Zheng Zhen-ming’s Great Master of Literature: A Look at 100 Great Lives


2015 / 3月

Polly Peng /photos courtesy of courtesy of Zheng Zhen-ming /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

The story begins 60 years ago.

“In 1955 I was admitted to the journalism program at National Cheng­chi University,” recalls ­Zheng Zhen-ming. “At the first lecture I attended, Hu Shih recommended that young people should read more biography, because they would find much to learn from in the lives of others. His advice prompted me to start reading biographies of all kinds. I really did get a lot out of it.” But ­Zheng’s interest has gone far beyond reading biographies. It also led him recently to spend three years writing Great Master of Literature, a two-volume work of more than 400,000 Chinese characters, which describes 100 masters of various disciplines who accomplished great things. Each of these figures gets a biographical essay of 4000–5000 characters. In an age of confused values, ­Zheng hopes that these 100 figures can serve as examples for the young to model their lives on.

Ten types of luminary

Great Master of Literature was coedited by ­Zheng’s student Ding Shi-xuan. It is divided into ten different groupings: “The Avant Garde,” “Great Patriots,” “Cultural Luminaries,” “Towering Academics,” “Free Spirits,” “Cultural Exemplars,” “Leading Thinkers,” “Towering Scientists,” “Spiritual Leaders,” and “Artistic Stars.” Each of these categories represents a different realm of mastery. The book thus describes the life, times and accomplishments of these 100 leading figures.

Zheng says that over the course of his life, as he read about luminaries and learned from their lives, he accumulated observations about them. After he retired at 75, he had more time to allocate to himself, and he began to write the book, which he targeted at younger readers in the belief that they could learn from the examples of those great masters. He specially selected his young student Ding Shi-xuan as a collaborator to help him compile the book. As for the matter of selecting his subjects, Zheng relied on his wide-ranging knowledge and network of acquaintances. He engaged in repeated brainstorming sessions and discussions. “For instance, for the field of education, I of course held discussions with academics, asking them, ‘In your field, who should we include in this book of 100 masters?’ Focusing on this question, I researched and researched. And after I drew up the list, I made sure that experts in the relevant fields agreed with it.”

After the list was set, the long intensive process of gathering materials began. ­Zheng explains that a full-length book could have been written about each of these 100 personages. A 4000-word essay can only capture a fragment of these figures’ lives. With concise and accessible prose, the essays are just brief sketches of the great masters’ lives. “For a 4000-word essay, we typically read materials that were at least several dozen times as long. To research Cai Yuan­pei, I read more than 400,000 words—and that doesn’t include the audiovisual sources.” ­Zheng explains that all along the aim was to be “penetrating yet accessible,” since target readers were the young. To get a comprehensive and multifaceted picture of these figures, it was only natural to gather materials broadly. And to be “accessible,” lively and interesting prose and a strong narrative are essential. It’s the only way to capture a younger readership.

Beautiful landscapes

At one point, ­Zheng took a trip around Taiwan, visiting his old students, and they shared how they had been inspired by masters of their fields. One of his former students said that the great figures on campus had the effect of “steadying the spirits” of their students. They didn’t need to do anything in particular—just by walking around campus, they had presences that were like “majestic landscapes.” ­Zheng says he found the remark very moving: “I came to think that in the time I had left I should record some of these ‘majestic landscapes’ for the younger generation!”

Great Master of Literature starts with an account of Yung Wing (Rong Hong), modern China’s first student to seek his education overseas, and it ends with an account of Lin Hwai-min, who is the youngest figure in the book. The title that ­Zheng gave to his essay on Lin was “God Looks after the Stubborn.” It concisely and vividly displays Lin’s special qualities. If the essays in Great Master of Literature are like historical biographies, then the titles for them are like the pithy comments in the Spring and Autumn Annals. For instance, the headline­ for the essay on the painter Qi Bai­shi is “The Path of Lonelineness.” Qi shut himself away from people for ten years, focusing single-mindedly on researching the way of art. During those ten years he completed more than 10,000 paintings and carved more than 3000 seals. As far as Qi was concerned, asceticism and loneliness were integral to the pursuit of art. Later, when he enjoyed some measure of fame, and wealthy merchants and government officials came with offers to buy his paintings, it began to annoy him so much that he just ended up locking his door and putting up a sign that he wasn’t accepting visitors. When the National Academy of Arts (now National Taiwan University of Arts) invited him to become a professor, he sent back the letter with a few words added to the envelope: “Qi Bai­shi is dead.”

“A Lover’s Beauty Recedes with Time” is the title of the essay on Kenneth Pai and also a line from The Peony Pavilion. That ­kunqu opera included two scenes (“Wandering in the Garden” and “Waking from a Dream”) to which Pai alludes in his short story “Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream.” When Pai wrote the story in 1966, he employed “stream of consciousness” techniques that were then at the cutting edge of Chinese-language literature. Consequently, literary critic Wallace Li describes the short story collection Tai­pei People, which includes “Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream,” as a work of the same rank as Dubliners, the short story collection by James Joyce, the great Irish stream-of-consciousness writer.

Tai­pei People is a work from half a century ago, and what it describes has long since passed away, but no book describing more recent residents of Tai­pei has been published that rivals it. It’s a demonstration of why masters are masters: Their brilliance doesn’t recede with age.

Depicting people’s warmth and elegance

There’s something else that is special about Great Master of Literature: The images of the 100 masters aren’t photo­graphs, but rather sketches made by the young artist Wang Shi­lun. They impart a warm and elegant air to the whole book. The portraits not only offer a realistic depiction of how each of these figures looks, but they also convey in spirit an understanding of the accomplishments of the masters explained within the essays. Wang consulted countless documents, analyzing the figures from every angle, before completing the 100 images. They are quite striking.

Three years ago ­Zheng Zhen-ming had heart surgery. Given his age, his friends and students thought that he would take it easy during a period of recovery. Much to their surprise, ­Zheng immediately jumped into planning and writing Great Master of Literature. Without any publishing contract, he and two students finished the essays and drawings of the 100 masters. Passion and a sense of mission were enough to keep them going. Fortunately, the musician Susie ­Chien, the businessman Li Tai­shan and others put up the money to get the book published.

Zheng quotes Li Shang­yin—“The sunset is beautiful beyond compare, but darkness soon will fall”—only to offer an opposing view of life at this stage: “Yes, the sunset is beautiful beyond compare—and look at those gorgeous clouds.” By this point ­Zheng has reached maturity and is blessed with a measure of wisdom. “That ought to be the best time of life for writing something like Great Master of Literature!” ­Zheng says that the process of writing the book often brought him to tears. “That’s because these 100 are truly exemplary people. Their biographies are all deeply moving. I hope to provide a sense of that to more members of the younger generation.”



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