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Why don’t more people know about Zhu Yuanzhang?

Ari Kelman* of the American history blog, Edge of the American West has sparked a a fascinating little debate with this question:

“Who’s the most important — meaning influential, as in, could play the lead in the book or movie version of, [Insert Name]: And How S/he Changed America — historical figure about whom most people know nothing?”

Ari’s call was then much discussed in the comments section of his own blog, and then picked up by others and given the old internet twirl.

It’s a fascinating question, notably because it can be deconstructed so many ways. What does it mean to be unheard of? How does one assess historical importance? For his own two cents, Professor Kelman suggested 19th century engineer James Eads. I’m a historian and I’ve not heard of him, though given my guffaw-producing attempts at joining American history seminars, this should hardly be surprising, and Ari makes a good case for his nominee.

If we were to expand the scope of the inquiry to cover the breadth and expanse of the human historical experience, the question becomes more difficult still. Furthermore, to argue relative importance in terms of a person whose life or actions had the greatest effect on the largest possible cross-section of humanity, it’s hard not to bring China into the equation.

Without getting into a ruckus over what constitutes “world history” (saving that for a different post), I propose a question: Who is the most important Chinese historical figure about whom most people (outside China) know nothing?

I’m going to kick things off and propose Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty who coincidentally was coronated as the Hongwu Emperor 640 years ago this week. Not bad when you consider that the dynasty he founded ruled China for nearly half the time since.** The first commoner to take the throne in 1,500 years, Zhu instituted a number of changes that had lasting and profound effects on Chinese politics and society down to the 20th century. He centralized authority, exalted the position of the emperor beyond anything seen in the Tang or Song, overhauled the bureaucracy, and his fiscal policies created favorable conditions for the economic expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries. Moreover, his style of leadership–harsh punishments, voluminous regulations, paternalistic exhortations to his subjects to foster a harmonious society, an extreme dislike of intellectuals and the chattering classes, and a notably poor ability to take criticism–became a kind of template for later Chinese rulers. He didn’t invent any of these things, but he sure embraced them, and he did as much as anyone to make them a part of Chinese political culture.

Who gets your vote?


* Full disclosure: Professor Kelman is also from a “large public research university in Northern California.”
**Okay, 43% but who’s counting?

25 Comments on Why don’t more people know about Zhu Yuanzhang?

  1. 張之洞 who helped effect albeit unknowingly the transformation from the imperial to the modern state in China and gave the aphorism 中學為體﹐西學為用 which continues as the answer to the single problem which defines modern Chinese history, i.e. how to deal with the West.

  2. Scott,

    Zhang Zhidong is a good choice. If you’re curious, you might be interested in the work of historian Timothy Weston, who argues that the ti-yong dichotomy was not just a philosophical dead end to salve, as Levenson once put it, battered psyches, but was also a formulation that allowed for ‘motion and change’ in the reform era, especially the last decade of the Qing Dynasty.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Zhu Yuanzhang is way more important than what you said. Mao emulated Zhu’s strategy used after Zhu gain the empire. He is probably the most admired person by Mao.

  4. I’d go a bit farther back to Lord Shang (Shang Yang 商鞅) of the tremendous impact his policies have had on Chinese governance. Is this a reasonable selection?

  5. Chang Ping,

    Not sure to whom you addressed your comment. I nominated Zhu (admittedly something of a left field choice) as my nominee for TMICHFTMPHNHO and I’m glad you second my selection.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Bankangde,

    Interesting choice. I like it. Confucian officials likedto throw the epithet “Legalist” at anybody who favored increased state participation or control in the economy, which I think in some ways masked the significant influence of Legalism in post-Qin Imperial politics.


  7. Great discussion, it gets me excited about learning history.

    I vote for 洪秀全, leader of the Taiping Revolt. Massive fatalities (of course that alone doesn’t set him apart), social/economic reforms and a powerful strike against the Qing.

    Many historians see the Taiping as a kind of proto-Communist state, too…

  8. given that most people have never heard of 99% of the famous people in chinese history, this is like shooting fish in a barrel, but here goes:

    zhao kuangyin 趙匡胤 , founding emperor of the song dynasty. pulled off a palace coup and established a dynastic house that didn’t end in the same fate, ended the practice of military commissioners (節度使) that plagued the tang in favor of a more stable civilian bureaucracy, and expanded the civil service exams to become the dominant form of selecting officials.

    in a nutshell, he set up the template for chinese governance over the next thousand years, more or less.

  9. Pete,

    Interesting choice. You know, one of the first things I learned when I got to graduate school was that the Taiping Rebellion was THE defining moment of China’s long 19th century. It resulted in immense devasation and cost.

  10. Wu Ming,

    Great minds think alike. YJ and I were talking about this post at lunch today over steaming bowls of lanzhou niurou lamian, and Zhao was one of her choices as well. I still think it’s a toss-up though over who left the larger stamp on the monarchy, Zhao or Zhu…but then again I do the late imperial period and you do the Song so….tomato/tomahto, I guess.

  11. I came here to learn rather than to contribute a name, but I thought I’d point out that the Zhu Yuanzhang Wikipedia link is malformed.

  12. I’ve had some fun playing variations of this game with Chinese students of mine. I quite often use Michael Hart’s list of ‘The 100 Most Influential People’ in history as the basis for further discussion after first canvassing their suggestions.

    My nomination for the world list – not ‘unknown’, but invariably overlooked – is Themistocles. He was the Athenian leader whose policy led directly to the defeat of the Persian invasions and, only slightly less directly, to the almost a century of Athenian hegemony which nurtured the great flowering of art, literature, drama, satire, science, philosophy, and historiography that is at the core of Western European civilization. No Themistocles, no world as we know it, I say.

    I tend to lobby against any Chinese (pre-Mao) making it into the world list because of China’s extreme isolationism. Even Confucius (who comes in at No. 5 on Hart’s list, which is heavily biased towards ‘thinkers’) has had fairly limited impact outside of China’s borders, and really none at all outside of East Asia.

    The only more distant historical figures from this neck of the woods who clearly ‘shook the world’ were Genghis and Kubilai – do we allow the retroactive Sinification of the Mongols that the Chinese are so keen on? Probably not.

    If we allow the argument that China is NOW becoming a huge force in international affairs, and thus that anyone who played a role in making China China has indirectly been hugely influential on world history even if no-one beyond the Himlayas ever heard of them during their lifetime – well then, I think it has to be a pretty massive and definitive contribution to making China China.

    I think we may have to go all the way back to Qin Shihuang. OK, arguably a lot of people today may have encountered him through Zhang Yimou’s ‘Hero’ (or Chen Kaige’s much better ‘The Emperor And The Asssassin’), but I don’t think the Western audience was really paying that much attention to the history and the names in these films. Even the hugest figures in Chinese history are completely ‘unknown’ outside of China.

  13. John,

    Thanks for stopping by and the tip on the link. I’ve got it pointing in the correct (albeit annoyingly blocked here in the PRC) direction.

  14. Froog,

    As always, a pleasure to read your thoughtful and well-put comments.

    Your knowledge of the Classical World far surpasses my own, and I liked your argument for Themistocles. Given the Greco-Roman foundations of Western Civilization, and the appalling lack of Classical history in (US) schools, if were to consider a relatively unknown figure whose importance resonated through the pages of our civilization, the Greeks would certainly be a good place to start.

    While I Genghis was a Mongol, he was certainly a figure in Chinese history, having conquered China proper. However, can someone who has been portrayed by John Wayne in a movie qualify as unknown?

    Qin Shihuang is a good selection. I do think that outside China he is still (relatively) unknown. That might change this summer when he becomes the bad guy in the latest installment of “The Mummy Series.

    Finally, and I suppose this is complicated question that might deserve its own post, I would caution against the “China’s isolation” argument. Isolated from whom? Given that historical China represented a huge percentage of the world’s population and was a center of world trade (though not directly with Europe), it’s hard to argue any kind of continuous isolation. Remember that it was only quite recently (relatively speaking) that “European civilization” (interpreted as broadly as possible) expanded beyond the westernmost third of the Eurasian landmass and North Africa.

    Before that it was like a cocktail party where a group of four guys (Europe) stand in the corner looking at the rest of the party goers gathered together, chatting and laughing across the room, and wondering why those people are being so anti-social.

  15. I’m not inviting argument over who’s who but I can only wonder at some of the parochial choices of important persons.

    Surely throughout the course of Chinese history there are two seminal events, 1) the unification of the Chinese land mass under one central authority (and one people, the Han) and adoption of means of governance to perpetuate so and 2) the continuing transition of that system to the modern age (unlike past, local contacts in Chinese history the modern world is not likely to be Sinicized). Seen in this light the number of candidates for importance is very, very small, further qualified by the requirement that they be relatively unknowns to those outside China. You could extend that to relatively unknowns within China for all that most people know or understand.

    Also, I suggest that Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore model of Chinese government he’s crafted will probably have more lasting influence on future mainland Chinese governance than the experience of government authority under Chairman Mao which name everyone recognizes.

  16. P.S. I confess ignorance to James Eads but propose Alfred Thayer Mahan as more important and probably at least or less well-known.

  17. I don’t overlook China’s importance as an enormous and populous country, nor its economic and cultural impact on the world through the exports of silks, ceramics, etc. However, if you’re looking for individuals who were ‘influential’ on world history, I think you’ve got to focus on people who had an impact outside of their own borders – however indirectly. China’s never really had any political or military or philosophical influence, and not very much cultural influence, outside of East Asia – and I think that’s very largely because it’s never really tried to. That’s what I meant by “isolationism” – if that’s a disputed or un-PC term, please suggest something that works better.

    British and American figures inevitably dominate under my interpretation of the criteria, because of the pervasiveness of the English language and the fact that both countries have enjoyed a global military/economic hegemony.

    My view is that ‘important in world history’ requires a trans-border impact. Just nominating people who were important in China’s history and saying “Well, China’s a big part of the world, you know” won’t cut it. I say you need to show the linkage to a wider influence outside of China.

    By the by, a contemporary submission (non-Chinese) for the game, who is probably not as widely known as he ought to be in any country and appears to be completely unheard of in China: Tim Berners-Lee, architect of the WorldWide Web.

  18. Scott,

    I might ask: Which unification and which system? There have been many unifications in Chinese history, and the system of governance changed quite a bit between the Qin and the Qing.

    Lee Kuan Yew is an interesting choice and I studied in Singapore for a year so he’s a figure that has always fascinated me. I suppose including him in our list really forces us to think about the parameters of our discussion–an ethnic Chinese, born in a British colony, who is culturally Peranakan, leader of a tiny island nation, winding up as an influential figure in China’s history, and you know what: you just might be right, we’ll have to see. The world is a funny place.

  19. Froog,

    Excellent points, let me respond.

    I don’t think the argument against Eurocentric history is about being P.C., it’s about perspective. One of the great legacies bequeathed to the world by Greeks and Romans, is an inquisitive skepticism, that urges us to rethink old ideas and tropes every once in awhile, to see if they still hold as much validity in light of new evidence and interpretative methods. But as a I said, this argument deserves something longer, probably its own post.

    As for the extent of China’s reach, I think we are getting hung up on contemporary political boundaries as the defining characterstic of human experience. Leaving aside for the moment that the nation-state is a relatively recent system of human organization, that Europe is divided into separate states and China is not, is more a result of historical contingency than some kind of internal logic demanding that what is, is what should ever be.

    One could argue that the diversity found within China, both historically and, to some extent, even today, rivals that of Europe.

    We might argue too that China’s influence extended from the Roman Empire in the west to the Straits of Malacca in the east. In terms of Europe, it might be noted that the barbarians forced out of Central Asia by the expanding Chinese state were those who set upon Europe and the diseases borne by travelers, traders, and raiders from the Sinosphere played a huge role in Europe’s history. Finally, I might suggest that the opening acts of Europe’s eventual rise were very much influenced by China/Asia: Columbus and Magellen were not looking for Australia when they set out on their voyages.

    That European and especially Anglophonic culture came to dominate in today’s world, well that’s hard to argue against. But I worry about any teleological reading of history that suggests this was somehow ‘inevitable’ nor am I convinced that such domination is not subject to change in the future. Histoy can be funny like that.

    As I said, I think this is going to be its own post this week and I really want to thank you for helping me to think about this subject.

    Ps. It might be a little early, but I think your choice of Tim Berners-Lee is brilliant. (Though somewhere Al Gore is feeling snubbed.) It may well be that in three hundred years we’ll speak of him the same way we do now about Johannes Gutenberg. Nice selection.

  20. I think the ‘game’ as originally conceived – certainly in Michael Hart’s list – requires a global overview, a search for those who’ve had the widest possible impact in shaping the modern world. Hart is scorned in many quarters (revered in others!) for placing The Prophet Mohammed at the top of his ranking, but you can see his point. Do you know that list? You can find it here (this site also has many other entertaining ‘Top 100’ lists, but I don’t think there’s a ‘Top 100 Figures in Chinese History’ yet. That could be your first book contract! Seriously.):

    Most of the points you make relate to the impact of China as a whole, or of its people, its culture, its trade. It’s hard to point to individuals who made their presence felt over such a distance. But keep trying – you may convince me one day!

    I appreciate your need to fight your corner in asserting the value of Chinese/Asian history, which I’m sure has been long undervalued and disregarded in academic circles in the West. I’m fascinated by everybody’s history; and it’s a pity that time is too limited for us to study as widely as we might wish. It’s unfortunate, too, that people tend to focus so narrowly on their own country’s history. I always thought it was crazy that, until about 15 years ago anyway, American history was not on the UK high school curriculum at all: we studied Britain and Europe only.

    However, I do worry that, while there is a great need for some balancing up to be done, some of these arguments for the ‘importance’ of (e.g.) Chinese history stem from a PC sense of colonial guilt. If you’re taking a global view from our contemporary standpoint, I think it’s entirely appropriate to prioritize European and American history, since these countries have led the way in industrialization and set templates for development that the rest of the world is following. That ‘world shaping’ focus shouldn’t be to the exclusion of other fields of study and other perspectives, of course – but I don’t think we have to feel embarrassed or apologetic about the Anglophone hegemony.

    You haven’t really said anything yet to dissuade me about ‘isolationism’ either. China’s influence on Europe seems to be limited to manufactures, plague rats, and displaced marauders? As you point out, Magellan and others were actively seeking to open up sea routes to China. Europe sent merchants, missionaries, and ambassadors to China. Marco Polo was only one amongst hundreds or thousands who made the journey east. Who did China send in the other direction? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Silk Road traders tended to be Central Asian peoples, rarely or never Han Chinese. It is surely significant that Xuan Zang and Zheng He are seen as such conspicuous exceptions in Chinese history, that the mere idea of a “journey to the west” is so outlandish.

  21. Fair points. But I would argue that manufactures, plague rats, and displaced marauders all had an enormous impact on European history. I’m not sure how it’s possible to argue otherwise.

    I would agree that a lot of the call for “World History” stems from calls by some academics to ‘rectify’ the European tendency to write history from the perspective of the victorious.

    While European civilization has certainly shaped the world as we know it today, History is not only the study of how the present came to be, but also how it was in the past. Two points: One, Europe’s rise is relatively recent (beginning not with Magellen, but really with the Industrial Revolution). Second, while I don’t like the PC overemphasis on peoples/events in the service of calming battered post-colonial psyches, as a historian I’m always conscious of teleologies: unspoken assumptions that what is was meant to be and that attempts to fit prior history into an unbroken line of progress to a set point in the present, discounting other possible contingencies.

    As I said, it’s a fascinating debate, one that certainly fit for a pub…and I think you and I can probably find a pub handy in proximity and suitable in atmosphere to this debate. I propose we make plans to do so at our earliest possible convenience.

    Ps. Thanks for the list and the idea.

  22. Have you made your Superbowl plans yet?

    Have you taken a look at Hart’s list? I think Marx and Mao should rank much higher than he does.

    An interesting question for Chinese students is whether they would place Mao or Deng higher. Almost invariably they will loyally nominate Mao. Founding the nation undoubtedly important, I agree; but freeing it from three decades of turmoil and finally setting it on a path towards modernization and integration into the international community – rather more important, I would suggest.

    I think Hart’s list was compiled in the late 70s or early 80s, so he could little guess at the impact of “reform and opening up”.

  23. Froog,

    Thanks for the reminder, I look over Hart’s list and I was struck too by the emphasis on religion. I suppose there’s an argument to be made there. I also liked the juxtaposition of Gutenberg and Cai Lun.

    Deng versus Mao is a tough call, I suppose it depends how we judge the relative importance of positive and negative effects. On the whole, I’d probably lean toward Mao if only because without Mao there would be no Deng but it’s tough to argue the reverse. Deng’s ideas in the 1980s were first conceived by Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, and Deng in the 1960s. But it’s certainly a subject open for debate.

    As for the Super Bowl…I was thinking G&D but a dark horse has emerged in recent days as I’m starting to lean more toward Texas Tim’s…It may be a game time decision, what are your thoughts, oh Master of the Barstool?

  24. Schlepping that far across town in the middle of the night is kind of unappealing. I’d rather not go too much east of Gongti.

    My ‘dark horse’ nomination (if they’re open; haven’t tried to check yet) would be Kro’s. Other than that, I oscillate between Rickshaw (good crowd) and Sammy’s (CHEAP).

  25. Rickshaw is a good bet. I watched the baseball playoffs there. I like Sammy’s because I like Sammy. He’s a helluva guy, but he also sometimes has trouble keeping his various multimedia equipment working. I’d hate it if we ran into a glitch during the Super Bowl.

    I think one reason I was leaning toward Texas Tim’s is 1) the size of the place 2) the Mexican Food buffet after and 3) the prices.

    This is a topic though, that definitely deserves its own thread. Perhaps a post on Barstool Blues?

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