Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man

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“Splendid . . . One could not imagine a better subject than Zhan Dai for Spence.” (The New Republic)

Celebrated China scholar Jonathan Spence vividly brings to life seventeenth-century China through this biography of Zhang Dai, recognized as one of the finest historians and essayists of the Ming dynasty. Born in 1597, Zhang Dai was forty-seven when the Ming dynasty, after more than two hundred years of rule, was overthrown by the Manchu invasion of 1644. Having lost his fortune and way of life, Zhang Dai fled to the countryside and spent his final forty years recounting the time of creativity and renaissance during Ming rule before the violent upheaval of its collapse. This absorbing tale of Zhang Dai’s life illuminates the transformation of a culture and reveals how China’s history affects its place in the world today.

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Editorial Reviews

Christopher Benfey
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…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.
—The New York Times
Judith Shapiro
The Ming dynasty is known for great achievements in scholarship, arts and culture. Historian Zhang Dai's long life, which began in 1597 and ended around 1680, spanned the dynasty's final, turbulent decades and its overthrow by the invading Manchus. His writings were an attempt to record a lost way of life. They include a Ming dynastic history, profiles of public figures and dreamlike sketches of scenes from his youth. Spence draws on these documents, additional research by other scholars and his deep knowledge of Ming culture to portray the inner universe of a remarkably versatile and sympathetic figure.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Zhang Dai (1597-1689), subject of this absorbing and evocative literary-biographical study, was a Chinese essayist and historian whose long life bridged the conquest of China by the Manchus and the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644. The upheaval inspired him to write a history of the Ming as well as personal recollections of his youth, which Spence (Mao Zedong), a MacArthur fellow and a leading historians of China, mines for insights into the culture of this period. Zhang's reminiscences about his earlier life as a well-to-do scholar and aesthete are full of poetic reveries-a treasured blend of tea, evening lanterns in his hometown of Shaoxing, an exquisite courtesan, plum blossoms in the moonlight-which contrast with his later circumstances of poverty, coarse food and wizened, querulous concubines. The memoirs are studded with biographical sketches of his vast extended family, a gallery of eccentrics whose lives furnish handy illustrations of moral precepts. They also open a window on the social world of the late Ming scholarly caste, whose lives revolved around eternal cramming for the examinations that controlled entrée into the imperial bureaucracy; Zhang's father was 53 when he finally passed and was able to get his first job. Through Zhang's Proustian sensibility, Spence retrieves a portrait of a civilization imbued with esoteric obsessions as well as sensuality. (Sept. 24)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
An extremely close-indeed, hermetically sealed-second-hand look inside 17th-century China. This intimate study by Spence (History/Yale; Treason by the Book, 2001, etc.) involves the life and work of aristocratic Chinese scholar Zhang Dai, from the prosperous east coast town of Shaoxing. Zhang found his life's mission in recording the history of the stylish Ming dynasty, which had been in place 229 years by the time he was born in 1597 but would be eclipsed by Manchu invaders in 1644. At the same time that the dynasty was enjoying its apogee in intellectual, philosophical and aesthetic developments, Zhang's family was moving from the country to the city, enjoying pleasures of the lantern arts, music clubs, cock-fighting and brothel hopping, among others. Hailing from a line of scholars, Zhang did not pass his provincial exams, but devoted himself to a life of reading and pleasures. By 1616 he had married Lady Liu, by whom he had many children. His first works were a list of compact biographical studies, Profiles of Righteous and Honorable People Through the Ages and Ice Mountain, an operatic play that dramatized the rise and fall of the eunuch Wei Zhongxian, who had taken over the reigns of Ming rule under Tianqi. Following insurrection by Manchu troops, Beijing was seized and Zhang's family scattered. In hungry exile, he wrote his rueful Dream Recollections, drawing solace from Chinese poet Tao Qian and biographies of his family members. The final end of the Ming dynasty enabled Zhang to complete The Stone Casket and its sequel, which brought him some renown later in life. The problem here is that his life is recorded second-hand, as a paraphrase largely drained of energy. Spence mighthave served the reader better by giving an accessible translation of Zhang's own aphoristic words. A curious insider work, so self-engrossed that it neglects to impart a larger picture. Agent: Andrew Wylie/Wylie Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143114451
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/25/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Spence's eleven books on Chinese history include The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Treason by the Book, and The Death of Woman Wang. His awards include a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship. He teaches at Yale University.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2013


    "Can I join?" Im a small red glowing dragon sorta like lava i hope you can take me in.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2013


    Bows to Volcanostar then goes to her bed for the night.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2013


    A massive black elder dragon. She towers over all the younger dragons. Age: 812year old. With red eyes and long claws. Her mate is parthurnaux.(wh0 i also rp)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2013

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2013


    Name-karma, age-14, scale color-red and black, wing color- one orange and one blue, gender-male, eye color-solid blue diamond (minecraft fan lolz), story-cant remember.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2013


    Thanks goes to second res

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2013

    Chezareeshire (Cez)

    Color of scales: Scarlett with the very tips a bright yellow her belly and her horns are a shade of gold. Her wings on outside are scarlett the insides are gold with sscarlett greek symbols embedded on them. Her eyes are a fiery orange.~~~ Background: She was once used as a warrior dragon for attacking mid evil villages and prompting war all ove the world. She has no hatchlings and is interested in a mate. She wanted to settle down so she faked her death and escaped from her born unto life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2013


    Name: Eclipse
    Gender: Female
    Age: Three Years
    Mate: None :(
    Young: None
    Kin: Tiamat (sister, missing), Element (brother, dead), Moon (mother, dead), Syrgyn (father, dead)
    Description: A large golden she-dragon with silvery white horns, extremely long fangs, a long spiked tail, very large golden wings, and purple eyes
    Personality: Shy, but friendly and nice. Very loyal.
    Fire Power: Can breathe a power elemental fire that consists of moon, rock, and shadow.
    History: Not much.
    Other: Wonders if her sister is alive.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2013

    Winter Moon and Autumn Mist bio

    Name: Winter Moon ~•~ Looks: white female dragon with light blue wings and gray eyes, silver claws ~•~ Breathes: most elements ~•~ Personality: kind, gentle, shy, but stands up for what she believes in ~•~ History: we were the runts out of all our eggs. Our mother, Rain Dancer threw us out. ~•~ Kin: Autumn Mist, Spring Sun, Summer Song (the Season eggs sisters), Rain Dancer (mother), Wailing Cave (father) ~•~ Mate/Crush: Wants ~•~ Other: was in another dragon place, named her Glaciersong, threw her out.

    Name: Autumn Mist ~••~ Looks: light orange female with golden wings, silver claws, and green eyes ~••~ Breathes: most elements ~••~ Personality: Brave, smart like Winter Moon, very nice, and has strong comments ~••~ History: Like Winter Moon ~••~ Kin: same ~••~Mate/Crush: wants ~••~ Other: was in another Dragon place with Winter Moon, they named her Skyfire, threw her out

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2013


    Name. Dance of the early dawn. Age. 15. Rank. Deputy. Des. Curled horns huge wings constantly shifts colors because of her rainwimg background sea blue and foliage green eyes (one of each color). Gender. Female. Parents. Queen dazzling and lord fallingwater.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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