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The Ming Dynasty - The Last Han Chinese Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty - The Last Han Chinese Dynasty

Written by Fercility JiangUpdated Nov. 17, 2021

The Ming Dynasty era was from 1368 to 1644, lasting for 276 years. It was the fourth longest Chinese dynasty.

Founded by Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming Dynasty was the last dynasty ruled by Han people. It flourished (initially) with a growth in foreign trade, art, and literature.

The Ming Dynasty defeated the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and was later replaced by the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912).

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Ming Dynasty Key Events Timeline

  • 1368: Zhu Yuanzhang (Emperor Hongwu) established the Ming Dynasty through a rebellion that defeated the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, and then he made Nanjing China’s capital.
  • 1398: Zhu Yuanzhang died. His grandson, Emperor Jianwen, succeeded to the throne.
  • 1399: Zhu Di, Zhu Yuanzhang’s son, waged a campaign for the throne.
  • 1402: Zhu Di succeeded in taking the throne, becoming Emperor Yongle. Emperor Yongle ushered in a period of prosperity, including trade with Europeans.
  • 1406: The Forbidden City started to be built following the orders of Emperor Yongle.
  • 1420: The Ming capital was moved to Beijing after the Forbidden City was completed.
  • 1449: The Mongols invaded the Ming Dynasty territory and captured Emperor Yingzong. The Ming Dynasty began to turn from prosperity to decline.
  • 1644: The dynasty ended when peasant rebellion from the south led to the Great Wall gates being opened to the Manchurians, who initiated the Qing Dynasty.

How Was the Ming Dynasty Founded?

The end of the Yuan Dynasty was brought about by the Red Turban Rebellion, which started due to the Yuan government’s corruption and heavy taxes.

Desperate, poor peasants flocked to join the uprising. Zhu Yuanzhang was one of them. After decades of effort, Zhu Yuanzhang became a leader of the Red Turban Rebellion.

In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang’s peasant army defeated the Yuan Dynasty and established the Ming Dynasty with Nanjing as its capital. Hongwu Emperor was his title, meaning ‘Great Military’.

Ming Dynasty Achievements

During their 276-year reign, the Ming Dynasty made China one of the most prosperous countries in the world at that time. There were developments in architecture, overseas trade, arts, and culture.

The Construction of the Great Wall

The Great WallThe Great Wall

The Great Wall was the greatest military project in the ancient and medieval world. Although previous dynasties had built the Wall, the Ming Dynasty contributed more to it than any other dynasty. Most of the Great Wall remaining today was built or repaired during the Ming Dynasty.

Faced with constant Mongol disturbances on China’s northern border, the Ming Dynasty had to (re-)construct the Great Wall as a military defense. During the 276 years of the Ming Dynasty, construction of the Great Wall almost never stopped.

The Construction of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden CityThe Forbidden City

As China's best-preserved imperial palace, the Forbidden City proudly displays the essence and culmination of traditional Chinese architecture.

Emperor Yongle ordered the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1406. After 14 years of construction, the Forbidden City was completed. Then, the Yongle Emperor moved his capital to Beijing and lived in the Forbidden City.  Since then, the Forbidden City served as the emperor's residence until the fall of China's last dynasty.

Zheng He's Voyage to the West

Zheng HeZheng He's Voyages to the West.

Emperor Yongle built a big fleet, and he made Zheng He (1371–1433), who was a Muslim eunuch, the leader of it. The fleet was sent on expeditions to gather tributes and to go to the West to trade.

The fleet sailed as far as Arabia. Zheng He and his Muslim sailors made the Hajj. Besides 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 Golden Age of Blue and White Porcelain

The period of Emperor Yongle (1402–24) and Emperor Xuande (1425–35) was the golden age of blue and white porcelain. The blue paint with unique characteristics that Zheng He brought back from ancient Persia during his voyages to the west provided the material basis for designs of that period. 

Due to trade and frequent cultural exchanges, the shape and ornamentation of porcelain in this period were also influenced by western Asia. 

Vernacular Novels Flourished

The popularity of vernacular novels gave birth to the four great masterpieces of the Ming Dynasty: Journey to the West, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and the Golden Lotus.

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Famous Emperors of the Ming Dynasty

There were 16 emperors during the Ming Dynasty era.

  • Emperor Hongwu (ruled 1368–1398): First emperor of Ming Dynasty, he began the golden age of the Ming Dynasty.
  • Emperor Yongle (ruled 1402–1424): The third Ming emperor Emperor Yongle's reign was the second and most celebrated, continuing the golden age of the Ming Dynasty.
  • Emperor Xuande (ruled 1425–1435): The fifth emperor of the Ming Dynasty enjoyed the third celebrated reign, continuing prosperous times from Yongle.
  • Emperor Yingzong (ruled 1435–1449 and 1457–1464): He was crowned twice, having been abducted by the Mongols and released in the interim. The Ming Dynasty started to decline during his reign.
  • Emperor Zhengde (ruled 1572–1620) was the longest reigning emperor of the Ming Dynasty (48 years).
  • Emperor Chongzhen (ruled 1627–1644) was the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

13 out of the 16 emperors of the Ming Dynasty were buried in the Ming Tombs near Beijing. It is the largest imperial mausoleum complex in China and also in the world.

The Fall of the Ming Dynasty — Poverty, Rebellion, Invasion

Corruption was rampant in the late Ming Dynasty. The powerful seized the peasants' land and used their privileges to avoid paying taxes to the state.  Heavy taxes were then imposed on the peasants. Crop failures caused by unseasonably cold weather led to a famine.

The government could not solve the poverty problems and continued to oppress the people. A peasant soldier named Li Zicheng (1606–1645) mutinied and led a rebellion. The Ming Dynasty was not only embattled by the rebel army, but also suffered from constant threats of invasion by the Manchu army. 

In 1644, Li Zicheng's troops attacked the Forbidden City. The last Ming emperor hanged himself on a tree, and the Ming Dynasty fell. But the rebel troops didn't enjoy this victory. The Manchus seized their opportunity, breached the Great Wall, defeated Li Zicheng, and conquered Beijing. Then the Qing Dynasty was established.

Ming Dynasty Sights and Tours

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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 224 years.

  • The Forbidden City was largely constructed by Emperor Yongle and is one of the outstanding Ming sights you can tour.
  • The Great Wall of China: Most of the extant sections of the wall were built during the Ming Dynasty.

Our premier 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.

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