Historias de la China, con Jonathan Spence

Con la cercanía de los Juegos Olímpicos que han de celebrarse en la capital china, todo lo que acontece en aquel lejano país preocupa e interesa. Por supuesto, eso tiene su correlación textual, con aluvión de libros a la caza del ávido lector. The Guardian, por ejemplo, ha tenido a bien reseñar varios de esos volúmenes a la vez. Los de los periodistas Erik Durschmied (Beware the Dragon), Rebecca A. Fannin (Silicon Dragon) y Jonathan Fenby (The Dragon Throne), de los reputados especialistas John Chinnery (Treasures of China: The Glories of the Kingdom of the Dragon) y Kerry Brown (The Rise of the Dragon), del politólogo Harry Gelber (The Dragon and the Foreign Devils), del empresario Jack Perkowski (Managing the Dragon), y, por fin, del historiador Jonathan Spence (Return to Dragon Mountain).

Como recoge el comentarista británico, “nine types of dragon”, cada uno distinto del anterior, pero dragones al fin y al cabo, pues el destino ha querido que esos nueve autores coincidieran en incluir esa palabra en sus respectivos títulos. Desde luego, entre todos esos ejemplares destaca, visto desde nuestra perspectiva, el de Spence, uno de los mejores sinólogos que haya en todo el orbe académico y, además, un escritor con todas las letras, alguien que no sólo domina a la perfección el método de su disciplina sino que, además, sabe narrar maravillosamente. Por lo que parece, Return to Dragon Mountain no defrauda y está a la altura de sus anteriores obras. El único lastre, para los aquejados de presentismo mal entendido, es que estudia su siglo preferido, el XVII, centrándose en esta ocasión en la obra del historiador y ensayista Zhang Dai. Ahora bien, que nadie se lleve a engaño. Como señalaba Foreign Affairs: “Spence has done it again: taken what might seem a limited topic and, after analyzing it from multiple perspectives, arrived at grander conclusions”.

El volumen de Spence apareció a finales de 2007 y, desde entonces, ha recogido una catarata de parabienes, abanderados por el que le dedicó (ese conocido y ya mitico pseudónimo que responde al nombre de) Simon Leys en el NYRB:

“(…) Old-style historians used to focus on kings and great statesmen, on the deeds and words of the famous and the eminent, on wars, victories, and defeats, on crashes, crises, scandals, and miracles; only the most eloquent geniuses had access to the witness box in the court of History; the humble voices of the anonymous masses, the confused rumble of everyday life, were entirely lost to posterity.

Modern historians, on the contrary, are now attempting to redress this state of affairs by drawing information from more diverse sources and by allowing more space to what would previously have been deemed too ordinary and insignificant to deserve recording. Jonathan Spence’s impressive series of works are fairly even-handed in this respect, dealing in turn with an emperor and with obscure characters, with leading actors and with figurants muets. In his latest book, based on the life and writings of Zhang Dai (1597-1680?) he has chosen for his subject a more middling personality: a member of the gentry in one of China’s cultural centers (Shaoxing), a scholar, historian, and essayist-a distinguished author, though not exactly a major one, or an original thinker-who wrote many books (quite a number of which are now lost) and who led a very long life in a time of momentous and dramatic change.

Spence’s enterprise was particularly difficult, but his considerable scholarship enabled him to meet such a challenge. First, the social background of Zhang Dai already presented, in itself, a rich topic of study; his extended family clan was prominent for several generations on the politico-cultural stage of the empire and comprised a number of diverse and colorful figures. In contrast, paradoxically, Zhang’s own personality and psychology remain somewhat elusive. His writings-mostly historiography, but also family profiles, miscellaneous memoirs, and poetry-form a considerable mass, the exploration of which appears quite daunting, yet not always rewarding. However, the historical period which Spence invites us to consider through Zhang’s eyes is of exceptional interest, since the fall of the Ming (1644)-at the time, the greatest empire on Earth-intervened right in the middle of Zhang’s life.


Late Ming intellectuals strikingly resemble what eighteenth-century Europe will call libertins, both in the original sense of the word (free minds, pursuing their inquiries, unfettered by dogma, prejudice, or conformism) and in its derived meaning of libertine (suggesting sexual freedom: note, by the way, that pornographic fiction is cultivated in this same period with much verve; Chinese literary pornography, unlike its lugubrious Western equivalent, possesses artistry and a disarming sense of humor). The arts also flourish: calligraphy and painting reach new heights (as do other graphic arts, by no means “minor”: seal carving and woodprint). The very art of living in all its manifestations—architecture, gardens, furniture, gastronomy—achieves supreme elegance and sophistication.

However, the “brilliant” face of the dynasty cannot hide its dark side. In fact the two aspects are intimately related. In politics, Ming imperial despotism veered into a totalitarian terror that in scope, ferocity, and sheer duration would not be seen again before the twentieth century and the establishment of the Maoist regime.

And in this connection, it is remarkable to note that the first political dissenters—Wu Han and Deng Tuo—who dared to denounce Mao Zedong’s policies during the Fifties and early Sixties did this under the transparent guise of conducting studies in Ming history: they exposed the cruel irrationality of imperial despotism, they celebrated the integrity and courage of the Ming scholars who lost their lives for having criticized the emperor—and eventually they themselves were to pay the same price during the so-called “Cultural Revolution.


N.B.: Por fortuna, parece que finalmente tendremos la oportunidad de que se traduzca una de sus obras maestras, un pequeño pero arrebatador volumen: The Question of Hu. La empresa corre a cargo de la editorial de la Universitat de València (PUV), cuyo trabajo viene siendo magnífico. Mientras tanto, por ejemplo, podemos consolarnos con La traición escrita o con El Palacio de la memoria de Matteo Ricci, ambos en Tusquets.