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 is considered as one of the most creative and exciting in the entire cultural history of China. In the domain of ideas, influential thinkers appear—some of them renew the philosophical tradition, others challenge it with iconoclastic boldness. Scientific methods are applied in the philological study of the classics. Literature develops new genres: masterpieces are produced—novels, theatrical plays, and operas.

Late Ming intellectuals strikingly resemble what eighteenth-century Europe will call libertins, both in the original sense of the word (free minds, pursuing their inquiries, unfettered by dogma, prejudice, or conformism) and in its derived meaning of libertine (suggesting sexual freedom: note, by the way, that pornographic fiction is cultivated in this same period with much verve; Chinese literary pornography, unlike its lugubrious Western equivalent, possesses artistry and a disarming sense of humor). The arts also flourish: calligraphy and painting reach new heights (as do other graphic arts, by no means “minor”: seal carving and woodprint). The very art of living in all its manifestations—architecture, gardens, furniture, gastronomy—achieves supreme elegance and sophistication.

However, the “brilliant” face of the dynasty cannot hide its dark side. In fact the two aspects are intimately related. In politics, Ming imperial despotism1 veered into a totalitarian terror that in scope, ferocity, and sheer duration would not be seen again before the twentieth century and the establishment of the Maoist regime.

And in this connection, it is remarkable to note that the first political dissenters—Wu Han and Deng Tuo—who dared to denounce Mao Zedong’s policies during the Fifties and early Sixties did this under the transparent guise of conducting studies in Ming history: they exposed the cruel irrationality of imperial despotism, they celebrated the integrity and courage of the Ming scholars who lost their lives for having criticized the emperor—and eventually they themselves were to pay the same price during the so-called “Cultural Revolution.”


The fact is, the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, shared a remarkable number of significant features with the founder of the People’s Republic. Zhu was an adventurer, from peasant stock, poorly educated, a man of action, a bold and shrewd tactician, a visionary mind, in many respects a creative genius; naturally coarse, cynical, and ruthless, he eventually showed symptoms of paranoia bordering on psychopathy.

The legacy of the first Ming emperor was cast into rigid institutions (which themselves unconsciously reflected the brutalization that had been inflicted on Chinese political life under Mongol rule): the great tradition of the civil service was perverted and turned into a regime that contained the seeds of its own destruction. State terror was practiced on a staggering scale; the huge political trials staged by the Ming despot against his imaginary enemies suggest a sort of eerie preview of the great Stalinist purges that were to take place in our age.

As a result, the political career that was the traditional vocation of the scholarly elite appeared increasingly hazardous and distasteful, fraught with humiliations and deadly traps. A great number of scholars gave up the idea of entering public life and opted instead for an existence devoted to the exclusive cultivation of art and letters in the privacy of their homes, where they supported themselves in the usual fashion of the landed gentry—essentially by living off the toil of their tenant farmers. Hence, for once, by a perverse effect, despotism and terror proved unwittingly beneficial to the development of an exceptionally vibrant cultural life.

During the first forty-odd years of his life, Zhang Dai partook in all the aesthetic and luxury pursuits of his class. Some of his forebears had been famous for their stern and austere Confucian moralism; later generations became more notorious for their wild eccentricities and sensual indulgences. Zhang Dai surrounded himself with a bevy of pretty maids and boy servants; he kept his own company of actresses and singers; he designed exquisite pavilions and gardens; he enjoyed extravagant displays of lanterns and fireworks; he staged theatrical performances; he gathered a huge library, collected antiques, and was a connoisseur of calligraphy and painting. In this connection, Spence mentions that one of his relatives had been acquainted with the painter Xu Wei, whereas he himself was a friend of the painter Chen Hongshou.2 It would have been interesting to learn more on this tantalizing subject—just imagine: in Western terms, this would be the equivalent of having a relative who caroused with Caravaggio, and of collecting art under the guidance of Rembrandt.

Zhang enjoyed to the full all aspects of an art of living that was then at its peak of refinement. He was for instance a keen connoisseur of tea—which means having first a discriminating appreciation of diverse spring waters. We make some fuss over our wine-tasting expertise, which appears still quite gross when compared with water-tasting: tasting what is tasty is simple enough, whereas savoring the insipid calls for real subtlety. He played the seven-string zither (qin) and organized a circle of like-minded scholar-musicians; together with calligraphy and ink-painting, the zither is the very soul of Chinese culture. Again, it is to be regretted that Spence merely enumerates these various activities without going further into them. Usually the scholars who practiced these disciplines were very articulate and had much to tell about their experiences; it could have been enlightening to quote them on this subject.

Then came the cataclysmic fall of the Ming: the dynasty collapsed in the combined turmoil of local rebellions and foreign invasion. The Manchus, last imperial rulers of China, established once again an alien dynasty, the Qing, which was to reign until 1911.

Zhang Dai survived the national disasters for nearly forty years—in utterly changed circumstances. He lost everything: family, social position, home, wealth, beloved possessions—library, art collections. He took refuge in the mountains, supporting himself by clumsy and exhausting attempts at tilling the fields. Rather than paying allegiance to the foreign rulers, he shaved his head and turned himself into a hermit. Eremitism in China is an extremely important cultural tradition (which has been largely overlooked by Western Sinology3 ); its origins go back to the dawn of history—with the semi-legendary figures of the brothers Boyi and Shuqi (already evoked by Confucius), who, out of loyalty to their defeated lord and in moral protest against the usurper, went into self-exile and starved themselves to death in the wilderness.

Traditionally, Confucian scholars who discharge their various responsibilities within society represent a worldly ideal; but the hermit who withdraws from the world in order to preserve his own integrity commands supreme and universal respect: his example sets the standard by which the world will ultimately be judged. For this reason, all through the ages, hermits, by giving up all material possessions and worldly honors, have acquired the highest moral authority. Their spiritual prestige remained virtually unchallenged till our time: it took the irreverent wit of Lu Xun—the most mordant iconoclast in modern Chinese letters—to point out that


since a genuine hermit is someone who disappears from the view of historians, the hundreds about whom we know so much must have been rather less than sincere; being a hermit is a way of making a living like any other, and hence requires the hermit to hang up a sign advertising for himself.

As regards Zhang Dai, it is difficult to ascertain to what extent he was animated by any passionate loyalty toward the defeated Ming (as a historian, he had observed the dynasty at too close a range to entertain much illusion about its virtues)—or whether his opposition to the Manchus excluded all compromise (actually there is some evidence to the contrary). One thing is certain: in the second half of his life, he discovered hunger and poverty—and this was no posturing. Spence describes his condition: as Zhang Dai was hiding in the mountains, sometimes taking refuge in a temple,

he was so hungry…with no grain and no chance to even find a cooking fire, that he realized how far from the truth were the famous Chinese historical tales that told of loyal recluses who starved themselves to death in the mountains rather than live to serve an unworthy lord; now Zhang Dai understood that those men—so often praised for their morality—simply died because they could find nothing to eat.

Yet far from hampering his writing, this new experience spurred his inspiration and gave it a poignancy which, in Spence’s felicitous renditions, is genuinely affecting—thus, for instance, the following obituary which Zhang Dai wrote for himself, using the third person:

As a youth he was a real dandy, in love with the idea of excess: he loved exquisite shelter; he loved pretty maidservants; he loved handsome serving boys; he loved bright-colored clothes; he loved perfect food; he loved handsome horses; he loved colorful lanterns; he loved fireworks; he loved the theatre; he loved the trumpets’ blare; he loved antiques; he loved paintings of flowers and birds. Besides which, seduced by tea and ravished by oranges, poisoned by stories and bewitched by poems, he drained to the lees the first half of his life, which has now become just dream and illusions….

When he turned fifty, his country was obliterated, his family erased. He hid his traces by dwelling in the mountains…. He wore cotton clothes, ate coarse vegetables, and often could not even keep his stove alight. Casting his mind back to a time twenty years before, it all seemed as if the world had been cut adrift.

Exiled from his own past, it was only in his “dream memories” that he succeeded in traveling back to the land of his lost happiness.

And this, in turn, seems to verify the truth expressed by a profound philosopher (whose name I’ve forgotten): any life that ends in exile cannot have been totally mediocre.

This Issue

December 20, 2007