Zhou Confucianism? Ming Quality Control?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:26 pm

In an absolutely fascinating article on the modern petition redress system1 focusing on attempts by regional officials to prevent petitions from reaching a national office, the Financial Times sidebar, “Confucian Accountability” says

China’s petition system dates back to the Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago. It embodies a Confucian tradition that idealises an authoritarian yet benevolent ruler who puts the concerns of his subjects above the interests of corrupt officials.

There’s the obvious point, that the Zhou dynasty predates Confucianism by a half-millenium or more. Confucius never dealt with the issue of petitions2, nor can I recall any pre-Han thinker postulating such an active (and literate) role for commoners. All of them, though, put the welfare of the people and the state above that of individual (especially dishonest) officials. One of the principle concerns of the more institutionally-minded figures (Mozi, Xunzi, Hanfeizi) is how to pick honest officials, and root out (or work around) dishonest ones, but none of them argue for violating the chain of command, even in extraordinary circumstances. They want a monitoring system which works well in normal circumstances, not something which encourages disorder.

The sidebar continues

After the 1911 republican revolution, petitioning was abolished by the Nationalist government. The Communists reinstated it soon after their 1949 revolution.

Experts say petitioning remains basically unchanged from the system in place 500 years ago in the Ming dynasty, when the formal evaluation of government officials began to take into account the number of petitioners who travelled to the capital from their region.

Since the Nationalist government was a democratic/republican system, presumably petitioning wouldn’t be necessary. I’m a bit surprised that the article didn’t take a slightly more critical approach to the idea that petitioning was a normal process over the last sixty years and only recently has started to break down. I can’t imagine that petitioning for redress in the era of Mao or Deng wasn’t fraught with danger for the petitioner, from the problem of unauthorized travel to the assumption that Party officials are always in the right. The responses that the article describes — detention, harassment, false imprisonment under the guise of mental illness — are classic Communist party tools for handling dissension, used widely in the Soviet Union as well as in China.

The last point in the sidebar — the use of petitions as a metric of administrative quality — is central to the article: the extralegal attempts by local officials to suppress petitions and petitioners is rooted in systemic self-protection, the avoidance of the appearance of trouble. Modern transportation technology, as the article notes, makes travel easier for petitioners, and has contributed to the rise in numbers. But, of course, the nature of modern society is such that it is also much easier to identify, track, monitor petitioners now than it was even fifty years ago, much less five hundred. The problem of danson minpi (“honoring officials, despising the people” as the Japanese put it) was intense during the latter half of the 20th century in China: the scaling up of suppression efforts to match the scaling up of petitions is pretty much par for the course, but the information environment is very different now, and the question of government legitimacy more intense.

  1. via, where the discussion quickly veered into the surreal, with participants unsure whether China’s petition system made it a more responsive and fair political system than the republicanism of the US. []
  2. One of the many issues Confucius never dealt with. []


Ming Dynasty tax revolt

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:29 pm

Historians write a lot about taxes, in part because we are often interested in states and what they do, and taxes are something that states do a lot of. Taxation also generates a lot of sources, since before you can tax things you need to figure out where they are and who owns them. From the Domesday Book to various cadastral surveys states have tried to generate paper about their subjects, subjects have resisted, and historians have been interested in both the resistance and the paper.

In Nanjing in 1609 there were major tax protests, only in this case protesters were asking the government to impose a new tax.1 Not only did they want to be taxed, they were offering to compile the tax rolls for the state.

we volunteer to compile a book on the exact share for each household, rich or poor, in the year of 1608. Every pu (the neighborhood unit for the huojia system) will meet together to collect and compile this information into a list named Wucheng puce (the neighborhood almanac for the Nanjing Five Districts) and together we will send it to the government to be used as an official reference.

This makes a nice opening for an article, because it is pretty weird behavior. Not surprisingly the citizens of Nanjing wanted to be taxed for a good reason, namely that the new cash tax was to replace an old labor tax that they found more onerous and less flexible. Fei is interested in the case primarily because it shows a lot about public opinion in the Ming and how the state used and reacted to it.

I bring this up partly because it is an interesting article but mostly because issue 28.2 of Late Imperial China is now available to anyone with a web browser. So you should go read it and then subscribe.

  1. Fei, Siyen. ” We Must be Taxed: A Case of Populist Urban Fiscal Reform in Ming Nanjing, 1368–1644″
    Late Imperial ChinaVolume 28, Number 2, December 2007


Pigs Again: Li Shizhen’s Ming Dynasty Map

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:45 pm


After my posting last year of “Pigs. Shit, and Chinese History,” Sigrid Schmalzer was kind enough to share this map which she drew based on the works of the Ming dynasty scholar Li Shizhen (李時珍; 1518-1593) mostly widely known for his Bencao Gangmu (本草綱目).

It looks to me as if Li was as much concerned with how the meat would taste as with other qualities!


Smoking in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:41 pm

A good book answers your questions. A really good book answers questions you had not thought of yet. Apparently Tim Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat is a really good book, as it is already answering questions I did not know I had. Among the many topics Brook discusses (the book is about globalization in the 17th century) is the history of smoking. He points out that this was a new habit in China (and everywhere else) and he also talks about pipes. I had always known that Chinese pipes were rather long, both the tobacco pipes like this Baccyor thiswater

and the opium pipes like this


1 Brook explains that the reason for the long pipes is that smoking was considered a particularly yang thing, and you wanted to let the heat of the smoke cool (or de-yang) itself as much as possible. This is why smoking was not advised for women or old men, why women’s pipes were so much longer than men’s and, I presume, why cigarette smoking among women was considered so risque in the the 20th century.

  1. Note that when selling things on Ebay you can call them all opium pipes []


Ming Imperialism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:40 am

I just found something interesting about the early Ming. It appears from the Ming Shi-lu that the Ming founder at first just sent envoys to various tributary states to inform them of the founding of the new dynasty. Within the next couple of years, however, new envoys were sent out.

Envoys were sent to Annam, Korea and Champa to carry out sacrifices to the mountains and rivers of those countries. Previously, the Emperor had observed abstinence in various respects and had personally compiled the sacrificial text. On this day, the Emperor held an audience and provided the envoys with incense and silks. The incense was contained in gold boxes. The silks comprised one length of silk and two pennants of patterned fine silk. All were in the colours of the four directions (方色). The sacrificial tablets were personally signed by the Emperor with his Imperial name.

The Ming emperor was doing as much of the sacrifice as possible without leaving home, (with his envoys doing the rest) so that he was personally making the sacrifice and he was really the ruler in those places. I think this is new, and the impression I get is that the Ming were at least initially thinking about a much closer relationship with their tributary states, possibly under the influence of the Yuan example.

Have I been doing translations from the Ming Shi-lu in my spare time? No. Geoff Wade has been putting his translations of those parts of the Shi-lu dealing with Southeast Asia on-line. The search function works quite well and makes it a real research tool. It is a very cool resource, and much worth looking at.


Dragon mountain again

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:57 pm

A few days ago Jonathan and I were discussing Steven Owen’s review of Jonathan Spence’s new book. Jonathan was not that impressed with the review, as it did not give a clear idea what the book was. We were not sure if we were unhappy with the review or the book. Having now read the book I can definitively say yes.
One purpose of the review is to encourage people to buy the book, which I suppose it does just by existing. On the other hand, as Jonathan pointed out, the review does not really tell you what the book is about. Owen gives the impression that the bulk of the book is about Zhang’s life as a dramatist. Actually most of the book is about the period is about life before 1644 and the bulk of it is not about Zhang himself but his descriptions of his family. They were a colorful group of minor officials, literati and eccentrics, some of them staggeringly corrupt, none more so than his uncle Sanshu who served as a bagman for Zhou Yanru, possibly the most corrupt official of the Ming dynasty. They are an interesting family, and for anyone who is interested in the local elite of the Late Imperial period (and who isn’t) there is a lot of interesting stuff in here. The problem with the book (at least for me) is that it is not a scholarly book, which is to say Spence does not engage with the scholarly literature or demonstrate how Zhang and his family fit in with what “we”1 know about the Ming elite. Sometimes this is just annoying, as when he calls the Hanlin Academy the Confucian Study Academy. Often it is more frustrating when I know full well that he could shed light on something but does not. His discussion of Zhang’s travel writing owes something to Strassberg’s Inscribed Landscapes, which Spence cites, but he does not explain how his or Zhang’s ideas about travel are different than those discussed by Strassberg. After the fall of the Ming Zhang becomes something of a wandering hermit, which may seem odd to people who don’t know much about Chinese history, but fits in well with the many traditions of dissent and the end of a dynasty that Spence, Zhang Dai and Alan Baumler know about. How is Zhang related to these traditions? I don’t doubt that Spence could discuss this at great length, but not in this book. A reader might pick this book up and come to the conclusion that Zhang Dai was a picaresque oriental other who might just as well have lived in the Song dynasty, Byzantium or 18th century Edo. It is not really an academic book, Spence seems to be fine with that, and so am I . It was a good read, I learned a lot from it, and so would pretty much anyone.. There is more in heaven and earth than is in academic monographs, and Spence apparently thinks so as well, as he includes this little story

…. at the heart of the scholarly life itself there often lurked a real element of futility. Strangely, Zhang Dai followed up this particular theme most carefully with the example of his own grandfather, whom at many levels he had clearly loved and respected, even revered. Yet, despite all his brilliance, grandfather—according to Zhang Dai—spent his last years of life in pursuit of a truly impossible vision, the compilation of an immense dictionary that would marshal all knowledge in composite categories based on a rhyme-scheme series of classifications. As Zhang Dai wrote in an essay aptly named “Rhyme Mountain,” right up to the end he rarely saw grandfather without a book in his hands, and piles of books lay in disorder all around his study, under layers of dust. When the sun was bright, grandfather took his books out of doors so he could read more easily. At dusk he lit candles and held his book right close to the flame, “leaning across the desk into the brightness.” Thus he would stay far into the night, showing no signs of tiredness. Claiming that all the previous dictionaries were inaccurate, grandfather determined to create his own, using the idea of mountains as his controlling metaphor of organization: key words were termed “high mountains,” catch phrases were “little mountains,” characters that had variant rhymes were termed “other mountains,” proverbs were classified as “worn-out mountains” and so on. In this “Rhyme Mountain,” wrote Zhang, grandfather’s columns of little characters followed in tight columns “like the pleats in a skirt, on sheets of paper yellowed from the beat of the lamp”; he had filled, in this way, over three hundred notebooks, “each thick as bricks.” Some rhyme schemes might fill ten books or more.

One sad day, an old friend brought grandfather a section of a huge manuscript encyclopedia from the palace library in Beijing, proving to him that all of this had been done before, better organized and on a far larger scale. Sighing, grandfather said: “The number of books is without end, and I have been like a bird seeking to fill the sea with pebbles. What can be the point of it?” So he pushed aside his thirty years of work and never returned to his “Rhyme Mountain.” And even had grandfather finished the project, Zhang Dai wrote, “Who on earth would have published it?” There was nothing left of all that work across thirty years but a pile of writing brushes with the whiskers worn down to the wood” and “piles of paper useful only for sealing storage pots.”

  1. people who have read too many books []


Return to Dragon Mountain

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:52 am

There is a long review of Jonathan Spence’s new book Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man in TNR. Just the fact that there is a long review of a book on Chinese history in something like TNR is worthy of note. The review is by Steven Owen, who is a noted scholar of Chinese poetry, and perhaps not the ideal person to review a book on history. On the other hand he may be the ideal person to review a book by Spence, “whose own career as a historian has ventured along the contested frontier between history and literature.” Having not yet read the book I can’t offer definitive comments on either it or the review, but it may be that either Spence or Owen is getting something wrong about Ming history-writing. The book centers on Zhang Dai a well-known literatus/historian of the Late Ming and early Qinq. Owen describes Zhang’s problems in the writing of history.

Zhang Dai was far from the only person of his day who wanted to write the history of the Ming. Among gentlemen of learning it was a common ambition, with a cachet of dignified purpose that gave meaning to idleness. The problem was that none of these aspiring historians had the sources to go beyond known facts, common opinion, and judgments that were, by and large, conventional. The age of the private historian of a dynasty was long past. The resources to write such a history were primarily in archives in the capital, under the watchful eye of a government with its own vested interest in historical accounts. China was too big. The private historian was often successful in direct proportion to the limitation of his scope to the world that he knew best.

I think this is getting something wrong, in that he seems to be presenting Zhang as a frustrated Rankean who was unable to write “real” history. Zhang certainly would have refused to have worked on the Qing’s official Ming History project, but I suspect he would have been just as unhappy with a project presided over by the Ming court (and, like any member of literati class he would have been quite aware of ways of getting around court dictates while working on a court-sponsored project.) I am not sure Zhang Dai wrote the type of stuff he did entirely because he had been locked out of power, but rather that he was not happy with the centralized narrative the state historiography produced regardless of who the patron was.

Or maybe I’m wrong. I guess I will have to read the book.


The uses of the past

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:36 am

I have been thinking about public history and the uses of the past a bit lately, and reading Craig Clunas’ Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. Like all of his work it is very good, but I was interested in his discussion of the uses of the antique in Ming culture. He quotes Matteo Ricci, who was impressed with the level of interest in the antique, but pointed out that the Chinese were not interested in “statues nor medals” but rather in bronzes, jades, and paintings. Ricci was of course an Italian, and was aware of the role of antiquities in the Renaissance relationship with the past, but that relationship was centered on marble statues and coins (nuministics was an important field of study in a way it never was in China.) The difference is in part because the past society produced different things, but more importantly because the uses of past things have as much more to do with the present society than with the past. The Ming connoisseurs were pretty knowledgeable, and had been generating knowledge about old items for a long time at this point. They had managed to connect existing bronzes to the bronze types mentioned in the (unillustrated) classics, and they were aware that these vessels were windows to the past. Many of them were inscribed, and some scholars, like Zhao Mingcheng understood their value

When archeological materials are used to examine these things, thirty to fourty per cent of the data is in conflict. That is because historical writings are produced by latter-day writers and cannot fail to contain errors. But the inscriptions on stone and bronze are made at the time the events take place and can be trusted without reservation Clunas p.95-6



Keeping Halal in the Ming dynasty

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:52 pm

As regular readers know, I am interested in the question of how people are defined as Chinese. One nice bit of data comes from Hans Kuhner. He is looking at a pair of families in the early Ming and trying to figure out what, for them, is Chinese behavior. Although today the Yuan-Ming transition is sometimes presented as an uprising of native Chinese against their Mongol rulers and a restoration of Han rule, in fact the ethnic transition was a lot more complex, as shown in the case of two families.

One of the families is the Ding lineage of Quanzhou, once a major port for international trade. The Dings won their first jinshi degree in 1501. In their genealogies the first ancestor is Jiezhai, and all the early ancestors have Chinese names and are presented as wholly Chinese. It is only much later that it comes out that the first ancestor was also called Sayyid Ajall, a Bokharan who served as a governor under the Yuan. Sayyid stayed on in China after the fall of the Yuan, changing his name and attempting to deflect the considerable hostility towards semu people in the early Ming. This hostility was entirely popular. The state did not order purges of non-Chinese and in fact went to some length to avoid ethnic trouble. The Dings, however, got in a good deal of trouble over the years, as political opponents accused them of false registration, largely, it seems as a way of getting even with the Dings, not because people were so concerned with ethnicity. A later descendent, Ding Yanxia, described the family’s background this way.

We cannot know in detail where our family (jia) has come from before the time of Jiezhai. As far as religion (jiao) is concerned, in former times they seem to have followed customs that were not yet civilized. For example, they did not change the clothes [of the dead person] before it was put into the coffin, and they did not use wood for the coffin. The burial took place already on the third day after death, and [the corpse] was only covered with a very thin layer. The mourning attire was made of cotton, and when praying, there were no soul tab­lets for the ancestors, and no sacrificial offerings. On meetings, people bowed to the west at the time of sunset. Every first month [of the year] there was a period of fasting and one was allowed to eat only after sunset, while during the day, people were hungry. God (shen) was revered only with aromatic herbs, there were no sacrifices of wine and fruit and no paper money [as sacrifice] was burned. When reciting the holy book (qing jing) one imitated the traditional sound of the barbarian (yi) language, without understanding its meaning and not even trying to understand it. This was done on both happy and unhappy occasions. It was only allowed to eat meat that was slaughtered at home, and pork was forbidden. One regularly had to take a bath, and without bathing one was nor allowed to attend worship. As for clothing, cotton was preferred to silk, and on all occasions, cleanliness was desirable. When I was young, I still could see these customs personally. … Today, we burn paper money in the sacrifices for the ancestors, cattle has not to be slaughtered at home, all wear hemp as mourning attire, no more cotton. Sometimes, people wait as long as ten years before the burial. On both happy and unhappy occasions, Daoist and Buddhist monks are invited. Pork is eaten, and there is increasing conformity with [Chinese] ritual. However, there still are some who are proud of not fol­lowing the [Chinese] ritual. With regard to the desirability of cleanliness, I have seen no reduction. Alas, as far as the teachings of the Noble Man on ritual are concerned, some maintain that it should be based on the traditions of one’s coun­try and should be adhered to without the slightest change, Others maintain that some [aspects of] ritual can be different while others should be adhered to, with their practicality as criterion. What does “practicality” mean? It should conform to the principle of heaven and to human emotions. If they do not harm these two, why should we change them just in order to conform to the views of society?



A simple Miscellany

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:03 am

Ralph Luker‘s uncovering of the wonderful linguistic debunkings of 1421 by Bill Poser and friends (in two parts; note: Is Menzies just making up words in Chinese, and if so, why do so many Chinese people seem to take him seriously? theory: he’s exploiting the linguistic uncertainty of diverse dialects.) reminded me that I’ve got a few other interesting links tucked away.

The archaeo-biological investigation of an imperial garden from the Southern Yue state (a breakaway from Qin not reconquered by the Han until 111 bce) has produced another claim of Chinese origins (the “wax gourd”) as well as some fascinating detail about foods and garden design. Also, more Koguryo finds in the oddly contested region (subscription required: this one’s free) will undoubtedly be cited by both sides.

Speaking of anniversaries: Andrew Meyer notes the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre and muses on its meanings. I don’t have anything new to say on the subject, so go read him.

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