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  • Shrines to Living Men in the Ming Political Cosmos by Sarah Schneewind
  • Ying Zhang (bio)
Sarah Schneewind. Shrines to Living Men in the Ming Political Cosmos. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018. xviii, 360 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 978-0-674-98714-2.

Since the fall of the Ming, the political history of this dynasty has been treated like a straw man, by the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty who obsessively belittled their Ming predecessors and by modern intellectuals in their attempt to diagnose the Ming "failure" to modernize its political system. In scholarly and popular discourses, Ming politics is often simplified to describe how despotic emperors, dogmatic and hypocritical Confucian officials, and evil eunuchs ruined everyone else. Some of us have been asking: What else can we say about the Ming political system? This question assumes new relevance and urgency as we witness disorienting changes in the politics of our own time. When the Ming looks more and more familiar, what lessons do we miss if we do not go beyond invoking the Ming as a historical example of oppressive autocracy?

In this meticulously researched book on the practice of establishing shrines for living officials in the Ming dynasty, Sarah Schneewind demonstrates the remarkable intellectual value of studying Ming political history on its own terms. Her methodology exemplifies how to break away from binary analytical frameworks and learn from the messiness of the Ming. Historians, political scientists, and religious studies scholars will all benefit tremendously from her case studies, historical insights, and theorizing endeavor.

In Part I, by explaining the physical features of premortem shrines, the process of proposing, financing, and maintaining these shrines, and the ritual actions surrounding them, Schneewind sheds new light on the operation of a few key institutions in Ming governance: Confucian notions of sovereignty, metropolitan and local bureaucracy, and the law and discourses about worship. Chapter 1 provides a systematic discussion of the complex and widespread phenomenon of the premortem shrine, pointing out its universal appeal among common people and illustrating its crucial difference from other forms of honoring exemplary officials (e.g., posthumous shrines). Shrines to living officials reflected a type of local "consensus" that did not necessarily align with the imperial judgment or depend on imperial approval. Chapter 2, by analyzing records of officials who enjoyed such an honor, argues local consensus over worthy officials often focused on the locals' well-being, "not the needs of the central state" (p. 75). Sponsors of the shrines valued officials who ensured protection from organized violence, penal justice, infrastructure building, negotiation with the central government over local financial resources, and securing people's means of livelihood. Though entitled "Paternalism," this [End Page 332] chapter complicates our understanding of the Confucian ethico-political framework of roles and responsibilities: the use of the "parental metaphor" and this particular style of governance "were demanded and shaped by the locality below" (p. 86). Chapter 3 illuminates the complexity of "worship" in the context of living shrines. Going beyond binaries such as worship/honor, human/divine, living/dead, and religious/political, Schneewind situates this practice in the continuum between common folks' interests in spiritual efficacy and political messaging. Thus, Ming shrines to living officials present a paradigm of Chinese religion that reverses the "bureaucratic metaphor." This chapter draws on examples from primary sources to address critical questions in extant scholarship on premortem shrines. For example, in Ming people's understanding, who enjoyed the offerings at the shrine? Did the shrine answer prayers? Although the writing style of this chapter is somewhat unusual, readers may find this format of scholarly engagement informative and invaluable.

Living shrines to officials were not simply statements and gestures. Part II examines the political dynamics they generated among officials, between officials and people in their jurisdictions, and between local and national realms. Chapter 4 shows how the texts and rituals associated with a living shrine created an environment in which people could publicly and explicitly make their opinions known to new officials and nudge the latter to respond in some fashion. Officials themselves understood the importance of such an honor to their own reputation and career advancement, sometimes drawing on it...


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pp. 332-335
Launched on MUSE
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