Lord is a native of China who's lived in America since 1946; and her 20th-century dynasty novel so diverts, pleasures, and instructs with decorative cultural addenda (in glossy, uncluttered prose) that it doesn't seem to matter too much that the characters emerge from such a cool, calculated, pictorial distance. Lord follows the House of Chang, a wealthy Chinese family of Soochow, from 1892 to 1972--starting with the choice of a new Patriarch. He is Bold Talent, called home from his studies in America, where he'd begun to have misgivings about the irreconcilable alien nature of Western thought. Bold Talent will be a thoughtfully, carefully moderate Patriarch, sensitive to the complexities of tradition, aware of the inevitable failure of Imperial rulers who are chosen ""on the basis of eight-legged essays and poems they write by rules laid down in the philosophy of the ancients."" Meanwhile, however, the Patriarch's younger brother--Noble Talent--will become a revolutionary: he barely escapes the fanatic Harmonious Fists (turn-of-the-century precursors of the Red Guards) and eventually survives to fight, however reluctantly, with the Kuomintang. Amid all these cymbal clangs of political crisis there is a grace note: pretty, graceful Spring Moon, niece and student of patriarch Bold Talent. When Spring Moon's gentle husband dies in a political purge, the grieving widow also becomes her uncle's lover, and her two children (by different fathers) will represent two contrasting forces in modern Chinese history: Lustrous Jade, the daughter of her marriage, will become a Communist warrior; and Enduring Promise will eventually effect a reunion of the decimated House of Chang in a hostile China. With copious snatches of Chinese history, poems and folk tales, rituals leavened with warmth, humor, and nostalgia--a gently engaging saga which offers attractive echoes of Pearl Buck as well as an agreeable sheen all its own.