Chinese History Ming Dynasty

   Dragon Wing Chun Kung Fu School ~
    January 23, 2012 Chinese New Year of the Dragon James Fell


Chinese History

The Ming Dynasty

           Ming Dynasty

The Chongzhen Emperor: Chóngzhen D́; 6 February 1611 – 25 April 1644), personal name Zhu Youjian, courtesy name Deyue, was the 17th and last Emperor of the Ming dynasty. He reigned from 1627 to 1644. "Chongzhen," the era name of his reign, means "honorable and auspicious." Zhu Youjian was son of the Taichang Emperor and younger brother of the Tianqi Emperor, whom he succeeded to the throne in 1627. He battled peasant rebellions and was not able to defend the northern frontier against the Manchu. When rebels under Li Zicheng reached the capital Beijing in 1644, he committed suicide, ending the Ming dynasty. The Manchu formed the succeeding Qing dynasty. In 1645, Zhu Yousong, who had proclaimed himself the Hongguang Emperor of the Southern Ming, gave the Chongzhen Emperor the temple name "Sizong". In historical texts, "Sizong" is the most common temple name of the Chongzhen Emperor, even though the Southern Ming rulers had changed "Sizong" to "Yizong" and then to "Weizong" . During the Qing dynasty, the Chongzhen Emperor's temple name was changed to "Huaizong".

The Ming dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644 CE and replaced the Mongol Yuan dynasty which had been in place since the 13th century CE. Despite challenges from abroad and within, the dynasty oversaw an unprecedented growth in China's population and general economic prosperity. The Ming were succeeded by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE).

Notable achievements of Ming China included the construction of the Forbidden City - the imperial residence in Beijing, a blossoming of literature and the arts, the far-flung explorations of Zheng He, and the production of the timeless blue-and-white Ming porcelains. Eventually, though, the same old problems that had beset previous regimes bedevilled the Ming emperors: court factions, infighting, and corruption, along with government overspending and a disenchanted peasantry which fuelled rebellions. As a consequence, the economically, politically (and some would say morally) impoverished Ming could not resist the invasion of the Manchus who established the Qing dynasty from 1644 CE.

Historical Overview

The Ming dynasty was established following the collapse of the Mongol rule of China, known as the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 CE). The Yuan had been beset by famines, plagues, floods, widespread banditry, and peasant uprisings. The Mongol rulers also squabbled amongst themselves for power and failed to quash numerous rebellions, including that perpetrated by a group known as the Red Turban Movement led by a peasant called Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398 CE). The Red Turban Movement, an offshoot of the radical Buddhist White Lotus Movement and initially reacting against forced labour on government construction projects, was most active in northern China, and Zhu took over their leadership in 1355 CE. Zhu also replaced the Red Turban's traditional policy aim of reinstating the old Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) with his own personal ambitions to rule and gained wider support by ditching the anti-Confucian policies which had alienated the educated classes. Alone amongst the many rebel leaders of the period, Zhu understood that to establish a stable government he needed administrators not just warriors out for loot.


Zhu Yuanzhang's first major coup had been the capture of Nanjing in 1356 CE. Zhu's successes continued, and he defeated his two main rival rebel leaders and their armies, first Chen Youliang at the battle of Poyang Lake (1363 CE) and then Zhang Shicheng in 1367 CE. When Han Lin'er died - he who had claimed to be the rightful heir to the line of Song emperors - Zhu was left the most powerful leader in China, and he declared himself emperor in January 1368 CE. Zhu would take the reign name Hongwu (meaning 'abundantly marital') and the dynasty he founded Ming (meaning 'bright' or 'light'). The Hongwu Emperor (aka Ming Taizu) would reign until 1398 CE, and his successors continued his efforts to unify China through a strong centralised government and so consolidate the Ming dynasty's grip on power. A new and draconian law code was compiled (the Da Ming lü or Grand Pronouncements); dissenting officials were ruthlessly punished or executed; the Secretariat, which had acted as a bureaucratic limit on an emperor's power, was abolished; land and tax obligations were meticulously registered; provincial governments were reorganised with imperial family members placed at their heads; hereditary military service was imposed on the peasantry in threatened regions; international trade was curbed as all things foreign were considered a threat to the regime; and the old tribute system required of neighbouring states was revived.

The Hongwu Emperor

In the early 15th century CE the Mongols experienced a resurgence on China's borders and so Emperor Yongle (aka Chengzu, r. 1403-1424 CE, the second son of Hongwu who had taken the throne after a three-year civil war) moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421 CE to be better placed to deal with any foreign threat. At huge expense, Beijing was enlarged and surrounded by a 10-metre high circuit wall measuring some 15 kilometres in total length. Such was the city's need for food, the Grand Canal was deepened and widened so that grain ships could easily reach the capital. The Great Wall of China was also repaired to better defend the northern frontier. The Ming, though, would greatly benefit from the divisions within the Mongol state - generally split into six competing groups which limited attacks to sporadic and half-hearted invasions rather than a concerted effort to restore China to the position it found itself under the Yuan. The Mongols did briefly besiege Beijing in 1449 CE but the city stood firm and the invaders withdrew back to the steppe.

The stability of the Ming regime and agricultural reforms allowed significant economic growth and an increase in international trade (now promoted again), especially from the 16th century CE. The emperors were initially a little old-fashioned in their trade policies, insisting that certain countries only use certain ports at certain times, but eventually these rules were relaxed, and East Asia became a melting pot of trading neighbours as well as attracting the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese. Vast quantities of silver, in particular, came into China via Manila from European-controlled Peru and Mexico. In 1557 CE the Portuguese were even permitted a trading base of their own at Portguese Macao. This opening up of trade also helped deal with the rampant piracy that had been plaguing Chinese waters, now that the Ming invested in a naval fleet.  

There were brand new products coming in from the New World, exotica like sweet potatoes, maize, tomatoes, peanuts and tobacco, some of which would be cultivated in areas of China not suitable for homegrown crops, thus greatly expanding food production and so, in turn, the population. Over the course of the dynasty's reign, the population of China would rise from 60-80 million to 150-200 million. As urban centres grew so women amongst the wealthier classes began to enjoy more freedom than previously. They were able to own businesses in their own right, trade as merchants, and make an independent living as an artist or dancer. Conversely, changes in inheritance laws meant women's right went backwards in that area. Widows, for example, could no longer inherit their husband's land and they were expected not to remarry.

The economic prosperity in Ming China would, in turn, create a boom in the arts as a richer class of gentry developed who had money to spend and a great desire to show off their appreciation of fine art to any visitors to their homes. Aesthetic tastes were not limited to the classical arts either as gardens became a popular way for the well-off to entertain guests and display one's culture. The walled gardens of Suzhou became particularly famous where specially chosen rocks, tended pine trees and bamboo, pavilions, and walkways were all arranged to create a harmonious imitation of the scenes seen in landscape paintings by such renowned artists as Shen Zhou (1427-1509 CE) and Dong Qichang (1555-1636 CE).


The Ming dynasty, despite its political success in the first half of the reign, eventually began to suffer the age-old problems that had beset every other regime in China through the ages. Intrigues perpetrated by the court eunuchs; abuses of power, and especially executions of those deemed guilty and their extended families, all usually carried out on a whim; a long line of talentless, ineffective, and often erratic rulers who spent more than they should have on grandiose building projects; factional fighting between ruling families; the ballooning of a parallel eunuch and civil service apparatus with each branch despising the other; and peasant revolts against incessant taxes and the harsh rule of often distant landowners all took their toll and weakened the Ming emperors' hold on power.

The dynasty was already in decline in the 16th century CE under Emperor Wanli (r. 1573-1620 CE), especially when he withdrew from court affairs in 1582 CE following the death of his talented Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng, who had, more or less single-handedly, made the country's economic apparatus much more efficient and corruption-free. The power vacuum was willingly filled by the court eunuchs, and the economy took a nose dive following several hugely expensive wars against the Mongols and Japanese in Korea. In the 1620s CE a drop in average temperatures seriously affected crops, on top of which there was a wave of floods, then droughts, and widespread famine as a consequence.

In 1644 CE a rebel army led by Li Zicheng (1605-1645 CE) attacked Beijing and, entering the city on 15 April, the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen (r. 1628-1644 CE), hanged himself rather than be captured. On hearing the news of the capital's fall, the army commander Wu Sangui, stationed at Liaodong in north-east China, decided to allow a Manchu army - which had already fought Ming forces on several occasions in the past and was just then threatening to invade again - into China unimpeded in the hope they would put down the rebellion. As it turned out, despite some pockets of resistance from Ming loyalists, the Manchus established their own dynasty, the Qing dynasty and Li Zicheng was killed by peasants in 1645 CE.