Fifteen-year-old Chen Wen-shan has very fleeting memories from before she came to live with and her great uncle Zhao Tai-lu when she was 5 years old.
When they receive a wooden box with a dragon engraved in jade that was smuggled out of China in the mid-1970s, it holds letters from her mother and artwork from her grandfather, Zhao’s brother.
“Letters in the Jade Dragon Box” (Deseret Book, $24.99), a recently released historical novel by Gale Sears, explores how Wen-shan and her great uncle learn about the fate of their family members through these letters that were written before Wen-shan was born and when she was a baby during the communist reign of Mao Zedong in China.
Woven throughout the story is the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hong Kong as Zhai Tai-lu recounts his conversion and experiences with other Mormons.
"We’re all one family," Sears said. "We care about our families. We care about those ties we have with our ancestors. That's just a human experience we all share with each other."
Sears was interested in the juxtaposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ with forms of government and forms of ideology that created a natural tension.
"It’s looking at what people went through and how they suffered and what happened to them," the author said. "I like to bring in the peace the gospel can bring and that set side by side."
In “The Silence of God,” which was released last year, Sears followed the Lindlof family, who were some of the only Mormons in early 20th-century Russia as the country went from the rule of Imperial Russia, through the Bolshevik Revolution and then settled into communism.
“You have a system of government that ripped God out of the lives of the people. That was very powerful for me,” Sears said. The members of the Lindlof family were either deported or sent to work camps.
That communist ideal found its way east to China, where the people weren't Christian, but did "have a good mode of life surrounding the family," Sears said.
“Letters in the Jade Dragon Box” opens with Mao’s death in 1976 in Hong Kong and people who were celebrating his death.
Hong Kong was under British control until 1997 when control was handed back to the People’s Republic of China. There is currently an LDS temple in Hong Kong and full-time missionaries proselyte there. The church is not allowed to do missionary work in China outside of Hong Kong and Macau.
In “Letters in the Jade Dragon Box,” the great uncle Zhao Tai-lu is based on one of the early Mormons in Hong Kong who was a general in the Nationalist Chinese Army and fled to Hong Kong when Mao came to power. He and his wife had lived in a refugee camp for several years when the Mormon missionaries came to his rescue one night and later opened a noodle factory to earn money.
In her research, Sears talked with H. Grant and Luana Heaton, who were called by President David O. McKay to reopen missionary work in Hong Kong in 1955 when Grant Heaton was 26. He was one of the first young full-time elders called to the Southern Far East Mission and was assigned to Hong Kong in 1950, where he learned both Mandarin and Cantonese. Sears also wove in parts of his experiences as mission president.
"I was amazed and heartened by the love and dedication of this couple," she said, adding that the Heatons had a 3-month-old son when they accepted the assignment.
Sears also worked with Sandy Brown (Hu Yao-hwa), whom she happened to meet at a book club meeting and had family in Hong Kong and mainland China, to ensure the cultural references were correct. Sears also used her memories of a trip of China and Hong Kong in 2000.
However, Sears’ research into Mao’s reign from 1949 to 1976 was emotionally trying as she learned of deaths of tens of millions of people under his rule, the changes to the country during his reign, including the Great Leap Forward, the Long March and the Cultural Revolution, and the uncertainty of life in China then with the young members of the Red Guard enforcing Mao's orders.
It wasn’t uncommon for families to be separated as some escaped and others were sent to work camps for "rustication," Sears said.
The dozen or so letters from Wen-shan’s mother, who is fictional, are some of her favorite parts of the book.
"I just identified with (her mother), I could see her writing those letters and her writing about a country that she loved and communicating that with her daughter," Sears said.
Through the letters in the box, there are flashbacks to what life was like for Chen Wen-shan’s family under communism as she finds out more about her family’s past and her roots, which brings her and her great uncle closer together.
Sears' next project is about the first Polynesian converts in Hawaii and is due out next fall.
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