Book Review Project: Ray HUANG. 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
1587 seems only like an ordinary year for many. However, it is like a calm lake, all turbulent activities were happening under the seemingly calm surface. Through 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline, Ray Huang was holding an extremely sharp knife to cut through the surface and reveal the hidden problems and causes of the Ming Dynasty. He set aside the fog of history and thus came to a conclusion: in the 2,000 years since China replaced the legal system with morality, the ancient China reached its limit and climax in the Ming Dynasty.
The Ming government adopted a strict centralization system. Its policy objectives were not focused on advocating advanced economies. Instead, it protects the backward economy and maintains the security of the dynasty in a balanced manner. This situation is rare in world history. And its initiator is the emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. Throughout the history of China, the Ming Dynasty was a dynasty full of right and wrong. Nothing worthy of mentioning was made on the whole. On the contrary, the mediocre emperors, eunuchs with dictatorial powers, and the pervasive Dongchang were the most discussed. The book 1587 has two novelties. First, it was written in an entirely new way, extracting a special year, and then linking all the events in it. It uses individual persons and their biographical chapters to show a picture of history. Second, in the past, the emperor was always considered to be the most powerful figure who had control over things. In fact, once an organization is formed, it will form an organizational culture of its own, and this organizational culture has a large inertia, and individuals cannot resist it, even emperors.
Ray Huang uses a method of bibliographical research. He completed the study of the main characters in an organization, and this organization (the Ming Dynasty) was completely presented to readers. The history he described is not a history of magnanimity and tens of thousands of miles. It is a historical trend in which social development has been clearly understood for thousands of years. Because of this, the characters in his works are more representative than specific. In the conflict between human nature and the system, Ray Huang spent a lot of effort depicting Emperor Wanli, also mentioning the Emperor Zhengde. In the battle between the two emperors and the powerful civil service system, Zhengde showed a sturdy, rebellious personality. In order to pursue the imperial conscription, he even declared himself a general, because only by dividing himself into two so he could go out and win a battle. However, he was almost held responsible by the ministers. And Emperor Wanli, he was once a his smart, knowledgeable and ambitious young people, but was later disheartened. He chose to work in a passive manner and eventually took the empire to a much worse place.
From top to bottom, the ministers and the emperors are alike. Grand secretaries Zhang Juzheng and Shen Shixing, Hai Rui, a model official, Qi Jiguang, a general, and Li Zhi, a philosopher, suffered from the conflicts between ideal and reality. Each of them allocated in separated chapters. In the end, these people did not achieve their merits, and even lost their reputations. For example, Zhang Juzheng worked hard to improve the government's organization, improve administrative efficiency, and prevent local taxation from corruption. However, he did not realize the limitedness of his era. In the case of extremely backward traffic and communication and administrative means, in order to maintain political stability in a vast territory, rulers can only suppress the advanced economy, protect the backward economy, and maintain the stability and security of society and the country in a balanced manner. While Zhang Juzheng was innovating for ten years, suffered grievances, and eventually died, the proposed policy failed to be inherited. This is the biggest failure of Ming politicians. The course of history is sometimes so sad, so helpless. The Empire did not have the ability to allow comprehensive reforms. Instead, the best they could to was repairs and formalism.
Ray Huang understands that to study Chinese historiography, one should open its doors to the world and have a global view of history. Through macroscopic vision and high generalization, historians can reach a convincing conclusion. Although 1587 is a history of the Ming Dynasty, it covers a wide range of areas and is compatible with Chinese and Western cultures, such as the Dutch, British, capitalism, Western democracy and freedom during the colonial period. The translations and references of a large number of English works in the 1587 bibliography, preface and postscript. At the same time, the research method of 1587 was deeply influenced by the Annales approach. Braudel advocated to analyze history with long span, middle span and short span approaches, and to study history from the perspective of long-term breadth and depth. 1587 has initially adopted this method, so the narrative is detailed, but the conclusions are definition oriented at the macro level in both time and space.
In 1587, there are comparisons of Chinese and overseas history, which is different from traditional historiography. The author takes one year as the entry point, and selects Venice, Britain, the United States, and Japan as typical examples and compares them with China at the time, which leads to the general view of history. By comparison, Ray Huang concluded that the main reason behind China's lagging behind the West in the Ming and Qing dynasties was its unwillingness to develop finance and commerce, and that it was impossible to form effective management. Huang takes the usual year of 1587 Ming dynasty history as a breakthrough point. There was no major event on the surface of 1587 this year, but the readers are able to follow the idea of writing and find a series of related issues. These seemingly unrelated events all took place in 1587, before and after. And again, the network formed is huge. Although these are not great events, they are structured, compared, and analyzed by the author, revealing the decline of the late Ming Empire.
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