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This article examines the ideal and reality of the Ming postal system. As revealed in early-Ming regulations, the Ming founder and his advisors sought to create a postal system that delivered mail quickly, securely, and at low costs. Yet sources from the mid- and late Ming suggest that few postmen met the speed requirement set out in official regulations. Although some Ming officials blamed such failures on the perceived laxity of postmen and their supervisors, a closer analysis of the evidence indicates that the problem stemmed rather from the state's inability to create appropriate risk-reward incentives for these underpaid postmen. By examining the discrepancy between how the Ming state sought to incentivize postmen and how postmen behaved in practice, this study shows that the effectiveness of Ming bureaucratic management depended not only on the familiar strategies of vertical supervision, but also on certain less-studied dynamics of lateral cooperation.