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The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (review)

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 405-410 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0014

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The Troubled Empire is Timothy Brook’s contribution to the “History of Imperial China” series, of which he is the general editor. The series successfully fills the space between one-volume textbooks of Chinese history and the multi-volume and multi-authored Cambridge History of China series, offering readers a single-authored interpretive history of a dynasty-based period (in the case of Mark Edward Lewis’s second volume in the series, it is the period between empires, the Northern and Southern Dynasties). I am interested in how Brook accomplishes this in his volume, for it invites us to reflect on how we think about, and teach, China’s history.

The Yuan functions as a mirror for the Ming and as one bookend, but the other end is not really the Manchus’ Qing Empire, it is the arrival of Europeans and their global view of the world. For Brook these are related: by giving up the Mongol multi-ethnic empire in favor of a smaller state for and of the Chinese/Han population the Ming set itself on a course that militated against accepting the Europeans as sharing in “the sameness” of a civilized people. The Manchus ultimately followed the Yuan model of multi-ethnic empire in regards to Inner Asia and they tried unsuccessfully to follow the Ming model in coping with the Europeans on the eastern coast.

Ming was troubled in many ways—Brook’s account of repeated natural disasters (“The Nine Sloughs”), the diminishing reciprocity between ruler and ministers, the contradiction between the agrarian society-based constitution of Ming and the later commercialization of that society—but it is easy enough to show how Tang, Song, Yuan, and Qing were troubled as well. The real question to my mind is whether we are helped by thinking of Ming as an empire at all, despite the legacy of imperial rhetoric that was part of rulership. The turn away from multi-ethnic empire, whether by choice or necessity, was a return to a conservative view of the civilized state as being necessarily distinct from and exclusive of pastoral and aboriginal peoples, a view articulated by Sima Guang against the expansionist frontier policy of Wang Anshi and his successors in the late eleventh and early twelfth century and continued in Southern Song by Zhu Xi, Ye Shi, and others. When in 1487 Qiu Jun 丘浚 presented Daxue yanyi bu 大學衍義補 (The Supplement to the Elaboration of Meaning of the Great Learning), he drew at length on both Song literati writings and Ming Taizu’s own views in arguing for keeping Zhong guo and foreign states separate, and against trying to “make all under heaven one family.”1 Ming’s responsibility was for Zhong guo, which had its origins in antiquity. Zhu Xi, Qiu asserted, had set out the basic principle: “Hua xia is the land of the Central Country civilization (Huaxia Zhong guo wenming zhi di ye 華夏中國文明之地也).”2 Ming was sandwiched temporally between two great multi-ethnic empires and in coping with the European states it confronted something harder to make sense of: economic and cultural expansion tied to state sovereignty in a multi-state world. And yet, as Brook shows in his marvelous discussions of cartography, the evidence that Ming was one state in a multi-state world was cartographically visible well before Ricci arrived with his round-earth map,3 and in his fine chapter on the South China Sea and the tensions between tribute and trade he shows that it was economically visible as well. But during the Ming the evidence at hand did not result in a widely-accepted retheorization of the imperial model. It did not in Europe at first either: Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was still arguing against the divine right of kings based on their descent from Adam in proposing a new definition of sovereignty in The Leviathan. His younger contemporary Huang Zongxi (1610–1695) did offer a well thought through alternative in Mingyi daifang lu 明夷待訪錄 (Waiting for the Dawn) after the Ming collapse, but in vain.

Locating the Great State of Ming in a larger view of space and time is one of the ways Brook goes about the task of writing this volume...



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