Another historical novel about love among the ruins of the Celestial Empire. Someday Jonathan Spence or another Sinologist will tell us what this literary escapism really means. Right now, it means "Jade: A Novel of China" by Pat Barr, a vast, many-storied pagoda of a book set in the second half of the 19th century, when the Middle Kingdom resembled a disturbed anthill and the gunboats of the Great Powers guaranteed the barbarians' privileges.
As with other recent novels about China ("Tai-Pan," "Noble House," "Dynasty" and "Spring Moon"), "Jade" is mainly about culture shock.
Plucky Alice Greenwood's missionary father is massacred in Tientsin in 1879. Kidnaped to distant Hunan province, she becomes an abused house servant in the service of the patriarch of a wealthy clan. After a time, the patriarch -- Most Honorable or Dragon Brightness as he is called in the characteristic way of these novels -- makes Alice, now called Uncut Jade, his concubine. The teen-age barbarian is instructed in the lovemaking techniques of the pillow books, which she rather enjoys.
When Dragon Brightness is away, other women in the household abuse Uncut Jade. She flees, loses her baby, and, after several harrowing adventures, arrives in the British colony of Hong Kong.
In her travels, Alice/Uncut Jade has met Lin Fu-wei, a young revolutionary. They are attracted, a chemistry enhanced by the young Englishwoman's apparent command of Chinese in multiple dialects. However, Alice goes to live in Mukden with her long-lost mother, now remarried to another missionary, a sullen Bible-thumper. The stepfather makes sexual advances, and a shocked Alice flees to Port Arthur to live with an older brother, an official in the celebrated Imperial Chinese Customs Service, the international revenue agency administered by Sir Robert Hart.
Lin Fu-wei reappears, and the two young people fall head-over-heels in love. Unhappily, the older brother discovers them entwined in bed one day and Uncut Jade has to pack up again, this time to Shanghai, the great commercial center of British trade.
We are at this point less than halfway through a very long novel. Ahead lies more torment as Alice/Uncut Jade lives through the siege of Port Arthur (not the Russian defeat, but the Chinese one, in 1894) and the Boxer Rebellion. She eventually marries a wimpy English trader and is widowed, whereupon she sets up on her own in Peking as a trader in jade and objets d'art. She campaigns against the insidious practice of foot-binding and -- heavens! -- translates into Chinese John Stuart Mill's treatise on the subjection of women. At the very end, Alice, now called Polished Jade to indicate the finishing of her education, sails for home, for England, where she has never been. There are hints she will return. Dare we hope for a sequel? Still ahead is all the tumult of 20th-century China. And does not Mao Tse-tung himself, like Jade, come from Hunan?
At its best, "Jade" carries the reader along effortlessly. One certainly gets a sense of the sweep and variety of the old China, built up through a mosaic of snapshots: compradores and Manchus, Sikh policemen in the British concessions, the Yangtze river trade, a typhoon, an opium den. Author Barr has woven what is evidently a lot of scholarly reading into her text. If one hasn't read the poetry translations of Arthur Waley or Witter Bynner elsewhere, there's no harm reading Tu-fu here:
"The colours of autumn are fresh in the wind and rain . . . though the virgins have all gone their way to the yellow graves . . . in dark rooms ghost-green fires are shining . . ."
At its worst, "Jade" clunks along mechanically, the dialogue filling in clunks of the historical background: "Tush, that's putting it too strongly, Mary. But certainly now that Pax Britannica has descended over all and even Afghanistan seems quiet, there's precious little excitement in the military life. I might as well go trading trinkets like you, Charles."
But Barr infuses her Western characters with contemporary values in a way that rings false. Her missionaries are all bigots or hapless dreamers. Her Chinese characters are lifeless caricatures. And what can this Scottish missionary daughter's lust for Chinese men possibly mean? I could have skipped some of the pleas for sexual toleration in order to learn what the Dowager Empress and her eunuchs were up to.
So, in the end, "Jade" disappoints, despite its exotic background and adventurous plot. Of the many new China novels around, the best remains "Spring Moon" by Bette Bao Lord, which teems with cultural nuance and believable characters, and is filled with the idealism of a great people.