Peering into the World of Troubled Vitality in the Late Ming

Ivy Maria Lim

The world of the mid- to late Ming is well known to scholars of the Ming. On the one hand, we see an imperial court stymied by political intrigues, held hostage by factionalism and a bureaucracy handicapped by complex and unwieldly systems of fiscal accounting, state processes as documented in the works of Ray Huang and John Dardess among others. Yet on the other hand, we are also well aware of the sweeping changes taking place within Ming society and economy beginning in the 1500s, thanks to the works of William Atwell, Timothy Brook, Craig Clunas, and Michael Marmé and others. Commercialization and development of global trade links brought about the influx of silver into the Chinese economy and correspondingly a rise in conspicuous consumption, especially in the Jiangnan region, termed in this book as the Six Prefectures. This is a story that is well known and yet paradoxically unknown, especially at the personal level. While much of existing research have provided broad sweeping narratives to the developments that took place in the late Ming world but it is a rare work that is able to supply the depth and insights offered by Zhao Jie’s splendid work in Brush, Seal and Abacus: Troubled Vitality in Late Ming China’s Economic Heartland, 1500–1644.

Focusing on the Six Prefectures of Changzhou, Suzhou, Songjiang, Huzhou, Jiaxing, and Hangzhou, Zhao trains a microscopic lens on the economic heartland of Ming China, positioning the region as one enjoying a period of vitality, brought on and boosted, no doubt, by the rapid urbanization and commercialization of this once largely agricultural society. Widespread affluence, helped by the influx of silver through China’s growing links with international trade; increasingly fluid social structures brought about by growth in wealth and porosity of once impervious social barriers; and increasing number of local men influential in regional and central politics all contributed towards this sense of vitality. Yet, this was a vitality that was undergirded by troubled confidence and hidden dangers – hence Zhao’s characterization of the vitality as a troubled one.

The rapid commercialization and attainment of affluence was a double-edged sword – one that brought about as many problems as benefits for the people in the Six Prefectures. Profit and conspicuous consumption led to questioning of traditional values and ways of life as conservatives became troubled by the rapidity and eagerness with which their scholarly compatriots embraced the commercial life. Wealth became centered in the hands of a few ‘great families’ leading to a widening social gap. Political and social connections within and without the region, especially in the central bureaucracy, brought with them both benefits and dangers.

In seeking to understand this world of ‘troubled vitality’, Zhao proposes to examine the Six Prefectures’ climb to the heights of ‘commercial and cultural vigor’ (p. 9) which, by the end of the Ming, had collapsed into distress and despair, through the experiences and eyes of scholars (brush), scholar-officials (seal) and merchants (abacus). The attempts of scholars to navigate the marketplace of opportunities and profit, though the sale of their specialized skills, whether as essay-writers, calligraphers and painters, genealogists or even tabloid writers, serve to frame the discussion of the commercial diffusion and market opportunities in the Six Prefectures. Juxtaposed against the scholars’ entry into the marketplace were the merchants who, by virtue of their wealth, were the main consumers of the scholarly products. A reciprocal relationship thus legitimized both sides. Not only did scholars take on ‘merchant coloring’ (p. 39) by their market activities, merchants, motivated by social aspirations, modelled themselves on the scholars and successfully infiltrated the literati world, becoming scholars ‘by avocation’ (p. 40). Throw into the mix scholar-officials who combined wealth, power, and social status to become the great families in the region and whose commercial involvement, supported by official connections, enabled them to amass tremendous wealth. Such was the case of Wang Yanzhe (1483–1541) and Dong Fen (1510–95), especially in the case of the latter whose immense wealth and connections to Shen Shixing and Wang Xijue, two power-holders in government, eventually became a lightning rod for popular discontent and unhappiness in Huzhou of 1593 (Chapter 5). Their political connections also provided them with avenues of tax evasion and transference of their fiscal obligations, a trend that ultimately had devastating impact on the Six Prefectures towards the end of the Ming.

This drive towards profit did not go unquestioned. Literati writings of this period revealed the ambivalence and ambiguity many felt when surveying the society of their time or even when personally involved in profit seeking. Contestation over three positions emerged: that the market economy was generally beneficial; that unfettered pursuit of profit was problematic for society; and that both the market economy and Confucian traditional values could work together. This contestation of ideas over social and economic issues grew increasingly politicized towards the late Ming as corruption and institutional erosion coalesced into a dynastic crisis in which prominent sons of the Six Prefectures, such as Shen Shixing, Wang Xijue, Zhao Yongxian, and others, played leading roles. The health of the center affected the vitality of the Six Prefectures and the tight symbiosis between the two meant the unavoidable outcome for the Ming in 1644.

Zhao’s use of the copious body of Ming writings to understand the world of the late Ming literati on their own terms makes her work a valuable and much needed contribution to what we now know about the late Ming. The microscopic approach, made possible by careful and close reading of the source materials, provide a wealth of details about the Jiangnan region where anxieties and anger towards the ever-expanding gaps in wealth and power eventually erupted in the last decades of the Ming in the form of riots and protests. Generally readable and written as an engaging narrative, Brush, Seal and Abacus is a necessary read for anyone wishing to understand social mobility (both upward and downward) and the nexus between state and local society in late Imperial China.