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Mountain of Fame

Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History

Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    Mountain of Fame
    Book Description:

    Through biographies of China's most colorful and famous personalities, John Wills displays the five-thousand-year sweep of Chinese history from the legendary sage emperors to the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. This unique introduction to Chinese history and culture uses more than twenty exemplary lives, including those of statesmen, philosophers, poets, and rulers, to provide the focus for accounts of key historical trends and periods. What emerges is a provocative rendering of China's moral landscape, featuring characters who have resonated in the historical imagination as examples of villainy, heroism, wisdom, spiritual vision, political guile, and complex combinations of all of these.

    Investigating both the legends and the facts surrounding these figures, Wills reveals the intense interest of the Chinese in the brilliance and in the frail complexities of their heroes. Included, for instance, is a description of the frustrations and anxieties of Confucius, who emerges as a vulnerable human being trying to restore the world to the virtue and order of the sage kings. Wills recounts and questions the wonderfully shocking stories about the seventh-century Empress Wu, an astute ruler and shaper of an increasingly centralized monarchy, who has since assumed a prominent position in the Chinese tradition's rich gallery of bad examples--because she was a woman meddling in politics. The portrayal of Mao Zedong, which touches upon this leader's earthy personality and his reckless political visions, demonstrates the tendency of the Chinese not to divorce ideology from its human context: Maoism for them is a form of "objective" Marxism, inseparable from one man's life and leadership.

    Each of the twenty chapters provides a many-sided exploration of a "slice" of Chinese history, engaging the general reader in a deep and personal encounter with China over the centuries and today. The biographies repeatedly mirror the moral earnestness of the Chinese, the great value they place on the ruler-minister relationship, and their struggles with tensions among practicality, moral idealism, and personal authenticity. Culminating in a reflection on China's historical direction in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, the biographies show the modern Chinese still inspired and frustrated by a complex heritage of moral fervor and political habits and preconceptions. As absorbing as it is wide ranging, this history is written for the general public curious about China and for the student beginning to study its rich cultural heritage.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2134-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-2)
  8. 1 YU
    (pp. 3-10)

    All peoples, it seems, have ideas of how the world and humankind began. For some large-scale literate cultures these ideas are of great importance. The vision of immensely long cycles of cosmic creation and destruction is somewhere near the heart of Hinduism. Medieval European scholars endlessly refined their understanding of the creation story and compiled their knowledge of the physical world in “Hexamerons” divided according to the days of the creation. Today there still are Christians who believe that the survival of their teachings depends on “Creationist” refutation of scientific cosmogonies and theories of evolution, while “big bang” theories attract...

  9. 2 CONFUCIUS (Kongzi)
    (pp. 11-32)

    Confucius was a scholar who idealized the government and culture of an age five hundred years before his own, and who sought to convince the rulers of his time that all would be well in their states if they would concentrate on winning the trust of their people and setting a good example for them, would keep warfare and corporal punishment to a bare minimum, and would place scholars like him in charge of the governing of their states. In a time of rapid social, economic, and political change and of increasing warfare among the states of the Chinese world,...

  10. 3 THE FIRST EMPEROR OF QIN (Qin Shihuang)
    (pp. 33-50)

    The chinese always have seen their history as full of lessons, of good and bad examples. For all but a few premodern Chinese, the First Qin Emperor was the greatest of bad examples, demonstrating that totalitarian enforcement of law, repression of dissent, and heavy burdens of taxes and forced labor will lead swiftly to the collapse of the government that seeks to impose them.

    Bad examples often make good stories. Lao Ai and the dowager queen, Jing Ke, sent off with a song, the emperor’s decaying corpse being hurried toward the capital, village conscripts claiming the Mandate of Heaven— the...

  11. 4 SIMA QIAN
    (pp. 51-71)

    The Han dynasty ruled over all of China for more than four hundred years, from 202 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., with only one interruption, a sixteenyear period of usurpation and civil war ending in a Han restoration. From its first days to its last, the history of the Han is full of great events and great people, of stories that continue to echo in the Chinese mind. The Chinese identification with the Han is so persistent that “Han nationality” is used in China today to refer to the people who use the Chinese language and who share the culture and...

  12. 5 WANG MANG
    (pp. 72-89)

    About two hundred years after the founding of the Han, a high official named Wang Mang began to elaborate a vision of the restoration of the utopia of order and justice that many scholars of his time believed had existed in the early Zhou. Land would be distributed in equal plots to all farmers. No one would suffer in slavery or any other form of bondage. Confucian learning would be supported, and the correct texts and interpretations of the Classics would be determined once and for all. Farmers in their fields and children in the alleys would sing in praise...

  13. 6 BAN ZHAO
    (pp. 90-99)

    Wang Mang had presented himself as an idealistic Confucian scholar and a patron of other Confucian scholars seeking education and opportunity at the Imperial Academy, but he actually had risen to power as a relative of a dowager empress, and in power he had sought to limit political mobility by making the highest offices hereditary. The restoration of the Han, inaugurating what is called the Later Han (25–220 C.E.), was based on an establishment reaction against Wang’s usurpation and his radical policies, motivated by loyalty to the Han, by the family feeling of the very large and powerful Han...

    (pp. 100-113)

    In the Chinese tradition Zhuge Liang represents one of the supreme embodiments of the heroic minister. Content in his withdrawal from bad times and his quest for the secrets of nature, independent and not at all eager for office, he responded to the urgent plea of his true lord and showed immense gifts as a persuader and tactician. He fought in few battles, but even after death his name struck terror in his enemies. His lord was the legitimate successor of the Han emperors, served by two great warriors bound to him not by his having selected them as ministers...

    (pp. 114-126)

    Up to now we have been following stories of lives and teachings that despite our best efforts may seem a little remote. Confucius can and does speak to us across the immense gulfs of time, language, and mentality. There are many in East Asia today who insist that his teachings and values still are very relevant to their lives, but their “Confucianism” has little of the Master’s magnificently impractical idealism and none of his desperate nostalgia for a golden past. In this chapter we turn to a kind of experience and teaching that is as hard to grasp as any,...

  16. 9 EMPRESS WU
    (pp. 127-148)

    In 700 C.E., Chang’an, capital of the Chinese Empire, probably was the greatest city in the world. Its only conceivable rivals were Baghdad and Constantinople, at the other end of a great network of Eurasian land routes and cultural minglings. In its Western Market, Chinese jostled with and stared at Central Asian soldiers and horse-grooms in Chinese service, their heavy eyebrows and big noses striking to Chinese eyes, and occasionally a small brown Burmese from the palace orchestra, a Buddhist monk from India, or even an African slave. They bought the many fine fruits and melons that the Central Asian...

  17. 10 SU DONGPO
    (pp. 149-167)

    Su Dongpo’s life is the earliest of this set that can be explored in great detail from reliable sources. Volumes of his poems, essays, and state papers and of those of many of his friends and enemies have been printed. We have a few samples of his calligraphy and perhaps a few paintings by him. So we are not so much at the mercy of one biography or one collection of sayings or a few chronicles compiled long after the events as was the case in earlier chapters. It would be easy to spend a lifetime, and an altogether stimulating...

  18. 11 YUE FEI
    (pp. 168-180)

    Su Dongpo’s life was not altogether free of anxiety and danger, but his world had a low level of organized and unorganized violence and was governed by regular bureaucratic procedures decided on by discussion that at least attempted to be rational. Culture and politics were dominated by scholar-officials, and military men were kept away from the centers of power as never before. But within forty years after his death China had experienced years of war and banditry that form the historical background for two very different sets of tales of violence and heroism, those of the righteous bandits of the...

    (pp. 181-200)

    For the Daoist master Qiu Chuji, Perfected Man of the Long Spring (Changchun zhenren), this was an exceptionally important passage in the great Daoist classicDao de jing, stating beautifully the primacy of stillness, receptivity,yin, which he had sought to realize in long years of solitary meditation. For his particular school of Daoism, an early stage of meditation was described as that in which “the gods are in the valley,” and when one hears them talking to each other it is as if they are talking a long way off, their voices heard echoing from one valley slope to...

    (pp. 201-215)

    Although Wang Yangming lived over four hundred years after Su Dongpo, the patterns of their lives as scholar-officials seem remarkably similar. Both were students of the Confucian Classics, products of the examination system. Both owed much of their fame to their writings and their ideas, not to their political achievements. Both plunged into political controversy, were exiled as a result, but later returned to positions of considerable influence. Both were effective and innovative local officials.

    As we look more closely, some striking differences appear. Su once feared execution, but few Song statesmen died for their convictions or misdeeds. Wang was...

  21. 14 ZHENG CHENGGONG (Coxinga)
    (pp. 216-230)

    Even today in China it is possible to feel that the rest of the world is not really there, or does not matter very much. The Chinese people, it seems, have been working things out for themselves from the beginning, and rarely have had anything to learn from outsiders. Buddhism is an important exception, but reminders of its Indian origins became less striking as centuries passed. Chinese scholars were capable of great linguistic feats in mastering the huge vocabulary and various styles of their own language, but very few ever learned a foreign language. Chinese political skills have built a...

    (pp. 231-258)

    The tourist in China today usually spends a good deal of time admiring old temples, palaces, and gardens, which are very nicely kept up and look as if the people who visited them and lived in them when they were new might come back at any time. Restoration work has been necessary, of course, but the curious visitor who reads pamphlets about historic sites and looks for stone tablets memorializing their construction or reconstruction will learn that many of the buildings he or she is admiring are not much more than two hundred years old—not very old either by...

    (pp. 259-273)

    For about a week in the spring of 1837, an obscure local scholar in Guangdong named Hong Xiuquan lay ill, intermittently lost in visions in which he was transported to the heavens and received from various deities magic powers, special knowledge, and a mission on earth. Around 1850 he and his followers proclaimed on the basis of those visions the founding of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Taiping Tianguo), with Hong as heavenly king (tian wang). By the time Hong died in the final collapse of his kingdom in the summer of 1864, over twenty million Chinese had died...

    (pp. 274-300)

    For the people we have studied so far and their Chinese contemporaries, China was very much the center of the world, and Chinese culture was the only true high culture. The world that mattered was thetian xia, “All Under Heaven,” and the emperor astian zi, “Son of Heaven,” was at least ceremonially the superior of all other rulers. The commercial connections with the world of Islam and the coming of European traders and missionaries remained marginal. Consciousness of the Indian origins of Buddhism, for a long time an important reason for the hostility to it of some Chinese...

    (pp. 301-334)

    The one-life-per-chapter structure of this book has been a useful way of keeping discussion focused and of highlighting some of the types and individuals whose places in the Chinese historical consciousness are protean and enduring. But sometimes a bit of arbitrariness has been necessary. It was hard to choose one among the great scholar-officials of the Northern Song. Liang Qichao was much admired in his time and shared most of the key experiences and changes of his generation, but he was not its great hero or dominating political figure; I chose him because hiswritingsshow so clearly the immense...

  26. 19 MAO ZEDONG
    (pp. 335-359)

    A Qin emperor breaking the mold and reshaping his society for the ages, a would-be Great Teacher, a Wang Mang promoting himself and ignoring realities, a Three Kingdoms hero rushing ahead and riding the chaos, condescending admirer of the Taipings, youthful reader of Liang Qichao, poet-politician, stroller by Su Dongpo’s dike and the lakes of Qianlong’s palaces, urging his people to always do without hesitation or selfishness what they know is right, to work as hard as Yu and sacrifice themselves as readily as Yue Fei, Mao Zedong echoes in his own experience and his exhortations to his people an...

    (pp. 360-380)

    From Confucius preserving the Literary Heritage of the sages to Su Dongpo discovering the political power of poetry to Liang Qichao inventing modern Chinese journalism, this somewhat episodic survey of the Chinese past has discussed many forms of hope for influence and immortality through the written word. Sima Qian and many others have told and retold stories of good and evil, of short-lived base success and of noble failure that brings everlasting renown, that enshrine so many names in the Chinese historical memory.

    We are too close to the years since the death of Mao, and can only guess what...

    (pp. 381-388)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 389-403)