MING MAT­TERS

On the 650th year of this fa­mous dy­nasty’s found­ing, a lead­ing his­to­rian ex­am­ines why its legacy en­dures明王朝建立于650年前,听哈佛大学历史学家宋怡鸣教授讲述:为何明朝对中国历史至关重要

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY JEREMIAH JENNE

为什么我们这么喜欢谈论明朝? Founded 650 years ago this year, the Ming was the era of Zheng He's voy­ages, the For­bid­den City, and those well-known vases. Michael Szonyi, au­thor of Theart of be­ing Gov­erned: ev­ery­day pol­i­tics in late Im­pe­rial china, ex­plains why this dy­nasty still fas­ci­nates

This year marks the 650th an­niver­sary of the Ming dy­nasty (1368 – 1644), founded in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), a monk turned rebel gen­eral turned para­noid doom­f­reak tyrant, and the first com­moner in al­most 1,500 years to be crowned em­peror.

As the Hongwu Em­peror, the Ming pro­gen­i­tor's lead­er­ship style made Lord Volde­mort look like a mem­ber of the Hu­man Po­ten­tial Move­ment; but Zhu got the job done. His de­scen­dants, how­ever, were a de­cid­edly mixed lot. De­spite its un­even ros­ter of rulers, the Ming era saw con­sid­er­able achieve­ments in the arts, let­ters, and phi­los­o­phy. It was also a time of eco­nomic and com­mer­cial devel­op­ment which, in turn, cre­ated new chal­lenges be­tween the state and so­ci­ety.

Michael Szonyi is Pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese His­tory and Di­rec­tor of the Fair­bank Cen­ter for Chi­nese Stud­ies at Har­vard Univer­sity, and a so­cial his­to­rian of late im­pe­rial and mod­ern China. His most re­cent book, Theartof­be­ing Gov­erned: ev­ery­day pol­i­tics in Late im­pe­rial china, pub­lished last year by Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, looks at how or­di­nary peo­ple in­ter­acted with the state dur­ing the Ming era through the ways in which fam­i­lies ful­filled their obli­ga­tion to pro­vide sol­diers for the army. TWOC spoke to Dr. Szonyi about all mat­ters Ming, and what those in the mod­ern era can learn from this his­tory.

THE MING DY­NASTY IS 650 YEARS OLD THIS YEAR, BUT WHY SHOULD WE CARE? WHAT'S SO SPE­CIAL ABOUT THE ERA?

One rea­son the Ming mat­ters is that Chi­nese peo­ple think the Ming mat­ters. To­day, [they] con­tinue to con­sume [Ming] his­tory vo­ra­ciously—in books, movies, and TV se­ri­als. One of the best­selling works of his­tory in the last decade is a se­ries of sto­ries about the Ming, Those hap­pen­ing soft he Ming­dy­nasty《明朝那些事儿》( a book se­ries penned by Shi Yue), which spawned a host of im­i­ta­tors. I spec­u­late that one of the rea­sons the Ming is fas­ci­nat­ing to Chi­nese peo­ple to­day is that they per­ceive par­al­lels with their own time. The Ming also mat­ters to­day be­cause it is be­ing used to make claims about the present and fu­ture. One of the most cel­e­brated episodes in Ming his­tory was the Zheng He (郑和) voy­ages. Zheng He has taken on new sig­nif­i­cance in re­cent years in light of the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive. Chi­nese lead­ers cite Ad­mi­ral Zheng as ev­i­dence that Chi­nese ex­pan­sion­ism should not be seen as threat­en­ing. If they knew the real his­tory of the voy­ages, the lead­er­ship would not be talk­ing so much about him. Most schol­ars to­day see Zheng as com­man­der of a mas­sive mil­i­tary mis­sion, in­tended to awe other states into sub­mis­sion: He rou­tinely in­ter­fered in lo­cal do­mes­tic af­fairs, and con­ducted mil­i­tary ac­tion where it suited him—not re­ally the image you want peo­ple to think of when they con­sider a grow­ing Chi­nese pres­ence in their re­gion. Mov­ing from pop­u­lar his­tory and his­to­ri­og­ra­phy to his­tory it­self, I think the Ming is sig­nif­i­cant as hav­ing been one of the most powerful em­pires of the early mod­ern pe­riod, with the largest stand­ing army in the world (af­ter the col­lapse of the Mon­gols), and a highly so­phis­ti­cated po­lit­i­cal ap­pa­ra­tus that sought to reg­is­ter and mon­i­tor its en­tire pop­u­la­tion in ways that look very fa­mil­iar to us, but with­out the tech­no­log­i­cal tools that mod­ern states have at their dis­posal. In the 16th cen­tury, China was at the heart of the global econ­omy—it pro­duced the high-tech goods that peo­ple through­out Eura­sia wanted to have. At the time, China prob­a­bly ac­counted for about a third of global Gdp—just about the share that China should have later this cen­tury.

ONE REA­SON THE MING MAT­TERS IS THAT CHI­NESE PEO­PLE THINK THE MING MAT­TERS

UN­DER THE MING, CHINA PROB­A­BLY AC­COUNTED FOR ABOUT A THIRD OF GLOBAL GDP—JUST ABOUT THE SHARE THAT CHINA SHOULD HAVE LATER THIS CEN­TURY

IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, OVER­SEAS SCHOL­ARS HAVE GOT­TEN DRAGGED INTO A “TEM­PEST IN A QIANLONG-ERA TEACUP” WITH SOME MEM­BERS OF CHI­NESE ACADEMIA, PAR­TIC­U­LARLY OVER IS­SUES RE­LATED TO ETH­NIC­ITY, FRON­TIER STUD­IES, AND OTHER SUB­JECTS, ALL VERY LOOSELY COB­BLED UN­DER THE HEAD­ING OF “NEW QING STUD­IES.” WHAT'S THE RE­LA­TION­SHIP LIKE AMONG FOR­EIGN AND DO­MES­TIC MING SCHOL­ARS? My sense is none of the schol­ars in the New Qing school set out to be de­lib­er­ately provoca­tive. But their dis­cov­er­ies in the ar­chives, and us­ing Manchu sources, led them to con­clu­sions that turned out to un­der­mine con­ven­tional wis­dom and to have sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for con­tem­po­rary China. While I am some­times jeal­ous of the at­ten­tion th­ese schol­ars get in the pop­u­lar me­dia, I'm cer­tainly glad not to bear the brunt of scur­rilous at­tacks in the state me­dia. There are big de­bates in Ming his­tory, but they tend to be more aca­demic and less heated. For ex­am­ple, there was clearly a big eco­nomic down­turn in the 14th cen­tury in China. Was it caused by the dis­rup­tion of the Mon­gols and their Yuan dy­nasty, or by the au­tar­kic poli­cies of the early Ming? Chi­nese na­tion­al­ists would like it to be the for­mer, but there's a lot of ev­i­dence it was the lat­ter. Some schol­ars see in the pub­lic de­bates of the late Ming the emer­gence of a proto-civil so­ci­ety; their opponents think this is wish­ful think­ing. In a sense, this is a de­bate about whether the late Ming can be de­scribed as lib­eral. An­other big de­bate is about de­mog­ra­phy. We used to think that there was a pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion in the early-to-mid-qing, and this was a big fac­tor in the do­mes­tic tur­moil of the 19th cen­tury. Some de­mo­graphic his­to­ri­ans now be­lieve that late Ming pop­u­la­tion data was sys­tem­at­i­cally un­der­re­ported. This would sug­gest that the de­mo­graphic in­crease be­gan un­der the Ming and was there­fore much slower in com­ing. If you ac­cept this, then it calls into ques­tion the con­ven­tional wis­dom about Qing de­cline. ONE OF YOUR STU­DENTS COMES TO YOU AND SAYS: “I WANT TO BE A SCHOLAR OF THE MING ERA! POINT ME TO­WARD THE CUT­TING EDGE OF RE­SEARCH CUR­RENTLY BE­ING DONE IN MING STUD­IES.” WHAT WOULD YOU TELL THEM? Well, I hope it won't come across as im­mod­est, but the first thing to read would be my new book, The Art of be­ing gov­erned: ev­ery­day Pol­i­tics in late im­pe­rial china. What I am proud­est of in the book is that I am able to show how or­di­nary peo­ple in Ming times were able to de­vise amaz­ingly com­plex and so­phis­ti­cated strate­gies to deal with their obli­ga­tions to the Ming state. Two other won­der­ful his­to­ri­ans I rec­om­mend read­ing are Sarah Sch­neewind and David Robin­son. Both also have forth­com­ing books. Sarah's is a study of liv­ing shrines—shrines to wor­ship men who were still liv­ing. She uses this sub­ject to ex­plore the idea of po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion in Ming; sup­port­ing and wor­ship­ing at th­ese shrines, she ar­gues, was a way peo­ple could make their po­lit­i­cal views known. David sets the Ming in the larger Eurasian con­text, ex­plor­ing its re­la­tions with the Mon­gols, Korea, and other states. He shows how Ming for­eign pol­icy may have been largely iso­la­tion­ist, but this did not mean the Ming was iso­lated.

Pic­ture of mer­chant from the Ryukyu King­dom ar­riv­ing in Fuzhou har­bor in 1372

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