A luminous, self-contained, fluid world in which history, legend, and a religious quest create a portrait of an age--the glittering high noon of the Manchurian empire. Myths come down to earth, gods appear as fortune-tellers, and ghosts, lascivious and maternal, intervene in mortal lives as Larsen (Bronze Mirror, 1991; Silk Road, 1989) turns to the Manchus, under whom China reached its imperial zenith. The time is the mid- 18th century: Westerners are curious about the country but are still rare, the Emperor is strong, his subjects are loyal, and great palaces of delicate beauty have been built for his pleasure. But the material world, however brilliant, is for believers an illusion, a distraction from the spiritual journey that is the true purpose of life, and Lotus, a wonderfully original protagonist, will eventually be driven to seek enlightenment--an enlightenment that will come only when a number of scattered sacred statues are once more united to form a mandala, revealing the mythical ``hidden pure land'' where there is no suffering. As Lotus, still grieving for her dead mother, grows old enough to become a servant of the Dowager Empress in the Forbidden City, legends, poems, histories, and the memoirs of a British opium addict and a 1930s aviatrix further illuminate the myth and the period. Lotus, a Manchu bondservant like her courtier father, has been prepared by her father's concubine for life at court, where beauty and talent may lead to marriage with a prince. And once there, accomplished and strikingly beautiful, she is soon wooed by one, but cryptic comments from mysterious messengers and hauntingly vivid dreams impel her to search for the statues and restore the mandala instead. An exemplary novelist again makes history a playful parade of personalities, period details, and ordinary people conscripted by the times.