IN Europe, 1588 was the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. This was an event of consequence, since it made England the champion of the Protestant countries and spoiled the Hapsburg scheme of restoring papal authority. In contrast, 1587 seems less noteworthy, although interesting things happened then too, such as the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Sir Francis Drake's spectacular raid on Cadiz.
But how do we judge what is consequential in history? To Ray Huang, in 1587 things were rather quiet at the eastern as well as the western end of the Old World. His unusual and thoughtful book is a portrait of China in that Year of the Pig, which he calls a ''year of no significance.'' But he means precisely to show us the significance of the insignificant. He takes the poet's or the novelist's joy in turning a commonplace detail to the angle at which it reveals its glint of meaning.
The year 1587 was the 220th of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The regime was declining but had not yet fallen. Earnest and learned men - generals and court eunuchs as well as Mandarin civil servants - were striving to hold things together, balancing the yang of public duty against the yin of ambiguously legitimate self-interest.
Three Prime Ministers had been executed at the beginning of the Ming, and after that the office remained vacant. The real heads of Government were the Grand Secretaries, although by law they were merely court scholars and drafters of documents. For a decade beginning in 1572, the First Grand Secretary, Zhang Juzheng (or Chang Chu-cheng, in the spelling used by Mr. Huang) had been virtually a dictator. He had repaired the Grand Canal, which carried rice from the south to the capital at Peking, and had tried to correct the tax registers, some of which were two centuries out of date. The boy Emperor Wan-li was brought up in awe of this apparently strict and frugal moralist, who was also his tutor; when Zhang died in 1582, posthumous revelations of his greed and vindictiveness seem to have traumatically disillusioned his former pupil.
The year 1587 was Wan-li's 15th. The first Grand Secretary was now the bland and conciliatory Shen Shixing (or Shen Shih-hsing). Although remembered in history as the do-nothing lieutenant of a donothing ruler, Shen was in fact dealing promptly and sensibly with some of the problems of the day. One of these was the silt-choked Yellow River, which then, as so often, was bursting its levees. There were two schools of thought about flood control. The conservatives in the court favored broadening the channel, while the radicals wanted to make it deeper and swifter so it could cleanse itself. In 1587 Shen was able to maneuver the politically difficult appointment of an expert in the latter, more difficult technique. In the same year, however, he managed less well another perennial problem, the northern nomads. A minor Tungusic klan, the Manchus, were forming alliances under the leadership of a hitherto unknown chief, Nurhaci. The Governor of the Northeast Territory wanted to stop this potentially dangerous accretion of ''barbarian'' power, but his efforts were frustrated by an underling. Each of these officials denounced the other to higher authorities, but the first Grand Secretary had the matter hushed up in the interests of amity, and Nurhaci was forgotten. (Less than 60 years later, his grandson succeeded the Ming as first Manchu Emperor of China.)
Rich men or effective and demanding men have always caused resentment and envy, and in China they have often been slandered to their superiors and exiled or worse. Two exceptional men who fell victim to this fate died in 1587. One of them was Qi Jikuang (or Ch'i Chi-k'uang), the most resourceful of the Ming generals. At a time when conventional forces had become nearly useless (because the military caste had gone to seed), Qi trained his own peasant army and drove off the so-called ''Japanese pirates'' (really a vast international force of smugglers and raiders of the coasts and rivers). The other victim was Hai Rui (or Hai Jui), the ''eccentric model official.'' Before his death, Hai had recently returned to office after 15 years in exile. Almost alone among Ming officials, Hai lived only on his salary, refusing graft. He died owning less than 20 ounces of silver. Before his exile Hai had been Governor of China's richest city, Soochow, where the gentry opposed his policy of restoring land to peasants who had lost it through mortgage foreclosure. Mr. Huang believes that Hai was interfering futilely with a ''natural'' process that allowed individuals to rise or fall in social class, while the classes themselves remained stable. (A different view is held by modern historians in China, including Wu Han, whose articles and a Peking opera recounting Hai's criticism of the Emperor are claimed to have implied criticism of Mao Zedong. The Maoist retaliation against Wu Han in 1965 and 1966 was in fact the opening salvo of the Cultural Revolution.)
There is one event of this time that Mr. Huang has inadequately acknowledged. From 1586 to 1588, China suffered one of the two worst epidemics of its history, with a fall in population perhaps exceeding 20 percent. Loss of life on this scale is scarcely of ''no significance.'' The identity of the disease has never been established. Epidemics are little reported in the historical texts, perhaps because one could only pray for them to end, whereas floods, being partly controllable, gave rise to disputes, with political repercussions, over methods of control - methods requiring tens of thousands of conscript laborers.
Perhaps the most interesting events of 1587 were taking place inside two tortured minds. One was that of Li Zhi (or Li Chih), the most brilliant and impassioned of Ming philosophers. After the rationalism and objectivism of the Sung dynasty (960-1279), Chinese philosophy, like Chinese society, had turned inward in Ming times. For the members of the dominant Wang Yang-ming school, ''innate knowledge'' always confirmed Confucian (and sometimes Buddhist or Taoist) moral tenets. But Mr. Huang believes that in 1587 Li Zhi, who had followed the idealism of Yang-ming, was beginning to see that the inner light might just as well lead one to a complete spontaneity and libertinism. After all, if the external world were unreal, were not virtue and vice equally unreal? By 1587 Li had quit the Mandarinate, broken with his closest friend, dismissed his wife and only surviving child. The next year he would shave his head and enter a Buddhist monastery - without, however, taking monastic vows or relinquishing his Mandarin beard. Yet to come were his greatest works, the ''Book To Be Hidden'' and the ''Book To Be Burned.'' Fifteen years later (not 25, as Mr. Huang twice states) Li was to die a suicide in prison, having neither sought nor found a following.
The other tortured mind was that of the Emperor himself. In his teens, the lonely, weak-willed Wan-li had fallen in love with a 14-year-old concubine surnamed Zheng (or Cheng), who bore his second surviving son, shared his religious and literary interests, and dominated the remainder of his 48-year reign. Wan-li wanted to make the younger son his heir, but could not bring himself to displace the first-born, a child of his mother's maid-in-waiting. The Emperor's indecision led to one of the longest, most damaging episodes of passive-aggressive behavior in history. A dozen years passed before he would commence the older boy's education, 20 years before he would acknowledge him as heir and permit his marriage, another dozen years before the younger son was sent, as was proper, to a provincial fiefdom. Beginning noticeably in 1587, Wan-li neglected the supposedly compulsory pre-dawn audiences and the lectures of his tutors. Slowly he ceased to govern, to answer memorials or letters of resignation, to refill posts or make decisions. The regime was gradually grinding to a halt.
In Mr. Huang's view, Wan-li was not simply a weak ruler in a job requiring a strong one. The throne itself had become overly controlled by officials who subjected the ruler's every moment to the pressure of moralistic scrutiny and the paralyzing boredom of ritual. Wan-li's psychosis was a kind of rebellion that, in its negative way, showed great tenacity of will. Hai Rui, the ''eccentric model official,'' had substituted morality for law. So had Wan-li's tutors. Wan-li's withdrawal was an irrational but effective defense against the moral and ritual constraints that governed in place of the law, in Ming as in modern China.
Illustrations: drawing of an oriental vase with a plant