In 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline, Ray Huang wrote that nothing of great importance happened in 1587, the fifteenth year of the reign of the Ming emperor Wan Li 萬曆 (r. 1572–1620). Nevertheless, he contended, that year ‘must go down in history as a chronicle of failure’.1 Things that happened in 1587 portended a deluge of crises that in a few decades would devour the mighty Ming empire.
In contrast, 2020 was a year of great significance. Had Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ flown by, he would have witnessed a chain of catastrophic events which ‘keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet’.2 It was a troubled time, the sort that is best characterised by the expression duoshi zhi qiu 多事之秋 — literally ‘an eventful autumn’ — that appears on the cover of the Yearbook.
The use of the character qiu 秋 (autumn, but can also indicate a year, or time) in literature has long been associated with tropes of ‘sadness’ and ‘desolation’. The Song-dynasty writer Ouyang Xiu 欧阳修 (1007–72), in his Rhapsody on Autumn’s Sounds 秋声赋, compared autumn, a season that kills the growth of spring and summer, to the Officer of Executions. In exile in his later years, the great Tang poet Du Fu 杜甫 (712–770) used autumnal imagery to describe displacement and alienation. Yet it is the modern revolutionary heroine Qiu Jin 秋瑾 (literally Autumn Jade, 1875–1907) who lent the literary tradition of qiu a sense of tragedy and sacrifice with the poem she wrote before she was beheaded by officers of the Qing, China’s last dynasty: ‘Autumn wind, autumn rain — my sorrow knows no bounds’ 秋風秋雨愁煞人.The character used here for sorrow, chou 愁, is composed of the character for autumn 秋 over the signific for ‘heart’ 心.
While qiu evokes melancholic time, the phrase duoshi 多事 suggests a litany of precarious, unsettling events. From its early appearance in Records of the Grand Historian 史记 (finished around 94 BCE) — ‘the [Qin] empire was engulfed in many an affair, such that officials could not supervise them all’ 天下多事, 吏弗能纪 — it indicates a realm in trouble.3
The first to put the two ideas together into what would become a set four-character expression was an earnest Confucian scholar-official born in Silla (modern-day Korea), Choe Chiwon 崔致远. He came to the Tang capital Chang’an in 868 at the age of twelve to study and later rose to high office in the Tang. He coined the expression in response to what he saw as a series of bad decisions by the court that presaged disaster.
It later appeared in the writings of the tenth-century official and historian Sun Guangxian 孙光宪, who lived in the dangerous and uncertain era known as the Five Dynasties. Sun advised: ‘So in the eventful autumn [troubled times], hide your traces and lie low, do not be the one to lead an uprising.’ 所以多事之秋, 灭迹匿端, 无为绿林之嚆矢也.4
The term appears frequently in vernacular novels of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties including Outlaws of the Marsh 水浒传, The Investiture of the Gods 封神演义 and The Travels of Lao Can 老残游记. It typically accompanies the question of how people negotiate a time of crisis.
When Chairman Mao used the phrase to describe the troubled times of 1956, however, he was mainly referring to events outside China that were shaking the foundation of international communism — the anti-Soviet resistance of the Hungarian Uprising and the Polish October. Official media in the People’s Republic of China rarely use the term to describe the country’s internal vicissitudes; the rhetoric is mainly reserved for the misfortunes of foreign rivals, preferring more uplifting expressions for domestic woes such as ‘hardships strengthen a nation’ 多难兴邦.
In 2020, the Chinese Communist Party has used the phrase duoshi zhi qiu to describe calamities abroad while showcasing China’s successes. No sooner had the pandemic begun to abate in April than the Global Times used it to warn Taiwan against pursuing an active role on the world stage and to taunt Western democracies for their failures to contain the pandemic. The question remains: in an age of globalisation, in which China is tied to the rest of the world in so many ways, including economically, is it possible that the troubles of an autumn in one place can be kept from worrying another?
See Ray Huang, 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981, p.221.
See Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p.249.
See Sima Qian 司马迁, ‘Qinshihuang ben ji’ 秦始皇本纪, Shiji 史记, online at: https://ctext.org/shiji/qin-shi-huang-ben-ji/ens
See Sun Guangxian 孙光宪, Bei Meng suoyan 北梦琐言, Zhonghua shuju 中华书局, 2002, 12.253.