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Invasion and Occupation
About 350 years ago, a gentleman's quiet, happy life was suddenly upended.

Reviewed by Judith Shapiro
Sunday, November 4, 2007

RETURN TO DRAGON MOUNTAIN

Memories of a Late Ming Man

By Jonathan D. Spence

Viking. 332 pp. $24.95

The great China historian Jonathan Spence has for years guided us on journeys into the worldviews and dreams of emperors and rebels, traitors and traders, mandarins and missionaries. Now, in Return to Dragon Mountain, Spence takes us inside the mind of a fellow historian, albeit one who lived more than three centuries ago.

The Ming dynasty is known for great achievements in scholarship, arts and culture. Historian Zhang Dai's long life, which began in 1597 and ended around 1680, spanned the dynasty's final, turbulent decades and its overthrow by the invading Manchus. His writings were an attempt to record a lost way of life. They include a Ming dynastic history, profiles of public figures and dreamlike sketches of scenes from his youth. Spence draws on these documents, additional research by other scholars and his deep knowledge of Ming culture to portray the inner universe of a remarkably versatile and sympathetic figure.

Zhang Dai lived most of his life in Shaoxing (in today's Zhejiang Province), a prosperous commercial city near Hangzhou and the southern end of the Grand Canal. His family belonged to the local elite, whose time was often consumed by efforts to pass the examinations required for entry into the bureaucratic ranks -- not Zhang, though, who pursued the day's luxuries without compunction. His memories of youth included visits to local shrines with his mother and a trip to sacred Mt. Tai, where he was pestered by knickknack sellers. Zhang recalled these years as filled with theatrical performances, antique collecting and enjoyment of his vast library and villa on Hangzhou's West Lake. If there is a dominant image from his childhood, it is the elaborate lantern festivals that covered the hillsides, where Zhang had the impression that one could "enter the center of the lantern . . . into the fire, metamorphosed, not knowing if these were fireworks being set off in the prince's palace, or if this were a prince's palace composed of fireworks."

His relatives, to whom Zhang devoted a goodly share of the millions of Chinese characters he wrote over a lifetime, are portrayed as eccentric and flawed. In his words, third uncle's "beard and eyebrows stuck out like lances, his hair and eyes were all topsy-turvy," while Cousin Yanke's obsession with antiques and gardening is as extreme as it will be familiar to today's readers: His clumsy repairs destroyed coveted objects, while his arcane and labor-intensive pest-control methods decimated millipedes, slugs, caterpillars, earthworms and beetles "even when the ice caused his hands to crack, or the sun burned his forehead."

Zhang's idyllic way of life ended as bandits spread from Northern China, "unemployed soldiers and clerks, laid-off couriers, miners, landless laborers driven out of the desiccated farms, refugees from the Manchu-dominated areas north of the Great Wall, Muslim and other traders who had lost their money as the Silk Road trade faltered." The ineffectual Ming emperor was deposed, the local prince faltered, and Zhang fled to the southern hills, living among monks and wondering whether fealty to the Ming required him to follow his best friend in committing suicide. He protected his unfinished manuscripts and, defiantly refusing to wear his hair in the queue required by the conquering Manchus, gave himself the aspect of a wild man.

After the new regime consolidated power, he returned to Shaoxing to rent a simple home in the Happiness Garden estate where once he had lived, his life a rough struggle compared to its former splendor. His two concubines, he wrote in a poem, "clamor for both wheat and firewood," while the beloved Hangzhou pavilions of West Lake survive only as "shards of broken tile." Zhang applied himself, nonetheless, to his farming and writing, seeking through his Dream Recollections, histories and profiles to chronicle what had been lost. In so doing, he hoped to evoke the past for his many children, about whom he complained much as a parent would today: "My eldest son travels the world,/Barely managing to make a living./My second son claims to be studying,/Yet only desires the pleasures of wine."

Zhang wrote his own obituary, listing among his excesses his passion for antiquities, theater, horses, food, fireworks, trumpets and "paintings of flowers and birds." He died in his mid-80s, a "passionate witness to the past that had ended up almost destroying him." We might add that he left a timelessly human record of a pivotal and fascinating era, and that Spence has employed patience and empathy to bring him back to life. *

Judith Shapiro, the author of "Mao's War against Nature," teaches at the School of International Service at American University.

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