Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 303 pp., $62.00
Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the capital at Beijing with the prosperous commercial and intellectual hubs of Suzhou and Hangzhou. At the time of the overthrow of the Ming dynasty, in the 1640s, Yangzhou had been sacked by the conquering Manchu armies from the north, after a grim and lengthy siege that left the city in ruins and its population decimated. But Yangzhou’s strategic location and commercial prominence served it well, and by the time of Luo Ping’s birth it had made a spectacular comeback, in part because it became the financial center for the salt merchants of coastal and central China, who purchased from the central government the right to sell and transplant salt, and built up colossal private fortunes from this lucrative trade.
Partly because of the lavish kickbacks that the merchants made to local officials and to the emperor’s personal household managers, the city was graced with six visits from Emperor Qianlong, visits that sparked a building boom in order to provide adequately opulent living quarters for the imperial visitor and his entourage. At the same time there were correspondingly lavish expansions of Buddhist temples, decorative waterways, elaborate gardens, and a predictably energized ambience of restaurants, teahouses, and brothels.
The city was favored with both imperial patronage and the generosity of the salt merchants—many of whom assembled magnificent libraries and hired renowned local scholars as cultural amanuenses or tutors to their children, so that they might have a chance to pass the imperial examinations. This vibrant intellectual world in its turn attracted other scholars and artists to the region so that Yangzhou became a byword for informed connoisseurship and aesthetic exploration.
Luo Ping’s father had passed the second level of the state examinations, which was no small feat, and could be achieved only by those with excellent academic training—but he died before Luo Ping was one year old; the most celebrated ancestor Luo could claim was a great-grandmother who was glorified—at least in family lore and reminiscence—for having taken her own life in the fierce siege of 1645. Luo was raised by an uncle, who saw that he got a good education, fostered his skills as a poet, and introduced him to some of the wealthy merchants known for their cultural gatherings. At age nineteen, Luo married a finely educated woman, already celebrated for her literary and artistic skills, with whom he had three children, who also became accomplished poets and painters.
Around 1757 Luo Ping met and became friends with a seventy-year-old widower, Jin Nong, who was living alone in one of the many Buddhist temples in the city …