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Dry Spells: State Rainmaking and Local Governance in Late Imperial China Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke Harvard University Asia Center

31st May 2012 History Books 9 Comments

Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke is Assistant Professor of History and Asian Studies at The College of Idaho.

Chinese officials put considerable effort into managing the fiscal and legal affairs of their jurisdictions, but they also devoted significant time and energy to performing religious rituals on behalf of the state. This groundbreaking study explores this underappreciated aspect of Chinese political life by investigating rainmaking activities organized or conducted by local officials in the Qing dynasty. Using a wide variety of primary sources, this study explains how and why state rainmaking became a prominent feature of the late imperial religious landscape. It also vividly describes the esoteric, spectacular, and occasionally grotesque techniques officials used to pray for rain. Charting the ways in which rainmaking performances were contested by local communities, this study argues that state rainmaking provided an important venue where the relationship between officials and their constituents was established and maintained. For this reason, the author concludes that official rainmaking was instrumental in constituting state power at the local level. This monograph addresses issues that are central to the study of late imperial Chinese society and culture, including the religious activities of Chinese officials, the nature of state orthodoxy, and the symbolic dimensions of local governance.

Dry Spells: State Rainmaking and Local Governance in Late Imperial China (Harvard East Asian Monographs)

Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433

‘This book is highly recommended to all thise who really want to know how to evaluate what Zheng He did or did not do. The author does not advocate a point of view or exhort us in any way.’ Wang Gungwu, East Asian Institute, Singapore

This new biography, part of Longmans World Biography series, of the Chinese explorer Zheng He sheds new light on one of the most important “what if” questions of early modern history: why a technically advanced China did not follow the same path of development as the major European powers.

Written by China scholar Edward L. Dreyer, Zheng He outlines what is known of the eunuch Zheng He’s life and describes and analyzes the early 15th century voyages on the basis of the Chinese evidence. Locating the voyages firmly within the context of early Ming history,itaddresses the political motives of Zheng He’s voyages and how they affected China’s exclusive attitude to the outside world in subsequent centuries.

Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433 (Library of World Biography Series)

  • 9 responses to "Dry Spells: State Rainmaking and Local Governance in Late Imperial China Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke Harvard University Asia Center"

  • JordanRetro
    13:47 on May 31st, 2012
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    If you are really interested in this subject this is a good book to add to your knowledge

  • Dave Delaney
    16:56 on May 31st, 2012
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    fascinating era of sail and exploration before the Europeans got involved. History credits must go to the Chinese not Europeans

  • Michelle Dunn
    1:42 on June 1st, 2012
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    This is a very historical piece and a fairly dry review of the life of Zheng He..
    It seems to be written from a european perspective and not from a Chinese point of view.
    Still it has a good deal of background info…

  • Bruno Scharp
    4:53 on June 1st, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Very good book. I read all the others about this subject also. This was a good read for knowing more about the man.

  • nottrue
    8:25 on June 1st, 2012
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    In the early 15th century, the coastal states of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean were the sites of a remarkable event, as they received repeated visitations by a large fleet of Chinese ships. Dispatched by the order of the Ming emperor Yongle, they consisted of thousands of men on board the largest wooden ships ever built. The expeditions were all commanded by Zheng He, a eunuch with a long history of service to the emperor. Yet in spite of the dramatic novelty of the voyages, they and their commander received only the scantiest attention in the Chinese historical sources, with many of their exploits becoming as much myth as reality. In this book, Edward Dreyer attempts to uncover the man behind the myths, assessing his goals and achievements by evaluating them in the context of his times.

    To do this, Dreyer reconstructs Zheng’s life as completely as possible from the available contemporary and near-contemporary sources. This provides at best only a sketchy outline, which the author then fills in with a broader analysis of the voyage, the ships and men involved, and the broader background of events. He argues that, contrary to later writers, Zheng’s expeditions were not voyages of exploration or assertions of naval hegemony but an effort to extend the Chinese tributary system to that part of the world. Though far less inspiring a motivation than the others, it is one that helps to explain the subsequent abandonment of the effort after a final voyage in 1431-33, as the returns were far outweighed by the considerable expense of the effort – a factor that became critical during a time of enormous expenditure on military expeditions to Mongolia and construction of a new imperial capital in Beijing.

    Though thin in some areas and repetitive of its major points, Dreyer has succeeded in writing a clear and accessible study of a legendary figure. Though it, readers can better understand both the scope of his achievement and why it was not followed up by Yongle’s successors. For anyone seeking to understand the early Ming dynasty or why a tantalizing opportunity was never fully exploited, Dreyer’s clear, thoroughly researched, and well-argued study is an excellent place to begin.

  • BI Editor
    17:50 on June 1st, 2012
    Reply to comment

    The table of contents, which I’ve reproduced at the end of this, gives a good idea of the book’s coverage and organization. Dreyer is a professor of history at the University of Miami, where he teaches Asian history, Chinese history, and military history. His previous publications include studies of early Ming political history (based on his 1971 Harvard dissertation) and China’s experience of war in the first half of the 20th century.

    The author surveys the secondary literature and draws upon some earlier reconstructions which he finds credible and consistent, particularly in the matter of the voyages’ itineraries. However, he relies on the primary sources (and a smattering of archeological evidence) in every respect. Indeed, at the end of the book he provides his own critical translations of the key primary sources.

    He works through the background and issues in a methodical manner, carefully evaluating the evidence in light of his extensive knowledge of early Ming history. Naturally this does not make exciting beach reading, but Dreyer does a good job of making the exposition clear and straightforward. The glossary provides brief entries for all of the places and people mentioned, in the event one loses track.

    The only lapses I could see seem to be in his knowledge of European history, where he repeats a few obsolete views: “[W]hat drew the Western powers into the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia in the first place was the wealth they could gain by controlling the seaborne trade of the region.” (p. 8) “[B]roadside firing and line ahead tactics … only began in European waters almost two centuries after Zheng He.” (p. 56) These are minor issues of degree that do not materially affect the value of the book.

    One very welcome surprise is Dreyer’s judicious and well-informed evaluation of the design of the ships of the Treasure Fleets.

    Dreyer does not address the speculations and assertions of Gavin Menzies regarding far-flung voyaging, except to remark dryly on pages 29-30 that they rest on an assumption that exploration was a major purpose of the voyages (an assumption Dreyer demolishes quite thoroughly) and on pages 182-3 that it is very unlikely that the ships could have gotten far along Menzies’ track before coming to grief. Surely the Chinese, with their nautical knowledge and skills, would have gone about exploration in a very different manner, had they had the intent.

    Throughout, the author is skeptical in the best sense, carefully examining and weighing the evidence on each point, unswayed by preconceptions. This leads him to many conclusions that diverge from those of previous authors, always convincingly. Unless and until new evidence appears (possibly from marine archeology) this is likely to remain the definitive treatment of this interesting and revealing facet of Chinese history.

    One of the best services Dreyer performs is to cut through the layers of projection and romance that have been overlaid on these voyages in respect of their purpose, conduct, and consequences. He insists, with strong documentary support, that the purpose was “to enforce outward compliance with the forms of the Chinese tributary system by the show of an overwhelming armed force” [p. 163, and passim] as a means of bolstering the Yongle emperor’s political position and perhaps self-esteem. Dreyer scotches the notion that these were voyages of discovery or exploration in the European sense, adventurous though they were in their own terms. He makes clear their astronomical expense and how they contributed to economic pressures on the empire, and stresses that there were very real practical reasons (in addition to the undoubted cultural and political ones) for the opposition to them expressed by many senior scholar-bureaucrats. And he shows that far from being peaceful and amicable diplomatic missions they involved heavy measures of coercive force. It certainly lay within China’s power to have constructed an Asian maritime empire much as the Europeans later did, but not within China’s powers of conception. It equally was open to the Chinese to have gone exploring at least as widely was the Europeans were to, but that also was unthinkable in Beijing. And no one in China could do such things without imperial command.

    The book is modestly but well produced, with good binding and stock. There is one overall map, a diagram showing Dreyer’s concept of the design of a “treasure ship,” and a few relevant illustrations. Oddly the house style seems to eschew source notes, but it is usually possible to identify sources in the general notes at the back of the book. Overall, the publishers deserve thanks for a valuable and high-quality monograph issued at a reasonable price.


    I. The Enigma of Zheng He.

    The Chinese Tributary System and the Purpose of Zheng He’s Voyages.

    Traditional Chinese Interpretations of Zheng He’s Career.

    Zheng He’s Voyages and Western Imperial Expansion.

    Zheng He’s Voyages and the Course of Chinese History.

    Historical Problems in the Interpretation of Zheng He’s Career.

    II. Zheng He’s Early Life and His Patron Emperor Yongle.

    The Fall of the Yuan and the Rise of Zhu Yuanzhang to 1368.

    The Reign of Emperor Hongwu, 1368-1398.

    Civil War, 1398-1402.

    Yongle’s Reign as Emperor, 1402-1424.

    III. China and the Asian Maritime World in the Time of Zheng He.

    The Purpose of Zheng He’s Voyages.

    Patterns of Trade in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

    The Malay-Indonesian World in the Hongwu Era.

    Southern India and Ceylon in the Time of Zheng He.

    IV. Sailing to India: Zheng He’s First, Second and Third Voyages.

    The First Voyage, 1405-1407.

    The Second Voyage, 1407-1409.

    The Third Voyage, 1409-1411.

    V. Sailing to Africa: Zheng He’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Voyages.

    The Fourth Voyage, 1412/14-1415.

    The Fifth Voyage, 1417-1419.

    The Sixth Voyage, 1421-1422.

    The Last Years of the Yongle Reign, 1422-1424.

    VI. The Ships and Men of Zheng He’s Fleets.

    Dimensions and Displacements of the Treasure Ships.

    Masts and Sails.

    Shipbuilding Notices in the Taizong Shilu.

    Shipbuilding Costs.

    Numbers of Ships in Each of the Voyages.


    VII. Zheng He’s Career after 1424 and His Final Voyage.

    Ming China in the Hongxi (1424-25) and Xuande (1425-35) Reigns.

    Zheng He’s Career from 1424 to 1430.

    Zheng He’s Inscriptions at Liujiagang and Changle.

    Zheng He’s Seventh and Final Voyage, 1431-1433.

    VIII. The Legacy of Zheng He.

    Appendix. Translations of Primary Sources.

    Zheng He’s Biography in Mingshi 304.2b-4b.

    Zheng He’s 1431 Inscriptions.


    Note on Sources.


  • Robyn Lofaro
    0:05 on June 2nd, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Edward Dreyer’s book on Zheng He is a disappointment. I had known about Zheng He through Louise Levathes’ When China Ruled the Seas and the PBS documentary, “1421: The Year that China Discovered America?” as well as a previous book by Dreyer about Ming China. I had never believed in the far-fetched theory that Zheng He discovered America, but I did feel that his missions were a tremendous achievement which were good for China and that it was a tragedy that they were stopped. Dreyer trivializes Zheng He’s accomplishments. He denies that he furthered trade while giving example after example of how he did so. His only real contribution is to show that Zheng He’s ships were less seaworthy than is generally believed because they were built on a river (the Yangzte) and had a very shallow draught. But then, they did not have to be capable of sailing far on the open ocean in order to travel the trade network between China and the Near East. I believe that these productive and promising voyages were halted because of the Emperor Yongle’s other projects, such as the wars in Vietnam and against the Mongols, and his building of the Forbidden City in Beijing, which conflicted and competed with them for money. Dreyer denies this theory but says nothing to disprove it.

  • Adi Ruppin
    1:06 on June 2nd, 2012
    Reply to comment

    First, although I have studied much of Chinese history, I claim no particular expertise in the Ming Dynasty or the history of Zheng He’s voyages. However, I’ve been looking for a source to fix that for sometime and therefore read and liked this book. The author does a good job of sticking to the evidence and weighing the sources of evidence carefully. He makes a strong attempt to put the voyages, as well as the cessation of the voyages, and their motivations in historical context and argues things well. At one point, for instance, while trying to discuss the size of Zheng He’s largest ships he carefully considers the sorts of ships that could and could not travel the river routes in China that the fleet traveled to get from Nanjing to the ocean. Although he concludes the largest ships were possibly the largest wooden vessels ever constructed, he also concludes that they were probably not nearly as large as some have claimed and not capable of some of the more fanciful sailing through hazardous areas that some authors have credited them with. One thing that surprised me about this work is how much about these voyages and their routes are actually known, particularly when some authors have claimed our lack of knowledge about them allows for extremely fanciful claims about their routes and accomplishments. All in all, although I have not studied these voyages in depth, I found this to be a good place to start if one wishes an account that carefully weighs what is and is not known about these voyages.

  • Jolie Marvray
    6:10 on June 2nd, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Written after Menzies’ book on Zheng He – 1421 – this work has two aims. The first is to set the factual record right. A painstaking analysis of Zheng He’s travels is undertaken, and many matters are clarified. The second aim is to explain why Zheng He’s travels were not followed up, and why China failed to establish an overseas empire. The author explains the specific context of early Ming history, and points the finger at “deliberate decisions made by rulers”. “Cultural grounds” – whatever that means – are also evoked, though not made the dominant aspect.

    The factual analysis is certainly right, but incomplete, and thus unfair to the man. It is not enough to discuss at length how big the “treasure boats” were. Zheng He’s genius rested on two pillars: his capacity to build such a fleet, and his capacity to operate it without major catastrophic losses over 30 years. When one pieces the facts together as they lay scattered across the narrative, one discovers that Zheng He achieved something no other navy, ancient or modern, has managed to emulate to this day: to project power repeatedly, over extended periods at a stretch, while operating without supply bases on the way. To keep an army of 5’000 soldiers fit for fight, while on board ships for 20 months is unrivalled. From a logistics point of view, Zheng He has yet to meet his match.

    The historical analysis is inadequate. “Deliberate decisions”, and “cultural grounds”, are “just so” arguments. History is full of contingencies, but this does not exempt us from understanding the underlying forces against which contingencies play out. Applying the “tribute system” to the Indian Ocean was bound to fail. This system emerged in China’s north and reflected China’s need for horses as well as the nomads’ appetite for silken plunder. There were no “horses” to be had in the Indian Ocean, so there was no “vital interest” at work there for China. Secondly, the terms of trade were set, in the north, at China’s border – the nomads paid transportation costs. In the Indian Ocean, the terms of trade were set far away, and China paid the transportation costs – which were overwhelming. The mandarins were right in judging that it was a hell of an expense just for a few more quilin. Thirdly, and most fundamentally, Europe’s statelets were competing against each other to become the distribution monopolist in Europe. To secure the position in Europe they needed to control the supply chain all the way to the producer. China was united and had no such need – and logically chose a policy that did not include the expense of establishing colonies. The trading system brought the goods to its doors, and piracy was never too much of a problem: even pirates needed to survive, and sold in the end to China.

    Zheng He has been misunderstood, says the author. He is right. Unfortunately he too has failed in the task of giving him his due.

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