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

A fascinating novel-style Chinese history book with comments, written by an established Chinese historian, Huang Renyu. A brief introduction can be found here. The book’s name is a year in China’s Ming Dynasty, which the author thinks is the beginning of the dynasty’s decline. Among the Chinese dynasties, Ming is recent (1368-1644) and short.

The book gives us a good flavor of Chinese politics and philosophy. The Confucius philosophy of “ren” (benevolence) is a double-edged sword, creating prosperous times as well as long-lasting problems for the Chinese society. The following are my reflections about the book:

1. A regime which relies on one person, or only a few people, must be subject to his, or their’s personal dilemmas. The emperor in China had represented super-natural power and had been respected and followed by the mass. But during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor had less power than before and could not deal with political pressure at his discretion. Wan Li, the emperor, wanted his third-eldest son to be the next emperor. But his wish conflicts with the principle that the eldest son  should be the next emperor. Wan Li is responsible for running the empire, but he cannot be a natural “person” and cannot even do something good for his beloved child. This factor contributed very much to his passive attitude towards politics in his later life.

2. The responsibility assigned should be consistent with the power endowed. Around 1587, China’s military power became very weak, creating chances for Japan’s harassment later. This was mainly because military expenses were not separated from other local infrastructure expenses. Local governments did not have the right to collect more taxes related to military costs, but they had to provide the army with sufficient resources. This lowered the quality of the goods and services that the soldiers received.

3. When conflicts appear, either an effective law or a set of acknowledged moral codes must be in place to solve them. At the end of Wan Li’s life, he was a passive emperor and did not strive for the good of the people any more. Trust was not in place, and people started to doubt the traditional Confucius values because the emperor was not setting a good example. Moreover, the Chinese empire did not have a strict and effective law system. Therefore a lot of social conflicts cannot be solved. The dynasty faced a crisis.

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