Mildly entertaining but rather leaden first novel with a poor-man's Indiana Jones plot about a Columbia University professor roped into a quest for a Chinese treasure. Robert Walden, a drifting middle-age academic, is drawn into Chinese politics and history when a mysterious lacquer box falls into his hands. The box dates from the early 1900's, when Gao Jenggai, owner of a priceless collection of Chinese art, used it to store his goods. When Walden gets hold of it, he himself becomes the object of a hunt by menacing international agents. In an effort to decode the secrets of the box--and to stay alive--he goes from New York to Taiwan to China to Hong Kong. The author moves the story forward and back in time--some sections take place in 1949 China, others in the mid-1990's, where the narrator reflects on the horrible 1989 massacre of student protestors in Beijing and laments the conservative tyranny of the present regime. Walden also falls in love with a beautiful Chinese woman, who helps him escape danger and provides a sappy and hard-to-believe romantic diversion. Throughout, meanwhile, Walden's observations on China's political chaos ring shallow (it's hard to imagine him as the erudite and intellectual hero the author wants him to be), and other things--like the somewhat bloody denouement here--are equally unconvincing. Sinophiles may enjoy the history and atmospherics--but, at its worst, Oxnam's debut is not even a successful potboiler.