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Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a…

Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man (edition 2008)

by Jonathan D. Spence

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1532118,829 (3.75)5
Title:Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man
Authors:Jonathan D. Spence
Info:Penguin Books (2008), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library, Read 2015
Tags:Chinese history, bought whatthebook used

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Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man by Jonathan D. Spence



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Jonathan Spence: Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man
This is a fascinating account of the life of Zhang Dai, and of the life and death of the Ming dynasty, through Zhang Dai’s own words which amounted to millions of words through various works including biographies, essays, poetry and an extended history of the Ming dynasty. Spence sums up Zhand Dai well:
One cannot say that Zhang Dai was an ordinary man, but he was surely closer to ordinariness that he was to celebrity. He was a lover of history as much as he was a historian, an observer as much as an actor, a fugitive as much as a fighter, a son as much as a father. He had passions for many things and many people, as most of us do, but he tried to get into the deep and dark places as well, to be an excavator. He sensed that nothing need vanish if only someone can remember it, and he was determined to rescue as much of the Ming as he could from oblivion. We cannot be sure that everything he tells us is true, but we can be sure that he wanted later generations to know about the things he shares with us here.

This, as a philosophy, has its parallels in the great Herodotus who wrote his inquiry, “so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds---some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians---may not be without their glory….”. Zhang Dai’s breadth does not match that of Herodotus, but what does match is his passion to record not only the great events of past generations and of his own, but also the lives of ordinary people who would otherwise be forgotten in the march of time.

Zhang Dai was fascinated with the study, the writing, the representation of history. He knew that any incident could have various interpretations and descriptions, and he also knew that historical “truth” was an elusive concept at best; this he developed in what he called Historical Gaps, an effort to “create a deeper and more evocative level of the past than currently surviving records could provide”. And in his attempt to fill-in the gaps, he focused on illustrative power of events or descriptions that were either left out, or added in subtle fashion, both, if properly read, serving to bring greater illumination and understanding.

Zhang Dai lived through the collapse of the Ming dynasty with the invasion of the Manchus. He became a fugitive, lost his library of 30,000 volumes, lost the easy, pampered life of servants and retainers, of leisure and reading and study and plays and operas written and produced, lost the beautiful homes and gardens and places of study that had been his world. And the destruction of the society that he had known seemed to be reflected in the breakup of his own family and his concerns for the futures of his children. Yet, this became a journey of personal transformation for him. He moved, as Spence says, “beyond the concept of retribution to something altogether less grand and more banal---an ordinary acceptance of an ordinary existence”, all summed up nicely in his expounding upon the Six Satisfactions: “Be satisfied when you can alleviate your hunger with plain food. Be satisfied when you can keep warm in patched clothes. Be satisfied if you enjoy an old, damaged house. Be satisfied to get tipsy with watered-down or cheap wine. Be satisfied to save with an almost empty purse. Be satisfied if you can avoid the evil people when they seem to prevail”.

Zhang Dai’s writings, especially his biographies and descriptions of his extended family going back two or three generations, illustrate time and again the universality of the human experience on all levels, across time, race and societies, personal, social, and political, where people are a mixture of talents and interests, of good and bad, generous and grasping, murderous and kind, blinkered and far-sighted.

A book well worth reading and pondering. ( )
2 vote John | Sep 9, 2008 |
Sometimes I learn more about history by reading about what people from a different place and time ate for breakfast or what their summer homes looked like. This is one of those books that concentrates on the lives of individuals rather than historic events. Zhang Dai, a prolific diarist, was a mid-level scholar during the close of the Ming dynasty. He wrote with earnestness and honesty about his life and the lives of his family and friends. Though for generations the men in Zhang Dai's family have held government positions earned through academic merit, the story turns with the fall of the Ming dynasty, which costs Zhang Dai his property and sends him out eke out sustenance on a rented farm. Vivid images of a garden decked out with paper lanterns or a lake dotted with pleasure boats while drunken song wafts through the air punctuate the narratives, which I can only attribute to Jonathan Spence's artistry. Intricately detailed, well written, and with enough supporting historical evidence to help explain the story without detracting from it, this was a joy to read
  delirium | May 8, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670063576, Hardcover)

A renowned historian captures a critical moment in Chinese history
Zhang Dai is recognized as one of the finest historians and essayists of China's Ming dynasty. When he was born into a wealthy family in 1597, the Ming dynasty had been in place for 229 years. Zhang's early life was marked by the expansive sense of progress that permeated Ming culture: the flourishing of reformist schools of Buddhism; wide-scale philanthropy; the education of women; a celebration of the visual arts, writing, and music; intellectual pursuit of medicine and science?this was truly a time of cultural creativity and renaissance in China.
When the Ming dynasty was overthrown in the Manchu invasion of 1644, Zhang Dai's family lost their fortune and their way of life. Zhang Dai fled to the countryside, where, as a writer of tremendous skill, acuity, and passion, he spent his final forty years recounting his previous life as a way of leaving a legacy to his children and rebuilding a spirit shattered by the violent upheaval he had witnessed.
Celebrated China scholar Jonathan Spence has pored over Zhang Dai's extraordinary documents and vividly brings to life seventeenth-century China. This absorbing book illuminates a culture's transformation and reveals how China's history affects its place in the world today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:56 -0400)

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"In 1646, when he was forty-nine years old, Zhang Dai lost almost everything. His beautiful lakeside villa in Hangzhou, his spacious home in Shaoxing, his massive library, his paintings, the antiquities he had been collecting for decades were all destroyed by fire or lost in the looting that was a consequence of the murderous fighting that engulfed China after the Manchu invasion of 1644, which had brought down the mighty Ming empire.". "His life during the Ming period had been marked by the expansive sense of progress that permeated that culture: the flourishing of reformist schools of Buddhism; wide-scale philanthropy; the education of women; a celebration of the visual arts, writing, and music; intellectual pursuit of medicine and science - this was truly a time of cultural creativity in China, and Zhang Dai was an avid participant in many disciplines. But when the Ming dynasty was overthrown, Zhang's servants deserted him, his children scattered, his closest friend committed suicide. Abandoning his ravaged property, Zhang fled with his surviving family members to the hills south of Shaoxing, where they made a precarious living from farming. As he toiled, Zhang began, with patience and absolute concentration, to rebuild in his mind and in words the world that he had lost. This work of mental reconstruction occupied him for close to forty years, until he was almost ninety. And when it was done, he died.". "A passionately involved historian, a poet, a dramatist, an art connoisseur, a romantic dreamer, a travel writer, and a biographer who focused largely on his own family, Zhang was also politically engaged in some of the great issues of his time, and even served briefly in the court of the Ming princes. There he tried to bolster resistance to the inexorable advance of the conquering Manchu armies. His power springs from this absorbing mixture of interests and skills. And his range makes him a man for our time as well as for his own."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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