In Return to Dragon Mountain Jonathan Spence explores in detail the life and times of the privileged class in China just before and after the Manchu invasion in 1644 and the subsequent collapse of the Ming dynasty. And he does so using the extensive writings of a participant, one Zhang Dai, a prolific author of memoirs, histories, biographies, poetry, dramas and essays. Spence provides a fascinating look into a lost world, whose inhabitants, and this is one of the insights that a truly detailed examination of another time and culture reminds us of, have much more in common with us than not. The eccentric relatives, the more ruthless business competitors, the warmth of drink and literature in the company of fellow connoisseurs, the tensions when confronted with only bad choices, the opportunists of every description, all are reflected in our own lives.But there is another matter, experienced by too many people but not by most of those living in America and Western Europe now: one must imagine living under a government which has hardly changed for 276 years; the rules of life have been the same for at least that long; everyone knows their place and most seem to be content with it. Then murderous barbarians sweep out of the north burning and pillaging, the seemingly eternal and omnipotent government cannot stop them as they penetrate deeper and deeper into the land. And finally the government collapses as more and more people flee to the far south. Zhang Dai was 49 when the Ming dynasty collapsed, and he lost his houses, his art collections, his library, and his livelihood when he fled with the rest. His best friend, not able to bear the loss of his world, committed suicide. With what was left of his family, he farmed a piece of land in the south and, in his spare time, reconstructed the lost life on paper. Spence uses Zhang's writings - often employing Zhang's own (translated) words - as well as other sources for this re-creation. Return to Dragon Mountain is not an abstract history told from on high but is lived life; one feels as if one is at Zhang's elbow as he moves through his world, as if one is almost a participant. His world almost becomes one's own. Spence provides us with an opportunity to extend our necessarily limited lives in unexpected directions.