Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History

Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History

Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History

Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History

Synopsis

Through biographies of China's most colorful and famous personalities, John Wills displays the five-thousand- year sweep of Chinese history from the legendary sage emperors to the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. This unique introduction to Chinese history and culture uses more than twenty exemplary lives, including those of statesmen, philosophers, poets, and rulers, to provide the focus for accounts of key historical trends and periods. [A] spirited and highly intelligent book.... A splendid reflection on the nature of the Chinese relationship to history, culture, and morality.... What gives Wills's [book] its originality and its effectiveness is the artful span of examples he has chosen, examples that not only range across time ... but are also chosen to illuminate major themes and continuities within the Chinese universe.... There is high drama, cruelty, and excess in many of these stories.... And there is also wit and charm mixed with the telling of great events.--Jonathan Spence, The New York Times Book Review A tapestry displaying a vast array of noble dreams and failures, of initial utterances and long-distance echoes, of recurrent patterns and abrupt innovations intended to intrigue and inform educated readers looking for a way into three thousand years of Chinese history.--Jerry Dennerline, The Journal of Asian Studies

Excerpt

This is a book that introduces the history of a great people through the prism of that people's own historical memories. The epigraph is drawn from a letter by Sima Qian, China's greatest historian, in which he describes how he suffered mutilating punishment and stayed alive and working in order to complete the great history his father had begun and to transmit knowledge of China's past and its great men to later generations.

Cang zhi ming shan, literally “store it name mountain,” is a cryptic enough phrase even by the standards of literary Chinese. “Name mountain,” ming shan, probably was not the name of a mountain; it may have been an expression used to refer to the imperial archives. The phrase also represents the intersection of two images that have great resonance in Chinese culture. Real and metaphorical mountains have had great power over the minds of the Chinese at many times and in many ways. Buddhist monasteries often were built in mountainous areas. Some sacred mountains were ancient centers of pilgrimage and veneration. Emperors were buried in real mountains, like the tomb of Empress Wu and her husband, or in great tomb mounds that were called mountains, like the famous tomb of the First Emperor of Qin. Landscape paintings were and are called “mountain and water paintings.” Water always flows on and away, like time or one's life, but mountains have weight, endure. Men might change the course of a river, but they could scarcely scratch the surface of a mountain. The solitary viewer in a landscape painting was delighted by implacable heights and cliffs beyond the power of human meddling. Even men, at least the greatest man, Confucius, might seem to their disciples as elusive and awesome and solid as a mountain.

The word ming, “name,” comes even closer to the heart of the culture. Confucius taught that the world could be restored to order and virtue if only people conformed to the traditional roles designated by the names of their positions in society. “Name” in the sense of an individual's “good name” or fame was terribly important, not just for oneself but because it cast glory back over parents and ancestors and might survive one's own death and conquer the ceaseless flow of time.

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