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In Limpid Dreams , by Philip A. Kafalas

In Limpid Dream: Nostalgia and Zhang Dai's Reminiscences of the Ming - Philip A. Kafalas

A few months ago, I reviewed Jonathan Spence's fine Return to Dragon Mountain,




a life and times of Zhang Dai (Chang Tai ; 1597–1689), a prolific author of memoirs, histories, biographies, poetry, dramas and essays. One of the many matters contributing to a yet lively interest in Zhang is that when the Ming dynasty collapsed in 1644 under the blows of the invading Manchu, Zhang's privileged life as a wealthy scholar and literatus came to a violent end, as did many members of his family. However, instead of committing suicide, as did his best friend and many others of his acquaintance, or collaborating with the victors, he lived modestly in exile and wrote madly, trying to recreate the lost world of the Ming with ink and brush. Spence used all of Zhang's writings as primary sources for Return to Dragon Mountain.


One of Zhang's best known texts from the hard times is Tao'an Mengyi , Dream Reminiscences of Tao'an, which is a unique, subtle, genre demolishing collection of short essays praised as one of the pinnacles of Chinese prose style. In Limpid Dream: Nostalgia and Zhang Dai's Reminiscences of the Ming is Philip Kafalas' translation and commentary of that text. But Spence was not the only Western author to draw my attention to the Dream Reminiscences of Tao'an recently. It is also one of the few texts treated at some length in Stephen Owen's brief, sensitive and accessible meditation on the many roles and forms of memory in classic Chinese literature, Remembrances: The Experience of Past in Classical Chinese Literature.(*)


In case that is still not enough recommendation, here is the inscription Zhang composed for his own tomb (in Kafalas' translation):


Zhang Dai of Shu. His sobriquet was Tao'an. In his youth he was a fop. He had a great love of ostentation, being fond of luxurious quarters, pretty maids, beautiful boys, fresh clothes, fine foods, fast horses, painted lanterns, fireworks, opera, music, antiques, and flowers and birds. At the same time, he was excessive about tea and abusively fond of oranges, and was a book worm and a poetry demon. He toiled at those pursuits for half a lifetime, when all turned into a dream-illusion.


In Limpid Dream originated as a Ph.D. dissertation in which, as Kafalas explains, he initially wanted to work out a poetics of xiaopin (hsiao-p'in), a genre of informal, personal essays that avoid the rhetoric of persuasion or moral didacticism dominant in Confucian influenced literature, i.e. most of Chinese literature. However, Kafalas found that the closer he looked at the commentary and exemplars of this genre, the less genre he found. But I am not going to enter into this technical point in this review. The primary interest in this book for the non-specialist like myself is Zhang's text and Kafalas' commentary on it.


Kafalas translated perhaps a third of Zhang's book, but instead of presenting the text and adorning it with foot- and endnotes, he embeds the text piecewise into his commentary. Since the translation is presented in a different print font, it is possible to read it alone, flipping through the pages of commentary to get to the next piece, but the pieces are not presented in the order they appeared in the original, nor are they oftentimes complete. So it would not be a simple matter to try to recreate a reading of the original text using this book.(**)


In addition to providing background of all sorts, Kafalas provides a detailed examination of Zhang's text in the first half of the book. He also translates and comments upon textual variants of Tao'an Mengyi, as well as relevant passages from other texts by Zhang. I acknowledge that one person's fascinating detail is another's boring superfluity, but I found Kafalas' remarks and analysis to be generally interesting. 


And what of Zhang's text? Unlike the pages and pages Kafalas and Owen can permit themselves, I must somehow indicate the sly subtlety of Zhang's text in a paragraph or two. Here goes:


The text consists of 123 short vignettes, brief descriptions of places, events, people, all gone when Zhang wrote these pieces but all part of his life. But it is not an autobiography at all; it is a glimpse of the motions of Zhang's mind as he tried to establish both a refuge where he could withdraw from the sorrow and troubles of the new China to the quieter sorrow of nostalgic loss, and a small retort where portions of his spirit could be sheltered from the gusts of time and be preserved for like-minded persons in future, better times. Like us.


These motions are made corporeal through a prose style that is difficult to describe briefly. It is nimble, quickly moving from awe to deflating wit, from colorful and intense description to a telling satire (kudos to Kafalas' translation - one can only wonder at the Chinese original, described by a mid-nineteenth century Chinese commentator as "almost causing the reader's mind and eye to become giddy"), completely unique, and completely itself.(***) There is internal and external evidence that the text was written over a span of many years towards the end of his life, and that it was revised again and again with an eye towards concision, precision, surprise and wry humor.


Though any excerpt can only give a partial glimpse of this text, consider the beginning of the third essay in the seventh chapter:


At West Lake on the middle of the seventh month, there is not a thing to
look at; one only looks at the people who come to look at the
mid-seventh-month festival. Those who look at the mid-seventh-month
festival we can look at as five types:

One type looks at it


while sitting in two-tiered pleasure boats, playing flutes and drums,

wearing big fancy hats at the finest of feasts,

with lamps shining amid their opera players,

the noise and glitter roiling together,

and they ostensibly looking at the moon but actually not seeing the

moon at all.

Another type looks at it


by taking to boats and belvederes

with famous ladies and young women of distinction,

their serving girls and boys in tow,

their laughter and cries mixed together

as they sit ringing the open-air stages;
to left and right they stare and gaze,

present beneath the moon but really not looking at the moon at all.

Another type looks at it


at once boating and voicing their songs

with famous courtesans and leisured monks,

sipping toasts and singing in subdued tones,

with gentle flutes and lightly plucked strings,

pipes and voices sounding together

as they, beneath the moon, both look at the moon, and hope that other

people are looking at them looking at the moon.

Another type looks at it  


riding neither boats nor carriages,

wearing neither gowns nor head cloths;

tipsy with wine and sated with food, they

call out and gather in threes and fives,

squeeze themselves in amongst the throngs at
Zhaoqing Temple and Broken Bridge,

hooting and hollering and making a ruckus,

pretending to be drunk,

singing without the benefit of a tune.

They look at the moon, they look at those looking at the moon, and at

those not looking at the moon, but they aren't really looking at


Another type looks at it  


in small boats screened with gauze,

around neat little tables and warm stoves;

their tea kettles are heated to a boil,

white porcelain is calmly passed;

good friends and beautiful people,

they invite the moon to sit with them;

some hide in shadow beneath the trees,

some flee the noise at the inner lake.

They look at the moon, but their air of looking at the moon remains

unseen by others, nor do they make a point of looking at the moon.


I found some other translations of this passage online, read the French translation mentioned below, and it is a damn shame that Kafalas didn't just translate the entire text in one piece...


In the second half of the book Kafalas returns to his original intention of working out a poetics of xiaopin. As mentioned, this is probably not the forum for such matters, but I learned much from his discussion and do recommend it to your attention.


(*) Owens translates and analyzes only the "preface" of  Dream Reminiscences of Tao'an in his Remembrances, as this provided the best grist for his mill. 


 (**) Kafalas indicates their proper order as he presents them. There is a French translation of the original text




which I have just gotten my hands on through an interlibrary loan and am reading with great interest, but it seems that there is no complete English translation available.


(***) And never weepy - in case you may be worried, there is not a hint of self-pity in Zhang's text, even when he writes, exceptionally, of the destruction of his enormous private library. This is one of the few instances in which he writes directly of loss, for one of his primary aims is to summon the moments, places and people as they were, to remove the layers of intervening time and preserve them in their pristine state. He writes of his library and its ruin (and that of his grandfather's) relativized in a poignant larger context of collection and dispersal, collection and dispersal.