Customer Reviews: 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline
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on January 17, 1997
Para1: A scholarly work that is easily accessible to non-specialists, historian Ray Huang's ironically subtitled 1587: A Year of No Significance focuses on the Ming Emperor Wan-li--who rose to the throne and the age of eight and who reigned for 48 years--and five other figures in the court of the decadent, doomed Ming Dynasty. This is an off-beat masterpiece of both history and biography, learned yet chatty, steeped in the dense, ancient imperial chronicles yet surprisingly contemporary in its oblique illuminations of contemporary Chinese political culture through the prism of history.

Para2: Huang's approach is is reminiscent of Kurosawa's in Roshomon, employing multiple points of view from the imperial court in seeking to expose and foreshadow the demise of the Ming. We meet archetypes from the drama of Chinese history: the Machiavellian chief minister, the perceptive but disregarded general, the anguished philosopher, and, at the story's center, the eccentric Wan-li emperor himself. In choosing to write about Wan-li, Huang is able to create a measure of narrative tension unusual in Chinese historical writing, because by the Year of the Pig, 1587, the emperor has ceased to fulfill his prescribed role in rite and ritual as the embodiment of moral order. Wan-li's behavior causes great agitation among his courtiers, bureaucrats, retainers, imperial wives and concubines, eunuchs, and slaves, each of whom occupies a carefully defined place in the regimented life inside the walls of the Imperial Compound and who, without punctilious observances by the emperor, is without a fixed point of reference.

Para3: A special feature of this book is the wonderful chapter on the incorruptible censor Hai Rui, who dared impeach the Emperor. Hai Rui is familar to students of modern China as the subject of a 1960s play, "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office," that provided Mao Zedong with the pretext to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao believed, rightly, that the play was an allegory of his dismissal in 1959 of his defense minister, who dared to speak the truth about Mao's failed Great Leap Forward. To meet Hai Rui in Huang's portrait is to understand anew Mao's resentment at being cast as villain in a historical drama.

Para4: Although published by a major university press, 1587: A Year of No Significance is not simply for specialists. (It is, however, highly regarded among professional China scholars and contains all the trappings--excellent and extensive endnotes, bibliography, and index--of the scholarly monograph.) Above all, it is an engaging, often gripping, at times tragic, and, ultimately, unforgettable portrait of a man and a moment in time. It is, moveover, beautifully written in an odd, often haunting first-person voice that renders palpable the weight and majesty of four thousand years of Chinese civilization.

Para5: A variety of excellent, biographically-based popular works on imperial China remain in print--Jean Levi's historical novel, Emperor of China, and Jonathan Spence's work on the Qing emperor Kang-hsi are among the best known--but, in my opinion, Huang's book surpasses them all. 1587 is, indeed, a work of great significance, by an author of encyclopedic knowledge and scope and a stylist of vast charm and elegance. Signed: Paul Frandano
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on June 20, 2002
A reviewer below has already done an excellent job of summarizing the book, so I can only hope that my review can serve as a complement. "1587" is essentially an examination of why the Ming dynasty--an institution that commanded great wealth and governed a vast nation--was already showing signs of decay and its impending collapse under the reign of the Wanli emperor. Ray Huang does an excellent job to show how cultural inertia and an institution that governed miserably effectively neutralized the voice and power of individual participants. The Ming dynastic system did not tolerate loyal opposition and was not designed for ministers or individuals to discuss opposing views in an orderly manner, which meant that power struggles were bound to be ugly as rival ministers and bureaucrat employed moral arguments to tarnish each others' reputation. Avenues for advancement within government amounted to a zero-sum game in which an official's effectiveness in governance was a barometer of his morality (bound with tradition and Confucian precepts open to interpretation). Imagine if your local mayor was judged not on his or her effectiveness or merit, but on whether he or she was a morally upright individual who was adhering to both the spirit and traditions of the past.
The Ming imperial system also placed a greater value on the institution and sought to dehumanize the emperor. The emperor was the emperor--he was not Wanli, not Jiajing, etc. The bureaucrats and officials--whose power was constrained individually--exercised great power as a group, effectively dictating how the emperor should act, behave, and present himself to the public. Little wonder then, that the Wanli emperor, whose power was in the negative and not the positive, hardly sought to rule in an effective manner after being weighed down by such an institution. Others in the drama--the powerful minister, the innovative general, the eccentric bureaucrat, and the dissenting scholar--would find the same forces inhibiting their ability to affect real changes.
Huang ends his book by concluding that the Ming dynasty was a "highly stylized society wherein the roles of individuals were thoroughly restricted by a body of simple yet ill-defined moral precepts, [and that] the empire was seriously hampered in its development, regardless of the noble intentions behind those precepts. The year 1587 may seem to be insignificant; nevertheless, it is evident that by that time the limit for the Ming dynasty had already been reached. It no longer mattered whether the ruler was conscientious or irresponsible, whether his chief counselor was enterprising or conformist, whether the generals were resourceful or incompetent, whether the civil officials were honest or corrupt, or whether the leading thinkers were radical or conservative-in the end they all failed to reach fulfillment. Thus our story has a sad conclusion. The annals of the Year of the Pig (1587) must go down in history as a chronicle of failure."
I recommend this book for all those not only interested in the history of the Ming dynasty, but to those who are interested in the nature of Chinese imperial statecraft and the question of how government should be structured.
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on January 3, 2007
The history of China is long and it is very difficult to get a clear idea about the logic behind the countless events happened during the last several thousand years in China. I've read many books on China's history, both Chinese ones and English ones. This book has been the most inspiring one among those I've read.

In this book, Dr. Ray Huang showed the readers the picture of the Chinese people's life around the year 1587: from the emperor's depression caused by lacking of freedom due to the structure of China's politics, to officers' rise and fall, to the common people's mundane life. As the big picture rolling out little by little, the logic behind China's history was clearer and clearer. There was a fatal problem in Chinese politics: the politic structure was premature but the administrative methods to support the structure never grew up and never based on sensible mathematics. Technologies were never paid enough attention to. When the population and economic developed and developed, the naive administrative methods could not sustain the whole economic system any more. However, any technical innovation for supporting the economic grow was hardly allowed due to moral or philosophical tradition. Some officers had been very smart, the emperor had been very ambitious, the Chinese people had been very diligent. However due to many problems, these individual efforts never really worked out to save the dynasty from declining. Dr. Huang saw these problems based on his decades of research on Ming Dynasty's taxing system. In this book he showed the readers how these problem impacted all aspects of life of the people from different classes.

Dr. Huang's research method is scientific and the conclusion is convincing. Although 1587 happened to be a year in the Ming Dynasty, this book in fact provides a great point of view to the macro history of China. This is a book to be read again and again. Every read will help readers to understand China's history better. The author's way of thinking and his research method is also very inspiring. The text is so well written that it is anything but dry and boring. Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in China's history.
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on April 19, 2014
Non-fiction book lovers have gotten used to it: the odd-but-clever title designed to catch the attention of prospective buyers. In a world looking for something snappy, the title of a book is there to sell, not describe.

Thank goodness for the lowly subtitle. When you want to know what a book is actually about, the subtitle will tell you. And so it is that 1587, A Year of No Significance is really about The Ming Dynasty in Decline. More specifically, it focuses almost entirely on the era of Wan-li, who ruled from 1573 till 1620, and why his empire was in decline during those years.

The author, Ray Huang, was especially well-prepared to write this book. Born in Hunan Province, China in 1918, he served as an officer in the Chinese army from 1941 to 1950. Following his discharge, Huang moved to the United States where he studied at the University of Michigan, completing the doctorate there in 1964. From that time until his death in 2000, Huang built a fine academic career in which he taught, contributed chapters to the Cambridge History of China, and authored several books.

In 1587, Huang offers a series of compelling vignettes of major political, military and intellectual leaders of the period. His primary thesis is that, for all of their differences, each one was dealing with what was essentially the same intractable problem. At one point, Huang describes it as the "organizational inadequacy" (128) of the empire, a system in which "a literary bureaucracy" was managing "the affairs of the agrarian masses" (131). In another section, he speaks of "a sedentary empire" (186) with an army in which "the new elements had to slow down to keep pace with the old" (187).

The strength and the beauty of Huang's presentation is that his book resembles a carefully-researched film in which separate characters reveal a common world from the past. Thus we read about Wan-li, the boy who became emperor and who came of age only to discover that devotion to his public role made no apparent difference.

Next, Huang takes up the enigmatic Grand-Secretary Chang Chu-cheng, mentor and advisor to the young Wan-li. It was only after Cheng's death that Wan-li discovered the truth: when faced with the yin and the yang of "the professed moral tone of government" versus the "hidden desires and motivations of bureaucrats" (56), Cheng had become a hypocrite and a fraud.

Readers get some relief from the tragic as Huang delightfully tells the story of the special relationship Wan-li had with Lady Cheng, the emperor's favorite wife and the mother of his third son. Lady Cheng was refreshingly different from the hundreds of other women available to Wan-li. Instead of being awed by the presence of his majesty, she recognized his humanity and treated him more like a friend than a god. In this way she fulfilled many of his emotional needs, an unlikely gift for which he deeply appreciated and loved her.

Grand-Secretary Chang Chu-cheng was succeeded by the next character in the story, Shen Shih-hsing. Unfortunately, his completely different, subtle style was overshadowed by an early career in which Shen had worked under the then-notorious Chang. In this section, Huang makes clear that neither Chang's hard, top-down administration nor Shen's indirect approach could have ever made a long-term difference.

At this point, Huang takes up the story of the Ming emperor who chose to literally get away from it all, Wan-li's granduncle, Cheng-te. A playboy and a maverick, he avoided the Imperial City for months at a time, chasing women and fighting battles. But for all of the interesting tales he generated, Cheng-te's absence from duty only deepened and reinforced the crisis of the empire. The sick system he ignored only grew worse.

No one could have been more different from Cheng-te than Hai Jui, "the most impeccably moral and fearless civil servant of the empire" (141). As the author explains, though, even Hai's zealous campaign against the exploitation of the poor was destined to fail. In order to show why, Huang takes his reader back to the time of emperor Hung-wu and the early days of the Ming Dynasty. He describes how Hung-wu had established agrarian simplicity as the standard for the empire, ignoring the inevitability of commercial development. As a result, there were no established, regulated credit institutions. Without even a simple banking system, small struggling farmers had no one else to go to besides their neighbors who became their creditors. In those early years, a large share of imperial revenue came from those families who had succeeded at farming, lending, and acquisition. But over time, their wealth was transferred from the countryside to the Imperial City. By the late sixteenth century, not only had the imperial bureaucracy more than doubled in size, its 20,000 civil servants controlled a huge portion of the empire's economic power.

Huang's description of the imbalance and corruption of the empire provides the backdrop for his last two main characters. Ch'i Chi-kuang was one of the ablest generals in Chinese military history. Although he fought off the Japanese and Chinese pirates who were ravaging the east coast, Ch'i discovered that the contradictions and inconsistencies of his homeland were the toughest foes he would ever face. China's civilian leadership depended on the army for security. But they were also suspicious of strong military leaders. Consequently, in order to combat the enemies of the empire, Ch'i had to first develop and train an army that was always poorly supplied. Huang develops the story to show that, whether winning or losing battles, Ch'i was, from beginning to end, fighting a losing war.

Finally, the author turns to a very different sort of character, Li Chih. A proud and stubborn intellectual, he "appointed himself the group conscience of all the literati" (190). Huang portrays Li Chih as having been well-known and widely-read among his contemporaries. But not even a man with his clout and persuasion could succeed in a quest to "coordinate the personal needs and wants of a member of the scholar-gentry class with public morality" (198). The empire had long since become hopelessly conflicted. And so Huang concludes with his thesis: by the seemingly unremarkable year 1587,

"the limit for the Ming dynasty had already been reached. It no longer mattered whether the ruler was conscientious or irresponsible, whether his chief counsellor was enterprising or conformist, whether the generals were resourceful or incompetent, whether the civil officials were honest or corrupt, or whether the leading thinkers were radical or conservative--in the end they all failed to reach fulfillment" (221).

An interesting, if sad, story, what might it mean? Part of Huang's own answer may be revealed in an obvious quirk of the book: throughout, he punctuates his descriptions with phrases like "our history" and, especially, "our empire." Before getting used to it, the reader experiences the first few examples like a flash of lightning on an otherwise clear night. Of course, they remind the reader that although Huang had evidently become acclimated to the West by the time he wrote this book, he was first and finally Chinese. Beyond that, it may have been that Huang was using his story as a sort of political parable. He mentions how that those who lectured in the presence of the Wan-li emperor were expected to cite historical events as "a way of comparing past with present, and thus of reiterating the close relationship between ethics and public well-being" (44). Lessons from the past served as analogues to the contemporary scene. In this way, history was understood not only as background but also as prophecy. Did Huang intend for his own work, which was translated into Chinese, to serve in this way? I wonder.
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on December 3, 2009
The classic of Ray Huang needs no introduction to folks interested in Chinese history. Yet this book was certainly written with an eye on contemporary Chinese and China. This was clearly signified (before one even reads the book) by inclusion of Hai Jui, The Eccestric Model Official (chapter five). The discrediting of the play "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office" marked the beginning of Cultural Revolution in PRC.

The question is "Huang's book was first published in 1981 (translated into many language including Chinese, Japanese, German and French), is it still relevant to contemporary Chinese and China?" For westerners who are accustomed to liberal democracies, one may easily equate a Shanghai with a New York, by looking at the bustling cities and up-ward mobile and aggressive young professionals, probably speaking the same language; I mean both professional language and English! Yet one has to understand and appreciate when a young professional has been brought up in a country with parents, grandparents and great grandparents sharing the same guiding-principles-for-safety-living in authoritative regimes, one certainly knows how to survive and live happily in such environment. And without doubt, these young professionals will likely to tell you (a foreigner) that they are happy and contended! (Well, assuming that neither they nor their close relatives have gotten into major trouble with the authority).

Huang's book is exactly the one that can, to a certain extent, fill this knowledge gap. By using a few notable and varied personalities (including the Emperor himself who got his own frustrations - who said the absolute authority can't be frustrated?) as examples, Huang detailed how these figures survive in this (nowadays would be called twisted) environment. And in the process, the readers will understand why they behaved in the unique ways they behaved. They have the same humanity as we do, but environment certainly affects how one behaves, not the least an environment with an absolute authority.

Fair to say Chinese society has progressed a huge lot since 1589. But the book certainly can give the readers some insights into contemporary Chinese and China. Highly-recommended.
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on April 22, 2014
Clean, clear and to the point, Ray Huang provides an extraordinary examination of one of those "turning point" or "watershed" years we tend to recognize only in hindsight. Chinese vocabulary and terms are kept to a minimum, press into service only when it supports the goals of the passage. Though the book is historic in nature, the author forces no judgements but allows the reader to develop their own conclusions about the nature of the events that took place. We could do a lot worse to have more of this sort of writing on what can be a very muddled and turbulent portion of the Human story.
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on December 15, 2011
I'm reminded of the last, magnificent quote of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude:"

[Aureliano] had already understood that he would never leave . . . races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

These are two very different works, but they share a sense of fatalism, an attention to marginalia (or to important things turning out to be nothing more than marginalia?), and perhaps the point of view of an outcast. There's nothing more powerful for drawing a reader into a work, since the reader, by definition, is an outside voyeur into the world of the book. Maybe neither Huang or Garcia-Marquez actually felt like an outcast, or that he was part of a culture and history condemned on the sidelines of the dominant narrative (which is, by and large, Western, and American), but it is inevitable for a historian to feel helpless against the history he or she is writing about. To be a historian and not have that feeling is like being a mapmaker who isn't in awe of the lines and colors she's applying, the splendid topography.

Huang's book is quite straightforward in its thrust. His apparent thesis is that the demise of the Ming dynasty was obvious even in the apparently unremarkable events of 1587, the Year of the Pig; and -- more importantly -- that these events are inseparable from the underlying Confucian culture of Ming, and, by proxy, of China and her three-thousand year history. What he's really answering is the question that has haunted China and perhaps haunts her still: what went wrong? Why didn't the Middle Kingdom, with all its prosperity and sheer size, its ingenuity and earnestly moral statesmen, do what Europe did? Why wasn't there an Industrial Revolution? What Huang demonstrates is that it's exactly these seeming strengths -- China's immensity, and a powerful moral order that emphasized humility, contemplation, and self-sacrifice -- that condemned China. Literally everything that was done or proposed in Ming-dynasty China was evaluated in terms of outdated Confucian precepts; any sort of inequality was a threat, and so individual brilliance and talent was punished -- unless it was bent towards the cause of civil administration, which was a quagmire of interpersonal relationships and inefficient bureaucracy. In other words, Ming was an ideological and socialist totalitarian government. In its contextualizing of everything in an ideological perspective and its emphasis on "equality," Ming is really only a step away from 1950s-1960s Communism, at least the form it took in China.

Huang makes the case that it was the ideological underpinning that doomed China, but it may very well be that social, economic, or even environmental causes were what caused Ming's demise. For example, it has been noted that the end of Ming coincides with the Little Ice Age, and that the reverse-flow of silver into Ming led to a currency crunch and hyperinflation. However, even if these other factors were the direct causes, Huang would argue, I think, that the Confucian ideology dictating Ming society made it impossible for the empire to address that problems; Ming was designed for stability within very delicate boundary conditions, in a state, more or less, of solitude.

There's little, or perhaps deceptively little, novelistic construction in Huang's book, but the little that is is powerful. The book is divided into chapters, each chapter detailing the life of a historical figure. These people, all men, are noteworthy enough to have had their names passed down through history, but they are barely historical; it can be argued that none of them achieved anything or changed the course of history, that each was a failure, a comedy of futile good intentions. Indeed, there's an element of farce in the few pages with which Huang opens the book -- officials rushing on a false rumor to the Forbidden Palace to hold court for the Emperor. It is impossible, in hindsight, not to thread this sense of farce through all these life stories -- the absurd rituals Grand-Secretary Shen Shih-Hsing needs to do in order to accomplish next to nothing, the provincial military "innovations" of Ch'i Chi-Kuang, and the philosophies of Li Chih and other Confucians who were trying desperately to justify a philosophy that was becoming rapidly outdated. The farcical element lingers until the end, for which Huang provides the sort of awful, visceral, tragic scream of an anecdote that is as much an emotional expression as an historian can allow himself.
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on March 25, 2012
I have long been a student of Chinese history. When I first read this book many years ago, I was stunned and dazzled by its subtle and lasting impact on me. The author has achieved something remarkable here. Using matter-of-fact language in the most unassuming manner, he slowly reveals, like a great detective story, the hidden and deadly tectonic shifts undermining the Ming Dynasty in the late 16th century at the hands of the self-serving imperial bureacracy. So skillfully does the author perform this magic with his hypnotic technique that the ironic title, '1587, A Year Of No Significance', hides the great surprise that 1587 was in reality a year of shattering significance. But that could only have been perceived at the time by a Nostradamus. Previous reviewers have written how this book remains relevant today. They could not be more right. I have read many history books in my time and this is one of those I would take to a desert island with me.
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on June 10, 2010
I had to read a number of works on late imperial China for a project, and this was by far the most enjoyable, and one of the most illuminating. A group portrait of life in the court of the Wanli emperor, it provides an indelible image of reformers struggling, always in vain, against a tottering, corrupt political bureaucracy that thwarted them at every turn. Huang made me feel like I was peering over the courtiers' shoulders as the imperial system, which had lasted for so many centuries, finally collapsed.

The only reason not to give it five stars is that, in organizing each chapter around a single person, Huang necessarily crossed the same ground a number of times, which made the book seem, here and there, a bit repetitious. But this is a fine piece of work, always interesting and often enthralling. I've never read another book like it.
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on September 15, 2008
1581 was a book used in the political science Class of Carleton University in Ottawa. It just happened that I was mentoring one of their ex-alumni when I stumbled on this book and I could not let it go- I had to have my own copy. Why ? This is a book who looks in toto/whole picture on the state of the Chinese Emprire in 1581 very few decades before its conquest by the Mandchous. The role of the Secretariats, how much were paid civil servants, how the army worked how they managed to repulse the Japanese pirates and so on so forth did I mention that we dab also in the literature and philosophy of the age ? Wonderful historical characters, civil servants, generals, philosophers, poets, are leading us throught each of theses universes -the political, the army the cultural world. It is a wonderful book, and it shows how China has changed a bit and not so much. Just remembering the winderful Olympic games inauguration and you understand that discipline and communauty of goals have made that country great. 1581 just confirmed my intuitions you cannot understand China if you do not take into account its past.
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