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1587, a Year of No Significance: Ming Dynasty in Decline [Paperback]

Huang
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 293 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; New edition edition (1 July 1982)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300028849
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300028843
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 16 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 124,926 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Synopsis

Creates a portrait of the world and culture of late imperial China by examining the lives of seven prominent officials and members of the Ming ruling class.

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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the GREAT books in the China literature. 18 Jan 1997
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Para1: A scholarly work that is easily accessible to non-specialists, historian Ray Huang's ironically subtitled 1587: A Year of No Significance focuses on the Ming Emperor Wan-li--who rose to the throne and the age of eight and who reigned for 48 years--and five other figures in the court of the decadent, doomed Ming Dynasty. This is an off-beat masterpiece of both history and biography, learned yet chatty, steeped in the dense, ancient imperial chronicles yet surprisingly contemporary in its oblique illuminations of contemporary Chinese political culture through the prism of history.

Para2: Huang's approach is is reminiscent of Kurosawa's in Roshomon, employing multiple points of view from the imperial court in seeking to expose and foreshadow the demise of the Ming. We meet archetypes from the drama of Chinese history: the Machiavellian chief minister, the perceptive but disregarded general, the anguished philosopher, and, at the story's center, the eccentric Wan-li emperor himself. In choosing to write about Wan-li, Huang is able to create a measure of narrative tension unusual in Chinese historical writing, because by the Year of the Pig, 1587, the emperor has ceased to fulfill his prescribed role in rite and ritual as the embodiment of moral order. Wan-li's behavior causes great agitation among his courtiers, bureaucrats, retainers, imperial wives and concubines, eunuchs, and slaves, each of whom occupies a carefully defined place in the regimented life inside the walls of the Imperial Compound and who, without punctilious observances by the emperor, is without a fixed point of reference.

Para3: A special feature of this book is the wonderful chapter on the incorruptible censor Hai Rui, who dared impeach the Emperor.
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A very good insight into the minds of the men who ran the Chinese Empire. How they failed to adjust to a changing world, but how this could seem entirely right and proper from their viewpoint.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
169 of 171 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the GREAT books in the China literature. 18 Jan 1997
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Para1: A scholarly work that is easily accessible to non-specialists, historian Ray Huang's ironically subtitled 1587: A Year of No Significance focuses on the Ming Emperor Wan-li--who rose to the throne and the age of eight and who reigned for 48 years--and five other figures in the court of the decadent, doomed Ming Dynasty. This is an off-beat masterpiece of both history and biography, learned yet chatty, steeped in the dense, ancient imperial chronicles yet surprisingly contemporary in its oblique illuminations of contemporary Chinese political culture through the prism of history.

Para2: Huang's approach is is reminiscent of Kurosawa's in Roshomon, employing multiple points of view from the imperial court in seeking to expose and foreshadow the demise of the Ming. We meet archetypes from the drama of Chinese history: the Machiavellian chief minister, the perceptive but disregarded general, the anguished philosopher, and, at the story's center, the eccentric Wan-li emperor himself. In choosing to write about Wan-li, Huang is able to create a measure of narrative tension unusual in Chinese historical writing, because by the Year of the Pig, 1587, the emperor has ceased to fulfill his prescribed role in rite and ritual as the embodiment of moral order. Wan-li's behavior causes great agitation among his courtiers, bureaucrats, retainers, imperial wives and concubines, eunuchs, and slaves, each of whom occupies a carefully defined place in the regimented life inside the walls of the Imperial Compound and who, without punctilious observances by the emperor, is without a fixed point of reference.

Para3: A special feature of this book is the wonderful chapter on the incorruptible censor Hai Rui, who dared impeach the Emperor. Hai Rui is familar to students of modern China as the subject of a 1960s play, "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office," that provided Mao Zedong with the pretext to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao believed, rightly, that the play was an allegory of his dismissal in 1959 of his defense minister, who dared to speak the truth about Mao's failed Great Leap Forward. To meet Hai Rui in Huang's portrait is to understand anew Mao's resentment at being cast as villain in a historical drama.

Para4: Although published by a major university press, 1587: A Year of No Significance is not simply for specialists. (It is, however, highly regarded among professional China scholars and contains all the trappings--excellent and extensive endnotes, bibliography, and index--of the scholarly monograph.) Above all, it is an engaging, often gripping, at times tragic, and, ultimately, unforgettable portrait of a man and a moment in time. It is, moveover, beautifully written in an odd, often haunting first-person voice that renders palpable the weight and majesty of four thousand years of Chinese civilization.

Para5: A variety of excellent, biographically-based popular works on imperial China remain in print--Jean Levi's historical novel, Emperor of China, and Jonathan Spence's work on the Qing emperor Kang-hsi are among the best known--but, in my opinion, Huang's book surpasses them all. 1587 is, indeed, a work of great significance, by an author of encyclopedic knowledge and scope and a stylist of vast charm and elegance. Signed: Paul Frandano
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A *must* read for all serious students of Chinese history! 21 Jun 2002
By macktheknife - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
A reviewer below has already done an excellent job of summarizing the book, so I can only hope that my review can serve as a complement. "1587" is essentially an examination of why the Ming dynasty--an institution that commanded great wealth and governed a vast nation--was already showing signs of decay and its impending collapse under the reign of the Wanli emperor. Ray Huang does an excellent job to show how cultural inertia and an institution that governed miserably effectively neutralized the voice and power of individual participants. The Ming dynastic system did not tolerate loyal opposition and was not designed for ministers or individuals to discuss opposing views in an orderly manner, which meant that power struggles were bound to be ugly as rival ministers and bureaucrat employed moral arguments to tarnish each others' reputation. Avenues for advancement within government amounted to a zero-sum game in which an official's effectiveness in governance was a barometer of his morality (bound with tradition and Confucian precepts open to interpretation). Imagine if your local mayor was judged not on his or her effectiveness or merit, but on whether he or she was a morally upright individual who was adhering to both the spirit and traditions of the past.
The Ming imperial system also placed a greater value on the institution and sought to dehumanize the emperor. The emperor was the emperor--he was not Wanli, not Jiajing, etc. The bureaucrats and officials--whose power was constrained individually--exercised great power as a group, effectively dictating how the emperor should act, behave, and present himself to the public. Little wonder then, that the Wanli emperor, whose power was in the negative and not the positive, hardly sought to rule in an effective manner after being weighed down by such an institution. Others in the drama--the powerful minister, the innovative general, the eccentric bureaucrat, and the dissenting scholar--would find the same forces inhibiting their ability to affect real changes.
Huang ends his book by concluding that the Ming dynasty was a "highly stylized society wherein the roles of individuals were thoroughly restricted by a body of simple yet ill-defined moral precepts, [and that] the empire was seriously hampered in its development, regardless of the noble intentions behind those precepts. The year 1587 may seem to be insignificant; nevertheless, it is evident that by that time the limit for the Ming dynasty had already been reached. It no longer mattered whether the ruler was conscientious or irresponsible, whether his chief counselor was enterprising or conformist, whether the generals were resourceful or incompetent, whether the civil officials were honest or corrupt, or whether the leading thinkers were radical or conservative-in the end they all failed to reach fulfillment. Thus our story has a sad conclusion. The annals of the Year of the Pig (1587) must go down in history as a chronicle of failure."
I recommend this book for all those not only interested in the history of the Ming dynasty, but to those who are interested in the nature of Chinese imperial statecraft and the question of how government should be structured.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 1587: a great point of view which reveals the logic in China's history 4 Jan 2007
By Ning Zhao - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The history of China is long and it is very difficult to get a clear idea about the logic behind the countless events happened during the last several thousand years in China. I've read many books on China's history, both Chinese ones and English ones. This book has been the most inspiring one among those I've read.

In this book, Dr. Ray Huang showed the readers the picture of the Chinese people's life around the year 1587: from the emperor's depression caused by lacking of freedom due to the structure of China's politics, to officers' rise and fall, to the common people's mundane life. As the big picture rolling out little by little, the logic behind China's history was clearer and clearer. There was a fatal problem in Chinese politics: the politic structure was premature but the administrative methods to support the structure never grew up and never based on sensible mathematics. Technologies were never paid enough attention to. When the population and economic developed and developed, the naive administrative methods could not sustain the whole economic system any more. However, any technical innovation for supporting the economic grow was hardly allowed due to moral or philosophical tradition. Some officers had been very smart, the emperor had been very ambitious, the Chinese people had been very diligent. However due to many problems, these individual efforts never really worked out to save the dynasty from declining. Dr. Huang saw these problems based on his decades of research on Ming Dynasty's taxing system. In this book he showed the readers how these problem impacted all aspects of life of the people from different classes.

Dr. Huang's research method is scientific and the conclusion is convincing. Although 1587 happened to be a year in the Ming Dynasty, this book in fact provides a great point of view to the macro history of China. This is a book to be read again and again. Every read will help readers to understand China's history better. The author's way of thinking and his research method is also very inspiring. The text is so well written that it is anything but dry and boring. Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in China's history.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A history story book with contemporary relevancy 3 Dec 2009
By Paul - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The classic of Ray Huang needs no introduction to folks interested in Chinese history. Yet this book was certainly written with an eye on contemporary Chinese and China. This was clearly signified (before one even reads the book) by inclusion of Hai Jui, The Eccestric Model Official (chapter five). The discrediting of the play "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office" marked the beginning of Cultural Revolution in PRC.

The question is "Huang's book was first published in 1981 (translated into many language including Chinese, Japanese, German and French), is it still relevant to contemporary Chinese and China?" For westerners who are accustomed to liberal democracies, one may easily equate a Shanghai with a New York, by looking at the bustling cities and up-ward mobile and aggressive young professionals, probably speaking the same language; I mean both professional language and English! Yet one has to understand and appreciate when a young professional has been brought up in a country with parents, grandparents and great grandparents sharing the same guiding-principles-for-safety-living in authoritative regimes, one certainly knows how to survive and live happily in such environment. And without doubt, these young professionals will likely to tell you (a foreigner) that they are happy and contended! (Well, assuming that neither they nor their close relatives have gotten into major trouble with the authority).

Huang's book is exactly the one that can, to a certain extent, fill this knowledge gap. By using a few notable and varied personalities (including the Emperor himself who got his own frustrations - who said the absolute authority can't be frustrated?) as examples, Huang detailed how these figures survive in this (nowadays would be called twisted) environment. And in the process, the readers will understand why they behaved in the unique ways they behaved. They have the same humanity as we do, but environment certainly affects how one behaves, not the least an environment with an absolute authority.

Fair to say Chinese society has progressed a huge lot since 1589. But the book certainly can give the readers some insights into contemporary Chinese and China. Highly-recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Give me more of this..... 22 April 2014
By Bruce W Sims - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Clean, clear and to the point, Ray Huang provides an extraordinary examination of one of those "turning point" or "watershed" years we tend to recognize only in hindsight. Chinese vocabulary and terms are kept to a minimum, press into service only when it supports the goals of the passage. Though the book is historic in nature, the author forces no judgements but allows the reader to develop their own conclusions about the nature of the events that took place. We could do a lot worse to have more of this sort of writing on what can be a very muddled and turbulent portion of the Human story.
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