Return to Dragon Mountain

There is a long review of Jonathan Spence’s new book Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man in TNR. Just the fact that there is a long review of a book on Chinese history in something like TNR is worthy of note. The review is by Steven Owen, who is a noted scholar of Chinese poetry, and perhaps not the ideal person to review a book on history. On the other hand he may be the ideal person to review a book by Spence, “whose own career as a historian has ventured along the contested frontier between history and literature.” Having not yet read the book I can’t offer definitive comments on either it or the review, but it may be that either Spence or Owen is getting something wrong about Ming history-writing. The book centers on Zhang Dai a well-known literatus/historian of the Late Ming and early Qinq. Owen describes Zhang’s problems in the writing of history.

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.

I think this is getting something wrong, in that he seems to be presenting Zhang as a frustrated Rankean who was unable to write “real” history. Zhang certainly would have refused to have worked on the Qing’s official Ming History project, but I suspect he would have been just as unhappy with a project presided over by the Ming court (and, like any member of literati class he would have been quite aware of ways of getting around court dictates while working on a court-sponsored project.) I am not sure Zhang Dai wrote the type of stuff he did entirely because he had been locked out of power, but rather that he was not happy with the centralized narrative the state historiography produced regardless of who the patron was.

Or maybe I’m wrong. I guess I will have to read the book.


  1. (Full disclosure: I’ve heard Owen speak on poetry, as part of the Harvard Sophomore tutorial in Asian Studies, and used some of his translations, but never worked with him in any fashion)

    Owen’s understanding of historiography is … odd. I’m going to have to go back and reread it and think about it, but it seems like he’s got a mental image of a dichotomy between a humanistic tradition — Confucian and old-fashioned Western history — in which autonomy and agency are paramount and a deterministic tradition — Marxian, though he doesn’t say so, and the social science trend in general — in which individual agency is irrelevant to the workings of great trends and processes. His use of a literary trope — the simplistic plotting of social science, versus the engaging and complex performances of Confucian humanism — is interesting, but betrays his failure to understand or engage with historical theory, social science or social history.

    There’s a real problem in this review, too: I have a hard time figuring out, at least on first reading, what’s in the book and what’s Owen presenting context (or contrast; that’s unclear, too). It’s a weak review, in the sense that a review is supposed to tell you (at least this is what I tell my students!) whether and why a book is worth reading. Aside from the fact that Spence hasn’t deviated from known fact and writes well, I can’t make heads or tails of this.

  2. Sam,

    Ugh. That review was even worse. Or maybe it was a perfect review and the book is not very good (my birthday is coming, so I hope to make a more full report soon.) I realize of course that NYT is not the Journal of Asian Studies, and there are audiences to write for besides China scholars, and I am fine with that. Still, when a reviewer compares a historian to Italo Calvino (who wrote fiction) there is something wrong with either the historian or the reviewer. This particularly bothers me in Chinese history where there is such a long tradition of orientalist fantasies that scholars should not be adding to. I suppose once I get a copy of the Spence book I can sit down with it and with Brooks’ Confusions of Pleasure and write a joint review, but for now I am sort of expecting to not like the Spence book.

    Actually, I guess these reviews are doing their jobs. They are supposed to be telling me if I want to buy the book, and if I will enjoy reading it and they are doing that pretty well.

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