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4.6 out of 5 stars
1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline
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on September 25, 2017
An okay book made better by an awesome college prof!! Delivered as promised.
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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 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 May 25, 2016
For History buffs only and especially for Chinese History buffs
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on April 18, 2015
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on February 1, 2014
I love this!! The price is appropriate and i have been using this for a while, it works very well!!
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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 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 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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