Chinese history: Ming-Dynasty

Chinese history: Ming-Dynasty

Zhu Yuanzhong was the first emperor of the Ming-Dynasty. He was later on iven the emperor name Ming Taizu (Great ancestor of the Ming). His devise for ruling was hongwu (outrageously belligerent).

He came from the people, and he could put himself on top of a national uprising against the reigning Yuan-dynasty, which has been a foreign rule exerted by the Mongols over China. The upper class joined the rebellion against the Mongols only afterwards, so that the Mongolian dynasty was actually defeated by an uprising of the people, and a man of the people became emperor of the new dynasty.

The emperor’s grandfather worked as gold pannier, his father as an ordinary travelling worker. He himself became a monk, in order to escape from a famine. He took over the leadership of a small group of rebels in 1348, which finally became so strong, that he was able to conquer a large area in Anhui. He joined the Red Turbans’ secret society and managed to get rid of his rivals in the south one after the other. He founded the Ming-dynasty in 1368 in Najing, shortly before he captured the Mongol’s capital, Beijing.

The reign of Ming Taizu

In the beginning of his reign, the emperor was occupied primarily with driving the Mongols completely out from the empire and later on with intruding into Mongolia. He expanded the Chinese emperor to include now Mongolia, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. In 1387, China became reunited. China’s security continued be the main priority in the following years by his successors by way of a consequential politics of expansion. The most difficult task regarding rebuilding of China has been to reorganize administration, agriculture and the control of the people.

The new emperor was deeply driven by mistrust against the educated officials, which can presumably be explained by inferiority complexes, since he was clearly inferior to his court officials at least with regards to literary education. He tried to get power in his hands as widely as possible and introduced a strict court ceremonial, in which his officials had to show their submission virtually every day.

They were allowed to approach his throne only by creeping and they had subsequently to perform the Kotau. Afterwards they received the emperor’s orders while still remaining on their knees. He abolished the post of the chancellor. He himself decided over all matters that concerned the empire.

The administration apparatus and control of the population

Taizu substantially restructured the complete administration apparatus. He introduced the six ministries of justice, finance, administration, rites, public works and military, all of which were subordinate to him personally. The office for inner affairs (neige), while having been in former times a very powerful post, was attached under his control only with advisory function. The Eunuch’s power was restricted by way of limiting their number to 100. Likewise the number of harem’s women got reduced to 100, in order not to prevent the emperor too much from exerting his governing duties (later on, at the time of the Yongle-emperor, the number was not regarded as being binding any longer.).

Taizu subdivided the empire into 16 provinces, which all were directly subordinate to the central government. Taxes were raised according to a new system, the lijia. The population was summarized into family groups, which nearly administrated themselves, but together were responsible for security, taxpaying, services and so on. For control and division of the family groups, several national censuses were conducted since the 15th century.

The new system showed strong absolutistic tendencies. The officials as well as the people were exposed to intensive spying by the emperor’s secret police. Political opponents were eliminated by Taizu one after the other with help of extensive purging waves. He preferred to recruit officials out from the ranks of the ordinary people.  

Development of agriculture

The most urgent tasks consisted in both reconstructing dams and canals, as well as in developing new fields. The efforts made during that time have been enormous. Rivers were regulated by dams; parts of the population were resettled in desert regions which they redeveloped with help of state subsidies. Keeping in mind the aim to build a high-sea fleet, many measures for reforestation were undertaken. It was planned that the empire’s economy should concentrate on agriculture and the production of own goods. Trade, in contrary to the times of the Song dynasty, at which it certainly played a substantial role, has thereby rather been neglected.

Noticeable events during reign of the Ming-dynasty

1421: Beijing becomes capital of the Ming (in former times Nanjing)
1405-1433: The famous seafarer Zheng He embarks on seven voyages and reaches even Africa
1505: The Eunuch Liu Jin takes virtually charge of all government businesses
1513: The Portuguese seafarer Jorge Alvarez arrives in China
1557: trading port of the Portuguese in Macao
1582: Matteo Ricci reaches southern China  
1601: The Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci arrives in Beijing

The fall of the dynasty

The Dynasty of the Ming reached its climax very early under the leadership of Emperor Ming Taizong. Actually, at that time, it would have been possible to found a basis for a Chinese world-embracing empire to come. The famous Zheng He, a Muslim Eunuch from Yunnan, undertook several sea voyages at that time, which brought him as far as India and Africa.

After he completed his voyages, at least the state subsidized navigation was reduced. However notwithstanding the limitations, trade still continued to flourish in the southern Chinese sea area. Finally, the emperors had nevertheless to direct their attention away at problems in inner Asia, and that should enjoy priority status over sea-expansions since then until the Qing-dynasty.

An opponent coming from inner Asia did finally cause the decline of the Ming-dynasty, although the realm has already been considerably weakened in his final state by weak emperors and by intrigues fought between Eunuch’s and officials.

In 1616, the leader of the Manchu, Nurhaci, had already proclaimed his own dynasty and assumed the emperor’s title. The fact that the emperor of the Ming was not able to prevent this from happening, does clarify the powerlessness of the declining dynasty at that time all the more. In 1618, he took large parts of Manchuria under his control. Other elements that had an additional affect on the declining dynasty were the internal unrests by dissatisfied farmers, who were driven to poverty by high taxes and famines and therefore opted for rebellion.

In 1644 Beijing was besieged by rebels led by their leader Li Zicheng. The Ming-General planned to drive him off with help of the Manchu. However, these knew to use their advantage and subsequently established a new ruling dynasty by themselves. The Ming-dynasty’s resistance should still last as long as until 1662. For this reason, one usually speaks also of a southern Ming-dynasty that reigned simultaneously until they eventually got defeated. 

All emperors of the Ming-dynasty


Emperor’s name

Reign motto

Reign period

Zhu Yuanzhong

Ming Taizu


1368 - 1398

Zhu Yunwen

Gongmin Hui



Zhu Di

Taizong (Chengzu)



Zhu Gaochi




Zhu Zhanji




Zhu Qizhen




Zhu Qiyu




Zhu Qizhen




Zhu Jianshen




Zhu Youtang




Zhu Houzhao




Zhu Houcong




Zhu Zaihou




Zhu Yijun




Zhu Changluo




Zhu Youjiao




Zhu Youjian




Recommend this article

moreChinese Culture