IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > E. East Asia, c. 1500–c. 1800 > 2. China, 1522–1796
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1521)
2. China, 1522–1796
a. The Remainder of the Ming Dynasty
The period began with the completion of Ming political forms, sketched earlier (see (See The Early Ming)). During the later Ming, cultural developments and population growth seized center stage. During the Jiajing reign of Shizong (b. 1507), Ming armies fought off the attacks of Altan Khan, prince of the Ordos, and “Japanese pirates,” many of them not originally from Japan, but so designated in contemporary sources.  1
The Wanli reign of Shenzong (b. 1563) was famed for its cultural achievements as well as for corruption, in-fighting, and the power of eunuchs at court.  2
1592, 1597–98
Japanese invasions of Korea, sent by Hideyoshi (1536–98), necessitated Chinese military assistance and were eventually repelled, though not without considerable loss of life and great expense.  3
In government, Ming continued the trend begun in Song, and exacerbated in Yuan, of centralizing autocratic power. Taizu abolished the position of prime minister (1380), eliminating the last impediment to complete autocracy; he also began the practice of flogging ministers at court. The rise of a new administrative body, the Grand Secretariat, dated from the early 15th century. The tradition of remonstrating officials remained alive; especially famous in this regard was Hai Rui (1514–87), who risked life and limb in confronting his master. The Ming military built on the Yuan garrison model and the native militia system.  4
In local government, Ming instituted the lijia system for local tax collection and surveillance. Ming effectively created provincial-level government, and it would subsequently remain as such. Local governance became increasingly difficult, for as population grew steadily, the number of counties and prefectures did not keep pace, thus allowing the number of residents within a given magistrate's jurisdiction to mushroom. China's population returned to 100 million probably in the early 15th century and soared to perhaps as high as 200 million a century later. China's major cities of Song and Yuan did not continue to grow, but middle-level market towns sprouted around the country.  5
From the start of the Ming, efforts were made to repopulate northern China, sparsely populated under the Yuan, with migrant farmers so as to develop the economy there. Land taxes were graduated according to the arable quality of the land, and thus the far richer south paid an overwhelming percentage of the state's tax revenues. Under Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (1525–82), the rationalizing “single whip” laws simplified tax collection nationwide. The only major state monopoly was on salt, though by late Ming the government empowered a group of salt merchants with distribution responsibilities; they later became fabulously wealthy.  6
In addition, new crops from the Americas were introduced to China via the Philippines, effectively contributing to the capacity of agriculture to support a larger population.  7
In education, Taizu ordered the creation of a nationwide system, with schools in every county and prefecture, as a means of nurturing future officials for the state. He reinstituted civil service examinations at the provincial and national levels (1370–71). Private academies, which prospered especially in the 16th century, also provided talented men for recruitment to state service. By the end of Ming, there were far more men who had passed the examinations than positions for them, a cause of social disorder. Stipends were kept purposefully low. The continued spread of printing resulted in greater access to the state bureaucracy and a seeping down of Chinese cultural traditions to local society.  8
Ming intellectual life was initially dominated by followers of the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism, such as Xue Xuan (1392–1464). The Xingli daquan (Great Collection on Nature and Principle), a digest of moral philosophy from the writings of 120 scholars of the Cheng-Zhu school, was published under imperial authority in 1416. Signs of a divergence from orthodox Cheng-Zhu teachings were evident in the naturalism and quiescence of Chen Baisha (1428–1500), a popular teacher from southern China. WANG YANGMING (Wang Shouren, 1472–1529) was the greatest thinker of his age and an eminent official as well. Although perceived as attacking the Cheng-Zhu school, he saw himself as developing from it a style of Neo-Confucianism that asserted the importance of extending the individual's “intuitive knowledge.” Influenced by Buddhist practice, he stressed meditation as the nurturing praxis for the mind to come to moral judgment, the “unity of knowledge and action,” and the innate capacity of every man to attain sagehood. Wang's disciples, however, went their own ways. Irreverent iconoclasm eventually cost one of them, Li Zhi (1527–1602), his life. Wang's teachings were popular elsewhere in East Asia, especially in Japan.  9
Less vital than they had been earlier, Buddhism and Daoism remained eclipsed through the Ming. A number of thinkers, such as Lin Zhao'en (1517–98), taught the “unity of the three teachings” (namely, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism).  10
In scholarship there was a growing trend toward compiling massive encyclopedias and compendia. One such project was supervised by the Hanlin Academy in Beijing: Yongle dadian (The Yongle Encyclopedia), into which entire works were transcribed—an imposing work of 12,000 manuscript volumes, completed in 1407. Following Tang, Song, and Yuan precedents, numerous dynastic legal and administrative codes were compiled.  11
Contacts between Chinese elites (and the late Ming court) and the Jesuits produced a short-lived but curious bond. Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) won toleration for the Jesuits by adopting Chinese ways; he lived in Beijing and served the court by, among other things, preparing a map of the world. Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666) went to Beijing (1662), where he was charged (1630) with reforming the dynastic calendar; he cast astronomic instruments based on the latest Western technology, which was much appreciated by the Ming court. In addition to works of religious content, the Jesuits published works on mathematics and other sciences, providing an important conduit for Western knowledge to penetrate China. The first major Western work on Chinese history was by the Augustinian monk Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza, Historia de las cosas mas notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China (1585).  12
The Ming is considered the literary apex for vernacular fiction. Such long novels, often lifeworks, included Xiyou ji (Journey to the West, also known as Monkey), by Wu Cheng'en (1506?–82?); Shuihu zhuan (Water Margin, also known as All Men Are Brothers), traditionally attributed to Luo Guanzhong (1330?–1400?); Sanguo zhi yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), also attributed to Luo Guanzhong; and Jin ping mei (Golden Lotus), a 16th-century novel whose author is unknown. During the Ming, vernacular drama continued to be popular. Tang Xianzu (1550–1616) wrote what is considered the greatest drama of the era, Peony Pavilion.  13
In art, Ming painting styles generally followed those of the Song. Emperor Xuanzong (b. 1399, r. 1425–35) was a fine painter in the southern Song fashion. Dong Qichang (1555–1636) was one of the great calligraphers and painters of the late Ming; he was an art critic as well. Pottery in the early Ming achieved bold effects by application of “three color” glazes. The Jingdezhen imperial kiln gained renown for its production of such pottery. In the late Ming, decoration in overglaze enamels, often in combination with underglaze blue, was used to startling effect, especially in urban areas.  14
By 1500 a rotary disc cutter was being used to cut jade, highly valued in China since the 13th century B.C.E. By 1593 a modern form of the abacus was in use.  15
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.