44A: Nomadic Relationships & The Fall of the Ming

China Page

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. The fall of a Chinese dynasty simultaneous with the rise of a nomadic empire is partially cyclical, as we’ve seen through our extended historical journey. However, 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. The decisions of the Ming officials were so typically Chinese. This orientation led to the construction of the Great Wall, which stands as a modern symbol of China. As such, 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 concerns the regular 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. Instead, the nomadic rulers have frequently provided China with its ruling classes – its military aristocracy. Further, those rulers that were closest to their nomadic roots were generally the most effective at dealing with these northern cultures. Conversely, those rulers most removed from nomadic culture were least effective at dealing with their military threat. We will see this mechanism operating in the fall of the Ming.

Perceived Chinese superiority

As they become ever more immersed in their own culture, the Chinese tend to distance themselves from their nomadic roots. As a result, the Chinese began to think of themselves as the superior culture and the nomadic cultures as inferior ‘barbarians’. As the superior culture, they felt no need to communicate with their inferiors, except if the inferior culture deferred to them. This is an effective policy when the nomadic cultures were 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.

As Mongols fragment, the Chinese congeal or Ming arrogance

At the end of the Yuan and beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the nomadic empire had fragmented, as it tends to do on a cyclical 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 shown 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.”

Arrogance Illusory

This arrogance was illusory. 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.

Brief History of the Interactions between Chinese & Nomadic cultures


For their entire history, and possibly prehistory as well, military interaction with the nomadic cultures to the north has dominated Chinese politics. In these interactions China was not always all-powerful. The fall of the Chinese Sung Dynasty to Ghengis 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’.

Brief prehistory

As we’ve attempted to illustrate in this paper, ever since humans have inhabited the Yellow River Valley of North China as an agrarian 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. Recall also that the bronze military technology of the chariot probably spread east to Shang China via the nomadic cultures. This paper has suggested that the Shang and perhaps the preceding Xia dynasties were military aristocracies with roots in the nomadic hunting cultures to the northeast.

The Xia dynasty might have been called in to control the flooding of the Yellow River or they might have come as military conquerors. There are modern precedents for each scenario. The Manchus, as we shall see, entered China to assist the imperial government in suppressing an uprising, while the Mongols came to China to plunder.

Chou, raiders or reformers?

The Chou dynasty like the Shang before them most likely had nomadic roots. 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 Chou princes attempted to ally with the Shang aristocracy to reestablish the dictatorship.

Nomadic emergence in the late Chou

During the Chou, we have the first historical mention of the nomadic cultures to the north. Sometimes Imperial government fought the nomads 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. This technology included the compound bow and warriors on horseback. 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 Ch’in Empire dealings with the nomads

After uniting China, the First Emperor of Ch’in sent a huge military expedition of 300,000 to clear out the presence of the nomads in the Ordos Plain and establish a military presence. 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.

Failure of Han military action

In the internal turmoil that followed the First Emperor’s death, 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. He was defeated and was almost captured.

The nomads can’t be defeated

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. 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

Han solution

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. Each set up a traditional Chinese dynasty, which claimed to be the legitimate rulers of the Chinese Empire. 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 Dynasty. We will also see this in modern times as Red China lays claim to Mongolia due to Ghengis Khan’s Yuan Dynasty. 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.1 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.

Flaws of ho-ch’in policy, i.e. appeasement

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.

Not fair to reward violence with gifts

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.

The Confucian response, a natural one

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. It certainly does not stop it. Children who don’t stand up for themselves on the playground are bullied. Further, children become dominant when their parents don’t establish consequences. It is obvious that there are many disadvantages to appeasement.

Wu-ti of the early Han attempts punitive action against nomads

As expected, almost simultaneous with the institution of the ho-ch’in policy, there was criticism. Eventually this critique led to the military actions of Emperor Wu, a.k.a. Wu-ti (r. 140-87 BCE), of the Han. This warrior-emperor extended the Chinese imperial presence far into the north beyond the agricultural river valleys of China.

The First Emperor built long walls to protect this agrarian border. Wu-ti didn’t have a 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’s resources in prolonged futile warfare.

Military farms, t’un t’ien

After Emperor Wu’s unsuccessful campaign against the nomads, the Confucian officials came up with yet another strategy to deal with northern ‘barbarians’ – t’un t’ien, a self-supporting military farm. This idea had long-lasting 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.

Nomadic states superior militarily

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.

Steppes do not support huge population

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 Central Asian Steppes remain relatively sparsely populated. Not many people enjoy living in extremely arid conditions. However their military equality, if not superiority, demanded that they be treated as political equals.

Hurt Confucians to treat nomads as 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 of the time was that history had finally righted itself. Historical events had, of course, put the Chinese on top where it was presumed that they would, of course, now always stay. Unfortunately for the Ming Chinese, this was not to be so.

Internal conflict between appeasement and military action

Fresh in the minds of the Ming intellectuals was the Sung Dynasty’s peace treaty that ceded Northern China to the Jurchen nomadic culture in 1142. Future generations vilified the Sung Chinese officials that had pressed for the peace treaty, while the popular mind glorified those who had advocated for continuing war against the Jurchen.

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 were divided on how to deal with the nomadic problem to the north. Feeling culturally superior with the Mandate of Heaven on their side, many officials felt no need to negotiate with the nomadic cultures to the north. Having experienced the reality of the nomadic war machine, others 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. They assumed 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 preceding centuries. Obviously the Mongolian military technology was something that the Ming imperial government should have respected.

China’s boundaries maintained through military presence, not walls

Great Wall of First Emperor not maintained

Any walls that the First Emperor might have built became inconsequential when the nomads re-inhabited the Ordos Plain 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 kept up. Thus the Han never tended to the First Emperor’s walls, and being made of earth, they eroded 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 defended through military presence, not through great walls. The Sui and T’ang Dynasties used military garrisons to defend their boundaries. Constantly on the defensive, the Sung 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.

It was the xenophobic Ming Dynasty, in the arrogance of their perceived superiority, who built the Great Wall to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Although this strategy was classic Ming, it would not be considered classic Chinese. Many of prior dynasties had interacted regularly with the northern barbarians over their long history.

Chinese think in terms of zones of influence not boundaries

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.

Continuation of Interrelation between China and barbarians

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.

Northern Wei establishes dominance of North China: after battle between three nomadic culture

Although the Han Dynasty successfully used the policy of appeasement, the imperial government inevitably fragmented due to internal 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 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 also established dominance over western China.2 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.

T’o-pa achieve ascendancy as Sui – build walls

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, i.e. 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 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 belligerent, the imperial government of the Sui in traditional fashion built many walls to keep the nomadic powers out of their Empire.

T’ang military superior – no walls – viewed as one

With the emergence of the semi-nomadic T’ang Dynasty, wall building stopped. This occurred for two related reasons.  First, the nomadic cultures respected the T’ang armies due to their proven military prowess. Second an early T’ang Emperor due to his common roots was selected by the nomads as their ruler.

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.

Hunter warriors defeat imperial soldiers

This sequence of events is instructive. 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.

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. While nomadic troops 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. For this reason, the armies that were able to survive the harsh conditions of the steppes were always able to dominate the imperial troops after they had consolidated.

Necessary to respect enemies

This historical pattern teaches us to respect our enemies. The success of T’ai-tsung was based upon his respect for both Chinese and nomadic culture. While most conquerors were either nomadic or Chinese, he considered himself both. Some of the nomadic cultures that conquered China were not able to control the Empire because they didn’t respect the Chinese populace. Many Chinese emperors were not able to deal with the nomadic problem because they didn’t respect the nomadic cultures. Instead of communicating with them, they only engaged them on the battlefield.

No respect between Late Ming & nomads

While T’ai-tsung’s strategy did not necessarily include compassion, it did include respect. The late Ming relationship 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 felt it beneath their rank to communicate with ‘barbarians’. 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.

A Great Wall built around Ordos plain with no one to defend it

Much of the action revolved around the crucial Ordos Plain of the upper Yellow River loop. In the early Ming, when they were in their ascendancy, they cleared the nomads out of this region by regularly sending military campaigns into the area – many times led by the emperor himself. In the middle Ming, the nomads had regrouped. They had reoccupied the Ordos and were beginning to cause trouble. In the later Ming, the imperial government built the Great Wall to separate themselves from the militarily superior nomads. This insular strategy revealed the inadequacies of the Ming army. However the Great Wall was more like a great sieve, as there was no army to defend it.

Post Han > Sung: Subservient Chinese adopt nomadic elements

Han not a part of China’s reunification

After the fall of the Han Dynasty, the Chinese imperial structure adopted many nomadic elements. The inheritors of the Han civilization had moved south in the midst of social turbulence that followed the fall of the imperial government to the northernbarbarians. 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.

Han administration – Nomad military structure

While the Han administrative structure was still used to manage 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. Having a nomadic background, both the Sui and early T’ang Dynasties had 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 due to the patronage of the ruling culture. This alliance stood in opposition to the local religions. It was only during the fall of T’ang that traditional Chinese philosophy began to reassert itself.

Sung dynasty militarily subservient to surrounding nomadic cultures

At the end of T’ang, the imperial government 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. In the process, they became subservient to these nomadic empires.

While more traditionally Chinese than had been the early T’ang, the following Sung Dynasty was just another player in the Eastern Asian power struggle. In other words, their army was not the dominant military force of the region. 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 not even able to conquer southwest 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 formed an alliance with the Mongols. After crushing their other enemies with Chinese assistance, the Mongol Empire eventually overwhelmed all of China. 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

Sui and T’ang half nomad genetically

The traditional ho-ch’in policy permitted intermarriage between the Chinese aristocracy and the rulers of the nomadic tribes. Due to this policy, many of the early rulers of both 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.3

This prohibition had a huge impact upon Chinese culture. For the first time, the Chinese aristocracy was distinct from the nomadic aristocracy. In fact, the Mongols grouped the Chinese aristocracy with the peasantry. This created a sense of Chinese nationalism that manifested in the Ming ascendancy.

Demilitarization of the Sung aristocracy

After the demilitarization of the aristocracy during the Sung Dynasty, the Mongol grouping of the Chinese aristocracy with the peasantry was not surprising. Prior to the Sung, the leading members of the Chinese aristocracy were warrior-rulers who formed alliances for mutual gain. The rulers were warriors with armies who could easily fit into the nomadic warrior mold.

By disarming the military aristocracy to prevent internal revolution, the first Sung emperor and the succeeding ones centralized all military power in the hands of the emperor. At the time of the Mongol invasion, the Chinese aristocracy no longer had a military background. They were mainly scholarly administrators and officials. Their affinity with the warriors of the steppes had faded centuries before.

From Sui, military power resides in central government

From the Sui Dynasty until the fall of the Ch’ing Dynasty, 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 derived from a nomadic culture. During this entire millennium, the Chinese aristocracy were primarily scholarly bureaucrats, the ju/shih.

The genetic mixture that occurred during 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 significant historical consequences. This cultural separation – initiated by the Mongols and maintained by the Manchus, led to a deep sense of Chinese identity and nationalism. This national identity inevitably rejected Western imperialism and embraced Chinese Communism.

The Historical Dynamic: the Ming vs. Northern Nomads

Early Ming Chinese militarily dominant

The relations between the two diametrically opposed cultures were quite different during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming were a truly Chinese culture. Their influence spread to a greater territory than at any time since the T’ang – over 6 centuries before. They were clearly the dominant military force in the area and they were more Chinese than ever before. At this time in our historical narrative, the Ming had dominated Eastern Asia culturally and militarily for over a century. Their pride had grown proportionately. Pride precedes the Fall.

Historical blindness

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 Dynasty 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.

Ming view success as cultural superiority

Part of the Ming’s military success was based upon the fragmentation of the nomadic empire. However, the Ming officials tended to view their dominance as simply due to their cultural and military superiority. In the later Ming, the northern tribes began their cyclical consolidation under a series of strong rulers. Due to cultural over confidence, 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 later Ming ignores their perimeter

Due to their introspective state, the Ming Chinese 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.

Who wants to spend money on the Ordos

Increasingly isolated from political conditions, the later Ming Emperors 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 Ordos garrisons. It was hoped that these military garrison communities would be self-supporting; but they were not self-sufficient due to the geography of the region.

Consolidation brings a problem

With the consolidation of the nomadic nations of the north, they began raiding the northern Chinese borders. There was now a problem that needed to be solved. Many officials suggested a strong military action to rid the steppes of the nomadic military presence. However their armies 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. First, they had been recently embarrassed. Second, they really didn’t care about controlling that miserable piece of property anyway.

Nomadic nations need agricultural goods for survival

Due to increasingly uninvolved emperors, combined with warring officials, one faction advocating military action and the other 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.

Unfortunately, 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 regions. This was one reason for their constant raids. However due to the isolationist policy of the Ming, even trade was forbidden with the nomadic cultures. Because they couldn’t trade in time-honored fashion with the Chinese, the nomads were left no option but to raid China.

Build the Great Wall – insufficient to keep them out

Too proud to fight or negotiate with these non-Han, the paralyzed administration decided to 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. 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.’

Great Wall obsolete before it was finished

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. 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 it is mythologized.

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. In case of disagreement, the emperor would ultimately make the decision. 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.

The Ming emperors increasingly 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.

Shih-tsung & Shen-tsung (1521-1620)

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?”

The first emperor had deliberately set the administration up so that nobody but himself was really in charge. 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. Due to the power vacuum, the state couldn’t deal effectively with the military threats to their borders. Without any centralized authority, the conflicting agencies were stalemated.

Peasant revolt 1644

Furthermore without the direct authority of the Emperor to control corruption, the peasants inevitably began to suffer again. Part of this problem was exploitation of the peasantry by corrupt merchants and officials. Another contributing feature was extreme population growth. Due, in part, to the absenteeism of the emperors, conditions 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.

Manchus quell resistance & stay

A northern Chinese general asked for assistance from the neighboring Manchus to quell 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 peasant-led general rebellion that overthrew the Ch’in. Second, 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, the peasant that led a general uprising against the Mongols founded the Ming Dynasty. Now sixth, the Manchus came into power after assisting with 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. 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. 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.

There are a few points worth noting in regard to the relationship between the imperial government and the peasantry. First, the Chinese peasantry has always been poor and exploited; simultaneously they have been an incredible dynamic in the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties. Typically, the peasantry did not ask for or demand anything more than a plot of ground to grow some food and social stability to pursue trade. Peasant revolts were usually inspired by lack of leadership rather than tyrannical rule. Even when the leaders were repressive, the peasantry was normally trouble-free if the country was socially stable. Starvation inspired revolt, not repression. Because of the importance of the peasant factor in making or breaking a dynasty, many emperors sided with the peasantry against the merchant class. The emperors who ignored the grinding exploitation of the peasantry frequently bore the consequences.

Second, the imperial dynasty typically feared the peasantry more than it did a rival military aristocracy. It might seem strange that the Ming rulers would invite their enemies, the Manchus, in for assistance. However, when viewed from the perspective of the aristocratic horror of a peasant revolt, this unusual alliance makes perfect sense.

Most military aristocracies respect each other. However they all fear peasant uprisings. Why? Most military governments are run by a small fraction of the population. Further the ruling class was and is dependent upon the labor of the peasantry especially for food.  Making up the bulk of the population, the peasantry, if organized, could overwhelm the minority leadership by virtue of numbers alone. These factors have bound the military aristocracies of the world together in a common fellowship. Usually the peasantry is first crushed; then the military aristocracies battle it out for supremacy.

This affinity between the ruling classes of rival governments is why China’s imperial dynasties cannot be viewed in isolation.  To make any sense of China’s political dynamics throughout history, we must study China’s imperial government in tandem with the nomadic empires of the Central Asian Steppes. To view the development of Chinese government as separate from that of the steppes is short sighted.

Having no set location, the military aristocracy was superimposed upon the peasant base. This is why 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 tended to be nomadic, like their roots. Overall, members of the Chinese ruling class had nomadic blood, although removed generations from the source. Typically, they did not come from the local Chinese peasantry, although there were exceptions. Even the boundaries of present day China reflect these nomadic roots.


1 Interestingly, the great Roman empire also used tribute to control the tribes on their borders. Evidence indicates that the Roman authorities gave both the Irish and Picts of Scotland tribute to leave them alone. ‘Don’t raid us and we’ll give you what you want.’

2 The Great Wall of China by Arthur Waldron, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p.44

3 China to 1850, p 129


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments