Born Zhu Yuanzhang in 1328 and orphaned at age 16, the man who would found the Ming dynasty survived by begging before becoming a novice at a Buddhist monastery. When his monastery was burned down a few years later during a conflict between Yuan dynasty soldiers and rebels from a Buddhist sect known as the “Red Turbans,” Zhu joined the rebels, quickly rising through the ranks and even marrying the daughter of one of his commanders. By the time his men overthrew the Yuan dynasty capital of Nanjing, the 40-year-old Zhu had distanced himself from the rebels’ more esoteric teachings, although the name he gave his dynasty, Ming, means “bright,” in possible reference to the god of light revered by his former comrades.
In the early 15th century the Hongwu Emperor’s son, the Yongle Emperor, supervised the transfer of the imperial capital from Nanjing to a new city at Beijing, 550 miles to the northwest. Adjacent to the old Yuan dynasty capital of Dadu, which had been built by Kublai Khan beginning in 1264, the new Ming capital was surrounded by a wall 15 miles long and 40 feet high. In addition to an administrative hub with offices for government officials, the center of the complex contained the imperial palace, whose nearly 10,000 rooms could only be entered with the emperor’s permission. Known in modern English as the Forbidden City, the Chinese term for it, “Zijin Cheng,” means “Purple Forbidden City,” a colorful reference not to the city’s walls but to the night sky—particular the purplish constellation with the North Start at its center, which the emperor hoped to emulate, with his new capital as the earthly version of this navigational star.
The oldest parts of the 4,500-mile-long Great Wall of China date back to the 7th century B.C., when Chinese rulers first built border fortifications to keep northern armies at bay. Between 204 and 201 B.C. an earthen Great Wall was built by hundreds of thousands of conscripted workers. Responding to new threats from the north in the late 1500s, the Ming emperors began an 80-year refurbishing of the wall, rebuilding it out of local granite, limestone and fired bricks of clay strengthened with sticky rice. The taller, thicker, longer wall featured integrated watchtowers, barracks and storehouses and stretched from the Bohai Sea in the east to the Jiayu Pass (an important Silk Road oasis) in the west.
Fifty years before Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and up the east coast of Africa, an armada of some of the largest wooden ships ever made was projecting Chinese power in the same waters, under the command of Ming-dynasty admiral Zheng He. Born in 1371 into a Muslim family in Yunnan province, Zheng had been captured and castrated by Ming troops and sent into service to the imperial family, where he became a trusted advisor to the future Yongle Emperor. After his patron’s ascension, he was put in charge of the Forbidden City’s corps of eunuchs before being promoted to admiral. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng’s seven maritime expeditions, which included up to 62 ships and 27,800 men, travelled trade routes through Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and Eastern Africa. Some 36 countries agreed to form tributary relationships with China, but after the death of the Yongle Emperor, the new regime put an end to the costly expeditions.
In the Jiangzi Province factory town of Jingdezhen, expert potters used local clay and imported Persian cobalt to create some of the Ming Dynasty’s most popular trade items. Traditional patterns such as the dragon-cloud motif in pottery were, in part, designed for export to the Arab world and, eventually, to Europe. When Vasco da Gama sailed for China in 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal instructed him to bring back two precious commodities: spices and porcelain. Two years later, da Gama returned, having lost half his men but holding a dozen pieces of chinaware. During the chaos following the Ming dynasty’s collapse exports to Europe were interrupted, spurring the production of Delftware, a blue-and-white Chinese-style porcelain made in Holland.
Usually monetary economies start out with coins made of precious metals and eventually graduate to paper money. In China, paper money was introduced during the Tang (7th century) and Song (11th century) dynasties. By the middle of the Ming era, though, instability of the paper currency led it to be replaced by coins minted from silver imported from the Spanish Empire and Japan. In 1639, a trade dispute in Hiroshima and a diplomatic conflict with Spain over the treatment of Chinese merchants in the Philippines cut off China’s silver supplies. A drop in imports spurred hoarding, which exacerbated the crisis and left the dynasty’s rulers reeling.
By the early 17th century the greatest threat to Ming supremacy lay northeast of the Great Wall in Manchuria. Military spending to meet the Manchu threat forced the Ming government to raise taxes while neglecting other parts of China. Among the many disgruntled workers who lost their jobs in the economic downturn was Li Zicheng, a postal messenger in the western city of Xian. After a brief stint in the imperial army, Li joined with groups of roving bandits, becoming a leader in a growing peasant rebellion. In 1644 Li’s men captured a barely-defended Beijing. Abandoned by his closest advisors, the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, hung himself from a tree in the imperial garden. Ironically, Li’s triumph spurred the Ming general Wu Sangui to go over to the Manchus, whose combined force then defeated the rebels and took the throne, ushering in Qing dynasty.