How can we be informed? Chesterton famously observed that when we read in today’s newspapers that one window-cleaner fell to his death, our general understanding of window-cleaning is distorted; the information that 35,000 window-cleaners actually did not fall to their deaths would have provided a more balanced view of the matter. Modern historiography has become increasingly aware of this Chestertonian notion. Old-style historians used to focus on kings and great statesmen, on the deeds and words of the famous and the eminent, on wars, victories, and defeats, on crashes, crises, scandals, and miracles; only the most eloquent geniuses had access to the witness box in the court of History; the humble voices of the anonymous masses, the confused rumble of everyday life, were entirely lost to posterity.
Modern historians, on the contrary, are now attempting to redress this state of affairs by drawing information from more diverse sources and by allowing more space to what would previously have been deemed too ordinary and insignificant to deserve recording. Jonathan Spence’s impressive series of works are fairly even-handed in this respect, dealing in turn with an emperor and with obscure characters, with leading actors and with figurants muets. In his latest book, based on the life and writings of Zhang Dai (1597–1680?) he has chosen for his subject a more middling personality: a member of the gentry in one of China’s cultural centers (Shaoxing), a scholar, historian, and essayist—a distinguished author, though not exactly a major one, or an original thinker—who wrote many books (quite a number of which are now lost) and who led a very long life in a time of momentous and dramatic change.
Spence’s enterprise was particularly difficult, but his considerable scholarship enabled him to meet such a challenge. First, the social background of Zhang Dai already presented, in itself, a rich topic of study; his extended family clan was prominent for several generations on the politico-cultural stage of the empire and comprised a number of diverse and colorful figures. In contrast, paradoxically, Zhang’s own personality and psychology remain somewhat elusive. His writings—mostly historiography, but also family profiles, miscellaneous memoirs, and poetry—form a considerable mass, the exploration of which appears quite daunting, yet not always rewarding. However, the historical period which Spence invites us to consider through Zhang’s eyes is of exceptional interest, since the fall of the Ming (1644)—at the time, the greatest empire on Earth—intervened right in the middle of Zhang’s life.
The Ming (meaning “brilliant”) dynasty (1368–1644) deserved its name in some aspects only: it proved “brilliant” indeed in its ability to restore China’s pride and greatness as a unified, powerful, and prosperous empire after the shattering humiliation suffered during a century of Mongol occupation. Modern historians have rightly called the Ming period—especially in its later part—“the second Chinese Renaissance” (the first one having taken place under the Song—eleventh to thirteenth century). Ming intellectual life …