How did neo-confucianism respond to the changes of late Ming society?

Essay by i4959College, Undergraduate March 2004

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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

purchase a...