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'Jade Dragon Mountain' sets a murder mystery in 18th-century China

Why is an elderly Jesuit killed in a Chinese border town – days before the emperor is scheduled to arrive to view an eclipse?

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    Jade Dragon Mountain
    By Elsa Hart
    St. Martin's Press
    336 pp.
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China in the early 18th century was a land of absolutes. The emperor was believed not only to control the nation but also to bend nature to his wishes. The country was a superpower and foreigners yearned for political and trade relations with the wealthy dynasty.

This is the backdrop for Jade Dragon Mountain, Elsa Hart's debut novel set in former city of Dayan in far southwest China.

It’s 1708 when middle-aged Li Du arrives in Dayan, the last Chinese town before the Tibetan border. Li Du is the former librarian of the grand library of the empire in the Forbidden City. Five years earlier he was accused of befriending traitors and was exiled from the capital. Now, after crossing the country all the way from Beijing to Dayan, he is ready to leave China and enter Tibet.

As a border city, Dayan is typically packed with traders and foreigners, but this time the city seems particularly busy. There is going to be an eclipse in a few days and the emperor himself is actually on his way to Dayan for this astronomical event. Westerners have been invited to Dayan and Chinese people from near and far have crowded into the city to see their royal visitor.

According to ancient tradition, the emperor had the power to predict astronomical phenomena. It was only the intellectual elite who knew that “for many years it had been the Jesuits at court who had provided the emperor with a yearly calendar of the astronomical events.” The emperor does not care much for their Christian faith, but trusts their calculations which “had proven reliable and accurate to the minute.”

It is in such a scrambled atmosphere that an older Jesuit is found dead while staying at the mansion of Dayan’s royal magistrate.

Li Du becomes suspicious and discovers that the Jesuit has been murdered. He decides to stay in Dayan and find the culprit. He does not have a lot of time. The Emperor will be there in six days, and he must solve the crime before he arrives.

“Jade Dragon Mountain” is full of mysteries. Characters are not fully who they seem to be. They all have their own stories and secrets: Lady Chen, Dayan magistrate’s first consort; Brother Martin, the young botanist Jesuit; Sir Nicholas Gray, the representative of the English East India Company; and Mu Gao, the librarian at the Magistrate’s mansion.

The story gets more entertaining and amusing as the book goes on. Anyone could be a suspect behind the murder. There are plenty of possible motivations behind the killing. The writer plays a repeated sleight of hand, encouraging the reader to become suspicious of a specific character, just to dismiss the whole suspicion few pages further.

As the story progresses, mysteries unfold gradually although the biggest is saved to be solved in the book’s final pages.

While writing the novel, Hart stayed in Lijiang, the city that has grown up around the old town of Dayan. She describes streets and corners of the old city in a strikingly picturesque way. “Bridles with polished bells dangled from hooks, and smooth wooden saddles were stacked in rickety piles,” she writes. “Sandalwood, jasmine, and a drift of rose belied the frost that still chilled the ground and the air.”

With her keen sense for the local culture, Hart is able to capture the minute routines of daily life. For example when Li Du is teaching Brother Martin how to prepare tea, he explains that one can tell that the water has reached the correct temperature by listening to the sound of the boil, “the low rush in perfect balance with the higher-pitched dance of bubbles at the side of the pot, but not the center.”

But “Jade Dragon Mountain” does more than entertain. It is also a story of history and politics, offering the reader a brief but memorable description of the clash of China’s dynastic rivalries.

The book deals at length with foreigners’ efforts  to establish relations with China, particularly the rivalry between Jesuits who back were trusted by the Emperor and Dominicans who wished to supplant them.

“Jade Dragon Mountain” is a solidly researched book that, while entertaining, opens a window on 18th-century China. Relying on a classic murder mystery framework, Hart is teaching history.

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