State Institutions and Everyday Politics in Ming China (1368-1644): Towards a social history of the Ming military

Presented by Michael Szonyi, Harvard University, at the Center for Historical Research, Department of History at The Ohio State University on April 18, 2014.

The need to secure labor for military service is probably among the few universals of pre-modern states; states have devised a wide variety of mechanisms to address this need. Historians typically study these mechanisms by asking questions about the structure of military institutions, the policymaking process, and the effectiveness of these institutions and policies. But to better understand the human experience of statehood one should also ask about the ways in which institutions, policies and material practices are experienced by individuals, groups and populations; how they give rise to modes of calculation and strategizing; how they generate political resources that can be used in other political struggles not only with state agents but also with other subjects. As many others have shown, incentives created by the state may inadvertently lead to behaviors that undermine state goals. But that is not all they do. State policies may lead to compliance or provoke resistance. But they can also generate a wide range of behaviors that neither support nor oppose state interests, but are nonetheless highly significant. This project explores these questions through a study of the military system of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), in particular the institution of hereditary conscription. In response to the logics of the system, families developed strategies of remarkable complexity. They also found ways to take advantage of the differences between multiple overlapping regulatory systems through an early modern version of regulatory arbitrage. For example, soldiers and their families on the southeast coast took advantage of their position to participate actively in smuggling and even piracy. Were their strategies distinctive to the Ming state, to premodern Chinese states, or perhaps to early modern states in general? Are there links between premodern and contemporary everyday politics?

The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research in the Department of History provides a stimulating intellectual environment for studying important historical issues around the world. Each year the Center brings together scholars from various disciplines to examine issues of broad contemporary relevance in historical perspective.