Zhang Dai is one of the quintessential voices of the literati culture of the late Ming dynasty. A master of the “prose miniature” (xiaopin wen), he was one of a number of iconoclastic writers who espoused the values of individualism in opposition to various modes of literary orthodoxy based on imitation of past models and a narrow Confucian moralism. This movement in prose and poetry arose in the latter half of the 16th century with such spokesmen as the three Yuan brothers, especially Yuan Hongdao (1568– 1610), Li Zhi (1527–1602), Tang Xianzu (1550–1617), Zhong Xing (1574–1624), and Xu Wei (1521–93). Rejecting the official culture of their time, they argued for personal authenticity and uniqueness in expression and also promoted a wider sense of literature which included popular forms such as the novel and drama. In a culture where literature is usually read in connection with the facts of the author’s life, Zhang Dai’s writings are especially autobiographical and reflect the growth of self-consciousness characteristic of the progressive writers of the 17th century. The works for which he is best remembered were all written after the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, a catastrophic event which left him destitute in middle age and deprived of his privileged status as the talented scion of an old, established family of high officials. Despite the conservative shift in taste under the new Manchu rulers, Zhang Dai’s writings continued to espouse the individualism of the late Ming. They preserve the details of a lost, antebellum era of taste and pleasure while articulating a coherent aesthetics which has had continuous appeal for Chinese intellectuals.
Zhang Dai’s prose writings, only a small portion of which have been preserved, can be divided into three groups—historical writing, miscellaneous works, and reminiscences— as well as into those written before the fall of the Ming and those written afterwards.
Zhang’s historical writings are in the form of biographies with expository essays introducing each category of people. Zhang considered these works his most formal, and as his public legacy which was originally intended to influence current political opinion and, later, to pass judgment on the age. The earliest of his historical works was Gujin yilie zhuan (1628; Biographies of righteous martyrs past and present), which contains more than 400 exemplary biographies of righteous heroes and scholars who resisted political oppression, from the Zhou down through the Ming dynasties. It was written during a particularly turbulent period to oppose eunuch factions at court who instituted purges of reformist scholars. It reveals Zhang’s talent for incisive, rounded portraits, which would reappear later in many of his reminiscences.
His major historical work took four decades to complete and was written in two parts.
Part 1 of Shigui shu (1655; A history in a stone casket), begun in 1628, made use of over 400 sources, many from his family archives, to compile a history of the Ming from the Hongwu through the Tianqi reigns (1368–1627). Part 2, known as Shigui shu houji (A continuation of a history in a stone casket), was begun in the early Kangxi era when Zhang was asked to aid in the compilation of the official history of the Ming dynasty.
This enabled him to gain access to new archival material about the last reign and the loyalist regimes. It continues the story down through the Chongzhen era (1628–44) and the loyalist regimes of the Southern Ming, which continued briefly to resist the Manchus.
Also organized according to the grouped biography format, its topics include politics, economics, culture, and military, ethnic, and foreign affairs.
Zhang’s miscellaneous works include a wide range of formats such as prefaces, afterwords, letters, encomia, essays, travel writing, biographies, and epitaphs—including his own, which he prematurely composed at the age of 68. Most of those that survive are preserved in Langhuan shiwenji (Collected poetry and prose from the Langhuan garden), first printed in 1877. They not only reveal his aesthetic opinions, family background, and self-views, but also indicate his extensive social relations with many of the outstanding scholars of the time. Two collections of reminiscences, Xihu xunmeng (1671; In search of my dreams of West Lake) and Taoan mengyi (c. 1685; Dream-like memories from the studio of contentment), remain the basis of Zhang’s later literary fame. Xihu xunmeng contains 72 pieces organized as a more formal record of famous places around West Lake in Hangzhou, a glittering cultural center he first visited as a child of six and had not seen in 28 years. Among the sites recalled were many destroyed in the Manchu conquest, including his own estate. First printed in the Kangxi era (1662–1722), it is the only one of his works included by the orthodox bibliographers of the Manchu Qing dynasty in the official Siku quanshu (1773–82; The complete collection of the four libraries). Taoan mengyi, first printed during the Qianlong era (1736–95), is an entertaining miscellany of 123 prose miniatures reminiscing about people, places, objects, customs, and the pleasures of the first half of Zhang’s life before the fall of the Ming. Each piece averages only about several hundred ideographs and manages to encapsulate a curious facet of a vanished world as witnessed by an independent and, occasionally, irreverent eye.
Zhang Dai’s espousal of individualism was founded on a view of literature as a vehicle for expressing the unique character of the writer. In his reminiscences, this was principally articulated through his choice of subject matter, aesthetic judgments, and linguistic style. Among his best-known pieces are portraits of artisans and performers, a group of low social status outside the canon of traditional biography, whose members he exalted as icons of authenticity and genius. The illiterate storyteller Liu Jingting, for example, who briefly gained influence at the court of the ill-fated Nanjing Restoration of the Ming in 1645, is recalled as a masterful teller of tales whose consummate artistry was in stark contrast to his ugly appearance. In his travel pieces, Zhang often focused on tangential aspects of a place outside the conventional decorum of representation such as the prostitutes of Yangzhou, the matchmakers at West Lake, or the extravagant inns at the pilgrimage site of Mount Tai. A connoisseur of a wide range of arts and pleasures, he admired the obsessive pursuit of artistic ideals, advocating the cultivation of taste as the path to self-realization while frequently deriding the vulgarity of conventional standards of beauty. In another well-known piece about viewing the summer moon at West Lake, Zhang created a typology of society based on the manners and self-consciousness of different groups of holiday tourists, particularly lampooning those who never look at the moon but only at others enviously looking at them. After visiting the garden of the merchant Yu Wu and praising its ingenuity, Zhang dismissed the excessive piling up of expensive rocks at a more famous garden and remarked that it would have been better to design the latter around two odd-shaped rocks which had been discarded.
Zhang’s own aesthetics emerge as a highly personal kind of sophistication which appreciated the finest in both elite and popular culture. He found particular value in the marginal, the genuine, the marvelous experience, and in the unique perception. Like most Chinese literati, his ideals contain moral implications, and he managed to convey a broad, ethical awareness while eschewing Confucian didacticism. His reminiscences have the appearance of random sketches intended to reproduce a sense of the spontaneous experiences of a former life well lived, an arrangement that has been termed “cherished disorder” (Stephen Owen, 1986). This autobiographical self embraced the contradictions of the world, the passions aroused by memory, and the despair of his old age. Though occasionally tinged with nostalgia, these pieces are thoroughly realistic in their focus on concrete detail and recapture a world rich in the unexpectedly fascinating, often deflating the serious with humor. His linguistic style in his most characteristic pieces is eclectic and peppered with novelty, especially in Taoan mengyi. For example, he exploited archaic features of classical Chinese in dialogue, such as using nouns as verbs, and liked to combine the repetitive rhythms of colloquial oral storytelling with lofty diction. Zhang valued above all evocativeness. His terse but suggestive description, choppy syntax, and telling observations sought to achieve a mode of literary essentialism which could preserve for eternity his own qualities of animation, curiosity, intelligence, and broadmindedness.
Courtesy name Zongzi and, later, Shigong; studio name Taoan. Born 1597 in Shanyin (now Shaoxing), Zhejiang province. Descended from a prominent family of officials and scholars. As a youth traveled extensively with his father and uncles, meeting many of the leading writers and artists of the late Ming period and gaining attention as a prodigy.
Failed the jinshi (civil service) exams several times, and renounced a public career; wrote historical works in an effort to revive the faltering Ming dynasty. After the Manchu invasion and fall of the Ming, 1644, briefly joined the ill-fated regime of the Ming pretender Prince Lu, 1645, but soon resigned and went into hiding for two months when the Manchu forces conquered Shaoxing. Lost his property in the civil war and lived in reduced circumstances for the rest of his life as a reclusive Ming loyalist. Refused to
support the new Qing dynasty and devoted himself to completing his history of the Ming.
Died near Shaoxing in 1689.
Essays and Related Prose
(Most of Zhang Dai’s works were not printed and have not survived. Below are listed the principal surviving works and collections.)
Gujin yilie zhuan (Biographies of righteous martyrs), 1628
Shigui shu, 1655
Xihu xunmeng, 1671; edited by Sun Jiasui, 1984
Taoan mengyi, c. 1685; edited by Zhou Xianqing, 1985
Langhuan shiwenji, 1877; edited by Xia Xianchun, 1991
Shigui shu houji (A continuation of a history in a stone casket), 1959
Sishu yu (Encounters in reading the Four Books), 1985
Yehangchuan (Night-time sailing), edited by Liu Yaoen, 1987
Translations of essays in: The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, edited by Victor Mair, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994:594–98; Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, translated by Richard E.Strassberg, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994:335–51
Other writings: poetry and memoirs.
A Ying, “Langhuan wenji” (On collected prose from the Langhuan garden), in his Haishi ji (Collected mirages), Shanghai: Beixin shuju, 1936:155–69
Nienhauser, William H., Jr., “Chang Tai,” in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, edited by Nienhauser, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986:220–21
Owen, Stephen, Remembrances: The Experience of the Past in Classical Chinese Literature, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986:134–41
Xia Xianchun, Mingmo qicai—Zhang Dai lun (On Zhang Dai, a genius of the late Ming), Shanghai: Shanghai shehuikexueyuan chubanshe, 1989
Zhang Dihua, “Zhang Dai,” in Zhongguo dabaike quanshu: zhongguo wenxue (The Chinese encyclopedia: Chinese literature), vol. 2., Beijing and Shanghai: Zhongguo dabaike quanshu chubanshe, 1986:1231
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