Zhang Dai (张岱; pinyin: Zhāng Dài, courtesy name: Zhongzhi (宗子), pseudonym: Tao'an (陶庵)) (1597 - 1689) was a Ming Dynasty writer.
Born in Ming Dynasty Wanli 25th year (1597 AD) in Shanying County of Zhejiang province, China. He died in Qing Dynasty Kangxi 28th year (1689 AD) at age 93.
Zhang Dai is known as the greatest essay writer in Ming dynasty. He was a prolific writer. He wrote more than thirty books covering literature and history. However only a few remain today.
Zhang Dai's most famous books are:
- Tao An Meng Yi (陶庵梦忆 Reminiscences in Dreams of Tao An), written ca. 1665.
- Xi Hu Meng Xun (西湖梦寻 Search The West Lake in Dreams)
Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER BENFEY Jonathan Spence pieces together the life and work of a prolific 17th-century Chinese historian.
前朝夢憶 台北 時報 2009
Illustration by Dan Page
Many years after the traumatic events that cut his long life in two — and which left, as he put it, his “country destroyed, family routed, no home left to go to” — the 17th-century Chinese historian and essayist Zhang Dai had a dream. As Jonathan D. Spence writes in his beautiful new book, dreams of the “accidental discovery of a previously secret and hidden world” had long “lain at the very center of Chinese sensibility.” But Zhang’s imaginary wonderland was not a realm of peace and eternal peach-blossom spring; it was, instead, a secret library concealed in “a hermitage of rock”: “Shelves full of books are all around me. Opening the different volumes I take a look, and find the pages covered with writings in unknown scripts — tadpole traces, bird feet markings, twisted branches. And in my dream I am able to read them all, to make sense of everything despite its difficulty.”
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RETURN TO DRAGON MOUNTAIN
Memories of a Late Ming Man.
By Jonathan D. Spence.
332 pp. Viking. $24.95.
The puzzling traces that Zhang, as a wide-awake historian, tried to decipher turned on one central question: What noxious combination of internal rot and external threat had led to the fall of the Ming dynasty after more than two centuries of relative stability? Like other famous “before and after” dates — 1066, 1789, “on or about December 1910” — 1644 loomed in retrospect as historically inevitable. And yet, at the time, no one predicted the collapse of such a durable regime, least of all Zhang and his well-placed family, who had served for generations in the upper levels of the government bureaucracy.
Spence points out that the late Ming was a period of cultural ferment, permeated by a “sense of joy and stylishness.” Sinecures in obscure wings of the elaborate ruling apparatus allowed ample time for other pursuits, from the frivolous to the profound. A spirit of bold and eclectic innovation influenced everything from landscape painting to Buddhism to the education of women. “Intercultural adventures” abounded as Jesuit missionaries like Matteo Ricci, the subject of a brilliant previous book by Spence, introduced new ideas. Zhang’s grandfather dryly remarked that one Western religious tract “had the power to make stupid people more intelligent, but it could also make intelligent people more stupid.”
Lanterns were Zhang’s particular passion — “lanterns of translucent crystal, lanterns festooned with beads, lanterns of paper coated with crushed sheep horn, lanterns highlighted with paintings picked out in gold, lanterns with dangling tassels” — though he also found time for tea tasting, cockfighting and his own Crab-Eating Club. During a rare snowfall, Zhang hired a boat and boatman to take him out on a lake at dusk: “The only shadowy forms one could make out on the lake surface were the ridged scar of the long embankment, the lone dot of Lake’s Heart Pavilion, the mustard seed that was our boat, and the two grains of rice that were on the boat.” On such occasions, Spence notes, Zhang was highly attuned to “the ways a moment blossomed and flourished.”
During the early chapters of “Return to Dragon Mountain,” Spence’s readers may feel as if they have strayed into one of Italo Calvino’s “invisible cities,” an exotic lost China of beguiling patterns and symmetries. On a Buddhist pilgrimage, Zhang describes mountains that “rose and fell like furious waves” and “great waves like moving mountains, cliffs of ice and boulders of snow.” During these early years, Spence observes, “much of life, for Zhang Dai, was spectacle, and the great truths for him remained aesthetic ones.”
This attitude was easy to maintain for a wealthy aristocrat whose family was enriched by farm revenue and government largesse. But then came the unthinkable, as a military coalition of tribes from along the Korean border, calling themselves the Manchus, collaborated with disaffected Chinese to occupy the capital city, Beijing, and inaugurated the Qing dynasty. While Zhang remained loyal to the feckless last Ming ruler and briefly served (without distinction) in the imperial forces, he could hardly be called a resistance fighter. As Spence remarks in his somewhat muted account of this gloomy period, “Zhang Dai made no claims to be a war hero.” Instead, he took to the hills, a scholar-recluse on the move, “hair hanging wild” and often starving, his only sustenance derived from manuscripts and memories.
The books Zhang worked on during his three years in hiding and after his return to his homeland, Dragon Mountain — this time as a struggling tenant farmer rather than a landed aristocrat — were restlessly inventive. In addition to his epic history of the Ming dynasty, which he extended to include its ignominious collapse, Zhang experimented with many genres and forms. In earlier years he had written a book called “Night Ferry” in which he compiled, like a Chinese E. D. Hirsch, all the names and facts — some 4,000 in all — that a traveler would need to know to carry on a sophisticated conversation. He also wrote a book about “historical gaps” in which he explored what had been left out of official accounts of past events. Here he compared the truth to a lunar eclipse in which the dark spots of the moon could be discerned indirectly.
While living in exile, however, Zhang found himself circling back in memory to the places and experiences of his own past. In his Proustian “Dream Recollections of Taoan,” he evoked, in the random order in which they occurred to him, “the shimmer of serried lanterns in the night,” the sounds of the zither, “the rancid smell of sacrificial meat, the reflective silence of a courtesan,” and so on. Thus it was, Spence concludes, that “the greatest catastrophe of his life, the fall of the Ming, ... turned out to be the key to unlock the chambers of his mind and allow the accumulated memories to come bursting out.”
Spence describes Zhang Dai as an “excavator,” someone who “tried to get into the deep and dark places” of memory. The same could be said of Spence himself. He is marvelously tactful in allowing Zhang an aura of mystery — “it is hard to catch the essence of Zhang Dai,” he confesses. He resists making facile comparisons to other writers or other times (the parallels with Calvino and Proust are mine), anchoring us firmly in a 17th-century landscape and mindscape. In “Return to Dragon Mountain,” Spence has himself opened an unsuspected world of “tadpole traces” and “bird feet markings,” a magic-lantern realm lost until now and movingly retrieved.