Praise for Return to Dragon Mountain:
Selected as a “Best Book of the Year” by The Washington Post
“Westerners seeking to understand China should shelve that big pile of anxious new volumes on China’s economic ascent, and read instead Return to Dragon Mountain. Jonathan Spence is arguably the best living English-language Chinese historian . . . An extraordinary life and a fascinating story.”
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Spence takes us inside the mind of a fellow historian. . . . [Zhang Dai] left a timelessly human record of a pivotal and fascinating era, and Spence has employed patience and empathy to bring him back to life.”
—The Washington Post
“Beguiling . . . Spence only enhances his fine reputation with seasoned perceptions of the accessible, multifaceted Zhang Dai.”
“Beautiful . . . in Return to Dragon Mountain, Spence has himself opened an unsuspecting world, a magic-lantern realm lost until now and movingly retrieved.”
—The New York Times Book Review
—The New York Review of Books
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
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
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
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