12 February 2008

Ming China

So, learning history is much much easier when you have a story to hang it all on, and reading this has made me much more interested in the stuff that my Asian history class tried to teach me in college. Back then I couldn't remember names or places or keep the one separate from the other in my mind. It was just a big mish-mash. But now that I've got some story to hang the various parts and pieces on, I find that the history makes a lot more sense. Here's a bit from my old text book, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations.

The very early Ming was a period of vigorous Chinese military resurgence after the period of Mongol domination. The founder of the dynasty, Zhu Yuanshang ... (Mentioned on page 45 of 1421 - he's Zhu Di's rags-to-riches father.) For his era name he chose Hongwu, which means "grand military achievement," and his military accomplishments were certainly impressive. By the end of his reign, the Ming had won control of all China and dominated th frontier region from Hami, in Zinjang, north through Inner Mongolia and into northern Manchuria. (Here's a map of Ming China.) Beyond that, the Ming had won the subjugation of Korea as well as various Central and Southeastern Asian states which sent tribute. Chengzu, the third Ming emperor, often referred to by his reigh name, Yongle, continued his father's expansionist policy, leading five expeditions against teh Mongols, intervening in Annam and then incorporating it into the empire, and sending out great maritime expeditions, which established China as a naval power. (According to our Mr. Menzie, Zhu Di was 3rd Ming emporer, let me see if I can find any information about these 2 people. Ah, yes. Wikipedia and this other site will be happy to tell you about it.) The early Ming was thus a period of vigorous Chinese military resurgence coming after the period of Mongol domination.

(The father; no wonder I had such a hard time... in addition to each ruler having a fistful of names, the book is very equal-opportunity in using them all!) was a harsh and autocratic ruler. The position of Chancellor was abolished, and ministers now had to kneel in front of the emperor whereas in the Song (a previous dynasty) they had stood and in the Tang they had sat in the imperial presence. Taizu insisted on deciding personally even matters of secondary importance. A very hard worker, he went through stacks of memorials: in one period of ten days he is reported to have perused 1,660 memorials dealing with 3,391 separate matters. ... Merciless in exterminating those who stood in the way or were suspected of doing so, he obtained information through a secret service provided with its own prison and torturing apparatus. Officials who displease the emperor were subjected to beating in open court. Always painful and terribly humiliating, the beating was sometimes so severe that the victim died. ...

(our Zhu Di) was as politically and militarily vigorous as his father but did not follow the first emperor's example in all respects. After defeating his nephew, the second emperor, in a massive civil war, Chengzu moved the capitol from Nanjing to Beijing, which he largely rebuilt. To assure supplies for the capitol, he also reconstructed the Grand Canal. Just as severe as his father when it came to purging real or suspected opponents, he was better educated than Taizu and more generous in his patronage of Confucianism. ... He also sponsored major scholarly projects. The most grandiose of these was the compilation of a huge literary treasury, which employed more than 2000 scholars and when complete in 1408 resulted in a compendium of 22,877 rolls, or chapters. Under Chengzu the complete, unexpurgated Mencius (an influential book of Confucian philosophy.) was also once more available.

Looks like for this section, the textbook has some very similar although less detailed things to say about the Early Ming period of history. The next section goes on to talk about the Maritime Expeditions, mentioning the enormous fleet and the foreign envoys that are brought back to pay tribute to China. Apparently the King of Borneo was buried in China, outside of Nanjing, and you can still see his grave there today. But the text only lists destinations of "not only various areas of Southeast Asia but also the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa.(page 241)" It's not terribly surprising that it doesn't list all of the destinations that Mr. Menzies gives, as his reading of the history and the evidence for his conclusions in some cases, is new and controversial. At least it is in the West, and this is an English language textbook, published in the USA. Huge portions of our history will need to be re-written if Mr. Menzie is correct about many of his assertions at all!


misskate said...

I completely agree.. having a story to follow (and a consistent use of names) makes it ever so much easier to keep things straight in your head, and to stay interested and engaged. Kudos to Mr. Menzies :)

Thanks for posting this additional text from your text book. It's a nice comparison to our current book.

Ritsumei said...

No problem. I get curious about what other folks say when you read something that is as obviously controversial as this. And since I have a mess of Asian information sitting around my house waiting for me to finish absorbing it, well, it seemed like an opportune time.