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THE KIDS AREN’T ALRIGHT

Bestselling suspense writer Chen Xu talks with NewsChina about the latest TV adaptation of his novel The Bad Kids, childhood scars as a source of creation, and his mathematical approach to storytelling

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

Poster for The Bad Kids streaming series

After coaxing his daughter to sleep, 35-year-old Chen Xu returned to the desk by his window - the only quiet corner of his home. He often writes there all night.  

It was late on June 16, and The Bad Kids had just made its online premiere. Chen opened his laptop and clicked on the first episode. Faithful to his book, it opens with a murder.  

Zhang Dongsheng, a math teacher, is out for a mountain hike with his elderly in-laws. As they stop to rest, Zhang takes out a camera and approaches to help the old couple pose. In the next shot, the pair is dead at the bottom of a cliff. 

The scene captures the ominous calm tone of Chen’s novel. “[Zhang] doesn’t suspect that three kids playing nearby had unknowingly caught the murder on video,” said Chen, better known by his pen name Zijin Chen. “Even more beyond his expectations is that they were not good kids.” 

The 12-episode web adaptation of Chen’s 2014 crime novel, released on China’s Netflix-like video platform iQiyi, quickly became one of the country’s most watched and discussed shows so far this year. Many critics and netizens hailed the show as a new milestone in Chinese television. 

Chen’s penned world is dangerous and wild, a stark contrast to his quiet private life. He describes himself as an “indoorsy nerd” whowrites crime fiction with a mathematical mind.  

Since its mid-June release, The Bad Kids has earned acclaim for its tight plot, layered characters, casting and camerawork. 

Growing Up
On Douban, China’s leading media review website, The Bad Kids earned a 8.9/10 from nearly 640,000 viewers, the highest rating among shows produced on the Chinese mainland since the start of 2019. Twelve days after the first episode’s release, the show’s hashtag had 3.93 billion views on Weibo.  

It has garnered some A-list fans. “After watching American and British dramas for so many years, I finally found a Chinese drama that could compete with them on a level playing field,” Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi commented on Weibo.  

The original novel follows three teens after they witness a murder in a rundown coastal town in South China’s Guangdong Province. All from broken families, the characters grow up without attention, care, guidance or security at home, prompting them to seek it elsewhere.  

The book explores the influence of family on the behaviors, personalities and values of children during their formative years, while challenging the “bad kid” stereotype and ideas of social accountability. 

The series’ success prompted debates on social media about child development and modern parenting in China. Hashtag “how big is the influence of family” has seen 230 million views on Weibo since the show first aired.  

Zhu Chaoyang, one of the three main characters, is a 14-year-old boy from a single-parent family. He lives with his mother while his father’s affections are reserved for his half-sister. Zhu is an introverted grade-A student bullied and singled out at school. Later on, he concocts a series of intricate crimes.  

“Apart from all the criminal activity, Zhu Chaoyang’s experiences came from my childhood,” Chen said.  

Chen’s parents divorced when he was 7. He lived with his mother on her meager income. Chen’s father was a successful entrepreneur who owned a seafood processing plant. He quickly remarried and started a new family. Chen’s stepmother was a jealous and hot-tempered woman who demanded that her husband cut off contact with his previous family. Chen would only see his father during summer and winter vacations.  

Once, Chen visited his grandparents’ home where, for the very first time, he met his half-sister. He soon realized she was unaware of who he really was. “Don’t call me ‘dad’ [in front of her],” Chen’s father told him. 

Years later in The Bad Kids, Zhu Chaoyang’s father asks him to call him “uncle” instead of “father” in a chapter titled “The Abandoned Child.”  

“When I was a teen, I didn’t feel like I was badly in need of my father’s love. More often, I worried about not having any money. I wished my father would give me more pocket money,” Chen told NewsChina.  

Later he admitted: “When children don’t have a father figure in their life, they become introverted, oversensitive and have a deep-seated sense of inferiority. I have these character traits, and so do many of my characters.” 

“What is the best early training for a writer? An unhappy childhood,” Ernest Hemingway famously said, an idea that resonated with Chen. “A sensitive heart is indispensable in writing stories on realistic social subjects. If my childhood had been happier, I wouldn’t have been able to write this genre,” Chen said.  

Cover of Chen Xu’s novel The Bad Kids

It All Adds Up 
In The Bad Kids, Chen explores the cruelty of youth and the darker sides of teenage life, inspired by his own experiences. He described his middle school years as “pretty bleak.” A top student, Chen was bullied and singled out at school.  

The teen found solace in solving math problems. ��For me, mathematics is always pure. Once you find a way, it will lead you to the right answer. Those ways may vary, but there’s only one answer. In reality, there are no equations for so many problems,” Chen told NewsChina.  

Having trained for math competitions for years, Chen brings a calculated approach to his writing. His plots are elaborate and rigorously tested for faulty logic. Unlike suspense fiction that leaves leading clues for readers to speculate on who did it, Chen’s novels often reveal who the murderer is from the start, but keep readers hooked with plots teeming with twists and turns. 

Math permeates many of his novels. In High IQ Crime: The Deduction of the Prince of Logic, prodigy Xu Ce avenges his mother’s death in a government-led compulsory housing demolition with a math-fueled crime. In The Untouched Crime, math professor Yan Liang cracks a perfect crime using a formula usually applied to complicated algebra. 

Unlike most writers, Chen rarely reads literature. He mostly consumes news, especially human interest stories, and examines them from the perspectives of the people involved to fathom out their thoughts and feelings.  

Holed up at home, Chen formulates his plots with logic and reasoning while viewing them from each character’s perspective. “I keep asking myself, ‘If I were him or her, what would I do next?’” Chen said. “The entire writing process for me is very much like solving mathematical problems.” 

“The highlight of Zijin Chen’s works is his subtle delineation of the nuances and depth of human nature,” said Zhang Xuesong, former chief editor of publishing house Purui Culture and Chen’s first editor. “He shows human nature and social attributes in plots instead of revealing them in lengthy descriptions of psychological activities.”  

After the web drama The Bad Kids became a hit, Chen received a flood of comments on social media from people praising his storytelling skills, in-depth exploration of humanity and his focus on social issues. And then there were the haters. Many criticized his prose for lacking literary flair. Others called his writing style amateur. Some posted nothing but abuse.  

Chen read them at first, but soon deleted the Weibo and Douban apps from his phone. “If they don’t like it, then don’t read it. It’s horrible to stoop to personal abuse, isn’t it?” Chen said.  

Chen is soberly aware of his writing style, which appeals for its riveting and fast-paced plots, informative content and accessible language. His books, no matter how thick, can be finished in a few hours. He prefers simple, clear and smooth writing, and does not intend to change.  

“I have no interest in flattering readers with my writing,” Chen said. “I write because I want to earn my money with my head held high instead of kneeling down to beg. Readers who like my stories understand me. I won’t pander to people who dislike my writing.”  

Filling Gaps
After graduating from Zhejiang University in 2008, Chen worked as a product manager at an internet company.  

He began writing suspense fiction after reading the Japanese writer Keigo Higashino’s novel The Devotion of Suspect X (2005). “The book struck me so deeply. It surprised me that crime fiction could be written that way. A voice in me said that I could also write like that,” Chen told NewsChina.  

In China, mystery and suspense, along with horror, fantasy and sci-fi, are relatively underdeveloped genres. Part of the reason is political, as literature was a tool of ideology rather than entertainment. Even though publishing restrictions loosened after reform and opening-up, there are few prominent suspense authors and titles. Only in the past decade has sci-fi taken off commercially in China, thanks to authors like Liu Cixin and his Three-Body Problem trilogy. 

Not that China is without crime writers. As graduates of the National Police University of China, writers Lei Mi and Qin Ming have first-hand access to real criminal case files. Their stories follow the traditional whodunit pattern, often told from the perspective of police and are rich in realistic, bloody details. Other mystery authors, such as Cai Jun and Zhou Haohui, bridge fantasy and horror fiction with elements of the surreal and supernatural.  

But very few were of the “social school” subgenre, a name coined by Japanese mystery fiction writer Seicho Matsumoto that emphasizes social realism, often set in ordinary situations within a wider context of social injustice.  

Chen said his decision to write “social school” crime fiction was purely a rational one. “I wanted to fill that void,” Chen said.  

In 2012, Chen published his first novel, High IQ Crime: The Deduction of the Prince of Logic. Originally serialized on bulletin board website Tianya under the title Murdering Officials, the book’s in-depth exploration of human nature and bold commentary on social issues caught the attention of publisher Zhang Xuesong, who called it “the true texture of flesh and blood” seldom found in other Chinese mystery novels.  

Chen followed with his King of Deduction trilogy: The Untouched Crime (2013), The Bad Kids (2014) and The Long Night (2017), its commercial success cementing his reputation as one of China’s leading mystery fiction writers.  

In 2017, The Untouched Crime was adapted into the web series Burning Ice, one of the most popular shows of that year. After the finale of The Bad Kids, another web series adapted from The Long Night will be released this year. 

The following year, Chen moved back to his hometown, Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, where he leads a reclusive life. He often writes through the night and turns in around 6 am.  

Chen spends most of his spare time watching movies of all kinds - except arthouse films. “A vulgar man, not a hipster,” reads his Douban page.  

Chen told NewsChina his next project is a “hardcore” suspense story that addresses the lack of class mobility in contemporary China.  

As for his childhood scars, Chen is facing them with calm. Though he still has no contact with his half-sister, he meets his father once or twice a year for a chat.  

“I always have believed that life is a journey to improve yourself. For creatives, all the bitter memories and painful experiences endured eventually turn into precious treasures,” Chen said. 

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