Take Back Your Ming

1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

by Ray Huang
Yale University Press, 278 pp., $19.95

Li Zhi, philosophe maudit (1527-1602) Volume I

by Jean-François Billeter
Librairie Droz, 320 pp., 80 francs

The Peony Pavilion (Mudan Ding)

by Tang Xianzu, translated by Cyril Birch
Indiana University Press, 343 pp., $22.50

The Chinese Vernacular Story

by Patrick Hanan
Harvard University Press, 276 pp., $18.50

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…

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