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Ming Dynasty 1368 - 1644

Ming dynasty China map Ming dynasty

The Black Death and natural disasters (floods, famine and earthquakes) presaged the end of the foreign rule by the Mongols. Their defeat came at the hands of Zhu Yuanzhang, a former Buddhist monk from a poor family who led the successful rebellion against Yuan rule. When their capital Dadu (now Beijing) was put under siege the remnants of Yuan dynasty fled north into Mongolia. Zhu Yuanzhang then became Emperor Hongwu (see below) and ruled for thirty years.

After re-establishing China's borders Emperor Hongwu prioritized agriculture to bring back stability of food supply. Many Chinese customs and institutions were revived such as tea drinking. Although the order of imperial succession was codified this did not prevent Civil War when Hongwu died in 1398, his son Yongle (see below) (aka Zhu Di) beat his nephew Jianwen (aka Zhu Yunwen) in a bitter campaign. Initially the new Ming dynasty had its capital at Nanjing (southern capital). Yongle after pacification of relations with the Mongols moved the capital back to Beijing (northern capital) in 1421 where the famous Forbidden City was then built. China had a lucky reprieve in 1405 because, the scourge of Central Asia, Timur (aka. Tamerlane ) sought to emulate his kinsman Genghis Khan by pillaging the whole known world. Timur set out to conquer China in 1404 but an unusually cold winter led to the death of many of his men and horses and then Timur himself. During the Ming dynasty, the population of China doubled, aided by the increased production of rice. China was divided into 13 provinces each with a governor, a chief judge and a general. The nation was extended by bringing the south-western provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou under direct control. The peace allowed many Chinese to travel around the country as tourists for the first time. The Imperial Civil service grew to 100,000 by 1469, with 80,000 military officials.

artist, Shen Zhou, landscape
Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, Hebi Landscape Atlas. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. Available under a Creative Commons License

In local government the lí jiǎ system was created. 110 households were grouped into eleven groups of ten. Leadership was passed around the groups and they were collectively responsible for collecting taxes. At times the supply of coins was compromised by widespread counterfeiting, often with lead and a period of inflation led to the temporary abandonment of paper money. The bǎo jiǎ that applied collective criminal responsibility was never fully implemented during Ming times.

Zheng He's voyages of exploration (1405-1411) [see below for full details] marked a high point in contact with foreign cultures. He sailed as far as Arabia, Africa and some say America. Trading links now turned to the sea rather than the long, over-land Silk Route. The increased sea trade made piracy lucrative, and threats from Japanese pirates harassed the whole of south eastern China. Yongle's illustrious reign ended in 1425, his son Hongxi reigned for less than a year, Xuande followed and he ruled wisely for nine years. He was a patron of the arts and extended the power of the court eunuchs. Xuande's son Zhengtong was less able, fighting an ill-conceived war against Esen Khan , leader of a resurgent Mongol nation. As the Mongols had fled rather than been defeated they had remained a continuing threat as displaced rulers of China. Frictions between Han settlers in indigenous people in the south and southwest led to revolts. In 1464-66 Miao and Yao tribes attacked Han cities in Guangxi and Guangdong, a policy of joint administration by Han and local tribesmen helped pacify the region. The more stable reign by Hongzhi 1488-1505 corrected some of the worst excesses of previous reigns.

Ming dynasty, building, Shanxi
Ming dynasty house at Yuncheng, Shanxi

Ming Achievements

The personal tastes and styles of emperors had great influence, Zhengde was fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism, while Jiajing converted to Daoism. Northern China was still subject to raids from the Mongols and other tribes, so the eastern section of the Great Wall was substantially strengthened during the Ming dynasty. The power of the eunuchs at court grew at the expense of the scholars. Works on great projects such as a massive 11,000 chapter encyclopedia were carried out. An impressive catalog of 2,000 medicinal plants and animal parts was compiled - the Bencao Gangmu. Emperor Wanli reigned the longest 1573-1620 (47 years) and supervised many modernizations: new crops from America (maize; peanuts; tobacco; sweet potatoes) were grown and trade boomed creating a rich mercantile class. However Wanli neglected his duties, leaving everything to Grand Secretaries and other eunuchshe descended into hypochondria. By the end of Wanli's long reign he became fat and self-indulgent and this aided the terminal decline of the illustrious Ming dynasty.

The philosopher Wáng Yángmíng (aka. Bo'an) had an influence in Ming and later times. Wang 's version of Neo-Confucianism held that all people were innately good, and should be given opportunities in education and officialdom. The Donglin Academy Dōng lín shū yuàn ('Eastern Grove') was an influential group of Confucian scholars founded by Gu Xiansheng at Wuxi. They were dismayed at the decline of the dynasty and sought reforms particularly aimed at attacking corruption in government . At one time the group dominated the government at Beijing but their reforms were rejected and in 1625 the group was violently suppressed with leading members tortured and killed.

1368 Emperor Hongwu became ruler; Mongol dynasty ended; 1371 Zheng He born
1398 Emperor Hongwu no longer ruler; 1400 Luo Ben died; 1402 Emperor Yongle became ruler; 1406 Construction of Forbidden City began; 1421 Construction of Forbidden City ended; Opening of Imperial Palace ; Lightning strike destroys Forbidden City ; 1424 Emperor Yongle no longer ruler; 1433 Zheng He died
1500 Wu Cheng'en born
1552 Matteo Ricci SJ born; Matteo Ricci born; 1556 Huaxian earthquake
1582 Wu Cheng'en died
1610 Matteo Ricci SJ died; Matteo Ricci died; 1624 Guoxingye born
Ming dynasty key dates

Foreign contacts during Ming times

Trading links with Arabia and Europe increased during the Ming period. The Imperial court continued to control foreign trade by a 'tribute' system, private trade was discouraged but it continued to grow particularly through the port of Guangzhou (Canton) in the south. The Portuguese monopolized the lucrative spice trade and established trading ports at Macau and Taiwan in the 16th and 17th century. The barbaric behavior of Portuguese merchants, who took by force as often as they exchanged for trade, led the authorities to carefully control the trade, treating them as pirates. The normal tolerance to foreign creeds that the Chinese had developed did not work as the Portuguese would not reciprocate, treating anyone non-Christian as of no value. The Portuguese set up ports by force under their own control at Ningbo and Quanzhou, but these were overrun and the Portuguese expelled. Eventually Macau was leased to the Portuguese as a trading port. The Englishman, John Weddell in 1637 behaved in a similar fashion and was rebuffed and sent away after attacking a Chinese fort. Chinese ships carrying out trade became the subject of plunder by Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese pirates. The rapacious nature of the ‘foreign devils’ yángsǐ guǐ was given further proof with the massacre of Chinese colonists in the Philippines and Java by the Dutch. European influence continued to increase, particularly with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries at the Imperial court led by Matteo Ricci in 1601. There was a genuine belief that these hairy creatures from far away in the West were a different and less intelligent species and were sometimes patted on the head as if some sort of dog. Eventually the superiority of European science particularly astronomy won over skeptics in an important ‘competition’ to predict eclipses (for example 22nd Feb 1636) resulting in the adoption of a new calendar using European techniques. Several senior court officials were then converted to Christianity.

The main trade with Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries was through Spanish ruled the Philippines. A lucrative trade in silk and porcelain grew across the Pacific to Mexico. Manilla became a very rich trading port in the galleon trade with Acapulco , from there goods were transshipped and made their way overland to Mexico City and then by ship to Europe over the Atlantic. Many Chinese moved to Manilla but the Spanish never had a trading port in mainland China and this lucrative trade receives very little mention in the history books. It brought silver Mexican dollars into quite widespread circulation along China's southern coasts.

The increased trade was not all one way, wealthy Chinese families imported luxury goods from Japan and elsewhere. During the Ming, literacy increased, the mass printing of books made novels and reference books affordable to many ordinary people, indeed European visitors commented on the wide supply of cheap books. Fujian province became a great center for paper making and book publishing. At the same time the famous 'blue and white' Ming porcelain started to become a lucrative export to Europe. In many ways Ming society had transformed during the dynasty but unfortunately the dynastic leadership in Beijing refused to change at all.

The splendor and prosperity of the dynasty can be gauged at the popular Beijing tourist spot - the magnificent Ming tombs.

Ming dynasty, Forbidden City, lion, Beijing
Gilded bronze, guardian xiezhi statue at Forbidden City, Beijing

Fall of the Ming dynasty

Gradually the dynasty fell into revolt, accelerated by natural disasters: plague; floods and famines as well as the introduction of high taxation which was needed partly to finance the Imperial court and the extended Imperial family. A failed military campaign to conquer Korea cost 26 million taels of silver, requiring further taxation to be extracted from the Chinese people. At the same time global climate had changed with the little ice age leading to a reduction in size of harvests. The break-up started when the north-eastern region of Manchuria seized autonomy. Despite lavish expenditure on the Great Wall, the wall offered no defense to internal strife and that was where the final blow fell. The end followed the pattern of the Yuan dynasty; in the face of a widely supported rebellion led by Li Zicheng and a powerful Manchu nation the dynasty had no answer and the last Ming emperor Chongzhen killed himself when Beijing fell to the rebels.

Much has been written about the Ming dynasty because people seek to explain why China at its beginning was well ahead of Europe and then seemed to fall behind towards the end. Such comparisons tend to ignore Chinese achievements and the main fact that there was general prosperity and stability for a long period of time.

Xingcheng, Ming dynasty, lion, sculpture
Decorative lion at ancient city of Xingcheng near Jiaxing, Liaoning

Zhu Yuanzhang [21 Oct 1328 - 24 Jun 1398] or Chu Yuanchang WG

Emperor Hongwu, emperor, ming dynasty
Portrait of Emperor Taizu of Ming Dynasty China by palace painter, Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Emperor Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang) is one of the great heroes of China as he founded the illustrious Ming dynasty. In a time of turmoil at the end of the rule by the ‘foreign’ Mongols, Zhu Yuanzhang's new dynasty marked a new confident era of rule of by a Chinese dynasty. The Black Death had decimated whole areas of China, severely weakening imperial power, famines and floods played their part too, millions had died.

On accession he took the name Hongwu (Great Military Power) and reigned for 30 years bringing much needed stability to the country. He is also known by his Temple name (see explanation) as ‘Emperor Taizu’. It is a story of rags to riches because he started off in the humblest of conditions. His father had dodged forced labor duties and worked as an itinerant laborer. His parents and elder brother then died from drought and famine. Zhu Yuanzhang then learned his letters as a novice at a Buddhist monastery.

His rise started when he joined the ‘Red Turbans’ a rebel group opposing Mongol rule. His prowess brought him local fame and after marrying the rebel leader's daughter he quickly gathered support. Zhu Yuanzhang declared himself 'Duke of Wu' re-creating Wu, one of the old Three Kingdoms and went onto declare a new dynasty at Nanjing in 1368. His military skills enabled him to take Beijing from the Mongols in 1368 and drove them north into Mongolia, he then captured the Shu kingdom in Sichuan and by 1387 the whole of China.

Hongwu sought to regenerate the splendor of the Tang and Song dynasties bringing back old traditions and customs. Many commentators see the tendency to look back to former glories and slavishly following old traditions as the main reason for China's later weakness. The tax and administrative systems can be viewed as organizing China as a uniform set of villages rather than a hierarchy of administrative tiers with a strong middle class. Hongwu continued his aggressive advances on surrounding countries demanding tributary (inferior) status in return for peace and a stable border.

Nanjing was rebuilt as the Imperial capital with the longest city wall in the world: 21 miles [21 miles]. Hongwu's much needed agricultural reforms tripled the supply of grain in eight years. Irrigation and flood defenses were re-built and extended. A major tree planting initiative guaranteed future supply of timber.

Zhu Yuanzhang's humble origins put him at a disadvantage among the highly educated elite of scholar-officials at court. This inferiority led him to initiate brutal purges and the foundation of a secret police force. Centralization of power was his key legacy, he distrusted the ruling elite, the emperor himself would appoint even minor officials in far flung towns. He dispensed with the post of Prime Minister and Grand Secretary, taking on many of these duties himself. He looked back to Qin Shihuangdi as his role model for recreating a strong, united China. Following the pattern of previous strong rulers the succession became the cause of Civil War on his death.

Emperor Yongle [2 May 1360 - 12 Aug 1424]

The Ming Emperor Yongle was one of the great emperors of China. Yongle is his reign name, his proper name was Zhu Di (Zhu is the family name of the Ming emperors).

Emperor Yongle, Ming dynasty
Emperor Yongle (Chengzu) of the Ming Dynasty, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 220 x 150 cm. Located at the National Palace Museum, Taibei. This picture shows him seated on the Dragon Throne. Image available under a Creative Commons license .

When his father Hongwu died, he fought with his nephew Jianwen who was Hongwu's nominated successor (the son of Yongle's elder brother; Hongwu had 36 sons) for the Imperial throne. The civil war lasted four years, Yongle defeated Jianwen at Nanjing who then disappeared. His disappearance was a considerable cause of concern for Yongle who feared that he had fled to a neighboring kingdom from where he might launch a revolt. There are grounds to believe that Jianwen may have lived out the remainder of his life as a Buddhist monk (like his uncle). Yongle's reign began with the ruthless murder of the supporters of Jianwen and their families.

Emperor Yongle was a strong ruler with a good grounding in military and Confucian education. He re-introduced eunuchs into the Imperial court system to run ministries and also an extensive secret police. He took strong central control of government, at times acting as Premier as well as Emperor. He assiduously read all the memorials sent to him by officials, and it is estimated that he had only a few seconds to read through them as he received so many. He is chiefly remembered for moving the capital north from Nanjing north to Beijing where he built the famous Forbidden City as the new Imperial administrative center. The city of Beijing was laid out symmetrically with nine gates partly on the foundations of the Mongol Dadu capital city. The move north brought the Chinese power base close to Mongolia, which was then the great threat to China. It was a prosperous period for most of his subjects and the empire extended to Korea; Vietnam and Manchuria. Zheng He explored the oceans and extended Chinese influence to Arabia and Africa. Chinese international power reached its zenith. Yongle also cultivated the arts and sciences. There was a large increase in the number of printed books, particularly Buddhist scriptures. The Civil service examination system was refined ensuring that appointments were made on scholastic merit rather than patronage. He instigated the most ambitious academic project ever - the writing of the 11,095 volume encyclopedia of all known knowledge the Yǒng lè dà diǎn which was carried out by top scholars of the Hanlin Academy. The Grand Canal was re-routed so that grain (mainly rice) could be transported directly north to the new capital of Beijing. Imperial edicts promoted the cultivation over large areas of the 'new' crop of cotton brought in from the Americas. However Yongle's ambitious projects eventually brought the tax system to breaking point, the peasants were impoverished. He is remembered as the strongest Ming ruler after his father Hongwu.

Zheng He [1371 - 1433] or Cheng Ho WG

The voyages of exploration undertaken by Zheng He were one of the most remarkable achievements of Ming dynasty China. During the years of Southern Song dynasty the sea became the main means of transportation for goods. With access to the overland Silk Road blocked by the Xixia kingdom and then the Mongols, the sea routes to India, Arabia and Japan became important. Chinese expertise in navigation with map and compass gave them pre-eminence. Chinese ship technology was far superior to that of Europe. Zheng He's ships were the largest by far in the world at that time.

Zheng He

Zheng He was the Admiral of Emperor Yongle's great fleet which set sail on three great voyages of exploration to map out the rest of the world. From 1405-11 there were three expeditions to Vietnam down to Sri Lanka. From 1413-22 three more reached the Persian Gulf and Somalia. The final voyages 1431-33 reached Mecca and Jeddah . His knowledge of Islam was a great aid in dealing with the mainly Arab traders he met on his travels; as this era was the zenith of Arab trade. Zheng He was castrated at the age of ten; as a eunuch he posed no political threat to the Emperor even though he achieved high prestige. He was a diplomat and expert in logistics, he had little interest in commercial exploitation, his voyages were primarily of discovery. They were meticulously planned and documented. His fleet included ships carrying just fresh water to support the men on their long voyages. The entourage included cavalry; diplomats; translators; doctors and even Imams . How far the ships reached is a matter of debate. Gavin Menzies in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered America gives strong evidence for reaching the west coast of Africa, and some evidence for reaching South and North America. It is not disputed that Zheng He reached the East African coast, and important links with the spice traders at Malacca , Java and Sumatra were established.

The 1405 expedition set off with 27,870 men in 63 ships - compare that with the voyages of Cook or Magellan with a handful of ships. The largest ship was 440 feet [134 meters] long 186 feet [57 meters] wide on three decks and propelled by sails on nine masts. They were built with water-tight chambers to reduce the chance of sinking.

One justification for the voyages was the search for Yongle's predecessor Jianwen who he had deposed. Jianwen had fled and it was thought he may have been plotting from some far away land to return and reclaim the throne. Other search parties were sent out by land, but it is the naval missions that receive all the attention.

Zheng He returned with treasures and tributes from lands as far away as Egypt. He brought back exotic plants and animals including giraffes, ostriches and zebras from Malindi and other African ports. If tributes (gifts) were not forthcoming, military force was used to grab the samples from the locals. Temples were built in his honor by the peoples he met, often they are ascribed to him under his official title (Sanbao Taijian ). They took with them books of Chinese classic literature to educate the barbarians into Chinese ways. On their return books were published describing the voyages and the exotic sights they saw and were avidly read in China. It is possible that his exploits turned into the legendary stories of Sinbad the Sailor . The name ‘Sanbao’ and ‘Sinbad’ are similar and the dates do make this feasible.

What he found was a vast assortment of 'barbarian' cultures, with nothing to match Chinese civilization. The fact that he did not reach western Europe strongly colored this view. It was concluded that China was indeed the center of the civilized world and there was not much else of consequence anywhere else. The seeds of Chinese culture were however sown in south-east Asia and the Chinese communities in Singapore, Manilla, Java and Malaysia started to grow after the voyages. It's lasting benefit was that it stimulated maritime trade - long distance voyages were shown as possible.

Zheng He's death at sea in 1433 coincided with a re-assessment of the merit of the voyages. The Ming Emperor's decision to terminate the explorations is a turning point in Chinese history. They were prohibitively expensive undertakings and around 80% of the sailors died on the voyages. It is thought that increasing threats by land to the north by resurgent Mongol tribes was one reason that China turned her back on the sea to her eventual discomfort in the Opium Wars. Soon Portuguese traders and Japanese pirates commanded the waters around China. Another factor may well be the curious coincidence of the lightning strike on 9th May 1421 just as the vast new Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) was completed. The strike nearly burnt it to the ground, severely denting Emperor Yongle's confidence that he retained the 'Mandate of Heaven'.

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