1638: Zhang Dai in Nanking

Duncan M. Campbell

During the winter of 1638, the Eleventh Year of the reign of the Chongzhen emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhang Dai (張岱, 1597-?1684),[1] the prolific late-Ming historian and essayist, spent some months living in Nanking, then the Secondary Capital 留都 of a dynasty that was lurching towards oblivion.[2] Zhang Dai was forty-two and he would live at least as long again, yet in less than a decade his circumstances would change dramatically.

It was doubtless not Zhang’s first visit to the city and certainly we know that he was back there again in 1642; but it appears that it was the 1638 trip to Nanking that left the strongest impressions on him. When, some ten years later he completed the book of vignettes about his past — Dream Memories of Tao’an 陶庵夢憶 — a work that has earned him a lasting reputation as one of the finest prose writers of the tradition — more than a dozen items were occasioned by his Nanking days (and nights). By the time Zhang Dai sought to immortalise his memories, of course, his world of people and objects, of smells, tastes and sounds, had suffered what is often considered to have been the most cataclysmic dynastic transition in all Chinese history, and Zhang Dai himself had been reduced from the lap of luxury to self-imposed exile and arrant poverty. Below we present a number of essays related to sites, scenes and people in Nanking that Zhang included in his Dream Memories.

In the years shortly before ‘Earth crumbled and Heaven collapsed’ 地坼天崩 Nanking must have been an unsettled and anxious place, however much, in Zhang Dai’s account, the culture of refined splendor and indulgence of this late-Ming moment may have appeared to be largely unaffected by the looming catastrophe resulting from dynastic collapse and invasion.[3] Already the countryside around the city had been ravaged by drought and consequent famine and disease, a function of the last of what the historian Timothy Brook has described as the ‘nine sloughs of the Yuan and Ming dynasties’.[4] Both before and after his brief interlude in Nanking, Zhang Dai was much involved in local attempts to alleviate the famine and disease that stalked the countryside organised by his friend Qi Biaojia (祁彪佳, 1602-1645).

The bureaucratic factionalism that had been a marked feature of the Ming court in Beijing during these years, and which continued to inhibit any meaningful attempts to address the administrative and military failures, also burst into the open in 1638. Some 140 members of the Revival Society 復社 had gathered in Nanking in preparation for the imperial examinations to be held the following year. The society had been outspoken in its criticism of corruption at the eunuch-dominated court in Beijing. They now affixed their names to a public denunciation of the playwright Ruan Dacheng (阮大鋮, ca.1587-1646), then living in retirement in Nanking. Entitled ‘A Manifesto to Prevent Chaos in the Secondary Capital’ 留都防亂公揭 (often referred to in English-language scholarship as the ‘Proclamation of Nanking’), the hatred for Ruan by members of the Revival Society resulted from Ruan’s support in the mid-1620s for the eunuch faction led by Wei Zhongxian (魏忠賢, 1568-1627) in the vicious dispute with the Eastern Grove Academy 東林黨, a group of scholars who agitated for the revival of Confucian norms of statecraft and an end to eunuch politics. The death of Wei Zhongxian that resulted from the eunuch’s fall from imperial grace had led to Ruan Dacheng’s forced retirement. Outraged by his revived prominence within Nanking’s cultural (particularly, dramatic) world, as glimpsed at in Zhang Dai’s account below, the Revival Society’s attack forced Ruan into further seclusion. Ruan would be restored to office one further time, and briefly, after the suicide of the Chongzhen emperor and the fall of Peking in 1644, as Vice-Minister of War at the court of the Southern Ming Prince of Fu in Nanking. When the city peacefully surrendered to the invading Manchu-led Qing army in 1645, Ruan too surrendered — many of his contemporaries chose suicide — only to die soon thereafter in obscure circumstances as he accompanied the Qing troops on their march into Fujian Province. Zhang Dai’s judgment of this most reviled of late Ming figures (that he was ‘a man of extraordinary talent; regretfully, he is also a man riven by the remorselessness of his own ambition’), made only shortly after his death, seems remarkably judicious.[5]

The drought of these years had one particular consequence when, in 1638, a well in the compound of the Upholding Heaven Temple 承天寺 in Suzhou dried up and, hidden within an iron casket, a text entitled A History of the Heart 心史 was found.[6] Rabidly anti-Mongol in part, the work was attributed to the loyalist Song dynasty painter Zheng Sixiao (鄭思肖, 1241-1318). It was quickly copied, printed and circulated. Zhang Dai happened to be passing through Suzhou soon after the book’s discovery; he notes the re-appearance of this book in his primer of knowledge necessary for any educated person, Navigating By Night 夜航船 and writes a poem entitled ‘On Reading Zheng Suonan’s History of the Heart’ 讀鄭所南心史. He was later to liken the magisterial history of the Ming dynasty that he lived on after 1644 in order to complete to Zheng’s A History of the Heart, and Zhang Dai ends his famous ‘My Own Epitaph’ 自為墓誌銘 with an explicit reference to Zheng Sixiao (‘Only the Wild Man of the Three Outer Regions/ Will fully understand my true nature’ 必也尋三外野人方曉我之衷曲). More generally, the book provided Zhang and his contemporaries with a way of understanding their own plight as Chineseness was again being threatened by a ‘barbarian’ invasion from the north.

For Zhang Dai more personally as well, 1638 proved a painful year. In the spring, his mother-in-law (Liu Taijun, 劉太君; 1579-1638) died. In his funeral address he tells us it was on that exact same day in the fourth month of the year nineteenth years earlier that his own mother had passed away. A woman of indomitable disposition, Liu Taijun treated everyone with kindness and generosity, and her son-in-law had obviously been very fond of her. He wept for her, he said, as he had wept for his mother. Just as distressing was the death that year of Qin Yisheng (秦一生, 1584-1638) a retainer, a member of the family’s acting troupe and Zhang Dai’s life-long companion. Early in the year the two men had paid a visit to the Temple of King Ashoka 阿育王寺, in the hope of experiencing the vision that was said to manifest itself three of four times a year from the reliquary in the temple. The apparition was supposedly granted to visitors ‘in accordance with their karma’ 隨人因緣現諸色相. When Zhang was granted a vision of the Boddhisattva Guanyin but his companion ‘failed to see anything, however often he looked, [he] grew panicky and his face reddened, before he came out and departed in tears’ 秦一生反覆視之訖無所見一生惶遽面發赤出涕而去. ‘And as it transpired’, Zhang wrote in his account of their visit to the temple, ‘Yisheng died in the eighth month of this same year, Another instance of the extraordinary power of the relic’ 一生果以是年八月死奇驗若此. In the funeral address that he wrote for his friend shortly after his death, Zhang Dai was to say of him: ‘Not a day would go by that Yisheng did not go roaming with me; his death leaves me suddenly and completely bereft’ 蓋一生無日不與岱游一生一死岱忽忽若有所失.

Meanwhile, as we see from the following vignettes Nanking remained a place of entertainment and diversion; operatic performances continued nonstop and late into the night. It was a city where the cultural world was the apotheosis of nonchalant and indulgent elegance. It offered Zhang Dai and his like-minded contemporaries a brief respite from the pressing cares of official and personal life. Eventually, however, the dream faded, as had Zhang Dai’s own. Nanking was never again to recapture the splendour of this late-Ming moment; and forevermore, the ebullient decadence and theatricality of that moment was in the minds of those who sought to understand it associated with dynastic collapse.

Zhang Dai’s Dream Memories of Tao’an was most probably completed some time around 1647, although the first (and incomplete) print version only appeared in 1775. It is a randomly arranged collection of memories that are presented as though snatched from the very cusp of oblivion, just as Zhang is finally about to awaken from the Great Dream that has been his life, or as he puts it: 余今大夢將寤.[7] The Nanking-related essays translated below are scattered throughout the eight fascicles into which the book is divided, with little logic to their placement and certainly no chronological order. Significantly, however, the first two items in the book, ‘Bell Mountain’ and ‘Pagoda for Requiting Benevolence’ are set in Nanking.[8]

In preparing these translations for publication, I am once again grateful for the care and precision with which Geremie Barmé has applied his editorial pen; I am grateful also for the encouragement given me by both Zhu Yayun and Will Sima, the guest editors of this China Heritage Annual. I spent one of the happiest years of my youth as a student at Nanking University between 1977-1978; it has been particularly pleasant, therefore, in recent times to have had a reason to think about the city, its people and its history.

Bell Mountain 鍾山

Thin clouds circulate around the summit of Bell Mountain, rising and falling slowly, their reds interfused with flashes of purple. People claim the phenomenon to be a manifestation of the ‘August Breath’ of a king, this being a site where dragons moult and seek shelter. Emperor Gao [Zhu Yuanzhang], the founder of the Ming, along with his ministers Liu Ji [劉基, 1311-1375], Xu Da [徐達 1332-1385] and Tang He [湯和, 1326-1395], each individually selected a site for the emperor’s mausoleum, secreting maps marking these locations in the sleeves of their gowns. When it was revealed that three had chosen the same site, the emperor’s burial place was thereby fixed.

To the left of the approach to the site stood the tomb of Sun Quan [孫權, 182-252] of the Three Kingdoms period. During construction of the emperor’s mausoleum, a request was made to the throne for this grave to be moved. ‘Sun Quan was also a true hero’, replied the emperor. ‘Leave him where he is. He can stand guard.’ When the tomb site was being excavated, the stupa of the Liang-dynasty monk Baozhi [寶志, 418-514] was uncovered. It was found that his corpse was so well preserved that it was as if he were still alive. His fingernails had grown so long that they now encircled his body several times. The troops tried to lift the body, but he was immovable. Only when the emperor had come himself to pay his respects and pledged to have him reinterred in a golden coffin within a silver casket, with a benefice of three hundred and sixty mu of arable land given to provide for his continued veneration, would Baozhi move. He was enshrined in a stupa inside the Temple of the Numinous Valley 靈谷寺. The monks there now number in the several thousand, with a daily consumption of grain that equals the total production of the estate. Once the emperor had been installed in his tomb, the area was closed off completely, and few knew where it was situated. All that is to be seen here are three gates, a single Sacrificial Hall, the Coffin Chamber itself, as well as an encircling and wooded hill.

During the seventh month of the Renwu year [1642], when Zhu Zhao 朱兆 was promoted to the post of Chamberlain for Ceremonials in order that he may officiate over the Ancestral Sacrifice of the fifteenth day of the first month, I was present to observe the ceremony. The Sacrificial Hall was a place of deep solemnity, with the Heated Annex only three chi away, wreathed as it was in Yellow Dragon wall hangings. Two armchairs had been placed side by side. They were adorned with yellow brocade and peacock feathers, the brocade being embroidered with a facing dragon. All was most splendidly done. The floor was laid in felt and, when walking on it, one had to take one’s shoes off and proceed on tiptoe. If anyone so much as coughed, a guard would shout: ‘Silence! Do not disturb the emperor!’ A seat next to the place of the emperor, slightly to the front, was that of Concubine Gong, 碽妃 the birth mother of the Yongle emperor [r.1402-1424]. When he was born, the Empress Xiaoci 孝慈皇后 pretended that he was her son, the affair having been shrouded in utmost secrecy. Further along, forty-six seats had been arrayed to the east and the west. Some seats taken, others not. The vessels for the sacrificial offerings were simple in the extreme, even rustic. They were all made from wood: a vermillion platter, a jug and a wine goblet, all coarsely carved. The platter held no more than three slices of meat, a pinch of rice-flour, several grains of millet and a pot of pumpkin soup. On a side table in the Heated Annex were a single bronze brazier, two small chopstick containers and two wine cups. On a larger side table next to this were the sacrificial ox and lamb. Perhaps it was different on other ceremonial occasions, but this was what I witnessed in this instance.

On the day before the sacrifice, the Chamberlain for Ceremonials and his subordinate officials oversaw the opening of the middle gate of the pen where the sacrificial animals were kept, after which, accompanied by drum and pendant, the ox and lamb made their own ways out of their enclosure, before being covered with dragon blankets. When they reached the slaughter room, the ox’s hoofs were bound, each with its own rope. When the Chamberlain of Ceremonies and his subordinates arrived, the ox was presented to them, facing them head on. Before they had risen from their knees as they undertook the bows required of the ceremony, the ox’s head had already ended up in the roasting pan. Once the head had been cooked, it was then taken to the Sacrificial Hall. At the fifth watch the following day, the Duke of Wei, Xu Hongji 徐弘基, arrived to oversee the ceremony. The Chamberlain of Ceremonials and his subordinate officials did not form part of the main group, rather they stood in the Sacrificial Hall in attendance. By the time the ceremony was over, the stench of the rotting ox and lamb were quite overwhelming. On ordinary days, two sacrificial meals were presented. The Duke of Wei oversaw these ceremonies as well. His attendance being required on a daily basis.


In the Xuyin year [1638], I was staying at Vulture Peak Temple when word spread that a black miasma had gathered around the Tomb of the Founding Emperor, before bursting its way up into the Ox and Dipper constellations, lingering there for a full hundred days. I rose one night to observe the phenomenon. From the time of its first appearance, marauding bandits stalked the empire, and the alarm was raised at every quarter. In the Renwu year, Zhu Chunchen 朱純臣, the Duke of the Founding of the State, and Wang Yinghua 王應華 were assigned the task of repairing the tomb. In the process they felled trees that had been growing for three hundred years asfirewood. In the process of digging up their roots they excavated the earth to a depth of several zhang. Those knowledgeable about such things maintained that in so doing, they had harmed the Veins of the Earth, causing thereby the August Breath to dissipate. And now, indeed, we have experienced the calamity of the Jiashen year [1644—when the imperial capital of Beijing was occupied by rebels]. To have Wang Yinghua decapitated and his corpse chopped up into little bits would not suffice to redeem this crime. For two hundred and eighty-two years the welfare of the Mausoleum of the Founding Emperor has been maintained and yet, this year, on the occasion of the Clear and Bright Festival of the Dead, not even a bowl of gruel was offered in sacrifice. To think about this makes one sob inconsolably.





Pagoda for Requiting Benevolence 報恩塔

Without question, the Pagoda for Requiting Benevolence must be accounted one of China’s greatest treasures, the finest product of the kilns of the Yongle Emperor [r.1403-24]. Built during the early years of that ruler’s reign, its construction would have been impossible were it not for the majestic spirit of the emperor’s father, the founding ruler, for the immense wealth unleashed by his inauguration of the dynasty, and for the policies of the time that appointed to office only the most able of men, all of which derived from his courage, his wisdom and his talents, such as were enough to give form to this pagoda.

The pagoda, from top to bottom, was decorated as if by garlands with a million statues of the diamond body of Sakyamuni, each of which were made out of ten or so porcelain bricks, precisely cast so that when fitted together the clothing, the visages, even the beards and eyebrows of the figures, were prefect to the smallest detail, such was the magic of the manner of the joints and mortises. I hear that when these porcelain bricks were being fired, three of each design were made, one of which was used in construction, the other two buried, all of having first been numbered. Nowadays, whenever a brick is damaged, the number of the damaged brick is reported to the Ministry of Works and its replacement is immediately unearthed, ensuring that the pagoda is always as new.

At night, the pagoda is festooned with lanterns. These lights consume a vast quantity of oil over the course of a year. When the sun stands high in the sky, and thick cloud or hazy mist wafts this way and that around the pagoda, a strange and wondrous light is emitted from its crown, as if it were an incense brazier giving forth whisps of smoke. T,his phenomena lasts a full half day before dispersing. And when, during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, envoys and their interpreters arrived here from the hundred or so barbarian lands across the seas, at the mere sight of the pagoda they would invariably pay it homage and praise its marvels. They declared that throughout the four great continents there was not its match.



Pu Zhongqian’s Carvings 濮仲謙雕刻

Pu Zhongqian of Nanking is a man both ancient of appearance and ancient of heart; ‘deferential and seemingly with no ability’, the ingenuity of his workmanship is such however as to partake of the genius of nature itself. Of his bamboo objects, his brooms or his brushes, it may be said that in his hands, with a few swipes of his knife, even the smallest piece of bamboo will immediately command a price of a tael or so. And yet, what brings him most pleasure is when he can fashion some marvellous object from a twisted and contorted piece of bamboo without even a single cut from his — it is hard to understand why it is that having passed through his hands, with a scrape here or a polish there, his products become worth so very much.

His reputation spread and any object bearing his name would immediately become extremely expensive. Several dozen shopkeepers along Three Mountains Street 三山街 are almost entirely dependent upon his art. Meanwhile, Pu himself remained, quite contentedly, dirt poor. Sitting in the house of a friend, if a fine piece of bamboo or rhinoceros happened to catch his eye, he would grab it and set to work. If, however, he was not pleased with the product of his labours, he never let it to fall into the hands of another, no matter what their station or how much was offered for it.


Swallow Rock 燕子磯

Thrice have I passed by Swallow Rock, where the force of the waves is such that from here onwards the boatmen, with quick hands and straining shoulders, need to winch the boats upstream inch by inch, with hooks and iron hawsers. The sight, caught from the window of the cabin, of the angular and layered bones of the rock cliff looming up above one and seemingly holding back the flow of the water brings terror but little joy, for one had never imagined that the banks of the river here consisted of a realm such as this.

In the Wuyin year [1638], once I had arrived in the capital, I came here with Lü Jishi 呂吉士 by way of Guanyin’s Gate 觀音門, and only then did I realise what a Buddha’s Stage, an Immortal’s Capital, I had previously ignored. We ascended Duke Guan’s Hall that, straddling the lands of the kingdoms of Wu and Chu, was where Guan Yu 關羽 had fought his battles. The numinous power of the place made our hair stand on end. We followed the contours of the hill to reach the top of Swallow Rock where we sat for a while in the kiosk on its summit watching the rippling water of the river down which the boats sped like arrows. Turning to the south, we walked to Guanyin Pavilion, which we ascended by way of a rope ladder. A monk’s cloister stood beside the pavilion, with a sheer cliff of over a thousand xun, studded with giant rocks the colour of iron. Several large maple trees overshadow the other trees, casting the whole area into a deep and chill shade. Appearing somewhat idiotic, a small tower stands facing the cliff, and here one could meditate facing the wall for a full ten years. At present all the monk’s cells and Buddha pavilions seem deliberately designed to back on to the cliff, perhaps because they could not bring themselves to face it. ?

When I returned home to Zhejiang this year, my friends Min Wenshui 閔汶水 and Moonlight Wang 王月生 came here to see me off. We had a farewell drink beneath the rock face.


Note: this translation previously appeared in the West Lake issue of China Heritage Quarterly, December 2011.

Old Man Min’s Tea

Link this directly to the March 2012 issue, where it appears:


Houseboats of the Qinhuai 秦淮河房

The houseboats of the Qinhuai River are designed to provide for overnight accommodation, for socialising, and for debauchery, and although they are prohibitively expensive to rent, not a night goes by that they are not fully occupied. Coming and going amidst the houseboats are the painted boats of musical troupes with flute and drum. And beyond the houseboats, the houses that line the river all have rooftop terraces, with crimson balustrades and intricately decorated windows, bamboo blinds and gauze canopies. On moonlit summer evenings, after taking their baths, men and women sit here out in the open; the jasmine scent of the women and girls, carried by the breeze and suffusing the water towers that line both sides of the river, proves intoxicating, as does the sight of the groups of women cooling themselves with silken fans, or unhurriedly rebinding their hair [not really necessary, and a little bit confusing after ‘proves intoxicating’].

Each year, on the occasion of the Dragon Boat Festival on the fifth day of the fifth month, the women of the metropolis throng here to watch the lantern boats. The town’s aficionados crowd into various skiffs adorned with elaborate bullhorn lamps, strung from aft to stern and from one boat to another (up to a dozen boats in a line) like pearls on a string. The boats, twisting and turning this way and that, and rising and falling on the waves resemble flaming dragons and fiery sea serpents, spouting flames and fountains of water in all directions. And in the boats, amidst the drinking and the singing, the cymbals and drums, strings and pipes, played away with all the fury of a roiling pot of boiling water. The young girls of the town lean upon the balustrades laughing uproariously such that both the intermingled sounds and sights blindsthe eye and deafens the ears. By midnight, however, the songs tail off and the lanterns start to gutter, whilst the assembled crowds, like stars strung across the sky, would scatter. Zhong Xing 鍾惺 has composed a rhapsody entitled ‘The Lantern Boats of the Qinhuai River’ 秦淮河燈船賦 that describes the scene in great detail.


Roosting Amidst the Clouds 棲霞

In the winter of the Wuyin year [1638], with my wicker trunk in tow and accompanied by a single servant, I paid a visit to the Roosting Amidst the Clouds Monastery 棲霞寺, staying there three nights. The stone cliffs all the way up the mountain and to the left and right of it were excellent, but, like the cliffs of Flew-Here Peak 飛來峰 in Hangzhou, they had all been defaced by having images of the Buddha carved into them, like criminals branded on their foreheads, a most regrettable circumstance. On the summit, a strange rock reared sharply into the sky and the trees and plants grow thick and dense. A crazy monk was living here and he immediately engaged me in conversation, discoursing in a manner that was at once incoherent but seemed to contain the suggestion of the most extraordinary truths. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to question him further. As dusk fell, I ascended Mount She 攝山 to view the evening clouds; it was a most extraordinary sight and the clouds quite unlike any I’d seen before. I sat upon a rock and gazed at them as if in a trance. I then proceeded to the back of the monastery to look at the reflections of the sails of the boats plying the Great River, with Old Crane River and Yellow Heaven Ditch threading their way around the foot of the mountain below me. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of the vastness of nature.

A fellow visitor lingered there also and when he caught sight of me he stared intently at me for some considerable time. I went up to him and bowed, and upon inquiry, discovered that he was none other than Master Xiao Shiwei 蕭士瑋, and so we sat and talked animatedly for a while, the monk serving us tea and sweetmeats all the while. Shiwei asked about Putuo Monastery, and as I had just this year made a pilgrimage there, I was able to speak about it in some considerable detail. I had recently finished my Gazetteer of Putuo Monastery 普陀志, so I pulled it out from the bottom of my trunk and showed it to him. He was so taken with it that he immediately wrote a preface for it. Holding torches, we descended the mountain, Shiwei then dragging me off to stay the night with him at his lodging place. We conversed the whole night long, Shiwei finally prevailing upon me to stay another night with him.


Hunting at Ox Head Mount 牛首山打獵

The winter of the Wuyin year (1638) found me living in the Secondary Capital. My clansman, the Duke of Longping, along with his younger brother Xunwei and nephew Zhao Xincheng, took me hunting, accompanied by Yang Aisheng from Guizhou and Gu Buying of Yangzhou, as well as my friends Lü Jishi and Yao Yunzai, and the courtesans Moonlight Wang, Eyebrows Gu, Whitely Dong, Li the Tenth, and Able Yang, the Duke having us all dressed up in military uniform for the purpose, including even the courtesans. The courtesans were, accordingly, dressed in the red brocade robes lined with fox fur worn by the mounted archery, with little ‘Princess’ caps upon their heads, and sitting astride stately mounts, falcons perched upon their armguards, and black mastiffs at their heals; escorted by more than a hundred cannoniers and archers, we quit the city by way of the South Gate, amidst a sea of flags and pennons, cudgels and clubs, proceeding from there to the hunt on both slopes of Ox Head Mount, enjoying to the greatest extent possible the pleasures of the gallop and the chase.

On this occasion we killed one deer, three fawns, four hares, three pheasants, and seven stripped foxes. Then, after watching an opera at Garland Cliff, we lodged the night at Ancestral Graves. We returned from the hunt after noon of the next day, presenting the troops with the deer and the fawns as reward for their service and then proceeding to the Duke’s mansion for an elaborate banquet with much drinking. The people of Jiangnan have no idea what the hunt is all about; even I had only before seen it depicted in paintings or acted out on the stage. Having myself now experienced it, I see why it is regarded as the ultimate in virile joy; but of course it is the preserve of the rich and the noble, its pleasure only infrequently afforded the poor and lowly.



Yao Yunzai’s Paintings 姚簡叔畫

Yao Yunzai’s 姚允在 paintings are timeless; the artist himself, too, proved timeless. During the Wuyin year [1638], he was staying with the descendants of Duke of Wei, Xu Da [徐達, 1332-1385), as an honoured guest. For my part, I was living at Peach Leaf Ford 桃葉渡, spending my days with Min Wenshui 閔汶水and Zeng Jing 曾鯨. I had not even a nodding acquaintance with Yao Yunzai, but nonetheless he came calling on me one day, and the moment we caught sight of each other it was as if we had known each other all our lives.

He immediately took up residence with me for the night and, without letting me become aware of it, saw to having supplies provided for the kitchen. Whenever he was free of other commitments, he would drag me off with him to go drinking in the taverns that lined the Qinhuai River, and we would only head home once we had become completely soused. He was acquainted with all the most eminent figures of the capital, with the all the various officials and important monks, the literary figures and the famous courtesans, and he would insist on introducing me to all these people, without a single exception. After he has spent ten days with me, his servant suddenly appeared, and only then did I know that he had been accompanied all this time by his concubine.

Yao Yunzai was a man of profound intelligence, but he carried it lightly. He found it hard to get along with people, preferring to plough a lone furrow, to the extent that others found him difficult to get to know. With me, however, for whatever reason, circumstances proved the opposite, and we could not see enough of each other.

On one occasion we went together to meet up with some friends at the Pagoda for Requiting Benevolence and someone brought out an album of over a hundred paintings, all by masters of the Song and Yuan dynasties. It was as if Yunzai’s eyes were able to penetrate the entire album at once, so intense was his concentration as he sat looking at it, the colour draining from his face. Once we had returned to our lodgings, he produced a series of paintings in imitation of the style of the Song painter Su Hanchen 蘇漢臣. One of these depicted a child about to take a bath in a tub, with one foot already in the water, the other drawing back as if in alarm. A palace attendant squats at the side of the tub, one hand supporting the child, the other hand wiping away the snot from the child’s nose. A palace lady sits to one side, a child who had just finished bathing on her knees as she ties the bindings of its clothing. Another painting depicted a palace lady standing fully clothed in court attire, as if waiting, accompanied by two serving maids. One of the maids is holding up a tray on which are two cups that she is about to offer to guests. Another palace lady stands rearranging the tea whisk and so on, ensuring that everything is in its rightful place. When, later, I took another look at Su Hanchen’s originals, I found that Yunzai’s copies were exact in every detail.



Liu Jingting’s Storytelling 柳敬亭說書

Pockmarked Liu 柳麻子 of Nanking is a man of sallow complexion and scarred face; in manner, however, he is ‘detached and carefree, treating his bodily frame like so much earth or wood’.[9] He is blessed with the gift of the gab, and the set price he can command to tell a chapter a day is a full tael of silver. But this ‘consideration’ must to be sent to him at least ten days in advance of any performance, and even then he is often already booked out. At the time, Nanking had two performers who were all the rage: Moonlight Wang 王月生 and Pockmarked Liu.

I once heard Liu tell a version of ‘Wu Song Beating the Tiger at Mount Jingyang’ 景陽岡武松打虎 which differed greatly from the account given in the novel The Water Margin 水滸傳. His descriptions of the characters were complete down to the minutest detail, his pacing of the story both precise and effective, with never a word wasted. His voice rang out as strong and clear as a bell, and when he reached climatic moments, it would reach such a crescendo that the building itself would seem to shake. At the point in the story where Wu Song arrives at the tavern to have a drink, finding nobody there to serve him, the roar he emitted was such as to set all the empty wine vats humming. At slower parts of his tale, Pockmarked Liu would wax eloquent and provide copious detail.

His host would be required to sit quietly and with bated breath before he would start. If he ever caught sight of someone below him whispering to another, or a member of his audience stretching wearliy, he would come to a halt and could never be prevailed upon to continue. Come the third watch of the evening on a night of a performance, towards midnight, his table would be wiped clean and the wick of his lamp would be trimmed. Cups of the finest white porcelain would be passed around, and he would slowly and deliberately begin. The pace and gravity of his voice would be perfectly pitched, and it would rise and fall in accord with the plot and the logic of his tale, entering into its very heart and soul. I suspect that if all the storytellers of the age where led by the ear and forced to listen to him perform, few there would be that would not bite off their tongues in mortification.

In appearance, Pockmarked Liu is exceptionally ugly, but so vivid is his voice, so expressive are his eyes, so nonchalant his sartorial presence that he rivaled even Moonlight Wang in the grace and magnificence of his performance, so much so that he is appropriately compared with her.

南京柳麻子,黧黑,滿面疤槃,悠悠忽忽,土木形骸,善說書。一日說書一回,定價一兩。十日前先送書帕下定,常不得空。南京一時有兩行情人:王月生、柳麻子是也。余聽其說《景陽岡武松打虎》白文,與本傳大異。其描寫刻畫,微入毫髮,然又找截乾淨,並不嘮叨。勃夬聲如巨鐘,說至筋節處,叱吒叫喊,洶洶崩屋。武松到店沽酒,店內無人,謈地一吼,店中空缸空甓皆甕甕有聲。閒中著色,細微至此。主人必屏息靜坐,傾耳聽之,彼方掉舌。稍見下人呫嗶耳語,聽者欠伸有倦色,輒不言,故不得強。 每至丙夜,拭桌剪燈,素瓷靜遞,款款言之,其疾徐輕重,吞吐抑揚,入情入理,入筋入骨,摘世上說書之耳而使之諦聽,不怕其不齚舌死也。柳麻子貌奇醜,然其口角波俏,眼目流利,衣服恬靜,直與王月生同其婉孌,故其行情正等。

Peng Tianxi’s Acting 彭天錫串戲

Peng Tianxi’s 彭天錫 acting is a wonder throughout the world, and each act of every play that he performs is done with determined vigour, with not a single word of improvisation. On one occasion, in order to perform a particular play, he invited the playwright to take up residence at his house, expending several dozens of taels in this pursuit. Thus did his family’s fortune of hundreds of thousands of taels flow through his hands. He spent three springs performing around the West Lake in Hangzhou, visiting Shaoxing also on five occasions and performing fifty or sixty times at my house there. Even then I did not experience everything of which he was capable.

Tianxi tended to play either clown or painted-face roles, and in his inimitable impersonations, both scheming ministers and imperial favourites become even more hateful; in his voice, they seemed even more crafty. He seemed able to assume completely the personality of the character he was playing such that I fear that Zhou himself, the evil last emperor of the Shang dynasty, could not have appeared more evil. With knotted brow and blazing eyes, his stare was, quite literally, as if daggers drawn. His laugh always concealed a barb; his spectral air and murderous intent emanated a fearful fog of insinuation. In truth, Tianxi had a veritable bellyful of history at his disposal, as well as a bellyful of landscape, a bellyful of sly tricks, a bellyful of grievances, all of which had no other means for expression apart from when he was on stage.

On one occasion, when watching a marvellous opera, I was overcome with regret that I could not wrap the performance up in finest brocade so that it could be passed on and thus become immortal. This feeling I liken to what we experience when we happen to catch a glimpse of a bright moon hanging high in the sky, or as we savour the taste of a freshly-brewed cup of fine tea—both things that can offer gratification for but a moment, their passing thereafter to occasion a lifetime’s regret. Whenever Huan Yi [桓伊, d. ca. 392] happened to see a lovely vista, he would exclaim: ‘Ah, what can I say?! What can I say?’ In truth, whenever one encounters some matchless splendor, words prove woefully inadequate.


Passing Through the Gate of Swords 過劍門

The harlots of Song Quarter 曲中 in Nanking consider performing a play to be the height of refinement, and they do so as if their lives depended on it. Yang the First 楊元, Able Yang 楊能, Eyebrows Gu 顧眉生, Li the Tenth 李十, and Whitey Dong 董白 have all become famous through the opera, and on one occasion Yao Yunzai 姚允在arranged for me to accompany him to watch them perform. The players, from the Great Xinghua troupe, were to perform ‘Western Tower’ 西樓 in the afternoon, and, in the evening, move on to perform plays of their own selection. Because this troupe included in their ranks Little Darling Ma 馬小卿 and Cloudy Lu 陸子雲 both of whom had once been members of my own troupe, they all made a special effort on my behalf, performing a full seven acts, the performance continuing until well after the last watch of the night had been sounded, to the great surprise of all present in Song Quarter. Yang the first went into the Green Room to say to Little Darling Ma: ‘The performance this evening is especially lively; why is this?’, to which Little Darling Ma replied: ‘My old owner is the guest of honour this evening. He’s a real expert. He used to get a master to come to drill us all and with a crook of his little finger he would indicate which of us was lucky enough to be given a place in his troupe. To win a place was known as ‘Passing Through the Gate of Swords’. How could I dare not do my best?’ Yang the First then came out to the front in order to identify me in the audience. Almost before ‘Western Tower’ had finished, ‘The Record of the Schooling of the Son’ 教子 began, with Eyebrows Gu playing Zhou Yu, Yang the First Zhou Yu’s wife, and Able Yang Zhou Ruilong his son. Before she appeared on stage Able Yang was suddenly overcome by stage fright; trembling, she could not sing a note. Everyone stared at her, all of us wishing her on but to no effect. I too wished to give her encouragement but had no way of doing so. Finally, after a considerable pause, after a burst of applause or two, she managed to pluck up her courage and the play could proceed. After this, whenever the Song Quarter were to perform a play, they would insist on my being there to direct the play, never beginning a performance until I arrived, however late that was. My efforts served to enhance their reputation considerably, as it did my own, and many where those who benefited in this manner.


Moonlight Wang 王月生

The courtesans of the Song Quarter 曲中 in Nanking thought it beneath their dignity to associate with the tarts of Crimson Market 朱市. But Moonlight Wang 王月生, born to a tart of Crimson Market and who spent thirty years of her life in Song Quarter, was quite beyond compare. Her complexion was as white as a Fujianese orchid in full bloom. She moved with elegance and refined grace, and her long and slender fingers were like the stalks of a red water caltrop just surfacing from the water. She was dignified and sparing of both word and laughter, so much so that even the most ingenious teasing on the part of her fellow courtesans or other good-for-nothings could never bring the slightest smile to her lips.

Her calligraphic hand in Regular Script 楷書 was excellent, and she could paint orchids, bamboo, and narcissus. She could also understand songs in Wu dialect, but was reluctant to sing them. Even members of the imperial family and the rich and powerful old men of Nanking could not command her attendance. Whenever a wealthy merchant or important man managed to secure her services to preside over a half-day’s banquet, her invitation (along with a consideration) would have to be sent to her the previous day. The amount would have to be at least five taels if not as much as ten. Even then she was fastidious about which invitations she would accept. Anyone wanting a somewhat longer-term relationship with her would need to send her betrothal gifts at least several months in advance. They might even be left waiting until year’s end.

She loved drinking tea and was a close friend of Old Man Min; regardless of the weather or no matter how important the banquet at which she was expected, she would always insist on going to Old Man’s Min house to share a pot or two of tea with him before setting off. Whenever someone she had met pleased her, she would take him along to meet Old Man Min. On one occasion, Old Man Min’s neighbour, a rich merchant, was hosting a party for a dozen or so girls from Song Quarter, and everyone was sitting in a circle drinking heavily amidst laughter and tomfoolery. Moonlight lingered on the balcony, leaning on the balustrade with a winsome but somewhat embarrassed look on her face; chagrined, the girls fled in shame to an inner room in order to avoid her withering stare.

Moonlight was as aloof and dispassionate as a solitary flowering apricot under the chill light of the moon, blossoming nobly despite the frost and ice. She did not enjoy associating with vulgar types and whenever such a fellow happened to sit down beside her she would rise as if they did not exist. On one occasion her lips began to quiver, whereupon the good-for-nothings there at the time leapt up with excitement and went of to report to their master that: ‘Moonlight is about to speak!’ Fooled into thinking that it was an auspicious sign, everyone came running to take a look. Her face reddened and her lips soon ceased quivering. After the master had entreated her countless times, she finally uttered a reluctant word or two: ‘I’m off home.’


Ruan Dacheng’s Operas 阮圓海戲

Ruan Dacheng’s 阮大鋮 players pay much attention to dramaturgy, to the logic of the plots of their plays, and to the continuity between acts, not at all like the lax behaviour of other troupes. And the plays they perform are composed by their master, each sentence beautifully wrought and the playwright’s conceits perfectly realised, again, not at all like shapelessness of the works performed by other troupes.

Whenever they perform, each and every play is remarkable, each and every character remarkable, each and every performance remarkable, each and every line sung remarkable, and each and every word declaimed remarkable. With each of the three plays I saw performed at his house, ‘Ten Cases of Mistaken Identity’ 十錯認, ‘Pearl Beads’ 摩尼珠 and ‘Swallow Messenger’ 燕子箋, each sequence or moment of transition, each impromptu gag and comic interlude, each facial expression or glare of the eyes, was fully explained by the master before the performance began. And because the players understood fully both the meaning and the connotations of the lines they were saying, understood the role they were playing, each and every word they uttered was done so with conviction, such that the excellence of their performance stayed long in one’s mind. As to the Dragon Lanterns and Purple Lass of ‘Ten Cases of Mistaken Identity’, the mounted performance of ‘Pearl Beads’ or the monkey opera of the same play, the flying swallows, dancing elephants, the Persian presenting the treasure, or the decoration of the notepaper in ‘Swallow Messenger’, all these were exquisitely represented, making the performance even more memorable.

Ruan Dacheng is a man of extraordinary talent; regretfully, he is also a man riven by the remorselessness of his own ambition. For this reason, his plays are seven-tenths invective against the mores of the age, and only three-tenths ridicule, containing much slander at the expense of the Eastern Forest Party and seeking to defend the reputation of the party of the eunuch Wei Zhongxian. So much so, in fact, that they provoke the upright gentleman to disgust and are, for this reason, nowhere as famous as they should be. Assessed simply as plays, however, each is innovative and as sharp as an arrowhead. Not one of them gives in to the formulaic.



[1] For short biographies of Zhang Dai in English, see A.W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period, 1644-1912, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1943 (hereafter, ECCP), pp.53-54; and W.H. Nienhauser, ed., The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, 1:220-21. In Chinese, see Xia Xianchun 夏咸淳, A Late Ming Genius—On Zhang Dai 明末奇才——張岱論, Shanghai: Shehuikexueyuan, 1989; Hu Yimin 胡益民, A Critical Biography of Zhang Dai 張岱評傳, Nanjing: Nanjing Daxue Chubanshe, 2002; and, Hu Yimin, Research on Zhang Dai 張岱研究, Hefei: Anhui Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 2002. In preparing this set of translations for publication, I am grateful, as always, for the care with which the Editor, Geremie Barmé, has read and commented upon my drafts, and also for the encouragement given me by the Guest Editor of China Heritage Annual 2016: Nanking, Zhu Yayun.

[2] One can reconstruct only the broadest outline of the chronological details of Zhang Dai’s life from his writings. Working from the texts translated below and information given elsewhere in his corpus, we can guess that Zhang Dai arrived in Nanking sometime early in the ninth month of 1638, after having attended the funeral spoken of in ‘The Tidal Bore at White Ocean’, translated below/link to CHQ December 2011 as well. The end of the year sees him back in Shaoxing, his friends Min Wenshui and Moonlight Wang having bid him farewell at Swallow Rock. His stay in Nanking appears not to have been continuous; we know that sometime during the winter he went off hunting at Ox Mountain, and he notes a visit to Hangzhou early in the ninth month.

[3] This expression is that of Wai-yee Li, from her Enchantment and Disenchantment: Love and Illusion in Chinese Literature, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. She begins her discussion of this moment with an item from Zhang Dai’s Dream Memories of Tao’an describing a visit he paid to Jinshan Temple in the middle of the night after the Mid-Autumn Festival of 1629 and during which he had his opera troupe perform in the main hall, to the consternation of the monks thus aroused from their slumbers. She concludes this section of her argument by saying that ‘To recapitulate: Zhang Dai’s entry on the nocturnal performance at the Jinshan Temple sums up several aspects of late-Ming sensibility. First, it shows how the fascination with dreams and illusions is also the celebration of the human capacity to produce them, a token of implied freedom and autonomy for the dreaming, imagining, or remembering self. Second, the transitions in the passage show a heightened consciousness of the narrow, shifting margin between being within and without the illusion, between being dreamer and dreamed, and the ironic implications that arise therefrom. Finally, in linking the dialectics of enchantment and disenchantment with a nostalgic and elegiac mood, Zhang Dai represents the late-Ming obsession with problems of self-expression and truth telling. Fascination with dreams and illusions is then linked to the problem of self-representation’ (pp. 49-50; Romanisation altered).

[4] ‘The final wave of famine of the Ming dynasty started in 1632, escalated to vast proportions in 1639, and remained severe for two more years. Neither the Yuan nor the Ming had previously suffered a disaster on this scale’, for which, see Timothy Brook, The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010, p.71. One (and possibly fatal) token of the crises that faced the Chongzhen emperor (r.1628-1644), apart from widespread peasant rebellion and the incursions of an expanding Manchu polity that had already declared its imperial ambitions, was the collapse of the states finances; by 1644, Timothy Brook estimates that ‘…80 percent of counties had stopped forwarding any taxes at all. The central treasury was empty.’ (p.252.)

[5] On the factionalism that so marred the final years of the Ming dynasty, see, in Chinese, Xie Guozhen 謝國楨, An Investigation of the Factional Movements of the Ming and Qing Dynasties 明清之際黨社運動考, Shanghai: Shanghai Shudian, 2004. On the Revival Society, see William S. Atwell, ‘From Education to Politics: The Fu She’, in Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed., The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism, New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1975, pp.333-367. On Ruan Dacheng, see Alison Hardie, ‘Conflicting Discourse and the Discourse of Conflict: Eremitism and the Pastoral in the Poetry of Ruan Dacheng (c.1587-1646)’, in Daria Berg, ed., Reading China: Fiction, History and the Dynamics of Discourse. Essays in Honour of Professor Glen Dudbridge, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007, pp.111-146. On the Southern Ming generally, see Lynn Struve, The Southern Ming, 1644-1662, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1984.

[6] Doubts about the authenticity of this text, and the story of its recovery, continue to be raised.

[7] The allusion is to that passage from the ‘Discussion on Making All Things Equal’ 齊物論 chapter of the Zhuangzi 莊子 wherein Zhangwuzi 長梧子 addresses Ququezi 瞿鵲子: ‘He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt. While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream.’ See Burton Watson, trans., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York: Columbia University Press, 1968, p.47.

[8] Jonathan Hay, ‘Ming Palace and Tomb in Early Qing Jiangning: Dynastic Memory and the Openness of History’, Late Imperial China, 20.1 (1999): 1-48 [reproduced in this AnnualEd.] discusses the ‘historical poetics’ of the mausoleum of the founding emperor of the Ming, and notes the significance of Zhang Dai’s placing this essay at the beginning of his book.

[9] Here Zhang Dai cites a passage from the ‘Appearance and Manner’ 容止 chapter of the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 which, in Richard Mather’s translation, reads: ‘Liu Ling’s body was but six feet tall, and his appearance extremely homely and dissipated, yet detached and carefree, he treated his bodily frame like so much earth or wood.’ See Richard B. Mather, trans., Shih-shuo Hsin-yü: A New Account of Tales of the World, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 2002, p.333.