Chinese History & Culture

Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man

Review by Cole Carnesecca
ISBN 978-0-6700-6357-4
 Spence, Jonathan D., Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man. Viking Press: 2007

eturn to Dragon Mountain, the most recent book from the great historian Jonathan Spence, pieces together the dreams and recollections of a man at the center of one of China’s most epic periods. The life of Zhang Dai (1597 – app. 1680)– aesthete, connoisseur, and historian – spanned the waning years of the Ming Dynasty and rise of the Qing, with the cataclysmic year of dynastic change coming nearly at the center of Zhang’s life in 1644. It is through that life and Zhang’s prolific records of his profligate experiences that an absorbing image of late Ming life emerges to testify to its grandeur and witness to its downfall. In this context, Zhang’s life is an appropriate final subject for a true master historian and a picturesque display of the paradoxes of a man who, in so many ways, was a reflection of the paradoxical time in which he lived.

Few historians have or will leave as indelible a mark on the study of China as has Jonathan Spence. His works have brought to life the most notable of figures (Mao, Emperor Kangxi) and the lowliest (The Death of Woman Wang, The Question of Hu); the familiar (The Gate of Heavenly Peace and revolution) and the foreign (To Change China, The Memory Palace of Mateo Ricci); and everything that can be found in between (his monumental textbook, The Search for Modern China). At Yale, Spence is a veritable icon and is jokingly compared, in regards to appearance and voice, to Sean Connery (his office in Timothy Dwight College was changed to number 007 after renovations, even though it set the basement offices out of numerical order). In his choice of Zhang Dai, one can sense how fitting is Spence’s fascination with the aged and philosophical historian. Both harbor an obsession with the questions and complexities of the study and creation of history and both tend toward a high literary quality in their works. One can only speculate how Spence appreciated Zhang’s words on his historical writing: “Therefore, when I put brush to paper and portray things, the beauty and ugliness just present themselves. I dare not say I am describing [the past] with chiseled vividness; I am only trying to catch the likeness of things as they are, without distortion.” (260) And it is ultimately in Spence’s hands that Zhang Dai receives his most proper treatment and has his life caught as it was.

As the name of the book implies, Spence draws primarily on Zhang’s collection of vignettes entitled Tao’an mengyi (the Dream Recollections of Tao’an). After the fall of the Ming, Zhang built this work piece by piece while hiding in the mountains. Each work is a short snapshot of aspects of life, places, or experiences that illuminate, with haunting beauty, what Zhang had seen and known during his life under the Ming. Though the Dream Recollections can often seem scattered and formless (in reality, this, to a certain extent, was Zhang’s purpose), Spence draws out the factual nuggets of Zhang’s writings and strings them together as if they were a journal written for the very purpose of recording events both trivial and extraordinary. In this sense, Return to Dragon Mountain is a remarkably skillful reconstruction of events that were strewn throughout Zhang Dai’s writings. Often Spence merely does us the favor of letting Zhang Dai speak for himself. But it is Spence’s superior historical work that gives structure to this account of his life.

In Spence’s hands, Zhang Dai’s life emerges as an utterly fascinating representation of late Ming society and culture. What Timothy Brook’s Confusions of Pleasure did for the details of the Ming historical moment, Spence’s rendering of Zhang Dai’s life does for an accessible immersion into the sights, tastes, and feel of the Late Ming. The first section, “Circles of Pleasure,” encompasses the fullness of Zhang Dai’s plush and decadent lifestyle, and by so doing, brings to light many of the peculiarities and novelties of Ming society. Spence’s dreamy style facilitates the nostalgic essence of Zhang Dai’s recollections. We are guided, spirited even, through the contours and folds of late Ming life. Crab eating clubs, performing troupes, the perfecting of tea brewing methods, lantern collections and displays, and lavish – even raucous – drinking parties all dot this decadent landscape. Interspersed are accounts of Zhang’s relatives’ forays as upstanding or not quite upstanding members of cultural and political life. From wine guzzling wastrels, to renowned art collectors, and failed bureaucrats, Zhang’s path seems to cross into all facets of Ming life. As such, Spence is able to use Zhang to subtly draw out the diversity and extravagance of Ming life at the moment before it was to vanish forever.

Herein lies the most fascinating accomplishment of this work: that Zhang Dai, as a paradoxical figure, comes to embody a period of incredible paradox. Spence quotes Zhang as saying “[he] worked away at his books, but got nowhere… he studied swordsmanship, but got nowhere; he tried to follow the norms of good conduct, but got nowhere; he tried to be a writer and got nowhere… if you wanted to call him rich and well-born, then you could go ahead. If you wanted to call him poor and lowly, that was fine, too…” concluding that, truly, you could call Zhang Dai whatever you wanted and it was partly true. (169-170) He was, because life was, a set of closely held contradictions. Zhang experienced the heights of Ming cultural decadence at a moment when the state was collapsing with perilous rapidity. Spence reconstructs a particularly representative instance:

That same summer of 1642, Zhang Dai tells us he was permitted to visit the temple to watch the sacrifices held in the deceased emperor’s honor. He was surprised to see how cursory the ceremonies were and how commonplace the ritual vessels. As if that were not enough to dispel any sense of solemnity, the severed carcasses of the sacrificed animals – a cow and a sheep – left to lie on the alter in the torrid heat of July filled the whole tomb site with “an unbearable smell of rotting flesh.” One needed no special priestly skills to read those omens.(189)

As wealthy, extravagant and enjoyable as Ming life seemed, it is eerie to know how imminent its collapse was. Even as Zhang serves, albeit briefly, in the defense of the dynasty, it seems to leave him mostly unruffled. It is only with the ruin of the dynasty and the death of the Chongzhen emperor that the reality of the crash set in as Zhang took to the hills.

Yet, it was also in the process of collapse that Zhang becomes particularly useful. As with many a fall, Spence relates, Zhang’s provided a particularly vibrant sobriety. He became transfixed with understanding and expressing what happened. It was thus that “The entire exercise [of writing the dream recollections], in Zhang’s mind, had developed an expiatory quality, as he explained in the same preface: every hardship that he was now forced to endure was in retribution for some causally accepted luxury or pleasure from the past.” (223) Zhang saw himself, and Spence presents him as such, as emblematic of the Ming collapse and, in some way, responsible for preserving what had been lost and why.

It is that vanishing of Ming life – the life with which Zhang had such a wonderful and then tortured relationship – that Zhang obsessively tries to record and understand. Spence portrays Zhang’s later years as rather subdued aside from his absorption by a number of literary projects. Among these were a complete history of the Ming and an addendum work that highlighted the declining years. Much of his inspiration came from a desire to record something about the past he had known, but, as a Ming subject himself, there were other motivations as well. As Spence notes, “It was indeed a difficult challenge that Zhang Dai set for himself: through the reach of his own writing brush, in the tangle of his rented garden, in the span of his own skull and guided by his own emotions and his memory, he had somehow to ensure that his own family was spared the harsh separation between the past and the future that had so shattered his country as a whole.” (238) It is both in Zhang’s own hand and through the help of Spence that the preservation of a place in history and memory is accomplished.

As he has ever so skillfully done, Spence illuminates the life of an individual and in so doing brings to life the subtleties and nuances of a society, of an era. This work is as much that of general history as it is a stirring echo of the guiding principle of Chinese historical method: the dynastic cycle. Witnessing to the flow of wealth and the ebb of power that ultimately crippled the Ming, Zhang Dai reminds us that regardless of whether rises and falls are inevitable, they certainly are not without cause. The Ming collapsed in a torrent of snipping and self-destruction. But to fixate on this would be to miss the novelty of life displayed in Zhang’s own rise and fall. Only Spence’s words could properly conclude such an engaging account of a truly unique individual:

Though Zhang Dai had known so many people across the years, though he had so many children, though he had labored so long to catch the lives of others as they glided by, it seems that nobody took the trouble to record the exact time or the circumstances of his final journey. So we are free to remember him at the end, if we wish, as giving birth to his final words like the leper woman giving birth to her baby, calling at once for a light so that he could see if his cherished offspring was free from blemish. Or we can remember him sitting bent over the study table, as so many from his family had sat before, staring fixedly at his final collection of images from the past: an old man who, without his having willed it in any deliberate way, found suddenly that his hands and feet were dancing. (284)