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In a magnificent land where myth mixes treacherously with truth, one woman is in charge of telling them apart. Liu Hulan is the Inspector in China’s Ministry of Public Security whose tough style rousts wrongdoers and rubs her superiors the wrong way. Now her latest case finds her trapped between her country’s distant past and her own recent history.
The case starts at a rally for a controversial cult that ends suddenly in bloodshed, and leads to the apparent murder of an American archaeologist, which officials want to keep quiet. And haunting Hulan’s investigation is the possible theft of ancient dragon bones that might alter the history of civilization itself.
Getting to the bottom of ever-spiraling events, Hulan unearths more scandals, confronts more murderers, and revives tragic memories that shake her tormented marriage to its core. In the end, she solves a mystery as big, unruly, and complex as China itself.
Praise for Dragon Bones
“Stays with you long after the conventional thriller is forgotten.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Lisa See is one of the classier practitioners of . . . the international thriller. . . . She draws her characters . . . with convincing depth, and offers up documentary social detail that reeks of freshly raked muck. See’s China is as vivid as Upton Sinclair’s Chicago.”—The New York Times Book Review
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Dragon Bones
The sun still hadn't crested over the roofs of the stately buildings on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square when Inspector Liu Hulan of the Ministry of Public Security gazed across a sea of people gathered in the huge cement expanse for the first public assembly of the All-Patriotic Society ever to be held in Beijing. Until today, the All-Patriotic Society's clandestine meetings had taken place mostly in the heart of the country, in towns and villages along the Yellow River. Although the cult had recently gained a foothold in the capital, no one had expected a show as brazen as this.
All religious cults were against the law in China, and it was part of Hulan's job to do what she could to eradicate them, but she had learned of this early-morning rally only fifteen hours ago from a man she'd arrested for stealing from his work unit so that he might make a more sizable donation to the Society. After several impromptu discussions at the ministry, it was decided to let the meeting go forward. If a high-ranking All-Patriotic Society member could be drawn out and identified, then Hulan could make a very public arrest, which might prove fruitful in many ways.
Hulan had arrived here at three this morning and had supervised the stationing of policemen and soldiers around the perimeter of the square. She had hoped that an official presence would serve as a deterrent to converts and help keep the numbers down, but as far as she could see no one had turned back. The adherents were orderly, polite, obedient, and simply paid no attention to the uniformed men and women with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. If everyone remained peaceful during the promised qi gong exercises, chanting, and inspirational sermon, then there was no reason for anyone to get hurt. Sure, photos would be taken and a few people held for questioning, but the plain fact was that the Ministry of Public Security wasn't prepared on such short notice to detain more than a thousand people. There had been enough time, however, for the government to request that a camera crew from a state-run television station cover the event, and Hulan felt a certain amount of confusion about this.
Five years ago she had made a deal with some of the most powerful men in her country, who secretly guided China from a compound situated across the lake from where Hulan lived. She had been brought before them at the conclusion of the Knight International case, in which more than 150 women had lost their lives in a horrible fire in an American-owned toy factory operating deep in China's interior. The "men across the lake," as Hulan referred to them, told her they would let her marry the American attorney David Stark and give birth to her half-breed daughter-both of which were questionable actions under Chinese law and custom. They told her they would keep her name out of the media for good or bad. In exchange, Hulan had to promise she would follow the party line, obey orders without question, eliminate her eccentric methods, and keep the pact a secret among her, the men across the lake, and her mentor and superior, Vice Minister Zai. Hulan had agreed to the conditions, hoping they would allow her to have the private life she'd always longed for. But of course the game had changed. Her daughter had died and her marriage to David . . .
She forced herself not to think of that right now. Instead she turned her attention back to the television crew. They had a good vantage point on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, from which they could survey the entire square. Hulan recognized one of the reporters-a woman with a shrill voice who for many years had been the eager mouthpiece of the government. Her words carried on the humid air like rotting garbage, insisting that the government was not instigating a crackdown against the All-Patriotic Society but showing its tolerance by letting the group meet here today.
Hulan sighed. She would need to take extra care as she moved through the crowd, because she didn't want to be noticed by the camera crew. Still, Liu Hulan was easy to spot amid the other Beijingers here this morning. It wasn't that she dressed in a colorful way, for these days Beijing's residents embraced the most vibrant colors they could find. It wasn't that she wore designer clothes, although she certainly could afford to shop at any of the foreign-designer boutiques now in the city. Rather, she dressed in the most exquisite clothes of the finest silks, all of which had once belonged to her mother, her grandmother, or her other colorful ancestors. Hulan's outfits spoke to the people about her money, taste, social position, and culture; not only did she work for the Ministry of Public Security-perhaps the most feared of China's law enforcement agencies-but she also had to be a Red Princess, the wealthy daughter or granddaughter of someone who had gone on the Long March with Mao Zedong.
Hulan had been born in Beijing and had the happy and privileged upbringing befitting the child of two of China's most esteemed personages. At the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, when Hulan was twelve, she'd been sent to the countryside to "learn from the peasants." She had been brought back to Beijing two years later to denounce her father as part of an ill-conceived effort to save her mother's life. Hulan's father had been sent to labor camp, and Hulan, at age fourteen, had been sent abroad to the United States. After boarding school, college, and law school, Hulan had become an associate at Phillips & MacKenzie, where she met David. They'd fallen in love, had lived together, and then twelve years ago she'd come back to China. Seven years later, Hulan and David had been brought together here in Beijing to work on two difficult and heartbreaking cases. In the first, Hulan's father-who had been fully rehabilitated and had become a high-ranking cadre-had died and the nation had held her responsible. The second was the Knight International case, which had begun as an investigation into suspicious working conditions and had ended in the deadly conflagration. Hulan herself had nearly died that day, and for a long time there was great concern for the well-being of her unborn child. The men across the lake successfully controlled the story of Hulan's role in that case. But although Hulan had been spared another round of public criticism, she'd blamed herself for the many deaths. She had been named for a martyr of the revolution, she told David at the time. She should have done more.
Now Hulan paced along the edges of the crowd, searching for the faces of known troublemakers who could be rounded up later. At one point she caught sight of Neighborhood Committee Director Zhang, the old woman who kept track of all the comings and goings in Hulan's hutong neighborhood. Madame Zhang had to know that this group was banned, but she was here now with her eyes closed and her wizened face rapt with spiritual feeling. Hulan should have suspected she might show up. Madame Zhang, who had been on the cutting edge of the yang ge dance craze a few years ago, would have to be up to the minute with the All-Patriotic Society and its appealingly accessible rituals.
In a country where aphorisms and slogans had forever been used to teach, influence, and coerce, the members of the All-Patriotic Society assembled here today were already well-versed in a variety of seemingly innocuous phrases, which they began chanting. "Be reverent," they intoned again and again before they switched to "The river brings us life." No one seemed frightened or anxious. Why should they be? They were not members of the Falun Gong, which was not permitted to use the square under any circumstances. They were reverent, and as such they felt righteous and safe.
Hulan circulated until she spotted a woman with a little girl about four years old. They looked poor-perhaps the woman had come from the countryside to the capital to look for work. If so, her presence in the city was against the law, which may have accounted for the anxious way she kept looking around. But there was something else about her that was troubling. Her hair was unkempt, and not only were her clothes dirty but the buttons on her blouse were all off by one. Still, the daughter was impeccably clean and beautifully turned out given their circumstances. The woman squatted on the ground so that she was eye-level with her daughter. Her hands worried over every inch of the girl, tweaking the neckline of her T-shirt, pulling at the hems of her shorts, and retying her red tennis shoes. All the while the little girl-her cheeks shiny and pink-chattered nonstop about nothing important, just Mama this and Mama that. A bag lay next to them. Hulan imagined what was
inside-perhaps an orange for the girl, maybe another change of clothes, a toy if they had enough money. An ache began in Hulan's chest, and she looked away.
At 6:15, a man jumped up on a small wooden platform and held up his hands for silence. He looked to be about thirty, but he could have been much older. He was ruggedly handsome, and his hair was a bit longer than the custom. As the crowd quieted, he dropped one hand and held himself in a posture reminiscent of Mao as a young revolutionary. "I am Tang Wenting, a lieutenant of the All-Patriotic Society."
Hulan could have arrested him right then, but she wanted to hear what he had to say. She'd use his speech against him later, during interrogations.
"We meet in the light of Xiao Da's grace," Tang Wenting announced.
"Xiao Da, Xiao Da, Xiao Da," the followers murmured, and the sound echoed beautifully through the square.
As the lieutenant let the name wash over him, Hulan wondered not for the first time about the mysterious Xiao Da, the self-proclaimed leader of the All-Patriotic Society, who'd pulled off a semi-miracle in keeping his true identity a secret in a nation where there were no secrets. The fact that Xiao Da had been able to move through the countryside holding underground meetings for the last three years not only increased his legend but also exasperated the government. Numerous arrests had been made and many people sentenced to labor camp. On several occasions Hulan had tried to negotiate lesser sentences in exchange for the identity of Xiao Da, knowing that once he was gone the group would collapse. But either no one knew Xiao Da's identity or they weren't yet ready to give him up. It was all very annoying. Even his name irritated Hulan. Xiao Da-Little Big-what was that supposed to mean anyway?
Hulan's eyes sought out the little girl she'd seen before. The mother was holding her daughter tightly by the waist, forcing her to watch the lieutenant. The woman had her lips to one of the girl's ears and was whispering intensely. The child's eyes were wide not with excitement but with fear, though Hulan couldn't understand why. The girl stayed quiet, refusing to say a word against the whispered barrage and remaining still within her mother's grip, which seemed to tighten as the All-Patriotic Society lieutenant droned on. It occurred to Hulan that maybe the woman wasn't a country bumpkin or even a true Society follower at all, just a mother who had lost her connection to the real world.
"Our political leaders tell us to give up the old ways," Tang Wenting lectured. "They tell us, 'To get rich is glorious!' But Xiao Da says we must say no to these new ways. We must repudiate technology and social progress, and go back to honoring old traditions and old values. . . ."
Fifteen minutes later, the sun broke across the square and Hulan could see its instantaneous effect on the religious adherents. Beijing languished in the midst of Fu Tian, that debilitating period of Give-Up Weather between July and August, when the heat and humidity were at their most ominous and oppressive. Unprotected as it was, Tiananmen was not a place to be during the heat of the day. It was time to head home or to work.
The lieutenant caught the subtle change in the crowd. "Before you go, I have a few words from Xiao Da's own lips that he asked me to impart to you. Soon Xiao Da will step out of the darkness and into the light. When he does, he will bring with him an object that will unite all of the Chinese people. With it in his hand, evil will be punished. Those who are reverent will triumph. Together we will follow Xiao Da."
This kind of rhetoric was exactly why the government perceived the All-Patriotic Society to be a threat.
The young man bent his head piously as voices throughout the square sang out, "Xiao Da, Xiao Da, Xiao Da."
He looked up and said, "Now is the time to remember our tributes. Nine Virtues, Nine Grades, Nine Tributes."
The All-Patriotic Society had grown quickly in three years. Although the group counted fewer members than the Falun Gong, the Ministry of Public Security had internal estimates of 20 million followers, nearly all of whom lived in the countryside. Once initiated, they donated their hard-earned salaries and sometimes their savings to the sect, based on a secret tithing scale involving nine grades. A lot of money was ending up in Xiao Da's pocket, and Hulan didn't want that custom to take hold in Beijing. She turned to signal to the policemen to round up anyone holding a collection basket.
Suddenly she heard a woman's voice scream, "For Xiao Da!"
Hulan spun around. The mother who moments before had been whispering into her daughter's ear now stood fully erect, her neck stretched so she could see above the crowd to the lieutenant. In one hand she held on to the back of her daughter's T-shirt; in the other she held a cleaver, which she must have brought with her in her bag. The blade was a good ten centimeters wide.
Everyone here was Chinese; all knew from experience when something bad was going to happen. People started to edge away and push each other to get out of there. For a moment Hulan lost sight of the mother and daughter altogether. She heard Tang Wenting's voice shout out: "Be calm! Xiao Da would want you all to be calm!"
Miraculously, the crowd responded to his words, slowing down, quieting.
"We need to help our sister," he went on. "Tell me, sister! What do you want to tell Xiao Da? Have you come to renounce alcohol, tobacco, and fornication? We are all with you!"
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of China Dolls, Dreams of Joy, Shanghai Girls, Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.