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Books: The Theater of History

Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man

By Jonathan D. Spence

(Viking, 352 pp., $24.95)

People of an age of peace, who cannot imagine that the world they enjoy could ever be overthrown, have a particular fascination with accounts of the violent fall of empires and the experiences of those who lived through the ruin of their good lives. If there is some hidden anxiety in the reader's pleasure in such accounts, there is a more overt compulsion on the part of those who write their experiences of such times to repeat the story and return to the past. Jonathan D. Spence's new book is about just such a return, both in writing and in life. The subject of the book--he was born in 1597 and died sometime around 1684--lived his last decades in dire poverty, renting a small cottage on what had once been a huge estate belonging to his family.

Spence, our own best-known historian of pre-modern China, has in his seniority written the biography of Zhang Dai, who was himself a historian. Zhang Dai's life spanned the end of the Ming Dynasty in all its eccentric opulence, the subsequent trauma of the Manchu conquest, and the early decades of the Qing Dynasty, when many intellectuals of the old order tried to understand what had happened to the Ming Dynasty and why. Zhang Dai himself passed through all these phases of pleasure, suffering, and retrospect.

Zhang Dai wanted very much to be a historian. When not engaged in the other entertainments that the immense wealth of his family enabled, he studied. His lifelong ambition was to write the history of the Ming, and he carried the extensive drafts of his history with him as he hid out in the mountains for years while the Manchus were consolidating their rule. The chances of history had provided him an end for his magnum opus. When he started his work, no one could see that the dynasty would fall so abruptly and dramatically in 1644-1645. The conquerors were the Manchus, a non-Chinese people who had founded a small but vigorous state to the northeast and declared a dynasty known as the Qing. Seizing their opportunity, they crossed the Great Wall, took Beijing, and began to move their armies steadily southward.

There were historical precedents for the conquest of North China by non- Chinese peoples; it was regrettable, but it had happened. But to conquer both the north and at the same time the immensely rich cities of the south, with huge Ming armies protecting them, was unprecedented and unthinkable. The male population, forced to shave part of their heads and wear the queue, had a daily reminder of the ethnicity of their rulers. Fortune gave Zhang Dai almost four decades of life after the conquest to put the pieces together and understand how the Ming had gone so wrong as to allow the historically unprecedented.

Zhang Dai was far from the only person of his day who wanted to write the history of the Ming. Among gentlemen of learning it was a common ambition, with a cachet of dignified purpose that gave meaning to idleness. The problem was that none of these aspiring historians had the sources to go beyond known facts, common opinion, and judgments that were, by and large, conventional. The age of the private historian of a dynasty was long past. The resources to write such a history were primarily in archives in the capital, under the watchful eye of a government with its own vested interest in historical accounts. China was too big. The private historian was often successful in direct proportion to the limitation of his scope to the world that he knew best.

Zhang Dai thought of himself as a historian, and Spence too thinks of Zhang Dai primarily as a historian of his dynasty, his home city, and his family. And yet those who still read and study Zhang Dai now, in both China and the West, think of him as primarily a "literary" figure, known for his essays and, above all, for his two famous books of memoirs written during and after the conquest, in which he writes his memories of the late Ming world before the conquest. To be sure, the art of the memoirist is clearly allied to the historian's craft; but the memoirist's skill in writing and his personal engagement with the past make him, in modern eyes, less the historian than other clumsier, more analytical writers. The detail becomes so engrossing that, rather than illustrating some part of the whole, it swallows the whole into itself.

One could not imagine a better subject than Zhang Dai for Spence, whose own career as a historian has ventured along the contested frontier between history and literature. By training, position, and basic commitment, Spence is a historian; but his pleasure in writing-- both his own and the Chinese sources that he reads--puts him in a situation of resonance with the subject of his book. There is in his work something that distinguishes him from most academic historians. Contemporary academic history is too diverse to admit any single characterization, but it generally prefers the grand argument that marshals facts like the conquering armies of the Qing, subordinating them to a single large purpose determined by the commander. Detail is enlisted only to serve the narrative whole. This is strangely close to Aristotle's characterization of dramatic poetry in the Poetics, specifically when dramatic poetry is contrasted with history. In dramatic poetry, the plot determines everything; but history, in Aristotle's view, is plotless. Aristotle's good historian tells "what happened" in the unruly, sometimes disconnected details; Aristotle's dramatist tells how things "should have happened," which is remarkably close to the academic historian's commitment to show why what happened should have happened. In dramatic poetry, individual characters are represented only as a function of the larger necessities of the plot; they are not autonomous agents, but appear, act, and disappear as the plot requires. (If such a slippage of poetry into history or history into poetry seems strange, we might keep in mind that the modern usage of the term "argument" is borrowed from the plot summary that once headed a play, and that those who sought to conquer a dynasty had to "plot" as carefully as a good dramatist.)

The affinity between the plots of Aristotle's playwright, the Manchu high command, and the contemporary academic historian suggest a contrast with an older historiography, in which characters have full agency and the historian looks to those details that reveal characters, both large and small. Individual human agents are concretely described, acting and reacting, sometimes causing and always contending with the accidents and complex contingencies of fortune. Apart from a simple rise-and-fall narrative, the historical whole did not hang together any better than the late Ming polity did. Zhang Dai was, in Spence's terms, "a late Ming man," even though he lived almost half his life under the Qing. The late Ming lacked an effective "plot"; it could not mobilize its vast resources into some integrated plan whose effective implementation would be a narrative of the dynasty's survival. It was politically impotent in the face of Manchu armies, but still victorious in the retrospective imagination as a lost world of engrossing detail.

The interplay between drama and history was no less an issue in Zhang Dai's own time. Seventeenth-century China was a very much a theater culture, and Zhang Dai had an enduring fascination with theater and the theatrical. Indeed, like many wealthy households, he had his own acting troupe, and he wrote a play called Ice Mountain about recent political events in the Ming. These Chinese plays were not like Aristotle's drama of plot; they were based on character and on the poetry of the moment, usually within a known plot. Like European theater culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Chinese theater culture of that time provided new ways to think about society and history in terms of roles, plots, and "acting." It may be that "all the world's a stage"-- which is both Shakespeare and a literal translation of the seventeenth-century Chinese dramatist Li Yu; but after the Manchu conquest, the beautiful illusion of theater became part of the critique of the failure of the Ming. On the simplest level, the splendors of the late Ming vanished like a theatrical illusion, recalling one of the most famous moments in Zhang Dai's memoirs. Zhang is traveling with his acting troupe and arrives at a temple late one night. On a whim, he stages an impromptu performance of a play, to the amazement of the monks, woken from their sleep. Then Zhang and his troupe move on, leaving the monks wondering what happened.

The more serious critique of theater and history in the Ming period focused on the impotence of theatrical illusion. The figures charged with the defense of the Ming seemed to be only playacting; the grim, effective forces of history, in which things did not work out as the conventional story demanded, erased that world in only a few years. Perhaps the greatest Chinese play of the seventeenth century, Peach Blossom Fan, which was written in 1699, tells the story of the fall of the Southern Ming, the one-year regime in Nanjing from 1644-1645, as a staged polity with a theater-loving emperor. As the regime collapses, the would-be emperor flees to one of his generals, telling him: "I don't want to play emperor any more."

Spence tells a story with similar resonance. Zhang Dai was visited by the Prince of Lu, one of the pretenders to the Ming throne, who was trying to gather a resistance army as the Manchus were making their way inexorably southward. To entertain the prince, Zhang Dai staged an act of a play about the founder of the Southern Song, who re-established his dynasty in the south when North China fell to the Jurchens, the ancestors of the Manchus, in the second decade of the twelfth century. The prince was immensely pleased, drank himself into a stupor, and went his way. The theatrical representation of effective action seemed to guarantee effective action in the historical present.

The more direct connection between theatrical representation and historical reality can be seen in the military maneuvers that Zhang Dai describes, in which the Ming forces executed a mock battle with precision and panache, soundly defeating the make-believe enemy. But those same Ming armies crumbled in front of the advancing Manchus. Family members and friends of Zhang Dai, inspired by loyalty to the dynasty and the image of their own heroism, went off to join the resistance armies, failed, and often died. It never seemed to occur to them that they knew nothing of actual military command. The theatricality of late Ming elite culture showed its hollowness in the face of an experienced and professional army.

Zhang Dai wisely went off into the mountains with his manuscript of Ming history; the manuscript now had an ending to be written. The historiography that Zhang Dai knew invited him to understand what happened not as a failure of systems, but as a failure of historical agents. When his historical imagination came closer to home, however, he could never disentangle judgments of individual failure and folly from nostalgia and his personal sense of loss.

Zhang Dai came from the highest echelon of the cultural elite, from a family that had once held office; but before the fall of the dynasty Zhang Dai's generation was largely living off its capital. Zhang Dai was the eldest son of generations of eldest sons, but he did not follow the grueling route of the examinations into office; he was a private scholar and aesthete, dividing his days between study and pleasure.

Zhang Dai was surrounded by an extended family whose stories he eventually recorded. It is a remarkable gallery of the upright, the enterprising, the corrupt, the alcoholic, the disappointed, and, in more recent generations, the eccentric, who paid extravagant sums to gratify their whims. Their "spontaneity, " enabled by their fortune and admired in elite culture, could sometimes easily slip into violence, as with his cousin Yanke, who beat one of the maidservants so violently that she committed suicide. Yet Yanke is elsewhere admired for other aspects of this same unbridled impulsiveness.

Zhang Dai's gallery extended beyond his family members to others, some of whom are known from other sources. The immensely popular pock-faced storyteller Liu Jingting later figured in the play Peach Blossom Fan. Zhang Dai focused on the much-prized independence of spirit that went with Liu's talent: he would hold only one session of storytelling a day and would stop abruptly, mid-story, at a whisper or a yawn from the audience. Zhang Dai saw this as spontaneity and the triumph of individual nature; but we are more likely to see this as a socially constructed theatricality, behavior that might enhance the prestige of a famous storyteller but would not be acceptable from a worker or a household maid. For those who achieved elite sanction, such theatricality allowed a crossing of class in both directions. Such people became the roles that they played. If there is something that unifies the diversity of Zhang Dai's world, it is the desire for identity through passionate absorption in the particular, always with willful disregard for the social whole that contained and sustained that elite culture. They paid their price.

When we speak of late Ming elite culture, we actually mean the great cities of the Yangzi delta, such as Zhang Dai's native Shaoxing or his beloved Hangzhou. While Zhang was enjoying the family gardens, libraries, art collections, theatrical troupes, and festivals of the city, North China was gradually collapsing in poverty and banditry. The general violence destroyed the very means to sustain even the most successfully violent, and bandit gangs were forced to merge in order to take new territory and defeat even larger armies opposing them. Zhang's family members were drawn into the wars, but even in this the localism of elite culture--centered on self, family, and city-- triumphed. When Zhang Dai's ninth uncle was killed fighting rebels, Zhang Dai understood this as caused by an angry spirit in the cycle of vengeance of a family feud.

By 1644, no one could ignore the larger whole: Beijing had fallen to the rebel Li Zicheng, the Ming emperor had committed suicide, and the Manchus had entered the Great Wall and were on their way south. Zhang Dai's impulsive cousin Yanke, acting in character, set off to take command of troops and died, either of illness or wounds. Hiding in the mountains, Zhang Dai wrote his most famous work, the memoirs that constitute Dream Recollection of Taoan. When he returned to his native Shaoxing in 1649, the world was changed. His property and that of his family was gone, and he rented a cottage on an estate that had once belonged to the family.

In the preface to Dream Recollection of Taoan, Zhang Dai tells us that each pain and deprivation that he experiences is retribution for some pleasure or excess in his past life. His memoirs are an offering to the Buddha in expiation for his sins. Yet it is a very strange penance, lovingly recreating in words the memories of the sensuous world now lost. Rather than transcending those pleasures, he clings to them.

Jonathan Spence's splendid book is in many ways a "translation" of Zhang Dai's historiography--not in the usual sense of translation, but rather recreating in English words the remembered world that Zhang Dai recreated in Chinese words. Spence is careful to add ample contextualization in ways that were not necessary for Zhang Dai; but he effectively absorbs us in the particulars of Zhang Dai's world, while reminding us of the grim forces of political narrative that were closing in upon it. Spence has woven his sources into a richly detailed account, foreign to the contemporary English reader and yet vividly accessible. One who knows Zhang Dai in the Chinese sees familiar anecdotes and descriptions passing by in Spence's prose, which is as finely crafted as Zhang Dai's own.

As in the best traditional Chinese historiography, the analytical element in Spence's account is immanent in the narration and the description, rather than being the explicit plot that commands the detail. Return to Dragon Mountain indeed supports the traditional Chinese understanding of the reasons for the failure of the late Ming. Spence's book effectively shows why, for more than two centuries after the Ming fell, Chinese intellectuals blamed late Ming culture for the disaster. Spence is not writing about the fall of the Ming itself; his subject is Zhang Dai and his own retrospective representation of that culture.

It is easy to sympathize with the late Ming elite's cult of fascination with the individual and absorption in the particular, with its contempt for the conventional and its resistance to the totalizing state. The culture's values were the negative image of the Ming state's own egregious failures, most of all its inability to inspire a sense of collective enterprise and to support that enterprise. If the elite were absorbed in passions for their hobbies, they were also subjects of a dynasty one of whose recent emperors had given up all pretense of governing for cabinet-making. If they were given to theatrical absorption, one of their earlier emperors had decided to play the military hero and had created a state crisis by getting captured by the Mongols. Although it was only one of their multi-ethnic imperial roles, the new Qing rulers on the whole represented Han Chinese orthodox values far more effectively than their Ming predecessors. Perhaps the Manchu rulers, too, were only acting; but as with their armies, they were professionals.

Stephen Owen is James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University.

By Stephen Owen