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2012/03/06

1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

About the Author:

Ray Huang (simplified Chinese: 黄仁宇; traditional Chinese: 黃仁宇; pinyin: Huáng Rényǔ; June 25, 1918–January 8, 2000) was a Chinese historian and philosopher. He was an officer in the Nationalist army and fought in the Burma campaigns. He earned a Ph.D in history from the University of Michigan, worked with Joseph Needham and is a contributor of Needham's Science and Civilisation in China. Huang taught in the U.S., and is best known in his later years for the idea of macro history.

New York Review of Books April 30, 1981:

Until very recently the great expanse of the Ming dynasty, which ruled in China from 1368 to 1644, was largely uncharted in Western historiography. The dynasty was seen either as having come at the end of a great tradition that had been dominated by the artistic force of the T’ang and Sung, or as being a little too early for “modern” Chinese history, which could be seen to pick up momentum in the eighteenth century, or even the seventeenth, but certainly not earlier. Furthermore the “decline of the Ming,” a messy and protracted business apparently spanning almost a century from the 1550s down to the 1640s, was seen as reflecting little credit on China’s imperial and bureaucratic institutions.

Ray Huang’s unusual and absorbing book, 1587, A Year of No Significance, will hardly raise the declining years of the Ming in the scales of history, but it certainly enriches our consciousness of what went into the pattern of dynastic decline; furthermore his five main characters are beautifully chosen to illuminate a variety of Chinese responses to impending catastrophe.

From his opening page, which describes the background to an imperial audience that never took place, as officials rush around Peking in excitement and puzzled eunuchs and palace guards try to track the sources of the city’s excited rumors, Huang shows a mastery of the intricate details of the ritualistic and practical sides of Ming court politics, and an ability to make them comprehensible.

His story is cleverly constructed and deliberately paradoxical. If 1587 is, in the long run, a “year of no significance,” it is nevertheless full of incident, and each incident carries promise of future drama. It is the year that the court first hears—from far to the north—an account of the political rise of a Jurchen tribesman named Nurhaci. Though ignored as inconsequential at the time, Nurhaci was to conquer much of southern Manchuria by the time of his death in 1626, and his descendants were to seize the imperial throne and install the Ch’ing dynasty in 1644.

Read the rest at New York Review of Books!


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