A commoner's presentation to the emperor of a lucky omen from his garden, the repercussions for his family, and several retellings of the incident provide the background for an engaging introduction to Ming society, culture, and politics, including discussions of the founding of the Ming dynasty; the character of the first emperor; the role of omens in court politics; how the central and local governments were structured, including the civil service examination system; the power of local elite families; the roles of women; filial piety; and the concept of ling or efficacy in Chinese religion.
"Undergraduates will join specialists in enjoying this feast of melons. Schneewind's marvelous little book is at once a primer in some key aspects of China's traditional civilization and history, as well as a case study of an obscurely understood event that took place in 1372, in the reign of Taizu, founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). When two melons share a single stalk, and a local grower presents the anomaly to the emperor, the symbolism, the intentions of the giver, the reaction of the recipient, and the meaning of the whole act to observers and later commentators turn out to be anything but straightforward. Divergent interpretations began immediately, and continue to the present day."
—John Dardess, University of Kansas
"Building on an apparently tiny incident in 1372, Sarah Schneewind has conjured up an absorbing evocation of Chinese imperial power, the ambiguity of omens, and the unpredictability of fate. This concise and finely crafted book also provides a grand introduction to the ways historians (both then and now) think, work and present their findings."
—Jonathan Spence, Yale University
"Schneewind offers sharp insights into the structure and daily workings of premodern Chinese society and government and t he subtle forces that acted to temper absolute imperial power. Especially appealing is the metaphor of a social and political fabric perpetually in process of weaving, as exemplified by the complex interplay between center and peripheries, near and far; between individuals, products, and texts; between the formally empowered and the relatively powerless, whether ruler and subject or men and women; between the human, natural and supernatural worlds; and between past, present, and future. A rich and original study that wears its erudition lightly and presents a wealth of detail in highly readable form."
—Joanna Waley-Cohen, New York University
"This is an excellent, engaging account of Chinese history, using a small incident to illuminate the relationship between the emperor, his officials, and his subjects—comparable to Philip Kuhn's famous study of soulstealers in its range and insight. The scholarship is detailed and exact, the writing is clear, and the story is fascinating. It should be popular with students of Chinese history at all levels."
—Peter C. Perdue, Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"Schneewind's careful and lively unpacking of this story (and the controversies surrounding it) illuminates the complexities of the relations between ruler and subject in Ming China. Her precise attention to textual genres and how they are produced makes this an ideal work with which to think about historiographical questions, whether or not one's primary field of interest is Ming China."
—Ann B. Waltner, University of Minnesota
"A highly readable and well researched tale of history and historiography that would be appropriate in undergraduate and graduate courses on Chinese, Asian, and World History."
—Roger V. Des Forges, Department of History, University at Buffalo
"This short book would be a wonderful complement to a general text for an undergraduate course on Chinese history."
—Tracy Steele, Sam Houston University
About the Author:
Sarah Schneewind is Associate Professor of History, University of California at San Diego.