Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance (Yale U. Press, 1982) is, perhaps, one of the most widely read, and recommended, books on Late Imperial China.
As you might guess from the title, this is not your typical history book. Huang takes a year of, really, pretty much no significance, and explores the late Ming Dynasty through chapters devoted to the lives/careers of a number of different prominent or influential figures, from a Grand Secretary to a frontier general, to a lay monk, to the Wanli Emperor himself.
One of the things I find fascinating about this approach is that Huang gets away with providing extensive narrative detail about figures and events that are, well, certainly far more influential within late 1580s China than, say, the average peasant or merchant on the street, but who really are not the big movers and shakers of more “significant” moments or periods in the dynasty’s history. And, he gets away with writing a very narrative history. I don’t know if scholarly priorities were just different in 1982, when this was published, but I have a hard time imagining that a scholar could so easily publish such a book today, without being asked over and over, “so what?” and “what’s your argument?” But, not only did he get it published, it became a rather standard book in the field.
Since I don’t a have a pre-written response paper to adapt into the blog post, maybe I’ll just share a few scattered thoughts and reactions.
One is that, throughout the book, Huang refers to Ming China not in the typical distanced scholarly manner, but rather by using phrases such as “our realm.” In doing so, he evokes or suggests the notion that he is continuing in the tradition of Imperial era historians, or if not that, then at least does contribute a more narrative feel. Simply through the use of “our realm” instead of “theirs,” Huang brings a refreshingly different feel to the work. It feels warmer, more personal – less dry and analytical. In a way it makes the flaws and mistakes more forgivable, as we get a sense that that’s just how it is, here in “our” country, and who is anyone else to criticize?, even as it at the same time makes the stakes seem higher, as this is “our” country on the line, not some far-distant Other land.
One critique, or I guess just question, is that Huang’s descriptions of the emperor’s attitudes and emotions, and of the attitudes and emotions of others, often veer into territory where as a reader one becomes skeptical as to how Huang could possibly know such personal details. Admittedly, there are presumably mountains of surviving memorials and rescripts, and if one is able to decipher past the poetic and Confucian language to reach the “real” meaning, I suppose it may be possible to determine in many cases the “true” emotions, desires, whims, attitudes of these figures. But, nevertheless, whenever I see such analyses of the personality of a given historical figure, it sends up red flags for me. Do we really understand these people? Even someone like Harry Truman lived in a fairly different discursive world from our own, and understood the world around him, and his place in it, differently from anyone today – how much more so George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, and how much more so than that the Wanli Emperor or Shen Shixing?
In any case, in the process of relating these biographical narrative histories (most especially in the first three or four chapters), Huang also provides some wonderfully thorough details about the lives of emperors and officials, and how the Court functioned. The interplay of the Emperor’s desires, and those of various officials; the way that paperwork, obligations, and orthodoxy hampered change; the way that factions at court gained and lost power – all of these are, perhaps, more clearly illustrated here than in anything else I’ve ever read.