~~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
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
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
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
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