Severing the Nation with Meaningful and Fresh Words—Appreciation of Zhang Dai’s Essay
By Wang Yongli
Zhang Dai: who is he? If I had not read Shipping in the Night, The Memory in Tao Cottage and Dreaming In the West Lake published by Sichuan Literature Press, 1996 edition, I would have been unfamiliar with Zhang Dai. After reading the books, not only do I have a deep understanding of the great patriotic writers, but also I obsessively love his works of prose. To summarize his characteristics in general, I would say they sever the nation with meaningful and fresh words.
Zhang Dai (1597 – 1679), word name Zongzi, or Shigong, nickname Taoan, or Diean Lay Buddhist, was born in Sanin (now Shaoxing city of Zhejiang province). He was the outstanding essayist at the end of the Ming Dynasty. The scholar Huang Shang called Zhang Dai “a historian, a poet, and a peerless essayist.” I agree with the evaluations. Zhang Dai’s works are very abundant, according to his “Myself Epitaph”, he wrote many books: Stone Epigraph, Zhang Family Genealogy, Hero Biographies, Lang Huan Selection, Ming Changes, Big Change Usage, History Addendum, The Four Books in History, The Dream, Telling the Bell, The Explanation of Chang Valley, The Happy Garden, Ancient Path, The Ten Episodes of Xinang, The West Lake Dream, One Volume of Ice and Snow Text and many others. In addition, he wrote The Psalm on the Portraiture of Three Immortal Heroes of Yue in the Ming Dynasty, The Inventions of Guan Long and, Shipping in the Night. I think most of his books are about the study of history, and his poems are rare pieces of perfection. His prose works can be considered peerless, especially his sketch essays, which are outstanding. He became a leader of prose creation in Ming and Qing Dynasties with his most famous work being The Memory in Tao Cottage.
What is the “sketch”? According to the research scholar Ran Yunfei, “sketch” is a concept that originated from Buddhist concise editions of the Jin Dynasty. Sakyamumt Argument of Emptiness said: “the detailed scriptures are called products, while more concise ones a sketch.” In the late Ming Dynasty there appeared a batch of lyrical prose and sketch essay writers; Zhang Dai was the best, one of the “leaders.” (Ran Yunfei “preface—save the rivers and lakes” The Memory in Tao Cottage)
Why among Zhang Dai’s works is The Memory in Tao Cottage sketch essay collection the most influential? Because it is a collection of his sketch essay masterpieces, but also because the background circumstances around the time he wrote this book are very regrettable. Zhang Dai said in the preface: “When I was fifty years old, my county became death”, he lived in seclusion and “became a savage with long hair in the mountain to avoid the trail.” What he had were no more than a broken desk and a bed, a damaged tripod, a broken zither, and a broken inkstone. He dressed in coarse cloth and ate simple food, but often had nothing to eat. When a friend visited him, the friend did not recognize him for the friend was so astonished to see him in such a situation. “As if he had seen a beast, so that he could not communicate with me.” Zhang Dai due to a life of hardship and hopelessness penned, “Writing an elegy to lament my death, many times I decided to committee suicide”. However, because the Stone Epigraph was not finished, he had to linger on in a steadily worsening condition. It is a pity that although in later years he finished his Stone Epigraph, the book became lost after several disasters and could not be circulated to the world. But he insisted on writing, “The cock is crowing and awakens me from the pillow; the night airs are still hovering. Considering my whole life, I find that prosperity and extravagance, just like a mist becomes empty. My fifty years is no more than a dream.” “Thinking the remote past things, I record my memories.” “Sometimes I write down a piece of an article, as if I have been visiting the old path, as if I have met the old friends.” In order to let the world remember things of the Ming Dynasty, he was possessed by it, and always enjoyed it. “As strong as the Buddhist relics, even if the fire is still burning fiercely, my will cannot be burnt down.” (Shipping in the Night, Sichuan literature and Art Publishing House, 1996 edition, page 423.) Zhang Dai’s sincere patriotic feeling deeply moved every reader’s heart.
The Memory in Tao Cottage in total has eight volumes, each containing thirteen to seventeen essays. Volume one includes “Zijin Mountain” and “The Tower”. Volume two contains “Confucian Temple”, “The Cypress”, and “Yanziji”. Volume three includes “Seeing Snow in the Mid-lake Pavilion” and “Baiyang Lake”. Volume four includes “The Qinhuai River House” and, “Reviewing the Troops in Yanzhou”. Volume five includes “The Yu Garden”, “Huqiu’s Mid-Autumn Night”, and “Yangzhou Jade”. Volume six includes “Shaoxing Lamps Scenery” and “Misty Rain Building”. Volume seven includes “West Lake On July Fifteen”, “Autumn In the Boudoir” and, “Passing the Jianmen”. Volume eight includes “Discharge Lamps on the Dragon Mountain” and, “The Decorated Ship”. It can be said that this book concentrates soley on the essence of the sketch essays of Zhang Dai.
First of all, I feel that all the essays of Zhang Dai’s works are full of patriotic feelings. He not only did not eat Qing millet during his extreme hardship and hunger, he wrote a lot of articles to remember every tree and grass of the Ming Dynasty. So he severed the nation with words. For example “Zijin Mountain”. Besides writing about Zijin Mountain’s towering verdant slopes, the king’s gas, the dragon’s ambition, he also wrote that Qing soldiers damaged the tombs of the Ming emperors. Therefore, “The tomb jades remained for two hundred and eighty-two years, but in the day of Pure Brightness of this year, no articles of tribute could be found. When I think about this, I weep so sadly.” (The same book page 426.) For another example he wrote “Thanksgiving Tower” as follows: “In China, a large antique and miracle, is the Thanksgiving Tower, which was built in the early years of Yongle. Only the emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty could have had the material, edict, ability, wisdom and founding spirit to imagine the tower.” He narrated: “During the time of Yongle, overseas and foreign visitors from a hundred countries paid their respects and bowed their heads to the tower in praise, and they said that there is a no more magnificent tower in the four continents.” Thinking of his homeland, with sincere patriotic feelings, he recorded fragments about the prosperous lives of the past, to reflect his sighs for the now-broken nation and the death of families. These formed the main features of thought in his sketch essays.
Secondly, I think a great artistic characteristic of Zhang Dai’s sketch essays is their meaningfulness and freshness. For example “Seeing Snow in the Mid-lake Pavilion”. “In December of Chongzhen, for five years I lived at West Lake. It had been snowing for three days. At the lake there was no sign of man nor bird. On the day the snow stopped, carrying a raincoat and a small stove, I took a boat, rowing alone to the pavilion in the center of the lake. With the scene of snow and rime, I found the sky, the clouds, the mountains and the water were all also in the colour of white. But there were three differently coloured objects in the lake. One was the Su Dam, one was the pavilion and the last one was my boat. In the garden there were only two or three visitors. Reaching the pavilion, there were two people sitting face to face on a felt rug. A boy servant was heating wine and the fire in the stove was flaming. When they saw me, with big surprise they said: ‘At the lake how can we not have one more person?’ They pulled me over to drink with them. I had to drink three cups of wine before bidding farewell. I asked their names, they told me they were from Jinling, and sailed here. And then I was on the boat again, but the boatman was mumbling: ‘Don’t say you are crazy, there are some people more crazy than you!’.” (The same book page 445.) This article is fewer than hundred words, but with a style of its own, it depicts the overlooking scenery, traceless snow, the sky and water of the same colour. The pavilion, the dike, the people, as well as the boat are as small as grains. The boatman’s comment that there are crazy people, who also love the snowy scenery, is the punch line. The essay is meaningful and fresh, reading it I feel as if I am drinking down a cup of sweet tea.
Thirdly, he observes objects very exquisitely and vividly describes nature, things and people, enough so the settings and figures seem ready to come out at one’s call. For example his famous essay “West Lake On July Fifteen” is more interesting. “At West Lake in the middle of July there seems nothing worth looking at. But on July fifteenth you can at least see the people. On July fifteen there are five kinds of people worth taking a look at. The first kind of people are men who do not look at the decorated ships with music, do not look at the lofty crown feast, do not look at the colourful lamps competition, do not look at the acousto-optic chaos, they come to see the moon but do not look at the bright moon. The second group are girls and ladies on the huge decorated ship or on buildings, carrying children’s or holding their hands, laughing and crying, standing on the terraces looking around saying there are there to see moon but never looking at the moon. The third kind of people are courtesans and idle monks who are on the ship singing songs, sipping wine slowly, humming a tune, blowing a flute, bathing in the moon, but never looking at the moon. The fourth kind are people who are not on a boat, are sloppily dressed, drunk and in a group of three or five. They descend into the crowd, shouting from the bridge, like noisy owls. Or they are pretending to be drunk, singing a tune with no melody, there to see the moon but in fact not really looking at the moon. The fifth are people who are lightly rowing some boats, clean boats with a stove. When the water is boiled, someone makes tea with the hot water and passes the fine porcelain cups to friends and beautiful ladies, inviting the ladies to sit with them, perhaps under a tree, to escape the noises from the center of West Lake, again to see the moon, again not actually looking at the moon. Hangzhou people visit the lake, beginning at 7-8 pm, returning home at 11-12 pm. Escaping the moon is like avoiding an enemy. In the evening many people pursuing fame, vie against each other going home, giving many tips to the door boys and attendants in the pubs, under the torches, which the sedan carriers are holding on the banks. They take boats towards the broken bridge, joining in a climactic party. Before 12 pm, voices advocate like boiling water, like soliloquies, like the deaf or dumb, large and small boats are tied up along the bank. You can see nothing, but punting poles, boats and dash boats, gazing at each other in speechlessness” (The same book, page 470.) In Zhang Dai’s description, all the people who appreciate the West Lake moon, and all kinds of colours are vividly revealed on the paper, impressing the readers with natural and vivid detail.
Fourthly, he wrote about a wide range of subjects. All the scenery, customs, traditional opera, arts, and antique toys, he liked to record. With a fresh and lively style of language, like prose poetry, he never let readers forget, and received claps of applause. For example in “Baiyang Lake” he wrote his view of Qian Tang River: “Standing on the bank to see the tide line, I see it comes from Haining, and goes straight to the Qiantang River. As it approaches, it looks a pale white, as if the tide is driving thousands of groups of goslings to fly among the waves. As more approach, foams spray, like ice flowers, or as if millions of snow lions are shielding the river, under whips of thunder’s, one hundred thousand arrowheads rushing forward, vying against each other to dash the bank. More approaching, the hurricane propels the tide, seeming to break the shore. Onlookers feel astonished and try to avoid it. The sea tide in the river uses all its powers to hit the bank. Water splashes several metres away and all faces are wet. The tide turns to the right, but Turtle Hill blocks it. The tide seems broken and angry, foam falls like snow, the sound horrible, like ten thousand gunshots. All the viewers are surprised, dizzy, they sit there for half a day before their faces return to their normal colour.” (The same book page 441.) The metaphor ” thousands of groups of goslings,” and “a million snow lions” driven with whips by the raging thunder and the roaring tide is so vividly portrayed that the readers feel as if they are participating, feeling the shock. It is unforgettable reading, thus how can one not applaud?
In short, this is a good book worth reading. It can make readers intoxicated. Friends, if you are interested in it, you must buy a copy, and quietly read it. I am sure that you will benefit from it。