Ming Provincial Courts Conference

Geiss Foundation fully supported and conducted the Ming Provincial Courts Conference, held 18-19 June 2011 at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY.  The second of two conferences on the influence of Ming courts, sponsored by Geiss Foundation, David Robinson, Robert H.N. Ho Professor in Asian Studies at Colgate and a Geiss Foundation trustee, also organized and hosted this conference.

Colgate University graciously offered its facilities and assistance to conduct this conference, which was attended by nine scholars from the UK, the Netherlands, France, China, and USA.   All attendees presented papers and participated in general discussion followed.

Some papers delivered at this conference were published in Ming Studies.

Speakers and Papers:

Craig Clunas, Oxford University, “Painting Kings in Ming China”
Jeroen Duindam, University of Leiden, “Comparative Perspectives on the Ming Imperial Princes”
Jérôme Kerlouégan, École de Hautes Études en Science Sociales, “Even Animals Do Not Do Such Things!”: The Evil Deeds of Princes in the Mid-Ming
Liu Yi 刘毅, Nankai University 南開大學, “The Princely Houses of the Ming Dynasty: A Survey and Research” 明朝王府的调查与研究
David M. Robinson, Colgate University, “Princes in the Polity: The Anhua Prince’s Uprising of 1510”
Richard Wang, University of Florida, Gainesville, “Ming Princely Patronage of Daoist Temples”
Wu Yanhong, Adrian College, “Separating the Group: Understanding the Legal Control of the Imperial Clan of the Ming Government”
Yang Xiaoneng, Stanford University, “Archaeological Perspectives on the Princely Burials of Ming Dynasty Enfeoffments”
Zhao Zhongnan 趙中南, National Palace Museum 故宮博物院, “An Initial Exploration of National Finances and Gifts to Imperial Princes during the Hongzhi Reign (1488-1505)” 弘治时期藩王赏赐与国家财政初探

Background: Despite their importance in local society, cultural production, and the imperial polity, the courts of imperial clansmen outside Beijing figure only minimally in contemporary scholarship on the Ming period. A few scholars, however, have recently begun to draw attention to their patronage of painting, religion, scholarship, and publishing. The social, economic, political, and military dimensions of these courts would all benefit from further investigation.

The relation of such princely courts to each other and to the central courts in Beijing and Nanjing, their place in contemporary political discourse, as well as their importance in foreign relations merit careful consideration.

How did the nature and place of provincial courts change over time and vary by region? If imperial princes are mentioned in treatments of the Ming, it is usually in discussions of either the first or last few reigns of the dynasty. What happened after the central court markedly reduced the military and political role of provincial courts in overall dynastic defense strategy? How did the nature and spheres of their influence shift? What was their interaction with local populations, traditions, and economies?

A cursory reading of such basic chronicles as the Ming Veritable Records or more specialized compendia as A Reference for Statutes (條例備考) and Governmental Policies and Regulations Related to the Princely Establishments of the August Ming (皇明藩府政令) shows that imperial clansmen in the provinces energetically pursued their social, economic, political, and legal interests through nearly constant negotiations with local and central authorities throughout the course of the dynasty.

One consequence of the provincial courts’ marginal place in our narratives of the Ming period is that our descriptive vocabulary and analytical schema for imperial clansmen in the provinces remain underdeveloped. How are we to describe these clansmen and their courts? Were they kings, princes, or something else? What of the ever-growing ranks of lesser imperial clansmen? Scholars in the People’s Republic of China consider imperial clansmen in the provinces as part of the history of the imperial family rather than the history of courts; their seats of power are considered establishments rather than courts.

How useful are terms like the central, provincial, or regional courts? Is it possible or productive to periodize provincial courts? For instance, should we be thinking in terms of early Ming, mid-Ming, and late Ming provincial courts? How would a chronology of provincial courts track with better explored developments in society, economy, and thought? Are there recognizable differences among the courts that could be used to generate categories of provincial courts, for instance, northern and southern provincial courts, hinterland and borderland courts, large and small courts, more or less affluent or commercialized courts?

Were there clusters of provincial courts that interacted with sufficient intensity to develop distinctive features, a league of courts as it were? In terms of interaction with local traditions, what is the relevance of such notions of localization, appropriation, syncretism, fusion, and hybridism to understanding provincial courts? The complexity of the imperial family in the provinces and its wide-ranging influences demand a multi-disciplinary approach.


Ming Provincial Court Conference Participants (from left to right): Richard Wang, David Robinson, Jérôme Kerlouégan, Craig Clunas, Wu Yanhong, Yang Xiaoneng, Liu Yi, Jerome Kerlouegan, Zhao Zhongnan