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1587 A Year of No Significance

1587 A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

Copyright Date: 1981
Published by: Yale University Press
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  • Book Info
    1587 A Year of No Significance
    Book Description:

    In 1587, the Year of the Pig, nothing very special happened in China. Yet in the seemingly unspectacular events of this ordinary year, Ray Huang finds exemplified the roots of China's perennial inability to adapt to change. With fascinating accounts of the lives of seven prominent officials, he fashions a remarkably vivid portrayal of the court and the ruling class of late imperial China. In revealing the subtle but inexorable forces that brought about the paralysis and final collapse of the Ming dynasty, Huang offers the reader perspective into the problems China has faced through the centuries.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16353-7
    Subjects: History, Political Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations (pp. viii-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. xi-xii)
    R. H.
  5. FOREWORD (pp. xiii-xiv)
    L. Carrington Goodrich

    Ray Huang’s concentration on a single year near the end of the Ming dynasty gives the reader a remarkable glimpse into the workings of the Chinese leadership of that time. But this account must not persuade us that the bitter sufferings of the Chinese people in general, both then and since, have all been a huge mistake–that from now on China must discard her entire past experience and imitate the West in whatever way possible to make up for lost time. This is not the author’s message. To indict China’s bureaucratic system is not to negate the whole range...

  6. 1 THE WAN-LI EMPEROR (pp. 1-41)

    Really, nothing of great significance happened in 1587, the Year of the Pig. China was not facing a foreign invasion, nor was the country engulfed in a civil war. Even though the capital district did not have sufficient rain during the summer and epidemics broke out in those months, and though drought was reported in Shantung, and flood in South Chihli, and earthquakes took place in Shansi in the autumn, none of these disasters occurred in alarming proportions. For an empire as immense as ours, such minor incidents and setbacks can only be expected. On the whole, the Year of...


    For Shen Shih-hsing the moral burden was heavy every time he drew close to the Literary Floral Hall, a yellow-tiled building on the eastern side of the palace compound where the emperor held his private and public study sessions. It was there that one day in 1574 he had watched the Wan-li emperor, then ten years old, execute a sheet of calligraphy,Present Me to Goodness and Purify Me.¹. The scroll was a message for Shen. He had been touched to receive a unique personal gift from the throne so precociously and appropriately composed. Thirteen years later, Tutor Shen still...

  8. [Illustrations] (pp. None)

    In a world without Chang Chü-cheng the empire began to slide slowly but irrevocably into an abyss. It eventually found itself in a constitutional deadlock the breaking of which was beyond any human powers. At first the crisis was not even recognized. But as months stretched into years and years into decades, each worsening turn of events marked a point of no return. As an emperor who actually carried on a strike against his own bureaucrats over a long period of time, Wan-li has come down in history without any close parallel. He was vengeful because his courtiers frustrated his...

  10. 4 THE LIVING ANCESTOR (pp. 104-129)

    In retirement former First Grand-Secretary Shen Shih-hsing lived several days beyond his seventy-ninth birthday. That birthday was a very special occasion; it marked his entrance into the eightieth year of life and was celebrated with due respect. The Wan-li emperor, whom Shen had not seen for twenty-three years, conveyed his greetings through a special envoy and sent his former tutor fifty ounces of silver, a crimson robe with a python embroidered on it, and four bolts of satin with imperial designs in assorted colors. Shen Shih-hsing had to struggle with the infirmity of age in order to kneel down facing...


    On November 13, 1587, the censor-in-chief at Nanking, Hai Jui, died in office.¹ His demise eliminated one of the most exceptional personalities of the era, but not his legend. The name Hai Jui had yet to be associated with more controversies for centuries to come.²

    Unlike most of his fellow bureaucrats, the late censor-in-chief did not accept the notion that government according to moral principle meant an ideal perfection conceived from above and the attempt to approximate it, insofar as was possible, on the part of the lower offices. Hai believed that laws should be enforced to the letter at...

  12. 6 CH’I CHI-KUANG, THE LONELY GENERAL (pp. 156-188)

    Ch’i Chi-kuang’s death on January 17,1588, also fell in the Year of the Pig, as by the lunar calendar it was the twentieth day of the twelfth month of the previous year. The event was not taken notice of by the court. If it was ever reported to the emperor, it was presumably by the Secret Police. The dispatch therefore never turned up in the palace archives.

    Three months before his death, Ch’i’s name was mentioned to the Wan-li emperor for the last time by an investigating censor who wanted the throne to consider the general’s reappointment. That suggestion cost...

  13. 7 LI CHIH, A DIVIDED CONSCIENCE (pp. 189-222)

    The historical classification of Li Chih as a “martyr” is at best dubious. When he cut his throat with a razor blade in prison in 1602 he left no perceivable course for his admirers to follow. However, despite repeated proscriptions by the court, Li’s writings were again and again reprinted. But nowhere in his copious publications is there any clear sense of release. The infectious elation typical of a person who has found a noble cause to die for is notably absent from both his essays and his private letters, even though he was not a man without courage.


  14. APPENDIX A: AUDIENCE ON FEBRUARY 5, 1590 (pp. 223-229)
  15. APPENDIX B: AUDIENCE ON AUGUST 25, 1590 (pp. 230-234)
  16. NOTES (pp. 235-260)
  17. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 261-266)
  18. INDEX (pp. 267-278)
  19. Back Matter (pp. 279-279)