The Ming Dynasty ruled China from A.D. 1368 to 1644, during which China’s population would double. Known for its trade expansion to the outside world that established cultural ties with the West, the Ming Dynasty is also remembered for its drama, literature and world-renowned porcelain.
Rise of the Ming Dynasty
Ming dynasty founder Emperor Taizu, or Zhu Yuanzhang, was born into poverty, and spent part of his youth wandering the country after his parents died following a series of natural disasters centered around the Yellow River.
He spent several years begging for a Buddhist monastery, and several more living there, but that life came to an end when a militia burned it down to quell a rebellion.
In 1352, Taizu joined a rebel group related to the White Lotus Society and rose up the ranks speedily, eventually leading a successful invasion on the city of Nanjing, which he used as a base to lash out at regional warlords.
Taizu’s ultimate quarry was the Mongolian rulers of the Yuan empire. Taizu captured Beijing in 1368, destroying the palaces, sending the Mongolian rulers fleeing and announcing the Ming Dynasty.
Emperor Taizu’s empire was one of military discipline and respect of authority, with a fierce sense of justice. If his officials did not kneel before him, he would have them beaten.
Taizu was considered a suspicious ruler who transformed his palace guard into a form of secret police to root out betrayals and conspiracies. In 1380, he began an internal investigation that lasted 14 years and brought about 30,000 executions.
So deep was his paranoia that he conducted two more such efforts, resulting in another 70,000 killings of government workers, ranging from high government officials to guards and servants.
Ming Dynasty Trade
Taizu was succeeded by his 15-year-old grandson, but one of Taizu’s sons, Chengzu, ignited a civil war to take the throne.
From 1405 to 1433, Chengzu launched ambitious flotillas to expand the Chinese tribute system to other countries, sending ships to India, the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa, pre-dating European efforts of similar scope.
By 1557, the tribute system was replaced by maritime trade which saw China exporting silk and allowing a European presence in the empire. This was a time of expansion of cuisine, as food like sweet potatoes and peanuts entered China for the first time.
The period also brought about significant emigration outside of the empire for the merchant class.
One of the best-loved exports of the Ming Dynasty was its porcelain. Created by grinding china-stone, mixing it with china-clay and then baking until translucent, the technique was developed during the Tang Dynasty, but perfected in the Ming era.
An imperial porcelain factory was created in Jingdezhen in 1368 to produce wares for the imperial court. Though various colors might be featured on a piece, the classic Ming porcelain was white and blue.
The Jingdezhen factory became the source of porcelain exports that were extremely popular in Europe, which hoped to replicate the form.
Great Wall of China
Maintenance of the Great Wall of China was not consistent throughout the history of China, and by the time of the Ming Dynasty, it required significant repair work.
The Mongols were a constant threat to the citizens of the Ming Dynasty, and the Great Wall was believed to be the most effective defense against invasion. After several clashes, the Mongols captured Emperor Zhengtong in 1449.
The Ming government chose to replace the emperor with his half-brother rather than pay a ransom. The government also decided that restoring the Great Wall to its full glory and power was the best use of their money to effectively protect the Ming empire.
Zhengtong was later released and eventually sat on the throne again under the name Tianshun.
Christian missionaries from Europe also began to enter the country and provided the world with the first glimpses of life in China.
Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit priest from Italy who, in 1583, started the first Catholic mission in China. Ricci learned Chinese, translated Chinese classic literature into Latin and wrote a series of books about the country.
Ricci also translated books by Euclid into Chinese, and those proved to be very popular. Ricci was known for embracing Chinese ways, often dressing in silk robes and going by the name Li Matou.
Ming Dynasty Literature
The Ming Dynasty saw a publishing boom in China, with an avalanche of affordable books being produced for commoners. Reference books were popular, as well as religious tracts, school primers, Confucian literature and civil service examination guides.
There was a sizable market for fiction, especially for stories written in colloquial language. Writer Feng Menglong had a popular series of humorous short stories that featured palace figures and ghosts and sold well among merchants and educated women.
Play scripts sold very well also. One well-regarded playwright was Tang Xianzu, who specialized in social satire and romance.
It was during the Ming Dynasty that full-length novels began to grow in popularity. Many were adaptations of ancient story cycles that had been part of oral traditions for centuries.
Many of the best-known Ming era novels were written by unknown authors using a pseudonym, as with the erotic work Jin Ping Mei, translated as both The Plum in the Golden Vase and The Golden Lotus, and written by someone using the pen name Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, or “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling.”
Book illustration also thrived during this period, with printing methods allowing for artists to carve their illustrations on wood blocks for easily reproducible images. Using illustrations was a way that one publisher would make their books distinct from others, since there was an overlap of written content from publisher to publisher.
Fall of the Ming Dynasty
Ming rule was partly undone by enormous fiscal problems that resulted in a calamitous collapse. Several factors contributed to the financial trouble. The Imperial clan became overstuffed and paying all the clan’s members became a severe burden.
Military campaigns had also become a significant drain on the empire’s purse, with efforts in Korea and Japan doing the worst damage, as well as the constant costs of defending against insurgents, particularly the Mongols.
An agricultural disaster, the result of the lowest temperatures of the Little Ice Age, also helped deplete funds. A drop in average temperatures resulted in earlier freezes, shortened growing seasons and produced pitiful harvests.
These circumstances lead to famine, which forced starving soldiers to desert their posts and form marauding gangs ravaging the countrysides.
By 1632, the gangs were moving east, and the Imperial military proved incapable of stopping them. Soon after, the country was further decimated by flooding, locusts, drought and disease. Rebellion and riots became commonplace.
In 1642, a group of rebels destroyed the dikes of the Yellow River and unleashed flooding that killed hundreds of thousands of people. As the social order broke down and smallpox spread, two competing rebel leaders, Li Zicheng and Zhang, took control of separate parts of the country and both declared new dynasties.
The last Ming emperor, Chóngzhēn, committed suicide in 1644. Later that year, the semi-nomadic Manchu people prevailed over the chaos and became the ruling Qing Dynasty.