A few days ago Jonathan and I were discussing Steven Owen’s review of Jonathan Spence’s new book. Jonathan was not that impressed with the review, as it did not give a clear idea what the book was. We were not sure if we were unhappy with the review or the book. Having now read the book I can definitively say yes.
One purpose of the review is to encourage people to buy the book, which I suppose it does just by existing. On the other hand, as Jonathan pointed out, the review does not really tell you what the book is about. Owen gives the impression that the bulk of the book is about Zhang’s life as a dramatist. Actually most of the book is about the period is about life before 1644 and the bulk of it is not about Zhang himself but his descriptions of his family. They were a colorful group of minor officials, literati and eccentrics, some of them staggeringly corrupt, none more so than his uncle Sanshu who served as a bagman for Zhou Yanru, possibly the most corrupt official of the Ming dynasty. They are an interesting family, and for anyone who is interested in the local elite of the Late Imperial period (and who isn’t) there is a lot of interesting stuff in here. The problem with the book (at least for me) is that it is not a scholarly book, which is to say Spence does not engage with the scholarly literature or demonstrate how Zhang and his family fit in with what “we” ((people who have read too many books)) know about the Ming elite. Sometimes this is just annoying, as when he calls the Hanlin Academy the Confucian Study Academy. Often it is more frustrating when I know full well that he could shed light on something but does not. His discussion of Zhang’s travel writing owes something to Strassberg’s Inscribed Landscapes, which Spence cites, but he does not explain how his or Zhang’s ideas about travel are different than those discussed by Strassberg. After the fall of the Ming Zhang becomes something of a wandering hermit, which may seem odd to people who don’t know much about Chinese history, but fits in well with the many traditions of dissent and the end of a dynasty that Spence, Zhang Dai and Alan Baumler know about. How is Zhang related to these traditions? I don’t doubt that Spence could discuss this at great length, but not in this book. A reader might pick this book up and come to the conclusion that Zhang Dai was a picaresque oriental other who might just as well have lived in the Song dynasty, Byzantium or 18th century Edo. It is not really an academic book, Spence seems to be fine with that, and so am I . It was a good read, I learned a lot from it, and so would pretty much anyone.. There is more in heaven and earth than is in academic monographs, and Spence apparently thinks so as well, as he includes this little story
…. at the heart of the scholarly life itself there often lurked a real element of futility. Strangely, Zhang Dai followed up this particular theme most carefully with the example of his own grandfather, whom at many levels he had clearly loved and respected, even revered. Yet, despite all his brilliance, grandfather—according to Zhang Dai—spent his last years of life in pursuit of a truly impossible vision, the compilation of an immense dictionary that would marshal all knowledge in composite categories based on a rhyme-scheme series of classifications. As Zhang Dai wrote in an essay aptly named “Rhyme Mountain,” right up to the end he rarely saw grandfather without a book in his hands, and piles of books lay in disorder all around his study, under layers of dust. When the sun was bright, grandfather took his books out of doors so he could read more easily. At dusk he lit candles and held his book right close to the flame, “leaning across the desk into the brightness.” Thus he would stay far into the night, showing no signs of tiredness. Claiming that all the previous dictionaries were inaccurate, grandfather determined to create his own, using the idea of mountains as his controlling metaphor of organization: key words were termed “high mountains,” catch phrases were “little mountains,” characters that had variant rhymes were termed “other mountains,” proverbs were classified as “worn-out mountains” and so on. In this “Rhyme Mountain,” wrote Zhang, grandfather’s columns of little characters followed in tight columns “like the pleats in a skirt, on sheets of paper yellowed from the beat of the lamp”; he had filled, in this way, over three hundred notebooks, “each thick as bricks.” Some rhyme schemes might fill ten books or more.
One sad day, an old friend brought grandfather a section of a huge manuscript encyclopedia from the palace library in Beijing, proving to him that all of this had been done before, better organized and on a far larger scale. Sighing, grandfather said: “The number of books is without end, and I have been like a bird seeking to fill the sea with pebbles. What can be the point of it?” So he pushed aside his thirty years of work and never returned to his “Rhyme Mountain.” And even had grandfather finished the project, Zhang Dai wrote, “Who on earth would have published it?” There was nothing left of all that work across thirty years but a pile of writing brushes with the whiskers worn down to the wood” and “piles of paper useful only for sealing storage pots.”