The Ming Restoration

The Ming founder designed a fiscal system for a frozen, unchanging agrarian economy — an economy far different from the commercialized market system existing at the time. Each man was to register his occupation with the authorities, who fully expected his descendants to perform the identical task in perpetuity. ... The dependence of the Ming on agrarian revenue marked an important reversal. Since the years after 755, inadequate land revenue had forced the central government to develop commercial taxes and monopolies. The success of the Ming in registering people and land allowed them to ignore all nonagrarian sources of revenue. Paper money, which the Chinese had been the first in the world to invent, and which the Mongols had printed in such large quantities that it lost its value, completely fell from use by 1450, leaving copper coins the main medium of exchange for small transactions and hunks of silver for large ones. (OE, 347)
The Ming founder planned to update the Yellow and the fish-scale registers [i.e. the land registers that were used for taxation], but as in the case of the equal-field registers, the government lacked the manpower to do so. Like the provincial quotas set in the years after the An Lushan rebellion, the amounts that individual districts paid in the 1390s became the basis of all subsequent exactions, regardless of changes in land ownership or productivity. The Ming succeeded in collecting twice what the Mongols had in land tax, which proved to be more than enough for the needs of the central government in the 1380s and 1390s. Yet, once inflation began, as it did in the fifteenth century, these land-tax revenues no longer sufficed. (OE, 350)

A Bipolar Emperor?
Famous for his erratic treatment of officials, the Ming emperor oscillated between periods of relative lenience and excessive violence. ... After he had launched a massive purge of the bureaucracy, dismissing some ten thousand officials, he solicited criticism. When one official dared to explain that … many innocent officials had been unfairly dismissed, the emperor sentenced him to forced labor. ... In 1380, when the emperor fired his chancellor and dismantled the Grand Secretariat, thirty thousand people disappeared. In 1385, some ten thousand were sentenced to death in another corruption scandal over grain, and in 1393, fifteen thousand died when the emperor suppressed a challenge to his authority. (OE, 352)
[T]he Ming founder had named a grandson to succeed him, but when the founder died in 1398, civil war broke out. The new emperor’s uncles did not accept his claim to rule, and in 1402, his senior uncle led an army who stormed the capital at Nanjing. The troops set the palace on fire, and the unfortunate grandson, then only twenty-one, probably burned to death. Rumors of his survival circulated in the years after his uncle succeeded to the throne, and the new emperor ordered periodic searches for his missing nephew. The new emperor chose Yongle as his reign title, meaning “Eternal Happiness.” (OE, 352)
Under the leadership of a Muslim eunuch named Zheng He (1371-1433), an imperial fleet of over three hundred ships traveled to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa one hundred years before Columbus’s and da Gama’s more famous voyages. Some of these treasure ships were 60 meters (200 feet) long, making them the largest wooden boats in the world. The full fleet carried over twenty-eight thousand men, who traveled in relative luxury, dining on fresh fish kept in separate compartments filled with water. Dwarfing those of the European explorers in size, these Chinese ships made a statement to the world about the power of the Ming dynasty. But it was a temporary, even vainglorious, statement, for the Chinese conquered no territory and retained no seaports. The voyages ended as quickly as they had begun, canceled on grounds of unnecessary expense soon after the death of the eunuch admiral in 1433. (OE, 354)

Comparisons with Columbus
Whereas Columbus’s crew eked out the days on their diet of hardtack supplemented by bread baked with ocean water, Zheng He’s men traveled in style. Columbus traveled with 4 boats, Zheng He with 317. The Santa Maria was 24 meters (80 feet) long, with a capacity of 250 metric tons (280 English tons). The treasure ships were at least 60 meters (200 feet) long and carried 2,200 metric tons (2,500 English tons). ... All comparisons between the Chinese and the European ships make the same point: the Chinese ships exceeded the European ships, often by a factor of ten or more, in size, staff, and equipment. (OE, 357-9)
The Ming fleet engaged in tribute trade, following the traditional pattern of giving gifts to foreign rulers and receiving gifts in return. The Chinese gave items of great prestige value, like suits of clothing, umbrellas, calendars, and books, but with little intrinsic value. They also gave out grants of paper money and copper coins to local peoples, who tended to buy back Chinese goods with the money and to trade valuable horses, copper, wood, animal hides, gold, and silver. Ming accounting practices make it impossible to estimate the balance of trade the Chinese had with these outlying peoples — or even the cost of the expeditions — but the terms seem to have favored the Chinese. (OE, 355)

The Chinese ships had every advantage over the Europeans but one: the Chinese lacked continuing government support. After the death of the Yongle emperor in 1424, the voyages were suspended, with the central government reluctantly allowing a seventh, and final, voyage in 1433. Zheng He died in the same year. The ostensible reason for the suspension was the excessive cost of the voyages, yet clearly civil officials seized this pretext to rein in the eunuchs who controlled the navy. (OE, 359)
  • Why were the “Confucian” officials so deeply opposed to these voyages?
  • What were the long term consequences of ending these voyages?
Those Pesky Mongols...
In their continuing battles with the Mongols, the Chinese had the great disadvantage of trying to defend a border over a thousand miles long, while the Mongols enjoyed the tactical advantage of mobility. Their cavalry could strike the border at any point. Lacking the funds to send further expeditions into Mongol territory, Chinese officials opted to build individual sections of wall, starting in the far west of China and moving east. These walls constitute today’s Great Wall, but no one in the Ming conceived of them as a single entity. As long and formidable as these walls were, they did not achieve their purpose of protecting the Chinese. In 1550 the Mongols, under the leadership of the Altan Khan, simply went around a wall, and seven hundred of his men reached a gate in the Beijing city walls. Luckily for the Chinese, they turned around once they had presented their demands for access to Chinese markets.
The Mongol attacks prompted the court to take the most conservative of approaches to foreign powers. It regularly passed decrees banning contact and trade with overseas nations while officials bemoaned the depredations of pirates, whom they incorrectly assumed were Japanese, on the southern coast. Most of these pirates were Chinese who dared to violate the court’s ban on foreign trade. (OE, 362)
Cheng [Yi]’s name usually is linked with that of the Southern Song master Zhu Xi, who brought Neo-Confucian thought to a new pitch of moral intensity and clarity of focus; Zhu’s ideas were not widely accepted in his own time, but became recognized as the orthodox interpretation of the Confucian Way, mandatory for examination essays, under the Yuan and remained so until the abolition of the examination system in 1905. The Cheng-Zhu synthesis laid great stress on the “Four Books”: the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, and two works claiming to present parts of the teachings of Confucius, the Doctrine of the Mean and the Great Learning. One passage in the Great Learning was especially important, providing a set of problems and even a vocabulary fundamental to an understanding of Neo-Confucianism in general and Wang Yangming in particular. The ancients, it says, wishing to establish peace and virtuous government throughout the world, had to begin with the investigation of things (ge wu). Only on that foundation could knowledge be extended (zhi); only on that foundation could thoughts be made sincere, then in sequence minds rectified, persons cultivated, families regulated, states well governed, and the entire world brought to peace. (MOF, 202)

Confucius had taught that the gentleman is not a tool or ceremonial vessel but an independent moral agent and bearer of a great moral traditions. Ming history, however, shows a more complex and ambiguous relation between the Confucian heritage and despotism than that principle would suggest. ... The protesting minister stood before his all-powerful ruler and the ruler’s ruthless agents knowing that his only hope of accomplishing anything was for his selfless, principled protest to arouse many similar protests by other scholars and officials. That could and did happen. It might be more likely to happen if he became a martyr, beaten bloody in public in the palace courtyards, tortured by the eunuch secret police, assassinated on his way to exile at a frontier post. ... Given all this, it is scarcely surprising that the intellectual life of the first century and a half of the Ming was dominated by a cautious and studious adherence to Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism, that discussion of matters of practical statecraft was conspicuous by its absence, and that some of the greatest teachers of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation never went near an examination hall and had no desire to become officials. (MOF, 204-5)

[Wang’s] teaching on knowledge and action ... contributed to a turning of many intellectuals away from reclusive self-cultivation in the following generations. To Confucius, human life was radically incomplete without social and political involvement and action. But the gentleman found his moral standards within himself and in the study of a Literary Heritage, and did not change them simply because he was unable to make practical use of them in his own times. Thus a teaching that laid greater emphasis on study and self-cultivation than on effective action was a plausible, if incomplete, development of the Master’s principles. Zhu Xi’s conception of the investigation of things was such a teaching, laying out detailed prescriptions for disciplining the mind through study, meditation,and ceremonial practice. Wang’s objection was that it was very easy to drift from Zhu’s undoubted seriousness into going through the motions of ceremonies, memorizing the texts of the classics, without their having any moral effect. It was especially easy in a social and political order that dictated study first and action later for the ambitious young man, that rewarded cleverness with literary forms and proficiency in memorization. Symptoms of the resulting nonseriousness included the hypocrisy and self-congratulation of the high official class in which Wang had grown up, and a tendency to explain moral lapses by saying “I know what’s right; it’s doing it that’s hard.” Wang rejected all such excuses, insisting that fundamentally people respond to good and evil as readily as they respond to a bad smell; they don’t stop and say “Oh, a bad smell!” and then think about getting away from it; they move immediately to escape it. (MOF, 208-9)

Wang Yangming in Practice
The Village Compact
Wang grew bored with his routine positions and requested permission to retire, but his requests were turned down, and in 1516 he was plunged into new spheres of action and danger where his straightforward and optimistic moralism offered only limited guidance. He was made governor of a large area centered in southern Jiangxi that had been dominated by bandits and rebels for several decades. ... As areas were cleared of rebels and brought back under government control, Wang instituted his civilian control measures, established two new subprefectures, set up local schools, and elaborated his previous experiments in moral instruction by local elders into his famous “village compact” (xiangyue) system. This was an effort systematically to extend the Confucian culture of ceremoniousness and moral admonition to the common people, and at the same time to give a more Confucian twist to the “Legalist” practice of forming mutual responsibility groups. In every village the local people were to elect a whole group of compact officers, from a chief and two assistants to clerks and masters of ceremonies. On the fifteenth of every month, all the people assembled at the special hall built for the purpose, burned incense, and recited, “From now on, all of us compact members will reverently obey warnings and instructions. We will unite as one mind and join together in virtue, and will arrive at goodness together. If anyone should have any double-mindedness, outwardly doing good but secretly doing evil, let the gods and spirits destroy him.” A special ceremony followed to honor those who had done good deeds in the previous month and to record them formally in the compact’s book of good deeds. Then there was a similar ceremony recording bad deeds and admonishing those who had done them. The evil-doers replied, “How dare I not reform quickly but instead cause my elders to worry for me again?” The compact chiefs then said, “We have not been able to advise and instruct you in time so that you have fallen into this trouble. How can we be free from guilt?” The ceremonies concluded with a banquet. (MOF, 211-2)
The central new concept of Wang Yangming’s later teachings can be literally translated Good Knowledge (liang zhi). It was developed to explain the nature of the knowledge of morality that always is present within us and is the knowledge that is “extended” in our moral action as outlined in the Great Learning sequence. ... [Good Knowledge] could be sensed as part of the unity of the cosmos; “at bottom Heaven, Earth, the Ten Thousand Things, and Humanity all form one body. The point at which this unity is manifested in its most refined and excellent form is the clear intelligence of the human mind ...” Extending Good Knowledge was a matter of not seeking certain results or effects of our actions but of unremitting moral effort, alive and alert, and at the same time cautious, even fearful of any beginnings of selfish or improper thoughts. ... This teaching appealed strongly to scholars who were committed both to serious and principled involvement in politics, community life, and family affairs and to a quest for a vision of and unity with the deepest cosmic and spiritual realities. The two were entirely compatible, even inseparable; the essence of moral action was effort, not results, and that effort was the most direct revelation of the basic structure of the human mind and thus of the unity of all things.
       There was one final step in the development of Wang’s late thought that carried him to the outer bounds of, and some of his disciples beyond, the basic moralism of the Confucian tradition. It was summarized in his famous Four Sentences:
In the basic structure of the mind
there is neither good nor evil.

When there is movement of the will,
then there is good and evil.

Knowing good and knowing evil
is the Good Knowledge.

Doing good and destroying evil
is the Investigation of Things.

(MOF, 213-4)