Education About Asia: Online Archives

Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History

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by John Wills


John Wills’s Mountain of Fame is a collection of compact biographies of twenty major figures in Chinese history. What makes it engaging is the range of personalities and time periods it covers, as well as prominent themes connecting Chinese history from early periods to the twentieth century. Wills does not merely provide readers with twenty isolated portraits, but rather links them to an account of Chinese history and civilization that reads far more smoothly than any textbook—providing an overview of relatively seamless quality combined with deep pauses to examine the lives and works of his individual subjects.

Wills’s account highlights such luminaries as Yu, Confucius, Wang Mang, the Qianlong emperor, and Mao Zedong. Not all of his subjects, however, are major figures in the common sense. Particularly illuminating are Wills’s treatment of the Han literary figure Ban Zhao, the Chan Buddhist Hui Neng, Empress Wu of the Tang, and the Ming patriot Zheng Chenggong (Coxinga). Through each portrait he tells a story of China’s past and uses his biographies to illuminate whole periods— much like his use of Ban Zhao for the later Han (C.E. 25–220) and Hui Neng for the period of division (C.E. 220–589).

Above all, Wills’s book is to be recommended for a sensitivity to primary and secondary scholarship that is pleasing for the advanced reader (or teacher) without sacrificing the core themes and stories needed by the beginner. Wills is quite conscious of this in his introduction, where he notes that his ideal readers are tourists, nonspecialist scholars, people of Chinese ancestry seeking to learn more about their heritage, or, perhaps most tellingly, people who like good stories. There is no doubt in my mind that he has achieved his aims for this target audience. That he has far more than occasional insights that scholars might enjoy seems to make it a perfect teaching tool—one which both teacher and student can enjoy on several levels.