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How Did Neo Confucianism Respond To The Changes Of Late Ming Society?

1854 words - 7 pages

Ming society from the late sixteenth to the mid seventeenth century was asociety in the grips of profound economic, social and political changes. Itis always easy to look back on a period, view the big picture and label itas a period of upheaval. But records left show that even contemporariesrecognised the ferment they were living through. With such all-encompassingand intense changes, it was perhaps inevitable that the tradition ofmorals, virtues and religious belief, passed down from the time of theDivine Sages, would itself be forced to undergo changes in order tomaintain a relevant role in a new China.The catalyst at the forefront of China's transformation was trade. The moveaway from a government controlled to a private controlled economy startedin the 1450's. Without the heavy government imposed taxes, farms andhousehold industries began to produce surplus. Trade routes were expandedto cover huge swathes of China. By the 16th century Chinese goods such assilk, lacquer and porcelain were being exported to Japan, South America andEurope in exchange for silver. Referred to as the 'silverisation' of theChinese economy, this influx of silver bullion resulted in the monetizationof economic exchange and spurred further growth of commercial agricultureand industry, trade networks and the market system.This was effectively, the rapid emergence of a capitalist economy. And ithad a huge social impact on late Ming China, upsetting the conventionaldefinition of the hierarchy and intensifying tensions between classes.Previously at the very bottom of the social ladder, the merchant nowenjoyed increasing power and respectability. The scholar and official onthe other hand, had to face up to the fact that their education and elitestatus were no longer unparalleled. Indeed, the wealthy merchant could evenpurchase a degree, thus buying themselves entry into the gentry class.Upper class superiority was further threatened by the expanding educationalpossibilities in the late Ming. All men could now aspire to literacy andthe civil service examination, both traditionally reserved for a smallelite.In rural areas, society underwent equally dramatic changes. Takingadvantage of the new economic opportunities, the gentry and landowners wereable to further increase their wealth through commercial enterprises andmoney-lending activities. In order to have more direct access to suchopportunities, families would increasingly move into the towns and cities,leaving their estate in the charge of a bondservant, whose numbersdramatically increased in this period. Many peasants may have been driveninto this form of servitude to pay off debt or simply to survive. There isno doubt however, that for many, taking on the status of bondservant was acalculated move. As Cynthia Brokaw writes in The Ledgers of Merit andDemerit, some saw bond servitude ''as an opportunity for economic advanceon the coattails of wealthy and powerful masters.'' Those charged with themanagement of an estate...

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