2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 27

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So How Bad Was It? Comparative Decadence of the Jiajing and Wanli Eras - Sponsored by the Society for Ming Studies

Organizer and Chair: Katharine P Burnett, University of California, Davis, USA

Discussant: Harry S. Miller, University of South Alabama, USA

This panel aims to compare the intellectual, political, social, economic, literary, and art historical shifts between the Jiajing (1522-1566) and Wanli (1573-1620) Eras of the Ming Dynasty. These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century periods are often blended together, when in fact they represent distinct eras with significantly different worldviews. The panel is prompted by a reread of David Roy's Introduction to Jin Ping Mei, which raised the question: If the text were written by 1596 (p. xx), what was so damnable about Ming society at that time? Wanli had not yet completely turned his attentions away from the court. Li Zhi had not yet been strongly endorsed by the leading intellectuals. Roy argues that the Jiajing and the Wanli periods were viewed as corrupt (esp. p. xxx). This has led many art historians to interpret the art forms of the late Ming as “eccentric” and “strange,” but never to assess the mid-Ming art of Wen Zhengming and the Wu School in the same way. Their rationale may depend on a historical fallacy, but it still leads to the questions: What were the intellectual/social underpinnings of the difference? When did people start saying, “We are corrupt”? And when was it particularly true? Taking different tacks, Zhao Yifeng and Peter Ditmanson examine what happens to scholar-officials’ sense of identity in light of political changes from the Jiajing to Wanli eras. Ken Hammond views the range of intellectual responses to the stresses produced by rapid commercialization in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Q. Edward Wang considers changes in social culture through the lens of comestibles, from the variety and quantities of foods consumed to the tables at which people sit to eat them during these fascinating years.

All That is Solid Melts into Air: Wang Shizhen, the Taizhou School, and the Cultural Crisis of the Later Ming
Kenneth J. Hammond, New Mexico State University, USA

The second half of the sixteenth century, and the beginning of the seventeenth, form a period of great change and dynamism in Chinese society. Rapid development of the commercial economy generated stresses in social, political and cultural spheres. A sense of crisis, of the decay of established values and hierarchies, pervaded the consciousness of the educated elite, and found expression in many widely variant forms. This paper examines a range of responses to the perceived challenges facing Chinese intellectuals, from the Taizhou School to scholar-officials like Wang Shizhen or Tang Shunzhi, which shaped the mental world in which a work like Jinpingmei could appear, and suggests that these seemingly diverse ideas all embody responses to the effects of commercialization on Chinese life.

Court vs. Society: Political Cultural Transmutation from the Jiajing to Wanli Period of the Ming Dynasty
Yifeng Zhao, Northeast Normal University, China

Ming political culture experienced profound transmutation from the Jiajing (1522-1566) to the Wanli (1573-1620) periods. After the great ritual controversy of the early Jiajing, the Cabinet changed from a leading institutional structure of scholar-officials to a virtual appendage to the emperor,leading to confusion for the scholar-officials’ self identity. After the death of Emperor Jiajing, the Cabinet reclaimed its relatively independent authority. Rather than returning as the leading body of the scholar-officials, however, it became a separate authority second only to the emperor. Such a Cabinet quickly fell into conflict with mid-level scholar-officials who had long expected a concomitant recovery of their own influence. A considerable number of these scholar-officials retreated to society to criticize court politics, or work with local communities. The collapse of the Ming dynasty was made inevitable by the Jiajing-Wanli political chaos. This article examines the changes of the self-identity and roles of the scholar-officials in the context of the Jiajing to Wanli political events. It aims to reveal the connections between early Jiajing politics and the great split of the Ming political elite and its consequent impact. As well, it explores the values and mentality of Ming scholar-officials vis-a-vis scholar-official politics and imperial politics.

The Contentious Discourse of Authority: Chastising the Emperor in Late Ming China
Peter Ditmanson, University of Oxford, USA

The sixteenth-century saw growing and persistent tensions between the Ming imperial court and the literati elite of the realm. This paper explores the evolving landscape of these tensions and the changing expectations and demands placed upon the imperium by the literati. The political contention and dysfunction of this era have traditionally been attributed to the dissolution and incompetence of the emperors, particularly Wanli (r. 1572-1620). However, it is clear that a shifting literati identity and a heightened sense of literati moral authority intensified the conflicts with the court. Moral remonstrance to the court became increasingly vehement in tone and the sphere of court critics widened to include scholars both inside and outside the bureaucracy. The literati drew upon a nostalgic idealization of the dynastic founders and saw themselves, not the reigning emperor, as the guardians of the dynastic legacy. On the one hand, scholars increasingly emphasized the importance of the moral ruler as the emblem of dynastic legitimacy. On the other hand, they asserted a proprietary authority over the moral parameters of the imperial person. This shifting tone of late Ming political discourse had important implications for Chinese conceptions of rulership and literati participation in the public sphere in the centuries that followed.