An extremely close—indeed, hermetically sealed—second-hand look inside 17th-century China.
This intimate study by Spence (History/Yale; Treason by the Book, 2001, etc.) involves the life and work of aristocratic Chinese scholar Zhang Dai, from the prosperous east coast town of Shaoxing. Zhang found his life’s mission in recording the history of the stylish Ming dynasty, which had been in place 229 years by the time he was born in 1597 but would be eclipsed by Manchu invaders in 1644. At the same time that the dynasty was enjoying its apogee in intellectual, philosophical and aesthetic developments, Zhang’s family was moving from the country to the city, enjoying pleasures of the lantern arts, music clubs, cock-fighting and brothel hopping, among others. Hailing from a line of scholars, Zhang did not pass his provincial exams, but devoted himself to a life of reading and pleasures. By 1616 he had married Lady Liu, by whom he had many children. His first works were a list of compact biographical studies, Profiles of Righteous and Honorable People Through the Ages and Ice Mountain, an operatic play that dramatized the rise and fall of the eunuch Wei Zhongxian, who had taken over the reigns of Ming rule under Tianqi. Following insurrection by Manchu troops, Beijing was seized and Zhang’s family scattered. In hungry exile, he wrote his rueful Dream Recollections, drawing solace from Chinese poet Tao Qian and biographies of his family members. The final end of the Ming dynasty enabled Zhang to complete The Stone Casket and its sequel, which brought him some renown later in life. The problem here is that his life is recorded second-hand, as a paraphrase largely drained of energy. Spence might have served the reader better by giving an accessible translation of Zhang’s own aphoristic words.
A curious insider work, so self-engrossed that it neglects to impart a larger picture.