According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Neo-Confucian movement, which began in the Song dynasty, urged local scholars to put the moral ideals of Confucianism into action in their own local society. From the Southern Song onward, many local literati practiced the ideal of local activism. They sponsored temples and schools, helped the poor, and in general performed social services that the government, far away and underfunded, could not. Part of this activism involved the promotion of social order through drafting and enforcing local ordinances.” [Source: translated by Clara Yu , from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993); Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

The Ming-Era “Prohibition Ordinance” reads: “In the imperial court there are laws; in the village there are ordinances. Laws rule the entire nation; ordinances control only one area. Although laws and ordinances differ in scope the matters they deal with are equally significant.Each year we set up ordinances for our village, and yet, to our deep regret, they are denigrated by the greedy and overturned by the influential. As a result, they are rendered ineffective, customs deteriorate, and incalculable damage is done by our people and their animals. The problem is not that ordinances cannot be enforced; rather, it is that those in charge of the ordinances are unequal to their posts, and those who design them are incompetent.”

“Recently we have followed the suggestion of the villages and grouped all households into separate districts, each with a fixed number of members. On the first and the fifteenth of each month, each district will prepare wine and hold a meeting to awaken the conscience of its residents. In this manner, contact between the high and low will be established, and a cycle will be formed. Anyone who violates our village ordinances will be sentenced by the public; if he thinks the sentence is unfair, he can appeal to the village assembly. However, let it be known that no cover-up, bribery, blackmail, or frame.up will be tolerated; such evil doings will be exposed by Heaven and punished by thunder. We know that even in a small group there are good members as well as bad ones; how can there be a lack of honest people among our villagers? From now on, our ordinances will be properly enforced and the morality of our people will be restored. The village as a whole as well as each individual will profit from such a situation, and there will be peace between the high and the low, their morality and custom having been unified. Thus, what is called an “ordinance” is nothing but the means to better ourselves.

Website on the Ming Dynasty Ming Studies mingstudies.arts.ubc.ca; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu

Ming-Era Books of Moral Instruction

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Confucian classics provide the sophisticated reader with a wealth of moral teachings and examples. Buddhism teaches that one generates positive or negative karma (energy) through one’s good and bad deeds in this life, and that one’s karma then influences one’s rebirth. However, these abstract principles, Confucian or Buddhist, need to be translated into more concrete language and practices in order to guide and influence people in their daily lives. With the advent of printing in the Song dynasty (960-1276), writers had an opportunity to rectify this by composing books of moral instruction meant for a mass audience. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

On how one can achieve merit in one’s life, Yuan Huang (1533-1606), a successful Ming scholar and official, offers the following system which all can follow in “Ledger of Merit and Demerit” [numbers and letters added for clarity]: 1) Conduct for which one gains one hundred points of merit: A) Saving a person’s life; B) Ensuring the fidelity of a woman; C) Preventing someone from drowning a child or aborting a baby. 2) Conduct for which one gains fifty points of merit: A) Maintaining the family lineage; B) Adopting an orphan; C) Burying a corpse no one cares for; D) Preventing a person from abandoning a village [because of famine]. 3) Conduct for which one gains thirty points of merit: A) Remonstrating with an evildoer to change his way; B) Rectifying an injustice. 4) Conduct for which one gains ten points of merit: A) Recommending a virtuous person for office; B) Eliminating something harmful to the people. [Source:“Ledger of Merit and Demerit” by Yuan Huang, 1533-1606, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999);Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“5) Conduct for which one gains five points of merit: A) Remonstrating with a litigant to withdraw a lawsuit; B) Saving the life of a domestic animal. 6) Conduct for which one gains one point of merit: A) Praising someone’s good deed; B) Not joining in someone’s bad deed; C) Remonstrating with someone from doing evil; D) Curing someone’s illness; E) Providing a meal to a hungry person; F) Burying a dead domestic animal; G) Saving the life of an insect or watery creature. 7) For every one hundred coins one spends on the following, one gains 1 point of merit: A) Constructing a road or bridge; B) digging a waterway or well to benefit people; C) repairing or installing a sacred image, temple, shrine, or other sacred place for worship; D) giving assistance to the poor; E) donating tea, medicine, clothes, coffins, and so on. 8) Conduct that contributes to demerits is listed in terms generally opposite [to the meritorious deeds above].”

“Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety"

The excerpts below are from a popular tract — “Twenty-four Exemplars of Filial Piety” — widely circulated from the Yuan through the Qing dynasties in many different editions. “3) A Bitten Finger Pains the Heart Zeng Shen of the Zhou dynasty had the honorific name Ziyu. He served his mother with extreme filiality. One day when Shen was in the mountains gathering firewood a guest came to the house. His mother had made no preparations and she kept hoping that he would return, but he did not. Then she bit her finger, and at the same time Shen suddenly felt a pain in his heart. He shouldered his firewood and returned home; kneeling, he asked his mother what the matter was. His mother said, “A guest came unexpectedly and I bit my finger to make you aware of it.”

“8) Acting As a Laborer to Support His Mother Jiang Ge lived in the Eastern Han dynasty. His father died when he was young, and he lived alone with his mother. Disorders broke out, so he fled, carrying his mother. Again and again they encountered bandits who wanted to force him to join them. But Ge burst into tears and told them that he had his mother with him. The bandits could not bring themselves to kill him. They took up residence in Xiapei. Impoverished and without shirt or shoes, he hired himself out as a laborer to support his mother. He gave her whatever she needed.”

“10) Breast-Feeding Her Mother-in-law: Madame Zhangsun was the great.grandmother of Cui Nanshan of the Tang dynasty. When she was old and toothless, every day Cui’s grandmother, Madame Tang, after combing her hair and washing her face, entered the main hall and breast.fed her. Although the old lady did not eat a grain of rice, after several years she was still in good health. One day she fell sick, and young and old gathered about her as she announced, “There is no way that I can repay my daughterin-law’s goodness to me. If the wives of my sons and grandsons are as filial and respectful as this daughter-in-law, it will be enough.”

“11) Mosquitoes Gorged Freely on His Blood: Wu Meng of the Jin dynasty was eight years old and served his parents with extreme filiality. The family was poor, and their bed had no mosquito net. Every night in summer many mosquitoes bit him, gorging on his blood. But despite their numbers he did not drive them away, fearing that they would go and bite his parents. This is the extreme of love for parents.”

“12) Lying on Ice Seeking for Carp: Wang Xiang of the Jin dynasty was young when his mother died. His stepmother, named Zhu was unloving toward him and constantly slandered him to his father. Because of this he lost the love of his father. His stepmother liked to eat fresh fish. Once it was so cold the river froze. Xiang took off his clothes and lay on the ice to try to get some fish. Suddenly the ice opened and a pair of carp leaped out. He took them home and gave them to his stepmother.”

“Meritorious Deeds at No Cost”

Ming noblewoman

According to Buddhism and other religions practiced in China achieving merit in one’s lifetime was key to achieving a better life next time around. The following document from the 17th century — “Meritorious Deeds at No Cost” — offers tips on acquiring merit aimed at particularly classes of people. [Source: “ from “Meritorious Deeds at No Cost” from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Selections from “Meritorious Deeds at No Cost: Agriculturalists”: “1) Do not miss the proper times for farmwork. 2) Have regard for [the lives of] insects. 3) When fertilizing the fields, do not harm living creatures. 4) Do not obstruct or cut off paths. Fill up holes that might give trouble to passersby. 5) Do not instigate landlords to buy up lands. 6) Do not steal and sell your master’s grain in connivance with his servants. 7) Do not damage crops in your neighbors’ fields by leaving animals to roam at large, relying on your landlord’s power and influence to protect you. 8) Do not encroach [on others’ property] beyond the boundaries of your own fields and watercourses, thinking to ingratiate yourself with your landlord. 9) Do not disturb others’ graves or interfere with the geomantic advantages of others. 10) In plowing, do not infringe on graves or make them hard to find.

“11) Do not suggest to your master that he willfully cut off watercourses and extort payments from neighbors. 12) Do not take your landlord’s seed crop for your own benefit. 13) Do not damage the crops in neighboring fields out of envy because they are so flourishing. 14) Do not instigate your landlord to take revenge on a neighbor on the pretext that the neighbor’s animals have damaged your crops. 15) Do not through negligence in your work do damage to the fields of others. 16) Do not become lazy and cease being conscientious because you think your landlord does not provide enough food and wine or fails to pay you enough. 17) Fill up holes in graves. 18 ) Take good care of others’ carts and tools. ) Do not kill mules and cattle, pigs and sheep, even if they eat your crops. 19) Keep carts and cattle from trampling down others’ crops. 20) Do not desecrate the gods of the soil by plowing or hoeing the land or irrigating or spreading manure on days of abstention [wu, i.e., the fifth day of each ten.day cycle, which is the first of two days identified with wood in the Five-Phases cycle].”

Selections from “Meritorious Deeds at No Cost: Dealers and Merchants”: “1) Do not deceive ignorant villagers when fixing the price of goods. 2) Do not raise the price of fuel and rice too high. 3) When the poor buy rice, do not give them short measure. 4) Sell only genuine articles. 5) Do not use short measure when selling and long measure when buying. 6) Do not deceitfully serve unclean dishes or leftover food to customers who are unaware of the fact. 7) Do not dispossess or deprive others of their business by devious means. 8) Do not envy the prosperity of others’ business and speak ill of them wherever you go. 9) Be fair in your dealings. 10) Treat the young and the aged on the same terms as the able-bodied.

“11) Do not make remarks about women’s sexiness. 12) Do not harbor resentment when you are censured. 13) Protect virtuous people. 14) Hold up for public admiration women who are faithful to their husbands and children who are obedient to their parents. 15) Restrain those who are stubborn and unfilial. 16) Prevent plotting and intrigue. 17 ) Endeavor to improve manners and customs. 18) Encourage fair and open discussion. 19 ) Prevent your household slaves and servants from causing trouble by relying on your influence. 20 ) Try not to arouse the resentment of others by showing partiality to the younger members of your own family.

Sex and Swindles in Ming-Era Literature

China has a rich history of erotic literature and painting. China's most famous examples of erotic literature — "The Prayer Mat of the Flesh" and "Jin Ping Mei" ("The Golden Lotus") — were written in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty.

Jin Ping Mei is a 2,000 page novel about the sexual exploits of a horny young merchant, Hs-men (pronounced semen), and his mistress, Golden Lotus. Because some of the descriptions are very explicit, the story has been banned since the Ming Period. In one passage, for example, Hs-men tosses a plum into Golden Lotus's vagina, moves it around until she has an orgasm, and then eats the plum. In the Mao era, the Communist government edited out sexy parts of Jin Ping Mei but unedited versions were available if you had connections.

On “The Book of Swindles”, whose earliest datable edition dates to 1617, Christopher Rea of the University of British Columbia wrote: This is an age of deception. Con men ply the roadways. Bogus alchemists pretend to turn one piece of silver into three. Devious nuns entice young women into adultery. Sorcerers use charmed talismans for mind control and murder. A pair of dubious monks extorts money from a powerful official and then spends it on whoring. A rich student tries to bribe the chief examiner, only to hand his money to an imposter. A eunuch kidnaps boys and consumes their "essence" in an attempt to regrow his penis. These are just a few of the entertaining and surprising tales to be found in this seventeenth-century work, said to be the earliest Chinese collection of swindle stories.

“The Book of Swindles, compiled by an obscure writer from southern China — Zhang Yingyu who lived during the Wanli period (1573–1620) of the Ming dynasty — presents a fascinating tableau of criminal ingenuity. The flourishing economy of the late Ming period created overnight fortunes for merchants—and gave rise to a host of smooth operators, charlatans, forgers, and imposters seeking to siphon off some of the new wealth. The Book of Swindles, which was ostensibly written as a manual for self-protection in this shifting and unstable world, also offers an expert guide to the art of deception. Each story comes with commentary by the author, Zhang Yingyu, who expounds a moral lesson while also speaking as a connoisseur of the swindle. This volume, which contains annotated translations of just over half of the eighty-odd stories in Zhang's original collection, provides a wealth of detail on social life during the late Ming and offers words of warning for a world in peril.

“Instructions for the Inner Quarters” by Empress Xu

Ming Empress Xiaochun

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Empress Xu (d. 1407) was the third wife of the Ming Yongle emperor (r. 1402-1424). She was the daughter of General Xu Da, who had played an important part in the campaigns of the Ming dynasty’s founder, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu emperor. Empress Xu, who was well read and of strong character, wanted to write a guide for the cultivation of women. In doing so, she was inspired by the instruction that she received from her mother-in-law, Empress Ma. Empress Ma was a fine role model: a self-educated, well-read woman, a humane and supportive mother-in-law, she viewed herself as sharing her husband Hongwu’s responsibilities as ruler and did not back off from offering her advice and criticism to her famously short-tempered husband. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

On Moral Nature, the “Instructions for the Inner Quarters” reads: “Being upright and modest, reserved and quiet, correct and dignified, sincere and honest: these constitute the moral nature of a woman. Being filial and respectful, humane and perspicacious loving and warm, meek and gentle: these represent the complete development of the moral nature. The moral nature being innate in our endowment, it becomes transformed and fulfilled through practice. It is not something that comes from the outside but is actually rooted in our very selves.

“Of old, upright women ordered their feelings and nature based on moral principle (li), kept control over the workings of their mind, and honored the Way and its virtue. Therefore they were able to complement their gentlemen [husbands] in fulfilling the teachings of the Way. This is the reason they took humaneness to be their abode, rightness as their path of action, wisdom as their guide, trustworthiness as their defense, and ritual decorum as the embodiment of it. … The accumulation of small faults will mount up to great harm to one’s virtue. Therefore a great house will topple over if the foundation is not solid. One’s moral nature will have deficiencies if the self is not restrained. Beautiful jade with no flaws can be made into a precious jewel. An upright woman of pure character can be made the wife of a great family. If you constantly examine your actions to see if they are correct, you can be a model mother. If you are hardworking and frugal without a trace of jealousy, you are fit to be an exemplar for the women’s quarters.”

“As a child, I was well instructed by my parents, reciting such classics as the Classic of Odes and the Classic of Documents and carrying out the details of women’s work. On account of the accumulated goodness and blessings of our ancestors, I by chance was chosen to enter the imperial harem. Morning and night, I served at court. The Empress Ma instructed all the wives of her sons, especially in the area of proper decorum and ritual. I respectfully accepted and tried to carry out her orders. Every day I received instructions from her, respectfully obeyed them not daring to transgress even one of her rules.”

“Instructions for the Inner Quarters” on Diligence, Frugality and Hard Work

On diligence and hard work, the “Instructions for the Inner Quarters” reads: “Laziness and licentiousness are disasters to the self, while diligence and hard work without any letup are morally beneficial to the self. Therefore, farmers labor hard at their crops, scholars at their studies, and women at their work. … The Classic of Odes says, “A woman shall have nothing to do with public affairs [yet] she discards her silkworms and weaving [for this].” This is a defect that comes from laziness. For persons in low and mean positions, it is easy not to be lazy; it is persons of wealth, in high positions, who find it hard not to be lazy. You must exert yourself with respect to this difficulty. “Do not be remiss in your ease. [Source: “Instructions for the Inner Quarters” by “Empress Xu, d. 1407 from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

On frugality, the “Instructions for the Inner Quarters” reads: “The Zuozhuan says, “Frugality is the precious jewel of the sage.” It also says, “Frugality is the fullness of virtue. Extravagance is the greatest of evils.” Each strand of silk comes from the labor of some working woman; each grain of rice comes from the hard work of a farmer. The efforts that went into the final product were not made easily. To use these without some sense of limits is to do violence to what comes from Heaven.. there is no greater fault. … Now those above lead those below, the inner [quarters of the palace are] a gauge for the outer [world of other women]. Therefore, the empress must value frugality in order to lead the rest of the palace women. The wives of princes all the way down to those of scholars and commoners must honor the value of frugality in running their households. If this happens, then not one person will go cold or starve to death; rites and rightness will flourish; and the change [for the good] in people’s behavior will merit being recorded [for posterity].”

Conscription in the Ming Military

In the Ming era, conscription meant a permanent, hereditary obligation to provide one male member of the family for military service. Michael Szonyi wrote in Aeon: “China’s long tradition of bureaucracy and record-keeping mean that a great deal is already known about how the system of hereditary military households was supposed to operate. The dynasty produced several detailed descriptions of its institutions. Historians have relied on them to learn the rules of the military household system. Even today, many genealogies can be found in the Chinese countryside that still have information about the military service of the family’s Ming dynasty ancestors. In some cases, junhu [military household] genealogies even include copies of formal contracts recording the negotiations that family members worked through to manage their shared military service obligation. Families developed in different ways that complicated the basic conscription algorithm.This means that there is both a rich official archive, specifying the rules of conscription, and a popular archive. [Source: Michael Szonyi, Aeon, April 11, 2018. Michael Szonyi is professor of Chinese history at Harvard]

“Military service offered some possibility for social mobility or distinction, but the dangers outweighed the potential benefits; most genealogies treat soldiering as a profession to be avoided. What would have persuaded the monk to become a soldier on behalf of the Wang family? Why did the member of the Guo family who drew the short straw agree to go off to the army? Obviously, money was involved. As the Guo genealogy euphemises: ‘The whole lineage appreciated his righteous actions, so they gave him a reward to encourage him.’ And the former monk? The Wang genealogy explains that a wealthy member of the lineage donated a piece of property for the collective good. The land was rented out, and the rental income used to compensate the monk and his descendants.

“Compensation was almost always a part of strategies involving concentration or substitution, but it also often appears in the records of families who used a rotation strategy. After all, if the person whose turn it was in the rotation deserted, the whole strategy might come to naught. A merciless conscription official might descend on the family and seize any able-bodied man to serve in his stead. So the rest of the family wanted their appointed soldier to stay on post. Families found different ways to arrange compensation: they raised funds by levying an annual charge on all the adult males; they endowed permanent estates, the income from which was to go to the serving soldier (as in the case above); they set up estates that were entrusted to the soldier to use at his discretion.

“Besides strategies to resolve the question of which family member should serve in the army, members of junhu in the Ming had many other political strategies that were aimed at optimising their relations with the state for their own advantage. For example, the kinfolk of naval officers on the southeast coast often took advantage of these ties to engage in smuggling and even piracy. They turned the fact that they had connections to the Coast Guard into a source of private gain.

“In general, these strategies sought to make the obligation to provide military labour more predictable, to reduce the likelihood that one might suddenly be called on to go off to war. Junhu also often monetised military service, converting an indefinite obligation to provide labour into a clear and more specific agreement to provide money. Such strategies resemble the techniques that people use in a very different context: the need to deal with uncertainty and risk in the marketplace.

How Ordinary Chinese Dealt with Ming Military Conscription

Michael Szonyi wrote in Aeon: “The original Ming dynasty policy held that in every military household men serving as soldiers would eventually be replaced by their eldest son. In principle, the policy initiated a simple and endless cycle of conscription, but in reality families developed in different ways that complicated the basic selection algorithm. In many military households there were multiple sons; in others none. In the hope of reducing its overhead expenses, the state left it up to families themselves to decide who should fulfil their obligation. Different families faced this challenge in different ways. [Source: Michael Szonyi, Aeon, April 11, 2018]

“Consider the case of the Zheng family, who lived on China’s southeast coast in the late-14th century. The family was conscripted in the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In the Ming, conscription meant a permanent, hereditary obligation to provide one male member of the family for military service. The two adult brothers of the family negotiated over which of them would serve. The solution they came up with involved revisiting the terms of their dead father’s will. Rather than dividing their inheritance equally, as the law required, the two men decided that the younger brother would receive 75 per cent of the estate in exchange for taking on the burden of military service. The agreement was intended to be in perpetuity; the younger brother was making commitments not just for himself but for all of his descendants. A generation later, the three sons of the younger brother underwent another round of negotiations. This time, they used relative status within the family as the main negotiating tool. In exchange for agreeing to serve in the army, the second of the three brothers earned the right for him and his descendants to get priority when the family conducted ancestral sacrifice in the future.

“Families developed a range of strategies to address the lack of fit between their own reality and the demands of the algorithm. One common solution for a family with more than one son was to arrange for responsibility to serve in the military to rotate among the sons on a set schedule. When the rotation was complete, the cycle would begin anew. Such a system could continue for generations. This was the method used by the Cai family of Quanzhou – whose genealogy I collected in the village where their descendants live today.

“The man who was first conscripted had six sons. The sons agreed to be organised into six ‘branches’, one for each of the six sons. Each branch would be responsible for providing a soldier for a 10-year period, after which the responsibility would rotate to the next branch, and eventually return to the senior one. They formalised the arrangement with a written contract, which has been copied into every subsequent edition of the genealogy. In 1484, the descendants agreed to lengthen the term of service from 10 to 30 years. Probably they were seeking to balance the disruption caused to the individual conscript against the uncertainty that conscription presented to the descendants collectively. As the number of descendants grew and the likelihood that any given descendant would be conscripted fell, the family decided to shift the balance towards the latter consideration.

“The Wang family arranged for a previous Buddhist monk to serve as their substitute Junhu households could also meet their obligation to provide manpower to the army by concentrating the responsibility entirely on a single member of the lineage. The Guo family of Fuzhou, a few hundred miles to the north of Quanzhou, became registered as a military household when one of their members, a fellow named Guo Jianlang, was implicated in a murder. When Guo Jianlang died, the obligation was transmitted to his surviving relatives. His son was still an infant, too young to serve, so his kinfolk drew lots to see which of them would replace him. The relatives collectively agreed that the military obligation would thereafter be concentrated on the unlucky one, and after that it would be up to him and his descendants to fulfil the collective obligation. “From concentrating the obligation on a single member, it was a short step to finding a substitute who was not a family member. In one of my favourite cases, the Wang family of Wenzhou arranged for a man who was previously registered as a Buddhist monk to serve as their substitute. In a somewhat mysterious twist, it was agreed that the monk’s ‘descendants’ would adopt the Wang surname and fulfil the obligation in perpetuity.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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