Early Ming

Widespread discontent and resentment became a hallmark of the final years of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), as the Han Chinese felt increasingly burdened by heavy taxes and ostracized by institutionalized ethnic discrimination against them. It wasn’t until large-scale flooding of the Yellow River, however, that these disillusioned masses finally had justification to openly revolt. According to Chinese tradition, natural disasters were a sign that the ruling emperors had lost the Mandate of Heaven, or the divine right to rule. The imperial court had become so fractured and chaotic that it was unable to quell the rising tide of disenfranchised peasants. On the verge of poverty and famine, these peasants were forced to form rebel bandit groups in order to survive.

The most powerful of these was undoubtedly the Red Turbans, who were connected to a secret Buddhist society known as the White Lotus. In 1352, a pauper named Zhu Yuanzhang joined their ranks and swiftly rose to prominence after marrying the rebel commander’s foster daughter. After being orphaned at a young age, Zhu had spent much of his early years as a beggar before joining a Buddhist monastery. Yet it seems the gods had other plans for him!

In 1356, Zhu led rebel forces to capture the city of Nanjing and, in 1363, he overcame his arch rival Chen Youliang at the Battle of Lake Poyang, one of the largest naval battles in Chinese history. With an army of just 200,000 sailors, Zhu was able to overcome enemy forces that claimed to be over 650,000-strong! In 1367, the leader of the Red Turbans suspiciously died while a guest in Zhu’s home and, with no other obstacles in his way, Zhu easily took control of the group. By 1368, he had driven the Mongolians out of Shandong, Henan, and Shanxi provinces. With such glorious victories behind him, he marched his forces towards the Yuan capital of Dadu (modern-day Beijing).

Meanwhile, the Yuan remnants had fled back to Mongolia and established the Northern Yuan Dynasty (1368–1635). Zhu thereby officially established the Ming Dynasty and took the regal name of the Hongwu or “Vastly Martial” Emperor. Fierce military campaigning expanded his empire into Fujian, Hunan, Guangdong, and Guangxi. From 1369 to 1370, the regions of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia were annexed. By the end of his 30-year reign in 1398, his territory stretched across the entirety of modern China proper.

One such military victory took place in a northeastern region known as Manchuria. A former Yuan official named Naghachu had been amassing power in the area and, rather than waiting for him to become a sizeable threat, the Ming sent a military campaign to defeat him in 1387. However, in those early days, the Ming court simply could not impose control over the Jurchen[1] people who occupied the region and instead forged an alliance with them. In an ironic twist of fate, it would be the descendants of these Jurchens, under the new moniker of the Manchu people, who would overthrow the Ming Dynasty.

With his empire firmly established and his imperial capital set in Nanjing, the Hongwu Emperor started to develop the governmental policies that would characterise his reign. In 1397, he completed a new Confucian law code and reorganised the military system so that large communities of soldiers were given farmland and were practically self-sufficient during peacetime. Both of these systems were based on those of the celebrated Tang Dynasty (618-907). He also famously diminished the power of the court eunuchs, who he believed to be responsible for much of the corruption in court.

Yet perhaps his most radical reform was the abolishment of the Chancellery. After having the Chancellor Hu Weiyong executed on suspicion of treason in 1380, the Hongwu Emperor decided to take on the role for himself and thus removed what had once been the most influential administrative body in the imperial government. He was a deeply paranoid man and even went so far as to set up a network of secret spies known as the Jinyiwei, who were drawn from his own palace guard. Throughout his rule, some 100,000 people were executed in a series of political purges. Although his attitude towards foreign peoples other than the Mongols was generally unaggressive, his treatment of his own officials bordered on brutality!

The Tomb of Hongwu Emperor Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

Towards the end of his reign, the Hongwu Emperor named his grandson Zhu Yunwen as his successor. On his death in 1398, Zhu Yunwen assumed the throne as the Jianwen Emperor. Yet not everyone was quite so pleased with Hongwu’s decision! The most militarily accomplished of his sons, Zhu Di, felt that he deserved the throne, and soon a fearsome political showdown erupted between him and Jianwen. After a vicious three-year-long civil war, the Jianwen Emperor’s brief reign was brought to a close. With his wife and mother tragically deceased, the Jianwen Emperor decided, in an act of abject devastation, to burn down the imperial palace, although his body was never found inside. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened to the Jianwen Emperor and his son.

Thus Zhu Di ascended the throne as the Yongle Emperor and began his reign with a violent purge of anyone connected to the Jianwen Emperor. He notoriously executed any scholar or official who had once allied themselves with or written about the Jianwen Emperor, and even punished those who contained books about the Jianwen Emperor in their homes. During this tumultuous period, a multitude of books were burned and many grand works of Chinese literature were lost forever.

The Yongle Emperor’s reign represented a major turning point in the dynasty, as he reversed many of his father’s policies and embarked on a much more aggressive foreign policy. In 1403, he moved the capital to Beijing and almost immediately began construction of a colossal imperial palace known as the Forbidden City. In the same year, he also famously commissioned the production of the Yongle Encyclopedia, which is widely considered to be the largest paper-based encyclopedia in the world!

From 1405 onwards, he entrusted his favourite eunuch, Zheng He, with a gigantic fleet of ships, which was dedicated wholly to international tributary missions. After seven costly voyages, Zheng He was able to demand tribute from rulers as far away as the East African coast. Historians estimate that, thanks to Yongle’s efforts, the Ming emperors may have exercised more far-reaching influence in East Asia than any other native rulers in China. His military prowess even led to the conquest and brief occupation of Vietnam, which lasted from 1407 to 1427.In an effort to expand domestic trade, Yongle rebuilt the Grand Canal so that transporting goods between the north and the south was much easier.

The Mongols, who remained the greatest threat to the Ming Empire, had since fractured into three antagonistic groups. These were the western Mongols or Oirats, the eastern Mongols or Tatars, and the Urianghad tribes of the Chengde region. Factional strife meant that the Oirats and the Tatars were internally weak and posed no real threat, while the Urianghad tribes had served under the Ming since the reign of the Hongwu Emperor. They were eventually granted political autonomy by the Yongle Emperor.

Over time, the complacency with which the Ming emperors regarded the Mongols caused them to withdraw their command posts beyond the Great Wall. Northeastern Manchuria slowly became more isolated from Ming influence and the Jurchen people started to amass power. On the death of the Yongle Emperor in 1424, the Ming court had all but ceased any substantial activities in the region.

Yongle’s reign ushered in a period of peace, stability, and prosperity for China. Foreign and domestic trade started to blossom, the country was at peace, and the international prestige that Yongle’s efforts had garnered meant that his successors no longer needed to pursue such an aggressive foreign policy. Yet, like so many dynasties before it, the Ming Dynasty was doomed to be undone by weak emperors and the corrupt officials who manipulated them.

[1] The Jurchens: The Jurchens or Jurcheds were a Tungusic people, an ethnic group that has been acknowledged as distinct from Turkic and Mongolian people. During the 12th century, they took control of northern China and established the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). By the 17th century, they were known as the Manchu people.