General Introduction to Ming Dynasty

Ming DynastyMing Dynasty was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644, following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The Ming, "one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history," was the last dynasty in China ruled by ethnic Hans. Although the Ming capital Beijing fell in 1644 to a rebellion led by Li Zicheng, which was itself soon replaced by the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, regimes loyal to the Ming throne (collectively called the Southern Ming) survived until 1662.

 

Ming rule saw the construction of a vast navy and a standing army of one million troops. Although private maritime trade and official tribute missions from China had taken place in previous dynasties, the tributary fleet under the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He in the 15th century far surpassed all others in size. There were enormous construction projects, including the restoration of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the first quarter of the 15th century. Estimates for the late-Ming population vary from 160 to 200 million. The Ming dynasty is often regarded as both a high point in Chinese civilization as well as a dynasty in which early signs of capitalism emerged.

 

Founding of Ming

The Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) ruled before the establishment of the Ming Dynasty. Alongside institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, other explanations for the Yuan's demise included overtaxing areas hard-hit by inflation, and massive flooding of the Yellow River as a result of the abandonment of irrigation projects. Consequently, agriculture and the economy were in shambles and rebellion broke out among the hundreds of thousands of peasants called upon to work on repairing the dykes of the Yellow River.

Eversal of Hongwu's policies

According to historian Timothy Brook, the Hongwu Emperor attempted to immobilize society by creating rigid, state-regulated boundaries between villages and larger townships, discouraging trade and travel in society not permitted by the government. Hongwu attempted to instill austere values by imposing uniform dress codes, standard methods of speech, and standard style of writing classical prose that did not flaunt the skills of the highly educated. His suspicion for the educated elite matched his disdain for the commercial elites, imposing inordinately high taxes upon the hotbed of powerful merchant families in the region of Suzhou in Jiangsu. He also forcibly moved thousands of wealthy families from the southeast and resettled them around Nanjing in the Jiangnan region, forbidding them to move once they were settled. To keep track of the merchants' activities, Hongwu forced them to register all of their goods once a month. One of his main goals as ruler was to permanently curb the influence of merchants and landlords, yet several of his policies would eventually encourage them to amass more wealth.

 

Reign of the Yongle Emperor

Hongwu's grandson Zhu Yunwen assumed the throne as the Jianwen Emperor (1398–1402) after Hongwu's death in 1398. In a prelude to a three-year-long civil war beginning in 1399, Jianwen became engaged in a political showdown with his uncle Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. Jianwen was aware of the ambitions of his princely uncles, establishing measures to limit their authority. The militant Zhu Di, given charge over the area encompassing Beijing to watch the Mongols on the frontier, was the most feared of these princes. After Jianwen arrested many of Zhu Di's associates, Zhu Di plotted a rebellion. Under the guise of rescuing the young Jianwen from corrupting officials, Zhu Di personally led forces in the revolt; the palace in Nanjing was burned to the ground, along with Zhu Di's nephew Jianwen, his wife, mother, and courtiers. Zhu Di assumed the throne as the Yongle Emperor (1402–1424); his reign is universally viewed by scholars as a "second founding" of the Ming Dynasty since he reversed many of his father's policies.

 

Tumu Crisis and the Ming Mongols

The Oirat Mongol leader Esen Tayisi launched an invasion into Ming China in July of 1449. The chief eunuch Wang Zhen encouraged Emperor Zhengtong (r. 1435-1449) to personally lead a force to face the Mongols after a recent Ming defeat; marching off with 50,000 troops, Zhengtong left the capital and put his half-brother Zhu Qiyu in charge of affairs as temporary regent. On September 8, Esen routed Zhengtong's army, and Zhengtong was captured - an event known as the Tumu Crisis. Esen then raided to the suburbs of Beijing. The Beijing area was again plundered in November by local bandits and ethnic Mongol deserters from the Imperial army posing as invading Mongols. Many Han Chinese also took to brigandage soon after the Tumu incident.

Decline of Ming

The turning point of the Ming Dynasty from prosperity to decline was the reign of Emperor Shenzong. In the early period, under the wise assistance of a skillful chancellor, Zhang Juzheng, Emperor Shenzong made much improvement in the national economy, agriculture, water conservancy and military affairs. However, after the death of Zhang Juzheng, the emperor began to neglect state affairs. In his late reign, the Ming army was defeated by the leader of the so-called 'Latter Jin' regime - Nurhachu in the Battle of Sarhu. Since then, the Ming court fell into a passive state in confrontation with the 'Latter Jin' set up by Nuzhen ethnic minority.