Mandarin Gate

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mandarin gateMandarin Gate
Eliot Pattison
Minotaur Books; First Edition November 27, 2012
ISBN 978-0312656041

It is hard to look into the face of evil. I am not talking here about the evil of insane individuals or coercive abuse of unequal power relationships, as difficult as those may be to bear. At least we can harbour the hope that individuals can be rehabilitated, that society as a whole is not like that, or that we can understand the reasons for their rogue behaviour.

I am talking about the systematic, pervasive, crushing evil of totalitarianism. Imagine for a moment that George Orwell’s “1984” wasn’t fiction. Imagine that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was the blueprint for society. Imagine Hitler won the war.

Now, try to understand that those things actually did come true when Communist Chinese forces invaded Tibet in 1949. For more than 60 years, the Chinese government has continued its genocide in Tibet, unimpeded by outside restraints. Their model Workers’ Paradise in Tibet is not just a humour piece in “The Onion” or a SNL skit; it’s hell on earth.

It is, sadly, not the only one – not by a long shot – but it is one of particular concern to Buddhists. We sometimes can forget that not everyone knows what we know, cares as we do, or is as cynical about the propaganda we encounter saying it isn’t so (oh, yeah, and there’s no connection between smoking and cancer, or oil and global warming either). So it is always revitalizing when we hear from an unexpected quarter that, yes, someone else cares, someone else is speaking truth to power, and we will not forget.

One such voice came to me recently in the shape of Eliot Pattison’s new novel, “Mandarin Gate,” whose Inspector Shan series centres on Shan Tao Yun, an Inspector originally stationed in Beijing. But he lost his position, his family and his freedom when he ran afoul of a powerful figure high in the Chinese government and was subsequently exiled to a concentration camp in Tibet. Released unofficially from the work camp to which he’d been sentenced, Shan has been living in remote mountains of Tibet with a group of outlawed Buddhist monks. Without status, official identity, or the freedom to return to his former home in Beijing, Shan has just begun to settle into his menial job as an inspector of irrigation and sewer ditches in a remote Tibetan township when he encounters a wrenching crime scene. Strewn across the grounds of an old Buddhist temple undergoing restoration are the bodies of two unidentified men and a Tibetan nun. Shan quickly realizes that the murders pose a riddle the Chinese police might in fact be trying to cover up. When he discovers that a nearby village has been converted into a new internment camp for Tibetan dissidents arrested in Beijing’s latest pacification campaign, Shan recognizes the dangerous landscape he has entered. To find justice for the victims and to protect an American woman who witnessed the murders, Shan must navigate through the treacherous worlds of the internment camp, the local criminal gang, and the government’s rabid pacification teams, while coping with his growing doubts about his own identity and role in Tibet.

skull mantraThis is Pattison’s seventh novel in the Inspector Shan series, which began with “The Skull Mantra” in 1999. That first novel won the Edgar award for Best First Mystery Novel of the Year and the series has gone on to achieve huge public success and critical acclaim.

Eliot Pattison’s award-winning Inspector Shan books have been praised not only for their poignant characters and unorthodox plots but also for their stark, heart-wrenching depiction of life in modern Tibet. Translated into twenty languages, the books have been adapted to radio dramas in Europe and become popular on the black market in China. Featuring an exiled and disgraced Chinese investigator who makes a new life among Tibetan lamas after being released from prison, the books cast a long overdue light on an important but oft-neglected part of the world.

For those whose guilty pleasure is detective stories (and I admit to being a member of that group), the Inspector Shan novels will be a revelation. They are all top-notch reading! Some readers may wish to start with the first novel in the series, since it will help illuminate the back-story of many recurring characters. In the later books of the series, nuances of character motivation occasionally fade into the background to focus on plot and setting. Nevertheless, each novel is complete unto itself – a fascinating police procedural set in hell, with the forces of good and evil in full fight. However, in this case, the forces of good are the deeply spiritual Tibetan people and their Buddhist teachers.

Pattison’s website has extensive information about his novels, news, reviews and interviews, explanation of why he writes about Tibet, and a section on how to get actively involved in supporting the Tibetan people.

I recently had the pleasure and privilege to ask Mr. Pattison a few questions about his work…


 Like John Burdett, author of the Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep mysteries set in Thailand, or like the late Tony Hillerman, author of the well known mysteries starring Detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, set in Navajo country, you use exotic locales to explore issues of spirituality and community outside the normative confines of western Judeao-Christian culture. How do you play off the setting of occupied Tibet against police procedural to address spirituality and community?

Fundamentally, the dynamic of occupied Tibet is one of spirituality and ethnic identity against a soulless authoritarian government. Since my lead characters, including in many ways the Chinese Inspector Shan, are committed to Tibetan Buddhist tradition almost any conflict I pose between these characters and the government—and these abound in my books– has an essential spiritual dimension. The setting of Tibet allows vivid, factually based exploration of how spiritual individuals struggle to keep their spiritual identity alive under a government which is obsessed with destroying spiritual traditions.

What challenges and opportunities does the crime genre present, in tackling issues of social justice through this lens?

The single biggest challenge is simply that some readers dismiss the entire crime and mystery genre as shallow and incapable of dealing with deeper issues like social justice. The great opportunity this genre represents is the dedicated readership which keeps it one of the most active and widespread in publishing today. I take real satisfaction in the regular messages I get from readers around the world who say that they never understood the social issues in Tibet until they read my books, especially those who say the books inspired them to become active in the Tibetan cause.

Where do you do your research, and how do you know the picture you are painting is authentic? How do you avoid making it a “Tibet for Dummies” version for readers with no background knowledge about the last 60 years of Tibet’s history?

I have been a student of Buddhism and central Asian history ever since I was in college—starting with Eastern Religions studies at Indiana University—so that when I embarked on the series over ten years ago I was already equipped with broad knowledge of the traditions and cultures I highlight in my books. This has been supplemented by extensive travel in the region and my ever-expanding personal library of Tibetan materials. Each of my books has a particular backstory focus—Tibetan medicine or Tibetan artwork, for example—and I do more focused research on these themes as I write. An author has a responsibility when painting his backdrop to be sure it is accurately represented, and I am fastidious about keeping the elements of my backstory factually accurate.

I seek to keep readers of all levels of background knowledge interested by keeping the characters interesting, then integrating the factual/cultural background into the character development. It is impossible to separate these characters from their culture, so readers who invest their time in following them are also inevitably learning about the culture.

Your representation of Tibet is horrific – more dehumanized than George Orwell’s “1984” and more grinding than Alexandr Solzhenitzin’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Since you began writing the Inspector Shan series with “Skull Mantra” in 1999, things have gone from bad to worse for the Tibetan people. Do you believe there is any hope for Tibet? How will it achieve some salvation?

Things were bad enough in Tibet when I began the Shan series in 1999, but it has indeed gotten much worse. The series deliberately tracks these developments, so that the context in the latest novel, Mandarin Gate, is darker and the backstory presents more of a crisis than ever. The fundamental inspiration for the novels is, of course, the terrific spiritual strength of the Tibetan people, and as long as that strength endures there will be hope. Ultimately, however, if Tibet is to be saved, it is going to be because of changes in Beijing brought by pressure from outside of China and ever greater activism within China itself.

Qiangba Puncog, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region, was recently quoted as saying: ‎”We don’t really welcome some people, who think Tibet has many problems, human rights problems. They’re so arrogant, wanting to conduct investigations in Tibet. It is not appropriate.” How would you respond to that?

 Obviously, the essence of the statement is that “we really don’t want outsiders conducting investigations” because those officials have a horrific, indefensible human rights record in Tibet. The size and scope of the cultural genocide practiced by China in Tibet is really unparalleled in human history. Moral, socially responsible people everywhere not only have the right to pressure China over its egregious conduct, they have an obligation to do so. The Tibetan people have been punished solely because a more technically advanced government wanted their land, wanted their resources, wanted to increase their leverage on the global stage. We allowed that to happen. As an ancient Greek once said, when a good man is hurt, all who would be good suffer with him. We are all Tibetans in that sense. The damage to the Tibetan world is an injury to our entire world.

Xi Jinping, the new leader of China, is being touted by some as “China’s Gorbachov,” and they predict a softening in China’s position on reform. Others see him as a figurehead for a very conservative new leadership team. How do you see it?

 The leadership team in Beijing remains a self-obsessed, geriatric clique whose failure to respond to the real needs of their people has done profound damage to China. There is no tangible sign that their policies will change anytime soon.

Tibet has been devastated recently by a wave of more than 90 self-immolations by Tibetans who have found no other effective way to bring the world’s attention to their plight under the Chinese occupation of their country. What changes do you think are possible within the real-politik of China to create a more equitable, open and happy Tibet?

 Meaningful steps toward reform in Tibet have been offered on a regular basis by the exile government of Tibet. Beijing continues to distance itself from that government and deliberately seeks to polarize relations with it. For the near term the most important lever against Beijing’s actions is pressure from the West, and when the West truly engages on the issues and gets Beijing’s attention many positive changes are possible, starting with the dismantling of the many internment camps and prisons for political prisoners and “deregulation” of religious practice.

Tibetan diaspora communities have been shocked and deeply saddened by ongoing efforts by New Kadampa cultists and Sxxxden supporters, well-funded from other (possibly Chinese?) sources, trying to create confusion and discord among them, particularly trying to alienate them from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Ritual murder has been one of their tactics. Is that something Inspector Shan might ever investigate? Will he ever be sent out of Tibet to solve crimes? And would he defect?

 Inspector Shan does not shy away from politicized crimes, and while he is not likely to defect, he has traveled outside China in a prior book and may do so again.

In your practice as a lawyer specializing in international law, do you ever go to China? How are you received there? Do you think your books would ever be translated into Chinese?

 I have traveled to China many times. The Chinese government is smart enough not to make a fuss over its critics. Although English language editions are sold in the black market there, my books will never be translated within China under the current regime. The People’s Republic enforces rigid censorship over references to Tibet, as a simple experiment can readily prove: search the “Dalai Lama” on our internet and you will get millions of hits, but search the name on a Chinese search engine and you will get zero hits.

Your success with the Inspector Shan books has been spectacular, with seven books in the series since you started writing them in 1999. How has Shan grown and/or changed over those years, and can readers jump in with your latest, “Mandarin Gate,” without all the back-story?

 Readers can start with any of my Shan books—they are standalone stories, just with a few recurring characters. Shan has grown to be more devout and more devoted to his Tibetan companions through the years, and recently has been showing more inclination toward overt criticism of the government–for which he  pays a painful price.

Eliot Pattison
December 2012

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