminal law, Professor He is much in demand. His packed schedule sees him speaking at conferences, lecturing all over the world, and appearing on Chinese TV to comment on legal matters. But what sets him apart from other serious-minded academics is his flourishing sideline: as a writer of popular crime fiction.
“Writing novels is my favorite thing,” he says. “It was my dream when I was young.”
His novel Hanging Devils was recently published in English for the first time by Penguin China. Written in 1994 and the first in a series of four novels, Hanging Devils is a classic whodunnit set in Beijing and China’s remote north, with a scholarly lawyer as the main protagonist. It’s obvious that He Jiahong is delighted at the prospect of reaching a new audience. He describes how he liberally hands out copies of the book whenever he is on his travels.
With his articulate yet slightly inscrutable manner, He Jiahong has the gravitas of someone well-established in his field. But gentle prodding reveals an idealistic dreamer who began writing as a teenager to vent his frustration at working as a farm laborer. The dramatic highs and lows of his life could provide at least a novel’s worth of content, and in many ways he is a far more interesting character than his fictional alter-ego.
Born in Beijing in 1953, He Jiahong’s family had ties to the nationalist Kuomintang movement prior to its defeat by the communists in 1949. His mother, who was of Manchu origin, came from a wealthy landowning family. His father died when he was only 10 years old. Brought up by his mother with two siblings, life was hard, though relatively stable.
That was, until the Cultural Revolution threw the family into turmoil. The young man’s access to formal education disintegrated and, at age 16, he was sent as one of the so-called “intellectual youth” to work on a farm in Heilongjiang Province. Having been captivated by the revolutionary cause, he rejected his family background—which was considered anti-government in the new orthodoxy—and tried to accept his new life.
On the farm, He Jiahong first experienced the satisfaction of having his writing published. He remembers with pride the day that one of his poems was printed in a local newspaper. The piece had a revolutionary theme, he says. “Later, I still wrote poems, but not revolutionary ones.” For during that eight-year sojourn, his fervor shifted to regret and despair.
“I started to have the feeling that we were fooled by our leaders. With those frustrations I began to have more of an understanding of human life, of human nature, of my family, too. So I said to myself, ‘I will become a writer and I will use this to prove that I am an intelligent man.’”
The tragic and sometimes violent events that unfolded on the farm would provide much of the plot for Hanging Devils. And when it came to creating his lawyer-cum-detective Hong Jun, he drew freely on his own later career. Both real and fictional lawyers studied in the U.S. and returned with high hopes and ideals; both abhor corruption; both have an unwavering faith in the rule of law.
In a truly novelistic turn, what changed He Jiahong from a dreamer in Heilongjiang into a successful academic in Beijing was the love of a woman. After receiving permission to leave the farm and return to Beijing in 1977, he found a job as a plumber at a construction site. It was here that he met and fell in love with a young doctor who was working for the site’s clinic. At the urging of her parents for him to be more worthy of their eligible daughter, he enrolled in Renmin University and chose law because it sounded “new and interesting.” Even now, He Jiahong’s eyes light up when he talks about the woman who changed his life and has now been his wife for 31 years.
As if illustrating how far he has come from humble laborer to feted scholar, his cell phone rings: CCTV requesting an interview about a current criminal trial. He politely declines. “I don’t usually like to give comments about specific criminal trials,” he says. For a journalist, those are disappointing words, but they beg the question: is he saving the juiciest cases for his next novel?