(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History, John E. Wills, Jr., professor of history at the University of Southern California, takes a “lives-and-times” approach that was used in China as early as the second century b.c.e. by the famous “Grand Historian,” Sima Qian. Later Chinese dynastic histories followed the same model, using biographies of eminent persons who influenced the historical process for good or ill.

As to historiography in the West, Thomas Carlyle proclaimed, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Thus he wrote Heroes and Hero Worship (1841). Ralph Waldo Emerson considered the importance of “eminent men,” and he meant that in his title Representative Men(1850). Finally, Friedrich Nietzsche developed the concept of die monumental Geschichte(monumental history), by which he meant the study of past heroes who could show that human beings are capable of greatness despite the general mediocrity of the masses.

That Wills’s “slice-of-life” history is not a new technique is not a discredit to him. What counts is how effectively he uses this traditional form to achieve a sense that history and the significant individual constitute a total living organism, which is what is historically significant. The biographic technique particularly appeals to the reader’s moral judgment, but the writing of it must have an aesthetic purpose if it is to be part of literature.

Wills begins where most cultural history usually begins—in the “misty mid region” of mythology. Mythology is important, for it is the symbolic code of a people’s existence and imagination. In this realm, persons may be few and animals many. In China, the earliest human beings tend to be half animal, yet they may be gods or semidivine. The demigods seem to be the ones who prepare the chaotic earth for human habitation and a name.

Thus Wills presents the mythical “Three Sovereigns”: Fu-xi, who has the body of a serpent or dragon; Shen-nong, who has the head of an ox; and Huang-di, the “Yellow Lord,” who has a man’s body but whose color is that of the China earth. Fu-xi taught human beings how to hunt and fish, to domesticate animals, and to breed silkworms. He invented the trigrams that formed the basis of Chinese script. He also urged official and permanent marriage. His wife, Nu-gua, invented many feminine arts. Huang-di has no animalistic body parts and appears simply as the Earth Father. This mythology shows that the early Chinese imagination was strongly biological, energetic, and animalistic, but it strove to humanize itself as if to contradict some future theory that human beings are nothing but animals.

As a complete human being, Huang-di was third in the line of the first “Five Emperors” of China. He was a strong military leader; having invented the magnetic compass, he used it in a dense fog to locate his enemy. Wills then presents the “Three Rulers” of China’s “Golden Age,” or the time of the Zhou Dynasty, which began about 1027 b.c.e.: Yao, Shun, and Yu. Yao regulated the calendar and adopted the “Five Punishments,” from branding to beheading. Shun instituted triennial government examinations and allowed banishment to be substituted for some severer punishments. Yu, called “Yu the Great,” became the founder and first emperor of the Xia Dynasty and ascended the throne in about 2205 b.c.e. The Chinese people idealized the reigns of the Three Rulers; their Golden Age became a historical model toward which later regimes were expected to aspire.

The teachings of Confucius (Latin for Kong Fuzi), who flourished 476 b.c.e, were based on his “idealization of the past” and “rooted in reality and in ideas,” as Wills says, that had developed five hundred years previously. In fact, Confucius claimed no originality for himself, declaring that he was merely a transmitter of tradition. His teachings were gradually adopted by the vast majority of Chinese people and were maintained from his time into the first decade of the twentieth century. Wills manages to convey the essence of Confucius the man with a simple story. The disciple Zi Lu told Confucius that the governor had asked him about his master and he had been unsure what to say. Confucius said, “Why didn’t you simply say something like this: He is the sort of man who forgets to eat when he tries to solve a problem that has been driving him to distraction, who is so full of joy that he forgets his worries and who does not notice that old age is coming on?”

Shihuang-di, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 b.c.e.), was a man of fierce energy, iron will, and sharp individuality. He conquered six opposing states and then unified China into a single empire. He abolished the feudal system and centralized the government. He linked together some segments of the Great Wall that had been built earlier. When Confucian scholars resented the emperor’s innovations, he burned their books. With the death of Shihuang-di in 210 b.c.e., however, Qin totalitarianism passed away.

Sima Qian (145-c. 70 b.c.e.) was the author of the first comprehensive history of China and hence was China’s Herodotus. In his Shi Ji (c. 90 b.c.e., records of the historian), he left his autobiography, and in the body of work he included the biographies of many individuals as well as topically organized collective biographies.

Two critical events served to shape Sima Qian’s life. He was the son of the regime’s grand astrologer, Sima Tan, and inherited his tasks. The most important project was the comprehensive history of China that his father had started just before his last illness. After the three-year filial mourning period had passed, Sima Qian gained access to the official records of...

(The entire section is 2360 words.)