Ming Dynasty

Ming Dynasty

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The Ming dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644 CE and replaced the Mongol Yuan dynasty which had been in place since the 13th century CE. Despite challenges from abroad and within, the dynasty oversaw an unprecedented growth in China's population and general economic prosperity. The Ming were succeeded by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE).

Notable achievements of Ming China included the construction of the Forbidden City - the imperial residence in Beijing, a blossoming of literature and the arts, the far-flung explorations of Zheng He, and the production of the timeless blue-and-white Ming porcelains. Eventually, though, the same old problems that had beset previous regimes bedevilled the Ming emperors: court factions, infighting, and corruption, along with government overspending and a disenchanted peasantry which fuelled rebellions. As a consequence, the economically, politically (and some would say morally) impoverished Ming could not resist the invasion of the Manchus who established the Qing dynasty from 1644 CE.

Historical Overview

The Ming dynasty was established following the collapse of the Mongol rule of China, known as the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 CE). The Yuan had been beset by famines, plagues, floods, widespread banditry, and peasant uprisings. The Mongol rulers also squabbled amongst themselves for power and failed to quash numerous rebellions, including that perpetrated by a group known as the Red Turban Movement led by a peasant called Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398 CE). The Red Turban Movement, an offshoot of the radical Buddhist White Lotus Movement and initially reacting against forced labour on government construction projects, was most active in northern China, and Zhu took over their leadership in 1355 CE. Zhu also replaced the Red Turban's traditional policy aim of reinstating the old Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) with his own personal ambitions to rule and gained wider support by ditching the anti-Confucian policies which had alienated the educated classes. Alone amongst the many rebel leaders of the period, Zhu understood that to establish a stable government he needed administrators not just warriors out for loot.

Zhu Yuanzhang's first major coup had been the capture of Nanjing in 1356 CE.

Zhu Yuanzhang's first major coup had been the capture of Nanjing in 1356 CE. Zhu's successes continued, and he defeated his two main rival rebel leaders and their armies, first Chen Youliang at the battle of Poyang Lake (1363 CE) and then Zhang Shicheng in 1367 CE. When Han Lin'er died - he who had claimed to be the rightful heir to the line of Song emperors - Zhu was left the most powerful leader in China, and he declared himself emperor in January 1368 CE. Zhu would take the reign name Hongwu (meaning 'abundantly marital') and the dynasty he founded Ming (meaning 'bright' or 'light'). The Hongwu Emperor (aka Ming Taizu) would reign until 1398 CE, and his successors continued his efforts to unify China through a strong centralised government and so consolidate the Ming dynasty's grip on power. A new and draconian law code was compiled (the Da Ming lü or Grand Pronouncements); dissenting officials were ruthlessly punished or executed; the Secretariat, which had acted as a bureaucratic limit on an emperor's power, was abolished; land and tax obligations were meticulously registered; provincial governments were reorganised with imperial family members placed at their heads; hereditary military service was imposed on the peasantry in threatened regions; international trade was curbed as all things foreign were considered a threat to the regime; and the old tribute system required of neighbouring states was revived.

In the early 15th century CE the Mongols experienced a resurgence on China's borders and so Emperor Yongle (aka Chengzu, r. 1403-1424 CE, the second son of Hongwu who had taken the throne after a three-year civil war) moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421 CE to be better placed to deal with any foreign threat. At huge expense, Beijing was enlarged and surrounded by a 10-metre high circuit wall measuring some 15 kilometres in total length. Such was the city's need for food, the Grand Canal was deepened and widened so that grain ships could easily reach the capital. The Great Wall of China was also repaired to better defend the northern frontier. The Ming, though, would greatly benefit from the divisions within the Mongol state - generally split into six competing groups which limited attacks to sporadic and half-hearted invasions rather than a concerted effort to restore China to the position it found itself under the Yuan. The Mongols did briefly besiege Beijing in 1449 CE but the city stood firm and the invaders withdrew back to the steppe.

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The stability of the Ming regime and agricultural reforms allowed significant economic growth and an increase in international trade (now promoted again), especially from the 16th century CE. The emperors were initially a little old-fashioned in their trade policies, insisting that certain countries only use certain ports at certain times, but eventually these rules were relaxed, and East Asia became a melting pot of trading neighbours as well as attracting the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese. Vast quantities of silver, in particular, came into China via Manila from European-controlled Peru and Mexico. In 1557 CE the Portuguese were even permitted a trading base of their own at Portguese Macao. This opening up of trade also helped deal with the rampant piracy that had been plaguing Chinese waters, now that the Ming invested in a naval fleet.

There were brand new products coming in from the New World, exotica like sweet potatoes, maize, tomatoes, peanuts and tobacco, some of which would be cultivated in areas of China not suitable for homegrown crops, thus greatly expanding food production and so, in turn, the population. Over the course of the dynasty's reign, the population of China would rise from 60-80 million to 150-200 million. As urban centres grew so women amongst the wealthier classes began to enjoy more freedom than previously. They were able to own businesses in their own right, trade as merchants, and make an independent living as an artist or dancer. Conversely, changes in inheritance laws meant women's right went backwards in that area. Widows, for example, could no longer inherit their husband's land and they were expected not to remarry.

The economic prosperity in Ming China would, in turn, create a boom in the arts as a richer class of gentry developed who had money to spend and a great desire to show off their appreciation of fine art to any visitors to their homes. Aesthetic tastes were not limited to the classical arts either as gardens became a popular way for the well-off to entertain guests and display one's culture. The walled gardens of Suzhou became particularly famous where specially chosen rocks, tended pine trees and bamboo, pavilions, and walkways were all arranged to create a harmonious imitation of the scenes seen in landscape paintings by such renowned artists as Shen Zhou (1427-1509 CE) and Dong Qichang (1555-1636 CE).

The Yongle Emperor sent Zheng on seven far-flung diplomatic voyages between 1405 & 1433 CE.

The Ming dynasty, despite its political success in the first half of the reign, eventually began to suffer the age-old problems that had beset every other regime in China through the ages. Intrigues perpetrated by the court eunuchs; abuses of power, and especially executions of those deemed guilty and their extended families, all usually carried out on a whim; a long line of talentless, ineffective, and often erratic rulers who spent more than they should have on grandiose building projects; factional fighting between ruling families; the ballooning of a parallel eunuch and civil service apparatus with each branch despising the other; and peasant revolts against incessant taxes and the harsh rule of often distant landowners all took their toll and weakened the Ming emperors' hold on power.

The dynasty was already in decline in the 16th century CE under Emperor Wanli (r. 1573-1620 CE), especially when he withdrew from court affairs in 1582 CE following the death of his talented Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng, who had, more or less single-handedly, made the country's economic apparatus much more efficient and corruption-free. The power vacuum was willingly filled by the court eunuchs, and the economy took a nose dive following several hugely expensive wars against the Mongols and Japanese in Korea. In the 1620s CE a drop in average temperatures seriously affected crops, on top of which there was a wave of floods, then droughts, and widespread famine as a consequence.

In 1644 CE a rebel army led by Li Zicheng (1605-1645 CE) attacked Beijing and, entering the city on 15 April, the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen (r. 1628-1644 CE), hanged himself rather than be captured. On hearing the news of the capital's fall, the army commander Wu Sangui, stationed at Liaodong in north-east China, decided to allow a Manchu army - which had already fought Ming forces on several occasions in the past and was just then threatening to invade again - into China unimpeded in the hope they would put down the rebellion. As it turned out, despite some pockets of resistance from Ming loyalists, the Manchus established their own dynasty, the Qing dynasty and Li Zicheng was killed by peasants in 1645 CE.

The Forbidden City

One of the lasting contributions to Chinese history made by the Ming emperors was the building of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Known in Chinese as Zijincheng ('Purple Forbidden City') and begun by the Yongle emperor from 1407 CE, the complex was built as the imperial residence. The buildings were made of painted red wood and yellow ceramic roof tiles and surrounded by a high wall. Used also by the emperors of the Qing dynasty, the complex was continuously extended and restored until reaching its present impressive spread of some 7.2 square kilometres.

The buildings and their thousands of rooms are all carefully laid out in a plan which reflects the traditional Chinese view of the world. At the heart of the complex, on the most elevated site, is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where imperial receptions were held. Other halls spread outwards from this central point, all built along a north-south axis. The emperor himself and all-male attendants lived in buildings on the eastern side while women lived on the western side of the complex. The Forbidden City also included government offices, all arranged strictly according to the rank of imperial officials. Needless to say, the forbidden aspect derives from the controlled access to it, with only officials of certain ranks and invited ambassadors being permitted within its walls. Today the complex contains the largest collection of imperial treasures and artworks in China.

Zheng He

One of the enduring symbols of the Ming dynasty's eagerness to extend international relations is Zheng He (1371-1433 CE), widely regarded as China's greatest ever explorer. Born in Yunnan in southern China, Zheng was a eunuch Muslim who rose to become an admiral in the imperial fleet. The Yongle Emperor sent Zheng on seven diplomatic voyages between 1405 and 1433 CE, with each voyage involving several hundred ships. Zheng would sail along established routes to the coast of India, the Persian Gulf, and the east coast of Africa, but many of his final destinations were new points of contact for the Chinese.

Zheng He's travels brought Southeast Asia into the sphere of the Chinese tribute system, but it was not successful in widening the system even further. Zheng did return to China with shiploads of valuable goods, although these did not generally meet the value of those goods shipped out in the first place (for example, silk, tea, and porcelain) and which were intended to woo foreign rulers into sending ambassadors to the imperial court in Beijing, principally to legitimise Yongle's rule and perpetuate the idea that the Chinese emperor was the greatest ruler on earth. Less tangible than wealth, Zheng certainly brought back plenty of knowledge of foreign lands and customs, and he did ship back such exotica as giraffes, gems, and spices.

Religion & Philosophy

Neo-Confucianism continued to dominate in Ming China, as it had under the Song. The Chinese literati did generally become more questioning during the Ming, with such noted thinkers as Wang Yangming (1472-1529 CE) who, influenced by Chan Buddhism, proposed radical new ideas. Wang believed that all people, even commoners, could develop their own innate knowledge of what is right through contemplation (as opposed to merely studying Confucian texts) and this would lead to the performing of actions which are right. Just what is 'right', of course, was open to debate, and the later thinkers of the Qing dynasty would cite such subjectivity as a reason for the moral decline they saw in later Ming times.

Buddhism, Taoism, and local cults continued to appeal to many, although they were less popular than Confucianism, even if Buddhist monasteries and monks grew in number during the supportive years of Hongwu's reign - the first emperor having spent a period of his childhood in a Buddhist monastery. One development in Buddhism during the Ming was the doctrine that one could arrive at Nirvana by doing good deeds and particular deeds were worth certain points. When one reached a total of 10,000 points, Nirvana would be reached. In general, as with Confucianism, there was thus a questioning of orthodoxy in all ways of thinking, which resulted in often radical new approaches, but these would have really only been seen, debated or followed by a minority of the scholarly class. These intellectuals had a forum for their views in the many independent academies which sprang up in the late Ming period, most important of which was the Donglin Academy, founded in 1604 CE and which survived into the 19th century CE.

Cultural Achievements

In 1370 CE the Ming reintroduced the traditional civil service examination system, which had been an essential path of social progression in pre-Mongol China and which would continue right into the 20th century CE. The Ming introduced a geographical quota system so that the richer regions did not, as was previously the case, dominate all the positions in the civil service. Meanwhile, the increase in the number of schools meant children with parents who could not afford private tuition could receive the essential education necessary to prepare for the exams. Success in these examinations required the study of Chinese classic literature which saw a revival in Confucianism after the Yuan.

There were several developments in Chinese literature in Ming China. Thanks to better printing presses, more books were printed than ever before, volumes were illustrated using woodblock prints to make them more attractive, and literature was itself made more accessible by being written in the vernacular language. There were books on how to live a good life, handbooks of etiquette, commentaries on classic texts, military treatises, notes for exam preparation, collections of woodblock prints, anthologies of poems, erotic works, and of course, fiction. Shuihuzhuan (about a group of well-meaning bandits), Xiyouji (about a priest who journeys to India to collect Buddhist scriptures), and Jin Ping Mei (a risqué satire of Ming government examining the life of a wealthy merchant) were all famous novels written in the vernacular during the Ming dynasty. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), written in the 14th or 15th century CE and often attributed to Luo Guanzhong, remains to this day one of the most popular of all Chinese novels with its fantastic tales interwoven with historical figures during the fall of the Han dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period.

Scripts of the plays which travelling troupes performed were another popular source of reading. One of the most popular of all plays was The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616 CE). Written in 1598 CE, it tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a young man she only meets in dreams. The girl dies of loneliness and buries a portrait of herself in her garden. The young man of the dream then buys the house and finds the portrait, falls in love, and brings the girl back to life through the strength of his affections.

The Yongle Dadian was created during the reign of Emperor Yongle, a massive encyclopedia of all important Chinese literary works that had survived up to that point. The work, taking up over 22,000 chapters, was too large to be printed and, unfortunately, most of the original was lost in the strife at the end of Ming dynasty and that of a copy in a fire during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901 CE). Around 800 chapters of the encyclopedia do still exist in various libraries outside of China.

Ming Blue-and-White Porcelain

Finally, space must be allowed for the blue-and-white porcelain wares which have come to symbolise the Ming dynasty for many people today. Although artists of the Ming dynasty produced a wide range of pottery, it is this fine 'china' which was exported with unprecedented success. Actually made in earlier dynasties but perfected to new levels of craftsmanship under the Ming, porcelain - a hard, pure white, and translucent ceramic - was made at such noted centres as Jingdezhen and sold across China and to an appreciative world market which had not yet learnt the secret of making it. Porcelain was not just used to make vases and crockery but was shaped into all manner of goods from writing desk paraphernalia to bird feeders. The classic shapes and cobalt blue designs, which often used foliage motifs combined with landscape scenes inspired by scroll paintings, would be imitated around the world from Japan to Britain.

You can see the mausoleum of Zhu Yuanzhang in Nanjing: Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum.

Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398) was a poor peasant who grew up during the final decades of the Yuan Dynasty era (1279–1368), when severe natural disasters killed his own family and tens of millions of other people.

The people believed these disasters meant that the Yuan Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven according to ancient political doctrine, and this encouraged them to attack the ruling Mongols.

Big armies formed, and Zhu Yuanzhang led a powerful army south of the Yangtze River and captured the important city of Nanjing in 1358 that he made his capital city.

Over the next 10 years, his army defeated the armies of rivals, and he finally captured the Yuan capital of Beijing in 1368 and declared himself the Ming Emperor Hongwu.

Ming Dynasty - History

The Ming dynasty was founded by the peasant rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang.

Learning Objectives

Describe the origins and rise of the Ming dynasty

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Ming dynasty was the ruling dynasty of China for 276 years (1368–1644) following the collapse of the Mongol -led Yuan dynasty.
  • Explanations for the demise of the Yuan include institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, overtaxation of areas hard-hit by inflation, and massive flooding of the Yellow River caused by the abandonment of irrigation projects.
  • These issues led to a popular revolt called the Red Turban Rebellion, led in part by a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang.
  • With the Yuan dynasty crumbling, competing rebel groups began fighting for control of the country and thus the right to establish a new dynasty, which Zhu did in 1368 after defeating his rivals in the largest naval battle in history and marching toward Beijing, the capital of the Yuan, causing Yuan leaders to flee.

Key Terms

  • Zhu Yuanzhang: A poor peasant who rose through the ranks of a rebel army and later founded the Ming dynasty.
  • White Lotus Society: A Buddhist secret society associated with the Red Turban Rebellion.


The Ming dynasty (January 23, 1368–April 25, 1644), officially the Great Ming, was an imperial dynasty of China founded by the peasant rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang (known posthumously as Emperor Taizu). It succeeded the Yuan dynasty and preceded the short-lived Shun dynasty, which was in turn succeeded by the Qing dynasty. At its height, the Ming dynasty had a population of at least 160 million people, but some assert that the population could actually have been as large as 200 million.

Ming rule saw the construction of a vast navy and a standing army of one million troops. Although private maritime trade and official tribute missions from China had taken place in previous dynasties, the size of the tributary fleet under the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He in the 15th century surpassed all others in grandeur. There were enormous construction projects, including the restoration of the Grand Canal, the restoration of the Great Wall as it is seen today, and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the first quarter of the 15th century. The Ming dynasty is, for many reasons, generally known as a period of stable, effective government. It is seen as the most secure and unchallenged ruling house that China had known up until that time. Its institutions were generally preserved by the following Qing dynasty. Civil service dominated government to an unprecedented degree at this time. During the Ming dynasty, the territory of China expanded (and in some cases also retracted) greatly. For a brief period during the dynasty northern Vietnam was included in Ming territory. Other important developments included the moving of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing.

Founding of the Ming Dynasty

The Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) ruled before the establishment of the Ming dynasty. Alongside institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, other explanations for the Yuan’s demise included overtaxing areas hard-hit by crop failure, inflation, and massive flooding of the Yellow River caused by abandonment of irrigation projects. Consequently, agriculture and the economy were in shambles, and rebellion broke out among the hundreds of thousands of peasants called upon to work on repairing the dikes of the Yellow River.

A number of Han Chinese groups revolted, including the Red Turbans in 1351. Zhu Yuanzhang was a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk who joined the Red Turbans in 1352, but soon gained a reputation after marrying the foster daughter of a rebel commander.

Zhu was a born into a desperately poor tenant farmer family in Zhongli Village in the Huai River plain, which is in present-day Fengyang, Anhui Province. When he was sixteen, the Huai River broke its banks and flooded the lands where his family lived. Subsequently, a plague killed his entire family, except one of his brothers. He buried them by wrapping them in white clothes. Destitute, Zhu accepted a suggestion to take up a pledge made by his late father and became a novice monk at the Huangjue Temple, a local Buddhist monastery. He did not remain there for long, as the monastery ran short of funds and he was forced to leave. For the next few years, Zhu led the life of a wandering beggar and personally experienced and saw the hardships of the common people. After about three years, he returned to the monastery and stayed there until he was around twenty-four years old. He learned to read and write during the time he spent with the Buddhist monks.

The monastery where Zhu lived was eventually destroyed by an army that was suppressing a local rebellion. In 1352, Zhu joined one of the many insurgent forces that had risen in rebellion against the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. He rose rapidly through the ranks and became a commander. His rebel force later joined the Red Turbans, a millenarian sect related to the White Lotus Society, and one that followed cultural and religious traditions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and other religions. Widely seen as a defender of Confucianism and neo-Confucianism among the predominantly Han Chinese population in China, Zhu emerged as a leader of the rebels that were struggling to overthrow the Yuan dynasty.

In 1356 Zhu’s rebel force captured the city of Nanjing, which he would later establish as the capital of the Ming dynasty. Zhu enlisted the aid of many able advisors, including the artillery specialists Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen.

Zhu cemented his power in the south by eliminating his arch rival, rebel leader Chen Youliang, in the Battle of Lake Poyang in 1363. This battle was—in terms of personnel—one of the largest naval battles in history. After the dynastic head of the Red Turbans suspiciously died in 1367 while a guest of Zhu, Zhu made his imperial ambitions known by sending an army toward the Yuan capital in 1368. The last Yuan emperor fled north into Mongolia and Zhu declared the founding of the Ming dynasty after razing the Yuan palaces in Dadu (present-day Beijing) to the ground.

Hongwu Emperor of the Ming dynasty: Zhu Yuanzhang, later Hongwu Emperor, was the founder and first emperor of China’s Ming dynasty. Born a poor peasant, he later rose through the ranks of a rebel army and eventually overthrew the Yuan leaders and established the Ming dynasty.

Instead of following the traditional way of naming a dynasty after the first ruler’s home district, Zhu Yuanzhang’s choice of “Ming,” or “Brilliant,” for his dynasty followed a Mongol precedent of choosing an uplifting title. Zhu Yuanzhang also took “Hongwu,” or “Vastly Martial,”‘ as his reign title. Although the White Lotus had instigated his rise to power, the emperor later denied that he had ever been a member of the organization, and suppressed the religious movement after he became emperor.

Zhu Yuanzhang drew on both past institutions and new approaches in order to create jiaohua (civilization) as an organic Chinese governing process. This included building schools at all levels and increasing study of the classics as well as books on morality. There was also a distribution of Neo-Confucian ritual manuals and a new civil service examination system for recruitment into the bureaucracy.

Ming Dynasty - History

Imperial China

Modern China

One of these remains or landmarks is the Ming Dynasty Tomb, which was made during the Ming Dynasty from A.D. 1368 to 1644. The Ming Dynasty Tomb is a memorial site where approximately 13 emperors and 23 empresses were buried. This sacred site is actually a unique landmark among so many others in China, because of its layout. The tomb’s layout is heavily influenced by and based on Feng-Shui. It is also believed that the evil spirits are warded off inside the tombs.

Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty Tomb is only one of the many cenotaphs left from the period of the “Empire of the Great Ming” or simply, the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty is a period of ruling in China that followed the defeat of the Yuan Dynasty, which during that time China was ruled by the Mongols. It was during the Ming Dynasty that a navy and an army were first constructed of one million troops, a size that surpassed all others in the 15 th century. It was also during this period when the reconstruction of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall of China occurred and the construction of the Forbidden City, which then housed the emperors of imperial China in Beijing from the 15 th century to 1911, materialized. The Ming Dynasty was remembered as the last dynasty reigned by Han Chinese and had contained and sustained an estimated 160 to 200 million people in population during the latter years of its rule.

The Beginning and the Rise

Due to the years of suffering from economic crises, famines, natural disasters and political problems, the Yuan Dynasty met its plummet when uprisings of the disgruntled populace came up against the government. These uprisings were acted mostly by the Red Turban, which was headed by peasant leader Zhu Yuanshang. After series of rebellions, the Yuan Dynasty was finally overthrown and the Ming Dynasty was declared with Zhu Yuanshang as the first emperor in 1368. Zhu Yuanshang changed his name to Emperor Hongwu and moved the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing. It was then that the center of Beijing, the Forbidden City, was established.

The Ming Dynasty was marked by the wide range of public works and accomplishments. Apart from the repair of the Great Wall of China and the establishment of the Forbidden City, separation of cities and rural areas were also pushed to create an increase in production for Chinese farms to be used for storage and trade. By the turn of the 16 th century, China’s economy was fueled by trade with various countries and nationalities, some of which are the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. Chinese merchants became involved in global trading of plants, animals and food. Meanwhile, great quantities of silver came into the country through commerce with the Europeans and the Japanese. This occurrence paved the way for the change of currency in China, from copper and paper to silver notes.

Aside from its growing economy, China’s arts, culture and sciences also experienced burgeoning growth during the Ming rule. Artists produced great paintings and there was an abundance of fine porcelain, exquisite lacquer, and other art crafts. The production of dictionaries and books in philosophy and the sciences marked an era of greater intellectualism among the Chinese. Aside from these, novels like “Water Margin” and “Journey to the West”, both of which were written in vernacular Chinese, were deemed as few of the most important classical pieces in Chinese literature.

Another remarkable accomplishment during the Ming Dynasty was the reform of the military forces that resulted to its fast and essential expansion. The Chinese military, which were considered low members of the society before the Ming Dynasty, have risen not only in social status as individuals but have also become more solid and more fortified as a front.

The Decline and the Fall

Despite the flourishing cultural and military state of Ming China, however, the economy slowly declined when China’s administration became more centralized at the time Emperor Wanli entered political governance during the Ming Dynasty in 1572.

Silver, once an enormous inflow in China, was significantly reduced in quantity during its latter years due to the financial and political drain from the wars that ensued between China and Japan. As a result, China’s currency was reduced in worth, and ties with other Asian countries like Japan and Korea were severed, further destabilizing the country’s state. In addition, crop failures reduced the productivity of China’s vast agriculture and natural disasters, epidemics and famines placed the economy in worse conditions.

Political feuds between family members of the emperor and the ministers also placed China in shambles, resulting to the government’s weakening central control. Revolts and uprisings ensued against the government across China’s remote areas, this made it harder for the officials to reach and pacify the crowd.

Amidst more rebellions, the Manchu forces mustered their forces in the North. They had conquered Inner Mongolia by 1632, which brought about an influx of recruitments from Mongolian troops and a route into Ming China. By 1638, the Manchu succeeded in defeating Joseon, an ally of Ming China and this was followed by Korea disowning their loyalty to the Ming government.

Meanwhile, by the early 1630’s to the early 1640’s, rebellions lead by groups in the provinces arose and strongly shook the Chinese administration. An ex-soldier known as Li Zicheng lead the rebel army in 1644 which caused the fall of Beijing. As the chaos persisted, the Ming emperor was found hanging on a tree outside the Forbidden City, in the imperial garden. At this, the Manchus crossed the Great Wall and marked the beginning of the end of the Ming Dynasty.

Ming Dynasty - History

The restoration of a native dynasty made China once again a great power. The Ming dynasty felt a kinship with the heyday of the Tang dynasty (618–907), a connection reflected in the vigor and rich color of Ming arts and crafts. Early in the 1400s, China again expanded into Central Asia, and maritime expeditions brought Central Asian products around the Indian Ocean to its own shores. Chinese pottery exports also greatly increased. The 15th century was a period of settled prosperity and great achievement in the arts, but the last century of the dynasty was marked by corruption at court and a deep discontent among the scholar-gentry that is reflected in their painting.

The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, was a highly distrustful personality who initiated many purges. A number of scholar-official artists became victims to his paranoid accusations, typically for political rather than artistic reasons, that a novel movement in Chinese painting history was nearly halted. Among those literati painters who lost their lives during this period were Wang Meng (王蒙), Zhao Yuan (趙原), Xu Ben (徐賁), Chen Ruyan (陳汝言), and Zhang Yu (張羽). Rejecting the individualist standard of literati painting, early Ming emperors who revived the custom of summoning painters to court sought instead to create a cultural bridge to the previous native regime, the Song dynasty. Although they revived Song professional court styles, they never organized their painters into a central teaching academy and indeed sometimes dealt quite harshly with them. Scholar-painters, increasingly few in number in the early Ming, stayed at home in the south, further widening the gulf between themselves and court artists.

Early Ming court painters such as Bian Wenjin (邊文進) and his follower Lü Ji (呂紀) carried forward the bird-and-flower painting tradition of Huang Quan (黃荃), Cui Bai (崔白), and the Song emperor Huizong. Gradually, however, the Southern Song styles of the landscape artists Li Tang (李唐), Ma Yuan (馬遠), and Xia Gui (夏圭) came to hold sway, beginning with Dai Jin (戴進), who served under the fifth emperor, the Xuande emperor. Nevertheless, Dai Jin, who was opposed in the Beijing capital by jealous court rivals and who found the restrictions there intolerable (as did many others who followed), was affected by the calligraphically inspired scholars’ art: his brushwork shows far greater freedom than is found in his Southern Song models.

Like Dai Jin, many professional painters went to Beijing from the old Southern Song capital region around Hangzhou, and they were said to belong to the Zhe school of painting. Many of the so-called Zhe school artists were in fact scholars disgruntled with the autocratic Ming politics and drawn to Daoist eremitic themes and eccentric brushwork. Most dazzling among them, perhaps, was Wu Wei (吳偉), from Jiangxia in Hubei, whose drunken bouts at court were forgiven out of admiration for his genius with the brush.

Among the few important amateur painters to hold a scholarly position at the early Ming court was Wang Fu (王紱), who survived a long period of banishment to the frontier under the first emperor to return as a court calligrapher. He became a key figure in the survival and transmission of Yuan literati style and was the first to single out the masters Huang Gongwang (黃公望), Wu Zhen (吳鎮), Ni Zan (倪瓚), and Wang Meng (王蒙) as models. Other early Ming scholar-official painters in the Yuan tradition were the bamboo painter Xia Chang (夏昶) and Liu Jue (劉玨), who retired to Suzhou at the age of 50. In his landscapes Liu Jue gives to the cool, often austere style of the Yuan masters a looser, more genial character, thus making them more accessible to the large number of amateur gentlemen-painters who flourished in the Jiangnan region—notably those in and around Suzhou, during the settled middle years of the 15th century.

The Wu district of Jiangsu, in which Suzhou lies, gave its name to the Wu school of landscape painting, dominated in the late 15th century by Shen Zhou (沈周), a friend of Liu Jue. Shen Zhou never became an official but instead devoted his life to painting and poetry. He often painted in the manner of the Yuan masters, but his interpretations of Ni Zan and Wu Zhen are more clearly structured and firmer in brushwork. His work is unsurpassed in all Chinese art for its humane feeling the gentle and unpretentious figures he introduced give his paintings great appeal. Shen Zhou commanded a wide range of styles and techniques, on which he impressed his warm and vigorous personality. He also became the first to establish among the literati painters a flower painting tradition. These works, executed in the “boneless” fashion developed by 10th-century court artists but with the freedom of such late Song Chan painters as Muqi (Muxi, 牧谿), were followed with greater technical versatility by Chen Chun (陳淳) and Xu Wei (徐渭) in the late Ming and then by Zhu Da (朱耷) and Shitao (石濤) of the early Qing. Their work, in turn, served as the basis for the revival of flower painting in the late 19th and the 20th century.

Shen Zhou’s pupil Wen Zhengming (文徵明) showed an even greater interest in the styles of the past, which he reinterpreted with a refined and scholarly precision. He, too, had many styles and was a distinguished calligrapher. He was an active teacher of painting as well, and among his gifted pupils were his son Wen Jia (文嘉) and his nephew Wen Boren (文伯仁). Their landscapes display a lyrical delicacy in composition, touch, and color, qualities that in the work of lesser late Ming artists of the Wu school degenerated into a precious and artificial style.

Three early 16th-century professional Suzhou masters, Zhou Chen (周臣), Tang Yin (唐寅), and Qiu Ying (仇英) established a somewhat different standard from that of the scholarly Wu group, never renouncing the professional’s technical skills yet mastering the literary technique as well. They achieved a wide range, and sometimes a blend, of styles that could hardly be dismissed by scholarly critics and that won great popular acclaim. In fact, Tang Yin, who was not only a student of Zhou Chen but also a brilliant scholar and longtime friend of Wen Zhengming, became mythologized in the centuries that followed.

In the succeeding generations, other painting masters similarly helped confuse the distinction between amateur and professional standards, and, in the early 17th century, a number of these artists also showed the first influence of the European technique that had been brought to China through engravings and then oil paintings by Matteo Ricci and other Jesuit missionaries after 1600. Among these painters were the landscapists Wu Bin from Nanjing, Zhang Hong from Suzhou, and Lan Ying (藍瑛) from Qiantang in Zhejiang province. The southern painter Chen Hongshou (陳洪綬) and the Beijing artist Cui Zizhong (崔子忠) initiated the first major revival of figure painting since Song times, possibly as a result of their encounters with Western art. Perspective and shading effects appear among other naturalistic features in the art of this generation, along with a newfound interest in saturated colors and an attraction to formal distortion, which may have derived in part from a fascination with the unfamiliar in Western art. Beyond the revived interest in naturalism, which seems to have inspired in some artists a renewed attention to Five Dynasties (907–960) and Song painting (as the last period in which Chinese artists had displayed knowledge about such matters), there occurred an even more fundamental questioning of contemporary standards. In the work of Chen and Cui, which exhibits all the aforementioned qualities, an almost unprecedented interest in grotesquerie and satire visually enlivens their work, yet it also reflects something of the restless individualism and deep disillusionment that were part of the spirit of this period of national decline. The breakdown of orthodoxy reached an extreme form in Xu Wei (徐渭). In his explosive paintings, chiefly of flowers, plants, and bamboo, he showed an absolute mastery of brush and ink and a total disregard of tradition.

Obstacles to Ming Dynasty Literature

The dictatorship was the biggest obstacle to literary prosperity during the Ming Dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang became emperor in Nanjing in 1368 after eliminating his main competitor. He then declared the Northern Expedition and eventually completed the unification of the country. As a dictator, he knew the importance of having absolute power.

During his term of office, he abolished the 1601-year-old prime minister system and centralized the emperor’s authority to a new peak. In order to consolidate his throne, he eliminated many of those who had helped him. In order to secure his throne, he took any measure.

Ming Dynasty literature ushered in a very dark period during the process of Zhu Yuanzhang’s centralization of power. Under the atmosphere of white terror, many literary figures did not dare to write. Even if they dared to create literary works, they did not dare to criticize reality or even openly criticize in their literary works.

Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty

In order to achieve all-round control in the field of culture, Zhu Yuanzhang adopted a policy of caging and high-handedness towards the literati. This was very similar to the carrot and stick policy. Any scholar deemed talented by the Ming court, the Ming Dynasty would take the initiative to extend invitations to these people to serve as officials. If they refused the invitation, they would be eliminated.

In such an atmosphere of terror, there were still those in the scholar-bureaucrat community who refused the invitation. Sadly, the end result for these brave scholar-bureaucrat was very tragic. From the 17th to the 29th year of Hongwu, Zhu Yuanzhang’s literary inquisitions made many people be afraid to create literary works.

Faced with the threat of the dictatorship, the literary enthusiasm of the Ming Dynasty was greatly dampened. However, with the rise to power of Emperor Jianwen, the atmosphere of white terror gradually faded away. And with the development of the citizens’ economy, the Ming literary creation ushered in spring.


Wm. Theodore de Bary, Self and Society in Ming Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970).

John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Ray Huang, 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

Charles O. Hucker, The Ming Dynasty: Its Origins and Evolving Institutions (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1978).

Robert B. Marks, Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Mote and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 7, The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Witold Rodzinski, A History of China, 2 volumes (Oxford &c New York:

Shih-shan Henry Tsai, Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).

Ming dynasty (1368–1644), an introduction

Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470–1524), The Thatched Hut of Dreaming of an Immortal, Ming dynasty, early 16th century, ink and color on paper, China, 28.3 × 103 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1939.60)

Map of the Ming Empire c. 1580 (Michal Klajban, CC BY-SA 3.0)

After nearly a hundred years of Mongol rule, China returned to native rulership in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The Ming was founded by a commoner, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398), who established Nanjing as his capital. However, nearly fifty years later, the third Ming emperor relocated the capital to Beijing, which has remained China’s main seat of government ever since. The Ming dynasty’s almost three hundred-year span witnessed unprecedented economic and cultural expansion and the near doubling of its population. The last century of the Ming, however, was besieged by border troubles, crop failure, fiscal instability, and court corruption leading to an overthrow by Manchu invaders from the north, who took Beijing in 1644.

During the Ming, most people believed simultaneously in multiple gods and followed the Three Teachings of Confucianism , Buddhism , and Daoism . Commoners and emperors alike supported temples and honored devotional images in their homes. In addition, overland and maritime trade routes kept China open to followers of Islam and allowed for the arrival of European Christians.

Notable Ming achievements include the refurbishment of the Great Wall to its greatest glory, large naval expeditions, vibrant maritime trade, and the rise of a heavily monetized economy. Vital cultural achievements included the production of exceptional—and often colorful—porcelains, paintings, lacquers, and textiles, which created a dazzling visual world. The rise of the novel as a popular literary genre, accompanied by affordable illustrated books, brought literature to many. As a result of cultural achievements and economic achievements, the Ming saw a larger consumer base for luxury goods than any earlier period.

Canteen, Ming dynasty, early 15th century, Jingdezhen ware, porcelain with cobalt pigment under colorless glaze, China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, 46.9 × 41.8 × 21.3 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1958.2)

In south China in Jingdezhen , kiln workshops during the Yuan dynasty had already produced large amounts of porcelain , but the city’s position as the main ceramic supplier for both domestic and foreign markets was solidified during the Ming. Judging from its broad distribution, Ming “blue-and-white” porcelain (white body decorated with cobalt-blue painting under the glaze ) was the dominant ceramic ware around the globe. Especially in the early to mid-Ming period, many porcelain shapes and decorative schemes drew inspiration from the Islamic world, which had helped create a taste for a blue-and-white palette. The finest porcelains were commissioned by emperors for palace use and as gifts, including for foreign diplomats. Beyond blue-and-white, the palace also commissioned stellar monochromes, especially red, and promoted a new development of exquisite overglaze enamel decoration on porcelain.

Incense burner in shape of a tripod (li) with design of lotus, Ming dynasty, Hongzhi or Zhengde reign, 15th or early 16th century 14th century jade knob, Enamels, brass, wire (cloisonné) with later gilt metal handles, wooden cover with Yuan dynasty jade knob, China, 18.4 × 19.4 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1961.12a-b)

Another type of enamelware greatly admired by the court was cloisonné , a technique which originated outside of China, but by the Ming was manufactured in China according to local taste. In this technique, a worker attaches thin metal strips to a metal base outlining all the details of a design, and then fills the empty cells (cloisons) with colored enamel pastes. Fired to a high heat, the enamel pastes are transformed into an opaque, glass-like surface.

Formerly attributed to Yan Liben (c. 600-674), Palace Women and Children Celebrating the New Year, Ming dynasty, 15th-16th century, ink and color on silk, China, 160.3 x 106.2 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.403)

In the first half of the Ming dynasty, the court actively recruited painters from across the empire to serve in an academy producing works on themes that acclaimed the court’s majesty and glory. The emperors favored a representational style that revived many features from the Southern Song Imperial Painting Academy. Palace painters excelled in religious themes, moralizing narrative subjects, auspicious bird-and-flower motifs, and large-scale landscape compositions. Simultaneously, outside the court, scholar-artists were more self-expressive in their brushwork based on training in calligraphy , which continued a style promoted by Yuan dynasty literati-artists.

Shen Zhou 沈周 (1427–1509), A Spring Gathering, attached calligraphy by Shen Zhou 沈周 (1427–1509), frontispiece, inscription on front mounting, and three inscriptions on the painting by Hongli, the Qianlong emperor (1711–1799, reigned 1735–1796), colophon by Wen Zhengming 文徵明 (1470–1559), Ming dynasty, c. 1480?, Wu School, ink and color on paper, China, 26.5 x 131.1 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1934.1)

By the sixteenth century, a decline in imperial patronage and rapid economic expansion in south China created a new clientele for art, including landowners and wealthy merchants, many of whom wanted images that portrayed the cultivated lifestyle of a scholar.

Copy after Qiu Ying 仇英 (c. 1494-1552), Playing the zither beneath a pine tree (detail), Ming dynasty, late 16th-early 17th century, ink and color on paper, China, 22.2 x 105.3 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1953.84)

Many literati and professional painters lived in the same cities seeking support from the same patrons, which led to greater synergy and fusion between their painting styles as exemplified by the professional painter, Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552). His work became so popular that many of the stunning and lyrical paintings produced in the Ming either copied or were in part inspired by his style—some of the works even bear a fake signature.

Traditionally attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (c. 1494–1552), calligrapher: Wen Zhengming 文徵明 (1470–1559), Journey to Shu (detail), Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century, ink and color on silk, blue-and-green style, China, 54.9 x 183.2 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — funds provided by the B.Y. Lam Foundation Fund, F1993.4)

This resource was developed for Teaching China with the Smithsonian, made possible by the generous support of the Freeman Foundation

Chinese history: interesting facts about the Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty began in 1368 after the soon to be Emperor Hongwu led a rebel group to defeat the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. Hongwu, the son of a peasant, began his time as emperor by securing Nanjing as the Chinese capital and slowly fighting against the Mongols while implementing some cultural, economic and agricultural reforms.

Emperor Hongwu’s reforms

Hongwu encouraged a return to Confucian values which was quashed under Mongolian rule, which entailed an end to the hierarchical system that had been in place for the past few decades. Hongwu reformed agricultural policy by distributing land from wealthy landowners to peasants who were previously renting the land. The thought behind this was that the peasants would work twice as hard if they owned the land they farmed on, and the reforms would satisfy them and stop any rebellious thoughts from crossing their minds.

Emperor Hongwu’s vassal states

Other nations acknowledged China’s military and cultural might under Hongwu’s reign with Japan, Vietnam, and Tibet. All envious of China, the nations requested to become vassal states which meant they would be a tribute which consisted of money, women, and gifts to gain friendship and trade with China. This brought prestige and wealth to the Ming Dynasty.

Emperor Yonglo

Hongwu died of natural causes after 30 years in charge and subsequently left a power hole which Hongwu’s nephew filled for a short time before being overthrown by Yonglo who was Emperor Hongwu’s son.

Yonglo moved the capital of China to Beijing which was an aggressive move as it was near to the Mongolian border and showed that China no longer feared the Mongols.

Yonglo’s exploration plans

Yonglo wanted to expand upon the vassal state system and increased the payments from Japan, Vietnam, and Tibet. He also wanted to find more vassal states and launched exploration voyages to India and Africa.

The Forbidden City

Some of the most famous buildings in China were built during the Ming dynasty, the first of which was the Forbidden City which took 14 years to construct. Built upon a ruined Mongolian Palace, the design was colossal as the Forbidden City was to be where the emperor was to spend most of his time. The city was surrounded by a 35-foot high red wall supposedly encasing 9,999 rooms (as the number 9 is considered lucky in Chinese culture).

Only the emperor, his wives, (which went into the 1000’s) and the servants were allowed in the Forbidden City hence the name, commoners and foreigners were not allowed entrance at any time. The servants were all eunuchs in order to protect against cuckoldry. To our modern minds removing one’s manhood to be a servant sounds ridiculous but one must consider the culture and society at the time to understand why many chose to become eunuchs.

The reasons why many made the conscious decision to become a eunuch was because they would be in proximity to the emperor which was an incredible honor and something that a peasant could only dream of. They could also potentially have influence and power as many eunuchs were placed into high power and able to manipulate the emperor.

Some eunuchs were put into positions of authority after gaining the emperor’s favor. Although the Ming Dynasty had improved life for the peasants, it was still a hard life with plague a constant fear and with poor hygiene and shocking living conditions. Becoming a eunuch slave offered a way out.

The Great Wall

With positive trade and economic stability, the emperor looked to future defense against the Mongolian Empire by refurbishing the north side of the Great Wall above Beijing into the enormous spectacle we see today. Limestone was used for the majority of the improvements which encased the old structure of the wall, making it wider and taller.

Cracks in the Ming Dynasty

Up to the 15th century, the Ming Dynasty was regarded in high esteem and with the opinion of the emperor’s being positive, many thought the Ming Dynasty would last for many centuries to come. It was a collection of unfortunate events which led to the slow decline and then downfall of the Ming dynasty.

Shaanxi earthquake

The earthquake began with an earthquake in Shaanxi which reached 8.0 on the Richter scale and killed near 1 million Chinese people. This led to nationwide mourning and managing the effects of the earthquake was very costly.

Little Ice Age

The agricultural changes that Emperor Hongwu made, which had initially been productive, had proved devastating when the ‘Little Ice Age’ hit China, as crop failure combined with flooding and cold temperature decimated China’s crop production. Subsequently, farmers could no longer pay their taxes as they had no crops to sell and the people and soldiers starved.

Wars against Japan

Japan saw these natural disasters and the effect it had on China as a chance to attack and mounted three wars against the Chinese in the 15th century. Although China defended and won all three wars, it was incredibly costly, and many soldiers deserted the army after not receiving their wages or food. This stirred a revolutionary spirit among the people.

Learning of China’s troubles, Spain and Japan decided to remove all trade of silver which was China’s currency. The removal of silver caused hyperinflation, and people started to hoard their wealth, and thus the economy stagnated.

The Ming Dynasty ended when a group of Chinese soldiers rebelled against the Ming dynasty and found that the emperor had hung himself on a tree inside the Forbidden City. The Ming dynasty ended not with a bang but a whimper.

8 Amazing Examples of Ming Dynasty Architecture

The span in which the Ming dynasty ruled China (1368–1644) was a period of incredible political and cultural growth for the nation. It was during this era that China commanded influence of much of East Asia, Vietnam, and Myanmar to the south, while also expanding its sphere of control to the Turks in the west. Yet, the reign of the Ming dynasty has come and gone. What remains, however, is the spectacular architecture produced during this time. Builders of the period made use of existing techniques but also incorporated brick into its great walls and palaces. Here, AD surveys some of the most beautiful structures that remain from this important era in both Chinese and global history.

Shown is the Forbidden City, which served as the Imperial Palace during the Ming dynasty. Located in the center of Beijing, this architectural relic and UNESCO World Heritage site spans 178 acres (about one-fifth the size of New York’s Central Park) and attracts more than 25 million tourists each year.

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