This is a detective story set in Beijing that provides a glimpse into life in modern China with all its contradictions. The central character, Mei, is a private detective. She is approached by a family friend, Uncle Chen, to look for a Han dynasty jade seal. The seal had gone missing during the Cultural Revolution when the Red Guards destroyed many historical artefacts. Because so many of them were lost, the surviving artefacts are extremely valuable. If the jade were found, it would be a national treasure, but Uncle Chen wants to sell it on the black market. Mei, in spite of her better judgement, decides to take on the case.
The hunt for the jade is less important in itself than in what it unearths. The Cultural Revolution still throws long shadows: Mei’s father was sent to labour camp for being an intellectual. The family went with him, but her mother managed to get herself and her two daughters out, and Mei’s father eventually died in the camp.
Mei’s relationship with her mother is central to the book. It is a complicated one (as it often is). Mei adored her father and couldn’t understood why her mother abandoned him, and never really forgave her for it. Her mother wants her daughters to be successful and to be able to play the game, so to speak—something that Mei refuses to do. She feels that she has disappointed her mother.
Mei had a prestigious job at the Chinese State Security but, for reasons that become clear later, had to leave. She works on the margins, as private detectives are banned in China, relying on some of her contacts in State Security to help her. She earns enough to have her own apartment, a car and a very useful male assistant, but it’s not much compared to her sister Lu, who is extremely successful in television and is about to marry a rich man.
Mei’s mother has a stroke, which lands her in hospital. Who is the mysterious man who Uncle Chen brings to visit her? There are obviously family secrets that Mei knows nothing about. What is the eye of the jade? Although the old proverb says that the truth shall set you free, when Mei finally learns the truth, it is not liberating.
What I enjoyed about this book was the glimpse of life in modern China. On the surface, it seems to be a consumer society like many others, where money rules. However, the fallout from the Cultural Revolution still affects people, even those who were very young when it happened. It feels like different historical periods coexist in the city, along with the ever-present ghosts of the past.
Diane Wei Liang was in a labour camp with her parents when she was a child, and was part of the Tiananmen Square demonstration as a young woman. I think this book could have been longer with more about China’s past. As it stands, it is a light, enjoyable read, but one that could have done with a bit more heft.