Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398) was a peasant who became the leader of a rebellion against the Yuan rulers (1279-1368) called the Red Turbans. Then became the first emperor of the Ming Empire. During his youth, he was extremely poor. Several of his brothers were sent or sold away, and then his family was killed by a flood. Then he begged for food and spent some time at a Buddhist monastery where he learned to read and write when he was 24 years old. He established a capital in Nanjing and then consolidated control of the area of the Yangtze River. In 1664, his army entered Beijing. During his 30 year reign, he shaped the Ming Empire, but he grew increasingly fearful and tyrannical.
Most of the historical sites related to Zhu Yuanzhang are located in Nanjing, the capital of his dynasty.
Zhu Yuanzhang saw the decline and collapse of the Yuan Empire from the bottom of the society. He grew up experiencing famine, natural disaster, fighting and death. When he was 16, a flood of the Yellow River killed his whole family. Then the monastery where he took refuge when he was 24 was destroyed by Yuan troops. He joined one of the many rebel gangs that formed in the empire in the 1640s and 1650s and became the leader of the large Red Turban rebel army before he was 30.
During the final thirty years of the Yuan era (1271-1368), there were a lot of famines and natural disasters. There were also revolts and rebellions that the Yuan troops tried to quell. But the rebellions grew in size, and rebel armies started holding cities and large tracts of territory. Zhu Yuanzhang first joined a local rebel group. Then they joined a large Red Turban army that had Zoroastrian and Buddhist beliefs. Zoroastrianism was a Western religion that had spread through Central Asia before Islam spread. They believed 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.
In 1356, Zhu's army conquered Nanjing that was an important city that was strategically located so that he could control part of the Yangtze River and the region south of it. He made Nanjing his capital. Nanjing became known as a region of comparative stability and safety, and the population of the city quickly swelled as people left the turmoil in other places.
The Red Turbans split into two rival groups. Zhu led a smaller group called the “Ming” that means “bright” that was based around Nanjing. A larger group controlled the area of the Yangtze River in the central part of the empire to the west of Nanjing. It was led by Chen Youliang. Starting from 1360, Zhu and Chen Youliang fought a protracted war. Zhu's army defeated Chen's army at the Battle of Lake Poyang in 1363. It involved a large naval battle. In 1367, Zhu's forces defeated another rebel territory that included the city of Suzhou. After this victory, in 1368 he proclaimed himself to be the Emperor Hongwu. His name means “Vast Magnificent Military.” Later that year, his army entered Beijing as the Mongols fled northwards. Yunnan remained under Yuan rule until 1380.
The Hongwu Emperor staffed his bureaucracy with officials who passed the Neo-Confucian Imperial Examinations. He wanted to protect the peasants and help them prosper. So he forced many to migrate to settle other places. He instituted public work projects. Hongwu 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. By the end of his reign, cultivated land grew substantially. This made peasants prosper because they sold their produce to the growing cities. During his reign, the population increased quickly.
He wanted both to build a big and self-sustaining army and to resettle peasants and give them land to farm. He thought a big standing army was necessary because the Mongols could attack them. He instituted a military land redistribution program that was known as Weisuo (protect area) in 1384. He provided land for trained troops in his army to farm and also organized them into military units. These units could be called upon when there was a military conflict. In this way, he developed a large army that was ready for conflict that was also self-supporting during times of peace. It is thought that in 1393 there were a million troops in this Weisuo system. After Yuan controlled territory in Yunnan was taken in 1380, 200,000 military colonists settled in the area.
Emperor Hongwu instituted some policy initiatives that his successors didn't follow. One policy was to make sure that eunuchs had no ruling power. He thought that court eunuchs were dangerous because eunuchs had involved themselves in internal politics in earlier dynasties. They caused a lot of chaos because they conflicted with the Confucian bureaucrats and tried to usurp power and wealth for their pleasures. So he forbade them from having power in the court, and he 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 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. He also wanted peasants to live in self-supporting agricultural communities. 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, 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. The farmers sold their produce to the urban population and so became dependent on this source of income.
The Hongwu Emperor also issued paper currency. Paper currency was the main currency in the Yuan Empire. It is said that he handed out too much paper money during his lifetime so that there was inflation. That is, the value of the paper money dropped. His successors continued printing too much money, so by 1425 paper currency was worth only a few percent of the printed value. Silver and bronze coins became the main currency of the empire.
As often happened, he became fearful of rebellions and mutiny as he grew older. It is said that he made it a capital offense for his court to criticize him. The dictum proved true: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He became known for his massacres and purges. He made it a capital offense for court officials to criticize him. People feared to speak against him. 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. It is thought that he or his secret police killed tens of thousands of officials and their families. He tortured many people and even killed many concubines, perhaps hundreds of them. However, he succeeded in maintaining power and consolidating control, and he stayed alive until old age. He reigned for thirty years and died when he was 69. When he died, he had his physicians and concubines put to death.