A subject of which I knew so little that I didn't even know I knew so little.

This review makes me want to buy the book

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Aug 19, 2022·edited Aug 19, 2022

Anyone else discovered the trick that when their are alternate spelling methods of foreign words, if you split the difference between the two spellings you often get closer to the correct sound than either of them.

I have been doing this for years (where possible) and feel it is often pretty successful with Asian/indigenous words.

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Aug 19, 2022·edited Aug 19, 2022

"Maybe in some alternate universe a Ming-era person discovers that lightning can be tamed like fire - would that have helped? I’m not aware of any experiments with electricity, though they did have gunpowder and printing presses. "

They were not ready for a scientific revolution. At this point the Chinese believed the earth was flat and they didn't even have Euclidean geometry. Not that they weren't smart! They were highly intelligent, it's just they didn't have the cultural apparatus for scientific investigation. A good example is Chinese astronomy. Right around this time period Chinenese astronomy was a state monopoly conducted by the Bureau of Mathematics and Astronomy, under the Ministry of Rites. It was part of the Ministry of Rites because the sole purpose of Astronomy was to prepare an annual calendar that identified lucky and unlucky days. The calendar's primary purpose is to establish the days certain rites will occur on. Astronomer's studied the stars so they could predict the equinoxes and eclipses so that rites would happen at the right time.

In 1603 the Chinese scholar Xu Guanqi converts to Christianity under the influence of his friend Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest who came to China as a missionary. Ricci has been sharing western knowledge with Xu, and together they decide to translate all of western science into Chinese. By 1610 they've published translations explaining geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy (not the best science, but at least the Earth is a sphere and the math works), and other odds and ends. Note that this is still 1610 and the scientific revolution is just kicking off in Europe: all Xu is doing is trying to get China caught up with Europe's mathematical and astronomical knowledge circa 500 AD or so.

Xu challenges the Chinese astronomers to a face off to prove which system is better, with the Jesuits making their own calendar to compare to the Chinese calendar. The Jesuit calendar is so much more accurate than the Bureau's that the Emperor grants Xu permission to translate and publish the remainder of Western science into Chinese. A Jesuit priest returns to Europe to recruit more astronomer-missionaries and collect books of science.

So what happens from there? What happens is the eunuchs and other bureaucrats get pissed off at some rando showing up and rocking the boat (and tradition! The Earth is a sphere? How radical!). The Minister of Rites manages to put the Jesuit missionaries on trial for disparaging Chinese rites. Though none are executed, many are banished and the rest stop publicly spreading scientific knowledge and try to keep their nose clean. In 1619 the priest they sent to get more books arrives with 7,000 of them, plus something special: a brand new telescope! While all this was happening in China the telescope was invented, spread across Europe, and was being used to make amazing new astronomical discoveries. The moons of Jupiter! The transit of Venus! Craters on the moon! It's a big moment, and China has just received this state of the art invention from across the world.

Of course, the Chinese won't let him in because the Jesuits are persona-non-grata with the bureaucracy right now. He sneaks in anyway, and by 1622 court politics have shifted enough that the Jesuits are back in business. They set up shop and by 1626 have published a Chinese treatise on the telescope and all the cool discoveries that have already been made with it. Wang Cheng publishes "Diagrams and Explanation of the Marvelous Devices of the Far West" where he expounds on the telescope and its value for navigation, warfare, astronomy, etc. One difficulty is that the Chinese do not have the technical skill to grind glass lenses, and have no science of optics. Still, the knowledge is here and there are people excited to spread it.

In 1629 another showdown is held, this time with the task of predicting when the next day's solar eclipse will occur. The Jesuit astronomers predict the start time and duration down to the minute, while the Bureau of Calendar's is off on the start by an hour and the duration by almost two hours. The Emperor is impressed enough to put Xu in charge of a Calendar Reform Project. The Jesuits translate more works on state-of-the art astronomy from letters they receive from Europe: they publish books on Tycho's model of the solar system, and in 1632 they use Tycho's system to predict the conjunction of Mars and Venus. The old Chinese system is off by eight days. The current leader of the Jesuit astronomer-priests, Schall, is appointed the head of the Bureau of Calendars.

So at this point China has all the knowledge it needs to kick off a scientific revolution, the kind that is happening simultaneously in Europe. The trouble is that they don't have the cultural institutions for it. They have the fuel, they have the spark, but there's no oxygen in the room.

The Imperial Bureaucracy is against this whole project from the get go, and the only thing that holds them back is the Emperor's support. When the Emperor dies in 1664 the new Emperor is told by his officials that the Calendar Reform project is just an excuse to propagate Christianity, upset tradition, and destabilize China. Schall is accused of creating calendars that cause state rites to occur at inauspicious times, leading to the death of the previous Emperor. The project heads are imprisoned. Schall is sentenced to death by dismemberment and the rest of his group are sentenced to exile after flogging. The sentence is commuted to house arrest after the princess dowager intervenes on their behalf, but the project is dead. The Jesuits are thrown out and the Chinese officials who worked for them are beheaded for treason. An anti-western official who has no knowledge of mathematics or astronomy is chosen as the new head of the Bureau of Calendars. They return to the old methods for the most part, choosing tradition over accuracy.

This isn't the last battle: in 1669 the Jesuits hold a new series of face offs against the Bureau, winning each one. The new Emperor becomes interested in western science, but doesn't do much about it and his successor has no interest whatsoever.

Meanwhile in Europe the scientific revolution is a wildfire that can't be stopped.

I know this is an overlong comment, but I find it very interesting. As far as I can tell it is the institutions and cultural ideas that made the difference. In China astronomy was only done by the Imperial Bureaucracy, and was subject to bureaucratic politics. Tradition and stability was valued much higher than the pursuit of knowledge or competence: I mean, look what happened to that General in the book review, he was highly competent but died penniless because he might have caused instability. In Europe knowledge wasn't controlled by the state but by the universities. Decentralized and independent they were able to pass on knew knowledge rapidly and weren't beholden to concerns about stability. People were sharing discoveries left and right, building their own telescopes, publishing papers about what they found, having debates about the implications. The telescope was invented in 1608, and by 1610 Galileo has already published "The Starry Messenger", by 1611 Kepler has invented an improved telescope, and soon every astronomer in Europe has one. At the same time that China is throwing the Jesuits out of the Bureau and going back a flat earth model, Isaac Newton is crafting the first reflecting telescope.

All that to say, China was well suited to thousands of years of stability and completely unsuited for a scientific revolution.

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Aug 19, 2022·edited Aug 19, 2022

Tangential, but important. Re. "Probably the biggest thing I learned is that human history is little more than 5000 years of gang war": This is a common complaint about humanity, but unjust. I think we should rephrase it as, "The history we've chosen to write is little more than 5000 years of gang war." Taking that as your baseline for human nature is like basing your expectations about life on Hollywood blockbusters. Only in the past 30 years have historians begun to look at the everyday life of ordinary people, which makes up the vast majority of human history.

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The big problem with history and books regarding history of the World, is that the authors very often don't even know the language/ languages of the era or region.

5 thousands years of gang wars it's a description which ' fit' perfectly within Western culture, especially in those countries where English is the only known language ( plus maybe another one or two, used by minorities).

That's like quoting Dostoevsky without reading his works in Russian language.

You can watch ' Throne in blood ' by Akira Kurosawa and after few minutes you recognise Shakespeare's work but rarely can you translate papers, sources, books, you name it from other languages into English without losing the main 'spirit '.

I wish I could read more books about the history of different countries around the World written by authors who rely on their own researches based on solid knowledge of the original language/ languages.

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A major theme which either Mr. Huang or the reviewer has overlooked is that the role of Emperor in China is more significantly about unification and preservation of same than temporal power per se.

Just as a king in a feudal structure is ultimately beneficial in adjudicating between the feudal lords at last resort - the Emperor of China is intended to be the focal point upon which Chinese unity is preserved. This is why concepts like the "mandate of Heaven" are important: failure in the form of rebellion or mass suffering as precondition to rebellion are signs that an Emperor is failing in his most basic function. OF course, in reality the size and sheer scale of China in the pre-computer, pre-electrical communications era required devolution of execution of policy; the Hanlin examinations and the Imperial Bureaucracy was created to try and enable extension of Imperial policies to the far-flung corners of China.

If you look at the efforts by certain governors during the late Qing dynasty to build modern industry, for example, in the face of overall higher level bureaucratic indifference - it gives an idea of how such a ponderous bureaucratic beast operates.

But then again, it shouldn't be surprising that a scion of the post-Qing revolutionaries should denigrate the regime that was overthrown - especially since the "democratic" governments of China succeeding the Qing were notable primarily for failing both to improve Chinese society and economy as well as to preserve China's unity.

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Aug 19, 2022·edited Aug 19, 2022

> I’ll also include the Pinyin version in parentheses where the spelling of the Wade-Giles version is significantly different, like this: Peking (Beijing).

But the Wade-Giles version of 北京 is not significantly different from beijing. It's pei-ching. The name "Peking" has nothing to do with Wade-Giles.

> His personal name combined the characters for “joy” and “king.”

It seems like it would have been incredibly disruptive for such common characters (樂王? Maybe 喜王?) to fall under the imperial name taboo. Particularly in the case of 王, which is now and was then one of the most common surnames in China.

Checking Wikipedia, I see that the Wanli Emperor's name was 翊鈞. Neither character has any sense remotely related to joy or kings. I don't see any mention in the wikipedia article that he changed his name upon taking the throne, though this was done by other emperors if they felt their name would be too disruptive.

What happened here? What name are you referring to?

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Not a bad review. Not a fan of the odd aside about being uncontaminated by "culture war" toxicity -- not sure really what it means (and controversies that are currently in vogue may reach back into the events of the past) -- but that's a minor point. The general impression I get is similar to How To Read Lacan by Slavoj Zizek, as described in Slate Star Codex.

This review depicts the book, as I remember it, with reasonable accuracy; its analysis is interesting, but ranges far afield from the book's topic and ropes in a variety of external sources. Not a bad choice, though a little eccentric. The Ming dynasty is one of the more interesting eras of Chinese history. Of course, there are so many distinct episodes within the lifespan of the dynasty that you might as well divide it up -- the glorious early days, rebellion and exploration; the incredibly weird hedonism of the Jiajing reign; the chaos of the dynasty's collapse, with Ming princelings scattered to the winds (the tales of various loyalist holdouts in southeast Asia are fascinating, usually with resistance coalesced around some minor descendant of the imperial house, ending with the fall of the Kingdom of Tungning) (and don't get me started on the ennobled Ming descendants who survived until the last days of the Qing, part of a tradition dating back to antiquity where the victorious new dynasty would grant some minor fief to the scions of the old) (but I digress).

Anyways, more attention paid to Chinese history is nice.

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Only tangentially related to the book, but I enjoy seeing the founder of my religion, Mary Baker Eddy, mentioned. I grew up in Christian Science and am still moderately active in the community.

A microcosm of a few religions trends in America, today it's role of "zany American religion" is better served by the more influential Mormonism.

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I quite like the framing this review gives to its subject. It seems relevant and worthwhile without actually being comparable to events of today.

The comparison of the Chinese imperial structure with other, typically more ancient god-kings is also one I'd not thought of before, and not seen taken seriously in ages (older historical accounts readily made such comparisons, and others, but in ways, and based on such negative views, that I have never pondered or engaged with them).

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I recently read Asimov's Foundation trilogy, which was inspired by Gibbon (whom I admittedly haven't read). Your bit about the distrusted general reminded me of "The General" from Foundation & Empire, although that bit was supposed to be inspired by the Byzantine general Bellisarius specifically.


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I took an "overview of East Asian History" class, as one of my distribution credits (I was double majoring in Cognitive Science and Computer Science), and we read this book for the class, and it made enough of an impression that I only had to see the year, to know what the rest of the title was. Highly, highly recommended.

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Bouncing hard off this one as well. Just to start off with - look, man, it's all well and good to praise a book for being "blessedly uncontaminated by any current 'culture war' toxicity". But adopting the historical-revisionist mindset of projecting modern sensibilities into the past is...exactly what's done here, over and over? There is more than a whiff of "exotic Orientalism" voyeuristic eyebrow-raising. Look what those crazy yellows got up to, back in the day! This seems like a bad case of base rate fallacy...everything everywhere was luridly barbaric by our current standards in 1587, or other years of slightly more significance. A good history book will give me the contemporary view of someone back in the day...not cast aspersions from the high horses of hundreds of years of progress. It's hard to take a timeless message along the lines of "history is important to learn from!" when it's delivered with such a flippant tone.

And...really...why 1587? I don't think this is satisfactorily answered. What makes 1587 a better year than 1586 or 1588? If there's a strangely coincidental confluence of events which end up having far-reaching historical consequences, does that not retroactively make 1587 a year of significance? Is this just one of those things like the 1619 Project that picks an arbitrary Schelling date to define as a synecdoche, cherry blossom-picking just-so historical events to justify a narrative? It is indeed weird for a book to forthrightly point out the irrelevance of its topic, especially because I don't think the content really disproves it. Like, I know they're comparing very different eras, but I honestly got a lot more Chinese-history-edification out of Scott's Dictator Book Club post on Xi Jinping. Focused history on a concrete topic, not a compilation of slices-of-day-in-the-life-ofs. (Even if they're about the Emperor. Especially if they're about the Emperor...the account here sure makes it look like the Mandate of Heaven effectively made Wan-li just as much an impotent eunuch as actual castration, with true power in the civil service and scholars of Confucian tradition. Absolute Monarchy: It's Self-Recommending But Self-Refuting.)

Speaking of focus, that's another ding on this review for me...it genuinely does meander all over the place. Not sure if it's due to the book being that way, or it's only the review, but dissembling on a wide variety of topics - and even dropping parts of __other additional books__ in! - is just really disorienting. I had trouble anchoring on some coherent thesis(es), and kept being unsure where the review was building to as its Big Takeaway. Then at the very end, it's like, can we learn anything from 1587? Big Shrug! And I'm like...okay, but then why read and review this book?

Finally, I feel obligated to note that...and this isn't really specific to this review, it's a more general issue...there's a Typical Mind failure mode when Westerners discuss Asia. Lots of baffling cultural tics make way more sense when viewed through a collectivist vs. individualist lens...when centering the epistemics of tradition and ancestors vs. rational empiricism. I'm a pretty-whitewashed 3rd generation, and only have a small shard of Chinese culture-thought to draw on...but that little bit is enough to see the mindset difference. To billions of people, it's us who are the strange exotic aliens with weird barbaric values. All models are wrong, some models are useful...as the review says, if your culture lasts several millennia, clearly something's being done right. China, ah, finds a way.

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I'd just like to say that this sentence may be one of my favourite sentences I read on ACX all year:

"Metonymy is rarely useful as a lifehack, but Japanese emperors agree that this one weird trick will save you several hours of sitting motionless on a throne."

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I had two main questions after reading this. The first, as avalancheGenesis mentions, is why 1587?

The second is, how did the civil service initially assert itself over an emperor in a newish dynasty? Did this happen with the founding emperor? Founders were conquerors; they probably had some strength of character. It seems more likely that the civil service would assert itself over a subsequent emperor - an inheritor rather than a conqueror. But how?

Other thoughts: I am reminded of an old saying about the Catholic Church: 'Popes come and go, but the Curia lasts forever.'

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It's a bit odd to me that both the reviewer and many comments insist on China's stability and longevity compared to Europe. To me it seems obvious that this is a pure outsider's perspective; it's what the Big Eastern Region looks like from outside to a European, or maybe what we like it to be as a literary trope, and then we try to impose that on the real world for aesthetic purposes. As a matter of factual circumstance, on the other hand, it doesn't really hold up:

In the broad sense, the French ancien régime, from the direct Capetian line to the end of the House of Bourbon, lasted almost exactly 800 years: 987-1789. This conservatively covers, counting as few as possible, at least the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. During this period, wars in France were almost exclusively narrow disputes about lineage and succession, while the Chinese social system collapsed, then collapsed again, the empire started out completely splintered and only slowly reformed, the Mongols invaded and took over, the Manchus invaded and took over, etc. etc.

You can say that the Chinese were much more aggressive about pushing *narratives* about stability and continuity, but you could also suggest that this was a more or less feeble necessity to try to retain legitimacy, while the French kings never needed to do anything like that since they never really ran into more problems than "the last guy was homosexual/insane/shot while hunting before an obvious heir could be minted, now does his nephew who looks exactly the same inherit the throne, or will it be his cousin who looks exactly the same?"

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Something I found striking is that, while the reviewer likened the reproductive structure of the imperial court to eusocial insects, they missed that the Emperor's constrained life is also similar.

The use of "queen" is actually quite a poor choice of nomenclature in hive species, and the queen is a much as slave to the colony's need as any worker. Not only does she spend all of her time on reproduction, but (at least in bees), a queen who is failing her duties by not producing enough brood will be flat-out murdered by her own workers, who will then raise a new queen in hopes of better brood production. She is the only source of brood, which is of such paramount importance that it exceeds her liberty or even life. Even she is replaceable.

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In regards to the reviewer's statement that "China is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth." Certainly, the Chinese like to claim that!—but I think that's an illusion created by the durability of a single writing system used across millennia. But even though the symbols of their writing system remained fairly static, the spoken language changed drastically over centuries—so that if the 2nd Century's Gaozu Son of Heaven (founder of the Han Dynasty) were brought via time machine to meet the 16th Century's Wanli Son of Heaven each would have had as much trouble understanding each other as the 16th Century's Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian would have had talking to Charlemagne. The Goazu Emperor the Wanli Emperor would have had to resort to writing notes to each other, and even then there may have been large misunderstandings because the characters they were writing could take on new meanings over the centuries. However, in the later case, Emperor Maximillian and Charlemagne would have likely been able to talk to each other using Latin. In fact, Emperor Maximillian would have very likely been able to talk to the Emperor Augustus in Latin.

Back to China, though. Not only did the Chinese language evolve, but customs also changed, and the Middle Kingdom expanded under the “good Sons of Heaven” and contracted under the “bad Sons of Heaven.” The empire of the Tang had a much different shape than the Empire of the Han, and the empire of the Ming looked much different from that of the Tang. The capitols moved around. Court etiquette changed drastically between dynasties. On several occasions, vast amounts of literature were burned by certain Sons of Heaven who wished to erase the past. Barbarians invaded and occasionally mounted the Dragon throne to form non-Han dynasties. Certainly, modern China can *claim* to be the world’s oldest civilization but that has about as much truth as Maximillian II’s claim to being the heir of Augustus.

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Aug 20, 2022·edited Aug 20, 2022

So, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper?

Things go along by inertia for a long while, but all the time there is rot eating away at the foundations, until eventually it all collapses - not in a big explosion, but due to a lot of small things all happening over time until they build up. No big exciting Historic Year, just one more year like all the others where nothing much happens - until it all happens.

I do have to harrumph slightly at this bit:

"This reminded me of a couple of current Chinese practices: how military officers sometimes place pins in the collars of soldiers' uniforms to correct their posture when they're ordered to stand at attention, and how preschool students are “required to sit in their seats with their arms at their sides, and their feet flat on a line of tape on the ground ... not an easy task for three-year-olds.”

This points toward an old and deep aspect of Chinese culture: the belief that stillness holds great power and should be cultivated. This is true whether you’re a soldier, a preschooler, or the emperor of China."

Well, I'm neither Chinese nor ever lived in China, but when I was four and five and six and seven going to school, we were made to sit "lámha i bhfolach" which means "hands hidden", i.e. sitting up straight at your desk with your arms behind your back, hands clasped, feet on the floor. We didn't have tape on the ground for the placement of our feet, I don't know how the nuns missed that one. So "stillness holds great power and should be cultivated" isn't uniquely Chinese.

As for restrictions on the emperor, yes, rulers who are considered divine or to have special relationships with the powers ruling heaven and earth do have a lot of restrictions on them: be it tabu, géasa, or the likes. See the restrictions around the Roman priest of Jupiter: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flamen_Dialis

Or the Irish saga "The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel" when the king is forced through circumstances to break, one by one, the géasa (sacred prohibitions) binding him and thus is destroyed by his enemies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Togail_Bruidne_D%C3%A1_Derga

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The book review is remarkably well written. It is a great example of people, who I assume, grown up in western culture understands the rationales behind Chinese traditions and their influence in political pathway.

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I like your style. You're an excellent writer.

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One of the best reviews I've read here. Good stuff.

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You do not cook a small fish "minimally, lightly".

You cook a small fish while leaving the head, spine and locomotive organs intact. Which, coincidentally, is a 1:1 analogue of the preceding paragraph.

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I think the book is well worth reading (I have to admit I haven't, even though I think it might have been assigned reading when I was at university!), but I think the reviewer here hasn't followed through fully enough on the realisation than human history is just gang warfare.

This is something I've been thinking about quite a lot recently, particularly in the context of traditional Chinese history, which is all about trying to draw moral lessons from the past. The problem is that history in general may well be the study of *the very worst human beings alive.* These are the gang leaders who rose to the top of the stinking pile. And I'm not sure we should grant them any additional understanding because they were constrained by tradition. Ultimately, these people are just thugs. Wanli was, as noted, someone who used women as playthings, and happily continued the tradition of mutilating the men who worked around him (eunuchs). The rest of the state existed, as the review notes, primarily to fulfill tax quotas.

Obviously, this is a bit of a bolshie, revolutionary view of history. But I think it was a slightly odd choice of Huang to focus so much on the emperor and a few of his close buddies. Lots of other things were happening in China at that time - though admittedly, harder to discover because they weren't written about at the time.

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Gormenghast is also similar fiction-- at least the beginning where Titus is theoretically the ruler, but actually completely controlled by custom.

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1587 in the West: The first item on Wikipedia's list of events for that year is the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots which in turn triggers the Spanish Armada. Also in that year and third on that list is the first engagement of that war, when Drake raids Cadiz and singes the beard of the Spanish King. The drama of Europe in that age is laid out by Garrett Mattingly in The Armada. Highly recomended.


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The Ming recieved another off ramp five years latter when the Jesuits arrived. They were unable to take that one as well. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesuit_China_missions

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Hi - I'm the anonymous reviewer of 1587: A Year of No Significance. I set up an anonymous email account so I can contribute a few comments and replies without violating the contest rules. If anyone has any particular questions, ask away - and thank you all for your interest!

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This was a fantastic summary of this book - my only fear is that the review is better than the book, but I guess we'll have to see!

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The Ming Dynasty and the Taliban have a lot in common: both try to preserve the traditions of old and are very rigid about it, even in the face of far superior foes.

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