Passing Under Heaven by Justin Hill Abacus $160 Scholars consider the Tang dynasty (618-907) to have been China's 'Golden Age' of literature, a time when poets and writers were free to explore what they saw - the beautiful and the ugly. It was a time of competing philosophies, as Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism vied for control. Yu Xuanji, or Yu Hsuanchi in old characters, is famous for the poetry and fragments of her writing that survive from that time, and for the scant details of her brief, turbulent life in the ninth century - from abandoned child of poverty to concubine, Taoist 'nun', courtesan and a violent death in her mid-20s. Justin Hill translated her poems and from them spins a tale of this famous, or infamous, woman living at the closing stages of the Tang dynasty, when China's west was beset by raiding barbarians, and the Son of Heaven's hold was faltering. Given there are so few details about Yu's life, except what passes almost for legend, Hill writes of the woman whom he imagines ground the ink and made the brushstrokes. Who was this woman who lived as a concubine, priestess and courtesan, three of the handful of roles available to women amid the unprecedented freedom and mobility available during the Tang dynasty? Much of the story spins around Yu's love for Li Zian, a minister in the government who tries to bind her with the restrictions of concubine and second wife, against which she is in constant rebellion. Li's bitter final years, reflecting on the loss of Yu, are played out in short chronological chapters dated from 903 to 907 and interspersed through the main body of the book, which itself runs from 850 to 873. Hill picks up Yu at the age of seven, as her mother, a concubine to a missing warlord marshal, prepares to sell her in the hope of giving the girl a better life than her own, which, in effect, vanished with the family farmland in a flood. Sold on to Scholar Yu and his wife, the girl grows up surrounded by education and reading, encouraged towards poetry and, against the wishes of her adoptive mother, the role of concubine to a great man, the dashing Minister Li. The conflict here is that Yu, having tasted the freedom of the mind, wants the social freedom of a man. The inevitable collapse of concubine-husband relationship takes Yu to a Taoist monastery. Taoism, the state religion of China at the time, had much in common with Buddhism, in that they both aspired to a naturalist equality and ultimate immortality as opposed to Confucianism, which placed severe restrictions on women. Yu emerges from the monastery to become a courtesan, and is feted - under the very nose of Minister Li - throughout the multicultural capital, which sits astride the Silk Road to central Asia. Her downfall is inevitable. Part of the magic in Passing Under Heaven is Hill's attention to historical detail, so carefully done that it passes almost without notice, with none of the too clever intrusions of the researcher to distract from the characters. But the real magic is the dialogue, which flows seamlessly. Passing Under Heaven is a strong, complex and thoughtful story. There's some fine writing and the poetic device is well-executed. However, although the slow opening can be excused as necessary to create a world of 1,000 years ago, the middle third is discomforting, like watching two lovers - the author and his character - in a too public place. That said, there's much to please in Passing Under Heaven. Hill is a writer of extraordinary talent. China gains because he has chosen to turn that talent to the telling of its stories.