Sydney’s main art gallery, the AGNSW, has a fine collection of porcelain from China’s Ming dynasty. At one point recently you could go down the escalator into the East Asian gallery and see, tucked away in a quiet corner, half a dozen pieces on display. Some of them had intricate blue painting on a perfect white background—made possible by techniques developed at Jingdezhen, centuries ahead of European artists—just like the archetypal image of a ‘Ming vase’ which is the entirety of what most people know about the dynasty. But there were also plainer dishes in monochrome finishes. They’re elegantly made and beautiful to look at, but simple enough that it’s easy to imagine them in everyday use by a well-to-do household, evidence of a wealthy society that valued beauty and material comfort.

Dish from Jingdezhen, early 16th century (EC14.1966)

On the opposite wall, Yang Yongliang’s Infinite Landscape might attract your eye with flickers of movement. Close up, what looked like a medium-sized landscape painting turns out to be a video screen, and the classically-styled mountain peaks are dotted with dense clusters of modern apartment buildings and threaded with roads.[1] Cars and trucks beetle along, passing in and out of view, while lights in the buildings go on and off as the population goes about their business.

Detail from one frame of Infinite Landscape (366.2011)

If things had gone differently, Infinite Landscape would have been made in the late Ming Dynasty instead of the 21st century.

Around the year 1000, China had experienced an efflorescence of science and research, with discovery after discovery bringing it far ahead of any other country. Chinese inventors developed moveable type printing, gunpowder, the canal pound lock, paper money, blast-forged steel, and textile machinery. If you skim-read the multiple volumes of Science and Civilisation in China, you realise that each of those brief subject headings represents a deep and sophisticated research effort, united in a web of inquiry into the natural world.

A water-powered blast furnace developed during the Song period. China produced steel at a rate that England would not reach until 600 years later. (Image and factoid credit: Wikipedia)

That period—the Song dynasty—ended with invasions, instability, and wars. But at the start of the Ming era, China was reunited and peaceful again. Its people were rich, and it was the preeminent cultural power in Asia. Nevertheless, the growth in technology stalled, and the country sank into stagnation.

Data from Broadberry, Guan and Li (2014)

What happened? Many people are worried that our current run of economic growth is slowing to a stop, and that the boom in science and technology over the last century and a half is now fizzling out. Is it possible that we're repeating the Ming's mistakes?

The dynasty's stagnation can't be because of the usual factors that crop up in growth economics. China had a well-established system of property rights; its culture emphasised a diligent work ethic; the education system was sophisticated and ubiquitous, at least among the gentry; creative and cultural pursuits were highly valued; and the goods trade was vigorously competitive.

The government was also able to deploy its wealth in large-scale capital works. What is now known as the Great Wall had almost 9,000km added to its length[2], but it almost pales in comparison to the engineering invested in the Grand Canal, which connected Beijing with Ningbo, a distance of 1,400km. The Canal carried boats transporting around 1,000 tonnes of grain per day—ten thousand barges annually, with traffic never resting for a moment.

This was no mere command economy. Early in the Ming era, the government built on the Song's innovations in monetary economics, switching from a grain-based tax to a cash one. The scale of the empire was so large, officials realised, that moving grain from one end of it to the other was a waste of resources. Instead, they charged people money in one place, and used it to buy things in another place.

How could such a promising start end in failure? Theories have proliferated, but nothing has been as illuminating for me as reading The Troubled Empire, by Timothy Brook. It's a panoramic and (no offence to historians) surprisingly readable history of the Ming dynasty, and of its immediate predecessor, the Yuan.

The book illustrates, and validates, what the raw numbers say: in the Ming era, China was richer than almost anywhere else. When the Korean official Ch'oe Pu journeyed through the country, for instance, he was amazed by the markets "scattered like stars", offering "all the treasures of the land and sea", and the people who "live luxuriously". That was certainly true of the big end of town; when a senior court official was arrested around the midpoint of the dynasty, all his possessions were confiscated and inventoried. The inventory survives, and includes antiques; vessels made of precious metals; art objects made from coral, rhinoceros horn, and ivory; and fancy belts, which, Brook explains, were a significant fashion accessory, like men's ties today.

There's also some evidence that this wealth was spread around the economy, not just concentrated at the very stop. Brook cites a polemic by a bloviating old fart named Gu Qing, who complained that the simple lifestyle of Confucian decorum had been swamped by conspicuous consumption.

The little gifts that used to lubricate social intercourse had grown into large bribes. Dinner parties had moved from a modest table of vegetables and fruits to a groaning board of meat and fish laid out on expensive porcelain. The unadorned four-sided hat that the Ming founder had mandated as male headgear had given way to elaborate hats, to say nothing of the absurd concoctions that women's headdresses had become.

And so on. Clearly, living standards rose significantly in the first century or so of the Ming dynasty, as the country recovered from war and instability. I'd guess that there was also some Adam Smith-style growth: as cities grew, people were able to take on more and more specialised jobs, making production more efficient. But that hit a natural limit soon enough.

Perhaps the limiting factor was a lack of respect for private property. If you imagine an autocracy governing a country the size of China, you might assume that its vast apparatus of regional and local officials would be holding on to their power with violence and corruption, making ordinary people's life a misery and, even worse, inhibiting economic growth. Not so. The reality may not have been a Confucian ideal of benevolent harmony—corruption was a recurring problem—but magistrates and governors were not merely feudal thugs. As Brook puts it, "what distinguished the late-imperial Chinese state, in contrast, say, to European states in the same period, was the conviction that the state was responsible for the welfare of its people."

Over the centuries, that responsibility was most acute during famines, and the administration gradually explored different relief methods, from local self-sufficiency to cross-country shipments of grain, as they puzzled over the strengths and limits of the free market.

They got plenty of practice. One thing the book makes clear is how much the dynasty struggled against environmental headwinds. Where previous centuries had seen fertile harvests and pleasant weather, administrators now faced droughts, abnormal cold, sandstorms, floods, and therefore famines on a regular basis. The evidence is copious, because gentlemen of the time produced volume after volume of what is translated as "commonplace books", containing their miscellaneous observations on life—in other words, they were enthusiastic bloggers—and they often included regular reports on the weather. (A trick of the local magistrate: when questioning a witness about a past event, ask what the weather was like that day, and compare it to your own records.)

Chinese civilisation had always been pushing the limits of what its ecology could support—its cities consumed the forests around them in an expanding blast radius as they grew, chasing away animals and dislodging precious topsoil—so it's plausible that environmental factors might be responsible for the Ming stagnation. In fact, Mark Elvin proposed a theory that makes it the chief culprit, in the following way.[3] Because of ecological pressures, political tensions between rival groups inside China would be resolved in favour of whoever can control natural resources, particularly water. The most effective way to control the water supply at a large scale is via canals. But as canals get larger and more extensive, they accumulate more silt, which needs to be continually dredged out if the canal is to keep functioning. In other words, political leaders are pushed to create large scale waterworks, but then find themselves allocating all their spare resources just to keep the canals in working order.

Elvin calls the canal conundrum a 'high-level equilibrium trap'. Certainly, as I learned from Brook, the costs of large-scale canal maintenance were gigantic. Whenever it wasn't actively maintained, the Grand Canal would become impassable after just a few years, and Yuan officials had to revert to sea voyages whenever the Canal was blocked by silting, flooding, or warfare. And when, towards the end of the Yuan Dynasty—in a brutal act that is said to have sparked the popular uprisings that toppled them and installed the Ming—they pressganged a labour force to redig the canal, they took 150,000 men. Nevertheless, on reflection, this sounds to me exactly like the Swan-Solow Model of neoclassical economics, in a scenario with zero productivity growth. In other words it was a symptom, not a cause, of China's economic decline.

Perhaps politics was responsible in some way. It's odd to disparage the abilities of a government that managed a continent-sized country for 400 years, but one does end up wondering how the Ming managed to do anything at all, once their vigorous founder joined his ancestors; Brook remarks that they "stumbled from one constitutional or environmental crisis to the next." After a farcical military expedition to the northwest in which the emperor himself was captured by the enemy, a child relative was enthroned instead, who died a few years later and was replaced by his predecessor, who then spent a few years purging allies and enemies alike. A century and a half later, a constitutional crisis became so acute that the Wanli Emperor went on strike, simply not showing up to the daily meetings at the Forbidden City and leaving the throne literally vacant.

A main source of problems was the way the administration handled inheritance. Brook groups the Ming with the Yuan Dynasty—the one founded by Kublai Khan, after the Mongols succeeded in conquering a vast amount of territory that included the Chinese heartland—because the Ming effectively used the Yuan's method of choosing an emperor. They retained the forms of traditional Chinese ritual, in which the first-born son of the Emperor would take over, but in practice they used a system where the most powerful chief from the next generation would seize power and murder any possible rival, a system called tanistry.[4]

The central government spent endless amounts of energy trying to resolve the tension between tradition and power. Brook considers it "ludicrous" to describe the later Ming emperors as tragic victims of the system they inherited (he reserves his sympathy for the court officials who tried to warn their rulers of the accumulating problems, in the knowledge that they would probably be flayed alive for their impertinence) but it is surprising to find those absolute rulers so circumscribed in what they could do. At a minimum, they had to expend time and energy demonstrating their claim to the throne, for example by sending Zheng He on a sailing expedition half across the world—not on a "voyage of discovery", but to assert Beijing's place at the centre of the diplomatic world. It has a late-Hegel flavour to it: the political system granted the emperors total power, but they couldn't actually exercise it without jeopardising their legitimacy.

Portraits of some Ming gentlemen[5]

From the heart of the Forbidden City, that tension flowed out to the capillaries of the empire. After reading 1587, A Year of No Significance, you're left with the impression of a system that promoted its most talented subjects to what would ordinarily be called "positions of influence", but didn't let them influence anything. Generals, scholars, courtiers and even emperors ended up as spectators to a drama in which they were somehow compelled to act.

It's tempting to collect lessons from the Ming era into a set of neat take-aways. The limits of authoritarianism; not taking the natural environment for granted; avoiding complacency; geography as destiny; encouraging research instead of smothering it…? Nothing quite fits together in a way that makes perfect logical sense. So you might find yourself trying to make sense of it through art, back in the gallery. You can look around the room and think about the problems people faced 500 years ago, and the problems they didn't realise they were ignoring. If you're unlucky, you'll catch sight of a portrait from that time which seems uncomfortably familiar: the self-satisfied ironic smile, the urbane sophistication, so proud of his knowledge of art history. Better to focus on the porcelain. Look at that Jingdezhen ware—so refined, so elegant.

Cover image credit: detail from Gcjining.JPG, showing the Grand Canal at Jining City, 2006, by Wikimedia user Tomtom08.

1. In the Song Dynasty, landscape painters developed a technique called "the angle of totality", a Cubist-ish distortion of perspective where each small section of the painting looks accurate but the whole thing doesn't quite fit together. It's meant to draw your eye around each small piece, so that when you finish looking at the painting, you feel refreshed as if you've gone on a journey through the countryside it depicts. In Yang's version, the people are already going on that journey and you're irrelevant. Cute, huh?

2. The expansion of the Wall actually indicates the depth of the Ming malaise, as you learn from Waldron's The Great Wall of China, because it was the outcome of unresolved dithering over what to do about the Ordos Plateau. China could try to conquer the whole thing, at an unsustainable cost in money and personnel, and stretching their military expertise beyond what they could handle; or they could abandon it, suffering an unacceptable humiliation and risking the same fate as the Song Dynasty.

3. In The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973) and The Retreat of the Elephants (2008).

4. Try to use it in a sentence today.

5. This is from a Ming-era collection called 明人肖像冊. Thanks to Chinese netizen a2195567 for digitising part of it.