Keep the kingdom small, its people few
Make sure they have no use for tools
That do the work of tens or hundreds.
Nor let the people travel far
And leave their homes and risk their lives.
Boat or cart, if kept at all, best not to ride;
Shield and blade best not to show.
Guide them back to early times
When knotted cords served for signs,
And they took relish in their food
And delight in their dress,
Secure in their dwellings,
Content in their customs.
Although a neighbor kingdom stood in view
And the barnyard cries of cocks and dogs
Echoed from village to village,
Their folk would never traffic to and fro
Never, to the last of their days.
trans: Moss Roberts
This was the favourite stanza from Lao Tzi of the first Ming Emperor Hongwu, and he built his new Ming dynasty following its percepts: a rural agrarian society composed of small villages with minimum contact between them, a population largely supine and uninterested in the wider world. The world the Hongwu Emperor created out of this vision was pretty nasty: a 14th century version of Mao’s China, with utter uniformity in dress and food and culture, the strongest restrictions on movement of people and information – uncertified travel was punished by death –and increasingly heavy corvees on the people, in effect a totalitarian system avant la lettre.
The Ming dynasty was a Chinese Dynasty sandwiched between two foreign dynasties: the Mongol Yuan and the Manchurian Qing. It was appropriate that as its guiding ethos stood this quintessential Chinese text, motivating Hongwu and all his successors, even as the reality gradually slipped away from this vision, and the dynasty succumbed to weak rulers, strong eunuchs, and decadence.
The second text is the writings of the gazetteer Zhang Tao. Every county throughout Chinese history has had its gazetteers: newsletters of local events and news put together by the staff of the county magistrates based on reports sent in from the literati of the neighborhood. Brook has based his history of the Ming on a study of these local gazetteers. Zhang Tao was the compiler of a gazetteer from Sheh county just south of Nanjing who wrote at the beginning of the seventeenth century. What distinguishes Zhang Tao from other gazetteers is his literary ability. Brook uses an essay Zhang wrote on the ‘Seasons of the Ming’ for the 1609 gazetteer. In this essay, Zhang Tao looks back over the history of his dynasty and divides the dynasty into three seasons: winter, spring, summer. (Zhang Tao is writing in what he considers to be the autumn of the dynasty – he doesn’t know the end is coming, but he can sense it in the wind.)
Every family was self-sufficient, with a house to live in, land to cultivate, hills from which to cut firewood, and gardens in which to grow vegetables. Taxes were collected without harassment and bandits did not appear. Marriages were arranged at the proper times, and the villages were secure. Women spun and wove and men tended the crops. Servants were obedient and hardworking, neighbors cordial and friendly.
Those who went out as merchants became numerous, and the ownership of land was no longer esteemed. As men matched wits using their assets, fortunes rose and fell unpredictably. The capable succeeded, the dull-witted were destroyed; the family to the west enriched itself while the family to the east was impoverished. The balance between the mighty and the lowly was lost as both competed for trifling amounts, each exploiting the other and everyone publicizing himself.
Those who enriched themselves through trade became the majority, and those who enriched themselves through agriculture were few. The rich became richer and the poor, poorer. Those who rose took over and those who fell were forced to flee. It was capital that brought power… trade proliferated and the tiniest scrap of profit was counted up. Corrupt magnates sowed disorder and wealthy shysters preyed…Purity was completely swept away.
One can see in Zhang Tao’s essay the gradual falling away from the ideal expressed in stanza 80 of the Dao Der Jing, from an agrarian society to one ruled by money and profit. Zhang Tao knows that the Hongwu Emperor would have been horrified at the state of the Empire towards the end of his dynasty had he but been able to see it.
Brook writes: I have ended up writing this history of the Ming dynasty in order to understand [Zhang Tao’s] history of the dynasty and why it made sense to him. This is the great strength of Brook’s book: a social and economic history focusing on the things that those people living though those times regarded as important. Brook covers everything: printing and publishing, silk production, travel and communications, the gradual growth of internal trade and merchanting, something the Chinese have always traditionally looked down on, the impact of the increasing demand for silver on the Ming economy and the surrounding nations, the structures of rule and control, taxation, corruption, the status of women, prostitution both male and female, food, clothes, the status and changing role of the literati and so on. Brook’s great strength is that he combines a long duree approach with the judicious inclusion of primary sources, including travellers tales, the gazetteers already mentioned, literary essays, poetry and excerpts from the huge compendia of knowledge that were popular during the last third of the dynasty. He goes over much familiar ground, to be sure, but he brings such interesting texts as supporting evidence, and it’s this that makes his book so good: the bringing to light of a whole world of Ming literary endeavor that is little known in the West, but which has so much to tell us about our own (end) times.
One man in a hundred is rich, while nine out of ten are impoverished. The poor cannot stand up to the rich, who, though few in number, are able to control the majority. The lord of silver rules heaven, and the god of copper cash reigns over the earth. Avarice is without limit, flesh injures bone, everything is for personal pleasure, and nothing can be let slip. In dealings with others, everything is recompensed down to the last hair. The demons of treachery stalk…