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Four Trowels

DRAGON BONES

By: Lisa See
Ballantine Books: New York
2003 (pb)

Dragon Bones is a multi-layered and multi-faceted novel that deserves a wide readership.  Lisa See presents the reader with a richly-textured mystery, steeped in the archaeology of present-day Peoples Republic of China.  But she has written more than a mystery, as she focuses her novelist’s eye on the political, cultural and social realities of that enigmatic nation.  She accomplishes this by creating living, breathing, believable characters that are nonetheless larger-than-life archetypes:  a Western industrialist who covets the relics of ancient China, a bevy of government officials who may be corrupt careerists or selfless patriots—or both; a youthful Chinese-American dot.com millionaire who seeks meaning and identity in the culture of ancient China; and primarily her heroine, Liu Hulan, Inspector for the Ministry of Public Security, who is perhaps as enigmatic as her homeland:  She is at one and the same time a highly regarded investigator for the Ministry, a staunch Communist and a “red princess” by birth, that is, the off-spring of a parent who fought beside Mao during the era of the Long March—the very same parent who she betrayed during the Cultural Revolution.  She was educated in the United States and married David Stark, an American lawyer, by whom she bore a daughter who died very young—a death she blames on herself and a death that has damaged the marriage, perhaps irreparably.  

Two widely disparate events open the novel when Hulan, while on assignment to monitor a public demonstration in Tiananmen Square by the All-Patriotic Society—a quasi-religious (and therefore illegal) cult that opposes China’s lurch toward modernity and state capitalism,   shoots and kills a woman who is about to assault her own daughter.  Tang Wenting, the demonstration’s leader, urges the crowd to take vengeance on Hulan—the “mother killer” and enemy of the people.  Hulan manages to return to Ministry headquarters but rather than being allowed to pursue the All-Patriotic Society, which she believes represents a very real and present danger to public order and the regime that runs China, she is assigned to investigate the murder of an American archaeologist in the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangzi River, deep in the interior of China.  Found floating in the Yangzi River, miles from the archaeology site he had been working, the young victim had apparently been branded on the forehead before tumbling into the river.  Meanwhile, David Stark is requested to represent the Bureau of Cultural Relics to investigate the disappearance of archaeological artifacts and the deaths of several workers at Site 518 in the Three Gorges area.  Among the victims is Brian McCarthy, the same young American archaeologist whose death Hulan is to investigate. 

Shortly after arriving in Bashan, the small village that is headquarters to the archaeological project, Hulan discovers the brutally murdered corpse of Lily Sinclair, the representative of a Hong Kong auction house that specializes in Chinese antiquities. Lily bears the same brand as found on Brian McCarthy’s forehead and her feet and nose had been amputated, and she had been exsanguinated. Hulan also discovers that the tiny village, destined to be evacuated and inundated when the Three Gorges project is completed, is a center of activity for the All-Patriotic Society.  The Society is apparently playing upon the fears and dread, as well as the deep-seated traditional values of the rural peasantry to oppose the massive dam project. 

Lisa See proceeds then to utilize the form of the traditional murder mystery to explore the stresses and strains and inherent contradictions found within contemporary Chinese society.  There is the reverence for the cultural traditions deeply engrained in the Chinese psyche struggling with the demands of economic development and modernity—all within the context of a rigid authoritarian, if not dictatorial political system; there is the struggle between Western concepts of individualism versus the need for societal tranquility; there is present the continuing tension between the values of Confucianism and Buddhism on one hand and the values of the State on the other; and there is the seemingly eternal venality of individuals and groups, whether they be government bureaucrats, wealthy Western industrialists, looters of Chinese antiquity, or demagogues that would use religion and tradition to stir up the masses.  Liu Hulan and David Stark must contend with all these forces as they collaborate to solve the macabre murders at Site 815, while struggling with inner demons that might bring them back together or destroy their marriage forever. 

This is a wonderful novel written on many levels of meaning and subtlety.  It offers great insight into contemporary China and at the same time is a wonderfully complex and intellectually satisfying murder mystery—an easy four trowels!

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.