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Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man Hardcover – September 20, 2007


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Printing edition (September 20, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670063576
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670063574
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,079,286 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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)
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From Booklist

Spence's dozen-plus histories have inducted readers into intricate corners of imperial Chinese history, and he continues in that vein with this beguiling biographical portrait of scholar Zhang Dai (1597–1680?). He had a parabolic life: ascending through familial connections to the Ming bureaucracy; descending after the dynasty's 1644 disintegration before Manchurian invaders. There is a sensible affinity between author and subject in Spence's presentation of the analytical Zhang, whose writings comprise biographical sketches of his family and ancestors, a Ming dynastic history, poetry, and commentary on classical Chinese texts. Zhang's thematic rather than chronological approach to the world is reflected in Spence's narrative structure, which initially touches on Zhang's ruminations about the aesthetics of lantern displays, sacred sites and their draw of pilgrims, or character traits of relatives revealed though their tribulations with the state. This induces moods evocative of Zhang's increasingly disturbed times, especially when Spence describes the dynastic crisis that pitched Zhang into poverty. Spence only enhances his fine reputation with seasoned perceptions of the accessible, multifaceted Zhang Dai. Taylor, Gilbert

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Alvaro Lewis on September 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Zhang Dai, the figure at the center of Jonathan Spence's latest book sits at the margins of his milieu and observes and comments upon family members, bureaucrats, art traders, poets and emperors. A member of the Ming elite, Zhang Dai inherits the fortune to come into his own just as the world that has given him his livelihood collapses. Spence chronicles the life of Zhang Dai and his period up to the collapse of the Ming dynasty in 1644. At that point Zhang Dai goes into hiding in different monasteries and his day to day traces disappear. His writings, however, remain. For the next thirty years Zhang Dai continues to write a history of the Ming dynasty as well as biographies and popular reminiscences. Spence's biography of successes, failures, family and forbearance in an age of competitive civil examinations, Yangzi River pirates, lantern parties, parsimony and excess gave me real pleasure. The narrative flows replete with appealing detail, patience, and admiration for the life its subject who took nearly all eighty of his years to discover his contribution to a tumultuous world. As a window into this changing world of imperial China and into the life of a figure possessing flair and fire, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Edward Tsai on January 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book is an evocative depiction of Ming society in China through the eyes of contemporary historian Zhang Dai. It's not a history book or a biography, but rather a snapshot of life in the late Ming dynasty. Particularly fascinating are the details of everyday gentry life, particularly in its varied and colorful amusements and hobbies, such as staging plays, tea connoisseurship, how people celebrated holidays, music, boating, antique collecting, poetry, etc., and in the duties expected of gentry, such as studying for and passing the bureaucratic exams to hold office. Also very interesting were the descriptions of Zhang's various relations (grandfathers, uncles and cousins) who varied to extremes in character and revealed much about different expressions of human nature within the social norms of the times. I felt this book truly brought ancient China alive for the reader and that alone makes this book a worthwhile read.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Mr. Leong Wai Hong on February 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
According to the review by the Washington Post ,"historian Zhang Dai's long life, which began in 1597 and ended around 1680, spanned the Ming 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.".

I have read many books by Jonathan Spence.His historical works on China in particular "Treason by the Book" are excellent.Spence said he took several years to research and write this latest work of his. Unfortunately he appears to have only scratched the surface. This is not a full biography.I finished this book knowing only sketches of Zhang Dai.In that respect i was disappointed with this book which i had earlier bought with great expectations.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Ferg on May 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I bought this book on a whim, partly because of interesting reviews.

But once I got it, I got hooked. It is a very readable book about a man who lived in a very different culture from our own. It is organized by theme, rather than by date. That is, it is not so much a biography as a portrait of the man and his times and the culture in which he lived. There are mini-sketches of the struggle of the upper classes to pass the scholarly tests for admission to the bureaucracy (a struggle that sometimes consumed decades); of Zhang Dai's mini-adventure with a very special tea that he discovered; the role and prevalence of prostitutes in his culture; his trips to visit natural spots, shrines, and monasteries, and much more.

I tend to dip into many books, but read very few cover-to-cover. This one I'm reading cover-to-cover and almost done. So on my scale of interesting-ness it rates high; much higher than I expected when I bought the book.

It is a portrait of a very privileged but also a very human person. If the idea of spending a few hours with such a person appeals to you, then I think you'll enjoy this book.

And if you're like I was -- only vaguely intriged -- I'd recommend that you give it a try. Give serendipity a chance to strike. :-)
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23 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Oliver Evans on November 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The text is well written, and gives the reader the opportunity to experience the memories of an man from living in an interesting period of China's history. The one problem I had with this book is that I had the sensation of being a blind man, listening to someone's interpretation, hoping I would enjoy it. I had the nagging feeling I would have been better off reading a translation of the original writing, and experience it first hand. A translation with insightful commentary would have been a far more rewarding read.
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