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presenting a concise illustrated History of the Middle Kingdom

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Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD)

After proclaiming the Ming dynasty, the Hongwu emperor Zhu Yuanzhang left his 4th son Zhu Di (1360 AD - 1424 AD) in control of Dadu (Beijing), in order to use it as a military outpost that could ward off a possibly returning Mongol army. The new Ming capital was established at Nanjing (Chinese for southern capital) and thereby closer to Zhu Yuanzhang's southern power base.

After further military campaigns, that successfully consolidated his control over all of China, Zhu Yuanzhang set about rebuilding a proper Confucian institutional bureaucracy within his lands, that was staffed by the Chinese literati elite once again. However, Zhu Yuanzhang never fully trusted the literati class, possibly because of their improper selfish behaviour during the plague outbreak in the late 1340's and early 1350's or because of his own lack of a proper education.

the Hongwu emperor, founder of the Ming dynasty
the Hongwu emperor, founder of the Ming dynasty. By Filiepstellamans at nl.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

His mistrust of the literati expressed itself in his decision to immediately suspend the imperial examinations (that he had reinstated himself) just after they were first held again in 1370 AD. Realizing later that he needed the literati to effectively govern China, he reinstated the examination system in 1380 AD. The imperial examinations henceforth continued without further interruption until 1905.

Qiu Ying's painting showing imperial examination candidates
Artwork by Qiu Ying ca. 1540 AD showing imperial examination takers gather around the wall where results had been posted. public domain in the United States

painting of Hu Weiyong
painting of Hu Weiyong
Zhu Yuanzhang's suspicion of the literati also expressed itself in repeated bloody purges, most notably in 1380 AD, when he became suspicious of the loyalty of his chief minister Hu Weiyong and had him, his family, everyone who worked with him and their families executed, altogether thousands of people! He subsequently abolished the office of chief minister and took its administrative and political functions into his own hands as well, leaving him little time for rest and sleep.

drawing of Hu Weiyong's execution
drawing of Hu Weiyong's execution

After Zhu Yuanzhang's death in 1398 AD and according to his wishes, his grandson Zhu Yunwen (1377 AD - 1402 AD) succeeded him on the throne. Zhu Yuanzhang's 4th son Zhu Di understandably resented this decision, as he was the oldest surviving son of him.

Zhu Yunwen was a well-educated young man, who had grown up within the imperial palace, where many Confucian officials had tutored him. That's why he had a totally different approach of dealing with the literati. He chose the reign title of Jianwen emperor for himself (Jianwen - to nourish the cultural, literary), which signalled that he planned to have a much more productive and trusting working relationship with the literati officials.

Ming dynasty picture of the Jianwen Emperor
Ming dynasty picture of the Jianwen Emperor. By Someone in Ming dynasty [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Zhu Di saw this as a betrayal of the political ideals of his father Zhu Yuanzhang and began to plot to usurp the imperial throne by himself. Between 1400 AD and 1402 AD, he undertook a series of political and military actions, that culminated in his army's attack of the imperial capital Nanjing in 1402 AD, in which the imperial palace was burnt down. The body of the Jianwen emperor was never found, which led to speculation later on in history.

site of the former Ming dynasty palace in Nanjing
site of the former Ming dynasty palace in Nanjing. public domain in the United States

Through this attack, Zhu Di successfully usurped the imperial throne and proclaimed himself as the 2nd Ming emperor, erasing the short reign of the Jianwen emperor from the official history books for some time. However, many Confucian literati officials at first refused to recognize Zhu Di as the legitimate new emperor. When the official Fang Xiaoru refused to acknowledge Zhu Di's legitimacy as emperor in an official edict, he and many of his sympathizers were executed.

Portrait painting of the Yongle Emperor
Portrait painting of Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor. By Anonymous court artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
the Confucian official Fang Xiaoru
the Confucian literati official Fang Xiaoru, who refused to accept Zhu Di as the new emperor

Nevertheless, after the remaining literati officials had accepted the legitimacy of his ascent to power, Zhu Di - who reigned under the title of Yongle emperor (yongle = eternal happiness or eternal joy or everlasting happiness) - enjoyed a fairly positive working relationship with them, unlike his father before him, and didn't resort to occasional bloody purges to keep them under control.

Most notably, he increased the political and administrative power of the Grand Secretariat. That was the policy-formulating and document processing institution of the imperial government. As such, it was responsible for edicts, proclamations, allocation of funds, incoming reports from province-based officials or capital-based government ministries . . . Zhu Di henceforth employed its leading officials as his official counsellors and advisors.

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In the year 1420 AD, the Yongle emperor Zhu Di moved the imperial capital and administrative center from Nanjing (henceforth a subsidiary political center) to Beijing ("northerly capital" in Chinese), a move that had taken a considerable amount of preparation time. Upon Zhu Di's initiative, around 100.000 families of carpenters, stone masons, artisans etc. had moved north in 1407 AD in order to build a new great capital a few kilometres south of the Mongol capital of Dadu. The result of these gargantuan building efforts - Beijing's Forbidden City Travel Information for Beijing's Forbidden City - is now Beijing's most visited tourist attraction with millions of visitors per year.

Panoramic photo of Beijing's Forbidden City
Panoramic photo of Beijing's Forbidden City. Click on it for a larger view. By 刘灼盛 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

monument of admiral Zheng He
monument of admiral Zheng He. located in the Stadthuys, Melaka, Malaysia. By hassan saeed from Melaka, Malaysia (Admiral Zheng He) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Yongle emperor also demonstrated his power and the wealth of China by sending the eunuch Zheng He (1371 AD - 1433 AD) as a commander of a grand maritime fleet of hundreds of ships on 7 exploratory voyages all around Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the East coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf. Before Zheng He, only Chinese maritime traders had been active in these waters. These voyages, that took place between 1405 AD and 1433 AD (continuing even after the Yongle emperor's death in 1424 AD), projected China's power into the world and led to greater diplomatic and trade relations between China and the visited countries. After 1433 AD, the Chinese imperial state readjusted its focus from maritime exploration back to the traditional strategic concern of protecting its internal borders (especially its inner - Asian frontier) from potentially dangerous outside forces.

Map of the routes of Zheng He
Map of the routes of Zheng He 1405 AD - 1433 AD. By Continentalis (This file was derived from:Mapa mundial.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

After the Yongle emperor's death in 1424 AD, several young emperors succeeded him on the Ming throne, who didn't contribute much leadership. The first of those was the Yongle emperor's son Zhu Gaochi (1378 AD - 1425 AD), who reigned for less than a year, then Zhu Zhanji (1399 AD - 1435 AD) from 1426 - 1435 before the only 8-year old boy Zhu Qizhen (1427 AD - 1464 AD) ascended the throne. Despite weak leadership from the part of the emperor during the first part of the 15th century, the Ming dynasty finally stabilized by the middle of the 15th century and entered a Golden Age of peace and prosperity through great domestic economic expansion.

Zhu Gaochi, the Hongxi emperor
Ming dynasty painting of Zhu Gaochi, the Hongxi emperor. By Ming Dynasty Imperial Painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Zhu Zhanji alias Emperor Xuanzong
Ming dynasty painting of Zhu Zhanji alias Emperor Xuanzong. By Palace Painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Zhu Qizhen alias Emperor Yingzong
Ming dynasty painting of Zhu Qizhen alias Emperor Yingzong. By Palace Painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The institution of the Grand Secretariat had become a very powerful political force in China during the period of weak leadership. Among its many Confucian officials, the three Grand Secretaries Yang Shiqi (who was also a prominent literary authority), Yang Rong and Yang Pu - now known as "the Three Yangs" - gained special distinction for their guidance of the affairs of China until the early 1440's.

Yang Rong
Grand Secretary
Yang Rong
Yang Shiqi
Grand Secretary Yang Shiqi
Yang Pu
Grand Secretary Yang Pu

Whereas eunuchs had played a prominent role in the leadership of China during earlier dynasties, they were now relegated to clerical functions regarding imperial communications. In fact, the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang had even excluded eunuchs from any meddling in government affairs whatsoever. During his reign, they were not allowed to work with official government documents and weren't even allowed to be taught to read!

Zhu Yuanzhang's son Zhu Di had however used eunuchs as emissaries and secret agents, before usurping the throne with his attack of Nanjing. Later, as an emperor, he had continued to use eunuchs as his personal agents, perhaps because of his mistrust of the literati.

Ming Emperor Xuanzong with his imperial eunuchs
Ming Emperor Xuanzong with his imperial eunuchs. By unknown court artist (Palace Museum Beijing) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During Zhu Di's reign, eunuchs got involved in the transmission and handling of official documents within the imperial palace. A special academy inside the imperial palace trained them for this task. Meanwhile, the Confucian literati officials continued with their traditional tasks of administering the country from the outside of the inner palace and all around the country, maintaining the imperial examination system and shaping the cultural discourse within the empire. The power balance between influential eunuchs within the inner palace and the literati officials outside of it was fairly stable during this period of the Ming dynasty.

The Ming dynasty eunuchs gained more and more political power over time, especially within the secret police and as special commissioners that were sent out by the emperor to oversee certain economic activities. Outside the compounds of the imperial inner palace, eunuchs had to deal with the Confucian prejudice that it is sinful to cripple one's body and cut off one's bloodline. The powerful eunuchs that could afford it sought to gain some respect within society by patronizing Buddhism and the arts.

Economically, this period of the Ming dynasty was a great age of economic development. That was facilitated to a large degree by the network of postal roads that spanned all across the Ming empire. The first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang had initiated the construction of these postal roads. By the middle of the 15th century, there were postal stations every few miles, where postal couriers could rest overnight or simply just exchange their horses. The perhaps greatest example for such a postal station is the Yucheng Post in Gaoyou Travel Information for the Yucheng Post in Gaoyou (north of Yangzhou) that makes for an interesting visit.
inside the Yucheng Post in Gaoyou
inside the Yucheng Post in Gaoyou

In this way, it took a mere 5 weeks to reach the southern parts of the empire from Beijing. Postal couriers transmitted official messages all across the empire, keeping the emperor and government officials everywhere well-informed of all the latest developments across the country.

Map of the Ming dynasty state
Map of the Ming dynasty state. By Arab Hafez at English Wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Beao, Historiographer at English Wikipedia. (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This network of postal roads was also used by merchants and other travellers. Everyone who used these roads benefited from the fact that guards were posted along these routes and that the army was garrisoned nearby. In this way, it was safe for merchants who carried valuable trade goods or wealthy travellers to travel along these roads. Since private travellers and merchants weren't allowed to stay at the official postal stations, their needs for lodging and food were met by private hostels, taverns and inns that began to spring up along these routes.

Ming court artist painting showing the Ming emperor Jiajing on his state barge
Ming court artist painting showing the Ming emperor Jiajing on his state barge. By Unknown Ming court artist [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even though they couldn't stay at the official postal stations, private merchants were however allowed to use the imperial transport barges (if they weren't fully loaded already) for the shipment of their commercial goods along the Grand Canal, which had been built to ship grain from southeastern China to Beijing (where not enough grain could be grown to feed its large population). Since the earlier mentioned process of regional economic specialization had continued and even intensified (Jiangnan region specialized in cotton and silk production, certain areas in Zhejiang and Hunan became tea growing regions, Jingdezhen in northern Jiangxi produced porcelain at its imperial kilns etc.), there were more and more products that were traded all over China and even internationally. Not only commercial goods were transported along the imperial postal roads, but also large amounts of food, since the highly specialized economic centres had become food importing regions.

A Ming Dynasty banknote
A Ming Dynasty banknote. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was not only the improved logistics that had led to this expansion of trade, but also the increased money flows within China and internationally along with the emergence of prototypes of commercial banks. Paper money was used again during the Ming dynasty, bills of trade were used between merchants and other kinds of private commercial paper, but it was especially the inflow of large amounts of silver (acquired in the tally trade from Japan's proliferating silver mines and from trading with the Spanish, who had established a trading post in Manila on the Philippines in the 1570's) that kept the Chinese domestic economy awash in cash and minimized the importance of barter.

This monetization of the Chinese economy along with an increased international demand for Chinese goods further fired up the growth of the Chinese economy.

Even though the growth of international trade was beneficial for China, the imperial government tried to keep it under tight control. Worried about coastal security, the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang had issued a maritime interdict in an effort to control the proliferating coastal trade. Occasionally, international trade was even completely banned. At these times, it was pirates - the chronic scourge of the southeastern Chinese coast in the 15th and 16th century - who stepped into the void and filled the demand for Chinese and international goods.

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The significant accumulation of wealth along with higher agricultural yields (through technological improvements) during the Golden Age of the Ming greatly improved the standards of living of many if not most Chinese people and resulted in a substantial growth of the Chinese population from about 155 million people in 1380 AD to about 230 million around the year 1500 AD. By the late middle of the 17th century, the Chinese population had reached about 270 million people!

However, even this Golden Age of the Ming was not without its problems. Security issues along its northern frontier (recurring Mongol raids) and southeastern coast (pirate raids) led to factional division and political debates within the imperial court. In 1449 AD, recurring Mongol raids along the Great Wall near the imperial capital of Beijing motivated the emperor Zhu Qizhen upon the advice of his eunuch counsellor Wang Zhen (the Grand Secretariat had by then lost some of its influence after the period of "the three Yangs") to launch a punitive military expedition against the Mongols, which he led by himself. That turned out to be disastrous, when the Mongols attacked the imperial entourage and captured the emperor himself. He was later released for a large ransom payment.

Ming cavalry shown in a scroll painting
Ming cavalry shown in a scroll painting. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mongol raids across the Great Wall recurred in the late 1540's and early 1550's, by which time pirate raids along the southeast coast (particularly in the wealthy Jiangnan area, which was easily accessible from the sea because of its location at the mouth of the Yangtze River) had become a serious security issue as well. The Ming managed to handle this threat through a combination of military force and a relaxation of trade policies along the coast (which turned many pirates into legal traders). Henceforth, maritime trade (both within China and internationally) increased substantially during the 2nd half of the 16th century through the easier legal access to ports along the Chinese coast, which coincided nicely with the arrival of the Spanish in these waters.

A Chinese junk ship during the Ming dynasty
A Chinese junk ship during the Ming dynasty. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Near the end of the 16th century, other problems began to plague the Ming dynasty during the reign of the Wanli emperor Zhu Yijun (1563 AD - 1620 AD), who reigned from 1572 AD until 1620 AD. His advisor Zhang Juzheng (the chief Grand Secretary of the Ming state at that time) had initiated a series of well - intentioned reforms with the objective of strengthening the power of the central Ming state.

One part of these reforms - named the "Single Whip Reforms" - changed the revenue taxation system. Until then, taxes had customarily been "paid in kind" , usually in grain (in the fall after the harvest season) or cloth (after the winter weaving in spring).

Portrait of the Wanli emperor Zhu Yijun
Portrait of the Wanli emperor Zhu Yijun. By Ming Dynasty Imperial Painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of the Ming dynasty Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng
Portrait of the Ming dynasty Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng. By 蒼穹之丘 at zh.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Zhang Juzheng's reforms changed the payment of taxes to a cash transaction in silver. Instead of paying different kinds of taxes in different ways (some taxes in grain, others in cloth etc.), taxable individuals had to now pay all their taxes in silver , which they obtained through the sale of their products. This new system worked well in the wealthier regions, that had benefited from substantial economic growth (like the Jiangnan region and other coastal regions) and where silver was in abundant circulation (through trade with the Spanish and from the Japanese silver mines). In those regions, it made both the collection and payment of taxes much more efficient and a large part of these taxation revenues filled up the imperial treasury. In other areas, where economic growth lacked behind and far less silver was in circulation, these Single Whip reforms had a negative effect on economic development and began to be resented by the less wealthy population.

The people there had to sell their products for copper coins (since there was not enough silver in circulation there), which was then converted at a disadvantageous exchange rate to silver. So the tax payers there paid effectively more taxes, than they would have if they could have continued to pay their taxes in grain or cloth or even copper.

The 2nd part of the reforms that were initiated by Zhang Juzheng regarded the ownership of land. By that time, the imperial records of land ownership were largely outdated. In fact, the last comprehensive survey regarding land ownership within the Chinese empire had taken place in 1393 AD!

Ming dynasty silver bullion found in a tomb
Ming dynasty silver bullion found in a tomb. By 风之清扬 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Zhang Juzheng tried to rectify this situation by launching a new land ownership survey. Officials were sent out all over the empire to survey land and look through existing records in order to find out how much land of which quality everyone owned. This information would then be used for determining the proper tax burden.

Ming dynasty land register offically compiled for taxes
Ming dynasty land register offically compiled for taxes. By 猫猫的日记本 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Understandably, this land survey was not popular among the wealthy landowners (who often belonged to the literati class). Not wanting to pay more taxes, they tried everything within their power to undermine and resist these efforts. Zhang Juzheng's unpopular land survey is a good example for the conflict of interest that the literati faced. On the one hand, they were usually employed as government officials, who were paid to serve the interests of the imperial state. On the other hand, they were often land owners themselves. So, fulfilling their duties as government officials would have been in direct opposition to their own private interests as wealthy landowners. The anger of large groups among the literati regarding this land survey directed itself against Zhang Juzheng personally and led to his downfall in the early 1580's.

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the Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming
the Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming. public domain in the United States
Even though the taxation reform and land survey posed some serious practical problems, the basic operations of the Ming state still continued to run smoothly. However, from the end of the 16th century onwards, there were further philosophical and political problems that incapacitated the Ming state from functioning effectively, especially in its ability to adapt to changing circumstances and newly arising problems. The government official and philosopher Wang Yangming (1472 AD - 1529 AD) - sometimes referred to as the last great Confucian philosopher in imperial times - had greatly influenced the philosophical and political discourse within China by highlighting certain ideas of Neo-Confucianism.

According to Wang Yangming's thinking, everyone had within them an "innate knowledge of the good". Whereas previously, adherents to the Confucian ideology had looked up to the literati elite as a source for moral and practical leadership, Wang Yangming's ideology encouraged everyone to look into his/her own personal conscience to find moral guidance. Not only that, his radical individualist philosophy stressed the importance of taking concrete practical action upon finding out what was morally good and bad.

Wang Yangming's philosophy found widespread acceptance among the literati and common people alike at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century. It led to the creation of popular movements among merchants, artisans, peasants etc., who felt encouraged to act upon their own moral insights and sometimes openly defied the power of local officials.

calligraphy section of the Eighteen Scholars scroll set
the calligraphy section of the 4 hanging scrolls by an anonymous Ming dynasty artist entitled "The Eighteen Scholars". By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The educated literati elites and officials were also deeply influenced in their intellectual debates by Wang Yangming's ideas and these discussions carried over into the political realm. It became nearly impossible to find a common middle ground in those political debates, since everyone was convinced of the moral purity and righteousness of their own position (thinking along the lines of: "since I have an innate knowledge of the good and my opinion is x, so your opinion y must be bad/evil") and saw the opinion of the other side as evil. Accordingly, political decision-making was greatly impeded.

Lady Zheng, the Wanli emperor's favourite concubine
Lady Zheng, the Wanli emperor's favourite concubine.
Zhu Changxun, son of the Wanli emperor and his concubine Lady Zheng
Zhu Changxun, son of the Wanli emperor and his concubine Lady Zheng.

At those times of factional conflict among the literati officials, the emperor could have provided the necessary leadership. At the same time however, the Wanli emperor Zhu Yijun withdrew from the regular administration of his empire due to a squabble with his officials regarding his reign of succession. Even though Empress Dowager Xiaojing had given him his first son Zhu Changluo in 1582 AD, Zhu Yijun nevertheless wanted to replace her as empress with his new favourite concubine Lady Zheng. Furthermore, he wanted to make his 3rd son Zhu Changxun (Lady Zheng's son) his legitimate heir, a demand his Confucian officials refused to comply with on moral grounds. In this way, the possible political leadership of the imperial court at these times of crisis was not available either.
Portrait of Ming Dynasty Empress Dowager Xiaojing
The Official Imperial Portrait of Ming Dynasty Empress Dowager Xiaojing. By Imperial Painter (Own work (My book)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. public domain in the United States

At the beginning of the 17th century, a new political force appeared on the scene under the guise of an academy, since outright political organizations were banned. Previously, members of the literati class had used literary societies, poetry groups and gardening clubs as places where political ideas were exchanged and political actions coordinated as well.

Donglin academy memorial arch
memorial arch at the site of the former Donglin academy in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. By Synyan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Donglin Academy (donglin = eastern forest) in the Jiangnan area became the center for a political movement among young literati with a set of shared values. Its members helped each other to succeed within the imperial examination system and bureaucracy and openly criticised the power holding Confucian imperial officials as morally corrupt. The ultimate goal of the Donglin partisans was to replace the existing government officials and henceforth provide the moral and practical leadership of the empire themselves.

Zhu Changluo, the Taichang Emperor
Zhu Changluo, the Taichang Emperor. By Ming Dynasty Palace Painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Zhu Youxiao, the Tianqi Emperor
Zhu Youxiao, the Tianqi Emperor. By 明朝画师 (国立故宫博物院) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ming Emperor Chongzhen
Ming Emperor Chongzhen. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These aspirations were shattered after the Wanli emperor died in 1620 AD. He was succeeded by Zhu Changluo, his original heir and first son, who however died about a month later after starting his reign. Zhu Changluo's eldest son Zhu Youxiao then took over the reigns of the empire and initiated a series of purges in the 1620's in which many Donglin partisans and sympathizers were executed. Zhu Youxiao was followed on the Ming throne in 1627 AD by another weak leader (the Chongzhen emperor). During this period of weak leadership from the side of the emperor, some powerful eunuchs stepped into the void and seized some leading positions within the imperial government.

Meanwhile, the unsolved problems in society and the economy deteriorated further and further. Economically, the gap in development and wealth between the rich coastal regions and poor interior continued to grow. Particularly in the poor Northwest of China, the livelihood of farmers was severely affected in a negative way by the stubborn insistence of the imperial government to pay all taxes in silver. There, more and more people were unable to pay their taxes and had some of their assets seized or even lost their land completely. Many of these dispossessed joined bandit and/or rebel groups.

A mounted archer of the Ming Dynasty army
A mounted archer of the Ming Dynasty army. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Conflicts in the richer economically developed areas were more subtle and concerned the burgeoning class of wealthy merchants. Unhappy with the fact that they were excluded from the imperial examinations and any other meaningful participation in public affairs, they began to instigate for change and openly competed with the traditional literati elite as patrons of art, builders of great libraries, charitable donors and even with their consumerist/extravagant lifestyle, that was characterized by the building of opulent residences and their choice of ostentatious garments (that were traditionally worn by the literati class).

Ming dynasty garments
Ming dynasty garments of the wealthy class. By hanfulove [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As the Ming state became increasingly paralysed through political infighting, a new power arose in the Northeast of China beyond the Great Wall. The Manchus, future conquerors of China by the middle of the 17th century, were an amalgamation of different tribes and ethnic groups that had been brought together by their founder Nurhaci (1559 AD - 1626 AD).

Nurhaci, who founded the Later Jin dynasty
Nurhaci, who founded the Later Jin dynasty (a predecessor of the Qing dynasty). By Annonymous Qing Dynasty Court Painter (Palace Museum, Beijing (故宫博物院)) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The ethnic Jurchen Nurhaci had succeeded through a combination of military conquests and political diplomacy to forge a strong bond between the Jurchen people and other tribal groups, who lived in their vicinity in the Northeast of China. This newly forged group of different peoples began to call itself (and to be called) the Manchus in the first quarter of the 17th century.

In this period, the Manchus worked on the development of their own sense of identity and internal organisation, which included the adoption of a writing system, that was based upon the writing system of the Mongols. It was used to create a written "History of the Manchu People", in which all the old legends and myths of their ancestors were immortalized. Many Manchus adopted Buddhism as their religion and the development of cultural relationships with neighbouring peoples, particularly with the Mongols, helped them to consolidate their power in their inhabited territories.

Beginning with the proclamation of a revived Jin dynasty - the Later Jin dynasty - in the year 1626 AD, the Manchus began to signal their ambition of becoming the new rulers of the Chinese empire. The decision to copy Beijing's layout and design for their capital Mukden (nowadays Shenyang in Liaoning Province) was a further signal for their imperial ambitions. The former imperial palace of the Manchus in Shenyang (a.k.a. Mukden Palace) Travel Information for the Shenyang Imperial Palace is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist attraction.

Shenyang Imperial Palace's rooftops
Shenyang Imperial Palace's rooftops. By Krastek (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1635 AD, the Manchu language (that is based upon the Jurchen language) became the official language at their court in Mukden. One year later in 1636 AD, the official name of their dynasty was changed from Jin (jin = gold), which was also the surname of the most influential Manchu family at that time, to Qing (qing = pure). By presenting themselves as the pure element within society, they further signalled their intention to sweep aside the (by then) decadent Ming dynasty on their way to a morally purified China.

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By the end of the 1630's and during the early 1640's, the Manchus increased their military campaigns against the Ming and their successful siege in 1641 AD of the Ming garrison at Jinzhou, outside the Great Wall, was a first major victory, also due to the fact that several Ming generals defected to their side afterwards. In early 1644 AD, the Manchus effectively controlled the entire Northeast, including the Chinese settlements in Southern Manchuria (north of the Great Wall), right down to the Great Wall that still separated them from the agricultural heartland of the Ming empire.

Meanwhile, the Ming empire had continued to weaken from within. Even though the factional conflicts at court of the 1620's (that had cost many lives) had come to an end in 1627 AD, when the Chongzhen emperor ascended the throne and broke the stranglehold on power of the powerful eunuch Wei Zhongxian, the Ming never regained their former vigour. The subsequent reforms by the emperor were too little too late to reverse the downward spiral of the Ming empire. Besides the political uncertainties, the empire suffered from growing financial problems due to the decline in tax revenue.
eunuch official Wei Zhongxian
the eunuch official Wei Zhongxian.

The flow of silver into China had begun to decrease substantially (particularly from Japan, where export controls were put in place). The Ming rulers stubbornly insisted upon the payment of taxes in silver, of which there was less and less in circulation.

As previously mentioned, large numbers of farmers defaulted on their tax payments (particularly in the poorer Northwest and Southwest) and lost their assets and land. The growing landless farming population in these areas swelled the ranks of rebel and bandit forces, which increased their raids of small towns, government granaries and treasuries. The soldiers that were sent there by the Ming government to quell the unrest ended up joining the bandit and rebel forces in large numbers as well, since they often didn't get paid by the government either.

rebel leader Li Zicheng
drawing of the rebel leader Li Zicheng.
Li Zicheng (1606 AD - 1645 AD) emerged as the main leader of these rebel movements in the Northwest of China at the end of the 1630's and the beginning of the 1640's. The rebel army that he assembled and led didn't pursue any political or religious goals, but simply sought to improve the livelihoods of its constituents (mostly poor and disowned farmers) and they saw the overthrow of the Ming dynasty as the best way to ensure that. In the early 1640's, Li Zicheng led his army north from battle to battle through Northern Shaanxi. In the spring of 1644 AD, his rebel army marched towards the imperial capital of Beijing from the Northwest, which they then attacked and seized in April of the same year.

Possibly out of hopelessness and despair on the day after that attack, the Chongzhen emperor walked up the artificial hill (now a tourist attraction as part of the public Jingshan Park Travel Information for the Jingshan Park in Beijing) just north of the Forbidden City. There, he then cut his finger and wrote the two Chinese characters that signified "son of heaven" in blood on a piece of silk before hanging himself from a tree. That episode effectively ended the Ming dynasty, even though Ming loyalists managed to hold out for another 40 years in certain areas!

suicide tree of the Chongzhen emperor in the Jingshan Park
the supposed tree in the Jingshan Park north of the Forbidden City from which the Chongzhen emperor hanged himself. By Мухранов А.Н. (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

After bringing Beijing under his control, Li Zicheng proclaimed the new short-lived Shun dynasty with himself as the new emperor. He then tried to build his new government by calling on former Ming officials (who hadn't fled Beijing) to present themselves at his new court. However, most court officials and imperial princes had already fled south to their secondary political center of Nanjing.

Ming and Qing dynasty general Wu Sangui
the Ming and Qing dynasty general Wu Sangui. By Author in Qing Dynasty (Palace Museu Archieve) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons public domain in the United States
Chen Yuanyuan,Wu Sangui's concubine
Portrait of Chen Yuanyuan (1624 AD – 1681 AD), Wu Sangui's concubine. See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Upon hearing of Li Zicheng's conquest of Beijing and the death of the Ming emperor, a Ming general at the far eastern end of the Great Wall made a fateful decision. Wu Sangui (1612 AD - 1678 AD) was the able Ming general who was in charge of the important fortress near the eastern end of the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan (Shanhaiguan = pass between mountains and the sea). Repeatedly, his forces had prevented the Manchu forces from entering China through the strategic Shanhai mountain pass. The Shanhaiguan site is now a popular tourist attraction Travel Information for the various historic sights at Shanhaiguan with a number of visitable sights.
old illustration of a map of Shanhaiguan
An old illustration of a map of Shanhaiguan. public domain in the United States

Worried about his mistress Chen Yuanyuan (who had fallen into the hands of Li Zicheng in Beijing) as well as about an approaching contingent of Li Zicheng's army, he negotiated an agreement with the leaders of the Manchus, that allowed them to bring their army through the Shanhai Pass into China.

eastern end of the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan
the eastern end of the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan. By fuzheado (Flickr: IMG_6940) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Manchu and Ming army proceeded to drive Li Zicheng's army out of Beijing. The Manchus then seized Beijing for themselves and set about ruling their newly conquered lands under the name of the Qing dynasty (1644 AD - 1911 AD). The leadership of the Qing dynasty was mostly in the hands of the regent Dorgon at the time of the conquest of China, since the reigning Shunzhi emperor of the Qing was still only a child. Wu Sangui continued to help defeat the remaining Ming loyalist forces and was later handsomely rewarded by his Manchu allies with his own virtual kingdom in southern Yunnan.

regent Dorgon a.k.a. Prince Rui of the Qing dynasty
the regent Dorgon a.k.a. Prince Rui of the Qing dynasty. By Unknown. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing dynasty
Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing dynasty. By Emperor_Shunzhi.jpg: unknown court artist derivative work: Bencherlite (This file was derived from:Emperor_Shunzhi.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During the next 2 years from 1644 AD - 1646 AD, the Manchus continued their military conquests in their efforts to bring the rest of China under their control. In this endeavour, they encountered heroic resistance in the wealthy and culturally sophisticated Jiangnan area (popular residence of the literati class) near the mouth of the Yangtze River. Especially Yangzhou at the northern side of the Yangtze River and along the Grand Canal - a city famous for its luxurious lifestyle and resident painters and poets - resisted the Manchu siege fiercely in 1645 AD. After finally conquering Yangzhou, the Manchus took bloody revenge by looting and killing any Chinese within sight for the next 10 days.
A late Qing era depiction of the massacre of Yangzhou
A late Qing dynasty depiction of the massacre of Yangzhou. By unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This massacre of Yangzhou signalled to the remaining cities under Ming control to better think twice before refusing the Manchu offer of an amiable surrender. For the Chinese, it became a symbol for the barbarism of the Manchu conquerors and the heroism of the Chinese resistance.

Zhu Youlang, the Prince of Gui alias the Yongli emperor of the Southern Ming
Zhu Youlang, the Prince of Gui alias the Yongli emperor of the Southern Ming dynasty.

After fleeing Beijing, the remaining Ming court settled in Nanjing. That event marks the beginning of the Southern Ming dynasty which continued to resist the Qing invaders for quite some time. The Southern Ming named a series of princes as successive emperors, who all ended up being captured and killed (or committed suicide). When the Manchus arrived to besiege Nanjing, the court had to flee again, this time to the far Southwest.

By the end of the 1640's, most resistance against Manchu rule had been quashed. Zhu Youlang (a.k.a. the Prince of Gui and the Yongli emperor of the Southern Ming dynasty), the last legitimate claimant to the Ming throne, fled to the area that is now Burma where he lived in exile until 1662 AD.

By that time, the Manchu had the entire Southwest of China under their control as well and negotiated an agreement with the Burmese rulers, that saw Zhu Youlang and his family turned over to the Manchu in January 1662 AD. These Manchu forces were led by none other than Wu Sangui, who personally strangled Zhu Youlang.

Without ever mounting a serious attempt to reestablish themselves on the mainland, the last remaining Ming loyalists held out on the island of Taiwan (then partially occupied by the Dutch and Portuguese as well as various pirate groups) until 1683 AD, when they were finally suppressed as well.

From then on, the Qing dynasty entered a prolonged period of peace and prosperity.
That story continues in the next section. next chapter button
Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty eBook recommendation: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty
temple beam ends in the shape of dragons
temple beam ends in the shape of dragons. Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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YouTube video recommendations

CCTV9 documentary - New Frontier - Chinese Civilization:

part 17 - The Ming Dynasty

part 18 - The Ming Dynasty

Continue to watch the next part of the CCTV9 documentary series "New Frontier - Chinese Civilization" about the Qing dynasty. next historical period video

part 1 - CCTV Travelogue - History Special / Ming Dynasty

part 2 - CCTV Travelogue - History Special / Ming Dynasty

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