Read Dragon Bones Online

Authors: Lisa See

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Thrillers, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths

Dragon Bones

ALSO BY LISA SEE
The Interior
Flower Net
On Gold Mountain

For my sisters
Ariana and Clara

The
Shu Ching: Book of History
is one of the three oldest books in the world. A collection of speeches, canons, proclamations, and dialogues dating from 2357
B.C.
to 631
B.C.
, the
Shu Ching
is as fundamental to Eastern thought and culture as Plato and Aristotle are to Western. In 213
B.C.
, during the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty, Emperor Qinshihuangdi ordered the
Shu Ching—
and all ancient manuscripts—burned. Han Dynasty scholars worked to save the words, seeking out fragments of text and re-creating history that had been lost. Although several sections of the
Shu Ching
have questionable authenticity and sometimes seem to fall more within the realm of myth than history, recent archaeological finds have begun to lend veracity to even the most unlikely claims.….

PROLOGUE

THE MAN WAS DEAD BY THE TIME HIS BODY HIT THE SWIRLING
muddy waters of the Yangzi River just below the first of the Three Gorges. With no panicked attempts to reach for the safety of land or a protruding rock, with no last agonized breaths to endeavor, with no searing pain of water being gulped into lungs, the body was simply swept away by the fast-moving current. How quickly he cooled in the chilly pools. How swiftly he moved in these first few minutes with no obstacles in his way.

Each mile sent the man relentlessly forward past villages gray with age, factories that belched fetid smoke, and drainpipes that spewed loathsome refuse, chemicals, and raw sewage into the river. As he went, his skin wrinkled and began to peel. Internal gases formed, keeping him afloat. He often traveled as much as thirty feet per second, and the top of his head pounded into jagged rocks and rough cliff edges, tearing away tufts of hair and scalp. But other times the river widened and slowed, becoming shallow and treacherous to navigate. More than once the body was caught in the swirl of a whirlpool or on the edge of a sandbar before a shift in the current or the ripple of waves from a passing vessel freed him.

Did anyone see this
shui da bang—
water log—in its pitiless migration to the sea? The waters of this snake of a river had a drainage of more than 700,000 square miles, nearly one-fifth of China’s total landmass. It divided the country into north and south in matters as basic as temperament, food, and religion. The Yangzi directly affected one-third of China’s population, more than 400 million people—nearly one of every thirteen people on the face of the earth. So of course people saw the body. More than once a fisherman or a hand aboard a barge spotted the flash of ivory flesh bobbing in the murky waves. Ah, could it be a
baiji—
a white dolphin? Legend said white dolphins were girls who’d been transformed into water creatures. Today the
baiji
left on this river could be counted in the mere dozens, and some said that none had survived the pollution and the boat traffic. Could that flash of white possibly have been a
baiji
? A little miracle in this watery gash in the earth?

Soon the body entered the city limits of Wushan, where the startlingly green current of the Daning River poured into the muddy Yangzi. Sampans carried fishermen. Huge ferries bore men and women up and down the river to work, visit relatives, find better lives. Naked children played on inner tubes, laughing and teasing each other. One boy bumped into the corpse and for a moment mistook it for a friend pretending to be dead. Hadn’t they all done the dead man’s float at one time or another? The boy kicked at the body, and when he felt his toes sink in, then in some more into the rotting flesh, he drew away, swimming fast, not once mentioning to his friends his horror at what he’d encountered. He simply sidled alongside one of the small boats that carried tourists from their cruise ships on excursions up the Daning. If he smiled enough, if he waved heartily, if he called out “Welcome, welcome” as the fat foreigners snapped their photos, then he might just swim away with a few
yuan
before they chugged up the Daning to see the Lesser Three Gorges.

The body whooshed into the Wu Gorge, the second of the Three Gorges. The cliffs were so high that the sun barely penetrated down to the river. High, high up rose the Goddess Peak, which resembled a young woman kneeling before a pillar, with eleven peaks nearby. The local people believed this to be the embodiment of Yao Ji, the twenty-third daughter of the Queen Mother of the West, and her eleven handmaidens. Yao Ji had once occupied herself by wandering the mountains and riverbanks of the mortal world. While floating on a cloud one day, she’d discovered twelve dragons wreaking havoc on the river, causing hardship and death to mortal men and women. She called upon Yu the Great, endowed him with the power to control weather and move earth, then watched as he sliced open the gorges to lead the waters to the sea. Today the Goddess Peak was reputed to bring luck to those who glimpsed her in the shrouded mists, but there was no luck for the body, just the constant pull to the sea, as though Yu the Great himself had ordained it.

But wasn’t that just a myth designed to explain this river, which remained an enigma not only to her people but to the outside world? In a country where legend, history, and politics were always woven together, most Chinese didn’t even know the word
Yangzi,
which was the name for the last 200 miles of river, where it ran through the ancient fiefdom of Yang. As a nation, the Chinese called this waterway
Chang Jiang,
Long River, or
Da Jiang,
Great River, but those who lived on its banks had named every stretch of its 4,000 miles to reflect the nature of the water in that place—the Wild Yak River, the River of Golden Sand, Beautiful River, Ba River.

All this was beyond the comprehension of the rotting piece of flesh. Sometimes there were hours of gentle waters, of peaceful drift, of quiet shorelines and tranquil coves where a lone farmer worked a tiny patch, where a wife—her pants rolled above her knees—washed her family’s clothes on the rocks, where an older sister minded her little brother. For hours everything was reduced to the sun, the sky, and the primeval push of water through rock. But there were cities too, where apartments hugged the river’s edge and boats of all sizes vied for position. Superficially it may have seemed as though life were going on as usual—working, being with family, attending patriotic meetings, playing cards, strolling with a pretty girl, sitting with an ailing parent—but a sense of urgency hung over everything.

High on the cliffs, swatches of white paint at 177 meters above the riverbed proclaimed the future height of the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam. In seven years, when the reservoir finished forming, everything below those lines would be inundated. Between Yichang and Chongqing, well over a million people would be moved from their ancestral homes. The lucky few—those with good connections—would get residence certificates for cities. Others would be transplanted to new towns made up of high-rise after high-rise that stood out stark and white far above the future high-water mark. The unfortunate ones—the majority, in fact—would be sent to distant provinces. Promises had been made, but already some who’d been sent afar had returned with tales of hardship. What would become of them now? Could those people, who’d suffered so much in this tumultuous land, suffer any more?

And could the body, which continued on, suffer more, endure more? Caught in the propellers of passing boats, his skin shredded and tore. After his shirt disintegrated, birds swooped down and picked at the flesh on his back. As he traveled into the Xiling Gorge, the last of the Three Gorges, turtles and fish nibbled and ripped at the soft parts of his face—the eyelids, lips, and ears.

Suddenly he was at the dam site itself. This project, when completed, would be one of the greatest man-made edifices in the history of the world. The whole site was a mass of giant machines, concrete, and steel. Men and women worked round the clock, sending the dam higher and higher inch by inch toward its final height of 607 feet and over a mile in width. A sense of purpose imbued every boulder dynamited into gravel, every ton of earth moved, every mile of rebar tied down, every lock completed and opened for use. This would be China’s greatest achievement—the completion of a dream for her people and a message to the world of her supremacy. And, not so incidentally, the dam would also generate electricity equivalent to eighteen nuclear power plants. This was not just nationalist power but power in its rawest, truest form.

A cofferdam diverted the river so that the work could go on. The body swept through those torrential waters in moments, then suddenly, amazingly, the land flattened. Fields stretched out for miles on either bank. There would be places now where the river would be more than two miles across, its torrents reduced to a gentle but implacable surge. The city of Shanghai still beckoned. Below that, the estuary spread out across fifty miles, with silt deposits projecting another mile of Chinese mainland every seventy years.

Along the river’s course, shrines had been built as remembrances of terrible tragedies, pagodas rose to warn sailors of hidden navigational dangers, and temples reminded those who passed of the grandeur and risks of this place. But for every monument that cautioned passersby to
pay attention—
man was nothing, the river was all—other spots brought that message down to its most intimate human scale. For millennia a little spit of land protruded into the river just below the town of Anqing, where for the last three centuries the Jia clan had lived and worked the earth.

Every morning Jia Mingfu walked the banks to remove and sometimes salvage the trash that had come to rest. He’d seen trees that had journeyed all the way down from the headwaters high in Tibet, cans of string beans that had been sucked out of cottages, pieces of boats that had been ripped into splinters. He’d also seen more than his fair share of death. Flood season always brought down others like himself—farmers and their families who’d been washed off their land—while in winter he found the occasional young man or woman. The river wasn’t that dangerous then, but the shortness of the days brought out a melancholy turn of mind, and broken love affairs were too much to bear.

Jia Mingfu knew by the smell that a body—perhaps human, perhaps animal—awaited him. He gripped the stick that he carried on these excursions a little more tightly as he hardened his heart for what he knew he would see—a corpse ravaged by exposure to water, rocks, the sun, wildlife, and the natural decomposition of flesh. As he’d done so many times before, he used his stick to brush away some of the trash that had accumulated on the body. Despite its journey, the dead thing was most definitely human, with its arms and legs still attached. But this creature with its red hair was no ordinary man. He was a
yang guizi,
a white devil, a foreigner.

THE IMPERIAL DOMAIN

(Dian Fu)

The Imperial Domain extends 500
li
in each direction from the capital. This is the most populous domain, the seat of power, and the heart of geography. The Central Nation should truly be central.

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.

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