2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 297

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Emperors and Ministers During the Ming – a Re-Evaluation of the Dynamics of Power in Late Imperial China

Organizer and Chair: Ihor Pidhainy, University of West Georgia, USA

Discussant: John W. Dardess, University of Kansas, USA

The relationship between ministers and rulers has been central in Chinese political culture, with its balance being a point of contention. Scholar-officials provided the rationale for the relationship but often found their ideals shattered by their ruler; however, in turn, they were the main evaluators of these failed relationships. The late imperial period (1279-1911) witnessed an autocratization of the imperial system, with power shifting toward the emperor. Nevertheless, during the Ming dynasty, this relationship worked for two hundred and seventy six years, though fraught with difficulty and conflict: from Zhu Yuanzhang’s massacres of officials to Yongle’s murder of Fang Xiaoru to Zhengtong’s preference for palace eunuchs to Jiajing’s violent assertion of his prerogatives on ritual to Wanli’s refusal to work with the court and the Donglin conflicts of the final years. In this panel, we will be examining this negotiation of power between the scholar-officials and the emperor during the Ming dynasty. Each paper tackle a different aspect of this relationship. Pidhainy examines the textual evaluation of a particularly sordid period, the Jiajing reign, in the work of the state history produced in the following dynasty. Robinson explores martial spectacles and how their representations in poetry allowed for a negotiation over authority between emperor and senior ministers. Schneewind extends the discussion in introducing the question of how “the people” were part of the dialogue between emperors and ministers. Zhang concludes the panel with a case study of the punishment of political speech under the early Wanli reign.

The Mingshi Version of the Jiajing Reign: The Emperor and his Ministers
Ihor Pidhainy, University of West Georgia, USA

Chinese dynastic histories are one of the richest sources that we possess for the study of Chinese history. They are both important, emblematic works of the dynasty in question and problematic renderings of the politics of a different dynasty. To read them is to gain great insight into the workings of both dynasties. In this paper, I examine the issue of ruler and his ministers as seen in the Mingshi [completed 1739] the official history of the Ming dynasty produced under the subsequent Qing Dynasty. My focus is on the Jiajing reign (1521-1566), and I examine the presentation of several of the key figures in that reign, including Yang Tinghe (1459-1529), Guo Xun (1475-1542), Xia Yan (1482-1548), Yan Song (1480-1565) and Xu Jie (1503-1583) and their relationship to the emperor. The purpose is two-fold: to establish the method by which the editor’s structured their reading of the period and to comment on how this reading was affected by the intervening two centuries between the Jiajing reign period and the completion of this work.

Martial Spectacles of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): The Sovereign and his Ministers
David Robinson, Colgate University, USA

Like many rulers in other places and other times, Ming emperors used martial spectacles (the royal hunt, military reviews, archery contests, polo, etc) as a way to demonstrate their military prowess, deepen their ties with military commanders, display their munificence and discernment, and advertise dynastic strength on the wider stage of Eurasia. The success of such spectacles, however, depended in large part on civil officials, most especially senior court ministers. This paper uses martial spectacles as way to examine the negotiation of identity and rulership among rulers and their senior ministers, particularly as revealed in the celebratory poems that such officials composed. The basic argument is that martial spectacles articulated and revealed the emperor's power and that court ministers had to decide whether to celebrate, ignore, recast, or deride such statements of power. How they responded might confirm, redefine, or undermine the emperor's claims. At the same time, the emperor depended on the literary skills of their court ministers to transform events of limited duration and scale into literary images that resonated with the appropriate images of power and legitimacy, which might then be transmitted to wider national and international audiences.

The Third Party: ‘The People’ in the Ming Ruler-Minister Relationship
Sarah Schneewind, University of California, San Diego, USA

Confucian political theory and Ming governance centered on the ruler-minister relationship. Normally ruler-minister is presented as a dyadic relation, with perhaps other court figures like palace eunuchs taking, or taking over, one side or the other. Yet there is a third party in the relationship: “the people,” who appear it seems on nearly every page of the Veritable Records and in other writings. Both Ming rulers and Ming officials appealed rhetorically to “the people:” sometimes only to their material well-being, sometimes to their moral well-being, sometimes even to their opinions. The historical record, managed by officials and rulers in another instance of their cooperation and conflict, naturally downplays the agency of commoners, so that we can never accurately assess their informal power within the bureaucratic autocracy. But even while recognizing the great power of the gentry over commoners, and the very real intimidation machinery of the state, are we justified in assuming that Ming writings merely emptily invoked the people, that gentry or students always stage-managed popular demonstrations of support or protest? This paper will examine the ways “the people,” were invoked to support the legitimacy of a position, policy, or person. With reference in particular to stele inscriptions and shrines at the prefectural/county level, the paper will show that concerns about reputation, and the Mandate of Heaven ideology, led to the signal incorporation of a (possibly manufactured) popular viewpoint as the “third party” in the ruler-minister relationship.