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.