I have been reading Ray Huang’s book China: A Macro History. Huang analyzed Chinese history with a macro economic and social perspective, pointing out the long-term effects of many seemingly trivial events. It is definitely worth reading, either for foreigners to get an idea of Chinese history or for Chinese readers to refresh their memory and deepen their thinking about the past.
One of the biggest problems with monarchies is that the enforcement of rules and regulations can easily be arbitrary, since the power is in the hands of the emperor. But the emperor had to strike a balance between his personal will and the will of his bureaucracy which he depended on to run the state. There were constant conflicts, sometimes subtle and sometimes turbulent, between the two powers.
The Ming dynasty was when the power was most concentrated to the emperor in Chinese history. The first Ming emperor set an example to put strict limitations to military powers (which could be explained by his low social status before he became the emperor). He also abolished the post of Zai Xiang (head of bureaucracy), resulting in chaos in the Chinese bureaucracy and increased burden on the emperor.
The Ming rulers after him were less diligent though. They designated their teachers, supposedly the most knowledgable and responsible man, to help them read the messages from local officials. As time went by, the “teacher” essentially took up the role of the “Zai Xiang”. The most obvious example was Zhang Juzheng in the Wanli years (for details, please refer to Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance). But the political system then lacked an efficient way to allocate human resources and most importantly, a practical and effective hierarchy. It was no wonder, then, that the Ming politics ended up being manipulated a great deal by eunuchs. They were the closest to the emperor.
In economics terms, the inflow of silver through trade enabled people to use it as currency. The government neglected to manufacture more copper coins and gradually lost control of the prevalent currency. This also contributed to Ming’s break-down.