Chapter 54: The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Fall of the Yuan and the rise of the Ming

After the long reign of Kublai Khan (1260-1294) the Yuan dynasty was plagued by internal dissension. Essentially they were afflicted with the same problems as the late T’ang. Basically the T’ang had set up military garrisons to control their borders and it was these border garrisons that became powers unto their own right. The Mongols set up military garrisons throughout China to control the population. These military garrisons became independent powers fighting for control during the turbulent internal power struggles that plagued the Yuan dynasty after Kublai Kahn’s death. During and because of these power struggles, the canals fell into disrepair and the inner structure was collapsing. Because of this there was widespread starvation, with millions of people dying. The Mongols, primarily military warriors, were inadequate administrators. During Kublai’s reign they were able to coast upon the past organization but after the inner structure began disintegrating enough that it could no longer support the enormous Chinese population. Hence for the peasantry especially this was a particularly disastrous administration. This popular dissatisfaction with the Mongol rule set off rebellions throughout the Empire.

The popular revolt consolidated around a peasant named Chu Yuan-chang. Remember that the peasantry will quickly consolidate around any who can establish social stability. This was the mechanism behind the consolidation of the Empire behind both the peasant, Liu Pang, founder of the Han dynasty and Emperor Wen founder of the Sui dynasty, which united China after centuries of struggle. Both Liu Pang of the Han and Emperor Wen of the Sui offered tolerance in addition to social stability. This was also the mechanism that led to consolidation of China behind Mao Tse Tung in the 20th century.

Anyway Chu rose to leadership of the movement. In 1356 he captured Nanking in the south. By 1367 he had established control of the Yangtze River Valley. Then in 1368 he proclaimed himself the founder of a new dynasty, the Ming, and drove the Mongols out of North China – reuniting traditional China with the South for the first time since the Han. Furthering the following years, he was able to establish military domination of the strategically significant northern region, including parts of Manchuria and Mongolia. This was the first time that China with Chinese rulers had been able to control their northern border since the early Han.

While the Han and Sung dynasties had cultivated a cosmopolitan international atmosphere, the Ming dynasty was a more closed society. Licking their wounds from the humiliations under the Mongol occupation, the Ming tended to exclude any foreign influence. It was illegal for Chinese to have contact with foreigners except on state business or under government supervision. Indeed it was this isolationism after a century of international trade with the European kingdoms that inspired the sea explorations of the Europeans that eventually led to the Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. While the Chinese hadn’t tended to be so exclusionary of foreign influence during past dynasties, now they looked inward for their own happiness, actively excluding foreign influence.

Chu, like Liu Pang of the Han, had risen from the peasant class to be emperor of China and founder of the long-lived Ming dynasty. While most of the dynastic changes had to do with northern military domination, this dynasty was based primarily upon a peasant revolt. This was similar to the rise of the Han. This too was based upon a popular revolt. The military conquerors normally came from the north. It is only fitting and to be expected that this peasant revolution would come from the south.

Because of his roots, Chu was sympathetic to the peasant cause and embarked on a policy of land redistribution and reform. Resisting the influence of the aristocracy Chu centralized the power of the imperial government even further. He was considered a paranoid ruler with frequent palace purges, but this would be expected as a necessary expedient for any who worked for the peasantry at the expense of the literate aristocracy. Once again the bureaucracy was determined by Confucian based exams. Once again Confucian ideas held sway upon the political level. More than ever the state exams were the only key to government service. While in previous Chinese dynasties the exams were just part of the criterion, the other being family genetics, now the exams were the only criterion. The Mongols had broken down the Chinese class structure and Chu attempted to keep the aristocracy down. While keeping the hereditary aristocracy down he created a new privileged class of scholars.

The early Ming emperors

The founder of the Ming dynasty, the Hung-wu emperor, (r. 1368-98), was born a peasant, might have fought in the Mongol army, and established his rule of China on the battlefield. He used nomadic military techniques to defeat the remnants of the Mongolian armies in China. Campaigning in the steppes to rid the Chinese of the Mongol threat, he won some early battles and lost some later ones. However he had established enough of a military presence to cause the Mongols to withdraw from the strategic Ordos plain.

Hung-wu’s son overthrew his nephew, the heir designate, in a three-year civil war. This very un-Chinese act caused many to feel that he was part Mongol. Under the nomadic law of tanistery, the Mongol heirs fought it out to see who was to run the government. Why didn’t the Hung-wu emperor appoint his son as the next emperor and instead appointed a nephew. Was this because his son had a Mongolian mother who was unacceptable to the Chinese Ming court? Whatever the truth, he ruled like a Mongol khan. While his father’s power base and capital were in the south, his power base was in the north and he moved his capital back to Peking, in the north where the Yuan dynasty was located, where it has remained to this day.

Moving the capital to Peking, forty miles from the Great Wall was an offensive maneuver. Most emperors moved their capital to the south away from danger, but in so doing they weakened their borders, because the army followed the emperor. The Yung-lo emperor in moving himself and his army to Peking put himself in a position to control the northern nomadic border more effectively. Further it put him in a position to control both China and the steppe land to the north.

The Yung-lo emperor continued his father’s policy of granting titles to the nomadic tribes to the north, thus including them in the Chinese political system as a way of controlling them. He was a true warrior king beginning his reign in battle and ending it dying in a northern campaign. His grandson and successor, the Hsuan te emperor (r 1426-36) continued the military family tradition, leading his armies into battle against the nomads. This type of active campaigning was not meant to take care of the Mongol threat, once and for all. It was only meant to establish the wei, the ‘awesomeness’ of the Chinese Empire.

The Hung-wu Emperor, the first emperor of the Ming, established 8 garrisons in the Ordos zone in order to wage war from them and to control the strategic Ordos region. The Yung-lo emperor retreated from these garrisons, probably for economic reasons. While many of these warrior emperors thought nothing of spending a fortune on a military campaign, they hated spending money on just defense. The Yung-lo emperor spent money like water on a naval military expedition, on military expeditions to the south into Vietnam and to the north into Korea, on moving the capital to Peking, but spending money on these defensive garrisons was abandoned. Instead he established the ‘awesomeness’ of his army. This policy was also followed by the next emperor, i.e. active campaigning to keep the nomadic tribes in line.

The nomadic tribes were kept in check as long as the awesomeness of the imperial army was established. This was true for almost the first eighty years of the Ming, but then events quickly changed. The first Ming emperors campaigning in the north seriously weakened one of the nomadic powers in the northeast. Because of this, the nomadic power of the west was able to conquer them. Now that they had no nomadic enemy, they were able to focus their energies upon China. Raiding and negotiating, they upped their tributary demands annually. Finally in a series of events provoked by the Mongols, the young Cheng-t’ung emperor, just turned 21 years, decided to teach the Mongols a lesson. Despite all signs to the contrary, including an earlier loss to the Mongols by the imperial army, the young emperor led the army himself. Finding nothing, he started to return home. His army was ambushed and routed while he himself was captured. While not ruffling the Ming dynasty (they merely let his brother take over as emperor) this event of 1449 permanently destroyed the ‘awesome’ image of the Chinese imperial army in the steppes. From this point the nomadic armies began moving into the Ordos region from which they organized raids of agricultural China.

One element contributing to the decline of the Ming military prowess was the decline in the abilities of its armies. While the early Ming armies consisted primarily of members of the defeated Yuan nomadic army, who had been invited to join the Ming. Now 80 years down the line these nomadic soldiers with their horse riding and arrow shooting abilities have degenerated into civilized soldiers, trained through practice not through survival. In the meantime a new breed of nomadic soldiers has been weaned upon hunting and battling other nomadic tribes for the sparse grazing land of the steppes. It is no wonder that the Ming retreated behind their traditional boundaries and started building walls.

Arrogance of the Ming towards the Nomadic North

We’ve come to the section in our politico-historical narrative, which marks the transition between the Chinese Ming dynasty and the Manchurian Ch’ing dynasty. While the fall of a Chinese dynasty simultaneous with the rise of a nomadic empire is partially cyclic, as we’ve seen through our extended historical journey, the Ming decline could have been prolonged had not the Confucian officials been bound with what they perceived to be the tao of China. The Ming Empire did not fade out like the long-lived Chou, Han and T’ang dynasties but instead came to an abrupt end. This was, at least, partially due to shortsighted policy decisions made as the result of cultural conditioning. Because the decisions of the Ming officials were so typically Chinese, and because they led to the construction of the Great Wall, which stands as a modern symbol of China, the events leading to the fall of the Ming bear examination as part of our study of the tao of China.

As we’ve pointed out throughout this work, part of the tao of China has to do with the constant interaction between the nomadic cultures to the north of China and the agri-culture of China. These nomadic cultures have not been merely an annoyance to the ever-evolving Chinese culture, as is many times indicated, but instead have frequently provided China with its ruling classes, its military aristocracy. Further those rulers that have been closest to their nomadic roots have tended to be most effective at dealing with these northern cultures, while those rulers most removed from nomadic culture have been least effective at dealing with their military threat. We will see this mechanism operating in the fall of the Ming.

The Chinese as they become ever more immersed in their own culture, tend to distance themselves from their nomadic roots. As they become further apart, they begin to think of themselves as the superior culture and the nomadic cultures as the inferior cultures. As the superior culture they feel no need to communicate with their inferiors except if the inferior culture defers to them. This is an effective policy when the external cultures are fragmented, relatively weak, or truly primitive. However when these foreign powers are strong and consolidated, the isolationist policy only damages relations. This was a Chinese mechanism, which would come into play again during the Ming.

At the end of the Yuan and beginning of the Ming, the nomadic empire had fragmented, as it tends to do on a cyclic level. Multiple warlike personalities never get along for very long. Simultaneously the Chinese had congealed as a culture. These opposing trends allowed the Chinese Imperial government to dominate the fragmented nomadic nations to the north and northwest for nearly a century. With the fragmentation of the Mongolian empire and the rise of the Ming, there arose the feeling: “We Chinese have showed the nomads who is boss. The Mandate of Heaven is on our side again. We are again the center of the universe and must be bowed to before we will even consider any dialogue.”

This arrogance was illusory. While the Chinese Ming dynasty was strong enough in their youthful exuberance to dominate the fragmented nomadic nations, in their decline they were unable to effectively defend themselves against a united nomadic nation. In fact rarely was any Chinese dynasty able to defend itself against a united nomadic empire. The military arrogance of the Ming was unsupported historically.

A Short History of the Interactions between Chinese & Nomadic cultures

For their entire history, and possibly prehistory as well, Chinese politics had been dominated by their military interaction with the nomadic cultures to the north. In these interactions China was in no ways all-powerful. The fall of the Chinese Sung Dynasty to Genghis Khan’s Mongols in 1368 was only a link in the chain between the two diametrically opposed cultures. Let us trace a brief history of the interrelations between the two cultures to see the historic responses of the Chinese to the ‘Barbarian problem’.

As we’ve attempted to illustrate in this paper, ever since humans have inhabited the Yellow River Valley of North China as an agri-culture, the nomadic cultures to the north in the Arid Zone have been a problem. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Neolithic villages of the Yangshao had been raided and destroyed, probably by nomadic tribes. It has been suggested in this paper that the Shang and perhaps the preceding Xia dynasties were military aristocracies with roots in the nomadic hunting cultures to the northeast. Whether they were called in to control the flooding of the Yellow River or whether they came as military conquerors, there are modern precedents for each scenario. The Manchus, as we will see, came into help out while the Mongols came in to plunder. Remember also that the bronze military technology of the chariot probably diffused east to Shang China via the nomadic cultures.

The Chou dynasty like the Shang before them could easily been part of the nomadic problem or solution to China’s problems. They came from the northwest. Whether they were nomadic raiders or reformers is hard to tell. While legend treats them as reformers, this could have been the result of the enlightened efforts of the Duke of Chou rather than a national effort. Indeed other princes of the Chou attempted to ally with the Shang aristocracy to reestablish the dictatorship.

During the Chou, we have the first historical mention of the nomadic cultures to the north. Sometimes there was fighting and sometimes they built walls. Remember that it was during the late Chou that the Chinese border states including the Ch’in had to adopt the new nomadic military technology, which included compound bow and horseman or perish. The king of Chao, one of the Warring States in the northwest, actually adopted nomadic clothing and techniques in order to fight the raiding nomads.

The First Emperor of Ch’in after uniting China sent a huge military expedition of 300,000 to clear out the presence of the nomads in the Ordos and establish a military presence there. According to legend he also had a primitive wall built to insulate the Chinese from the barbarian cultures to the north. This was the precursor to the Great Wall of the Ming. It too was a failure.

Shortly after his death, in the following internal turmoil, the Hsiung-nu nomads returned to the Ordos. Kao-tsu (r. 202-195 BCE) founder of the Han dynasty attempted a military expedition into the north, was beaten militarily, and almost captured.

The basic discovery was that the nomadic cultures could not be conquered. They would raid and then retreat into the frozen north. They were experts at guerrilla warfare, attacking and retreating quickly, never risking complete destruction. Therefore no matter how many soldiers the Chinese government mustered the nomads simply retreated until the army left. No matter how satisfying the military solution to the nomads, it was ultimately unsuccessful.

Ho-ch’in – a successful policy of appeasement

Because the nomads returned when the imperial armies left, one way to control them would be to never leave. The First Emperor chose this solution by establishing a costly military presence in the Ordos, along with his walls. This was not the course chosen by the Han dynasty. They chose to buy their way out by paying tribute to the nomads. This was the same system that was used by the Sung over a thousand years later to control the northern nomadic presence.

The system was referred to as ho-ch’in, literally ‘peaceful and friendly relations’. The system consisted of multiple parts. First, trade was to be open between the two cultures. Second, intermarriage was allowed between the Chinese ruling class and the nomadic rulers. This enabled the tribes of the steppes to establish hereditary claim to the Chinese leadership. We’ve seen this phenomenon regularly, with nomadic tribes from the To-pa, to the Jurchen on down to the Manchus setting up Chinese dynasties with claims to being the next dynasty. Vice versa it allowed the Chinese to claim the rights of leadership in the nomadic empire. We saw this occur in the early T’ang. We will also see this in modern times as Red China lays claim to Mongolia due to Genghis Khan’s Yuan Dynasty. Probably more importantly it allowed for a mixture of nomadic and Chinese aristocracy, which blurred the lines of leadership. In some ways the differentiation between peasantry and aristocracy was greater than that between the nomadic and Chinese aristocracy.

The third and most controversial part of the ho-ch’in policy was the paying of tribute from the Chinese Imperial government to the nomadic tribes, or kingdoms or even empires when they consolidated. The Chinese rationalized it as a type of gift. In fact it was a type of protection racket. “You’re rich. We’re poor. Give us gifts and we won’t raid the cities on your perimeter. We’ll leave you alone and in fact will prevent others from raiding you as well. However if we don’t feel these annual presents are sufficient we will certainly demand more.” This was the underlying subtext, which everyone understood clearly.

The ho-ch’in policy of the Han had some flaws. First, the nomadic cultures regularly used military pressure to hike the level of ‘brotherly gifts’ or tribute. In actuality this was probably never a real financial burden on the wealthy imperial government. In many ways it was probably far less expensive than military action.

The reader has probably already sensed the second flaw. We can imagine a Confucian official arguing: “It’s just not fair that these military cultures are rewarded for their belligerence. It only encourages them to be more belligerent as is seen regularly in historical example. The obvious solution is to teach those barbarian nomads a military lesson. They need to be punished, not rewarded for their actions.” This was the reasoning adopted by a significant block of Confucian officials.

While much analysis tends to focus on the Confucian precedent, it seems to be a fairly reasonable human response. Whether on the playground or in dealing with one’s children, caving in to violence only encourages more violence. In no ways does it stop it. Children who don’t stand up for themselves on the playground are bullied. Further children dominate their parents, when they don’t establish consequences. It is obvious that there are many disadvantages to appeasement.

As expected, there was criticism nearly simultaneously with the institution of the ho-ch’in policy. Eventually this led to the military actions of Emperor Wu, i.e. Wu-ti (r. 140-87 BCE), of the Han who extended the Chinese presence far into the north beyond the agricultural river valleys of China, which the First Emperor’s long walls were theoretically supposed to protect. Wu-ti also had no need for these long walls. His military expeditions were punitive, attempting to eliminate the nomadic influence once and for all. He hoped to organize the steppes into political groupings that could be controlled. His efforts were such a failure that it was used as a historical precedent – as an example for the exhaustion of the state in prolonged futile warfare.

After Emperor Wu’s unsuccessful campaign against the nomads the officials came up with yet another strategy to deal with ‘barbarians’ – t’un t’ien, a self-supporting military farm. This idea has had long repercussions – employed in multiple variations throughout the centuries. The T’o-pa used military garrisons, who also farmed, as an extension of this idea. Even in the 20th century Mao also had his soldiers work as farmers on the frontiers. However this requires a strong imperial government combined with a significant expense – neither of which was provided during the late Ming.

Obviously the warlike nomadic states couldn’t be treated like children. However the Confucian officials throughout the millennium of debate, because of their presumed cultural superiority, likened themselves to the father and the nomads to recalcitrant children who needed to be put in their place. This makes perfect sense in terms of children. However while it could be argued that the nomadic cultures were inferior culturally in terms of the arts and literature, they were certainly not inferior militarily. In fact the nomadic cultures were the leaders of military technology, not the followers. Most of the advances in military technology spread from the nomadic cultures to China, not vice versa.

In terms of a permanent culture the arid steppes could never support a population large enough to create civilization, i.e. citification. While the fertile river valleys of China were eventually cultivated to feed a billion people, the steppes are still relatively sparsely populated. Not many people enjoy living in extremely arid conditions. However their military equality, if not superiority, alone demanded that they be treated as political equals.

However to the ‘culturally’ superior Confucians, it really hurt to have to treat these ‘uncivilized’, i.e. un-citified, ‘barbarians’ as equals. With the century of the Ming ascendancy behind them, the feeling was that history had finally righted itself and of course put the Chinese on top where they will of course now always stay. Unfortunately for the Ming Chinese, this was not to be so.

Fresh in the minds of the Ming intellectuals was the Sung dynasty peace treaty that ceded Northern China to the Jurchen nomadic culture in 1142. The Sung Chinese officials that had pressed for the peace treaty had been vilified while those who had advocated more war were turned into heroes in the popular mind. Now in the Ming with the same issues of nomadic harassment at hand, the popular feeling was mixed between appeasement and military action. As always the Chinese have been divided on how to deal with the nomadic problem to the north. Many officials feeling culturally superior with the Mandate of Heaven on their side, felt no need to negotiate with the nomadic cultures to the north. Others, having experienced the reality of the nomadic war machine, were happy to have secured their borders at all. Of course the insulated Chinese vilified those who sought the peace through compromise and honored those who advocated fighting to the end, assuming that the Mandate of Heaven was on their side and assured their eventual victory. Obviously their Mandate of Heaven had not protected them from the Mongolian invasion in the succeeding centuries. Obviously the Mongolian military technology was something that should have been respected.

China’s boundaries maintained through military presence, not walls

Any walls that the First Emperor might have built became inconsequential when the nomads re-inhabited the Ordos after his death. Further due the ho-ch’in policy of the early Han, the walls had become obsolete and were not maintained. Earthen walls disintegrate in a few hundred years if they are not maintained. Thus the supposed walls of the First Emperor were never maintained by the Han, and being made of earth, melted relatively quickly into the soil. Later walls were built at strategic points but never a great wall that was more or less maintained throughout the 17 centuries between the Ch’in and the Ming dynasties.

China’s constantly changing political boundaries were primarily maintained through military presence, not through great walls. The Sui and T’ang used military garrisons, not walls to maintain control. The Sung, constantly on the defensive, were certainly unable to maintain this northern wall. They were barely able to even maintain political control over southern China. The vast Mongol empire certainly had no need for walls. Hence it was the xenophobic Ming, in the arrogance of their perceived superiority, who built the Great Wall to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. While classic Ming, it could in no way be considered classic Chinese, who had interacted regularly with the northern barbarians over their long history.

Indeed the Chinese, as pointed out earlier, did not have a distinct concept of boundaries, but instead talked about spheres of influence, with the center being the capital. This is called a mandala political organization. This was one reason that the capital was associated with the dynasty. Wherever the dynasty was located was the center from which power radiated. Hence if the Sung capital was located in the north, that is where its power emanated from. This mandala organization reemphasizes the military and nomadic nature of the government. Home is where the army is.

Walls, garrisons, military farms, appeasement, military action – how to deal with the barbarians? Let’s continue tracing the interrelation between the Chinese imperial government and the nomadic tribes to their north.

Although the Han Dynasty successfully used the policy of appeasement, the imperial government inevitably fragmented due to power struggles. The crumbling Han dynasty fell to the nomadic Hsiung-nu in 316 CE. In the power struggle that followed three different nomadic cultures fought to establish dominance over northern China. After these warring nomadic tribes battled it out amongst themselves, one group, the T’o-pa, relatives of the Hsien-pei, speaking a mix of Mongol and Turkic, achieved ascendancy. After vanquishing their two nomadic rivals in the north they established the Wei dynasty (386-534) in northern China. After destroying the capital of the Hsiung nu in 431 they established dominance in west as well. This nomadic tribe eventually achieved ascendancy over all of China – establishing the Sui Dynasty. Their Empire included all of Northern China and the southern steppes, a huge empire.

Initially the Sui were based in 6 military garrisons in the borderland between the steppes and the fertile river valleys of China. Their armies were the classic mounted horsemen of the steppes. However to control their growing population they increasingly had to rely upon the wealth of the agricultural zone, the Yellow River plain of Northern China, to support their armies. As is traditional, they moved to their economic power base – south of the steppes. As soon as they moved south of their military base, they began to have problems with the nomads from the north. After a few generations they began to treat the problem in a typically Chinese fashion – no respect for the nomadic military culture. The imperial government of their southern capital became weaker and weaker. Finally two of their northern garrisons broke away, forming two rival powers. Harassed by the nomadic tribes, which were increasingly belligerence, the imperial government of the Sui in traditional fashion built many walls to keep the nomadic powers out of their Empire.

With the emergence of the semi-nomadic T’ang wall building stopped. This occurred for two related reasons. First the nomadic cultures respected the T’ang armies due to their proven military prowess and second because they were one with the nomads, not separate. The second emperor of the T’ang, T’ai-tsung, was eventually granted leadership over the nomadic tribes as well as China. When asked how he was able to achieve this remarkable result, unachieved by any other, he responded, “Since Antiquity all have honored the Hua [“Chinese”] and despised the I and the Ti [“non-Chinese,” “barbarian”]; only I have loved them both as one, with the result that the nomad tribes have held to me as to father and mother.” Seen from the perspective of the strength of the T’ang response to the nomads, it’s obvious that the wall building of the preceding dynasties, especially the Sui, was based upon weakness rather than strength.

We see a few things from this sequence of events. First we see the familiar cycle of the nomadic empire moving south and then being re-conquered by another nomadic empire to the north. Why is this cycle so predictable? What about moving south weakens the army? Let us remember that the harsh geography of the steppes requires a more intense relation to existence than does the sedentary agricultural existence. The nomadic warriors are also hunters. They do not just use their bow and arrow for fighting each other, they also use it for hunting game. Hence while the Chinese armies practice fighting, the nomadic armies live it. One of the favorite motifs of the nomadic population is that of hunter and prey. No matter how much practice one has, there is nothing like the real thing. Hence while the nomadic troops had needed to shoot to kill for survival, the imperial troops just practiced shooting to kill. Thus the nomadic troops had developed a killer instinct while the civilized soldiers had merely developed skills. This is why the armies that were able to survive the harsh conditions of the steppes were always able to dominate the imperial troops when they had consolidated. It has to do with reality training versus practice. (In terms of Tai Chi training his connects somewhat to empty handed forms versus push hands. If one only does empty handed forms, one’s balance is thrown off when interacting with reality.)

The other thing that this historical sequence teaches us is to always respect your enemies. The success of T’ai-tsung was based upon his respect for both Chinese and barbarian culture. While most conquerors were either nomadic or Chinese, he considered himself both. Some of the nomadic cultures, which conquered China, were not able to control it because they didn’t respect it. Many Chinese emperors were not able to deal with the nomadic problem because they didn’t respect the nomadic cultures enough to deal with them in any way but militarily. In no way did they attempt to communicate in any way but militarily. While T’ai-tsung’s strategy did not necessarily include compassion, it did include respect.

The late Ming relation with the empires of the steppes was exactly opposite. The Ming officials had no respect for the nomadic tribes, considering them barbarians, and the nomadic tribes had no respect for the military prowess of the Ming armies. Because the Ming officials had no respect, they would not communicate in any way. The lack of communication led to growing hostilities, which eventually undermined their dynasty and contributed to their fall. The early Ming emperors had used nomadic military techniques to re-conquer China as well as expel the nomads. In contrast the later Ming emperors, who were separated from the battlefield, saw no need to interact and followed a policy of insulation.

Much of the action revolved around the crucial Ordos of the upper Yellow River loop. In the early Ming, when they were in their ascendancy, they cleared the nomads out of the loop by regularly sending military campaigns into the loop – many times led by the emperor himself. In the middle Ming the nomads had regrouped, had reoccupied the Ordos, and were beginning to cause trouble. In the later Ming the untended military capabilities of the Ming was revealed by the building of the Great Wall to separate themselves from the militarily superior nomads. However the Great Wall was more like a great sieve with no one to defend it.

Post Han > Sung: Subservient Chinese adopt nomadic elements

Note that after the fall of the Han the Chinese imperial structure adopted many nomadic elements. the inheritors of the Han civilization had all moved south in the midst of the social turbulence following the fall of the Han to the northern barbarians. While the Sui and Tang were able to consolidate the north and subsequently all of China through assimilation with the Chinese, the descendants of the Han government played no part in these proceedings.

While the Han administrative structure was still used to administer to the large agricultural population, it was the military structure of the nomadic T’o-pa that was adopted by the Sui and then the following T’ang. The Sui and early T’ang both had nomadic heritage having inherited their military technology from the nomadic T’o-pa. Further the foreign religion of Buddhism spread into China during the Sui and T’ang through the patronage of the ruling culture against the local religions. It was only during the fall of T’ang that traditional Chinese philosophy began to reassert itself.

At the end of T’ang they had become a vassal state to the nomadic cultures to the north. The later T’ang had to rely on nomadic help to suppress popular revolts, becoming subservient to these nomadic empires in the process. The following Sung Dynasty, while more traditionally Chinese than had been the early T’ang, was just another player in the Eastern Asian power struggle. In no ways were they the dominant military culture of the area. Indeed they had to constantly defend their borders against nomadic attack. Eventually they had to cede Northern China to the more powerful Jurchen. Further their subservient position was reinforced by the paying of tribute to both of the nomadic cultures in the north. In addition they were never even able to conquer the southwest of China from a non-Chinese culture. The Sung had respected the nomadic dynasties enough to sue for peace and even pay tribute to both the nomadic cultures on their borders. Making multiple alliances to secure their borders they allied with the Mongols who eventually overwhelmed all of China after crushing their other enemies with Chinese assistance. Thus for over 1000 years since the Chin dynasty the Chinese had been interacting with the nomadic cultures as military equals, not as the dominant force as some histories would have us believe.

Mongol invasion stops genetic mixture

Because of the ho-ch’in policy, which permitted intermarriage between the aristocracy of the Chinese and the nomadic tribes, many of the early rulers of the Sui and T’ang had as much nomadic blood as they did Chinese blood.

This genetic mixture stopped with the Mongol invasion of China. The Mongols made it illegal for the Chinese and Mongols to intermarry. This had a huge impact. For the first time it separated the Chinese aristocracy from the nomadic aristocracy, grouping the Chinese aristocracy with the peasantry. This created a sense of Chinese nationalism that manifested in the Ming ascendancy.

Of course the Mongol grouping of Chinese aristocracy with the peasantry was natural after the demilitarization of the aristocracy during the Sung dynasty. Prior to the Sung the Chinese aristocracy were warrior-rulers who formed alliances for mutual gain. Thus they were warriors with armies who could easily fit into the nomadic warrior mold. The first Sung emperor and the succeeding ones centralized all military power in the hands of the Emperor, disarming the military aristocracy to prevent internal revolution. Thus the Chinese aristocracy was no longer military at the time of the Mongol invasion. They were mainly scholarly administrators and officials. Hence their affinity with the warriors of the steppes had passed away centuries before.

From Sui times on to the fall of the Ch’ing, over a thousand years later, the military power resided primarily in the imperial government. During the Sui and the Ming, the imperial government was Chinese, while during the Yuan and the Ching the imperial government was foreign and deriving from a nomadic culture. During this time the Chinese aristocracy were mainly cultural scholarly bureaucrats, the ju or shih. Hence the genetic mixture of the Han through the Sui was not continued. This gave rise to a deeper sense of separation from the nomadic cultures during the Ming, which had deep historical consequences. This cultural separation – initiated by the Mongols and maintained by the Manchus, led to a deep sense of Chinese identity and nationalism, which inevitably rejected Western imperialism and embraced Chinese Communism.

The Historical Dynamic: the Ming vs. Northern Nomads

The relations between the two diametrically opposed cultures was different with the Ming dynasty. They were a truly Chinese culture, and their influence spread to a greater territory than at any time since the T’ang. They were clearly the dominant military force in the area and they were more Chinese than ever before. With over a century of dominance over the East, their pride had grown proportionately. Pride precedes the Fall.

With all of that history behind them the Chinese officials selectively ignored any evidence that they had been militarily subservient to these nomadic cultures. The Sui dynasty were looked upon as militarily weak and the T’ang was looked upon as pure Chinese despite genetics and religion to the contrary. No credit was given to the nomadic military technology although nearly all the major military innovations had come from the northern steppes.

While part of the military success of the Ming was based upon the fragmentation of the nomadic empire, the Ming tended to view it simply as their cultural and military superiority. Thus now in the later Ming as northern tribes began their cyclical consolidation under a series of strong rulers the Chinese officials denied that there was any real threat. During most of the early Ming these nomadic nations had been vassal states on the perimeter of the great Ming Empire. In their fragmented state they were insignificant threats.

The Ming Chinese in their introspective state began to only care about things Chinese. Gradually they let go of control of the alien cultures on their perimeter, caring only to administer to the traditionally Chinese territories that were associated with the agricultural river valleys. After conquering Vietnam in the south, the Ming relinquished control in 1428. Similarly in the north, the later Ming emperors refused to maintain the military garrisons in the crucial Ordos plain, strategically placed at the top of the Yellow River Valley.

The later Ming Emperors, increasingly in isolation from political conditions, assumed that there was no real threat from the north. Further who cared about that dry old Ordos plain? No Chinese really want to settle there. Further it was an ongoing expense to maintain the garrisons there. It was hoped that these military garrison communities would be self-supporting, but they were not due to the geography of the region.

With the consolidation of the nomadic nations of the north, they began raiding the northern Chinese borders. There was now a problem, which needed to be solved. Many suggested a strong military action to rid the steppes of the nomadic military presence. However they captured the Emperor of China in 1449 indicating the rising strength of these nomadic cultures. Other officials suggested the Sung strategy of cooperation, negotiation and tribute. The arrogant Ming imperial government, who had been militarily dominant for so long, refused, however, against this sound advice, to negotiate with the northern ‘barbarians’. However in the growing attitude of benign neglect, the Ming emperors didn’t really want to finance a military expedition into the steppes. For one they had been recently embarrassed and for two they really didn’t care about controlling that miserable piece of property anyway.

Thus with increasingly uninvolved emperors, combined with warring officials, part advocating military action and the other advocating negotiation and appeasement, the Chinese government was paralyzed. Basically the government didn’t want to negotiate with the ‘barbarians’ nor did it want to fight with them. However these barbarian nomadic cultures needed to trade with the Chinese culture for survival. They had never been self-sufficient. They had always needed certain goods and supplies from the agricultural territories for survival. This was one reason for their constant raids. However now with this isolationist policy of the Ming, even trade was not allowed with these barbarians. Because they couldn’t trade in time-honored fashion with the Chinese, the nomads were left no option but to raid China.

The paralyzed administration, which was too proud to fight or negotiate with these non-Han, decided to just build a wall around the problematic areas. They started in the northwest where the raiding problems were biggest. The raiders inevitably went around the walls. Hence the wall was continued to the east to prevent circumvention. Eventually the wall extended from the northwest all the way to the ocean in the east. This was the first and original Great Wall of China. It was the result of arrogant decision-making. ‘We refuse to interact with the barbarians so we will just wall them out.’

The Great Wall of the Ming was still being worked on when the Ming were overthrown in 1644 in a relatively peaceful manner by the Manchurians who were assisted by the Chinese. It immediately became obsolete as the Manchu borders transcended the artificial boundaries of the Great Wall. Hence the Great Wall was ineffective even in its own time and certainly has no great place in Chinese history, except as we mythologize it today.

The Fall of the Ming

Although the borders of the Ming were vulnerable, the eventual and inevitable collapse was internally based. The middle Ming dynasty enjoyed domestic peace and economic security internally. The later Ming dynasty, however, was characterized by the exposure of flaws, which eventually led to its demise. The first emperors were so strong that they assumed all power for themselves. To prevent internal dissension or consolidation of power the first emperor of the Ming, created many agencies with overlapping areas of power that only he could resolve. Further as mentioned the first emperors established a military presence in the steppes by active campaigning not by defense. With the capture of the Ming emperor, the following emperors were loath to campaign militarily in the north.

Increasingly the Ming emperors separated themselves from the day-to-day politics of running the empire. The first emperor and the succeeding ones had established a government that needed a strong emperor to work. One, they had to be a military leader. Two, they had to make the ultimate decision between competing departments. And three, they had to check the growing power of the new aristocracy of the scholar-officials. While the early Ming Emperors were active administrators, the later emperors isolated themselves from politics for years at a time. This isolationism led to some uninformed decisions, which eventually contributed to the downfall of the Ming.

The later Ming emperors, also separated themselves increasingly from the military for the normal reasons. “Why risk my life in battle when I have such a great life?” Two of the last emperors, Shih-tsung (r. 1521-67) and Shen-tsung (1572-1620) isolated themselves for decades from direct contact with their ministers. In the power vacuum the state couldn’t deal effectively with the military threats to their borders because the first emperor had deliberately set it up so that nobody but himself was really in charge. Hence the conflicting agencies were stalemated.

Furthermore without the direct authority of the Emperor to control corruption, the peasants inevitably began to suffer again. Part of this had to do with exploitation by corrupt merchants and officials, but part of it had to do with extreme population growth. Anyway with the absenteeism of the emperors things got so bad that the peasants revolted. Led by Li Tzu-ch’eng (1605-45) they captured Peking in 1644 at which point the last Ming Emperor committed suicide.

A northern Chinese general asked for assistance from the Manchus to the north in quelling this domestic rebellion. The fox doesn’t have to be asked twice into the chicken coop. The Manchus were invited through the Great Walls. In combination with the Chinese generals, they quickly crushed the peasant rebellion. Instead of going home, (surprise, surprise!), they seized control and then established the last Imperial dynasty of China, the Ch’ing.

Peasant Rebellions regularly ignite Dynastic Change

This is the sixth time in our cursory narrative that the Chinese government has gone through a huge change due to a peasant rebellion. The Han came into power due to a general rebellion led by a peasant that overthrew the Ch’in. A peasant rebellion in the late Han led to the fall of the dynasty with warlords seizing control of different areas of the country to establish order. Third, a peasant rebellion in the Sui led to the ascendancy of the Duke of T’ang and the establishment of the T’ang dynasty. Fourth, a peasant rebellion in the late T’ang resulted in a call for exterior assistance from the nomadic kingdoms. Due to this the T’ang became first a tributary state to these nomadic kingdoms and then fell soon after. Fifth, a peasant who led a general uprising against the Mongols founded the Ming dynasty. Now sixth, the Manchus come into power after assisting the suppression of yet another a peasant rebellion.

The fall of 6 dynasties, i.e. the Ch’in, Han, Sui, T’ang, Yuan, and Ming, could all be directly linked to peasant rebellions. While the fall of only 4 dynasties, i.e. the Shang, the Chou, the Chin and Sung were primarily due to military invasions or upheaval. While peasant uprisings led to the fall of six dynasties, only the Han and Ming dynasties were founded upon the peasant uprising. In two of the peasant rebellions, the Han and the Ming, opposing military forces, nomadic and imperial armies, joined to crush the uprising. While in two others the military power capable of controlling the peasant uprising was able to seize control. The Duke of T’ang seized control with the fall of the Sui and the warlords seized control with the fall of the Han. In the context of peasant influence, we must also mention that a major factor in the ascendancy of the Sui dynasty preceding the T’ang was their appeal to the peasantry through tolerance and public works.

A few points worth noting: First, although the Chinese peasantry has always been poor and exploited, simultaneously they have been an incredible dynamic in the rise and fall of the Chinese dynasties. Interestingly the peasantry never asks or demands anything more than a plot of ground to grow some food and social stability to pursue trade. Normally the peasant revolts are inspired by lack of leadership rather than tyrannical leadership. The peasantry is normally quiet if there is social stability even if it is repressive. Starvation inspires revolt not repression. Because of the peasant element in making or breaking a dynasty, many of the emperors have sided with the peasantry against the merchant class. Many emperors who have ignored the grinding exploitation of the peasantry have borne the consequences.

Second, generally the imperial dynasty fears the peasantry more than it does a rival military aristocracy. In some ways it seems strange that the Ming would invite their enemies the Manchus in for assistance. However viewed from the perspective of the aristocratic horror of a peasant revolt, it makes perfect sense. While most military aristocracies respect other military aristocracies, they all fear the uprising of the peasantry. Most military governments are run by a small fraction of the population. The peasantry making up the bulk of these populations if organized could overwhelm the minority leadership by virtue of numbers alone. Hence the existence of the enormous peasantry whose labors supports the small number of the military aristocracy has bound the military aristocracies of the world together in a common fellowship. Usually the peasantry is crushed and then the military aristocracies battle it out for supremacy.

This was another reason that the political leadership of China cannot be viewed in isolation but instead must be viewed alongside the military aristocracies of the nomadic empires to make any sense. To view the development of Chinese government as separate from that of the steppes is short sighted. As mentioned the military aristocracy, having, no real location, floated upon the peasant base. This is why that one imperial dynasty could replace another with no disruption in the life of the populace. This is why the governments could easily move their capitals. The peasantry belonged to their land, while the aristocracy was nomadic like their roots. Overall members of the Chinese aristocracy were more or less nomads, just removed generations from the source. Overall they did not come from the local Chinese peasantry although there are many exceptions. Even the boundaries of present day China reflect these nomadic roots.

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