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Late Ming China & the contemporary United States

Listening to a recorded course on Chinese history* a few months ago, I was struck by how descriptions of “gridlock” in the late Ming dynasty government of China sounded much like the US government in recent years. Typically, Americans draw comparisons – apt or not – with ancient Rome, but perhaps late Ming China (which fell in 1644) might also offer some cautionary lessons.

Some comments by the course instructor, Prof. Kenneth J. Hammond, stood out in this regard:

  • “New ideas about integrity and individualism contributed to a moralization of political life that let to gridlock in government.”
  • “… debates and controversies at [the royal] court tended to be framed not as issues for compromise and pragmatism but as black-and-white moral issues.”
  • some groups “came to act almost like political parties in pursuit of their moral programs, treating their political rivals as agents of evil rather than simply gentlemen with differing ideas.”

Wang YangmingAccording to Prof. Hammond, this situation had its origins in the thinking of the prominent neo-Confucian philosopher and court official, Wang Yangming 王阳明 (1472-1529), who held that all individuals have an “innate knowledge of the good.”

Being neither an expert in Chinese history nor a student of Eastern philosophy, I am not in a position to comment in depth on this interpretation. However, the influence of Wang Yangming’s moral intuitionism among the literati in China at that time, the inability of the government to grapple with multiple problems, and the ultimate end of the Ming dynasty, are all known facts.

Recent politics in the US has been marked by extreme, intransigent positions, mainly on the part of an influential minority, and a tendency for two main partisan sides to talk less and even impugn the motives of the other. The influence of one particular thinker, Ayn Rand (1905-1982), on some members of the US government, is arguably a key factor in this devolution.

This is admittedly a shallow comparison, but not much worse than many comparisons of the US and Rome. The advantage of looking at a range of possible past parallels to one’s current situation is in drawing lessons from them so as not to repeat history.


* Kenneth J. Hammond, 2004, From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History, The Great Courses. (CDs & course book; the quoted passages come from lecture 24 “Gridlock and Crisis”)

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