The Ming Dynasty
Zhu Yuanzhang claimed the Mandate of Heaven in 1368 and established the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty ruled their empire for almost 300 years, prospered from freer private trade and industry and with trade with Europeans, and then it fell due to internal rebellions and the attack of the Manchus.
The Beginning of the Ming Dynasty
During the final 40 years of the Yuan Dynasty era (1279–1368), there were famines, drought, flooding on the Yellow River, a bubonic plague pandemic, and other natural disasters. Perhaps tens of millions of people died, and these disasters were seen as signs that the Yuan Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
This ancient political doctrine encouraged people to rebel. Starting in the 1350s, there were almost 20 years of rebellions. The Yuan troops tried to quell the rebellions, but they grew in size, and rebel armies started holding cities and large tracts of territory.
These armies became large and powerful. A powerful army south of the Yangtze River was led by Zhu Yuanzhang.
Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398)
Zhu Yuanzhang grew up as a poor peasant. He was born in 1328. Perhaps typical of a poor peasant at the end of the Yuan era, he saw a lot of death, starvation, and fighting.
It is said that he was the youngest of seven or eight brothers. Due to poverty, several of his older brothers were given away. In 1344, when he was 16, the Yellow River flooded and flooded his home. Then his family died of disease.
He took shelter in a Buddhist monastery that also ran out of money, and he was forced to leave and beg for food. But he returned to the monastery when he was 24, and he learned to read and write there. But the Mongol army destroyed the monastery as part of their campaign against rebellion.
Zhu Yuanzhang joined a rebel group. Then they joined a large Red Turban army that had Zoroastrian and Buddhist beliefs, and he became their leader before he was 30.
Zoroastrianism was a Western religion that had spread through Central Asia before Islam spread. Zoroastrians believe in a supreme deity.
What he believed personally at that time or when he was older isn't clear. He was thought to be a defender of Confucianism. But he also built mosques and wrote eulogies about Muhammad.
He relied on the support of Muslims. Zoroastrians tend to syncretize religions, so maybe he had a mixture of religious beliefs.
Zhu Yuanzhang's Successful Wars
In 1358, Zhu's army conquered the important city of Nanjing. Nanjing was an important city that was strategically located, and his occupation allowed him to control part of the Yangtze River and the region south of it. He made Nanjing his capital.
Zhu Yuanzhang adopted "Hongwu" as his title. His name means "Vast Magnificent Military." The Yuan dynasty court fled northwards.
Zhu Yuanzhang and the Mandate of Heaven
Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. By naming himself to be the Emperor, according to the traditional thinking, a powerful ruler was announcing that he had the "Mandate of Heaven" to rule — essentially that Heaven picked him to be the ruler.
The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient political idea. It was thought that heaven's displeasure with a dynasty was marked by large-scale natural disasters.
It is interesting that the empires of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing all started and ended the same way. Each dynasty was established by powerful and long-lived rulers.
But at the end of the dynasties, unusually severe periods of natural calamities along with wars and internal rebellions weakened the ruling courts. The rebels claimed that the dynasty had lost the mandate of heaven, and they were thus encouraged to attack the dynasty, and they brought down they dynasty.
The Policies of the Hongwu Emperor (1368–1398)
During his 30 year reign, Zhu Yuanzhang instituted major policy initiatives. Some of his policies became permanent Ming policies, and he reversed some of his own policies when he was old.
Hongwu's Policies Towards Eunuchs
He wanted to make sure that eunuchs had no ruling power, because he thought they were dangerous. Eunuchs had involved themselves in internal politics in earlier dynasties, and they were a lot of trouble. So he forbade them from having power in the court, and insisted that they be illiterate.
However, later in the Ming era, eunuchs regained power and became like a parallel administration along with the Confucian officials.
The Hongwu Emperor staffed his bureaucracy with officials who passed the Neo-Confucian Imperial Examinations.
These officials were dependent on the court for their position, and so they might prove to be more loyal. They were generally very intelligent and well educated.
Pro the Peasants
The Confucian viewpoint was that merchants were parasitic in the empire. The Hongwu Emperor wanted agriculture to be the source of the empire's wealth instead of industry and trade as in the Song Empire.
Hongwu grew up as a peasant, and maybe he championed their plight since he knew first hand that they were often reduced to slavery and starvation by the rich and the officials.
He wanted peasants to live in self-supporting agricultural communities. So he forced many to migrate to settle other places.
He instituted public work projects, and he tried to distribute land to peasants. During the middle part of his reign, Hongwu made an edict that those who brought fallow land under cultivation could keep it as their property without being taxed. This policy helped the peasants.
By the end of his reign, cultivated land increased substantially. The peasants prospered because they sold their produce to the growing cities. During his reign, the population increased quickly.
Anti the Merchant Class
He tried to weaken the merchant class and to force them to pay high taxes, and he even relocated a large number of them.
However, decades after his reign the opposite happened. The merchant class prospered along with industry and trade. Chinese manufactured goods such as porcelain and silk were sold for high prices around the world.
Hongwu's Monetary Policy
Like the Yuan Dynasty clan, the Hongwu Emperor also issued paper currency. Paper currency became the main currency in the Yuan Empire after his death.
However, due to inflation, by 1425 paper currency was worth only a few percent of the printed value. So silver and bronze coins became the main currency of the empire.
Hongwu's Tactics of Repression
After he became the Emperor, he became fearful of rebellions and mutiny. It is said that he made it a capital offense for any of his court (his clan and high officials) to criticize him.
The dictum proved true: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." There were massacres, and people feared to speak against him. He, lower officials and his secret police killed tens of thousands of officials and their families. He tortured many people and even killed many concubines, perhaps hundreds or thousands.
It is said that in 1380, a thunderbolt hit his palace, and he stopped the killings and massacres for some time because he was afraid that Heaven would punish him.
Perhaps these repressive tactics were successful in a fashion. He maintained his power and consolidated control, and he stayed alive until old age. He reigned for thirty years. While he was dying in 1398, he had his physicians and concubines put to death.
Tour: You can tour the mausoleum where he was buried near Nanjing. It is called the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum.
Middle of the Ming Era (1398–1557)
As did the later rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, the empire's later rulers reversed the policies of Emperor Hongwu.
Change of Capital and Dynastic Lineage
As did the later rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, the empire's later rulers reversed the policies of EmperorHongwu.
About the year 1400, there was an insurrection against Hongwu's dynastic line and a change of the capital to Beijing.
According to Hongwu's will, Hongwu's grandson Zhu Yunwen became the ruler when Hongwu died in 1398. He only ruled for four years because his uncle led an insurrection against him. His uncle was named Zhu Di.
Zhu Di burned down the palace built by Hongwu in Nanjing, and he made himself the emperor in 1402. He moved the capital to Beijing and reversed many of Hongwu's policies. He is called Emperor Yongle.
The Ming army destroyed the Yuan Dynasty's palace in Beijing when they first captured the city. Construction of a new capital city there for Emperor Yongle lasted from 1407 to 1420.
It is said that the court used hundreds of thousands of workers to build it. The famous Forbidden City was built as the palace for Zhu Di.
In order to provide quick transportation to his capital city, he rebuilt the Grand Canal from 1411–1415. This increased commerce in the north. More than a hundred thousand people worked on this project as well.
Emperor Yongle died in 1424, and he was buried in a large mausoleum called Chang Ling, northwest of his Beijing capital. It can be toured along other Ming imperial tombs in our 4-Day Classic Beijing Tour.
Change of Trade and Eunuchs Policies
Emperor Hongwu had imposed restrictions on foreign trade and on the merchant class, and he disfavored eunuchs. In contrast, Emperor Yongle built a big fleet, and he made Zheng He, (1371–1433) who was a Muslim eunuch, the leader of it.
He also reversed Hongwu's policy of barring eunuchs from power. The fleet was sent on expeditions to gather tribute and to go to the West to trade.
The fleet sailed as far as Arabia. Zheng He and his Muslim sailors made the Hajj at Mecca. He may have also reached Africa. It is said that seven missions were sent out and that 2,000 ships were constructed for these missions. The first voyage from 1405 to 1407 is said to have involved 317 vessels and a total of 26,800 men.
The End of the Trade and Tribute Missions
However, the Confucian bureaucrats, fearing the power of eunuchs in the court, canceled these court-sponsored missions after Zheng He died in 1433.
Perhaps renewed Mongol attack was another reason for the change of policy since money was needed for defense. In 1449, a Mongol leader named Esen Tayisi launched an invasion of the Ming Empire. The Mongols captured the emperor. But the emperor's brother became the emperor.
After the Mongols returned the emperor, there was a coup and the original emperor retook his throne. Later, the Mongol leader Altan Khan (1507–1582) invaded again and raided as far as the outskirts of Beijing.
The imperial trade and tribute missions were very expensive, and a huge amount of money was needed to fight the wars with the Mongols and to reconstruct the Great Wall for defense against them. Much of the Great Wall people can see now was built during the Ming era after the 1449 capture of the emperor.
In 1479, a court official burned the court records of Zheng He's voyages. Perhaps he wanted to rid the empire of interest in foreign countries or in traveling overseas. Because of this, it isn't clear exactly where the fleets of Zheng He went to.
Some people claim that the ships went to the Americas. Perhaps to stop long-distance voyages, laws were promulgated that limited the size of ships to keep them small.
Trade Policy and the Arrival of Europeans
About the year 1500, the dynasty had an isolationist policy towards trade. Private foreign trade was outlawed, so a lot of illegal trading was carried out. The officially sanctioned trading was only allowed in three ports. Japanese were allowed in one designated port only once every ten years.
In the early 1500s, the Europeans arrived to trade. Rafael Perestrello, who was a cousin of Christopher Columbus, arrived in Guangzhou in 1516 to trade.
Then a large Portuguese expedition came to Guangzhou in 1517, but the landing party was put in jail. After this, there were naval battles that the Portuguese generally lost.
But in 1557, the Portuguese convinced the Ming court to agree to a treaty that made Macau a legal trading port of the Portuguese.
Heavy Reliance on Foreign Trade
However, by the middle of the dynastic era, there was another reversal of trade policy. Trade was again permitted and encouraged. Private merchants traded, and the trade wasn't like the imperial trade missions of Emperor Yongle.
Through the private merchant trade, the merchant class became powerful and rich although merchants were repressed earlier in the dynastic history. People had more freedom to work as they wished.
A belief that was current among the bureaucrats and ruling court later in the dynastic era was that the merchants knew the best about how to manage their resources. The empire became more of a free market, and the merchant class that was considered to be the bottom social tier at the beginning of the Ming Empire became prosperous and powerful.
There was a blurring of social class lines because both merchant class and farmer class clans prospered, became literate and cultured, and their members passed the Imperial Examination and entered the government.
The Wealth Boom from Foreign Trade
The empire experienced prosperity about 70 years before the empire ended. In the late 1500s, the merchants prospered greatly from foreign trade. The fortunes of the empire became heavily reliant on trade.
Though the Ming court stopped sending out fleets to the West, Western Europeans came to them to trade and to teach Christianity. There was a high demand for manufactured products such as porcelain and silk in the West and Japan.
The Portuguese, Spanish, and the Dutch vied for the commerce. The Europeans also acted as middlemen in trade with Japan because the Japanese also highly valued Ming products. Both the Japanese and the Spanish had silver mines, and they sent a very large amount of silver for the products.
Silver became so plentiful that silver coins replaced copper coins and paper banknotes as the common medium of exchange.
The Fall of the Ming Dynasty (1557–1644)
Like the Yuan Empire, the Ming Empire had strong leaders and was prosperous at the beginning. But like the Yuan Empire, at the end there were rebellions and natural disasters, a period of cold and dry climate, the economy was in shambles, people believed that the Ming court had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and the ruling court was ineffectual.
Natural Disasters, Wars and Rebellions
There were great disasters in the last decades that were seen as signs that the dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven, and people rebelled. The natural disasters, climatic change, plagues and rebellions were eerily similar to those that happened at the end of the Yuan Dynasty and earlier dynasties.
One of the first big blows was an earthquake in Shaanxi in 1556 that is thought to be the deadliest earthquake in history. It is thought that about 800,000 people died then. It is estimated that it measured 8 on the Richter scale. The earthquake killed about 30 percent of the people in Xi'an.
During the early 1600s, there were an unusually large number of earthquakes also. From 1621 to 1627 there were two earthquakes above 7 on the Richter scale.
Wars Against the Japanese
Then in the 1590s, a Japanese Shogun tried to conquer the region. Two Japanese campaigns failed, but the war was very costly for the Ming court. It was thought that the court paid 26,000,000 ounces of silver to pay for this war.
The Little Ice Age
In the first half of the 1600s, famines became common in northern China because of unusually dry and cold weather that shortened the growing season. The change of climate occurred throughout the world and is called the Little Ice Age.
Similar climactic conditions had brought disaster to the Yuan Empire about 300 years earlier.
Strangely connected to the dry and cold climate, there were also large floods. These were partly due to mismanagement of flood-control projects or their intentional destruction. There were similar floods at the end of the Yuan era.
Finally, a great epidemic started in 1641. It isn't known how many died from the plague, but it is said that 90% of the people in one area died from the plague.
The plague is reminiscent of the bubonic plague that struck the Yuan Empire in their last decades.
Though the first Ming Emperor banned eunuchs from having power, one of the last emperors secluded himself and surrounded himself with court eunuchs. Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) who was a eunuch ruled in the emperor's stead. After he committed suicide, other eunuchs continued to cause chaos and weakened the court.
The court also didn't have cohesion or the ability to develop good policies since eunuchs took a lot of the power and terrorized people by torturing them.
The court didn't have funds to help the people or stop the rebellions. Besides the natural calamities and the rebellions that depleted the court's money, the empire faced a monetary crisis.
The flow of foreign money was greatly diminished due to fighting between Spain and the Dutch and English. The Spanish rulers tried to have the silver of the Americas brought directly to Spain instead of being exported to the Ming Empire. This raised the price of silver sharply.
Then in 1639, a Japanese Shogun limited foreign imports as part of his isolationist policy. This further limited the empire's trade and contributed to the Ming Empire's monetary crisis. The value of silver jumped markedly.
Because of the inflation of the price of silver and natural disasters, the farmers had more difficulty to pay their taxes in silver as they were required to do. This damaged Ming court revenues, and the farmers found that paying their taxes in silver as they were required to do was a great burden.
There were great deficits, and soldiers deserted in large numbers because they were not paid.
The Final Rebellions
People rebelled in various places. Many peasants were starving and unable to pay their taxes, and they were no longer in fear of the Ming court. They began to form large rebel bands.
The Ming troops were dispirited and perhaps underfed. A peasant soldier named Li Zicheng (1606–1645) mutinied with his fellow soldiers in western Shaanxi in the early 1630s after the government failed to ship supplies there. His rebel troops had a base of power in Hubei.
In the 1640s, another ex-soldier named Zhang Xianzhong (1606–1647) created a rival rebel base in Chengdu in Sichuan Province.
In 1644, Li Zicheng's troops were allowed into Beijing when someone opened the gates for him to enter. The last Ming emperor hanged himself on a tree. But the rebel troops didn't enjoy this victory.
The Victory of the Manchus (1644)
Facing the rebel army who held Beijing as well as a Manchu army across the border, a Ming general who guarded the Great Wall named Wu Sangui (1612–1678) sided with the Manchus and opened the gates of the Great Wall. In this way, the Manchus conquered Beijing.
However, it took a while for them to conquer the rest of the empire because Nanjing, Fujian, Guangzhou, and other places had Ming strongholds. Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) set up an anti-Qing base on the island of Taiwan.
The Shunzhi Emperor (1644–1661) was proclaimed the ruler of the Qing Empire in 1644.
The Ming Society and Culture
The Ming Empire seems to have remained much like the Yuan and Song Empires. Though the empire was influenced by Westerners, there wasn't much innovation of technology or religious or social change except that social divisions became blurred.
The court and the officials seemed to be embroiled in a morass of divisions and court intrigues and in pursuing their own happiness. The rulers and eunuchs used their funds for pleasures and luxuries.
The court officials and the population in general were slow to adopt Western science. At the end of the dynasty, the court returned to isolationism.
The Introduction to Catholicism
There was a "Reformation" of Christianity in Europe, and a Counter-Reformation of Catholics. A group of highly educated Catholics called Jesuits arose who sent missionaries to Asia and they made a small impact on the Ming Empire.
In 1582, a Jesuit named Ricci landed in Macau. He and some of his fellow Jesuits highly appreciated the philosophy and the culture of the Ming Empire to the point that they deeply studied the teachings of Confucianism and Daoism. Ricci in particular impressed the court by his Western education and knowledge of the Confucian Classics.
The Jesuits went to Beijing, and by 1605, there were a thousand converts. By 1615, there were 10,000. Some of these converts were members of the Ming court.
The Jesuits and Franciscans and others taught about Europe and Western sciences, and they also introduced the East and its philosophy and religion to the Europeans.
The Science of the Ming Dynasty
Overall, the Ming court officials used the weapons that they obtained from the West by trade, but their science improved little. The main advances in scientific knowledge during the Ming era were accomplished through the work of Jesuits in the imperial court and the medical scholar named Li Shizhen.
Li Shizhen (1518–1593) was a medical scholar who was outside the court. He independently wrote a comprehensive book on herbal and natural medicine that was an important advance in traditional medical knowledge.
He worked alone with the help of his family and produced what is considered the best natural medicine reference encyclopedia in pre-modern history. He was his era's expert on traditional medicine and herbology.
He spent most of his life laboring to collect information on herbs, healing techniques, herbal medicine prescriptions, and medicines derived from minerals and animals. He was also a practicing doctor.
Because he was an official for a year in the Imperial Medical Institute in Beijing, he had access to old and rare medical treatises. He also studied the medical books that were current in his era.
He distilled all the information to write a very long encyclopedia of natural medicine called the Bencao Gangmu (本草纲目, lit.: Herbal Essential Details). This long text is usually called Materia Medica in English.
Jesuit Scientist Officials
Some Jesuits were welcomed to be court officials after 1601. Some of the Jesuits in the Ming court were very good scientists such as Johann Adam Schall and Mateo Ricci, and they tried to introduce Western science to the rulers and officials.
They wrote texts about Euclidean geometry, astronomy, physics, and other subjects in Chinese. They were a source of information about the rest of the world and recognized as great scholars.
Ming Dynasty Sights and Tours
Most of the Ming Dynasty cultural sites are in Beijing and Nanjing. These two cities served as the capitals of the dynasty. Beijing was the capital for the final 262 years.
Ming sites to enjoy in a Beijing tour:
The Forbidden City was largely constructed by Emperor Yongleis one of the outstanding sites you can tour.
The Great Wall of China: Most of the existing sections of the wall were built during the Ming Dynasty.
- The Temple of Heaven was where the emperor went every winter solstice to worship Heaven and to solemnly pray for a good harvest.
- The Ming Tombs: The imperial cemetery covers an area of 120 square kilometers, and there are 13 Ming Dynasty emperors buried there.
Our No. 1 Beijing Tour: Our 4-Day Essence of Beijing Tour covers the main highlights of Ming Beijing, including the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven.
Ming sites in Nanjing include:
Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum. It is the tomb of Zhu Yuan Zhang who founded of the dynasty.
- The Zhonghua Gate in Nanjing.
Ming Heritage in Guilin:
- The Mausoleum of the Ming Princes: These are the tombs of generations of Ming officials who were dispatched by the court to govern the Guilin region.
I updated this article on February 23, 2014
See all my travel articles
Questions and Answers About The Ming Dynasty
The ancient China began to decline from the late of Qing Dynasty.
CocoCoco Yang replied on 2013-09-30
- Chinese Dynasties
- Prehistoric Times of China
- The Xia Dynasty
- The Shang Dynasty
- The Zhou Dynasty
- Spring and Autumn Period
- Warring States Period
- The Qin Dynasty
- The Han Dynasty
- Three Kingdoms
- The Jin Dynasty
- Southern and Northern Dynasties
- The Sui Dynasty
- The Tang Dynasty
- The Kingdom of Dali
- The Western Xia Dynasty
- The Song Dynasty
- The Yuan Dynasty
- The Ming Dynasty
- The Qing Dynasty