Huo Sang

Created by Cheng Xiaoqing

Chinese author Cheng Xiaoqing started his literary career in the early 1910s, translating Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories—surely one of the best ways to lift the lid and get a look at the works.

It wasn’t long before he figured out, in those heady pre-revolution days, that China deserved its own Great Detective, and so he set about creating him.

In 1914 the first HUO SANG story, “Forest of Happiness,”  was published, and it was pretty clear what the inspiration was. Unabashedly billed as “China’s Sherlock Holmes,” the earliest stories were pretty much pure pastiche, with Sang playing the violin (poorly) while mulling over his cases, and even living with his own Watson: Bao Lang, who served as his loyal-to-a-fault servant and cook. Bao may have been even dimmer than Watson, although to his credit the former boxer was far more likely to challenge Sang on his sometimes questionable ethics, and far more capable of handling matters when they got out of hand.

Not that the stories were exactly action-packed. Sang’s modus operati consisted mostly of asking questions—a lot of questions, and playing things close to the vest.

Over the years a recurring cast of characters emerged, including the Lestrade-like Zhong De, a less-than-brilliant cop who was suspicious of Sang’s “western” ways. Also popping up often were Hairy Lion and his Five Blessings Gang, a criminal gang, and master criminal Jiangnan Yan, an informant with ties to organized crime known as the “Swallow of the South,” with whom Huo had an uneasy alliance.

Huo and Bao lived with Lang in some pretty swank digs at No. 77 Aiwen Road in Shanghai, occasionally venturing out to the outlying delta towns, as his reputation as a problem solver spread across China. Not that Huo was some silk robe-wearing Fu Manchu-type character—he was throughly Westernized, favouring suits, ties and fedoras, smoking Golden Dragon cigarettes (Luckies, I guess, being unavailable), and occasionally toting a handgun.

As the series progressed (and became ever more popular) the author found his own voice and Huo’s character evolved. Officially, he was not a private eye. Nope, he was a science teacher—not even a criminologist–who just happened to be regularly called in by the police to lend a hand, while other members of the public would show up on Aiwen Road with problems to be solved that would be instantly familiar to any readers of detective fiction: missing money, missing persons, blackmail, political corruption, kidnapping, and of course murder…

This is good stuff, and eye-opening. It’s a shame English readers were denied access to it until 2006, when the university of Hawaii published Sherlock in Shanghai: Stories of Crime and Detection, a collection translated by Timothy C. Wong.


Born on August 2, 1893, in Shanghai, Cheng Xiaoqing had a rough childhood. The eldest son of former peasants, the family struggled to make ends meet. His father, who thustled newspapers to feed his family, died in 1903 when Cheng was just ten. Eventually forced to leave school, he became an apprentice to clockmaker. A friend loaned him some books (including some featuring Sherlock Holmes), which inspired him to write. The sale of a few short stories brought in a little cash, and he started taking English classes at night at the local YMCA, which allowed him to find work translating the Holmes stories first into classical and later into vernacular Chinese. From there it was but a short step to creating his own detective.

The Huo Sang stories became bestsellers during China’s Republican period—readers loved Xiaoqing’s combination of recognizably Chinese elements and his broader, more international-looking view of justice, challenging them to think more critically, to look beyond the surface, and asking pointed questions about culture and tradition, and what seemed like inevitable the Westernization and modernization of Chinese society.

Predictably enough, as Mao rose to power in the forties, Cheng and his work fell out of favour. The Huo Sang stories—clearly inspired by Western and capitalist sources—disappeared completely from print, and Cheng was denounced in the 1950s and crime fiction banned for the first thirty or so years under  Communist rule. After all, what was the point of detective stories in a society where crime simply did not exist?


  • “Forest of Happiness” (1914, Shanghai Newspaper)
  • “The Shoe,”
  • “The Other Photograph”
  • “On the Huangpu”
  • “The Odd Tenant
  • “The Examination Paper”
  • “At the Ball”
  • “Cat’s-Eye”
  • “One Summer Night”


  • Sherlock in Shanghai: Stories of Crime and Detection (2006) Buy this book


    (aka “The Great Detective”)
    98 minutes
    Based on characters created by Chen Xiaoqing
    Screenplay by Chi-Long To
    Directed by Roy Hin Yeung Chow
    Starring Han Geng as HUO SANG
    and Yin Zheng as Bao Lang
    Also starring Carina Lau, Zhang Huiwen
    Haven’t seen it, but most reviews tagged it as so-so; slick but shallow–inspired more by Guy Ritchie’s action-packed Sherlock Holmes movies than anything created by Chen Xiaoqing, 


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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