Politics & Morality in the Ming-Qing Transition


A review of Politics and Morality during the Ming-Qing Dynastic Transition, 1570-1670, by Ying Zhang.

In this well-researched and beautifully crafted dissertation, Ying Zhang challenges the grand narrative of the Ming-Qing transition in 1570-1670 in prior historiography by exploring how the historical contingencies in that tumultuous period shaped the specific forms of connection between morality and politics as well as the lived experiences of literati-officials and the women in their lives. More specifically, she seeks to address the question of how “the political virtue of loyalty and literati-officials’ personal morality” interacted and mutually defined during the Ming-Qing transition (47-48, 411-16). Her nuanced analysis of four prominent literati-officials (Li Zhi, Zheng Man, Huang Daozhou, and Gong Dingzi) shows that the Confucian ideals of literati morality – as structured by the Five Cardinal Relations (wulun) – were not embraced as monolithic doctrines but were subject to constant negotiation and manipulation when loyalty, filial piety, or sexual morality came to affect the literati’s reputation, career, or life.

In contrast with the traditional interpretations, Zhang’s study argues that the morally impeccable image of the late-Ming Donglin literati was a discursive and ideological construct and that the assumption of sexual immorality and political disloyalty as being mutually constitutive in the Ming-Qing transition was equally problematic. The dichotomy between moral and immoral literati – or between “turncoats” and “loyalists” in this period – was often a product of political factionalism or retrospective representation. Moreover, she calls for greater attention to the overlooked gender dimension to the moralistic discourse that was central to the intellectual and political developments at this historical juncture. The stories of the women even in the otherwise male-dominated textual world suggest that “women have become an integral part of the gendered politics and the gendered history of the Ming-Qing transition” (401). Drawing on scholarship in literature, art history, and gender studies, Ying Zhang does a wonderful job in not only deconstructing the simplistic representation of the Ming-Qing transition but also vividly reconstructing the historical conditions in which morality became gendered, sensationalized, and politicized, and in which political struggles brought into sharp relief the tensions among the multiple roles of the ideal Confucian man. Her study makes a very important contribution to advancing our knowledge about various aspects of the intellectual history, gender issues, literati culture, imperial politics, and Confucian ethics in late imperial China. While the literati-officials under study might be well known to Chinese intellectual historians, Zhang has broken many new grounds in her interdisciplinary methodology and analysis and offered brilliant insights throughout. The resulting book will be a must read for many China historians for years to come.

After an introduction, this dissertation consists of seven chapters divided into three parts. Part One studies the religious, intellectual, and social activities of a retired literati-scholar, Li Zhi (1527-1602) to illustrate the challenge of fulfilling all the roles and duties of the ideal Confucian man. Even though Li Zhi took pains to prove his adherence to those moral principles as a loyal subject, filial son, responsible husband, and worthy friend, he ended up being condemned as the most immoral in all respects. His understanding and practice of friendship in search for “an ideal way to die” testifies to the intimate interconnection among the different moral responsibilities prescribed by the Five Cardinal Relations in late imperial China (108). His vocal praises of women, his alleged abandonment of his wife to become a Buddhist monk, and his controversial friendship with local gentry-women eventually led to his arrest for unorthodoxy and sexual immorality before he committed suicide in prison. Her analysis again confirms that literati-official sexual morality was used “both a weapon of attack and a device of self-defense” (49). It also indicates how difficult it was for late-Ming literati “to break away from the traditional intellectual, political, and social frameworks of human relationships” as “the Chinese ‘tradition’ was not a coherent body of practice and ideas” in the first place (106-107, 142-43).

In Part Two, the dissertation then focuses on two other literati-officials – Zheng Man and Huang Daozhou – in its investigation of the impact of the language of moral virtues such as loyalty and filial piety on late-Ming factional politics in the 1620s-1640s. The above-mentioned multiple virtues and duties of an ideal Confucian man were represented as “mutually defining” among the participants in the late-Ming political and intellectual discourse. Zheng Man was accused by the anti-Donglin faction of beating his mother and seducing his father’s concubine, and was later executed by the Chongzhen emperor without substantial evidence. Sensational and fictional accounts of Zheng Man’s sexual immorality became the lethal weapon of his political enemies in the Ming court. By comparing the accounts of Zheng’s case, Ying Zhang proposes that “the intertwining of morality and politics played a deciding role” in shaping Chinese dynastic political history (145-46, 161-62). Zheng Man was later represented as morally defective even by many of his sympathizers. In contrast, Huang Daozhou, Zheng’s old friend and another Donglin scholar-official who had strongly defended his innocence and moral integrity in front of the Chongzhen emperor, would be lauded as an emblem of the Donglin literati and Confucian ideal men defined by sexual morality, loyalty, and filial piety. The desire to maintain an impeccable image of the Donglin School and Huang Daozhou led later historiographers to recast the experiences of Zheng Man and the like (209, 256-70). Ying Zhang problematizes “the complexity of the Donglin identity while allowing us to better appreciate the “relationship between gendered self-discipline and political success in dynastic China” (148).

The third part of the dissertation focuses on Gong Dingzi, a late-Ming official who then became a collaborator of Li Zicheng’s short-lived regime and a “turncoat” of the Manchu Qing. On the one hand, as Ying Zhang contends, a closer look at Gong’s controversial private and political life before and after 1644 illuminates how the moral construction of loyalty operated to distinguish “turncoats” from “loyalists,” with the former’s “disloyalty” often established by pointing to their moral deficiency. Despite the turncoats’ tenacious defense of their moral character, the fact that Gong and the like would be classified unflatteringly in the official Qing history as ones who had served two dynasties only compounded the moral confusion (275-318). On the other hand, according to Zhang, the “sharp moral differences” between these two political communities, as proclaimed by the grand narrative of the Ming-Qing transition, suppressed their many similarities (281). By tracing the stories of Gong, Gu Mei (his concubine), and their friends, this dissertation explores how artistic and literary expressions of loyalty, filial piety, and friendship enabled early-Qing turncoats and loyalists alike to reconnect and rebuild the damaged social ties and intellectual community in the post-1644 reconstruction era by appealing to their shared Confucian moral values (50, 334-83). The actual and contested meanings of the moral responsibilities and social roles of these late imperial Chinese literati in this period were shaped by the process of political struggles and compromises at a time of national crisis and recovery. They were far more ambivalent and complex than the traditional grand narratives suggested.

Li Chen
Assistant Professor of History
University of Toronto

Primary Sources

Official and unofficial histories, official memorials, literati anthology, biographies and autobiographies, collection of private correspondence, art works, and popular literature

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan. 2010. 472 pp. Primary Advisors: Chun-shu Chang, Wang Zheng.