|The Forbidden City|
The Ming dynasty which ruled China from 1368 until 1644, and is probably the most famous of all Chinese dynasties. Most of what we have come to associate with pre-communist China comes from the Ming dynasty. What makes the Ming so significant in Chinese history? The Ming ousted the Mongol Yuan dynasty which World History readers may remember as being founded by the famous Mongol Empire. Before we look at the Ming in specific we have to first look at how the Ming managed to oust the Mongols from China.
Yuan to Ming
As always there was not one reason for the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. People who study history will know how important strong rulers are in preserving their rule. After the death of Kublai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan) in 1294 the Yuan dynasty lacked any particularly strong leaders. Palace intrigues, corruption and inept rule made it difficult for many Chinese bureaucrats to serve the Mongols. It is also important to understand the significance that the Yuan were also foreigners (Mongols) ruling over ethnic Han Chinese. The Yuan favored Mongols, particularly after the death of Kublai Khan, over the Han which alienated many which grew worse and worse as corruption skyrocketed. A series of famines hit China during the early fourteenth-century and outbreaks of the bubonic plague further added to the Yuan's problems. Those who know Chinese history will know the importance of the Mandate of Heaven. For those who don't the Mandate of Heaven is a system where a ruling dynasty is believed to rule with a mandate from heaven itself. Of course this is not entirely unique to China; Europe had the 'Divine right to Rule' for example. However, in China the Mandate of Heaven was also seen as being revoked if the dynasty was seen as being inept, corrupt, or going against the social order. Famines, natural disasters, plague, foreign invasion and rebellions were seen as evidence that the mandate had been revoked. The end of the Yuan dynasty had many of these. The White Lotus Society was one example of an anti-Yuan group alongside the Red Turban movement. In order to defeat the Red Turbans in the 1350s the emperor, Toghun Temur, relied increasingly on local warlords to fight them through fear that the army might turn on him.
In southern China a peasant who had become a Buddhist monk called Zhu Yuanzhang rose to prominence. In 1352 his monastery had been burnt down so he joined a rebel group in Haozhou where a Red Turban commander, Guo Zixing, spotted him. He rose through the ranks to become a commander in his own branch of the Red Turbans in 1360 which he called 'Ming' after he had captured the Yuan stronghold of Nanjing in 1356. By 1367 Zhu had pushed the Yuan past the Yangtze River and brought most of the warlords under his rule, (mostly by force). Thanks to this in January 1368 Zhu declared a new dynasty called the Ming and adopted 'Hongwu' (vastly martial) as his era name. Later that year the Ming captured the Yuan capital of Khanbaliq which they renamed Beijing. It would take until 1381, however, before the Ming could finally capture the last of the Yuan strongholds. The Ming victory is significant though. It was the first time in centuries that China was unified under a Han Chinese dynasty. Over the last few hundred years China had either been ruled by non-Han Chinese or had been divided.
Ming Rule and Governance
|The Hongwu Emperor|
The Ming dynasty claimed to restore the governance of old Han dynasties such as the Song or the Han. However, they kept many of the systems of governance from the Yuan in place. The Yuan had retained the Song office of Chung-shu sheng which acted like a prime minister and the Hongwu emperor initially retained this position. In 1380 he decided that the position was too powerful, 'tantamount to a usurpation' according to Albert Chan, and abolished it saying 'In the future if any of my subjects dares to suggest the restoration of a prime minister, let him be punished and cut into pieces, and let his whole family also be put to death'. I should also mention that as the Hongwu emperor was the founder of the dynasty he was very paranoid about a coup or rebellion. The Six Boards which organized China (Civil Office, Revenue, War, Works, Punishments, and Rites), became subordinate to the emperor rather than the Cheng-shu sheng or other major ministers. In theory the emperor exercised complete control over China but in reality this is in an impossibility. Hongwu had to back down and create an office called the Nei-ko, Grand Secretariat, which supplied secretaries for the emperor. It was not seen as being very exalted with the Six Boards being seen as higher. The Ming also divided China into thirteen provinces, (Shantung, Shansi, Shensi, Honan, Chekiang, Kiangsi, Hukang, Szechuan, Fukien, Kuangtung, Kuangsi, Yunnan, and Kueichow). Hongwu also resurrected the Chi-shih-chung which had a various amount of roles including: advising the emperor, inspect memorials sent by officials to the throne, correct memorials, serve as librarians of the archives, examining the morals and talents of officials, and censoring books. As you can see Ming governance rested entirely on the emperor with officials working to implement the will of the emperor. How were officials chosen?
To become an official you had to obtain the jinshi which was a degree. These degrees had originated with the Qin dynasty and had evolved over time changing slightly with each dynasty. The Imperial Examinations under the Ming introduced the 'Essay' or 'Eight Legs' where the student had to write a very precise essay revolving around Confucianism and classic Chinese texts. Strangely the writer could not express any opinion of his own (only men could take the exams) and had to perfectly recite classic texts and Confucius. No new interpretations were allowed. Writing in 1914 Li Ung Bing described it as 'a form of evil which has eaten into the very heart of the nation'. This system lasted until 1905! It is quite telling that Confucian and classic Han texts were expected to be known off by heart and tells us of the obsession with the old Yuan dynasty. Rule by the Mongols made the Ming obsessed with removing old Mongol rule in any way. Anyone in theory could take the exams and during early Ming rule only 14% of students from established families. Of course in practice it was largely metropolitan wealthy families which took part. However, as the years went along and a middle class started to emerge you had to pay to get a jinshi degree which meant that only the wealthiest could hold a jinshi, and therefore a place in the palace. By the Ming's collapse in 1644 60% of degree holders came from families with a long history in holding office. Also cheating became endemic with robes that had entire excerpts written in the sleeves being worn for the exam.
|An example of how cheating was done: a mini-book|
|Ming Social Structure in art|
When Hongwu came to power in 1368 he promised to restore Confucianism to China which had been seen as going into decline during the Yuan. Often he said he restoring the social order of the Han (seen as being the dynasty to emulate by all other dynasties). The Ming wished to implement a strict Confucian social structure. This was not limited to China. Europe had a rigid Estates system to rule society and India had the caste system to name two examples. At the top we had the emperor and royal family, then the scholars, then the gentry, then the peasants, then the artisans, and at the bottom the merchants. The scholars represented the top 1% of society and the written sources we have from Chinese society are written by scholars. Peasants were seen as better than artisans as they were seen as the backbone of society. Until recent years China has been largely rural so peasants were seen as being very important. Zhu Yuanzhang and later Mao Zedong had heavily relied on the peasantry to establish their rule. Merchants, in contrast, were seen as parasites. Highly mobile and not creating anything especially the literati saw them as leeching off of the hard work of others. Paradoxically by the end of the Ming the merchants had started to become far wealthier than other members of society. Women, however, were oppressed. The wife was expected to remain loyal to the husband and the daughter to the father. As always peasant women gained more freedom as all sections of society were required to help on the land. Wealthy women could also have the chance to become literate with Empress Xu managing to write several books. However, literacy never exceeded 1% of the female population.
Religion was important under the Ming. Being a former monk the Honwu emperor tried to revive native Chinese Buddhist sects over Lamaist Buddhism favored by the Yuan. Taoism, or Daoism, was held in equal high regard by the Ming, and the paranoid Hongwu tried to control both. He wrote a commentary on the Tao-te ching in order to guide Taoists. In later years emperors would favor their own religion more, but they would not overly oppress the other religion. The Buddhist Chenghua emperor was a devote believer in both building hundreds of temples where a hundred thousand monks were ordained in 1476 and two hundred thousand in 1486 (although this may be an exaggeration as Chinese sources sometimes embellish statistics). The later Longqing emperor (1521-1567) was a devote Taoist and was so obsessed that he considered abdicating to devote his entire life to his religion. As he was also promised immortality he let his obsession deplete the treasury and in the end it cost him his own life.
The Ming Voyages
|The route of the Voyages|
In 1405 a fleet of 27,000 people under the command of the eunuch Zheng He set out on the first of seven voyages from Nanjing. The famous Ming voyages represented everything which the Ming stood for in regards to foreign policy. The Ming used a system called the tribute system, inherited from past dynasties, where it viewed China as being the most powerful state in the world (which it basically was) so other states had to give tribute to China. A big reason for the voyages was to project Chinese power. Despite carrying 30,000 soldiers on the first voyage they never conquered, (instead the Ming chose to fight the Mongols and the state of Annam in norther Vietnam), and they went on established trading routes on the Indian Ocean. Instead they carried goods and soldiers to show just how powerful China was. The Ming were not willing to emulate the Yuan's disastrous attempts to conquer Japan and Indonesia. It was also done to prop up the Yongle emperor. In 1402 he had came to power via a coup. These voyages were to be used to show his own power and as he had used eunuchs to come to power he used the eunuch Zheng He to lead his fleet. Zheng He was a Muslim whose father had been an adviser to the Yuan dynasty. Captured at age ten he was made a eunuch and became close to who would become the Yongle emperor.
The fleet was the largest to sail until the First World War, and it turns out the sources have not been embellished. In the 1960s outside Nanjing the shipyards were discovered confirming the size of the ships. The first voyage was to the Gulf stopping off at Java, Sumatra and Calicut. In Sumatra they overthrew a 'pirate' prince. Zheng He was expected to oust rulers who would not pay tribute to China and they often did so. During the third voyage they captured a king on Sri Lanka and on the fourth they became involved in a civil war on Sumatra. A novel written about the voyages often had parts stating that they came into conflict with other peoples. The fifth is most famous with Zheng He reaching Aden, Mogadishu and Milindi where he brought a giraffe back to China. This was very important as the giraffe was seen to resemble a qilin (often called the 'Chinese unicorn') and a qilin was said to only appear during the rule of a righteous ruler. This gave Yongle his legitimacy. The last voyage arrived back in China in 1433. Julia Lovell has given two reasons why. One is that it was a political move. The voyages were done by Yongle to prop himself up which it had done. When he died his successors had no need to continue them, and the bureaucracy did not like the voyages. One source claimed that one fleet cost half the tax revenue (most likely an embellishment though). A scholar even burnt most of Zheng He's records seeing them as useless. A second reason why they ended was because they served their purpose. Stories had spread of China's power and Zheng He had brought riches back for Yongle to distribute among the elite. No one doubted his legitimacy. The legacy of the voyages are present today. In recent years China has invested heavily in Africa and have pointed towards Zheng He's non-colonial trade as a way to justify their presence in the continent.
Economy and Europe
|A Ming vase|
As we saw with the voyages international trade with the Ming was one sided. Instead the Ming had an internal trade which shattered their Confucian world system. Some have argued that under the Ming we see an emergence of a 'semicapitalist' economy. Prosperity under the early Ming allowed landlords to become absentee landlords. Landlords could afford to move closer to cities and generations were born accumulating wealth from renting land which they could invest in craft industries and commerce. These benefited artisans who produced more. Eventually we see an emergence of a quasi 'middle class' (although it is inaccurate to directly call them that) wanting luxury goods. Here the merchants came it benefiting from the investment in technologies. The printing press had been invented under the Song but under the Ming commercial printing exploded. Using xylography (woodblock printing) books became cheaper although they were still confined to the elite. Literacy never exceeded 10% of the population. Porcelain also became popular becoming the characteristic design which we know today. This elite culture allowed artisans and merchants to become wealthier than peasants which divided society. The scholar Lu Ji argued this was good as wealth would then trickle down whereas Zhang Han argued it was destabilizing society. Here Europe came onto the scene.
Europeans had known of China for many years. After all Marco Polo was supposed to have been to the court of the Yuan, although this is debatable. In the sixteenth-century Europeans had started to visit China and Asia. In 1557 the Ming leased Macau to Portugal and in 1571 Spain established itself in Manila. Gold and silver from the Americas flowed to China via Manila greatly entrenching China in a global economy. When China switched its currency to silver its worth doubled worldwide. Similarly, Europe valued what China had to offer. In 1608 Europe, through the Dutch East Indian Company, obtained 62,300 pieces of ceramics from China! Chinese ceramics and porcelain was in very high demand. We call our ceramics china today because of the value of Ming ceramics. Also China held more power at this moment in time. Views on Chinese/Western relations today are shaped by either the Opium Wars or current Chinese/Western relations. Under the Ming China viewed the west as another tribute being interested in luxury goods like clocks or metals like silver. If you look at images of Jesuit missionaries at this time they dress in Chinese clothing to honor their hosts. The Ming did value European knowledge. Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci was the first European to be invited to the Forbidden City in 1601 where he was asked by the Wanli emperor to teach his scholars European astronomy and calendar sciences. He even translated Euclid's Elements into Chinese. Europe became obsessed by China and a copy of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (one of China's most greatest novels) was sent to the library in Madrid. By the time of the French Revolution European philosophes were praising China and what it had to offer.
|The Kunyu Wanguo Quantu. A world map made by Chinese scholars and Matteo Ricci|
In 1644 the Ming collapsed. Why did it though? There are many reasons for the collapse of the Ming dynasty. China's population had boomed under the Ming putting pressure on land. This was made worse by something called the Little Ice Age (a topic for a future World History post). The Little Ice Age was a period of global cooling lasting from possibly the 1500s until the mid-1800s when carbon emissions from the Industrial Revolution warmed up global temperatures (and have continued to do so since). Colder temperatures destroyed crops as well as causing intense storms which in turn caused flooding. Naturally when people are starving they revolt. This became clear to many that the Mandate of Heaven had left the Ming. These issues were compounded by the fact that the government had been weakened by a series of weak emperors, court factionalism, corruption as people were buying their jinshi degrees, and eunuchs greatly influencing emperors, including Wei Zhongxian who ruled over the Tianqi emperor. Social tensions were rising thanks to the increased wealth of merchants and artisans. To make matters worse the economy was flailing thanks to Japan. Influx of silver from Japan (and America) had wrecked the economy and to make things worse Japanese pirates had been raiding coastal cities. Those that China hired to protect against Japanese pirates also became pirates and began raiding more cities. Japan had by then been reunified and the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, wanted to fulfill his predecessor's dream of conquering China. His intention was to go through Korea and into China. However, Korea was allied to China and was seen as the perfect tribute by China. Korea refused to give Japan access so Hideyoshi decided to invade Korea in 1592. China came to Korea's aid and together they pushed back Japan. However doing so destroyed the Chinese economy. Then came an enemy from the north: the Manchus.
Originally called Jurchens the Manchus came from Manchuria in modern day northern China. Under Nurhaci, who declared himself the founding emperor of a new dynasty in 1616, the Jurchen started to attack the Ming. In 1625 he built an imperial capital at Shenyang (modern Mukden) in lower Manchuria where in 1636 his son, Hung Taiji, started challenging the Ming for the Mandate. As the Manchus, (after 1635 they referred to themselves as Manchus over Jurchen), started invading several rebels started rising up against the Ming. One of the famous was a general called Li Zicheng. At Xi'an in 1644 Li declared that he now had the Mandate and founded the Da Shun dynasty. In April he captured Beijing where the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, hung himself from a tree in the Forbidden City. Li Zicheng's dynasty was short lived. His soldiers weren't paid so they rioted and sacked Beijing. Meanwhile the invading Manchus said they would restore the Ming and many leading Ming generals allied themselves with the Manchus; it is fairly possible that they knew that the Manchus would not restore the Ming. The Manchus defeated Li Zicheng and declared that they now had the Mandate. In the same year as the overthrowing of the Ming the Manchus declared a start of the Qing dynasty. In 1662 the last Ming claimant was killed.
The Ming dynasty shows an interesting aspect of Chinese history. The Ming were obsessed with distancing themselves from their Mongol predecessor at all costs. Instead they created an image which many associate with pre-republican China today. The Ming changed Chinese society so much that their successors, the Qing, were eager to honor the fallen dynasty. Today China has tried to emulate aspects of the Ming. As mentioned earlier the PRC has tried to link its current investment in Africa to Zheng He's voyage to Africa in the fifteenth-century. In 2009 an expensive TV drama called Zheng He Xia Xiyang was made to commemorate Zheng He. As we shall later see China under the Ming wasn't the only place affected by the Little Ice Age. Thank you for reading and next time we shall look at the so called 'Age of Discovery' where we compare and contrast several maritime explorers (including Zheng He) to see why they explored, what he explored and whether we can truly call it an 'Age of Discovery'.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-Outlines of Chinese History by Li Ung Bing
-Imperial China, 900-1800 by F.W. Mote
-The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence
-The Glory and Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Albert Chan
-China: A History by John Keay
-'The Ming Voyages', BBC In Our Time
For the full list of the World History posts please see here
For the full list of the World History posts please see here