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Mountain of Fame -- Chinese history through biography

From ancient sages to modern dissidents,historian John Wills' new book illuminates China through the last 5,000 years.

December 5, 1995

By Carol Tucker
This article was originally published by USC News.

When I have completed this work, I shall deposit it in the Mountain of Fame, so that it can be handed down to men who will understand it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities. Then although I should suffer death from ten thousand cuts, what regret should I have?

These words were written by China's greatest historian, Sima Qian, in 91 B.C.E. By the "ten thousand cuts," he was referring particularly to the punishment of castration for a political offense - defending a general accused of treason.

Sima Qian was expected to commit suicide before his sentence was carried out, for a child's first duty, in Chinese tradition, was to preserve his body as received from his parents. But he had a more pressing obligation: to complete the Records of the Grand Historian - a history book begun by his father.

By passing on the great stories of the heroes and villains of China's past, Sima Qian's book has shaped the way historians write and think about China, Japan and Korea down to the present day.

The story of Sima Qian's struggle to complete his work and deposit it in the Mountain of Fame inspired the title for history professor John Wills' new book, Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History, published by Princeton University Press. The term combines two significant images in Chinese culture: "mountain" and "name."

Real and metaphorical mountains have a "great power over the minds of the Chinese at many times and in many ways," explains Wills in his preface. Sacred mountains were ancient centers of pilgrimage, he writes. Mountains were also the burial places of emperors, as well as the title given to the mounds surrounding their great tombs. Names,
meanwhile, especially those of famous people, were important to the Chinese as expressions of a sense of the past and of the deepest enduring values.

"Sima Qian was storing the work of all the great people in something that would not pass away. For him, the work would be like a mountain and your good name will be like a mountain," said Wills. Wills intended his own book to follow in the same tradition - to reflect and make use of the Chinese fascination with fame and legacy. He also
hopes it will provide a gateway for those who "never have paid much attention to China and now want a quick and graspable introduction to some main themes in its stirring history."

Like Sima Qian's great history, Wills' book tells the story of China through selected biographies of its political, intellectual and religious leaders. The subjects include the famous and the lesser known - from the great philosopher Confucius and historian Sima Qian to the first president of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-Sen; and the Marxist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. He profiles scholars such as Su Dongpo (1037-1101 C.E.), one of China's most beloved poets and statesmen - famed for his dinner parties for artists and writers that ran late into the night. Of all the Chinese leaders, Wills said, he would like to have met Su Dongpo the most.

The book culminates with a reflection on China's historical direction in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, profiling political leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and intellectual dissidents like astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and journalist Liu Binyan.

"This reflects a very Chinese approach or mentality, because of the emphasis on biographies," Wills said. "This is really a book about Chinese memory."

Mountain of Fame also seeks to emphasize some of Chinese history's major themes. "What gives Mr. Wills's [book] its originality and its effectiveness is the artful span of examples he has chosen, examples that not only range across time...but also are chosen to illuminate major themes and continuities within the Chinese universe," writes Jonathan Spence in a New York Times Book Review piece on the book.

Among the important themes are Buddhism and Taoism - the major religious threads that bind China's culture - and, beginning with the account of Confucius, the idea of "the Way of the ruler and the minister."

"The Way was neither an accidental human invention nor an arbitrary command of god or gods, but the result of the discovery by the sages of the basic patterns of nature and human nature and the elaboration of a way of life based on them that made it possible for people to be fully human, to live in harmony with nature and their fellow human beings," Wills writes.

"Chinese thinkers also came to call these basic patterns the Way -the way of nature, the way the world works."

Mountain of Fame is rooted in an undergraduate Chinese history course that Wills has taught at USC during the last 15 years. An architect of the current General Education program, he was asked to teach an introduction to Chinese history in the late 1970s to satisfy a GE requirement in non-Western cultures. Faced with the impossible task of covering 5,000 years of a culture that remains elusive to Westerners, Wills came up with the course "Chinese Lives," based on the concept of teaching Chinese history through biographies placed in historical context.

Finding a dearth of appropriate source material, Wills began composing his own biographies as assigned readings. The approach proved popular, as the course has drawn up to 100 students in some semesters.

"There were a lot of linear narratives with a lot of institutional emphases and a kind of intellectual cultural history out there," Wills said. "But I wanted the students to have something coherent to read and the readings they had weren't working very well."

At some point as he was writing up material for the class, Wills realized he had the makings of a book. He met with a representative of Princeton Press, who then asked to see a draft. The publisher, it turned out, was looking for scholarly books that would be accessible to the general reader.

Mountain of Fame works as an introduction to Chinese history, Wills said, because it deals in stories - a natural, appealing format. Because China is so mystifying to people in the West, Wills suggests readers skim the book, then go back to study more closely certain sections of interest. The book is worth rereading, he said, "not because I'm so terribly smart, but because I'm quoting and writing about some very deep stuff" - such as Confucius and Hui Neng, the
Sixth Patriarch and founder of the Southern School of Chan (Zen) Buddhism.

In the chapter on Confucius, Wills departed from other studies by trying to provide a sense of the First Teacher's life. Most books discuss his teachings at length but don't attempt to produce a coherent biography. Wills suggests that Confucius' collected sayings give clues to the events of his life. He pieces together a story of Confucius' activities and political involvements starting from one of the philosopher's most famous passages of self-revelation:

At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I had a place to stand; at forty I came to be free from doubts; at fifty I understood the decree of Heaven; at sixty I could hear [that decree] and submit; at seventy I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the bounds.      Analects, II, 4

Wills said his portrayal of Confucius as "a living, breathing, struggling and frustrated human being," as a minister who sought political success and tried to teach "the Way" of the ancient kings, shows how his book tries to short-circuit the Western perception of China as impenetrably weird and mystical.

"I think I've tried to give you the Chinese as people who are struggling with situations and with dilemmas that any of us can understand and most of us live through in one way or another," Wills said.