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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
19
1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline
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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
GOod
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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 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 August 20, 2005
then I decided I didn't want to go on any longer. Page after page about political shenanigans. That might have been okay, but the book doesn't even tell you much about what life in China was like at that time. The behavior of the government officials during that time at that place were pretty much like what goes on today in governments or any bureaucracy for that matter. If anything, the book shows that it's pretty much the same story no matter where or when. What a stifling position it was to be an emperor at that time - a life of obligatory ritual after ritual. At any rate, my main criticism is that I feel I learned precious little about China, much less the China of the Ming dynasty.
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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 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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