Shēn Shíxíng served as Grand Secretary during the last several decades of the reign of the Wanli Emperor, from the 1580s until his death in the 1610s.
Shen achieved the top position among 299 examtakers who passed the 1562 Chinese imperial examinations, and was appointed to the Hanlin Academy. He served in the Hanlin Academy for fifteen years, as literary editor and reader-in-waiting, serving in a non-academic post (vice-minister) for only seven months, and never taking any post outside of the capital. He served for a time as imperial lecturer to the Longqing Emperor, and lecturer and tutor to the Wanli Emperor, and contributed to the compilation of sections of the Ming shi-lu (Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty) covering the reigns of the Longqing and Jiajing Emperors, reading through countless documents in order to compile the official histories. He was named junior grand-secretary in 1578.
Following the death of Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng in 1582, his successor Zhang Siwei held the position for only a very short time; he was influential in reversing many of Juzheng's policies, but within the year, his father passed away. Shen Shixing, then a junior grand-secretary, was appointed to substitute for Zhang Siwei while Zhang attended to mourning rites for his father. However, Zhang never returned from having gone to mourn his father; before long, he fell ill and died himself, leaving Shen Shixing to replace him on a more permanent basis, becoming (senior) Grand Secretary in 1583 or 1584. The first several years of his administration were colored by considerable, continued, factional attacks against the late Zhang Juzheng, and against Shen as one of Zhang's "lackeys." Accusations ran the gamut from pointing out actual errors and suspect actions by Shen, to the mere implication or intimation of wrongdoing, and extended to his students, followers, children, and other relatives as well. Though we are to understand this was an extremely tense and tenuous time for Shen, he survived it with his post intact. By 1585, the attacks on Zhang (and by extension Shen) petered out. That same year, Shen was granted by the Emperor the privilege of wearing a buzi (chest badge) featuring the python, a symbol of position above the First Rank.
By 1587, Shen was considered an elder statesman, despite being younger than both the Second Grand Secretary Xu Guo and Third Grand Secretary Wang Xijue. His extensive experience sifting through documents, lecturing on matters of policy, and so forth, made him well-equipped to know the proper procedures and precedents for a myriad of matters and situations. While Zhang Siwei had worked to expose Zhang Juzheng's gross mistakes in governance, Shen Shixing was a loyal devotee of Zhang Juzheng; he recognized and acknowledged that mistakes were made, but upheld that these were not intentional abuses of power. Described in documents from the time as a "mellow" and "stable" man, Shen seems to have believed chiefly in the maintenance of authority and harmony through political rituals and shows of sincerity. The emperor had to be shown to be actively engaged in caring about the bureaucrats and about the matters of the realm, and the hierarchy had to be enacted through regular rituals, performing and thus reaffirming, reconstituting, the officials' position beneath the emperor, and the emperor's in service to the cosmic order and moral law.
Though Shen was far less radical than his teacher (Zhang), and did much to attempt to keep the peace between the various factions at court, and to keep administration flowing, by 1591 the disputes over the imperial succession led to his downfall. The emperor had conceded in 1590 to demands that he name his son Changluo the heir, saying he would do so in 1592 provided no one mention the matter again in the interval. Late in 1591, however, a middle-ranking official submitted a budgetary request connected to the expenses involved in the heir's investiture ceremony. Though this was not a request or pressure regarding the choice of heir, and was merely a logistical matter submitted on the assumption of the decisions already promised, Wanli took this as a violation of his request that the matter not be mentioned again; when Shen memorialized the throne to attempt to convince Wanli not to delay the heir's investiture, this memorial was entered into the official record. Though this was against standard procedure (private memorials from the Grand Secretary were meant to remain private), Shen's subsequent efforts to have it removed from the record were also a violation of procedure, as no official was meant to ever be able to remove anything from the record - such is the purpose, after all, of such a record. In short, this scandal led to Shen attracting considerable suspicion - his reputation among the officialdom was ruined, and he was left with no choice but to submit his resignation to the emperor, repeatedly, until it was accepted. The middle-ranking official whose budgetary request had initiated this mess was stripped of his degree-holder status entirely and made a commoner, after he attracted too much popular support from the officials who had pressured and frustrated Wanli throughout this and other matters. Xu Guo, the Second Grand Secretary who let Shen's private memorial slip into the official record was also forced to resign his post.
On the occasion of his entering his 80th year of life (by traditional age reckoning), Shen was sent numerous gifts by the Wanli Emperor; while he expressed his deep gratefulness for the gesture, and said he would pass down the Emperor's birthday wishes as a family treasure down through the generations, Shen returned the gifts themselves unopened, feeling he had failed in his duty to his emperor, by failing to prevent Changluo from becoming the designated heir. Shen died shortly afterwards.
- Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 42-74.
- Huang, 52.
- Huang, 81-82.
- Huang, 104.