Book Review - Stories About Ming Dynasty

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It took me a month to finish reading this book, which was probably the thickest book I have ever read. The author described the ups and downs of the Ming dynasty in a witty tone. Reading it was like reading a fascinating novel, in which the history was alive. I highly appreciate that the author could describe it as fair as possible in such lively and intriguing way.

Before reading Ming, I did not enjoy any history books. The only connection with history was the boring textbooks back in high school. History textbooks are always hurried to summarize the life of a great man. One chapter is enough to span the rise and fall of a dynasty. Excluding those formatted summaries, there are only a series of numbers that represent a timeline and a bunch of labels that distinguish good from bad or loyal from treacherous.

In the long course of history, these labels are not substitutes for the people who were full of ambition and beliefs. From reading Zhu Yuanzhang, I see his cruelty towards the corrupt officials and his love for the family; from reading Yu Qiang, I admire his courage to save the country under the siege and his spirits to take the entire country as his own responsibility; from reading Zhu Xizhen, I am mad at his incompetent ruling but also appreciate his kindness; from reading Qi Jiguang, I see the other side of a hero who is skillful in political tactics and making money; from reading Zhang Juzheng, I see a great man who is ambitious to govern the country but also fascinated for fame and fortune.

Many years ago, I came across a post on Zhi Hu, which asked what words would make you feel enlightened. The one with the highest votes said: “People will grow up three times. The first time is when you realize that you are not the center of the world. The second time is when you find out that there are still some things you couldn’t help even if you work really hard. The third time is knowing that even there are things you couldn’t help, you will still try your best to fight for it.” Actually, I read this post a long time ago, remembering that I was deeply sympathetic to the second growth. These words flashed through my mind when I was reading about Zhu Youjian, the last emperor of Ming.

“Last” – how miserable the word is. We have always been criticizing the incapability of the last emperor of a fallen dynasty. However, Chongzhen Emperor, as stated in the book, “does the duty of an emperor but has never enjoyed the power of it”. From the time he ascended the throne, he was diligent in government affairs, wiping out treacherous officials, fighting against invaders, and suppressing rebellion. He has been doing all he could do to save this precarious country, a country in imminent danger of falling down. He was an extremely astute politician and an excellent emperor. Otherwise, how could he extend the life of this falling dynasty again and again?

However, the Ming dynasty was exhausted. The country has been rotted by continuous civil wars and aggressive invasions. How could he alone turn the tide? It was too hard.

The book says that he often cried in front of his ministers. He cried but his tears were strong. The burden put on his shoulder was too heavy, but he has never given up. He was still there, with his people. The third growth is when you know there are things you could not help, but you keep fighting for it. He has fought for 17 years.

“He walked to the tree.”

This was the end. He had no choice but to stubbornly hold on to his belief and walked to the end of his life.

“I have ascended the throne for seventeen years. Although I did not possess any talent, which caused the enemies approaching Beijing, all the ministers should also take the responsibility. After I die, I would be embarrassed to see my ancestors. I shall take off my crown, and cover my face with my hair. I shall let the enemies rip off my body into pieces but not to hurt anyone of my people.”

“朕自登基十七年,逆贼直逼京师,虽朕薄德匪躬,上干天怒,致逆贼直逼京师,然皆诸臣误朕也。朕死,无面目见祖宗于地下,自去冠冕,以发覆面。任贼分裂朕尸,勿伤百姓一人。”

Life is not as short as some people say. It is very long, especially for those who are suffering. The feeling of desolation of history is overwhelming. Think of these people, the lives of the greatest men are only described within two pages in a history book, but all of them have dedicated their entire lives doing something that we could never imagine.

This is history. The beauty of history is that it is tragic, yet artistic.