Revolt and rebel rivalry
The Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) ruled before the establishment of the Ming dynasty. Explanations for the demise of the Yuan include institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, overtaxation of 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. A number of Han Chinese groups revolted, including the Red Turbans in 1351. The Red Turbans were affiliated with the White Lotus, a Buddhist secret society. Zhu Yuanzhang was a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk who joined the Red Turbans in 1352; he soon gained a reputation after marrying the foster daughter of a rebel commander. In 1356, Zhu's rebel force captured the city of Nanjing, which he would later establish as the capital of the Ming dynasty.
With the Yuan dynasty crumbling, competing rebel groups began fighting for control of the country and thus the right to establish a new dynasty. In 1363, Zhu Yuanzhang eliminated his archrival and leader of the rebel Han faction, Chen Youliang, in the Battle of Lake Poyang, arguably the largest naval battle in history. Known for its ambitious use of fire ships, Zhu's force of 200,000 Ming sailors were able to defeat a Han rebel force over triple their size, claimed to be 650,000-strong. The victory destroyed the last opposing rebel faction, leaving Zhu Yuanzhang in uncontested control of the bountiful Yangtze River Valley and cementing his power in the south. After the dynastic head of the Red Turbans suspiciously died in 1367 while a guest of Zhu, there was no one left who was remotely capable of contesting his march to the throne, and he made his imperial ambitions known by sending an army toward the Yuan capital Dadu (present-day Beijing) in 1368. The last Yuan emperor fled north to the upper capital Shangdu, and Zhu declared the founding of the Ming dynasty after razing the Yuan palaces in Dadu to the ground; the city was renamed Beiping in the same year. Zhu Yuanzhang took Hongwu, or "Vastly Martial", as his era name.
Reign of the Hongwu Emperor
Hongwu made an immediate effort to rebuild state infrastructure. He built a 48 km (30 mi) long wall around Nanjing, as well as new palaces and government halls. The History of Ming states that as early as 1364 Zhu Yuanzhang had begun drafting a new Confucian law code, the Da Ming Lü, which was completed by 1397 and repeated certain clauses found in the old Tang Code of 653. Hongwu organized a military system known as the weisuo, which was similar to the fubing system of the Tang dynasty (618–907).
In 1380 Hongwu had the Chancellor Hu Weiyong executed upon suspicion of a conspiracy plot to overthrow him; after that Hongwu abolished the Chancellery and assumed this role as chief executive and emperor, a precedent mostly followed throughout the Ming period. With a growing suspicion of his ministers and subjects, Hongwu established the Jinyiwei, a network of secret police drawn from his own palace guard. Some 100,000 people were executed in a series of purges during his rule.
The Hongwu emperor issued many edicts forbidding Mongol practices and proclaiming his intention to purify China of barbarian influence. However, he also sought to use the Yuan legacy to legitimize his authority in China and other areas ruled by the Yuan. He adopted many Yuan military practices, recruited Mongol soldiers, and continued to request Korean concubines and eunuchs.
In Qinghai, the Salar Muslims voluntarily came under Ming rule, their clan leaders capitulating around 1370. Uyghur troops under Uyghur general Hala Bashi suppressed the Miao Rebellions of the 1370s and settled in Changde, Hunan. Hui Muslim troops also settled in Changde, Hunan after serving the Ming in campaigns against other aboriginal tribes. In 1381, the Ming dynasty annexed the areas of the southwest that had once been part of the Kingdom of Dali following the successful effort by Hui Muslim Ming armies to defeat Yuan-loyalist Mongol and Hui Muslim troops holding out in Yunnan province. The Hui troops under General Mu Ying, who was appointed Governor of Yunnan, were resettled in the region as part of a colonization effort. By the end of the 14th century, some 200,000 military colonists settled some 2,000,000 mu (350,000 acres) of land in what is now Yunnan and Guizhou. Roughly half a million more Chinese settlers came in later periods; these migrations caused a major shift in the ethnic make-up of the region, since formerly more than half of the population were non-Han peoples. Resentment over such massive changes in population and the resulting government presence and policies sparked more Miao and Yao revolts in 1464 to 1466, which were crushed by an army of 30,000 Ming troops (including 1,000 Mongols) joining the 160,000 local Guangxi (see Miao Rebellions (Ming dynasty)). After the scholar and philosopher Wang Yangming (1472–1529) suppressed another rebellion in the region, he advocated single, unitary administration of Chinese and indigenous ethnic groups in order to bring about sinification of the local peoples.
Campaign in the North-East
After the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan dynasty by the Ming dynasty in 1368, Manchuria remained under control of the Mongols of the Northern Yuan dynasty based in Mongolia. Naghachu, a former Yuan official and a Uriankhai general of the Northern Yuan dynasty, won hegemony over the Mongol tribes in Manchuria (Liaoyang province of the former Yuan dynasty). He grew strong in the northeast, with forces large enough (numbering hundreds of thousands) to threaten invasion of the newly founded Ming dynasty in order to restore the Mongols to power in China. The Ming decided to defeat him instead of waiting for the Mongols to attack. In 1387 the Ming sent a military campaign to attack Naghachu, which concluded with the surrender of Naghachu and Ming conquest of Manchuria.
The early Ming court could not, and did not, aspire to the control imposed upon the Jurchens in Manchuria by the Mongols, yet it created a norm of organization that would ultimately serve as the principal vehicle for the relations with peoples along the northeast frontiers. By the end of the Hongwu reign, the essentials of a policy toward the Jurchens had taken shape. Most of the inhabitants of Manchuria, except for the wild Jurchens, were at peace with China. The Ming had created many guards (衛, wei) in Manchuria, but the creation of a guard did not necessarily imply political control. In 1409, the Ming dynasty under Yongle Emperor established the Nurgan Regional Military Commission on the banks of the Amur River, and Yishiha, a eunuch of Haixi Jurchen derivation, was ordered to lead an expedition to the mouth of the Amur to pacify the Wild Jurchens. After the death of Yongle Emperor, the Nurgan Regional Military Commission was abolished in 1435, and the Ming court ceased to have substantial activities there, although the guards continued to exist in Manchuria. By the late Ming period, Ming political presence in Manchuria had waned considerably.
Relations with Tibet
A 17th-century Tibetan thangka
of Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra; the Ming dynasty court gathered various tribute items that were native products of Tibet (such as thangkas),
and in return granted gifts to Tibetan tribute-bearers.
The Mingshi – the official history of the Ming dynasty compiled by the Qing dynasty in 1739 – states that the Ming established itinerant commanderies overseeing Tibetan administration while also renewing titles of ex-Yuan dynasty officials from Tibet and conferring new princely titles on leaders of Tibetan Buddhist sects. However, Turrell V. Wylie states that censorship in the Mingshi in favor of bolstering the Ming emperor's prestige and reputation at all costs obfuscates the nuanced history of Sino-Tibetan relations during the Ming era.
Modern scholars debate whether the Ming dynasty had sovereignty over Tibet. Some believe it was a relationship of loose suzerainty that was largely cut off when the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521–67) persecuted Buddhism in favor of Daoism at court. Others argue that the significant religious nature of the relationship with Tibetan lamas is underrepresented in modern scholarship. Others note the Ming need for Central Asian horses and the need to maintain the tea-horse trade.
The Ming sporadically sent armed forays into Tibet during the 14th century, which the Tibetans successfully resisted. Several scholars point out that unlike the preceding Mongols, the Ming dynasty did not garrison permanent troops in Tibet. The Wanli Emperor (r. 1572–1620) attempted to reestablish Sino-Tibetan relations in the wake of a Mongol-Tibetan alliance initiated in 1578, an alliance which affected the foreign policy of the subsequent Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in their support for the Dalai Lama of the Yellow Hat sect. By the late 16th century, the Mongols proved to be successful armed protectors of the Yellow Hat Dalai Lama after their increasing presence in the Amdo region, culminating in the conquest of Tibet by Güshi Khan (1582–1655) in 1642, establishing the Khoshut Khanate.
Reign of the Yongle Emperor
Rise to power
The Hongwu Emperor specified his grandson Zhu Yunwen as his successor, and he assumed the throne as the Jianwen Emperor (1398–1402) after Hongwu's death in 1398. The most powerful of Hongwu's sons, Zhu Di, then the militarily mighty disagreed with this, and soon a political showdown erupted between him and his nephew Jianwen. After Jianwen arrested many of Zhu Di's associates, Zhu Di plotted a rebellion that sparked a three-year civil war. Under the pretext 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 Jianwen himself, 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.
New capital and foreign engagement
Yongle demoted Nanjing to a secondary capital and in 1403 announced the new capital of China was to be at his power base in Beijing. Construction of a new city there lasted from 1407 to 1420, employing hundreds of thousands of workers daily. At the center was the political node of the Imperial City, and at the center of this was the Forbidden City, the palatial residence of the emperor and his family. By 1553, the Outer City was added to the south, which brought the overall size of Beijing to 4 by 4½ miles.
The Ming Tombs
located 50 km (31 mi) north of Beijing
; the site was chosen by Yongle.
Beginning in 1405, the Yongle Emperor entrusted his favored eunuch commander Zheng He (1371–1433) as the admiral for a gigantic new fleet of ships designated for international tributary missions. The Chinese had sent diplomatic missions over land since the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) and engaged in private overseas trade, but these missions were unprecedented in grandeur and scale. To service seven different tributary voyages, the Nanjing shipyards constructed two thousand vessels from 1403 to 1419, including treasure ships measuring 112 m (370 ft) to 134 m (440 ft) in length and 45 m (150 ft) to 54 m (180 ft) in width.
Yongle used woodblock printing to spread Chinese culture. He also used the military to expand China's borders. This included the brief occupation of Vietnam, from the initial invasion in 1406 until the Ming withdrawal in 1427 as a result of protracted guerrilla warfare led by Lê Lợi, the founder of the Vietnamese Lê dynasty.
Tumu Crisis and the Ming Mongols
The Oirat leader Esen Tayisi launched an invasion into Ming China in July 1449. The chief eunuch Wang Zhen encouraged the Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1435–49) to lead a force personally to face the Oirats after a recent Ming defeat; the emperor left the capital and put his half-brother Zhu Qiyu in charge of affairs as temporary regent. On 8 September, Esen routed Zhengtong's army, and Zhengtong was captured – an event known as the Tumu Crisis. The Oirats held the Zhengtong Emperor for ransom. However, this scheme was foiled once the emperor's younger brother assumed the throne under the era name Jingtai (r. 1449–57); the Oirats were also repelled once the Jingtai Emperor's confidant and defense minister Yu Qian (1398–1457) gained control of the Ming armed forces. Holding the Zhengtong Emperor in captivity was a useless bargaining chip for the Oirats as long as another sat on his throne, so they released him back into Ming China. The former emperor was placed under house arrest in the palace until the coup against the Jingtai Emperor in 1457 known as the "Wresting the Gate Incident". The former emperor retook the throne under the new era name Tianshun (r. 1457–64).
Tianshun proved to be a troubled time and Mongol forces within the Ming military structure continued to be problematic. On 7 August 1461, the Chinese general Cao Qin and his Ming troops of Mongol descent staged a coup against the Tianshun Emperor out of fear of being next on his purge-list of those who aided him in the Wresting the Gate Incident. Cao's rebel force managed to set fire to the western and eastern gates of the Imperial City (doused by rain during the battle) and killed several leading ministers before his forces were finally cornered and he was forced to commit suicide.
While the Yongle Emperor had staged five major offensives north of the Great Wall against the Mongols and the Oirats, the constant threat of Oirat incursions prompted the Ming authorities to fortify the Great Wall from the late 15th century to the 16th century; nevertheless, John Fairbank notes that "it proved to be a futile military gesture but vividly expressed China's siege mentality." Yet the Great Wall was not meant to be a purely defensive fortification; its towers functioned rather as a series of lit beacons and signalling stations to allow rapid warning to friendly units of advancing enemy troops.
Decline and fall of the Ming dynasty
Reign of the Wanli Emperor
The Wanli Emperor
(ruled in 1572–1620) in state ceremonial court dress
The financial drain of the Imjin War in Korea against the Japanese was one of the many problems – fiscal or other – facing Ming China during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620). In the beginning of his reign, Wanli surrounded himself with able advisors and made a conscientious effort to handle state affairs. His Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (1572–82) built up an effective network of alliances with senior officials. However, there was no one after him skilled enough to maintain the stability of these alliances; officials soon banded together in opposing political factions. Over time Wanli grew tired of court affairs and frequent political quarreling amongst his ministers, preferring to stay behind the walls of the Forbidden City and out of his officials' sight. Scholar-officials lost prominence in administration as eunuchs became intermediaries between the aloof emperor and his officials; any senior official who wanted to discuss state matters had to persuade powerful eunuchs with a bribe simply to have his demands or message relayed to the emperor.
Role of eunuchs
teacups, from the Nantoyōsō Collection in Japan; the Tianqi Emperor was heavily influenced and largely controlled by the eunuch Wei Zhongxian
The Hongwu Emperor forbade eunuchs to learn how to read or engage in politics. Whether or not these restrictions were carried out with absolute success in his reign, eunuchs during the Yongle Emperor's reign and afterwards managed huge imperial workshops, commanded armies, and participated in matters of appointment and promotion of officials. The eunuchs developed their own bureaucracy that was organized parallel to but was not subject to the civil service bureaucracy. Although there were several dictatorial eunuchs throughout the Ming, such as Wang Zhen, Wang Zhi, and Liu Jin, excessive tyrannical eunuch power did not become evident until the 1590s when the Wanli Emperor increased their rights over the civil bureaucracy and granted them power to collect provincial taxes.
The eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) dominated the court of the Tianqi Emperor (r. 1620–1627) and had his political rivals tortured to death, mostly the vocal critics from the faction of the Donglin Society. He ordered temples built in his honor throughout the Ming Empire, and built personal palaces created with funds allocated for building the previous emperor's tombs. His friends and family gained important positions without qualifications. Wei also published a historical work lambasting and belittling his political opponents. The instability at court came right as natural calamity, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invasion came to a peak. The Chongzhen Emperor (r. 1627–44) had Wei dismissed from court, which led to Wei's suicide shortly after.
Economic breakdown and natural disasters
Spring morning in a Han palace
, by Qiu Ying
(1494–1552); excessive luxury and decadence marked the late Ming period, spurred by the enormous state bullion
of incoming silver and by private transactions involving silver.
During the last years of the Wanli era and those of his two successors, an economic crisis developed that was centered on a sudden widespread lack of the empire's chief medium of exchange: silver. The Portuguese first established trade with China in 1516, trading Japanese silver for Chinese silk, and after some initial hostilities gained consent from the Ming court in 1557 to settle Macau as their permanent trade base in China. Their role in providing silver was gradually surpassed by the Spanish, while even the Dutch challenged them for control of this trade. Philip IV of Spain (reigned 1621–1665) began cracking down on illegal smuggling of silver from New Spain and Peru across the Pacific through the Philippines towards China, in favor of shipping American-mined silver through Spanish ports. In 1639 the new Tokugawa regime of Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with European powers, cutting off another source of silver coming into China. These events occurring at roughly the same time caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver and made paying taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. People began hoarding precious silver as there was progressively less of it, forcing the ratio of the value of copper to silver into a steep decline. In the 1630s a string of one thousand copper coins equaled an ounce of silver; by 1640 that sum could fetch half an ounce; and, by 1643 only one-third of an ounce. For peasants this meant economic disaster, since they paid taxes in silver while conducting local trade and crop sales in copper.
Famines became common in northern China in the early 17th century because of unusually dry and cold weather that shortened the growing season – effects of a larger ecological event now known as the Little Ice Age. Famine, alongside tax increases, widespread military desertions, a declining relief system, and natural disasters such as flooding and inability of the government to properly manage irrigation and flood-control projects caused widespread loss of life and normal civility. The central government, starved of resources, could do very little to mitigate the effects of these calamities. Making matters worse, a widespread epidemic spread across China from Zhejiang to Henan, killing an unknown but large number of people. The deadliest earthquake of all time, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, occurred during the Jiajing Emperor's reign, killing approximately 830,000 people.
Rise of the Manchu
along the Great Wall, the gate where the Manchus were repeatedly repelled before being finally let through by Wu Sangui
A Jurchen tribal leader named Nurhaci (r. 1616–26), starting with just a small tribe, rapidly gained control over all the Manchurian tribes. During the Japanese invasions of Joseon Korea in the 1590s, he offered to lead his tribes in support of the Ming and Joseon army. This offer was declined, but he was granted honorific Ming titles for his gesture. Recognizing the weakness of Ming authority north of their border, he united all of the adjacent northern tribes and consolidated power in the region surrounding his homeland as the Jurchen Jin dynasty had done previously. In 1610, he broke relations with the Ming court, and in 1618 demanded a tribute from them to redress "Seven Grievances".
By 1636, Nurhaci's son Huang Taiji renamed his dynasty from the "Later Jin" to the "Great Qing" at Mukden, which had fallen to Qing forces in 1621 and was made their capital in 1625. Huang Taiji also adopted the Chinese imperial title huangdi, declared the Chongde ("Revering Virtue") era, and changed the ethnic name of his people from "Jurchen" to "Manchu". In 1638 the Manchu defeated and conquered Ming China's traditional ally Joseon with an army of 100,000 troops in the Second Manchu invasion of Korea. Shortly after, the Koreans renounced their long-held loyalty to the Ming dynasty.
Rebellion, invasion, collapse
A peasant soldier named Li Zicheng mutinied with his fellow soldiers in western Shaanxi in the early 1630s after the Ming government failed to ship much-needed supplies there. In 1634 he was captured by a Ming general and released only on the terms that he return to service. The agreement soon broke down when a local magistrate had thirty-six of his fellow rebels executed; Li's troops retaliated by killing the officials and continued to lead a rebellion based in Rongyang, central Henan province by 1635. By the 1640s, an ex-soldier and rival to Li – Zhang Xianzhong (1606–47) – had created a firm rebel base in Chengdu, Sichuan, while Li's center of power was in Hubei with extended influence over Shaanxi and Henan.
In 1640, masses of Chinese peasants who were starving, unable to pay their taxes, and no longer in fear of the frequently defeated Chinese army, began to form into huge bands of rebels. The Chinese military, caught between fruitless efforts to defeat the Manchu raiders from the north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces, essentially fell apart. Unpaid and unfed, the army was defeated by Li Zicheng – now self-styled as the Prince of Shun – and deserted the capital without much of a fight. On 25 April 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng when the city gates were opened by rebel allies from within. During the turmoil, the last Ming emperor hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City.
Seizing opportunity, the Eight Banners crossed the Great Wall after the Ming border general Wu Sangui (1612–1678) opened the gates at Shanhai Pass. This occurred shortly after he learned about the fate of the capital and an army of Li Zicheng marching towards him; weighing his options of alliance, he decided to side with the Manchus. The Eight Banners under the Manchu Prince Dorgon (1612–50) and Wu Sangui approached Beijing after the army sent by Li was destroyed at Shanhaiguan; the Prince of Shun's army fled the capital on the fourth of June. On 6 June, the Manchus and Wu entered the capital and proclaimed the young Shunzhi Emperor ruler of China. After being forced out of Xi'an by the Qing, chased along the Han River to Wuchang, and finally along the northern border of Jiangxi province, Li Zicheng died there in the summer of 1645, thus ending the Shun dynasty. One report says his death was a suicide; another states that he was beaten to death by peasants after he was caught stealing their food.
Despite the loss of Beijing and the death of the emperor, the Ming were not yet totally destroyed. Nanjing, Fujian, Guangdong, Shanxi, and Yunnan were all strongholds of Ming resistance. However, there were several pretenders for the Ming throne, and their forces were divided. These scattered Ming remnants in southern China after 1644 were collectively designated by 19th-century historians as the Southern Ming. Each bastion of resistance was individually defeated by the Qing until 1662, when the last southern Ming Emperor died, the Yongli Emperor, Zhu Youlang. The last Ming Princes to hold out were the Prince of Ningjing Zhu Shugui and the son of Zhu Yihai, the Prince of Lu
Zhu Honghuan (朱弘桓) who stayed with Koxinga's Ming loyalists in the Kingdom of Tungning (in Taiwan) until 1683. Zhu Shugui proclaimed that he acted in the name of the deceased Yongli Emperor. The Qing eventually sent the seventeen Ming princes still living in Taiwan back to mainland China where they spent the rest of their lives.
In 1725 the Qing Yongzheng Emperor bestowed the hereditary title of Marquis on a descendant of the Ming dynasty Imperial family, Zhu Zhilian (朱之璉), who received a salary from the Qing government and whose duty was to perform rituals at the Ming tombs. The Chinese Plain White Banner was also inducted in the Eight Banners. Later the Qianlong Emperor bestowed the title Marquis of Extended Grace posthumously on Zhu Zhilian in 1750, and the title passed on through twelve generations of Ming descendants until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912. The last Marquis of Extended Grance was Zhu Yuxun (朱煜勳). In 1912, after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in the Xinhai Revolution, some advocated that a Han Chinese be installed as Emperor, either the descendant of Confucius, who was the Duke Yansheng, or the Ming dynasty Imperial family descendant, the Marquis of Extended Grace.