AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 754

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Session 754: Literati’s Perceptions of the State in Ming China: Changes and Continuities

Organizer: Cho-ying Li, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

Chair: Joanna Handlin Smith, Harvard-Yenching Institute, USA

Discussant: Joanna Handlin Smith, Harvard-Yenching Institute, USA

The panel’s main concern is to survey what had changed and what persisted in literati’s perception of the state since the mid-Ming period. Historians have documented changes to all aspects of life in sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries China. This contradicts an older view that depicts China as a stagnant civilization unable to generate meaningful changes by itself. While the latter view has become obsolete because changes were truly real, it does remind us that the analysis of historical changes should not lose sight of the systems, cultures and ideas that endured the passage of time. Cho-ying Li’s paper examines the changes that occurred in the existing framework of water management. How the literati responded to the lingering but failing Ming institutions and how this affected their views of the state are the main issues. Tim Sedo’s discussion of Xu Guangqi’s proposal for locust control shows how Xu, besides showcasing new techniques and vocabulary, recast the problem in new “statecraft” and “public good” terms. Takeshi Yamazaki’s paper on the literati’s perception of Annam and its relationship with the Ming empire in the Jiajing reign shows how public opinions propelled the state to adopt an “imperialism without wars” foreign policy that defined the ensuing imperial history. Lastly, through a case study of Li Mengyang who rejected Daoxue’s political ideas, Chang Woei Ong’s paper argues that Li’s failure to establish himself as an important statecraft thinker shows that Daoxue’s views on state-society relations had continued to capture the imagination of the intellectual world.

Li Mengyang’s (1473-1529) Political Archaism and Perceptions of State-Society Relations in Ming China
Chang Woei Ong, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Li Mengyang was a pioneer of the mid-Ming literary archaist movement. Although Li’s greatest achievement is to be found in literary criticism, he was in fact a multi-dimensional thinker and he made serious claims about cosmology, ethics, politics and history. True to his archaist orientation, Li proposed different models from the past for different kinds of intellectual pursuit. This paper discusses Li Mengyang’s political archaism and special attention will be given to how Li viewed the Daoxue (Learning of the Way) legacy. A popular view depicts Li as an anti-Daoxue figure. My study however suggests that Li accepted Daoxue’s assumption about cosmology and ethics and agreed with the Daoxue claim that the high antiquity (sandai) was the golden age in history. For political discourses, Li still agreed with Daoxue’s assumption that sandai was a source of authority but now castigated the Song Daoxue masters for failing to understand the nature of sandai’s good governance. Moreover, sandai was not the only model; several emperors in the post-sandai period also received high praise from Li. How did his models compare with those proposed by the more influential statecraft writers of his time and why was he not being recognized as an established statecraft thinker? Answers to these questions will shed light on how Daoxue’s views on state-society relations continued to capture the imagination of the intellectual world at large in a time when its orthodox position had been called into question and challenges to it came from many quarters.

Environmental Governance and the Public Good in Xu Guangqi’s Treatise on Expelling Locusts
Tim R. Sedo, Concordia University, Canada

In his Complete Treatise on Agricultural Administration the well-known late Ming official and agriculturalist, Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) wrote “Prevention of [disastrous conditions] is the best strategy; preparations [against disasters] is [only] second-best, and [disaster] relief should be the last resort” Xu penned these words in the context of locust control in late imperial China. To Xu, locust disasters were unique compared to other disaster types found throughout Chinese history; while it was impossible to avoid floods, droughts and earthquakes, locust plagues could be prevented with better technical knowledge of locust biology along with more effective coordination and cooperation at all levels of state and society. To this end, Xu Guangqi collected an impressive array of historic and contemporary materials regarding locust management, and, along with his own suggestions, arranged them into a didactic work entitled, Treatise on Expelling locusts. At first glance, much of Xu’s Treatise is occupied with more technical issues surrounding locust biology and historical entomology; however, equally important to his work is the broader emphasis that he places on environmental management and the construction and maintenance of the “public good.” This paper steps back from the more technical issues found in Xu’s Treatise and explores the larger intellectual and moral context in which the text was produced. I argue that Xu’s work not only revolutionized the techniques and vocabulary used to combat locust infestations in the late imperial period, but also re-cast the entire problem into new statecraft and “public good” terms.

The Reconquista onto the South?: The Controversy Concerning the Conquest of Annam in Jiajing Era, Mid- Ming
Takeshi Yamazaki, Kyoto University, Japan

Among the many other tributary states, Annam was exceptionally controversial one. Because the country once had been a part of Chinese territory until the collapse of the Tang dynasty, many of Chinese literati regarded Annam as a lost piece of the empire’s own territory. As commercial and military transactions beyond the peripheral borders of China were developing throughout the sixteenth century, the ancestral orders of the Hongwu emperor, which had been functioning as the pre-established general consensus concerning the framework of international relationship, became open to doubt. The pretension for expanding southward formed a stream of public opinion at the time, although, meeting with severe oppositions, the military expedition was given up at last. While the tributary-states framework survived until the age of Nation-States, the Chinese population extended the spheres of their society as a transnational commercial network. The controversy on Annam was a turning point where the Ming China finally adopted the policy of imperialism without wars, which would afterward turn out to be quite cooperative and complementary to the European Imperialism.

Financial Rationalization and Public Good: Changing Statecraft in Mid-Ming Water Management
Cho-ying Li, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

I will examine in this paper how the practice in water management in the Lower Yangzi Delta during the mid-Ming—roughly from the 1460s to the 1560s—underwent a series of changes. I will argue that these changes were brought forth by the collaboration among officials and local elites in response to the institutional failure of the mechanisms set in the early Ming. At the core of their efforts was the attempt to restore effectiveness and fairness to water management. Given that the early-Ming mechanisms still lingered on, they first worked within the existing framework and then made necessary changes to it. Three aspects of how they put their collaboration into practice will be discussed: budget control, estimation of construction, and ethical discourse about distribution of responsibility. Regarding budget control, I will show that a tendency toward the distinction between famine relief and water management in using government funds took form in the late fifteenth century and stricter budgetary regulations were experimented with in the early sixteenth century. In respect of construction estimation, what will be analyzed are the calculating measures developed in conjunction with new ideas of “earth cube” and “daily workload.” As for ethical discourse, I will focus on the emergence of the “principle of benefit” that local elites proposed as a strategy to demand that the wealthy make contributions proportionate to their gain. My paper will provide a fresh picture in which public good was achieved through a changing statecraft that emphasized financial rationalization of water management.