July 25, 2004

Perpetual Happiness, Shih-Shan Henry Tsai

Subtitle: The Ming Emperor Yongle

This is an almost-gripping book on a gripping subject. Anyone who's already interested in the early Ming, or even the development of modern China, would find the substance interesting. Unfortunately I perpetually felt that the real argument was happening offstage, with someone I couldn't hear, so it wasn't vivid enough that I can recommend it to everyone who likes history or drama at all.

It may be that the unheard interlocutor is Yongle himself; and the silence comes from the destruction of rather a lot of records of his reign, often by his order. Yongle is like several of Shakespeare's kings all together, taken either as a psychological study or a historical figure. His politics still matter today, insofar as his policies cemented absolutism in China, and directed China's strengths towards conquest. He seems, in Tsai's version or even in sparse outline, to have been a great and ambivalent person driven by flaws to do some horrible things, which he knew were horrible.

There must be a classic dramatic account of his life, analagous to Shakespeare's history plays, which would suit my unscholarly interest better.

ISBN: 0-295-98124-5