Ming Dynasty
Responding to the World Outside
 
 
The Commercial Revolution
During the second commercial revolution of the Ming period, the market economy became more extensive. ... A growing economy, expanding market networks, freely flowing money, a large merchant class — all these factors point to a prosperous economy with a larger commercial, nonagricultural sector than had existed in earlier periods. ... Changes in population provide a final, imperfect indicator of steady growth in Ming China. ... The most frequently cited view accepts the official 1393 census of 60 million and proposes 150 million for the dynasty’s close, while a more persuasive calculation revises the census of 1393 upward to 85 million and proposes 350 million for 1650. ... Both estimates point to steady unprecedented growth during the dynasty — convincing evidence that the effects of China’s second commercial revolution were widespread and long lasting. [The Open Empire, 378-9]
 
 
 
Domestic & Global Trade
Old China Hand details the travels of a group of Koreans who go to Beijing to sell horses. Written sometime after 1400 as a language textbook for non-Chinese, it survives today in a bilingual Korean-Chinese edition. ... The Koreans’ response to China … seems uncannily modern. At every inn, at every meal, they constantly ask if they are being charged the “actual price,” because clearly they do not think they are. ... When selling fifteen horses, one Korean then makes this request: “There is just one thing. Don’t give me silver that is low in purity. Give me some good silver.” The buyer offers to let him have a look at the silver, but the Korean admits he cannot distinguish pure from impure silver. Silver has replaced the paper money of the Yuan and early Ming. Paper money varied in value depending on the year of issue. The use of specie eliminated that problem. Silver was not made into coins by the government but instead circulated in large pieces, such as ingots, or in small slivers. Consumers collected the slivers, putting them in a wax ball and melting them down when they reached sufficient quantity to make an ingot. ... Old China Hand leaves the impression of a smoothly functioning money economy, even in the absence of paper money. The Koreans work on a cash-and-carry basis, with all their transactions in silver. Even though they are carrying trade goods, no one ever suggests exchanging them for services. [The Open Empire, 372-3]

The collapse of paper money at the beginning of the Ming had forced the Chinese to return to a metal currency. With copper reserves sparse, the government came to depend on unminted silver as the main medium of exchange. Because gold was thought of as an inferior metal to silver, the Chinese price for silver was almost always higher than the world price and that for gold almost always lower. Accordingly, silver tended to flow into China while gold flowed out. [The Open Empire, 375]
 
The world’s largest economy at the time desperately needed silver so it could expand. By the 1530s, the situation had become so severe and the potential profits from the silver trade so great that merchants dared to ignore the government’s ban on trade with foreign nations. ...
 
The amount of silver flowing into China reached new heights after the first silver from the New World reached Asia. The Spanish discovered huge reserves of silver in Peru in the 1540s, but only thirty years later did they perfect the use of mercury to refine it. Spanish galleons carried the silver from the New World to Spain’s colony in the Philippines, at Manila, where Chinese merchants from Fujian and Guangdong traded Chinese goods, most often tea, porcelain, and high-quality silks. ... One scholar estimates that between 1570 and 1600, 7.5 percent of the total output of silver from Peruvian mines ended up in China, where it constituted an infusion equal to eight times China’s own silver stocks. The size of the Chinese community in Manila provides an indirect measure of the growth in trade between Spain and China. In 1570, forty Chinese lived in Manila. By 160, the Chinese community had exploded to fifteen thousand people. [The Open Empire, 377]
New World silver transformed the Chinese economy down to its roots, although the central government never formally acknowledged it. The tax system established by the Ming founder presumed a barter economy in which individual cultivators paid their taxes in grain and labor once every ten years. As the sixteenth century progressed, though, and as more New World silver entered the economy, certain areas began to pay their taxes with money. The first stage toward commutation was to use cloth; as the century progressed, this changed to silver. ... Most taxpayers ended up paying taxes every year. Their tax was assessed partially on the basis of how many able-bodied men were in the household and partially on the basis of landholdings. With the exception of households that performed certain labor services, such as delivering grain, most households paid a tax in silver in place of their original labor assignment. [The Open Empire, 377-8]
.
The Arrival of the West
China enjoyed prosperity and growth during the Ming dynasty. In comparison to earlier periods, the empire’s economic expansion was unprecedented. But by 1600, China was no longer the world’s leader; Europe, so long in China’s shadow, had begun to outpace her. [The Open Empire, First Edition, 407]
 
 
Matteo Ricci
& the Christian Missionaries

[Matteo Ricci (1552-1610)] commanded unusual talents. He had devoted long years to learning to speak and write Chinese. His Chinese was sufficient to debate with Chinese scholars, an accomplishment all the more impressive in an age before dictionaries and refined teaching methods. ... Ricci had developed his own system of memorizing large quantities of material, in which he imagined a house with different rooms all containing packets of information. He used this system to memorize The Four Books, an accomplishment few Chinese could match. With the help of Chinese friends, he was even able to write philosophical treatises. [The Open Empire, 368-9]
 
Obstacles to Conversion
The Jesuits’ problems began as soon as they started to translate the major concepts and doctrines of Catholicism. They faced the choice of using preexisting Chinese words, with all their non-Christian associations, or of creating new words. Early Buddhists responded to the same dilemma by adopting Daoist vocabulary to express their religious ideas. Only after several centuries, when the concepts of Buddhism had become more familiar, did later Buddhist translators use loanwords from Sanskrit, confident that their readers could understand them. At first the Jesuits tried the term Tianzhu (“lord of heaven”) for God, but Ricci realized that an unfamiliar term for the supreme Christian deity would confuse potential converts. He eventually opted for Shangdi (literally “sovereign on high”), a term that incorporated the name Di, a being who had appeared in the oracle bone texts dating to 1200 B.C.E. The term was not apt: the sovereign on high of ancient Chinese texts was one god among many, while the Jesuits’ god demanded recognition as the sole deity. [The Open Empire, 369-70]

Even the most basic of teachings, such as the Ten Commandments, proved difficult for the Chinese to accept because so many fundamentally alien assumptions underlay the Christian teachings. [The Open Empire, 370]
 
 
  • “You shall have no other gods before me”
  • “You shall not make for yourself a graven image”
  • “You shall not commit adultery”
 
 
玩古乃常。博之志大。尚象制名。礼乐所在。日无礼乐。人反塊(愧)然。作之正之。
吾有待焉。柽居杜堇。柬冕徵玩古图并题。予则似求形外。意托言表。观者鉴之。
 
Enjoying antiquities was common before, being studied for their high aspiration. By esteeming shapes and providing names, ritual and music are to be found within them. A day without ritual and music, and humanity would fall from grace. To perform and uphold them, this is what I have endeavored. [Signed] Chengju, Du Jin.Inscribed together with “Painting of Enjoying Antiquities” requested by Jian Mian, I have here sought resemblance beyond form. Giving voice to my intention, may the viewer examine this. [Cultural China: Arts]
 

The Scholars or The Unofficial History of the Grove of Literati (Ju-lin wai-shi [Rulin waishi]) was completed around 1750 and first published two or three decades later. ... [It] is the first long fictional work in Chinese literature that borrows no characters from history or legend. Hence it is one of the most creative and immaginative works of Chinese fiction. In a sophisticated narrative dripping with bitter satire, the author is merciless in his denunciation of the hypocritical and corrupt scholarly class. ... The chapter selected here is a good example of the loosely structured narrative of The Grove of Literati. ... Chou Chin is a humble village schoolmaster who has lost his job for failure to curry favor with the local elite. On the verge of starvation, he is fortunate enough to be hired as an accountant by a group of merchants who are on their way to the provincial capital to buy some goods. While in the capital, Chou is permitted to take a look at one of the cells of the examination hall and is overcome by the sight of the hallowed desk inside. The third chapter of the novel begins with his friends trying to revive him. [Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, 1007-8]
 
“I don’t think you realize, gentlement,” said Chin, “that my brother-in-law is not really a merchant. He has studied hard for scores of years, but never even passed the prefectural examination. That’s why the sight of the provincial examination school today upset him.” ... “We’re all friends here. Let’s raise some money among us and lend it to Mr. Chou, so that he can go in for the examination. If he passes and becomes an official, a few taels of silver will mean nothing to him — he can easily repay us. Even if he doesn’t pay us back, we merchants always fritter away a few taels one way or another, and this is an a good cause. ... The next day, sure enough, the four merchants raised two hundred taels of silver [approximately $20,000*] among them. This they gave to Chin, who promised to be responsible for any expenses over and above the sum. ... As luck would have it, it was just the time for the preliminary test for the provincial examination. Chou Chin took the test and came first of all the candidates from the Imperial College. ... Soon it was time to go to the examination in the capital. Chou Chin’s traveling expenses and clothes were provided by Chin. He passed the metropolital examination too; and after the palace examination he was given an official post. In three years he rose to the rank of censor and was appointed commissioner of education for Kwangtung [Canton] province. [CATCL, 1009-10]

Commissioner Chou sat in the hall and watched the candidates crowding in. There were young and old, handsome and homely, smart and shabby men among them. The last candidate to enter was thin and sallow, had a grizzled beard, and was wearing an old felt hat. Kwangtung has a warm climate; still, this was the twelfth month, and yet this candidate had on a linen gown only, so he was shivering with cold as he took his paper and went to his cell. Chou Chin made a mental note of this before sealing up their doors. ... “You are Fan Chin, aren’t you?” Kneeling, Fan Chin answered, “Yes, Your Excellency.” “How old are you this year?” “I gave my age as thirty. Actually I am fifty-four.” “How many times have you taken the examination?” “I first went for it when I was twenty, and I have taken it over twenty times since then.” “How is it you have never passed!” “My essays are too poor,” replied Fan Chin, “so none of the honorable examiners will pass me.” “That may not be the only reason,” said Commissioner Chou. “Leave your paper here, and I will read it through carefully.” ... Commissioner Chou picked up Fan Chin’s essay and read it through. But he was disappointed. ... Then he read Fan Chin’s paper again. This time he gave a gasp of amazement. “Even I failed to understand this paper the first two times I read it!” he exclaimed. “But, after reading it for the third time, I realize it is the most wonderful essay in the world — every word a pearl. This shows how often bad examiners must have suppressed real genius.” Hastily taking up his brush, he carefully drew three circles on Fan Chin’s paper, marking it as first. ... When [Fan Chin] got home again, he thought to himself, “Commissioner Chou said that I showed maturity. And, from ancient times till now, who ever passed the first examination without going in for the second? I shan’t rest easy till I’ve taken it.” So he asked his fellow candidates to help him, and went to the city, without telling his father-in-law, to take the examination. ... The day the results came out there was nothing to eat in the house, and Fan Chin’s mother told him, “Take that hen of mine to the market and sell it; then buy a few measures of rice to make gruel. I’m faint with hunger.” ... He had only been gone an hour or so, when gongs sounded and three horsemen galloped up. They alighted, tethered their horses to the shed, and called out, “Where is the honorable Mr. Fan? We have come to congratulate him on passing the provincial examination.” [CATCL, 1010-4]

By this time the sedan-chair was already at the door. Butcher Hu dived into his daughter’s room and dared not come out, while the neighbors scattered in all directions. Fan Chin went out to welcome the visitor, who was one of the local gentry, and Mr. Chang alighted from the chair and came in. He was wearing an official’s gauze cap, sunflower-colored gown, gilt belt, and black shoes. He was a provincial graduate and had served as a magistrate in his time. ... After a glance round the room, Mr. Chang remarked, “Sir, you are certainly frugal.” He took from his servant a packet of silver, and stated, “I have brought nothing to show my respect except these fifty taels of silver [approximately $5,000*], which I beg you to accept. Your honorable home is not good enough for you, and it will not be very convenient when you have many callers. I have an empty house on the main street by the east gate, which has three courtyards with three rooms in each. Although it is not big, it is quite clean. Allow me to present it to you. When you move there, I can profit by your instruction more easily.” Fan Chin declined many times, but Mr. Chang pressed him. ... Then Fan Chin accepted the silver and expressed his thanks. [CATCL, 1018]
 
 
.
The Fall of the Ming
Zheng Chenggong
(1624-1662)

By the 1620s the corruptions and distortions of the Ming tax system were such that many wealthy landowners were escaping taxation entirely, while tax burdens on their less powerful neighbors grew steadily heavier. In the midst of overheated private prosperity, the government faced huge arrears in tax collections and an empty treasury. It tried to economize by dismissing employees of the extensive government postal-relay system in the northwest, and some of the dismissed employees became leaders of forces of mounted rebels that swept back and forth across north China for years at a time. On the northeast frontier, the Manchu people, descendants of the Jurchen who had ruled north China as the Jin dynasty from 1125 to 1234, proclaimed an independent empire and began to take and hold Chinese border towns. In Beijing, dedicated officials were being dismissed or beaten to death for their opposition to the all-powerful eunuch Wei Zhongxian. ...
 
In 1642 the rebels began to take and hold whole provinces, and on April 27, 1644, Beijing fell to them; the last Ming emperor hanged himself on Prospect Hill north of the palaces. But the Manchus had added Chinese generals, troops, and cannon to their own forces, and had advanced all the way to the Great Wall.
 
 
They were ready when a Ming general sought their assistance against the rebels, and on June 5, just six weeks after the rebel entry, a large force of Manchus entered the capital, proclaiming that their Qing dynasty had received the Mandate of Heaven and that they had come to chastise the rebels who had caused the death of the Ming emperor and given Beijing six weeks of nightmarish misrule. [Mountain Of Fame, 219-20]
 
Lord of the Dynastic Surname
Perhaps it was out of these terrible disillusionments, where the options seemed to be incompetence, craven surrender, or noble failure, that young Zheng began to think of trying to embody another option, of effective resistance, of noble success. When he was presented to the new loyalist emperor supported by his relatives in Fuzhou, the emperor bestowed on him the imperial surname Zhu and a new personal name, Chenggong. ... The young man in turn now was bound to his emperor not only by loyalty but also by filial piety. His prince also was his adoptive father. ... [H]e now was the Lord of the Dynastic Surname, “Guoxingye,” and his very name proclaimed that he would never settle for noble failure. [Mountain Of Fame, 223]
 
 
Zheng defeated a big Qing attack on Xiamen in the summer of 1660, but the Qing efforts to cut off coastal trade were becoming very effective, and he now had to turn to the other solution that had been there all along: Taiwan. In the spring of 1661 he led a fleet of hundreds of ships and an army of over twenty thousand across the Straits and besieged the Dutch castle. It finally surrendered at the end of January 1662. Zheng already was moving energetically to take control of his rich new territory and to get his soldiers settled farming on its fertile plains. But his effectiveness as an organizer was offset by more and more sever mental stresses. His discipline, always harsh, had become insane. ... Howling that he could not face his prince-father, he clawed at his face and died in June 1662. [Mountain Of Fame, 228-9]
 
Zheng Chenggong’s descendants fought among themselves for the right to succeed to his power, many of the losers defected to the Qing, and the Zheng forces soon lost their last footholds on the mainland. But they ruled Taiwan and contributed greatly to its development until Shi Lang [one of Zheng’s former officers] conquered it for the Qing in 1683. [Mountain Of Fame, 229]