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Chinese History - 1368-1644 AD - Ming Nanjing Dynasty

China History Map - MingThe Chinese people rallied behind a a Han Chinese peasant and former Buddhist monk turned rebel army leader named Chu Yan-chang, and together they overthrew Mongol rule. Chu Yuan-chang, having been once persuaded to accept the Yellow Robe, made no secret of his desire and determination to bring back the good old days of Yao and Shun. "The Beggar King," as he is sometimes called, had been left an orphan at an early age, and, through the advice given in a vision by his dead parents, had entered a Buddhist monastery.

From this he emerged to join the ranks of the patriots who, under the leadership of Kuo Tzu-hsing, his maternal uncle, were beginning to make headway against the Mongol domination. The leader died soon after and committed the command of the insurrection to the ex-monk, whose success was rapid and complete. The new dynasty was proclaimed under the name of Ming, or "Bright," and the new sovereign chose for himself the throne name of T'ai Tsu, though he is more familiarly known as Hung Wu, or "Great Warrior."

Zhu YuanzhangHongwu13681398
Zhu YunwenJianwen13981402
Zhu DiYongle14021424
Zhu GaochiHongxi14241425
Zhu ZhangjiXuande14251435
Zhu QizhenZhengtong14351464
Zhu QiyuJingtai14491457
Zhu JianshenChenghua14641487
Zhu YoutangHongzhi14871505
Zhu HouzhaoZhengde15051521
Zhu HoucongJiajing15211566
Zhu ZaihouLongqing15661572
Zhu YijunWanli15721620
Zhu ChangluoTaichang16201620
Zhu YoujiaoTianqi16201627
Zhu YoujianChongzhen16271644
The first years of Tai Tsu (Ta Ming, the great Ming, also generally known to foreigners as Hung wu, from the mottol of his race; 1368-1398), were devoted to completing the expulsion of the Mongols and the subjugation of the pretenders within the empire. Ming Shen, the emperor of Hsia (or Shu), submitted himself in 1371; in the same year a son of the last Mongol ruler, who had hitherto maintained his ground in Szechwan and Yunnan, was finally conquered. Shun Ti himself, who had taken refuge with the northern Mongols, was followed up by the Chinese and besjeged in Yingchang, where he died. His son succeeded in escaping after the fall of the town (1370). In a thirty year reign Tai Tsu brooked no dissent, and any hint of corruption or disloyalty was swiftly crushed. His purges resulted in the execution of some sixty thousand unfortunates. Cabinet rule was abandoned, and Emperor Hung-wu controlled all matters of state.

Purging would be the model followed by many of Ming's emperors upon coming to the throne. Some emperors found the task of total state control too burdensome and yielded day-to-day responsibilities to eunuchs, who would come to number in the tens of thousands. Emperor Yung-lo, in the first decades of the fifteenth century, even established eunuchs as spies. Buried within the military and civil offices, they had full authority to root out corruption, which they did through torture and death.

The national rising of the Chinese helped to extend their influence abroad. Korea and Annam sent tribute, and the Japanese who had ravaged the coasts of China at intervals by way of revenge for the Mongol invasion were temporarily driven back by a so-called Chinese naval victory at the Liu kiu Islands. In 1381 a revolt in Yunnan was suppressed. The emperor, who resided in Nanking, paid much attention to the reorganisation of the country and of the administration; he divided the kingdom into thirteen provinces (Shansi east and west, Shantung, Honan, Hukwang, Szechwan, Yunnan, Kweichau, Kwangsi, Kwangtung, Fukien, Kiangsi, and Chekiang), which were redivided into Fu, Chau, and Hsien (prefectures, departments, and sub-departments), an arrangement which continues to the present day.

Tai Tsu was succeeded by his grandson Hui Ti (Chien wen), who, however, [by one account] was immediately sent into a Buddhist monastery in 1403 by his uncle Tai Tsung (Yung lo; 1403-1424), who had hitherto resided in Peking as king of Yen. Tai Tsung introduced a double system of government with two sets of ministers, etc.; the one in Peking, where he himself resided, the other at Nanking. Disturbances which broke out as a protest against his usurpation were ruthlessly suppressed; at the same time he raised the prestige of China abroad. From the year 1406 to 1411 the Yongle Emperor carried on a war against Tongking, which ended with the subjugation of the country, though his supremacy was not permanently established. In 1419 he defeated the Japanese, who had made an incursion into Liautung.

For all the troubles wrought by eunuchs, one, Admiral Cheng Ho, led China's greatest maritime expedition. Between 1405 and 1421 Admiral Cheng [during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, r. 1402-1424 ] sailed a great fleet on six voyages ranging as far west as eastern Africa and into the Persian Gulf, collecting scientific specimens, cartographic knowledge, and showing China's flag to new lands. He sailed, in part, to find tributary states to help fill government coffers as the Ming government was strapped for cash even though its domestic economy thrived. Expeditions (embassies ?) were sent out under the eunuchs Cheng ho and Ma Huan to Siam, Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, Bengal, and to the Eed and Persian seas. In fact, Chinese influence seems not only to have been felt in many of these countries at that time, but to have been paramount. Ceylon recognised the political supremacy of China for more than fifty years, and ambassadors came to China from Aden in 1422, from Egypt in 1441, and from Samarkand in 1481.

The Ming maritime expeditions stopped rather suddenly after 1433, the date of the last voyage, towards the end of the reign of the Xuande Emperor [r. 1425-1435]. Opposition at court may have been a contributing factor, as conservative officials found the concept of expansion and commercial ventures alien to Chinese ideas of government. Pressure from the powerful Neo-Confucian bureaucracy led to a revival of strict agrarian-centered society. The stability of the Ming dynasty, which was without major disruptions of the population (then around 100 million), economy, arts, society, or politics, promoted a belief among the Chinese that they had achieved the most satisfactory civilization on earth and that nothing foreign was needed or welcome.

Historians have given as one of the reasons that the Ming maritime expeditions stopped was the great expense of large-scale expeditions at a time of preoccupation with northern defenses against the Mongols. The great anxiety of the emperor was the continued incursions of the Mongols, whereby he was induced to transfer the capital to Peking and to strengthen the great wall by works undertaken between the capital and Kalgan, which were afterward increased by his successors. He himself carried on a number of campaigns against the Mongols, which, though invariably successful, produced no permanent effect, and upon one of these he died.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, China suffered terribly from frequent earthquakes and famines. The people underwent misery and privations to an extent almost inconceivable. In those provinces watered by the broad streams of the Hoang-ho and Yang-zte, the floods sweeping over the plains were the cause of ruin, and consequent starvation, to hundreds of thousands. The history of this period is little else than a continual record of these desolations.

The successor of Tai Tsung was also obliged to struggle against the Mongols, who continued to trouble China's borders. One disastrous decision followed another until the Mongol rout of the Chinese army was complete, and Ying Tsung (Cheng tung; 1436-1449) was defeated by the Mongols and carried into captivity, being ultimately released in 1457 at the price of a heavy ransom; he then resumed the government until 1464 under the motto, "Tien shun." Under his successor, Hsien Tsung (Chenghua; 1465-1487), the Mongol raids continued, and obliged the government to further extend the existing fortifications. Eevolts also broke out in the interior, especially in the district of the Miao and Yao of Kwangsi and Kweichau, which were not suppressed until 1467, after long struggles. During the reign of Hsiao Tsung (Hung chi; 1488-1505) the Mongol invasions were renewed with varying success. Additional troubles under Shi Tsung (Chia ching; 1522-1566) were caused by the repeated and energetic attacks of the Japanese upon the Yaugtsze district (1550) and Fukien. In 1516 the Portuguese appeared at Canton; their first ambassadors entered Peking in 1520, and on returning to Canton paid with their lives for the misdeeds of their compatriots, whose piracy had brought them into collision with the authorities and the population.

During the government of Shen Tsung (Wan li; 1573-1620), one of the more energetic rulers of this dynasty, three events occurred of the greatest importance for China and the whole of East Asia. In 1581 the first Jesuit came by sea to China. In 1618 the Manchus, the descendants of the Kin dynasty, which had been destroyed by the Mongols in 1234, entered the modern district of Manchuria under Aisin Gioro, afterward known as Tai Tsu, and settled in Hsing ching. At a later date they removed to Mukden (Shingking), whence the Chinese were unable to expel them. From 1592 to 1598 the Japanese held sway over Korea, China sending military help to this her tributary State as she saw her own security threatened by the advance of the Japanese. This measure of support, together with the obstinate resistance of the Koreans, raised such obstacles in the path of the Japanese that, after a campaign of varied fortunes and fruitless diplomatic negotiations, the dying Hideyoshi recalled his army to Japan.

In spite of this indisputable success, the Ming dynasty began henceforward to decline. The influence of the eunuchs and the harem, which had always been dominant in Peking, rapidly increased under the weaker emperors. Through the dynasty's last four emperors and its last forty years, China was unable to control its economy or its borders. Troops and money were lacking, and the invasions of the Manchus, a vassal state to China's north, grew more frequent and more successful.

In Asia a David or a Kaber may found a royal house, and the great men whom civil convulsions bring to the surface may play their part well in support of it; the first few princes may be men of iron will and keen sagacity; but inexorable destiny hangs over it. One day the sceptre falls into nerveless, luxurious hands, and then its doom is simply a matter of time. Such was the fate of the Ming. During the latter part of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries the administration became utterly corrupt, the hand of the executive was paralysed by eunuchs and parasites of the court, and the people were crushed with intolerable oppression.

Dynasties invariably become corrupt in China, sometimes from wickedness, oftener from weakness. And when rebels rise against a dynasty, they invariably base the justice of their cause upon the ancient laws and rights of the people, which are trampled upon by the reigning emperor. The process of corruption had been going on for long in the empire of the Ming, when a series now of floods, now of droughts, and again of locusts, made starvation and famine a chronic condition of the northern provinces of China. And as a bad harvest is always regarded as the sign of the anger of Heaven against the ruler, and not against the people actually suffering, men's minds were more than ripe for a change of dynasty; only the proper man, who by success proved himself the chosen of Heaven, did not seem to be forthcoming. The Manchus, under an excellent and fairly just government and good discipline, had grown up on the north-east into a powerful kingdom; which was knocking with hard blows at the gate of China, and more than willing to change the dynasty. But Chinese pride rebelled against the thought of men ruling over them, who, if not still, were recently but rude savages. Perhaps no one in official or private life would willingly exchange the weak, worthless, and corrupt native dynasty of the Ming for the young, vigorous Manchu. But the battering blows of the Manchus on the east much accelerated the rate of weakness of the Ming.

The Manchus began violating its territory, winning several brilliant victories. At the same time inflation ravaged the currency, and floods, droughts, plagues, and starvation did likewise to China's people. In 1623 they were in possession of the whole of Liautung, and in 1629 they advanced as far as Peking and Tientsin, and were only driven back after a severe struggle. In 1622 the government applied to Macao, and enlisted from that district a body of Portuguese and Chinese freebooters four hundred strong, and partly armed with guns, for service against the Manchu. These, however, were not employed, probably from fear that they would turn upon the government. The empire itself was in a general state of ferment.

Revolts, partly due to years of famine, broke out in Shansi, Hupei, and Szechwan. During the reign of Tsung-ching, seventeenth and last emperor of the dynasty of Ming, China became the theatre of constant seditions and revolts, principally arising from the disorder consequent upon these troubles. In 1637 to such a height had this state of affairs arrived, that no less than eight rebel armies were in existence, all independent of each other. While the general Wu San kuei was striving his utmost to protect the northern frontier against the advancing Manchus, who had been under the command of Tai Tsung from 1627 (1627-1643), Li Tsze cheng revolted and marched upon Peking, which fell in 1644 after a short siege. Huai Tsung (Chung cheng), who had ruled from 1628, and seems to have been an honourable but weak character, hanged himself after killing his wife and daughters. With him the Ming dynasty came to an end. Li Tsze cheng proclaimed himself emperor, but after a short time was forced to evacuate the ruined capital by the advance of the Manchus, who had been joined by Wu San kuei.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:03 ZULU