Ming society from the late sixteenth to the mid seventeenth century was a
society in the grips of profound economic, social and political changes. It
is always easy to look back on a period, view the big picture and label it
as a period of upheaval. But records left show that even contemporaries
recognised the ferment they were living through. With such all-encompassing
and intense changes, it was perhaps inevitable that the tradition of
morals, virtues and religious belief, passed down from the time of the
Divine Sages, would itself be forced to undergo changes in order to
maintain a relevant role in a new China.
The catalyst at the forefront of China's transformation was trade. The move
away from a government controlled to a private controlled economy started
in the 1450's. Without the heavy government imposed taxes, farms and
household industries began to produce surplus. Trade routes were expanded
to cover huge swathes of China.
By the 16th century Chinese goods such as
silk, lacquer and porcelain were being exported to Japan, South America and
Europe in exchange for silver. Referred to as the 'silverisation' of the
Chinese economy, this influx of silver bullion resulted in the monetization
of economic exchange and spurred further growth of commercial agriculture
and industry, trade networks and the market system.
This was effectively, the rapid emergence of a capitalist economy. And it
had a huge social impact on late Ming China, upsetting the conventional
definition of the hierarchy and intensifying tensions between classes.
Previously at the very bottom of the social ladder, the merchant now
enjoyed increasing power and respectability. The scholar and official on
the other hand, had to face up to the fact that their education and elite
status were no longer unparalleled. Indeed, the wealthy merchant could even