Spence has done it again: taken what might seem a limited topic and, after analyzing it from multiple perspectives, arrived at grander conclusions. In this case, he examines the writings of Zhang Dai, a scholar and son of a wealthy family of the late Ming dynasty who saw his world collapse with the fall of the Ming and who then devoted himself to illuminating the wonders of the Ming and the culturally more limited Manchu, or Qing, dynasty. Zhang was truly an advanced man of letters, an essayist, poet, historian, philosopher, and sensitive observer of his world. When the Ming and its high culture collapsed, there was no longer a place for a highly cultured person in China, and so Zhang took to the hills, withdrawing to the abode of monks living in caves. Spence is able to make vivid the differences between the highly cultured Ming period and the less cultured Qing. Instead of a standardized picture of one Confucian dynasty following another, he provides a sharper picture of advancement and decline. In the isolation of his mountain retreat, Zhang devoted himself to trying to record what had made the Ming so great and the Qing so limited.
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