I’m reading Jonathan Spence’s book about Zhang Dai at the moment, and Spence certainly succeeds early on in making Zhang seem like the guy of person you would want to hang out with… at least for a while. He was swept up by random, sweeping passions, and a powerful drive to write and write and write about everything that interested him. Manifestoes were kind of a thing with him, and those passions were constantly renewing, eclectic but thoughtful, if a bit over the top… or that’s how it seems thirty pages into the book, anyway.
So far, among many other things, Spence has discussed Zhang’s starting a music group with the express purpose of saving his province from musical mediocrity, and launching a massive tea craze because he noted that tea made with the water of a particular spring tasted better… which ended up prompting the local monks to defile the spring multiple times, just to make all the damned tea speculators get lost. (And the local bumpkins kept on making tea with the dung-fouled waters, and proclaiming it the best tea ever, as Zhang wryly noted in a moment that I’ll admit provoked feelings of profound déjà-vu.1)
I feel like Ezra Pound would have written a whole bunch of his “Chinese Cantos” on Zhang, if he’d ever heard of him. Here’s a characteristically interesting observation, on pages 28-29:
… Zhang always harbored the conviction that people remained self-conscious even when they seemed the most self-absorbed. He knew that in our minds we are never far away from scrutinizing the image we are conveying to others, and moon viewing provided no exception to this rule of life. As he drifted one evening at leisure on Hangzhou’s West Lake, at the time of the September moon festival, despite the varied delights of the occasion there was nothing more absorbing to Zhang than watching the other people who were also out on the lake watching the moon.
Zhang categorized the moon watchers into five classes, each of which he sketched in words. There were the very rich, in their formal clothes, entertained by actors as they ate their banquets. Distracted by their many pleasures, though they were indeed floating wader the moon, “they never really saw it, though they themselves were worth watching.” There were those distracted by their efforts at seduction, as they sought the attention of the courtesans and pretty boys bunched on the decks of their vessels: “Though their bodies mere under the moon, they never really looked at it, though they too were worth watching.” There were those who reclined on their boats and sipped their wine in the company of women and Buddhist priests, talking quietly as the music softly played. “They did watch the moon, but they wanted others to watch them watching the moon.” Then there were the onshore rowdies, who owned no boats but racketed along the lakeshore, stuffed with food and pretending to be drunker than they really were, shouting and singing out of key. These were the eclectic ones, watching the moon to some extent, and also watching others who were watching the moon, “but also watching those who were not watching them moon and themselves seeing nothing.” And lastly there were the studiedly elegant aesthetes, who traveled in small boats, their figures sheltered behind fine curtains, sipping tea from delicate white porcelain with their female companions, quietly watching the moon but in such a may that others could not view them watching it. Since “they did not watch the moon self-consciously, they too were worth watching.”
I’m not very far into it yet, but like pretty much everything else I’ve read by Spence, it’s great so far.
- From my first restaurant experiences in Korea, I’ve noticed a surprising number of people–more, it was apparent to me, than I’d ever seen back home, though maybe it’s just the places I’ve lived–who were more focused on the decor and the reputation of the restaurant than on the quality of the food. Then again, I imagine there’s just as many night clubs in Canadian metropoli as in Seoul that people went to not because they’re fun places to be, but because they’re the place to be seen… ↩