Dilemmas of Empire: Movement, Communication, and Information Management in Ming China, 1368-1644


Chelsea Zi Wang

PhD defended at: 

Columbia University


This dissertation analyzes the dilemmas of governance that confronted the Chinese state under the Ming dynasty. These dilemmas, I argue, arose from the Ming's dual existence as an empire (a state that ruled over a large territory) and a bureaucracy (a state that ruled through written documents and hierarchically-structured offices). As a bureaucratic empire, the Ming pursued several distinct objectives simultaneously, the resulting complications of which form the focus of my investigations. Chapter 1 describes the Ming state's methods for authenticating and synchronizing information, and shows how the needs of bureaucratic communication necessitated a seemingly redundant style of administrative writing. Chapter 2 explains why the postal system, despite its creators' best intentions, turned out to be much slower than non-postal methods of communication. Chapter 3 discusses how territorial officials made regular trips to the capital to participate in state rituals and to undergo personnel evaluations, even though the trips generated great costs and undermined local administrative continuity. Chapter 4 examines the long time it took for officials to transfer from one province to another and the bureaucratic needs that slowed down their movement. Ultimately, the Ming state maintained a delicate equilibrium between four conflicting objectives: speed, cost-saving, administrative certainty, and propriety. Given the constrains of premodern communication, it was logistically impossible to meet all four objectives simultaneously. Any attempt to advance one objective necessarily undermined one or more of the other objectives, and no amount of investment in transportation or communication infrastructure could have resolved this basic tension.