44: The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE)

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Fall of the Yuan & 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 population1. 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 the infrastructure was neglected, there was widespread starvation, with millions of people dying. The Mongols were primarily military warriors, but were inadequate administrators. During Kublai’s reign, they were able to coast upon the past organization. After the inner structure began disintegrating, their management could no longer support the enormous Chinese population. 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. Recall that the peasantry will quickly consolidate around any who can establish social stability. This was the mechanism behind the consolidation of the Empire under both the peasant, Liu Pang, founder of the Han dynasty, and Emperor Wen, founder of the Sui dynasty. Both emperors 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.

Chu Yuan-chang rose to leadership of the Chinese rebellion against the Mongol Dynasty. 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.

The Hung-wu Emperor, T’ai-tsu (r. 1368-98)

The founder of the Ming dynasty, the Hung-wu Emperor, (r. 1368-98), was born a peasant. He 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 Northern China. In so doing, he reunited the North and South under traditional Chinese leadership for the first time since the T’ang.

In the following years, Emperor Hung-wu, i.e. Chu Yuan-chang, campaigned in the Steppes to rid the Chinese of the Mongol threat. He won some early battles and lost some later ones. He established enough of a military presence to cause the Mongols to withdraw from the Ordos Plain, strategically located on the upper Yellow River. Further, he was able to establish military domination over northeastern Asia, 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 T’ang.

Like Liu Pang of the Han, Hung-wu rose from the peasant class to be emperor of China and founder of the long-lived Ming dynasty. While many dynastic changes were due to military domination of China from the north, this dynastic change was due to a peasant revolt. This was similar to the rise of the Han, as this too was based upon a popular revolt. Military conquerors normally came from the north. It is only fitting and to be expected that a peasant revolution would come from the south.

Because of his roots, Hung-wu was sympathetic to the peasant cause and embarked on a policy of land redistribution and reform. Resisting the influence of the aristocracy, he centralized the power of the imperial government even further. Hung-wu was considered a paranoid ruler with frequent palace purges. But this strategy would be expected as a necessary expedient for any ruler who favored the peasantry over the literate aristocracy.

Once again the bureaucracy was determined by Confucian based exams. Once again Confucian ideas held sway on the political level. More than ever, the state exams were the only key to government service. In previous Chinese dynasties, the exams were just part of the criterion, the other being family genetics. During the Ming, the exams were the sole requirement for government service.

The Mongols had broken down the Chinese class structure. Hung-wu attempted to further eliminate the aristocracy. While suppressing the hereditary aristocracy, he created a new privileged class of scholars.

The Yung-lo Emperor (r. 1403-1425)

Hung-wu’s son, the Yung-lo Emperor (r. 1403-1425), 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 become the next leader.

Why didn’t Hung-wu 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, Yung-lo ruled like a Mongol khan. While his father’s power base and capital were in the south, his power base was in the north. He even moved his capital back to Peking, in the north where the Yuan dynasty had been located. The Chinese capital has remained in Peking, now known as Beijing, 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. Yet in so doing, they weakened their borders, because the army followed the emperor. In moving himself and his army to Peking, Yung-lo positioned his government to control the northern nomadic border more effectively. Further this move augmented his imperial influence over both China and the steppe lands to the north.

Yung-lo continued his father’s policy of granting titles to the northern nomadic tribes. Including them in the Chinese political system was a way of controlling them. He was a true warrior king. He began his reign in battle and ending it dying in a northern campaign. His grandson and successor, the Hsuan te Emperor (ruled 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.

Hung-wu, 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. His son, Yung-lo, 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 merely on defense.

Yung-lo spent money like water on a naval military expedition, on military expeditions to Vietnam in the south and Korea in the north. Further he moved the capital to Peking. However, he refused to fund these defensive garrisons and they were abandoned. Instead he established the ‘awesomeness’ of his army. The next emperor also followed the ‘awesomeness’ policy (wei), i.e. active campaigning to keep the nomadic tribes in line.

As long as the Chinese emperors established the ‘awesomeness’ of the imperial army, the nomadic tribes were kept in check. This situation was true for nearly the first eighty years of the Ming Dynasty. Then circumstances changed rapidly, as we shall see. But first more on the historical significance of the Yung-lo Emperor.

Chinese Isolationism & the Yung-lo Emperor

In contrast to common misconceptions, the early Ming was quite international. In fact, Yung-lo created a massive navy to reestablish a Chinese presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Zheng He, an enormous eunuch and battling partner of the Emperor, was placed in charge of the naval expeditions. These trading/military/scientific forays into the southern seas were so successful that the Indian Ocean was nicknamed China’s bathtub.

Instead of attempting to conquer the small kingdoms of Southeast Asia, India and Africa, Zheng He employed his enormous military force to rid the area of pirates and establish a free trade zone. After stabilizing the region, China passed out lavish gifts and granted trading privileges to entice the many kingdoms to join their commercial network. Rather than a dominant military force in these southern seas, China was perceived as a benevolent trading partner. The only requirement was to acknowledge the supreme authority of the Chinese Emperor. China’s military presence established order and their lavish parties and presents produced loyal business partners – a typical pattern for the Middle Kingdom. Unfortunately, events back in the capital completely altered this win-win situation.

Everything about the Hung-lo Emperor was big. In addition to his military campaigns, he also embarked on many enormous construction projects – the most famous being the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. Unfortunately, he deforested Vietnam to obtain enough wood for the many buildings. The Vietnamese revolted – successfully. What a shock to the imperial ego.

Due to his emphasis upon military campaigns, international trade, and massive construction projects, Hung-lo neglected China’s infrastructure, specifically the canals. Further without imperial supervision, the business community accelerated their exploitation of the peasantry. A poorly maintained canal system combined with rapacious business practices led to widespread starvation, which in turn led to peasant revolts.

These disturbances in and of themselves were not enough to turn the tide. It took a natural catastrophe. On May 9, 1421, a electrical storm of divine proportions broke loose in Beijing. It destroyed a large section of Hung-lo’s prized construction project, the Forbidden Palace. More importantly, his favorite concubine died during the conflagration.

Due to his almost miraculous rise to power combined with his many successes, Hung-lo believed that he possessed Heaven’s Mandate. These many setbacks combined with some additional natural disasters led him to believe that he was losing his divine Mandate.

In response to this perception that the gods were turning against him, he posed a national question: What am I doing wrong? His Confucian ministers were quick to point out the problem. Due his military and international ambitions, he had neglected the Chinese population.

To regain Heaven’s Mandate, Hung-lo acted to turn things around in the subsequent years. He burned his boats, canceled any naval expeditions, and completely withdrew from the international scene – much to the chagrin of China’s business partners in the South Seas. It became illegal for Chinese to have contact with foreigners except on state business or under government supervision.

The open-door cosmopolitan international atmosphere cultivated during the T’ang, Sung and early Ming Dynasty was slammed shut. After this point, the Ming tended to exclude any foreign influence. Indeed it was this isolationism after a century of international trade that inspired Europe’s sea explorations that eventually led to Columbus’ discovery of the Americas.

Besides having a negative impact on their global presence, both political and commercial, this drastic change in the imperial orientation also undermined Chinese science. As mentioned, Zheng He’s naval expeditions had a significant forward-looking scientific component. Indeed at this point in history, China would have to be considered significantly ahead of European science in many departments, including medicine and navigation. Unfortunately Hung-lo interpreted the omens to mean that Chinese scholarship and scientists were to henceforth focus upon past achievements rather than innovation. He issued edicts to this effect in order to regain Heaven’s Mandate. Instead of outward, international and dynamic, Chinese culture turned inward, national and past-directed. And this rapid about-face in orientation was due to one natural catastrophe on a single night.

The Cheng-t’ung Emperor (r. 1435-49)

Campaigning in the Central Asian Steppes, the initial Ming emperors seriously weakened one of the nomadic powers in the northeast. Because of this, the nomadic power of the west was able to conquer them. Lacking competition from the other Central Asian tribes, they were able to focus their martial energies on 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 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 on, the nomadic armies began moving into the Ordos region, from which they organized raids on agricultural China.

One element contributing to the decline of the Ming military prowess was the decline in the abilities of its armies. The early Ming armies consisted primarily of members of the defeated Yuan nomadic army, who had been invited to join the Ming. Eighty years later, civilized soldiers had replaced these nomadic soldiers with their horse riding and arrow shooting abilities. The military training of this new breed of soldier was based in practice, rather than survival.

In the meantime, a fresh wave of nomadic soldiers appeared. The martial skills of these warriors had been developed through hunting and battling other nomadic tribes for the sparse grazing land of the steppes. In the face of these fierce warriors, it is no wonder that the Ming retreated behind their traditional boundaries and began building walls.

1 This was similar to the Norman castles in England, which were virtually military garrisons through which the invading Normans could control the local population.


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