When the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) government looked like the misbegotten union of a totalitarian emperor and a cowardly, grasping bureaucracy, shrines to the living – primarily to late-Ming eunuch dictator Wei Zhongxian – looked like absurd manifestations of wicked megalomania. But now scholars take a more balanced view of the complicated strengths and weakness of a state that did last for 276 years. Ming living shrines, too, deserve a second look. For they appear frequently in the historical record -- across the whole span of the dynasty (indeed of the imperial period), the whole territory of the empire, and a range of genres, from local gazetteers to stories of the strange. Ming people enshrined men who were still alive not only to flatter the powerful, but also to succor the persecuted and laud the worthy, to retain the spirits of effective “parents of the people,” and for other reasons. In appearance just like postmortem shrines, their social base was different: they rested, at least nominally but sometimes in reality, on the active sponsorship of people without rank or examination degrees. The stele essays recording the establishment of premortem shrines, sometimes by and for famous scholar-officials, delineate a legitimate political role for commoners in the monarchical and bureaucratic Ming state. This talk will include some material that did not fit into the book: a son mourning his father’s suicide, a sycophant displacing a goddess.
Discussant: Chuck Wooldridge (Lehman College)
Sarah Schneewind is Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, San Diego. Aside from Shrines to Living Men in the Ming Political Cosmos (Harvard, 2018), she is also the author of A Tale of Two Melons (Hackett, 2006) and Community Schools and the State in Ming China (Stanford, 2006).