Award-winning historical mystery author P.A. De Voe is an anthropologist with a PhD in Asian studies and a specialty in China. She has written several books and short stories featuring the Ming Dynasty. Learn more about P.A. and her books at her website.
China is a highly diverse country whose diversity can be broken down in various ways, for example, by region (north, south, west), province, or language. Deadly Relations, A Ming Dynasty Mystery is a late fourteenth century story set in the southeastern province of Jiangxi in the market town of Jian.
While my Jian is fictional, I wanted it to reflect important characteristics of southern villages and towns and which I could use in developing the characters and plot line of my new Ming Dynasty Mysteries series. First, the majority, if not all, of the residents belonged to only one or two patrilineal clans. That is, the families were all directly related to one another through the father’s line. When women married, they married out of their patrilineal home and moved to their husband’s family’s house in another village. Therefore, all of the married women would normally be from other villages or towns. As a result of this living arrangement, the husband had lots of family around him, and the wife had no one around her from her own natal family. Another consequence of this pattern, intended or not, was that most women transferred their identity, loyalty, and attachment to the husband’s family and its interests. I pursue this idea in Deadly Relations, looking at both the positives and negatives that can arise from such a situation.
In Deadly Relations there are two main clans: the Gao and Xin. The Gao clan is the dominant clan; they have the most members, prestige, and control of the town. My protagonist Hong Shu-chang’s mother was a member of the Xin clan, the secondary clan in the village. Because Jian is a market town, however, there would also be non-Gao and Xin living in Jian. They would be immigrants and traders. The normal, everyday Chinese wanted to remain in their home area (the emperor also wanted this!) but famine or war would drive them away in search of economic survival. Nevertheless, no matter how long they stayed in Jian, they were always considered outsiders.
These tight vs. loose networks (i.e., men vs. women, clan members vs. outsiders) allows for interesting dynamics in character development.
Another issue related to north-south differences, is how schooling is treated. Although the emperor encouraged his magistrates to set up public schools for boys, in the south most boys received their education through clan-based schools. A clan-based school was set up and run by a specific clan for its members only. At the death of Hong Shu-chang’s father, his mother’s brother offered him a job as teacher in Jian’s Xin clan school. All of his students are cousins who can trace their family line to a common ancestor.
There were no schools for girls in either the north or the south. If they received any education, it was through home schooling. Shu-chang’s female counterpart, Xin Xiang-hua, is highly educated as a woman’s doctor because her medical family trained her through home schooling and an apprenticeship with her own grandmother. This professional training was highly unusual for girls. However, it did happen. Xiang-hua is based on a real, historical woman’s doctor who lived during the Ming Dynasty.
I invite you to take a trip to Jiangxi province in southern China during the late 1300s. Read Deadly Relations, where history and mystery meet!
Deadly Relations, A Ming Dynasty Mystery
As Hong Shu-chang struggles to move out of poverty, his father and uncle are murdered. Facing destitution, yet determined to find their killers, he takes a position as teacher in a nearby town where he meets Xiang-hua, the enigmatic local women’s doctor. Soon, a burned-out warehouse and two more mysterious deaths lead to his teaming up with Xiang-hua, and together they delve into the dark side of the town and its families, endangering both their reputations and lives.