‘The thing about history is that those who really should write it, don’t; while those who should not be writing it, do.’ So thought Zhang Dai, the seventeenth-century Chinese bon viveur, writer and antiquarian who is the subject of Jonathan Spence’s latest foray into the literature of the later Ming period (c.1570–1644). Zhang Dai numbered himself among those who shouldn’t be writing history. He believed, like Su Dongpo, the eleventh-century poet and essayist, that ‘history was never easy to write and that he was not the person to try’. It was never easy, partly because of the risk of incurring official disfavour – punishments ranged from castration to execution, with the ‘privilege of suicide’ being the softest option – and partly because of the responsibility involved in contributing to a historiographical tradition that had all the weight of divine scripture.
On both counts it was advisable to choose one’s words with the utmost care, keep a low profile, and publish, if at all, posthumously. But Zhang went ahead anyway. He consoled himself with the thought that he had more insight and certainly more experience than those ‘walking bookshelves [who] read