Chi Wei-Jan

Chi Wei-Jan

Chi Wei-Jan, born in 1954, is a Taiwanese essayist and playwright. Private Eyes is his first novel. His plays include MIT: Mad in Taiwan (2008), The Mahjong Game Trilogy (1997-2007), and One Bed, Four Players (1999). He is a university professor in a Drama department.

Featured Reading Group Title

Private Eyes

Does moving to the Dead Zone bode well for Wu Chen, a newly minted private detective who has just quit his job as a college professor and playwright? Perhaps not, given that it has Taipei’s highest concentration of funeral parlours.

His calling card may read ‘Private Eye’, but Wu Chen likes to think he possesses a pair of ‘private eyes’ that allow him to see beyond the way things seem. The chronic depression he has suffered all his life has made him neurotic and hyper-sensitive. To someone like Wu Chen, everything signifies something – even a spiderweb is no mere spiderweb.

The hunter soon becomes the hunted when three corpses are found in the Dead Zone. Taiwan has never seen a serial killer, and Wu Chen is stunned to find himself the police’s prime suspect . . .

A detective story that doubles as a clever social satire, Chi Wei-jan’s bestselling debut novel was reprinted four times in its first two months of publication, and won nearly every major literary award in Taiwan.

More Information

  • Private Eyes featured in our summer 2012 Chinese reading group.
  • For more information on the book and author in Chinese click here and here.
  • If you’ve read the book, let us know what you think by commenting below.


  1. Yu Yan Chen says:

    Private Eyes is one of those rare page-turners that grips my attention right from the start. It both delights and fascinates me because the novel combines humor, satire and the good old ingredients of a detective novel: keeping the readers guessing and wanting for more.

    Set against the backdrop of a hustling and bustling Taipei City, in a forgotten Cul-de-sac (dead end lane) called Wolong Street, the newly transformed former professor Wu Cheng sets up shop as the one and only private investigator. Due to the many similarities the author shares with the main character, Wu Cheng is clearly the alter ego of Chi Wei-Jan, a character gutty enough to give up everything in search of a new life.

    What distinguishes Private Eyes from other novels is the pace of the story, detailed plot and its vivid use of language. All of the characters seem extremely authentic because they are flawed: Wu Cheng is plagued by depression and OCD, his mother who throws a fit whenever her son gets into trouble but has the ability to forget quickly, his new friends from taxi driver to policeman all have their own shortcomings but manage to keep their hearts intact. Even the serial killer is someone with talent and intelligence, and who becomes who he is due to tragic circumstances. Together they form the microcosm of Taipei City, a sometimes annoying place but deep down full of love, just like the mother character in the story: her usual curse such as “Damned Kiddie Thief” is precisely what warms the heart of her son.

    I also find the language used in the story especially pleasing. It is a slapstick combination of languages used in old Wuxia (sword fighting) novel, Taiwanese slangs, and perhaps classic Chinese drama (there are even some references to English too). The action packed descriptions and poignant dialogues also make the novel very cinematic and entertaining, part of it reads like a screenplay, which definitely fits the appetite of a busy modern reader in any country.

    Once again, Private Eyes is an absolute joy to read. This is the first book that even the Table of Content catches my attention immensely. The first chapter starts with one word, second with two words and so on. It will be quite a fun challenge for translators to come up with the similar structure.

    I am currently residing in Singapore, so if anyone would like to meet up for a discussion here, please get in touch.

  2. Emily Jones says:

    Notes from London reading group
    PE = Private Eyes. CWJ = Chi Wei-Jan

    Style: dense, with lots of inter-textuality (references to Western, Chinese, Japanese classics) – typical of many Taiwanese authors. Could possibly be described as post-colonial Chinese in style. Very different to mainland authors and occasionally difficult to read. One example of this is the contents page, where each chapter is one character longer than the next – the reading group felt this would be a lovely, knotty problem for translators!

    PE provides a witty take on the detective novel genre, as the protagonist has to solve the murder in order to clear his own name. Big contrast between the playfulness of PE and the dark, violent style of Scandinavian crime writers. There may be five murders, but there’s little description of them. CWJ instead concentrates his descriptions on the characters. The character of the protagonist – his observation skills – add credibility to his ability to solve the crime.

    The novel seems to be asking the question ‘why has Taiwan never had a serial killer’ – and tries to create a Taiwanese take on the genre by making the killer obsessed with Buddhism. The group felt that there was a question mark over how successful the portrayal of the killer was… his obsession was gripping but something was perhaps missing, making it less convincing than it might have been.

    Overall, opinions across the group were divided and there were mixed levels of interest in the novel. Some felt it to be an impressive combination of dense description and a plot that moves forward at pace. Others felt that the character of the protagonist got in the way – some felt him to be quite tediously self obsessed!

    The conversation also touched on other Chinese detective novels, including those written in English (eg Qiu Xiaolong). PE very different to Qiu Xiaolong – as CWJ not trying so hard to appeal to Western readers, and so creates a much more Taiwanese feel.

  3. Chenxin says:

    CWJ = Chi Wei-Jan

    Brief notes from the Shanghai group (without repeating what Emily said about London): Good discussion! We liked the philosophical complexity of CWJ’s set-up – the wordplay etc is an especial pleasure. We were divided on the difficulty of the language – some felt it was a distraction, while others found it satisfying.

    Of the two subplots (father-daughter relationship vs serial killer), we felt that the first was better worked out and more surprising – but that the various elements of the novel didn’t always gel. All who read in Chinese enjoyed the insight into Taiwan and Taipei in particular.


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