Lecture Twenty-Four

Gridlock and Crisis

Scope: In the later years of the 16th century, China began to develop new problems, based in part on the very success of the Ming dynasty. Economic growth had led to social tensions and had helped set the stage for the emergence of new philosophical movements emphasizing individual moral responsibility. Wang Yangming and his followers spread a new interpretation of Confucianism that stressed each individual’s “innate knowledge of the good.” Meanwhile, China’s role in the global economy led to the influx of massive amounts of silver from the New World, which further fueled commercial growth. Efforts to rationalize imperial fiscal administration led to tax reforms that favored the more developed parts of the empire but exacerbated problems in remote regions. Political conflicts also hamstrung the state’s ability to deal with deepening problems. In the first decade of the 17th century, the Ming sank into a terminal decline.


I. The reign of the Wanli emperor, Zhu Yijun (r. 1572-1620), was a time of deepening crisis for the Ming.

A. Zhu Yijun’s reign began well, but problems began to emerge in the 1580s.

1. The emperor’s main advisor was the chief grand secretary Zhang Juzheng.

2. Zhang sought to strengthen the power and efficiency of the monarchy.

3. He pursued policies designed to reform the revenue system and restrain the excesses of local officials and private literati interests.

4. He also sought to streamline the tax system in light of the growing commercialization of the economy, having taxes paid in cash rather than in grain or cloth.

B. There was resistance to some of Zhang’s reforms, and others led to unanticipated consequences.

1. Landowning families who were well connected to the ranks of officials sought to frustrate government efforts to reform the tax system.

2. The “Single Whip” reforms, which converted tax payments to cash, benefited parts of the empire, such as Jiangnan or the southeast coast, that were highly commercialized and had a good deal of silver in circulation.

3. Other areas, such as the dry highlands of the northwest or the rugged hills of Guizhou and Guangxi, where the commercial economy was less developed, were hurt by the need to pay taxes in silver.

4. Zhang Juzheng fell from power in the early 1580s, and the Wanli emperor increasingly came into conflict with leading Confucian officials.

II. New ideas about integrity and individualism contributed to a moralization of political life that led to a gridlock in government.

A. These ideas originated with the philosopher and official Wang Yangming in the early 16th century.

1. Wang, the last of the great Confucian thinkers in imperial history, emphasized the idea that all individuals, not only members of the literati elite, have an “innate knowledge of the Good.”

2. Among his followers, some gave his ideas a radical interpretation, which called for individual moral responsibility and placed one’s personal conscience at the center of one’s moral universe.

3. Popular movements involving merchants, artisans, and fanners grew up with these ideas as their ideology, sometimes defying official authority and establishing utopian communities.

B. In the ranks of the literati, Wang’s ideas led to a moralization of political discourse.

1. Toward the end of the 16th century, debates and controversies at court tended to be framed not as issues for compromise and pragmatism but as black-and-white moral issues.

2. Officials at court criticized the emperor on moral grounds, especially over his desire to replace his empress with a new favorite consort and to name a new heir to the throne.

3. Aspiring officials and examination candidates criticized the court officials as a power-hungry in-group.

4. In the early 17th century, such groups as the Donglin (“Eastern Forest”) Academy came to act almost like political parties in pursuit of their moral programs, treating their political rivals as agents of evil rather than simply gentlemen with differing ideas.

The basis for their criticism was that the emperor refused to cooperate with court officials, thus proving that they must be corrupt.

C. As economic and social crises deepened, the Ming government was unable to mount effective responses.

1. The economy continued to expand, and new inflows of silver from Latin America via Manila only accelerated the process.

2. The gap between the developing coast and Yangzi valley with the poorer interior grew greater, and the burden of silver taxation began to depress the livelihood of farmers in many parts of the empire.

3. Social stresses also grew as merchants competed for prestige with traditional literati elites in a growing culture of consumerism.

4. The political system was mired in moral rhetoric and factional conflict, and leaders paid little attention to the developing problems.

5. Meanwhile, beyond the Great Wall in the northeast, a new power was rising among the descendants of the Jurchen and their neighbors, which would become known as the Manchus and whose story we will explore in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance.

Supplemental Reading:

Yang Ye, Vignettes from the Late Ming.

Questions to Consider:

1. The late Ming was a period of great social anxiety about status, about values, and about power. In some ways, it was also a period of great freedom and individualism. What might be the relationship between these phenomena?

2. The power of the landowning elite to thwart the reforms of Zhang Juzheng suggests a contradiction between the role of the literati as agents of the imperial state and as protectors of their own economic class interests. How could China have resolved this contradiction?

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