CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


Searching for the Ming: Part One | China Heritage Quarterly

Searching for the Ming: Part One

Zhang Dai
Translated by Duncan Campbell

This is the first page of Duncan Campbell's translations of excerpts from Zhang Dai's Search for West Lake in My Dreams. The other pages can be accessed via the following links:

General Prospectus 西湖總記

The Twined Lakes of the Illustrious Sage 明聖二湖[22]

Once Ma Zhen[23] of the Eastern Han dynasty had created Mirror Lake, it became the lake that earliest acquired a reputation for scenic beauty from the Han dynasty down through the Tang.[24] By the time of the Northern Song dynasty, however, West Lake had started to replace it in people's affections. Everyone now hastened to the shores of this lake, for the understated elegance of Mirror Lake could no longer compete with the flagrant beauty of West Lake. As for Lake Xiang with its bleak and isolated aspect, few were the boats or carts that travelled there, fewer the 'men of taste and learning' who spoke of it.[25]

My cousin Zhang Hong likens West Lake to a famous beauty, Lake Xiang to a hermit and Mirror Lake to an immortal. I disagree. To my mind, Lake Xiang is a nubile virgin, shy and modestly blushing, as if caught sight of on her wedding day. Mirror Lake, by contrast, is the straight-laced daughter of an prominent family, commanding respect with her every glance and one certainly never to be dallied with. West Lake, by contrast however, is a famous courtesan from the Singing Quarters, fair of both voice and visage. She leans against her doorway a meretricious smile playing across her lips. She is available to one and all, and as all may have their way with her, she is at once both the object of desire and the object of scorn.[Fig.2]

Fig.2 West Lake, a prospect 西湖全景_24.jpg reprinted without attribution in Old Photographs of West Lake, p.24.

The Lake is at its busiest during the spring and summer months; in autumn and winter it is all but deserted. It is at its rowdiest on the birthday of the flowers on the Twelfth Day of the Second Month; by the evening of the moon on the Fifteenth of the Eighth Month so few are the visitors that they are like stars scattered in the sky. And again, the lake is at its most crowded on fine and sunny days; in rain or in snow it is desolate. Thus it is, as I have said before, that: 'If for a good reader there is no better way to read than Dong Yu's "Three Remainders", then so too can it be said that for one good at touring there is no better time to tour the lake than these 'Three Remainders'. Dong Yu is quoted as saying: 'Winter is the remainder of the year, evening the remainder of the day, and rainy days the remainder of the season'.[26] Why should ancient flowering plums standing upon snow covered peaks be at all inferior to willows growing tall along mist shrouded embankments, or the moon hanging suspended in the bright firmament be inferior to the delicate beauty of flowers at dawn, or the blur of colour of falling rain be inferior to the shimmer of light under sunny skies?[27] The appreciation of the emotional quality of such scenes is only to be found in the man of understanding'. Of the four worthies of the lake too, I have made the following comment: 'Bo Juyi's untrammelled understanding was certainly not as admirable as Lin Bu's tranquil profundity;[28] Li Bo's liking for the fantastical was nowhere near as worthy as Su Shi's delicately tuned sensibility.' As to the others, such as the improvident Jia Sidao[29] or the profligate Sun Long,[30] although both these men spent several decades living besides the lake and expended millions on its upkeep, there remained aspects of the disposition and piquancy of the lake that they could never even dream of attaining. This being the case, how then could it be possible to begin discussing touring the lake with the frustrated pedants of this present age!


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Searching for the Ming

Notes: Part One

[22] Legend has it that during the Han dynasty a golden ox suddenly appeared in the middle of the lake, this having been understood as an auspicious sign of the birth of an illustrious sage. The lake proper is divided into the Inner and the Outer Lakes, hence the name Zhang Dai uses for it here.

[23] Whilst serving as Governor of Guiji in around 140, Ma Zhen had Mirror Lake formed in an attempt to alleviate the problem of the alternative flooding or drought of the surrounding districts.

[24] At this point in the text, Wang Yuqian's 'Eyebrow Commentary' (that is, marginalia) reads: 'When Ma Zhen created Mirror Lake, he certainly didn't have tourism in mind; there is no need whatsoever, then, to compare 800 li of fertile fields with West Lake in terms of their respective scenic beauty!'

[25] On this lake, see R. Keith Schoppa, Song Full of Tears: Nine Centuries of Chinese Life at Xiang Lake, Westview Press, 2002.

[26] Dong Yu's 董遇 comment occurs in the Brief History of the Kingdom of Wei (Wei lüe 魏略), as cited in Pei Songzhi's 裴松之 annotations to 'Biography of Wang Su' (Wang Su zhuan 王肅傳) in the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi 三國志), for which see Sanguo zhi jijie 三國志集解, Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1982, p.389.

[27] See Su Shi's celebrated poem 'Drinking By the Lake: Clear Sky at First, then Rain' ('Yin hushang chu qing hou yu' 飲湖上初晴後雨), which, in A.C. Graham's translation, reads: 'The shimmer of light on the water is the play of sunny skies,/ The blur of colour across the hills is richer still in rain./ If you wish to compare the lake in the West to the Lady of the West,/ Lightly powdered or thickly smeared the fancy is just as apt', for which, see A.C. Graham, trans., Poems of the West Lake: Translations from the Chinese ,London: Wellsweep, 1990, p.23.

[28] Lin Bu 林逋 (967-1028) was a poet of the Song dynasty who became known as 'The Recluse of Lone Hill'. For a short biography of him (by Wayne Schlepp), see Herbert Franke, ed., Sung Biographies ,Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1976, vol.2, pp.613-15.

[29] Jia Sidao 賈似道 (1213-75), a minister during the Southern Song who earned an invidious reputation for his appeasement policies, for whom see the short biography (by Herbert Franke) in Sung Biographies, vol.1, pp.203-207.

[30] Sun Long 孫隆 (d. 1601) was the eunuch appointed by the Wanli emperor to serve as Superintendent of the Imperial Silk Manufactory of Suzhou and Hangzhou.