3. The Ming Dynasty

  Category: East Asia: China

According to Ming Shih, the founder of Ming dynasty once said that "In the beginning of Yuan dynasty the tradition of court was simple and government was not allowed to become oppressive. This period came to be known as the age of peace. However later generations of the imperial house neglected their duties, while officials usurped power, and this caused revolts throughout the empire, bringing perpetual distress to the people. There may indeed have been some individuals of good character and some loyal ministers; but they were not trusted. Thus came the ruin of empire." This diagnosis by Hong Wu Emperor was perfectly correct. Of the evelen Mongol monarhs who ruled in China only Khubilai could be really called really capable; the rest were mediocre and were often inclined to be at once tyrannical and pleasure seeking. Furthermore, many Yuan Emperors came to the throne at a very young age. Inevitably the control of the government fell into the hands of the queen mother or of nobles and ministers, and constant struggle among these rulers led even to murder of emperors. In Consequence the authority of the government declined very rapidly.
Kubilai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty in 1279. He was an able and benevolent ruler, but also committed a major mistake that was eventually to contribute to the downfall of the regime he founded: he instituted policies that treated the Han people as third-class citizens. Everywhere Mongols had priority; in the government and civil service the most plum jobs went to Mongols, no matter whether they were more capable or not. This had caused a great deal of resentment among the populace by the beginning of the 14th century. 

In the spring of 1355, Luo Tzu Hsing, a rebel leader died and the command of his army passed to his most capable general, Zhu Yuanzhang.  

Zhu Yuanzhang was an able leader of men, and a bright strategist. He was also assisted by able men. Hiding secret messages in mooncakes traditionally eaten on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival(the 15th day of the eighth month in the Lunar Calendar), he coordinated a mass uprising and drove the Mongols from Peking. He declared himself emperor Ming Taizu in 1368, and set about conquering the rest of China.

The Yuan armies were swiftly defeated, and rival rebel blocs were similarly defeated. By 1387 the conquest of China was complete. After a century of foreign rule, the people of China were back under local control.


Ming Taizu then set about ruthlessly exterminating all who had helped him become emperor, to prevent them from plotting against him in future. He killed not only the victims, but also their entire families, and anyone else with even only remote connections to the victim. In one case over 20,000 people were killed. A system of strict laws and censorship was instituted, judicial authority strengthened and in this way the country was stabilised politically. For administrative purposes, it was divided into 13 provinces, each with a governor.

Socially Ming Taizu did much to help the common people. Taxation was kept low and agriculture was encouraged. Part of the reason why Ming Taizu did all this was because he knew the sufferings the peasants went through, having been one himself, and was able to sympathise with them. The dykes on the Yellow river were maintained and renovated to prevent disastrous flooding. Economically Ming Taizu did not encourage trade, as he, following Confucian beliefs, despised the merchantry. Militrarily China was much stronger than it had been during the last Chinese dynasty, the Sung. A large standing army and military class was maintained, and this deterred any attempts by the Yuan remnants to reestablish Mongol rule. 

Zhu Di took the title of Ming Chengzu. He is more commonly known to the west as the chinese Napoleon.
He led five expeditions into Mongolia during his entire reign, and inflicted crushing defeats on China's northern enemies. Of course, his most famous move was to send the eunuch Zheng He on his voyages of expedition(1405-1433), seven in all. This fleet reached southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Ceylon, and established many trade contacts and friendships for the Ming. The king of Malacca in fact had a trade treaty with China, and married a Chinese princess.

Ming Taizu died in 1398, having ruled for thirty years. His grandson suceeded him as emperor Jianwen. Before his death Ming Taizu had enffeoffed his six sons with land and given them the title of Prince. They had become rich and powerful and posed a real threat to the authority of the central government. Jianwen decided to challenge his powerful uncles, and suceeded in eliminating five of them as rivals. The last, the Prince of Yan Zhu Di, resisted. A war raged between the Ming court and Zhu Di, and in 1403 Zhu Di captured the capital of Nanjing. Jianwen disappeared in the aftermath of the battle; he is widely believed to have fled in the last few hours before the fall disguised as a monk.
Emperor Yongle. Like his father Taizu, his first move was to order a purge of the civil and military bureaucracy. Again, thousands died. However, on the whole Chengzu was an able ruler, and did much for China.
Unable to take it anymore, they revolted in 1621, led by Li Zicheng. The popular uprising swept the entire country, and Li Zicheng soon had a large army of hundreds of thousands. The Ming court mustered its last resources to put it down, but, undermined also by the activities of the White Lotus Cult and by the attacks of the Qing under Nuerhachi, were utterly defeated by the able Li, who took city after city and entered Beijing against only token resistance in 1644. The last Ming emperor Ming Si Zu hanged himself in the palace courtyard; the Ming Dynasty had come to an end.


The Ming Dynasty has often been labelled "the greatest period in China's history". The voyages of Zheng He were among the most epic in history, and they extended China's influence throughout much of the known world. Literature flourished, and many famous novels that are still read today were written, one being Journey to the West, a fairy tale based on the real story of Xuan Zang's epic trek to India to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures during the Tang Dynasty. The Ming tombs are still an architectural marvel today, and the Great Wall we see at present is in fact mostly built during the Ming. The classic Chinese garden design also developed during this period, and acupuncture and a system of scientific medial diagnosis was developed. All in all, the Ming Dynasty was a time of unparalleled achievement, but also the beginning of a dark era for China: the "closed door policy".  

Zheng He

Zheng He(1371-1433), known as perhaps China's greatest explorer and adventurer ever. In his seven ocean voyages between 1405 and 1433, he reached the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India, Ceylon and parts of Africa. It is also claimed that he even reached the coast of Austrailia and the Americas. The name of China spread far and wide, and China enjoyed an unrivalled mastery of the oceans.  Zheng He was born in 1371, in Yunnan, China, to poor Muslim parents. At 10 he was captured by the army of Zhu Yuanzhang and castrated, as most prisoners of that time were treated. However, he distinguished himself by helping Zhu Yuanzhang defeat the Yuan Dynasty, and was rewarded with an official post in the government. When he helped Ming Chengzu Zhu Di gain the throne in 1403, he was given command of the Chinese navy. The emperor looked beyond China's borders, and ordered the construction of a vast and grand fleet. Foremost among these were the nine-masted "treasure ships", 440 feet long, and with a crew of over a thousand.

With a vast array of ships, 300-strong, and a contingent of nearly 30,000 soldiers, sailors, artisans and scientists, Zheng He departed from China for his first voyage in 1405. over the next 28 years, six more followed. Southeast Asia was visited; relations were opened with the Malaccan empire; a war was fought in Ceylon, where the greedy local chieftain was outsmarted and taken prisoner by the wily admiral; off the coast of Africa the crews reported dark-skinned natives.  Zheng He's voyages brought China's power to its zenith. China became a world superpower, known through much of the civilised world. It had relations with countries as far as the Middle East, and its navy stood unchallenged throught the Indian and Asian seas.

The Emperor Ming Chengzu died just before Zheng He's last expedition; Zheng He while on voyage in 1433. After that China closed its doors to the outside world as the Confucian traditionalists prevailed at court. The ships were scuttled, even records of the voyage were burnt. China withdrew into its own shell and stayed there for centuries. Zheng He's exploits remianed unknown for untold ages, before records were found and the Admiral finally gained worldwide fame.

A Ming "Treasure ship" compared to one of Columbus'

Ming Tai Zu (1368 - 1399) 
Ming Hui Di (1399 - 1403)
Ming Chen Zu (1403 - 1425) 
Ming Ren Zong (1425 - 1426)
Ming Xuan Zong (1426 - 1436)
Ming Ying Zong (1436 - 1450) 
Ming Jing Zong (1450 - 1465) 
Ming Xian Zong (1465 - 1488) 
Ming Xiao Zong (1488 - 1506)
Ming Wu Zong (1506 - 1522) 
Ming Shi Zong (1522 - 1567) 
Ming Mu Zong (1567 - 1573)
Ming Sheng Zong (1573 - 1620)
Ming Guan Zong (1620 - 1621)
Ming Xi Zong (1621 - 1628) 
Ming Si Zu (1628 - 1644)

1368-1398: Zhu Yuanzhang, Hung Wu emperor, reigns. 
1387: End of reconquest. 
1403-1424: Reign of Yong Lee, emperor. 
1405-1433: Voyages of Zheng He. 
1420: Ming capital moved to Beijing. 
1421: Construction begins on the Forbidden City in Beijing. 
1406-1427: Chinese occupy Vietnam. 
1449-1459: War with Wala. Chinese army suffers disastrous defeat at Tumubao fort in 1449. Emperor Ying Zong captured. 
1459: Wala repulsed at gates of Beijing by Defense Secretary Yu Qian; Wala leader Yexian asks for peace, returns Ying Zong to China. 
1522: Single-Whip Reforms. 
1549: Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary, attempts to enter China. 
1550: Altan Khan attempts to take Beijing.
1559-1626: Nurhaci, Jurchen Manzhou leader. 
1581: Christian missionaries Matteo Ricci and Lazaro Cantteo visit China; are warmly received by Ming court. 
1592-1599: Japanese invasion of Korea; Ming China helps defeat Japanese. 
1616: Nuehachi establishes Qing Dynasty in northern China; declares himself Qing Taizu. 
1621: Liaoyang and Shenyang are taken by Nurhaci. 
1628: Famine; rebellion led by Li Zicheng. 
1626-1643: Abahai succeeds Nurhaci as Manzhou leader. 
1644: Li Zicheng captures Beijing; Li Zicheng defeated by Manchu(Qing)forces under Dorgun and Wu Sangui, last Ming emperor Ming Si Zu commits suicide; end of Ming Dynasty.

Zhu Di took the title of Ming Chengzu. He is more commonly known to the west as the "Chinese Napoleon".