China Conversation

Connecting Across Time and Culture8 min read

Historical mystery writer Elsa Hart in conversation with Jonathan Chatwin

Elsa Hart is the author of three historical mysteries set in 18th-century China: Jade Dragon Mountain, The White Mirror, and, most recently, City of Ink, which finds the scholar-exile Li Du returned to his home in imperial Beijing.

Where did your interest in China – and the particular period of imperial Chinese history you deal with in your novels – come from?

My interest in 18th-century China developed during days spent on the scree slopes and alpine meadows of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province. I traveled to Kunming and Lijiang for the first time in 2010 when my husband, a biologist who studies mountain plants, was doing fieldwork for his dissertation. We returned to the area in 2011 and spent most of the following three years there. It was in Lijiang that I learned about the network of old trade routes between China and Tibet known as the Tea Horse Road. And a visit to the ancient observatory in Beijing inspired me to read about the Jesuits who oversaw the construction of its instruments in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Could you describe your research and writing process?

I begin each novel with several months of eclectic historical research, constrained only by the trajectory established for my protagonist by the preceding books. I spend time in museums and, if possible, in the geographical area that is to be the setting for the story. Because I structure my plots as mysteries, much of what I look for in this initial phase are motives to commit murder. Ideally, those motives are both connected to the historical setting and accessible to a contemporary audience. I look for rivalries (such as the competition between Jesuits and Dominicans for influence in China), insecurities (such as the need the Kangxi Emperor felt to legitimize the fledgling Qing Dynasty), and actions taken in pursuit of wealth (such as the attempts made by the British East India Company to further its business interests in the East). When a plot begins to emerge, I step away from research and devote a few months to making an outline and getting to know my characters. The third and longest phase is simultaneous writing and research. For example, I might write for a few hours until I come to a room I cannot describe, then pause to research how it might be furnished.

How much do you feel you need to know the worlds you write about, in strict historical terms, before you begin?

Historical fiction falls along a spectrum. On one end are books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, that adhere closely to the historical record. Because the plots of these books are drawn from history, they use the tools of fiction more for structure and style than for plot construction. On the other end are books like mine that, despite being set in a real place, incorporate very few of the events that history records. It is important to me that my books are well-researched, but I prioritize making the world I describe consistent within itself. This also acknowledges my limitations! Keeping the historical setting at a distance eases the challenge of making it convincing.

What are the key historical works that you turn to for information on the period?

Because my books are tightly constructed around a small number of fictional characters over a period of a few days, I am generally able to find sufficient historical background in books on specific subjects. I like to glean general information from books that focus on individuals with unique personalities, or otherwise bring the period to life. Works that have been major influences include Xu Xiake (1587-1641): The Art of Travel Writing by Julian Ward; True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China: Twenty Case Histories by Robert E. Hegel; and Treason by the Book by Jonathan Spence.

I like to use primary sources when I can. Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi by Jonathan Spence; Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri S.J., translated by Michael J. Sweet; and the ‘Bookman’s Manual,’ translated by Achilles Fang in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, were essential sources for, respectively, Jade Dragon Mountain, The White Mirror, and City of Ink. Of course, I’m deeply indebted to the translators, editors, and compilers of these books – and the wealth of information in their introductions, notes and cited works.

How do you get inside the minds of characters so culturally and historically distant?

When I read accounts written in the 17th and 18th centuries – Jesuit letters, edicts from Emperor Kangxi, the journals of [Ming Dynasty travel writer and geographer] Xu Xiake – I look for places where these writers of the past describe situations that feel contemporary and relatable. For example, Father de Fontaney, in a letter written in 1688, captures the cautious attempts of the newly arrived Jesuits to flatter the Emperor. Meanwhile, Kangxi was recording his own impressions of the Jesuits with a mixture of contempt and respect.

When I read Xu Xiake’s description of being on a mountain summit, I connected to it so strongly that it helped me better understand my own reaction to being on a mountain:

As the evening sun went down, the light was maintained by a clear moon, and all of nature was still, the sky awash with blue… I was not frightened by the crowds of mountain spirits and the strange beasts hemming me in, let alone the unmoving silence, for I was wandering in the Ultimate Void.

My strategy is to look for these moments of connection across time and culture, and use them to the best of my ability to bring life and authenticity to the characters in my books.

In your new book, City of Ink, your protagonist returns to Beijing. Where did you look for details on the city in that period? There isn’t a great deal of writing in English on that era of Beijing in the 18th century.

Yes indeed – there isn’t a lot available in English! I actually drew inspiration from the difficulty. The title of the book alludes to this. Cities of the past, especially those like Beijing that have retained relatively little of their original architecture, exist only in the descriptions we have of them. These descriptions can be limited by a writer’s lack of knowledge – as are descriptions of Beijing given by Jesuits, to be found in their Lettres Édifiantes et Curieuses, published between 1702 and 1776 – or by deliberate obfuscation. I saw thematic potential in the idea that a city drawn or described becomes malleable, sketchy, incomplete.

That said, I did rely heavily on Peking Temples and City Life 1400-1900 by Susan Naquin and, for descriptions of the examination yard, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China by Benjamin Elman. There is also a detailed survey map of Beijing that was made during Qianlong’s reign which is available online. On a research trip to the city, I was able to overlay the Qianlong map onto Google Earth, and walk the paths my characters were to take in the book.

What advice would you give to writers starting out on researching China?

My advice is perhaps specific to the kind of writing I do. It is to begin research unselfconsciously. Visit a museum and look at art from the period that interests you. If you are moved by a little figure in a mountain landscape, read about the artist. If you read a poem that makes a moment real to you, read about the poet and the allusions contained in the piece. If you look at a porcelain bowl in a display case and feel as if you are falling into the color of the glaze, find out what is known about that color. Given the vastness and complexity of history, starting with a lot of general information can be so overwhelming that it stops you from moving forward.

My second piece of advice is to maintain an awareness of the scope of your project, and be honest with yourself about what you can say with authority.

What’s your next project?

My fourth book is set in the same early 18th-century world of travelers, but the action shifts to a new location and set of characters in London. I was inspired by a strange community of collectors, gardeners and scientists whose passions and fortunes formed the first natural history museums. These were the sort of people who dispatched collectors like Hugh Ashton in Jade Dragon Mountain off to China, and who received their letters, specimens, and in some cases reports of their deaths abroad. My research suggests motives aplenty for murder. ∎

Further reading:

Jonathan Chatwin

Jonathan Chatwin’s travelogue Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China will be published in summer 2019. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin (a distant relation).