The Ming Dynasty ruled China starting in 1368 after Hongwu Emperor defeated the Yuan Dynasty and drove the Mongols back into the steppes. China, during the reign of early Ming emperors, was at the zenith of its wealth and power. It was during the Ming era that China exacted tribute from countries along the coast of the Indian Ocean through an expedition fleet. However, the empire became increasingly isolated the middle of the 15th century. Rebellions and the arrival of the Manchus from the north in 1644 removed the last Ming emperor from power. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Online with World History during that time.
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The Fall of the Yuan Dynasty
In China, crises always preceded the fall of one Chinese dynasty and the rise of another, and the Mongol Yuan Dynasty was no exception. During the Mongols’ reign, the bubonic plague swept through Asia and Europe and killed millions of Han Chinese and Central Asians. Devastating droughts replaced the epidemic and soon added to the body count.
In 1344, the Yellow River flooded and soon changed its course, making the silted Grand Canal impassable. Unable to transport grain from southern China to the capital Dadu via the Grand Canal, the merchants had no choice but to transport their goods on ships that plied the coastal waters. This route, however, was infested with pirates who often seized the ships and their valuable cargoes. Since the north was already devastated by droughts, the seizure of the grain was a death blow to many of its inhabitants.
Burdened by droughts and famine, China’s starving peasants took comfort in their faith in Amitabha (Pure Land) Buddhism that was led by a monk called Cizhao (Mao Zhiyuan). Its members joined the White Lotus Society, a millenarian sect with roots which went all the back to the Northern Song period (AD 960–1127). The members of the sect hoped that bodhisattva Maitreya would soon appear and deliver them from their hopeless situation.
In his palace in Dadu, the Yuan emperor Toghon Temur was also feeling the pinch. He commissioned the minister and historian Toghto to head his major desilting project of the Yellow River outlet. Toghto enlisted the peasants and forced them to render corvée labor in this project. The work itself was hard, but what made it harder was that the peasants were unable to feed their own families as their fields also went unattended.
Rebellions and the Rise of the Ming Dynasty
Tired of the hard labor, a White Lotus member and self-proclaimed messiah named Han Shantong rallied disaffected workers behind him. They wore red turbans to show their unity and started an uprising against the Yuan authorities. The Red Turban Rebellion, however, was immediately quashed by the authorities. Han Shantong died in the process, but more Red Turban rebellions flared out all over the empire. Toghto was able to suppress the rebellion, but the Yuan defense fell apart when Toghon Temur removed him from his post. He was replaced by generals who spent most of their time quarreling among themselves than suppressing the rebellion.
The Red Turbans were divided into two factions: the northern faction led by the former Buddhist monk Zhu Yuanzhang and the southern group led by the government official Chen Youliang. Between 1361 and 1363, the two factions battled for supremacy. This conflict ended when Zhu Yuanzhang defeated Chen Youliang’s army at Poyang Lake in 1363.
After the defeat of his rival, Zhu Yuanzhang set his eyes on overthrowing the Mongol rulers in Dadu. He and his followers stormed Dadu in November 1367 and drove out Toghon Temur and the rest of the Mongol rulers. In the city of Nanjing in 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself the first emperor of a new dynasty which he called the “Ming.” He then took the era name Hongwu by which he is now commonly known. He threw out the Mongol codes used by the Yuan Dynasty and readopted the long-forgotten Tang Dynasty laws. He brought back the civil service examinations and appointed talented men as government officials. The emperor forbade eunuchs from meddling in administration early in his reign. However, he made a fatal mistake when he himself appointed some talented eunuchs as envoys and auditors.
The emperor came to the throne as a result of the rebellion, so he had a lingering suspicion that he would be deposed by one too. After more than a decade of rule, he ordered a purge of thousands of government officials. He also created a secret police called the Embroidered Uniform Guard which spied on and arrested suspected rebels. Afraid that the nobles would rise up against him, he resettled them far from their lands and made them dependent on him by giving them allowances every month. Despite these cruelties, the Hongwu Emperor never forgot his Buddhist background. He curbed his own spending and ensured that China would remain at peace.
During his reign, the Ming army was able to decimate the remnants of the Yuan Dynasty. They forced the Mongols out from Shangdu and drove them deeper into the steppes. Humiliated and scattered, the remaining Mongol tribes soon formed the Oirat confederation which harassed the Chinese in the northern frontier. The Hongwu Emperor became fearful of a renewed Mongol invasion, so he ordered several garrisons to be built to keep the “barbarians” out of China.
Yongle Emperor’s Wars and Zheng He’s Voyages
Hongwu Emperor appointed his grandson (his eldest son had died before him) as his heir before his death in 1398. His fourth son, Zhu Di, opposed this decision and started a civil war that would last for three years. He had his nephew murdered in 1402, and soon took the throne as Yongle Emperor. He also purged real or perceived enemies, including his nephew’s remaining supporters.
Yongle Emperor was desperate to legitimize his rule since he knew that the people considered him a usurper. In 1405, he launched an expedition across the Indian Ocean to exact tributes from foreign kings and boost his legitimacy. The emperor appointed an influential eunuch named Zheng He as admiral of the voyage. He then had Zheng He outfitted with a fleet made up of 317 ships manned by more or less 27,000 personnel. Zheng He and this magnificent flotilla visited the ports of India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Hormuz, and even ventured as far as the eastern coast of Africa between 1405 and 1433. These diplomatic missions and geographic explorations brought back not just information, but also exotic goods and animals which included a giraffe and some zebras.
In China, however, Yongle Emperor’s rule was anything but peaceful. While fighting the Oirat confederation, he also embarked on a quest to depose a fellow usurper in the southern kingdom of Đại Việt. The kingdom was ruled by the Hồ dynasty that had wrested the throne from the Trần dynasty between 1399 and 1400. Yongle then led his army to Đại Việt and deposed king Hồ Hán Thương. Instead of letting the Trần heir regain his position upon the removal of the Hồ ruler in 1407, the emperor turned the kingdom into a vassal state and sent a Chinese administrator to govern in his place.
The emperor had the Great Wall repaired during his reign, and pushed the Ming’s northern border past the Jurchen heartland and into the Amur river. He left Nanjing and lived in the city of Dadu. He then proclaimed it as the Ming capital and renamed it Beijing. Unlike his father, however, Yongle Emperor spent lavishly during his reign. He built a magnificent palace complex for himself and his family in Beijing which he called Forbidden City.
The naval expeditions and the palace complexes he built had been expensive, but the long war against Đại Việt guerillas drained his treasury. This conflict cost him not only money but also thousands of Ming soldiers who were sent south to counter the rebels led by a Trần nobleman named Lê Lợi and General Nguyễn Trãi. The war in Đại Việt against the Ming overlord was still ongoing when Yongle Emperor died in 1424.
The Isolated Empire
Hongxi Emperor acceded throne when his father died. His reign was cut short in the following year, and he was succeeded by his son, Xuande Emperor. Ming treasury was drained by the time of Xuande’s succession, so he was forced to withdraw his troops from the troublesome and costly conflict in Đại Việt. He also called off Zheng He’s naval expeditions in 1433, but the admiral was unable to return to China as he died at sea. Xuande, with some prodding from Confucian scholars who disliked foreign contact, then ordered the destruction of the entire naval fleet and forbade any more expensive expeditions. What little trade that came through in China was considered by Ming rulers as tributes. The restrictions on trade, however, backfired when it gave rise to Japanese (wokou) and Chinese piracy.
Xuande Emperor died in 1435 and was succeeded by his young son Zhengtong. Regents initially ruled on his behalf, but the timid emperor took the reins of power upon his coming of age. He was captured by the Oirat leader Esen Tayisi during a botched military campaign in the north but was set free when the Ming refused to ransom him. Upon Zhengtong’s return to Beijing, he found, to his dismay, that he had been deposed in favor of his brother, the Jingtai Emperor. Although he had a quick interlude as emperor once again, he remained under house arrest for the rest of his life.
The Ming emperors that follow Zhengtong were either unremarkable, incompetent, or indifferent. China remained isolated, protected from foreign incursions by the sea ban and its Great Wall. Gone were the days of voyages, tributes, and expansion plans. As years went by, administration steadily broke down as the imperial court became bogged down by squabbling eunuchs and scholar-officials.
China would not remain in its self-imposed isolation for long as the arrival of the Jurchen people and the Europeans—for better or for worse—would open it to the world during the 16th century.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge (Mass.): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.
Roberts, J.A.G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
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