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The Ming Prince and Daoism: Institutional Patronage of an Elite by Richard G. Wang (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 74, Number 1, June 2014
pp. 101-108 | 10.1353/jas.2014.0007

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Richard G. Wang’s monograph on the engagement of Ming princely houses in a wide variety of Daoist activities is an impressively detailed study resulting from over a decade of research. The book brings together two subjects that remain understudied in Ming historiography: Daoism and, to a lesser extent, the principalities. As Wang points out, scholarship on imperial elite involvement in local religious activities in the Ming period continues to lag behind that for the Song and Qing dynasties, and Timothy Brook’s work on late Ming elite patronage of Buddhism has not been matched by a corresponding examination of the imperial princes’ religious activities. This neglect arises partly from a long-standing prejudice among scholars against the Ming princes, whom historian Fu Yiling described as “occupied with nothing because their food was from the estate rents and clothes were from the tax revenue. What they could do was to get addicted to Buddhism and involved in Daoist alchemy” (quoted by Wang, p. 64). How, then, can we demonstrate the historical importance of the imperial clansmen in both the national and local histories of the Ming?

For the entire Ming period, Wang identified 288 princes at the imperial or the lower commandery level, along with 291 princely members lower in the hierarchy, who were “involved in Daoist affairs.” These approximately 600 individuals made up less than 1 percent of the total number of imperial clansmen for the entire dynasty. And certainly, other imperial clansmen whom we do not know about were also engaged in Daoism, as were imperial clanswomen, for whom information remains extremely scarce.

Why did these imperial clansmen patronize Daoism? Did they make use of religious activities to secure positions of still greater influence in the local societies where their fiefs were situated? Or did they use their patronage of Daoism to forge empirewide connections, especially to the imperial court? Answering these questions even for one individual shows how complex these issues are. Wang launches his prologue with a discussion of the deep commitment to Daoist cultivation by Zhu Quan 朱權 (1378–1448), a son of Ming Taizu and the founder of the Ning 寧 principality, which was originally located on the northern border in modern Inner Mongolia and later relocated to Nanchang in Jiangxi. By his late teens, Zhu Quan had compiled an encyclopedia that included a chapter on Daoism, in which he wrote fifty-three out of the sixty-five new entries. Of the over seventy works he wrote or compiled, at least twenty-five were Daoist in theme, as were three of his zaju plays. In addition to patronizing Daoist temples and clerics in his own fief and at nationally prominent Daoist sites, he became a master of the Jingming 淨明 school of Zhengyi Daoism. Finally, a number of his descendants, including several Imperial Princes of the Ning, ardently patronized and practiced Daoism. Although Zhu Quan’s devotion to Daoism was especially strong, his motives were shared by many other imperial clansmen: personal interest; the Ming state’s privileging of Daoist practitioners for state rituals (beginning with Taizu); the preferential worship of Daoist deities such as Zhenwu 真武 by soldiers such as those under the command of the earliest princes; the refuge Daoism offered later princes deprived of political and military power by the court; a way to assert their presence in local society in the areas around their fiefs; and a conduit for channeling religious and literary energies.

Chapter 1 provides a useful summary of facts about the principalities. Here, Wang points out that the great military power that Taizu entrusted to the earliest princes had become greatly reduced by the late part of the Yongle reign (1403–1421). Under the fanjin 藩禁 regulations, which “barred holding military commands, participation in politics, holding government office, and engaging in the professions of scholar, peasant, artisan, or merchant,” the later princes and their relatives became increasingly restricted in their actions (p. 10). They were also prohibited from traveling outside their own fiefs and associating with other princes, and “they could live only on the official stipend granted by the court” (p. 10). The princes’ main official function was to represent the state in their localities by performing state rituals, and these...

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