The Chinese Dynasties































































































Ming Dynasty
The History of Ming Dynasty

~~The Ming Dynasty ( also called The Great Ming Empire) was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644, though claims to the Ming throne (now collectively called the Southern Ming) survived until 1662. The dynasty followed the Yuan Dynasty and preceded the Qing Dynasty. The Ming dynasty emperors were members of the Zhu family. During the rule of Mongols, there were strong feelings against the rule of "the foreigners" among the populace, which finally led to a peasant revolt that pushed the Yuan dynasty back to the Mongolian steppes. The revolt, led by Zhu Yuanzhang, established the Ming Dynasty in 1368. This dynasty began as a time of renewed cultural blossoming, with Chinese merchants exploring all of the Indian Ocean and Chinese art (especially the porcelain industry) reaching unprecedented heights. Under Ming rule, a vast navy and army was built, with four masted ships displacing 1,500 tons and a standing army of one million troops. Over 100,000 tons of iron per year were produced in North China, and many books were printed using movable type. Some historians argue that Early Ming China was the most advanced nation on Earth at the time.


The Mongol Yuan Dynasty ruled before the establishment of the Ming Dynasty. The Mongols' discrimination against Chinese is often considered the primary cause for the end of Yuan rule in China. Other causes include collusion with Tibetan lamas in depriving Chinese of their lands, paper currency over-circulation, which caused inflation to go up ten-fold during Yuan Emperor Shundi's reign, and the flooding of the Yellow River as a result of Mongols' abandonment of irrigation projects. In Late Yuan times, Chinese agriculture was a mess. When hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were called upon to work on the Yellow River, the prospect of rebellion ripened. After many years of fighting, the rebel group led by Zhu Yuanzhang, the future Hongwu emperor, became the most powerful of the various Han Chinese groups and Zhu declared the foundation of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, establishing his capital at Nanjing and adopting "Hongwu" as his reign title.

Orphaned as a teenager, Zhu had entered a Buddhist monastery to avoid starvation. Sometime during this period, he joined a Buddhist secret society known as the White Lotus. Later, as a strong-willed rebel leader, he came in contact with the well-educated gentry Confucian scholars, from whom he received an education in state affairs. He then positioned himself as defender of Confucianism and neo-Confucian conventions, and not as a popular rebel. Despite his humble origins, he emerged as a national leader against the collapsing Yuan Dynasty. Zhu became one of the only two dynastic founders who emerged from the peasant class, the other being Han Gaozu of the Han Dynasty; Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping are the two other peasant revolutionaries to have ruled the world's most populous nation.

Having fought off the calamities of the Mongol invasion, and given the realistic threat to China still posed by the Mongols, Hongwu reassessed the orthodox Confucian view regarding the military as an inferior class to be subordinated by the scholar bureaucracy. Simply put, maintaining a strong military was essential since the Mongols were still a threat. As an aside, the name Hongwu means "Vast Military" and reflects the increased prestige of the military.

With a Confucian aversion to trade, Hongwu also supported the creation of self-supporting agricultural communities. Neo-feudal land-tenure developments of late Song and Yuan times were expropriated with the establishment of the Ming dynasty. Great landed estates were confiscated by the government, fragmented, and rented out; and private slavery was forbidden. Consequently, after the death of Yongle Emperor, independent peasant landholders predominated in Chinese agriculture.

Under Hongwu, the Mongol bureaucrats who had dominated the government for nearly a century under the Yuan dynasty were replaced by the Han Chinese. The traditional Confucian examination system that selected state bureaucrats or civil servants on the basis of merit and knowledge of literature and philosophy was revamped. Candidates for posts in the civil service or the officer corps of the 80,000-man army, once again, had to pass the traditional competitive examinations in the Classics. The Confucian scholar gentry, marginalized under the Yuan for nearly a century once again assumed its predominant role in the Chinese state.

Hongwu attempted to, and largely succeeded in, consolidating control over all aspects of government, so that no other group could gain enough power to overthrow him, and to buttress the country's defenses against the Mongols. As emperor, Hongwu increasingly concentrated power in his own hands and abolished the Imperial Secretariat, which had been the main central administrative body under past dynasties, after suppressing a plot for which he had blamed his chief minister. When the emperorship became hereditary, the Chinese recognized this and established the office of prime or chief minister. While incompetent emperors could come and go, the prime minister could guarantee a level of continuity and competence in the government. Hongwu, wishing to concentrate absolute authority in his own hands, abolished the office of prime minister and so removed the only insurance against incompetent emperors. Hongwu was succeeded by his grandson, but he was soon usurped by his uncle Chengzu, a younger son of Hongwu, who ruled as the Emperor Yongle from 1403 to 1424 and was responsible for moving the capital back to Beijing.

Hongwu noted the destructive role of court eunuchs under the Sung, drastically reducing their numbers, forbidding them to handle documents, insisting that they remained illiterate, and liquidating those who commented on state affairs. Hongwu had a strong aversion to the imperial eunuchs (a castrated court of servants for the emperor), capsized by a tablet in his palace stipulating: "Eunuchs must have nothing to do with the administration." Under his successor, however, they began regaining their old influence.

The emperor's role in this became even more autocratic, although Hongwu necessarily continued to use what he called the Grand Secretaries to assist with the immense paperwork of the bureaucracy, which included memorials (petitions and recommendations to the throne), imperial edicts in reply, reports of various kinds, and tax records.

During Hongwu's reign, the early Ming dynasty was characterized by rapid and dramatic population growth, largely due to the increased food supply and Hongwu's agricultural reforms. The population probably rose by at least 50 percent by the end of the Ming dynasty, stimulated by major improvements in agricultural technology promoted by the pro-agrarian state, which came to power in midst of a pro-Confucian peasant's rebellion.

The Hongwu Emperor increasingly feared rebelions and coups. He even made it a capital offence for any of his advisors to criticize him. A story goes that a Confucian scholar, who was so fed up with Hongwu's policies decided to go to the capital and berate the emperor. When he gained an audience with him, he brought his own coffin. After delivering his speech, he climbed into the coffin, expecting the emperor to execute him. Instead, the Emperor was so impressed by his bravery he spared his life.

Hongwu is also known as Hung-Wu. That name is also applied to the period of years from 1368 to 1398 when Chu Yuan-chang ruled. Other names for him include Tai-tsu, his temple name, and the "Beggar King," in allusion to his early poverty. He had 24 sons, all of whom became princes.

Exploration to isolation

Between 1405 and 1433, Ming emperors sent seven maritime expeditions probing down into the South Seas and across the Indian Ocean. The era's xenophobia and intellectual introspection characteristic of the era's increasingly popular new school of neo-Confucianism, thus did not lead to the physical isolation of China. Contacts with the outside world, particularly with Japan, and foreign trade increased considerably. Yongle Emperor strenuously tried to extend China's influence beyond her borders by encouraging other rulers to send ambassadors to China to present tribute. The Chinese armies reconquered Annam and blocked Mongol expansionism, while the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean, cruising as far as the east coast of Africa. The Chinese gained a certain influence over Turkestan. The maritime Asian nations sent envoys with tribute for the Chinese emperor. Internally, the Grand Canal was expanded to its farthest limits and proved to be a stimulus to domestic trade.

The most extraordinary venture, however, during this stage was the dispatch Zheng He's seven naval expeditions, which traversed the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asian archipelago. An ambitious Muslim eunuch of Hui descent, a quintessential outsider in the establishment of Confucian scholar elites, Zheng He led seven expeditions from 1405 to 1433 with six of them under the auspices of Yongle. He traversed perhaps as far as the Cape of Good Hope and, according to the controversial 1421 theory, the Americas. Zheng's appointment in 1403 to lead a sea-faring task force was a triumph the commercial lobbies seeking to stimulate conventional trade, not mercantilism.

The interests of the commercial lobbies and those of the religious lobbies were also linked. Both were offensive to the neo-Confucian sensibilities of the scholarly elite: Religious lobbies encouraged commercialism and exploration, which benefited commercial interests, in order to divert state funds from the anti-clerical efforts of the Confucian scholar gentry. The first expedition in 1405 consisted of 62 ships and 28,000 men--then the largest naval expedition in history. Zheng He's multi-decked ships carried up to 500 troops but also cargoes of export goods, mainly silks and porcelains, and brought back foreign luxuries such as spices and tropical woods.

The economic motive for these huge ventures may have been important, and many of the ships had large private cabins for merchants. But the chief aim was probably political, to enroll further states as tributaries and mark the reemergence of the Chinese Empire following nearly a century of barbarian rule. The political character of Zheng He's voyages indicates the primacy of the political elites. Despite their formidable and unprecedented strength, Zheng He's voyages, unlike European voyages of exploration later in the fifteenth century, were not intended to extend Chinese sovereignty overseas. Indicative of the competition among elites, these excursions had also become politically controversial. Zheng He's voyages had been supported by his fellow low eunuchs at court and strongly opposed by the Confucian scholar officials. Their antagonism was in fact so great that they tried to suppress any mention of the naval expeditions in the official imperial record. A compromise interpretation realizes that the Mongol raids tilted the balance in the favor of the Confucian elites.

By the end of the fifteenth century, imperial subjects were forbidden from either building oceangoing ships or leaving the country. Some historians speculate this measure was taken in response to piracy.

Historians of the 1960s, such as John Fairbank and Joseph Levinson have argued that this renovation turned into stagnation, and that science and philosophy were caught in a tight net of traditions smothering any attempt to venture something new. Historians who held to this view argue that in the 15th century, by imperial decree the great navy was decommissioned; construction of seagoing ships was forbidden; the iron industry gradually declined.

Is Ming Dynasty Muslim- Fact or Speculation?

Many people question the identity of the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang or Hongwu Emperor. Some claim that he was a Muslim of Semitic (Semu) Non-Han origin.

Yusuf Chang, a Chinese Muslim from Taiwan, was one of those who made this claim. He claimed that his ancestor had married a Ming princess and thus he was a descendant of Zhu Yuanzhang and knew the secrets of the Islamic religion of the Ming royal family.

He presented many startling evidences to support his claims. They are:

1. When Zhu Yuanzhang was young, his family perished in a famine and he buried them by wrapping them in white clothes. Wrapping the dead in white clothes is a Muslim custom.

2. Zhu Yuanzhang's closest associates were Muslims. Thus, the Ming dynasty was founded by Muslims.

3. Zhu Yuanzhang passed a strict law forbidding 'wine'. Once he had the son of his close associate executed for breaking the law. 'Wine' is strictly forbidden in Islam.

4. Empress Ma (Zhu's consort) was a Muslim. She had personally cook all the meals for Zhu, even after he had become the Emperor.

5. The royal colour of the Ming dynasty was green, the colour which symbolizes Islam.

6. Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the building of a mosque in Nanjing soon after he ascended the throne and he personally wrote a poem praising Islam and Prophet Muhammad. This poem is seen by Muslims as the 'syahada' the testimony of Zhu's faith in Islam.

7. Many Muslims rose to high ranks during the Ming dynasty. One good example was Admiral Zheng He. Admiral Zheng He's fleet sailed to Mecca, Arabia and performed the 'haj'. Yusuf Chang claims that Zheng He was sent by the Ming emperor to perform the 'haj' on his behalf because the emperor was not able to do so as he wanted to keep his religion a secret among the non-Muslim masses. This practice is allowed in Islam.

8. The Ming dynasty established good ties with many Muslim countries. This is because the Ming dynasty is Muslim and the religion of the Ming royal family is Islam.

9. The Islamic Calendar was made the official calendar during the Ming dynasty.


The Sovereigns of Ming Dynasty

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Personal Name Posthumous name1
(short form)
Temple name1 Reign name Reign years Name by which
most commonly known
ZhuYunzhang Gaodi Taizhu Hongwu 1368-1398 Hongwu Emperor
Zhuyunwen huidi None given2 jianwen 1398-1402 Jianwen Emperor
Zhudi Wendi Chengzu Yongli 1402-1424 Yongle Emperor
ZhuGaochi Zhaodi Renzong Hongxi 1424-1425 Hongxi Emperor
Zhu Zhanji Zhangdi Xuanzong Xuande 1425-1435 Xuande Emperor
ZhuQizhen Ruidi Yingzong Zhengtong 1435-1449;
Zhengtong Emperor
Zhu Qiyu Jingdi Daizong Jingtai 1449-1457 Jingtai Emperor
Zhu Jianshen Chundi Xianzong Chenghua 1464-1487 Chenghua Emperor
Zhu Youtang Jingdi Xiaozong Hongzhi 1487-1505 Hongzhi Emperor
Zhu Houzhao Yidi Wuzong Zhengde 1505-1521 Zhengde Emperor
Zhu Houcong Sudi Shizong Jiajing 1521-1566 Jiajing Emperor
Zhu Zaihou Zhuangdi Muzong Longqing 1566-1572 Longqing Emperor
Zhu Yijun Xiandi Shenzong Wanli 1572-1620 Wanli Emperor
Zhu Changluo Zhendi Guangzong Taichang 1620 Taichang Emperor
Zhu youjiao Zhedi Xizong Tianqi 1620-1627 Tianqi Emperor
Zhu Youjian Zhuangliemin Sizong Chongzhen 1627-1644 Chonghen Emperor
1 As posthumous and temple names were often shared by emperors of different dynasties, they are usually preceded by the dynastic name, in this case, Ming, to avoid confusion. For example, the Hongwu emperor is frequently referred to as Ming Taizu.
2 The Yongle emperor usurped the throne of his nephew the Jianwen emperor, who was officially said to have died in a palace fire but who was suspected of escaping to live as a recluse. The Yongle emperor wiped out the record of his nephew's reign and no temple name was given him.
3 After listening to the poor advice of his eunuch advisers, the Zhengtong emperor personally led a campaign in 1449 against the Mongols and was captured. His brother, the Jingtai emperor, assumed the throne and, a hostage no longer of any value, the Mongols released the Zhengtong emperor who returned to live in seclusion. However, the Zhengtong emperor was able to reclaim his position upon the death of his brother, choosing the reign name Tianshun.

mperors of the Southern Ming Dynasty

Personal Name Temple name Reign name Reign years Name by which
most commonly known
Zhu Yousong Anzong Hongguang 1644-1645 Prince of Fu
Zhu Yujian Shaozong Longwu 1645-1646 Prince of Tang
Zhu Changfang None given None given,
but sometimes referred to as the

Regency of the Prince of Lu (Luh)
1645 Prince of Lu
Zhu Yihai None given None given,
but sometimes referred to as the

Regency of the Prince of Lu (Lou)
1645-1653 Prince of Lu
Zhu Yuyue None given Shaowu 1646 Prince of Tang
Zhu Youlang None given Yongli 1646-1662 Prince of Gui
  • The two characters are homonyms, both pronounced Lu; to distinguish them, one is usually kept as Lu and the other spelled differently. Luh is from Cambridge History of China; Lou is from A.C. Moule's Rulers of China (1957). When one irregular spelling is used, the other is kept as regular (Lu). The two systems are distinct and not used simultaneously.
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