[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked.]

I bought this book because of its charming title: 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline.

A year of no significance? It’s not often a history book makes me laugh, but that did. Sure, many history books investigate the insignificant, but your typical author doesn’t call your attention to it.

This book, by Ray Huang, was first published in the early 1980s; I came across it only recently as a recommendation on The Scholar’s Stage (a blog which I found through some link on ACX /SSC a while back.)

A little backstory: in my younger days, I thought it might be fun and useful to learn the entire history of the world. To that end, I started with accounts of archaeology and prehistory, then the ancient civilizations, classical antiquity, and so on until I lost momentum somewhere around Tamerlane and the Black Death.

Probably the biggest thing I learned is that human history is little more than 5000 years of gang war.

Whatever the dates some particular tribal pissing match took place, whomever its participants were, it probably deserves to be little noted nor long remembered. It’s only through story-telling that the actions of mortals become anything more than trivial data about primate behavior. And yet - once spun into a narrative, accounts of all-too-stereotypical gangs and their generic homicides can be transmuted into archetypes and national myths, inspiring poetry and heroism. History only becomes meaningful in the telling.

But it’s easy to tell too much - as Voltaire allegedly said, “the secret of being a bore is to tell everything.”

“Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?” as the Duke of Gloucester reportedly observed, on receiving one of the later volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Like Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall… , Ray Huang’s 1587 also tells the tale of a slowly decaying empire: in this case, the Ming dynasty of China.

Mercifully, Huang’s book is much shorter than Gibbon’s multi-volume epic.

1587 is just 200-some pages, including the appendix. So is it worth reading? Yeah, I’d say so.

Many Westerners are only familiar with the Ming dynasty as the source of those famously priceless antique vases which are forever getting accidentally smashed for the sake of comedy.

I suspect part of the reason Chinese history (and Asian history in general) is so widely neglected in the West is that Asian names can be difficult for Westerners to remember and pronounce accurately.

It’s challenging to represent Chinese words in alphabetical form; the Wade-Giles and Pinyin approaches are the two main methods. This book, from 1981, uses the older Wade-Giles system. On the other hand, a nice benefit of this book’s age is that it remains blessedly uncontaminated by any current “culture war” toxicity. Many of the main characters have Wikipedia pages under the newer Pinyin versions of their names, which I’ll link. I’ll also include the Pinyin version in parentheses where the spelling of the Wade-Giles version is significantly different, like this: Peking (Beijing).

To modern sensibilities, Ming dynasty China was a lurid and savage place, where the gaudy veneer of an ancient and decadent civilization lent pomp and polish to underlying currents of unreconstructed barbarism. No doubt some of Robert E. Howard’s depictions of his Conan character adventuring and buccaneering and conquering in fictional exotic lands were inspired in part by his impression of the legendary dynasties of imperial China. But 1587 has no unambiguously heroic protagonist, nor any dramatic resolution: in some ways it truly was “a year of no significance.”

The settings and characters certainly lend themselves to the tropes of fantasy fiction: the Forbidden City, the Emperor’s Tomb, the Gate of Polar Convergence, the Literary Depth Pavilion - so many evocative names. The action involves floggings, concubines, eunuchs, dynastic scheming, and battles with Japanese pirates. Yet this is not some bodice-ripping work of historical fiction: it’s well-sourced and vetted history, with plenty of primary source citations.

The author, Ray Huang, does not fit the mold of the typical academic historian - his personal history is interesting in its own right. He was born in China in 1918, during that fleeting era between imperial and communist rule when China was, briefly, a republic.

Huang first went to university to study electrical engineering, but during the World War II years he became an Army officer. He saw combat, recovered from a gunshot wound to the leg, and rose to the level of Major in an elite Chinese military unit known as the New First Army, which was aligned with U.S. forces. They battled Japanese troops in south-east Asia and, later, Chinese Communists during the Chinese Civil War. Huang graduated from the American Army Staff College in 1947, but after the victory of the Chinese Communists on the mainland, and the retreat of the Chinese Nationalists to Taiwan, Huang stayed in the U.S. and took up the study of Chinese history, obtaining a doctorate degree in 1964 (when he was 46). 1587 is his best-known and most widely acclaimed book, but he enjoyed a long and successful academic career and also contributed to Joseph Needham’s opus Science and Civilisation in China.

Huang’s writing is clear, evocative, and psychologically insightful - the back cover of my paperback edition features several paragraphs of critical acclaim, including one from the American literary novelist John Updike.

This is especially impressive given that Huang learned English as a second language. A charming idiosyncrasy of his style is how he refers to Ming dynasty China as “our Empire” - this drew me in, making me feel as if that world were somehow mine.

Here’s a telling example of his approach, where he’s talking about the fancy outfits the Chinese emperors used to wear. He notes that, unlike European royalty: “Ming emperors wore no metal crowns”.

“The most formal hat worn by the sovereign was a rectangular black mortarboard, with the shorter edges facing front and rear. Dangling from each of the two edges were twelve strings of beads. The curtainlike beads in front of his eyes and behind the nape of his neck must have made the wearer uncomfortable, compelling him to remain solemn and steady and to move very deliberately.”

This reminded me of a couple of current Chinese practices: how military officers sometimes place pins in the collars of soldiers’ uniforms to correct their posture when they’re ordered to stand at attention, and how preschool students are “required to sit in their seats with their arms at their sides, and their feet flat on a line of tape on the ground … not an easy task for three-year-olds.”

This points toward an old and deep aspect of Chinese culture: the belief that stillness holds great power and should be cultivated. This is true whether you’re a soldier, a preschooler, or the emperor of China.

The main man in this story is known as the Wan-Li Emperor. His family name was Chu (Wade-Giles) or Zhu (in Pinyin). His personal name combined the characters for “joy” and “king.” Like most high-ranking individuals of his day, he had way too many other official names and titles - this book, to my relief, doesn’t go down that rabbithole. Our author sticks to calling him “Wan-li.”

Wan-li was only eight when the early death of his father (at age 35) set him upon the throne of imperial China. He grew up in the Forbidden City, which he was forbidden to leave.

“The Forbidden City, an area of a quarter of a square mile, was covered with blocks of glaze-tiled palatial buildings and ceremonial halls and gates, marble terraces, and endless painted galleries.”

For about 500 years the Forbidden City, surrounded by a moat and located inside the much larger city of Peking (Beijing), was the nucleus of the Chinese Empire. It had been created several generations earlier at the behest of the Ming dynasty’s third emperor (Wan-li was the 14th). This giant, rambling palace outlived the dynasty which created it, and went on to serve as the headquarters of the subsequent and final Ching (Qing) dynasty as well.

There’s a film from 1987, The Last Emperor , directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, which was shot in the real Forbidden City and uses it to great effect as a set for the first half of the film. It won multiple Oscars for its depiction of the last Qing Emperor’s life (which, in several ways, was comparable to the life of Wan-li.)

“in becoming emperor, Wan-li lost much of his personal identity and had little private life. Even when he moved about inside the palace compound, he was accompanied by a large retinue led by eunuchs who cleared the path with whips.”

The head of the vast imperial bureaucracy in those days was known as the Grand Secretary. There are two important Grand Secretaries in this story: the first is Grand Secretary Chang (Zhang), who served as head tutor for the young emperor and effectively ruled the land in Wan-li’s name until Wan-li came of age.

Grand Secretary Chang was strong-willed, and made serious efforts to improve and optimize the imperial government. Unfortunately for his historical reputation, he also made serious efforts to enrich himself by taking advantage of his privileged position, while most of his “improvements” - like strict enforcement of outdated tax collection mandates - proved unsustainable and ineffective. He undermined his claim to public-spirited high-mindedness with a generous amount of self-dealing, and vindictive persecution of anyone who crossed him - flogging was one option, and not the sexy kind.

One autumn day, Grand Secretary Chang’s father died. According to Confucian tradition, Chang should have returned to his native district and taken 27 months of bereavement leave. Chang was a lot more interested in staying right next to the 15-year-old emperor and making sure his own interests were not compromised by two years of absence from the court. Wan-li asked him to stay, as a special “national security” type of exemption from the demands of Confucian filial piety. The imperial bureaucracy - the Civil Service - was outraged by this break with tradition. After asking the Emperor to reconsider, and being rebuffed, they began an organized campaign of submitting censorious memos, urging Wan-li with increasing insistence to reverse his decision and send Chang away to do what was right in the eyes of the ancestors. This campaign didn’t last long:

“The first two memorialists were beaten sixty strokes in front of the Meridian Gate with whipping clubs … the other two remonstrators were dealt twenty more strokes than the first two because of their bold arguments … The soldiers at the Silk Robe Guard always had a political sense of how exactly the beating should be administered, and in this case the wrath of the grand-secretary was carried out in full force. Thus the first dozen strokes had already ripped the skin of the victims; the successive blows simply kneaded human flesh with blood-soaked whipping clubs. One of the victims lost consciousness; it was a miracle that he survived. … After the beating the soldiers carried the offending memorialists away on canvas sheets and dumped them on the pavement outside the Imperial City. Their families were permitted to take them home.”

The literary scholars of the Civil Service subsequently decided that this controversy wasn’t a hill they wanted to die on, and stopped remonstrating.

And that’s where the soap opera really kicks in: Wan-li married his first wife, the Empress Consort, when he was still 15, which allowed him to get out from under adult supervision a little bit. Soon he became something of a hedonistic teenage playboy: he began indulging in drinking parties with eunuchs and palace women.

Eventually he got a little too carried away with his drunken shenanigans; there was a big showdown with mom. Soon after, the eunuchs who were perceived as bad influences got sent away, permanently. Wan-li toned down the drinking parties, but no one could stop him from having a good time with his ladies.

“The hundreds of palace women were the emperor’s property; no relationship involving them with him was illicit, because any liaison could be legitimated by granting the lady in question the title of secondary wife. The Ruler of All Men was entitled to one empress, usually one principal consort, a number of associate consorts, and still more concubines…the throne must widen the possibility of producing male offspring to assure regular succession.”

No doubt this arrangement sounds great if you’re the Emperor. As a background for a certain range of sexual fantasies, it has potential:

“Those nymphs inside the Forbidden City became a frequent topic of erotic literature. They were likened to sculptured jade yet said to be freshly fragrant, appearing either as voluptuous as fully blossomed peach trees glowing in the morning sun, or as slender and delicate as jasmine vibrating in an evening breeze.”

But, our author points out, the reality was rarely as hot as the fantasy, and it was actually a pretty sad life for most of the ladies.

Honestly, this scenario almost makes the Forbidden City sound like some kind of insect colony - one breeding male: all the other thousands of males are servants with no genitals (castration in ancient China was thorough), and a hierarchy of hundreds of females, many of whom would never have sex or children.

Wan-li eventually sired eight sons and ten daughters with eight different women. His first wife did not bear him a son, so she became a minor character; the two women who had the biggest impact on his story were Lady Wang, the mother of his first son, and Lady Cheng (Zheng), who became his favorite and was the mother of his third son (his second did not survive infancy).

Wan-li decided he liked Lady Cheng best, and wanted his son with her to become the heir to the throne, rather than his (elder) son by Lady Wang. The imperial bureaucracy hated this idea: it went against tradition. They hated it even more than the breach of filial piety Grand-Secretary Chang had committed by not taking two years and three months of bereavement leave.

The entire legitimacy and power of the bureaucracy rested on the legitimacy of Chinese tradition, and therefore its primary goal was to ensure adherence and allegiance to tradition. There was no real system of checks and balances in the government of imperial China - the Emperor could, and did, dispose of any particular official who became an irritant. But, realistically, he lacked the power to replace the entire government. If the scholar-bureaucrats were united against his opinion, he had a very limited ability to impose his will over their objections. And the writing of censorious memos regarding the inappropriate behavior of anyone and everyone, including the Emperor, was itself a longstanding tradition.

This led to a standoff, where neither side would back down yet neither could unilaterally enforce its will. We’ll get to the ramifications of that in a sec.

But first, Grand Secretary Chang dies in 1582, and this becomes essential background for the events of the book’s titular year.

Once Grand Secretary Chang was dead and buried, everyone he’d ever pissed off went out of their way to expose all the bad, amoral, improper, or even questionable things he’d ever done, and weaponized that information against his loyalists. Wan-li still had some fond memories of his childhood tutor, but as more and more details of Chang’s self-aggrandizing behavior came to light, Wan-li began to regard him as a duplicitous schemer who had consistently put his own interests well above the Emperor’s or anyone else’s.

Of course Chang was quickly replaced, by the other important Grand Secretary of this story: Grand Secretary Shen. Shen doesn’t have a Wikipedia page as of this writing, but he was kind of a big deal for a while - in 1587, Shen had been grand secretary for four years.

Shen was regarded as gentler than his predecessor Chang, but our author assures us “There is little truth to the statement that he was nothing more than a good-natured gentleman.”

Shen was good at navigating the bureaucracy. Experienced, diplomatic and tactful, he got things done within (and despite) the elaborate and etiquette-bound imperial system.

His office was located in the Literary Depth Pavilion, which featured a statue of Confucius in the main hall, and libraries extending into the attic. His style of personnel management was much less draconian than his predecessor’s had been, so the bureaucracy warmed up to him pretty quickly - and so did the young Emperor, who even presented Shen with a specially commissioned jacket with the character for “felicity” embroidered on it, as a token of esteem.

Shen had more mixed success in handling practical matters outside the realm of the literary bureaucracy. When the Yellow River burst its dikes in 1587, Shen did well overseeing the mitigation and rebuilding efforts, exerting his political influence to ensure that the best qualified people were chosen to lead the operation. On the other hand, also in 1587, Shen judged that a disagreement between a governor and a district director in China’s northeastern province was a matter of no significance (like everything else that year) and ignored their dispute. This was a mistake. The governor and district director held opposite views on how to deal with a certain troublesome border chieftain named Nurhaci.

The district director favored appeasement, while the governor wanted to crush Nurhaci with military force. Ignored by the central government and working at cross-purposes, their response to Nurhaci’s growing dominion over other troublesome tribes in the area was feckless and irresolute. This eventually proved fatal to the Ming dynasty: Nurhaci is the founder of the Manchu, who went on to defeat the Ming forces and establish China’s final dynasty: the Ching (Qing).

At the time, Grand Secretary Shen and most of the top bureaucrats were more worried about Wan-li’s succession planning than any potential threats from outside the empire.

In 1587, the Year of the Pig: “the Wan-Li emperor was still only twenty-four years old; but he had been ruler for fifteen years. The time-span seemed even longer because of so many repetitious and tiring routines…. Alert observers could tell that the emperor was either tired or bored or both. He had chosen as essay topic for the last palace examination a theme related to the Taoist doctrine that good government could be maintained while the ruler did nothing.”

“[Wan-li] did not even publicly announce his intention of making his third son heir, although to others it was as clear as though it were written. As a result, no attempt was made to impeach him; no civil war broke out; there was no rebellion. Yet for well over a decade the sovereign continued to engage in this odd struggle of endurance with the civil officials.”

“Civil officials…realized from past experience that at this point an unintentional gesture or speech, or even silence on their part, could many years later be seized upon by their enemies as evidence of treason … yet the danger also offered opportunities for the bold and daring to demonstrate their righteousness, with full knowledge that their audacity could very well lead them to future martyrdom…. They delivered the most provocative [memos] to the emperor and, when that was not enough, printed seditious pamphlets and circulated inflammatory handbills.”

“Unless their suggestions were immediately adopted, [they] usually argued, the sovereign would surely sink into the vilest infamy, his ancestors would cry out in their graves, and the foundation of the state would crumble.”

“block printing was in wide public use… anonymous pamphlets and pseudonymous literature appeared in Peking to stir up and intensify the controversy”.

Grand Secretary Shen, true to form, tried to use tact and diplomacy to placate both sides of the controversy in order to resolve the situation amicably, but this time it didn’t work. His placating words to the Emperor were repeated to the civil officials, who interpreted them as a betrayal of their cause. As a result, Shen was forced offstage, left to compose his memoirs in retirement.

Wan-li might have begun to notice some similarities between his civil servants and the strings of beads on his fanciest black hat at this point. His status as Emperor was subject to bafflingly extreme constraints, despite his nominally absolute authority.

Wan-li was barely allowed to leave the Forbidden City - he managed to take only a handful of short trips outside of it in his entire life.

“Was the benefit of occupying the imperial throne worth so many restrictions? He had no say in deciding that either. He had become the Son of Heaven by birth, not choice.”

This ironic powerlessness of a seemingly supreme monarch, more a pampered prisoner of the Forbidden City than the lord of everything under heaven, reminded me strongly of a major theme of The Golden Bough by James Frazer, a pioneering work in the anthropology of religion which has continually caused controversy since its first publication in 1890. It’s no more “scientific” than comparable 19th-century theories from formerly valorized - and now generally discredited - authors like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, or Mary Baker Eddy. That said, Frazer never claimed his theories were anything more than speculative, and he wasn’t wrong about everything. His accounts of widespread ancient belief in sacrificial god-kings seem relevant to Wan-li’s story:

“in early society the king or priest is often thought to be endowed with supernatural powers or to be an incarnation of a deity; in consequence of which the course of nature is supposed to be more or less under his control, and he is held responsible for bad weather, failure of the crops, and similar calamities.

The greatest care must, therefore, be taken both by and of him; and his whole life, down to its minutest details, must be so regulated that no act of his, voluntary or involuntary, may disarrange or upset the established order of nature.”

Frazer cites several cross-cultural examples of rites performed by such god-kings to ensure the harvest; some of his sources appear legit, others not so much - but here’s a clearly legitimate example from Huang’s book:

“The symbolic value of the office of the monarchy was amply illustrated by the ritualistic farming performed by the emperor every spring in front of the Altar of Earth. Actors dressed up as deities of wind, clouds, thunder, and rain”.

Wan-li’s part was to hold a whip in his left hand and guide a ceremonial plow, carved with a dragon and painted in gold, with his right. He was to lead a procession across the field three times, then retire to his tent to watch his courtiers complete the ceremony by seeding the ground.

“No sooner was the soil covered than actors in peasant clothing presented five principal grains to the emperor, simulating a good harvest.”

For a related example from Japan, let’s consult the delightfully named Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician who lived in Japan for several years in the 1690s. He wrote:

“those who sit on the throne, are looked upon as persons most holy in themselves … they are obliged to take an uncommon care of their sacred persons, and to do such things, which, examined according to the customs of other nations, would be thought ridiculous and impertinent. [The Emperor of Japan] thinks that it would be very prejudicial to his dignity and holiness to touch the ground with his feet; for this reason, when he intends to go anywhere, he must be carried thither on men’s shoulders.”

The late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard likewise once boasted “I don’t walk! I get carried!” (On “Reunited” from the second Wu-Tang Clan album.) There is, of course, no end to the similarities between Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the emperors of Japan, not least of which is their arrogation of divine status to themselves - to wit, the imperial Japanese claim of direct genealogical descent from the goddess of the sun and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s alternate noms-de-rap of Osiris and Big Baby Jesus.

Our German friend Engelbert continues:

“In ancient times, [the Japanese emperor] was obliged to sit on the throne for some hours every morning, with the imperial crown on his head, but to sit altogether like a statue, without stirring either hands or feet, head or eyes, nor indeed any part of his body, because, by this means, it was thought that he could preserve peace and tranquility in his empire”.

“But it having been afterwards discovered that the imperial crown … could preserve peace in the empire, it was thought expedient to deliver his imperial person, consecrated only to idleness and pleasures, from this burthensome duty, and therefore the crown is at present placed on the throne for some hours every morning.”

(Metonymy is rarely useful as a lifehack, but Japanese emperors agree that this one weird trick will save you several hours of sitting motionless on a throne.)

In 1572, when Wan-li was 9, people around the world witnessed a supernova (now called SN 1572) which Huang describes as:

“the size of a saucer and orange in color … the heaven-sent portent made a strong impression on Wan-li. On the advice of Tutor Chang, he fully examined himself for bad thoughts, speech, and conduct. Since even the regularity of the universe depended upon the young emperor’s character and wisdom, he had no choice but to be thrifty, diligent, sincere, and courteous on all occasions”.

Frazer concludes:

“The idea that early kingdoms are despotisms in which the people exist only for the sovereign, is wholly inapplicable to the monarchies we are considering. On the contrary, the sovereign in them exists only for his subjects; his life is only valuable so long as he discharges the duties of his position by ordering the course of nature for his people’s benefit.

A king of this sort lives hedged in by a ceremonious etiquette, a network of prohibitions and observances…. Far from adding to his comfort, these observances, by trammeling his every act, annihilate his freedom and often render the very life, which it is their object to preserve, a burden and sorrow to him.”

This is not a bad description of Wan-li’s situation. Huang asserts:

“In providing the best leadership to an empire such as ours, there was no substitute for ritualistic proceedings. The emperor did not have a formidable army at his command; he did not even have a large land base. He remained the Son of Heaven only because everybody believed that he was. This belief required the ritualistic exercises involving the sovereign and his chief ministers to be enacted with vigor and regularity … the many rounds of kowtowing reaffirmed imperial supremacy … obviously a degree of make-believe was involved; but make-believe is not necessarily unreal.”

I suppose something about the “socially constructed” nature of empire would be appropriate here - “socially constructed” meaning those aspects of reality which depend on human opinion, like money, or the law. As opposed to aspects of reality which are indifferent to human opinion, like gravity or chemical reactions. With the former, a little make-believe can go a surprisingly long way, and the fate of nations and god-kings may hang in the balance.

But Wan-li did not want to spend his whole life re-enacting a tedious role which he had no say in choosing. He had been a gifted student, with a talent for calligraphy and an interest in reading newly printed popular literature. But as he grew more estranged from the bureaucracy he became less and less interested in the Four Classics of Taoism and Confucianism which were regarded as something akin to holy writ, and which comprised the entirety of his officially prescribed studies. He started “banging out sick,” claiming to suffer from various vague ailments which prevented him from showing up for most of the endless, ponderous rites and ceremonies and study sessions which were intended to take up most of his days.

A different sort of man would have mustered all the imperial authority at his disposal and tried to take the reins of empire, carving out a new role for himself. But Wan-li’s temperament was more passive, and his upbringing had thoroughly indoctrinated him against any such revolutionary behavior.

“If the word of the eunuchs can be trusted, Lady Cheng was frequently unhappy about the emperor’s indecisiveness. In such instances she would shout at him, ‘You are an old lady!’”

If Wan-li ever considered standing up for himself and forcefully asserting his prerogatives, maybe even attempting to reform or at least improve the imperial government, he didn’t really have a lot of role models. His grand-uncle Cheng-Te (Zheng-De) had been a bad-ass rebel emperor, who certainly defied the bureaucracy and did as he pleased, but his legacy was presented to Wan-li as a cautionary tale:

“Cheng-te had ascended the throne in 1505 when he was not yet 14 [He was] endowed with unusual physical courage and a great deal of energy and creative curiosity … which he pursued with all the authority at his command”.

“Cheng-te surrounded himself with “eunuchs, courtesans, Lamaist monks, and magicians from other lands … His favorite pastimes were fishing and hunting. Once at least he was wounded by a tiger when he was learning to tame it”.

“He loved to drink and play games with his subordinates. He could not care less if a charming companion was a prostitute, was married, or even pregnant.”

He took a great interest in the military, riding with his troops and even engaging in combat against the Mongols. But he left no heir when he died, after drunkenly falling into the Yellow River during a fishing expedition.

The Civil Service bureaucrats, of course, had been scandalized to the core by this wild behavior, and redoubled their efforts to ensure that no future Ming emperor would behave with such berserk impropriety. For better or worse, none did.

Eventually, the succession issue could be put off no longer:

“In the end Wan-li had to yield to public opinion, but grudgingly and most bitterly. When the eldest imperial son was finally designated his successor and the third son, Prince Fu, sent off to a provincial home, the wound thus inflicted did not heal”.

“The emperor derived a malicious satisfaction from leaving numerous high-ranking positions inside and outside the capital unfilled”.

He ignored the bureaucrats’ indignant memos, and their beloved tradition offered no guidance on how to deal with a ruler who ignored his traditional obligations yet “in doing so was literally following the Taoist doctrine of inaction.”

The last time Wan-li ever ventured outside the Forbidden City was to visit his own tomb. Constructed during his lifetime, its interior bears comparison to the interiors of the pyramids of Egypt. (The exterior is less monumental.) Referred to superstitiously as the Mysterious Palace,

“the stone structure itself and its furnishings carried the imperial insignia of dragons and phoenixes, the bases of the stone furniture near the ground level were carved with designs of the lotus … gold and silver utensils and porcelain water jars and wash basins gave the setting a sense of realism, only to be offset by the presence of wooden horses and servants carved in the size of toys.”

In many respects, this description sounds a lot like the tombs of the pharaohs, especially those who were buried in the Valley of the Kings. Small wonder, since their lives were similar as well.

The 1st-century BCE historian Diodorus Siculus, in his multi-volume epic The Library of History wrote:

“The life of the kings of Egypt was not like that of other monarchs who are irresponsible and may do just what they choose; on the contrary, everything was fixed for them by law, not only their official duties, but even the details of their daily life”.

“For not only were the times appointed at which [the Pharaoh] should transact public business or sit in judgment; but the very hours for his walking and bathing and sleeping with his wife, and, in short, performing every act of life, were all settled. Custom enjoined a simple diet; the only flesh he might eat was veal and goose, and he might only drink a prescribed quantity of wine.”

So how well did the rest of the government function, given that the ruler was not really calling the shots, most days? I think we’ll get a better answer to that question by first zooming forward a few millennia, from ancient Egypt to the U.S.A.

In his famous book Democracy in America , Alexis De Tocqueville warns against the dangers of overly centralized government administration, describing how the America he visited (in the early 1800s) enjoyed an extremely de centralized administration and - in a footnote - speculates that China (which he never visited) was pretty much the opposite:

“China appears to me to present the most perfect instance of that species of well-being which a completely central administration may furnish to the nations among which it exists. Travelers assure us that the Chinese have peace without happiness, industry without improvement, stability without strength, and public order without public morality. The condition of society is always tolerable, never excellent. I am convinced that, when China is opened to European observation, it will be found to contain the most perfect model of a central administration which exists in the universe.”

Huang largely confirms this assessment, but with important caveats. He acknowledges it seems like a bad idea for the civil service of a vast empire to be run by academic bureaucrats who, in many cases, had never worked outside of the capital city, but explains:

“our empire was created to be controlled from the center by documents; field experience or the lack of it made very little difference. There were 1,100 counties within the realm, of which each magistrate was appointed by His Majesty the Emperor. Could any one sitting in the capital really control how these magistrates managed their districts? Of course not. The best he could do was to investigate their characters, and through personal evaluation at periodic intervals divide the magistrates into categories and earmark them for promotion and demotion … the greater part of governmental business involved personnel management and was basically settled on paper according to general standards.”

Each magistrate served a three-year term, sometimes in districts where the locals spoke dialects which he might not even understand.

“the best he could hope for was that the district would remain in reasonably good order and its tax quota be fulfilled. In discharging these responsibilities he actually implemented a kind of indirect rule: he must invite and inspire the support of the local gentry. This group … being men of substance in rural communities, could be induced to make their influence prevail over the populace until taxes were paid on time”.

So, despite its utter centralization and dependence on bureaucratic paperwork, the administration of imperial China usually allowed each district to continue practicing its local, traditional culture and sort out its own affairs under the guidance of local luminaries, while the imperial magistrates served as emissaries of a higher power, remaining largely aloof from day-to-day affairs.

This was entirely in accordance with ancient Chinese political philosophy. A maxim from the Tao Te Ching (one of the foundational texts of Chinese civilization) states: “Govern a great country as you would cook a small fish.” The implication being: minimally, lightly. For the most part, this philosophy served China well over the centuries, and it’s probably part of the reason we even have centuries of Chinese history to consult.

This is still pre-Enlightenment political thought, with entirely too much magical thinking, bureaucratic to a fault, and placing complete faith in a system which was neither readily adaptable nor responsive to changing circumstances. Yet any cultural system which survives for thousands of years must be doing something right, especially when compared to what everyone else was doing.

I can’t point to any particular insights in this book as specifically relevant to present-day China, because the things I don’t understand about present-day China would fill several books. But I am sure that a person better informed than I am about Chinese current events could draw some thought-provoking parallels.

1587 does seem to me like an essential puzzle piece for anyone trying to get a deeper understanding of Chinese history. It emphasizes how people behaved when things were running true to form, instead of focusing on convulsive and dramatic changes, as history books tend to do. And it casts a glance toward the surprisingly important long-term effects of those seemingly ordinary events.

I mean, it’s interesting in its own right that China is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, but the really unusual aspect of Chinese civilization is how much continuity there’s been. Dynasties came and went, and certainly the last century or two have differed greatly from previous millennia, but in some respects it’s as if the cultural milieu of the ancient pharaohs continued to thrive as a potent undercurrent of cultural force in modern Egypt. It is difficult to understand the culture of any civilized land without knowing something of its history, but this is especially true in China’s case.

In 1587, Europe was just on the verge of entering its Baroque era.

“I would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources,” said the famous Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges.

There’s something of a baroque quality to the culture of the Ming dynasty as well. Huang provides several examples, describing scenes that illustrate the grandeur of empire.

For example, in 1587, there were around two thousand civil servants working in the imperial capital. Huang reports:

“It was always a spectacular scene when they assembled in their service robes, rank 4b and above in red and rank 5a and below in blue. They all wore black lacquer-treated hats with wings protruding sideways. Their black boots had very thick soles, the sides of which were trimmed with white lacquer. Their ceremonial belts, more like loops dangling loosely from their waists but never drawn tight, were backed with jade, rhinoceros horn, and gold and silver pieces that added splendor to the sight of the assembly as they glittered in the sun, showing the grades of the wearers’ ranks.

The badge of rank itself was called the ‘mandarin square,’ a chest-piece embroidered with elegant birds, always in pairs. The top rank (1) was represented by two stately cranes soaring above clouds, the lowest rank (9) by a couple of earthbound quail pecking the grass.”

The execution of prisoners of war was also done with theatrical ceremony:

“[The emperor] sat on the tower atop the Meridian Gate overlooking the granite-paved courtyard, flanked by general officers who held noble titles. Lined up next to them was a full battalion of imperial guards, soldiers of gigantic stature clad in shiny armor and helmets adorned with red tassels. Down below, while thousands of court officials and soldiers watched, the prisoners, in chains and red cloth with holes cut out for their necks, were forced to kneel on the stone pavement. Then the minister of justice came forward to read aloud a list of the crimes those prisoners had committed against humanity. Upon completion of the charges, he petitioned the emperor that the prisoners be executed in the marketplace. The reply from the throne - ‘Take them there; be it so ordered’ - could not have been heard by all present. The order, however, was repeated by the two nobles standing immediately next to the sovereign and then echoed in succession by four, eight, sixteen, and thirty-two guardsmen, until it touched off a thundering shout of the same order by the entire battalion of soldiers”.

And can I just note that Huang’s chapter headings reminded me of Borges’ short story titles from his collection A Universal History of Infamy? For example:

  • “The Implausible Imposter Tom Castro” vs. “Hai Jui the Eccentric Model Official”

  • “The Widow Ching - Pirate” vs. “The Living Ancestor”

  • “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell” vs. “Ch’i Chi-Kuang the Lonely General”

(Spoiler alert: all three examples are Borges vs. Huang.)

For all I know, Huang might have actually been influenced by Borges - A Universal History of Infamy was published in English translation in 1972, while Huang apparently completed his manuscript around 1976. If not a direct influence, the two authors still share a knack for the wry, dry turn of phrase and the one-chapter biography.

The last three chapters of 1587 are profiles of three noteworthy men from that era, each of whom, in his distinctive way, vied to achieve greatness. Our author uses these brief biographies to double back and revisit the years leading up to 1587 from three different perspectives. He analyzes how, despite their best efforts, none of these hard-working, accomplished, and relatively famous individuals were able to steer the ruling culture away from its downward slide. Even though the relatively unremarkable events of the year 1587 did not amount to any great crisis, the tipping point had been reached: the fortunes of the Ming dynasty began to decline henceforth, and never recovered. The inertial momentum of the system, the difficulty of coordinating major changes, and the Wan-li Emperor’s choice to act as a passive-aggressive obstacle to the functioning of the imperial bureaucracy conspired to render futile anyone’s efforts toward progress or reform.

One of the seemingly insignificant events of 1587 was the death of Hai Jui (Rui), the censor-in-chief at Nanking (Nanjing).

“Hai Jui’s convictions and temperament dictated that he would be both a highly regarded and a lonely man.” Uncompromising and full of high principle, Hai’s rigid moral outlook appears to have been sincere, and his tragedy consists of it not being enough.

Hai Jui first made a name for himself as a county magistrate, in a county fairly far from the seat of imperial power, who was willing to stick his neck out and make a stand to prevent corrupt imperial officials from taking advantage of his local countrymen.

Huang, in a footnote, remarks: “In some respects, this circumstance resembles an aspect of the American Western frontier. When a gap occurred between the law and law enforcement, individuals tended to take the administration of justice into their own hands. In such an environment a person’s rugged character was highly valued.”

During his long (though sporadically interrupted) career as a Ming dynasty official, Hai attacked corruption every chance he got, and was honest to the point of tactlessness when condemning what he regarded as insufficiently moral behavior, whether on the part of his subordinates or his superiors. Early in his career, he offered some unsolicited, unwelcome, and not uncritical advice to Wan-li’s grandfather, the Chia-ching (Jia-jing) Emperor. His reward was imprisonment and a death sentence. He only survived because Chia-ching dropped dead first - probably because he drank too many alchemical potions which were supposed to confer longevity but, ironically, contained mercury. After regaining his freedom and returning to the civil service, Hai spent considerable effort trying to rectify unjust land ownership customs which allowed the upper classes to take advantage of the peasantry.

Hai was widely, if perhaps naively, admired for his intransigent devotion to his austere conception of virtue. He represented the idealistic side of the older generation when he died at 73, in 1587, the Year of the Pig. In some respects, he could be considered the polar opposite of the notoriously pragmatic Grand Secretary Chang, who had died a few years earlier. But our author points out: “Few had given thought to the fact that both men, in their distinctive ways, were seeking directions in which the empire could be led.” Ultimately, neither cynical pragmatism nor militant idealism proved sufficient to lead the Ming dynasty away from its gravity well of tradition.

When the great Ming general Ch’i Chi-Kuang (Qi Jiguang) died in January of 1588 it was still the 12th month of the Year of the Pig according to the Chinese lunar calendar. So his lonely death still counts as one of the events in our “year of no significance.”

General Ch’i won his fame battling Japanese pirates in the wetlands of coastal southern China, and winning. He secured his fame by writing the New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu), which describes his military innovations and recommendations for the benefit of future generations.

The “Japanese pirates” were not much like Captain Morgan or Jack Sparrow - they were really more like Vikings. Annual raiding parties would sail in from Japan, where they would set up armed bandit camps and raid the surrounding countryside. Often joined by disenfranchised or disgruntled locals, they posed a serious threat to public order all along the southeast coast, from Shanghai to the Taiwan Strait.

General Ch’i’s book gives a lot of details about what he needed to do to whip the Chinese army into shape and vanquish the pirates:

“[He] settled the recruiting procedure, decided the pay scale … standardized the organization of combat formations, selected weapons, outlined the duties of individual soldiers and their officers, designed his own banners and coordinating signals, invented his own tactics and schemes of maneuver, prescribed military etiquette, and issued his own orders of court martial .. he even handed out a recipe for making field rations!”

He also incentivized volunteer troops by offering “thirty ounces of silver for each enemy head cut off and turned in.”

General Ch’i’s innovative tactics included incorporating early gunpowder weapons alongside swords and spears and cavalry. The most adaptable and successful of Ming generals, after his victories in southern China he was transferred to the north.

Facing a very different type of hostile force - the Mongols - he decided to upgrade the Great Wall of China. General Ch’i was responsible for “the construction of castlelike watchtowers along the Great Wall, designed to house 30 to 50 soldiers.” Around 1200 of these three-story towers were built according to his directions.

Having found a patron in Grand Secretary Chang, who appreciated Ch’i’s pragmatism and effectiveness, he fell out of favor after Chang’s death. His wife left him and he died in poverty and uncelebrated, mainly because the Civil Service was suspicious of effective military power, viewing it as a potential threat, and seized on Chang’s posthumous disgrace as an excuse to get rid of anyone else associated with him whom they feared or disliked.

The bureaucrats’ determination to prevent any chance of a military coup, however, left the imperial defense forces weak and mismanaged, so Ch’i’s lonely death in the Year of the Pig - seemingly of no significance - really represented the death of any hope for the Ming dynasty to survive the coming assault of the Manchu.

The final chapter of 1587 profiles Li Chi (Li Zhi) who is remembered as a philosopher like Socrates - at least in the sense that he killed himself due to persecution by the authorities. Li didn’t drink hemlock: he took a straight razor to his own throat. But he could also qualify as an early prototype of the Hollywood guru, one of those people who floats around in the realm of celebrities, looking wise in a fashionable way and saying vaguely Buddhist things without actually practicing Buddhism.

Li’s early career was full of poverty and misery, as he tried and largely failed to support a family while working as a low-level civil servant. At 53 he had a mid-life crisis, retired from the Civil Service, sent his wife away, shaved his head and went to live in a Buddhist temple. There he studied both Buddhism and Taoism, in an effort to find some solace in philosophy and spiritualism.

Soon he began to write his own philosophical works, which gained favor among some well-to-do patrons. Before long, he had founded an independent chapel called the “Hall of Buddha in Fragrant Iris,” which was not officially part of any Buddhist sect.

“The main building consisted of two wings. There were also dormitories and guest houses. Built on a cliff overlooking a lake, Li’s own cottage was on a most imposing height behind the complex. Normally the ‘hall’ had more than forty monks under the direction of an abbot, who was also Li Chih’s friend. These monks introduced to the establishment their disciples, who could also have their own novices.”

Although Li’s voluminous writings were all the rage with the well-off and philosophically inclined literary scholars of the day, his cult-like compound and nonconformist views got him in trouble with the conservative local gentry. They came to regard him as a lunatic who “stood for everything contrary to law and order and decency.” He was accused of promoting immorality, jailed, and sentenced to be banished to his remote province of origin. He killed himself in jail. Li had tried his best to spearhead an intellectual and spiritual renaissance, but the culture of the Ming dynasty was hostile to novelties of that sort.

As for the Wan-li Emperor, after complaining of various vague ailments for many years he died peacefully enough - although rumor has it that he had become addicted to opium, which might explain some things. His last journey out of the imperial city was to rest forever in his monumental tomb. (Or maybe not forever - the Emperor’s tomb was looted and desecrated by Chairman Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.)

So what are the takeaways from this study of 1587, the Year of the Pig, a year of no significance?

Well, it looks like even exemplary efforts by multiple talented individuals cannot be relied on to triumph over systemic inertia and entropy.

Was there a missed opportunity to steer the Ming dynasty away from collapse?

Wishing that Wan-li had been more like somebody else doesn’t really count, although it probably would’ve helped if he’d taken any sustained interest in truly becoming a great ruler.

Maybe a coordinated, long-term effort by many people toward a definite goal would’ve done the trick, if they could have avoided looking like a conspiracy, and somehow gotten buy-in from both the Emperor and the Civil Service? Maybe in some alternate universe a Ming-era person discovers that lightning can be tamed like fire - would that have helped? I’m not aware of any experiments with electricity, though they did have gunpowder and printing presses.

But all those sorts of things are about as likely to hasten a dynasty’s collapse as they are to bring about a renaissance.

And besides, hereditary empires are inherently unstable: asking “what would have prevented the Ming dynasty from collapsing?” is kind of like asking “how do we prevent radioactive decay - what would extend the half-life of plutonium?”

Another perspective: as dynasties go, the Ming were the final regression to the mean of classical Chinese civilization. Were they merely fighting a doomed rear-guard action, vainly attempting to undo the effects of the previous, catastrophically novel, dynasty of Mongols? Only to be overthrown by the subsequent - and final - dynasty of Manchurian hordes from the outlands of the northeast?

Considering that it lasted for nearly three centuries, a better perspective would be that the Ming dynasty was a late flowering of classical Chinese civilization - and a surprisingly successful one, considering how hostile it was to international trade or exploration.

A person from our era will no doubt detect a whiff of barbaric decadence in the customs of those days (foot-binding, eunuchs, people flogged nearly to death for infractions of etiquette). Similarly to their contemporaries in Europe (who were conducting inquisitions, slave-trading, and burning witches around the same time), the people of the Ming dynasty were still pre-modern in their ideals, and frequently brutal in their methods. They were, nevertheless, living in and contributing to one of the most advanced civilizations of that or any previous era.

The extent to which we and future generations will find such legacies edifying is an open question. Yet, as Confucius said:

“Whenever I walk with others, they may serve as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them.”