Zhang Dai is recognized as one of the finest historians and essayists of China’s Ming dynasty. When he was born into a wealthy family in 1597, the Ming dynasty had been in place for 229 years. Zhang’s early life was marked by the expansive sense of progress that permeated Ming culture: the flourishing of reformist schools of Buddhism; wide-scale philanthropy; the education of women; a celebration of the visual arts, writing, and music; intellectual pursuit of medicine and science — this was truly a time of cultural creativity and renaissance in China. When the Ming dynasty was overthrown in the Manchu invasion of 1644, Zhang Dai’s family lost their fortune and their way of life. Zhang Dai fled to the countryside, where, as a writer of tremendous skill, acuity, and passion, he spent his final forty years recounting his previous life as a way of leaving a legacy to his children and rebuilding a spirit shattered by the violent upheaval he had witnessed.
Celebrated China scholar Jonathan Spence has pored over Zhang Dai’s extraordinary documents and vividly brings to life seventeenth-century China. This absorbing book illuminates a culture’s transformation and reveals how China’s history affects its place in the world today.