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Ming Dynasty


Duration: 1368~1644, Preceded by the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, and succeeded by the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty.
Capital: Nanjing (until 1403), Beijing (1403~1644)

Founding of the Ming Dynasty

Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of Ming Dynasty, had originally been a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk. Peasant uprisings broke out across China in the last years of the Yuan Dynasty, caused jointly by massive flooding of the Yellow River, the overtaxing policy of the Yuan government, and a long-standing ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese instituted by the Yuan rulers. Zhu joined one of the rebels group called the Red Turbans in 1352, and soon rose to fame and position by marriage to the daughter of a senior rebel commander. In the following 16 years, Zhu’s rebel force endured numerous hardships and outrivaled all other rebel groups (prominently two groups led by Chen Youliang and Zhang Shicheng) as well as the Yuan government forces. The Mongols fled back to the Steppe, and Zhu proclaimed the founding of Ming Dynasty in 1368.

Ming Dynasty Culture, Ming Dynasty History

China used to have a vast navy in Ming Dynasty. Admiral Zheng He led seven major voyages to the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. Zheng’s Treasure Fleet boasted the then largest ships of the world.


Zhu Yuanzhang is thus one of the few founding emperors in Chinese history who rose to the throne from a mere peasant rebel. (Another well-known example being Liu Bang, the first Han Dynasty emperor)

Ming Dynasty Culture, Ming Dynasty History

Starting from the Ming Dyansty, the Forbidden City served as the seat of the royal residence and central government.

Ming Emperors: self-indulgent, childish, interesting …

A succession of altogether sixteen emperors reigned during the Ming Dynasty which lasted 276 years. Many Ming emperors impressed later Chinese people with being negligent with imperial duties, overly self-indulgent (in personal enjoyment such as women, hunting, playing, luxury items, etc.), childish, and, in a sense, interesting.

Emperors Xuande (r. 1425~1435) was famed as a “cricket emperor”, as he was so given to watching fighting between crickets (an insect) that he ordered local officials all around the empire to contribute crickets to the royal court. Emperor Zhengde (r. 1505~1521) was even more interesting; he created a commercial zone within his palace where his ministers, eunuchs, soldiers, servants, etc. were ordered to dress up like merchants and street vendors while he would walk through the scene like a commoner. Though a de jure and de facto emperor, he would constantly “promote” himself to the position of “General Zhu Shou” and led an expedition against the Mongols in the north.

Emperor Tianqi (r. 1620~1627) was fascinated with cock-fighting, and enjoyed (and actually excelled in) carpentry so much that he alienated himself from state affairs, leaving Wei ZhongXian, a eunuch, with dominant power in state administration. Emperor Wanli (r. 1573~1620) was at odds with his chancellors who rebuffed his nomination of his favorite offspring as crown prince, that he refused to show up at daily imperial meetings where state affairs were discussed for as long as 28 years. Emperor Taichang (r. 1620, son to Emperor Wanli) over-indulged himself in sex and fell ill just the day he ascended the throne; his death in the same year was largely attributed to an overdose of cinnabar (an ingredient used to produce “elixir”).

Ming Dynasty Culture, Ming Dynasty HistoryMing Dynasty Culture, Ming Dynasty History
Cricket-fighting was a game enjoyed by many Chinese emperors and the aristocracy. Emperor Xuande was an outstanding cricket-fighting fan.Emperor Wanli, so obese that he could not stand on feet without being supported. Emperor Wanli’s reign is generally viewed as the point where the Ming Empire started going on the decline. 

Fall of the Ming Dynasty

Late Ming Empire suffered from mounting military pressure from the Manchus in the northeast and constant natural calamities (earthquakes, drought, and ecological effects of the “Little Ice Age”), which caused crop failures and famines, and, coupled with sudden epidemics and inappropriate administration (e.g. poor disaster-relief efforts), gave rise to peasant rebellions led by Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong. Li Zicheng’s rebel forces marched into Beijing in 1644, whereupon Emperor Chongzhen (r. 1627~1644), the last Ming emperor, hanged himself on a tree on the Jingshan Hill, north of the Forbidden City.

Ming Dynasty Culture, Ming Dynasty History

Li Zicheng’s peasant uprising toppled the Ming rule in 1644. However, it was the Manchus who took advantage of the developments and laughed the last by conquering China proper and founding the Qing Dynasty.

As the last Chinese dynasty ruled by Han Chinese, the Ming became an age of much nostalgia for some later Chinese. Rebellions that took place in the Qing Dynasty often took the pretext of driving away the Manchus and restoring Ming rule.

Society and Culture during the Ming Dynasty

Like the Song Dynasty, the Ming bureaucracy was composed almost entirely of officials drafted through the imperial civil service examination. The state was so designed that even though many Ming emperors were “negligent” of their duties and indulged themselves in leisure, stability and prosperity was generally well maintained by the bureaucracy. Salaries of government officials of Ming Dynasty were generally very low. Most officials had to rely on bribery and corruption (to various extents) to sustain their office teams including the think tank, as well as cover family expenditures.

Ming Dynasty Culture, Ming Dynasty History

Hai Rui, a Ming official famed for his cleanness and justice in holding offices.


Chinese population continued to grow in the Ming Dynasty. Though national censuses were organized, the statistics are now deemed unrepresentative of the real picture on suspicions of underreporting. However, it is safe to say that population growth was enormous. In late Ming Dynasty, it probably stood at 160 million or more, triple that recorded at the beginning of the dynasty. Urban economy continued to thrive in times of peace, with increasingly vibrant social life.

Commerce seemed not so despicable as before, a trend starting from the Song Dynasty. The Yangtze River delta region (more popularly known as Jiangnan Region) saw the buds of capitalism. Textile industry was a pillar industry. Masses of landless peasants would gather at certain open places in Jiangnan cities like Suzhou, Songjiang and Hangzhou, waiting to get employed at workshops. By the mid-Ming Dynasty, farmers in the Jiangnan Region shifted their growing pattern by planting cash crops (mainly cotton) instead of grain. The nation’s grain farming base had shifted to the middle streams of the Yangtze River.

Ming Dynasty Culture, Ming Dynasty History

Artisans working in groups in a porcelain workshop.


Doctrines of Neo-Confucianism, which had been established as the orthodox national ideology, began to be challenged by thinkers represented by Wang Yangming. Wang would argue that anyone, whatever his socio-economic status or background, had the potential of becoming as wise as sages like Confucius and Mencius, and it would in fact be better for him to experience the real world rather than merely study the Classics.


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