The Art of Being Governed: An Interview

At the heart of Michael Szonyi’s new book are two questions: 1) How did ordinary people in the Ming deal with their obligations to provide manpower to the army?, and 2) What were the broader consequences of their behavior?” The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China (Princeton University Press, 2017) considers how military institutions shaped the lives of ordinary people on China’s southeast coast under the Ming dynasty. It tells the stories of ordinary families navigating state institutions and forming and reforming all sorts of social relations in the process. It shows that there were particular strategies, practices, and discourses used by ordinary people in creative and ingenious ways to deal with and create opportunities from challenges posed by the Ming state, and it ultimately argues that this pattern of political interaction was not unique to soldiers or to the Ming. In the process, Szonyi’s book offers a thoughtful series of reflections on the sources of Ming history (and beyond!) and a model for learning to listen to the voices of the past in order to inform how we understand and live our lives today. We spoke about the book for the New Books in East Asian Studies podcast, and you can listen to our conversation here.