Reviewed by James A. Anderson
The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography is the product of a superb effort by numerous scholars to create a reference work for students to learn more about significant figures in Chinese history from all walks of life. This compilation of biographical sketches, illuminated with well-researched and contextualized information about the lives and achievements of the men and women featured here, is an impressive accomplishment. All students of Chinese history and scholars of China in general will benefit from consulting these detailed biographies.
My review focuses on volume 2 from this multivolume set, which includes the biographies of figures from the Song, Jin, Yuan, and Ming dynasties. This volume covers nearly 300 years of history, and its contributors have selected an array of historical personages to illustrate the great philosophical, technological, military, and political trends of this extended period. The volume’s layout is clearly arranged, with a map and a detailed list of entries at the beginning of the book. Each entry contains helpful illustrations, as well as sidebar passages of poetry or prose for many of the literary figures. The large, easy-to-read text makes the volume relatively simple to skim for information. The volume has the appearance of a well-organized textbook, which suggests that the target audience would be students ranging from high school and university students to possibly first-year graduate students. General readers would learn much from this work, but the volume of detailed information may be intimidating. Each section of the book describes a different dynasty and begins with a dynastic map and a short historical introduction, followed by the various biographies. Chinese characters in their simplified forms are included for most personal names, place names, and many important terms. I would also like to see the traditional characters included, but I realize that there are space limitations and editorial restrictions one must consider. Overall, this volume of the biographical dictionary is a valuable resource, in which newcomers to Song through Ming history can quickly access and absorb information regarding these pivotal figures from China’s past.
The section of the volume on the Song dynasty is well-balanced, with individuals from military, political, and cultural circles all rep- resented. The entry describing the early Song inventor of moveable type, Bi Sheng, is particularly effective. The authors describe his achievements, but also note that the full potential of Bi Sheng’s invention was not realized until centuries after his death. In this manner, readers are made aware of the delayed social impact of this important technological innovation, even when we can rightly note that Bi Sheng predated Johannes Gutenberg by nearly 500 years. The authors’ sidebar on Cai Lun, the alleged inventor of paper, and Gutenberg is an effective evaluation of these two inventors’ achievements in world historical terms. Other entries in this section vary in the amount of contextual information they present. Several biographies focus more narrowly on the individuals and their times. The biography for the female calligrapher and poet Li Qingzhao describes the life and achievements of a woman who excelled at literary pursuits, but the entry also tells of personal hardships she and her husband faced with the fall of the Northern Song court to the invading Jurchen. The biographies of the well-known scholars Su Shi, Sima Guang, and Wang Anshi collectively offer the reader an evenhanded depiction of the factional political struggles that plagued the late eleventh-century court of Shenzong and his immediate successors. I have a few minor quibbles, such as the lack of a biography for Shen Kuo, an important figure in the history of Chinese science and technology. I am also not certain why the map at the beginning of this section does not feature the Dali kingdom near the southwest corner of the empire and why the Vietnamese kingdom is listed as “Annam,” a term used in the Tang, and not “Jiaozhi” or “Đại Việt.” However, these minor points aside, this section accomplishes the authors’ aims by presenting a full and complex picture of Chinese society under the Northern and Southern Song courts.
The section on the Jin dynasty contains excellent entries for Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, and the early Mongol conquerors of much of Eurasia. However, only one en- try is devoted to a Jurchen political leader, the Jin founder Jin Taizu. There are strong reasons for providing readers with detailed biographies of these important Mongol leaders, but I think that more attention could be paid to other Jin subjects and their contributions to the region’s history. One such figure is the ethnic Khitan Confucian scholar and adviser to Genghis Khan, Yelü Chucai, who allegedly saved the inhabitants of the North China Plain from annihilation by arguing to the Mongol leadership that taxing these communities would benefit the Mongols more in the long run than emptying the land of human settlement. The Yuan dynasty section is somewhat short but well-balanced, with figures from science, court life, literature, and the arts all included. The inclusion of the Uygur official and poet Guan Yunshi gives readers a better sense of the ethnic diversity among the Yuan elite.
The Ming dynasty is covered in the most substantial section of the volume, due perhaps to the greater abundance of biographical sources and, possibly, a stronger scholarly interest in these later events. The Ming biographies contain figures who lived in the period from the late Yuan through the earliest years of the Qing. One prominent Westerner is included, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. As is the case in previous sections of the book, individuals (although all male) from different sectors of Chinese society are included to paint a broader picture of the Ming world. The lives of individuals such as Ricci, the frontier leaders Altan Khan and Nurhaci, and conqueror of Taiwan Koxinga allow readers to see the many regional forces that shaped the Ming Empire’s fate from beyond its borders. Sever- al biographers in this section have also drawn connections between historical figures and their changing public images in modern-day Chinese society, offering readers a better sense of how history is produced and consumed in today’s China.
In general, the writing in this volume is clear and concise. The careful use of scholarly primary and secondary sources by all its contributors gives strong support to the conclusions drawn in the entries. The suggested readings listed at the end of each entry offer an interested reader a good launching pad for further exploration of these individuals and the times in which they lived. As educators, we know that many students, when confronted with a new research question, will turn first to online materials for guidance. As a test of this volume’s usefulness in that context, I asked my fourteen-year-old niece to collect in ten minutes as much material as possible on one of the figures from this book. She returned with a stack of “hits” from Wikipedia and related sites, but none of these materials gave her a clear understanding of the society her figure inhabited and the larger significance of his life’s work. Here, I believe, is where we find the true value for students: the careful scholarship conducted for this informative reference work.