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By Lisa See
Ballantine Books, 2004
Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel
Inspector Liu Hulan is not pleased to be standing in Tiananmen Square in the pre-dawn hours, but as a member of the Ministry of Public Security it is her job to eradicate all religious cults, and the previously secretive All-Patriotic Society is planning a massive public gathering in Beijing. She hopes to identify and arrest a high-ranking leader in front of the crowd, but instead she becomes embroiled in a dangerous and tragic situation. Her actions at the rally earn her disapproval from her superiors, and the hatred of the cult members. Her department decides she needs to get out of town -- way out of town, to an archaeological site in the Three Gorges Dam region. One of the archaeologists, an American named Brian McCarthy, is dead, possibly murdered, and Hulan is assigned to figure out what happened to him. To her dismay she will not be going alone. Her husband, David Stark, an American attorney who became an expatriate so that their daughter could be raised in her mother's culture, will be going along to investigate looting at the site and the theft and smuggling of some of its priceless artifacts. She and David have been estranged since their child's death, living separate lives within the large compound they share with Hulan's ailing mother. She doesn't relish being forced into close quarters with David, but she must, as always, obey her superiors.
The author paints a vivid picture of life in contemporary China, a picture both intriguing and repellant. Hulan has a bit more freedom than many of her countrymen because she is a member of a wealthy family, a Red Princess, a descendant of one who had accompanied Mao Zedong on the Long March. This freedom, in a supposedly egalitarian society, comes at the cost of resentment from those less fortunate. She is a product of the Cultural Revolution, a city girl forced into the country to "learn from the peasants," a model Chinese citizen who spoke out against her own father and was then sent to the United States to receive a western education. This part I have difficulty understanding, given the general anti-Western feeling at the time, but possibly it was something that did happen on occasion. At any rate, it is necessary to the plot, and it was during her time in the U.S. that she met David.
See's novel sheds light on the troubled and complicated situation with Chinese antiquities as well. She reveals the enormity of the impact of the Three Gorges Dam project on both archaeological sites and on the millions of people who will be displaced by it. I recommend this book for fans of mystery, history, and Chinese culture.
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