Until very recently the great expanse of the Ming dynasty, which ruled in China from 1368 to 1644, was largely uncharted in Western historiography. The dynasty was seen either as having come at the end of a great tradition that had been dominated by the artistic force of the T’ang and Sung, or as being a little too early for “modern” Chinese history, which could be seen to pick up momentum in the eighteenth century, or even the seventeenth, but certainly not earlier. Furthermore the “decline of the Ming,” a messy and protracted business apparently spanning almost a century from the 1550s down to the 1640s, was seen as reflecting little credit on China’s imperial and bureaucratic institutions.

Ray Huang’s unusual and absorbing book, 1587, A Year of No Significance, will hardly raise the declining years of the Ming in the scales of history, but it certainly enriches our consciousness of what went into the pattern of dynastic decline; furthermore his five main characters are beautifully chosen to illuminate a variety of Chinese responses to impending catastrophe.

From his opening page, which describes the background to an imperial audience that never took place, as officials rush around Peking in excitement and puzzled eunuchs and palace guards try to track the sources of the city’s excited rumors, Huang shows a mastery of the intricate details of the ritualistic and practical sides of Ming court politics, and an ability to make them comprehensible.

His story is cleverly constructed and deliberately paradoxical. If 1587 is, in the long run, a “year of no significance,” it is nevertheless full of incident, and each incident carries promise of future drama. It is the year that the court first hears—from far to the north—an account of the political rise of a Jurchen tribesman named Nurhaci. Though ignored as inconsequential at the time, Nurhaci was to conquer much of southern Manchuria by the time of his death in 1626, and his descendants were to seize the imperial throne and install the Ch’ing dynasty in 1644.

This is also the year that two of the most interesting Ming officials died: Hai Jui, whose biting criticisms of fiscal malpractice and landlord extortions made him a byword later for bureaucratic probity, and Ch’i Chi-kuang, a humane and talented general who built up an effective army in southeast China and ended the endemic piracy there. And it is the year that Shen Shih-hsing, convincingly presented by Huang as a weak, scholarly, intelligent compromiser who could not handle the government he was expected to supervise, became the first grand secretary of the realm.

The relationship between Grand Secretary Shen and the elusive Wan-li emperor is a central part of Huang’s story. For Huang, a historian with an awesome knowledge of Ming politics and economy, is absorbed by the historical significance of failure to act. Shunning many historians’ concentration on the dramatic moment, the key document, the significant policy shift, he probes for the hypocrisy, boredom, conventionality, or fear that prevented the emperor and his senior ministers from ruling. Huang finds partial explanations in the administrative and legal structures of the time, but more importantly in the natural inclination of career bureaucrats—reacting against powerful ministerial. predecessors and unmanageable, whim-driven emperors—to prevent any new expressions of power:

With all their talk of the sovereign’s responsibility to heaven, the sixteenth-century bureaucrats were actually preventing him from becoming actively involved in the matters brought to the throne for disposal. He was encouraged to be emotionally neutral and personally bland. There was little chance for him to become responsive to state affairs in any functional way. In short, an effort to dehumanize the monarchy was under way, against which the occupant of the throne had no defense. Evidently this milieu first caused the Wan-li emperor, who since childhood had been taught to take rather than give orders, to hesitate to assert himself on the succession issue, and later, when bitter experience enabled him to see the inner mechanism of his court, to feel totally alienated from it.

In counterpoint to this theme Huang develops his fifth and final case study, that of the philosopher and social critic Li Chih. Li, in Huang’s reading, is presented as a despondent and less effective Martin Luther, striving to be the conscience of the Confucian literati but deprived of a sympathetic hearing in a society where the weight of the dominant political and family values pressured any individual to “maintain a collective personality.” Brilliant but irascible, Li Chih had a miserable personal life, a failed official career, and frustrations as a writer, and Huang’s account makes a sad tale. Li’s life after 1587 was “futile,” Huang says, and he “should have died sooner” than the year 1602 to which he survived.

It is here that those interested in the richness and subtlety of Ming society may take exception to Huang’s focus on failure and ineffectiveness, and start asking, rightly, whether Li Chih’s life does not begin to raise questions that cannot really be absorbed into Ray Huang’s model. Li Chih’s life (he was born in 1527) is an extraordinary saga, for his own ancestors were traders and converts to Islam, while he himself became a highly individualistic Confucian thinker, deeply influenced by Buddhist ideas; his story presents a different kind of Ming dynasty, one that is alive with acute and excited controversy played out within a world that is economically and socially vibrant.


The German historian Otto Franke was drawn to Li Chih in the 1930s, because Li Chih corresponded with the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci; Marxist historians in China seized on Li Chih in the 1960s, when the trenchant nature of Li’s criticisms of conventional Confucian thinkers were seen to present a possible route to interpreting the hollowness of “bureaucratic-landlord values.” In the 1970s historians in the United States grew absorbed in Li’s writings on philosophy and in what those works seemed to say about subjectivity; and in 1980 Hok-lam Chan produced a valuable translation and commentary on the current state of Li Chih studies in the People’s Republic of China.1 Now, in his new book, Jean-François Billeter has made the most sophisticated study of Li Chih yet to appear.

It is something more than an aside to point out that Billeter’s “Li Zhi” is of course the same as Ray Huang’s “Li Chih.” Zhi is the form required in the pinyin romanization that the Chinese are seeking to make standard usage, and with the exception of Huang’s 1587, which follows the Wade-Giles system, all the other books under review here employ pinyin. One advantage of this is that when French scholars abandon their own earlier romanization and use pinyin their work is infinitely more accessible to English readers. Unfortunately we are now in an interim period, where scholars (out of necessity) and general readers (if they choose) are going to have to keep several systems in their heads at once: the great Dictionary of Ming Biography, edited by L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, for instance, is in Wade-Giles, and hence though Li Chih can be traced there at once, Li Zhi will prove elusive to the uninitiated.

Billeter’s study, the first of two projected volumes, takes Li Zhi’s life up to 1590, the year in which Li published his sardonically entitled Book to Be Burned (Fen-shu). Billeter believes that Li’s story is important for understanding Chinese society and that it tells us something about ourselves as well—that Li’s written work “can enter in some fashion into our experience, and pursue its own movement there.” In Li’s polemical writings and the melange of ideas and religions that he confronted—Buddhist, Daoist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Confucian—Billeter sees a way of getting at social and intellectual changes that had been developing in China since the Sung dynasty. Thus he tries to analyze Li not as a man but as a member of the “mandarinate,” a class that can be analyzed independently of the “gentry” or “landlord” classes hitherto studied by other historians. Li’s life highlights tensions within Confucian society, particularly on the southeast China coast where Li grew up, for here Confucianism as a compulsory ideology helped to destroy the commerce that had enriched the region, and hence made success in the competitive examinations (based on a Confucian curriculum) essential to attaining gainful employment.

Billeter is absorbed by the nature of the “enlightenment” that Li Zhi received in the 1560s, the sense of intellectual strength that this gave to Li, and the relationship between this “symbolic capital” and Li’s own class situation at the lower levels of the mandarinate. Li’s own relationships with important mentors like He Xinyin and Luo Rufang (and Li’s belief that He Xinyin, executed in 1579, had been betrayed in his moment of greatest need by his philosopher friends) are carefully analyzed by Billeter as stages on Li’s way to an assessment of the powers of his own self and his own definitions of human nature. In detailing Li Zhi’s admiration for Hai Rui (the Hai Jui in Ray Huang’s study), Li’s quarrels with his erstwhile benefactors the Gengs, and his decision to send his wife and daughter away so that he could enter a more rigorous retreat in the Macheng monastery (the year was 1587), Billeter expands Ray Huang’s account and also charts the movement of a restless soul who vowed, at last, “to be dependent on no one,” and sought to find his own pure center in a world degraded by dishonesty.


Billeter’s book is based on a wide variety of original and newly discovered sources and has many lengthy translations of Li’s works. He comments that Li as a writer must be read as Li-the-reader, as a man obsessed with the words of others and his own reactions to them, and always struggling with them. In a letter to a friend Li Zhi wrote:

When most people write they strive to enter their subject by pushing into it from outside; whereas I am already in there and make sorties to the outside, carrying the battle under the walls of the enemy, rummaging in his supplies, turning his own men and horses against him.

Li committed suicide in jail in 1602, having been accused of improper writings by local gentry-scholars. Billeter feels that this was in large part caused by his proud insistence on his own analytical abilities, by his determination to expose the “dominant illusions” of the mandarinate as false. And he quotes another passage in which Li writes vividly of the pain of being forced to be a writer rather than a reader.

None of those who turned out to have true literary genius ever started off by intending to write. But their hearts were filled with such terrible anguish, their throats knotted in such pain, that they wanted to—yet dared not—spit everything out. They had so many things to say on the tip of their tongues without having anyone to whom they could say them that at last it grew too much, nothing could any longer dam up that accumulated force.

Once that dam is broken, however, then the writer “abandons himself to his exaltation, gives vent to his passion, cries out aloud and, tears streaming down his face, wracked by sobs, gives himself over altogether to emotion.” This is a raw and splendid passage in which Billeter may be slightly overtranslating—“gives himself over altogether to emotion” (se livre tout entier à l’émotion) could, from the original Chinese, be equally well rendered as “was unable to hold himself in.” Nevertheless, he presents a magnificent portrait of a man full of intellectual passion.

Li’s essay had started as an invocation to the pure emotion that could be found in certain earlier writings of Chinese fiction, and Billeter reminds us of Li Zhi’s interest in a wide range of works from the Outlaws of the Marsh2 to the Record of the Western Chamber. The heights of this romantic emotionalism have been acknowledged by generations of Chinese critics to have been reached by Tang Xianzu in his drama The Peony Pavilion. Tang was a younger contemporary of Li Zhi (born in 1550), from a wealthy family, and seemingly headed for a distinguished bureaucratic career until he chose to devote his energies to writing drama. Like Li, Tang had been influenced by Luo Rufang and had pursued the meaning of “pure emotion” in life and in his writings. The two spent some time together, and Tang wrote to lament Li’s death when such lament was unfashionable and possibly dangerous.3

Tang was already writing plays in 1587, though Peony Pavilion, his masterpiece, was not finished until 1598. Now fully translated by Cyril Birch, the play opens yet another perspective into the late-Ming world, one in which passion and propriety each have their strengths and their purpose. The play is a long story of innocence, love, despair, death, return from the dead, marriage, and fulfillment. Birch catches the romantic, bawdy, cheerful qualities of the book, and one reads it with delight. He is not deterred by the problems that the great erudition of the original text poses to modern readers. Using the glosses of good current editions of the play, he explains when essential, but is otherwise content to let the story move ahead, guiding its rhythms by a skillful manipulation of English diction to suggest the range of Chinese attitudes and styles. (Indeed with the exception of David Hawkes’s translation of Story of the Stone, the eighteenth-century novel by Cao Xueqin, this is the most delicately tuned translation from the Chinese that I have ever seen.)

Birch has the exuberance needed for Tang Xianzu’s work, and without distortion he finds in Tang’s cast of minor characters—a mischievous yet shrewd maidservant, a randy yet loyal Daoist nun, a self-important tutor, a drunk and lecherous northern warrior who babbles incomprehensibly—a host of echoes of Shakespearian comedy and Shakespearian diction. Thus the immensely moving story of the two lovers’ separation and reunions in both the spiritual and the mortal worlds, which has its own powerful erotic images and to spare, is set in a context that reminds one constantly of the pulse of Ming life beyond the reach of the “mandarinate” or the court.

This other world, filled with noise and energy, farts and laughter, was of course part of Ming culture, whether in 1587 or any other year of the Ming period. Elusive in historical texts, banished from classical Chinese essays and poems, the popular culture came to the surface everywhere in fiction, and in the life of Chinese fiction the late Ming was a glorious period. Again, to enter this world one needs guides as well as translators, and here Patrick Hanan gives indispensable aid to those who want to know where to look.

Much more accessible to the general reader than his earlier monograph on Chinese short stories,4 The Chinese Vernacular Story concentrates mainly on the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Ray Huang, in 1587, did not ignore this topic altogether—in fact he has some good remarks on popular literature of the time and on the block-printing of pamphlets—and Billeter’s references to Li Zhi’s interest in fiction have already been mentioned. But it takes the kind of detail Hanan presents here, distilled from voracious reading of story collections and their prefaces, to round out that “sociologie du mandarinat chinois de la fin des Ming” which Billeter’s subtitle had stated as his subject.

Hanan shows how vernacular fiction emerged through the preoccupations of the dominant Confucian elite. He describes how the idea of a “vernacular” literature grew and what was entailed in the shift away from classical literature. He echoes Li Zhi in seeing how the vernacular serves to criticize the culture’s dominant values, and how in its different aspects—its techniques of narration, its focus and different modes, its styles and sounds—a new effect can be attained that transcended the earlier effects achieved by the written word.

The shift of plots in vernacular fiction from a concern with the thieves and warriors of earlier stories to the merchants and shopkeepers of the later Ming period already suggests important economic developments within the Ming society. The emerging importance of the narrator’s role and the “loosening” of the concept of what constitutes an acceptable story hint at parallel changes in perception. The late-Ming figure of Feng Menglong—scholar, adapter, writer, editor, publisher, official, maker of money, admirer of Li Zhi, moralist, and recorder of the ribald—as he emerges from the central chapters of Hanan’s book suggests a new kind of focus for our examination of Ming society. That Feng should have the gall to “amend the prosody” of Tang Xianzu’s Peony Pavilion in a popular edition speaks volumes for Feng’s financial ambitions and the size and taste of the public he was trying to reach.5

Hanan ends with problems that Huang only hinted at when he mentioned the Jurchen warrior Nurhaci—the fall of the Ming in 1644, and the accession to the throne of those same Jurchen (called now the Qing or Ch’ing depending on one’s romanization). In this new dynastic world vernacular stories lost their momentum, slid to a rawer eroticism—to a kind of pornography that was divorced from earlier literary conventions—and to escapism, or to careful moral relativity.6 The withdrawn, bored Emperor Wan-li had yielded to new generations of imperial activists, and writers and readers alike withdrew to safer terrain. But the new morality of the Qing state must not blind us to the exuberance and talent of the dynasty that had fallen; these four new books attest to the vigor of the culture that was lost.

This Issue

April 30, 1981