Written By Basilio Chen

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Will history repeat?
The Ming Dynasty, (called the Great Ming Empire), was the ruling dynasty in China for 276 years (from 1368–1644) and following the Yuan Dynasty led by the Mongols. The Ming Dynasty is described by many as one of the greatest dynasties in human history for having orderly government and social stability and is one of three golden eras in China (Han and Song the other 2).
It had its capital in Nanjing first (1368–1644) later moving to Beijing (1403–1644).
The Hongwu Emperor (洪武帝) was the founder and first emperor of the dynasty. His name was Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), born a poor peasant in present Anhui Province. He is post-humorously known as “Great Ancestor of the Ming” (明太祖, lit.). His ruling era was thus called Hongwu era meaning “vastly martial” and he ruled from 14 September 1368 til 24 June 1398 outliving his successor. In consequence his grandson was selected to the throne however it eventually failed with rebellion.
He came to power from environmental conditions in the middle of the 14th century. Mainly famine, plagues, and resulting peasant revolts sweeping across China, Zhu rose to command the force that conquered China and ended the Yuan Dynasty.
During his rule (1368 – 1398), Emperor Hongwu attempted to create a society of self-sufficient rural communities ordered in a rigid, immobile system that would guarantee and support a permanent class of soldiers for his dynasty: the empire’s standing army exceeded one million troops and the navy’s dockyards in Nanjing were the largest in the world.
Emperor Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang, 朱元璋) was able to attract many talents into his service. One of them was Zhu Sheng (朱升), who advised Zhu: “Build high walls, stock up rations, and don’t be too quick to call yourself a king.” Another one was, Jiao Yu, who was an artillery officer that compiled a series of military treatise outlining the various types of gunpowder weapons. Others who became key advisors to Zhu was that edited the military-technology treatise called Huolongjing (火龙经), the Fire and Dragon Treatise describing the various usages of gun powder – fire weapons.
The Huolongjing provided information for many design of fire weapons including rocket launches, automatic repeating rocket launchers, land and naval mines, multi-barrel handguns, cannons, wheeled carriages with rotating cannons, exploding cannon balls, fire lance with short burst of flame, metal balls with poisonous gunpowder. It also included sophisticated uses of fuses to ignite the explosives, serpentine locks and matchlocks.
In his youth, his family was killed by flood from the yellow river and only he and his brother survived. Destitute, Zhu Yuanzhang took refuge at a Buddhist monastery later forced to leave due to lack of funds at the monastery. For the next few years, Zhu Yuanzhang led the life of a wandering beggar and personally experienced and saw the hardships of the common people. At around 24 years old he returned to a Buddhist temple and learned to read and write during the time he spent with the Buddhist monks.
The monastery where Zhu Yuanzhang 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-ruled Yuan Dynasty.
Zhu rose rapidly through the ranks and became a commander. His rebel force later joined the bigger 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. Zhu emerged as a leader of the rebels that were struggling to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty. He was widely seen as a defender of Confucianism and neo-Confucianism among the predominant Han Chinese population in China. The Red Turbans and Zhu both conquered the whole of China trying to reunite it like before the Mongols rule (Yuan Dynasty).
In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang’s army conquered Nanjing and becoming his base of operations and later capital of the Ming Dynasty during his reign.
Zhu’s government in Nanjing became famous for good governance and the city attracted vast numbers of people fleeing from other more lawless regions.
As the Hongwu Emperor came from a peasant family, he was aware of how peasants used to suffer under the oppression of the scholar-bureaucrats and the wealthy. Many of the latter, relying on their connections with government officials, encroached unscrupulously on peasants’ lands and bribed the officials to transfer the burden of taxation to the poor.
To prevent such abuse, the Hongwu Emperor instituted two systems: Yellow Records and Fish Scale Records. These systems served both to secure the government’s income from land taxes and to affirm that peasants would not lose their lands.
The Hongwu Emperor expected everyone to obey his rule and was infamous for killing many people during his purges. His tortures included flaying and slow slicing.
Through the use of repeated purges, he eliminated many historical posts remaining from the former dynasty. Hongwu Emperor mainly altered the centuries-old government structure of China, increasing the emperor’s absolutism. To that extend he was extremely authoritarian, a virtual dictator who governed directly over all affairs.
The Hongwu Emperor himself wrote essays posted in every village throughout China warning the people to behave and of the horrifying consequences if they disobeyed.
After Emperor Hongewu, he had specified his grandson Zhu Yunwen as his successor. after Hongwu’s death in 1398, Zhu Yunwen assumed the throne as Emperor Jianwen (1398–1402). However, the most powerful of Hongwu’s sons, Zhu Di, who had the militarily strength disagreed with this, and soon a political showdown erupted between him and his nephew Jianwen. After Jianwen arrested many of Zhu Di’s associates, Zhu Di plotted a rebellion that sparked a three-year civil war. Under the pretext of rescuing the young Jianwen from corrupting officials, Zhu Di personally led forces in the revolt; the palace in Nanjing was burned to the ground, along with Jianwen himself, his wife, mother, and courtiers. Zhu Di assumed the throne as Emperor Yongle (1402–1424); his reign is universally viewed by scholars as a “second founding” of the Ming Dynasty since he reversed many of his father’s policies and moved the capital to Beijing. Construction of a new city in Beijing lasted from 1407 to 1420, employing hundreds of thousands of workers daily and creating what is today’s imperial Beijing including the Forbidden City.
During Emperor Yongle reign he had staged five major offensives north of the Great Wall against the Mongols, the constant threat of Mongol incursions prompted the Ming authorities to fortify the Great Wall from the late 15th century to the 16th century; which proved to be a futile military gesture only portraying it’s strength without the substance. However, the Great Wall was not meant to be a purely defensive fortification; its towers functioned rather as a series of lit beacons and signaling stations to allow rapid warning to friendly units of advancing enemy troops.
Ming Dynasty Finance
Paper money was used in the early part of the dynasty, however the Ming Dynasty ended up using silver as a means of exchange in their economy; this is due to the massive inflow of silver into the Ming economy throughout the dynasty. The amount of silver used by the Ming economy was extraordinary; the Zheng clan (郑氏), which was a major clan of merchants in the late Ming, regularly engaged in transactions of several million taels, at a time in which English traders considered tens of thousands of pounds an extraordinary fortune. However, both coin and paper money were used throughout the Ming dynasty. Ming demand for silver was such that at one point most of the output of the mines of Peru went straight to China during the Ming era.
Trade and investment
In early Ming, following the devastation of the war which expelled the Mongols, Emperor Hongwu imposed major and severe restrictions on trade. He believed that agriculture (like in Mao Ze Dong modern era) was the basis of the economy. Emperor Hongwu favored that industry over all else, including that of merchants (today’s Small and Medium Enterprises – SME’s). After his death, most of his policies were reversed by his successors. By the late Ming, the state was losing power to the very merchants which Emperor Hongwu had wanted to restrict.
The Ming dynasty later engaged in a thriving trade with both Europe and Japan. The amount of silver flowing into the Ming dynasty was estimated by Joseph Needham at 300 million taels, an equivalent of more than 190 billion dollars in today’s money. In addition to silver, the Ming also imported many European firearms, in order to ensure the modernity of their weapons.
Trade and commerce thrived in this liberalized economy, and was aided by the construction of canals, roads, and bridges by the Ming government. Taxation was light. The Ming government saw the rise of several merchant clans such as the Huai and Jin clans, who disposed of large amounts of wealth. The gentry and merchant classes started to fuse, and the merchants gained power at the expense of the state. Some merchants were reputed to have a treasure of 30 million taels.
On taxes, the entire foreign trade, which was estimated at up to 300 million taels, provided the Ming with a tax of only about 40,000 taels a year. Taxes from the beginning were drastically reduced from the high levels under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, and the Ming had one of the lowest tax rates (per person) in the world. (a lesson on extremes to be learned. Lowest taxes are not necessarily best).
Investment and capital moved off the mainland abroad and were poured into ventures. Continuing the trend from the Song, Ming investors poured large amounts of capital into ventures and reaped high profits. Many Chinese scholars believe the Ming was the dynasty in which the “sprouts of capitalism” emerged in China, only to be suppressed by the Qing.
Another key feature of the Ming manufacturing industry was privatization. Unlike the Song, in which state-owned enterprises played a large role, the Ming reverted to the old laissez faire policies of the Han by privatizing the salt and tea industries. By the middle of the Ming Dynasty, powerful groups of wealthy merchants had replaced the state as the dominant movers behind Chinese industry.
The Ming government abolished the mandatory forced labor by peasants used in early dynasties and replaced it with wage labor. A new class of wage laborers sprung up where none had existed before.
Decline and fall of the Ming Dynasty
Reign of the Emperor Wanli (r. 1572–1620)
The financial drain of the many wars against the Mongols and the Imjin War in Korea against the Japanese was one of the many problems—especially fiscal but also other—facing Ming China during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572–1620). In the beginning of his reign, Wanli surrounded himself with able advisors and made a conscientious effort to handle state affairs. His Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (1572–82) built up an effective network of alliances with senior officials.
However, there was no one skilled enough to maintain the stability of the alliances. Officials soon banded together in opposing factions. Over time Emperor Wanli grew tired of court affairs and frequent political quarreling amongst his ministers, preferring to stay behind the walls of the Forbidden City and out of his officials’ sight. Scholar-officials lost prominence in administration as eunuchs became intermediaries between the aloof emperor and his officials; any senior official who wanted to discuss state matters had to persuade powerful eunuchs with a bribe simply to have his demands or message relayed to the emperor.
Economic breakdown and natural disasters
Excessive luxury and decadence marked the late Ming period, spurred by the enormous state bullion of incoming silver and by private transactions involving silver.
During the last years of the Wanli era and those of his two successors, an economic crisis had developed. The problem centered around a sudden widespread lack of the empire’s chief medium of exchange: silver. Philip IV of Spain (reigned 1621–1665) began cracking down on illegal smuggling of silver from New Spain and Peru across the Pacific towards China, in favor of shipping American-mined silver through Spanish ports. In 1639 the new Tokugawa regime of Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with European powers, cutting off another source of silver coming into China. These events occurring at roughly the same time caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver and made paying taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. People began hoarding precious silver as there was progressively less of it, forcing the ratio of the value of copper to silver into a steep decline. In the 1630s a string of one thousand copper coins equaled an ounce of silver; by 1640 that sum could fetch half an ounce; and, by 1643 only one-third of an ounce.[60] For peasants this meant economic disaster, since they paid taxes in silver while conducting local trade and crop sales in copper.[61]
By the 16th century, however, the expansion of European trade – albeit restricted to islands near Guangzhou like Macao – spread the Columbian Exchange of crops, plants, and animals into China, introducing chili peppers to Sichuan cuisine and highly-productive corn and potatoes, which diminished famines and spurred population growth. The growth of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch trade created new demand for Chinese products and produced a massive influx of Japanese and American silver.
This abundance of silver specie allowed the Ming to finally avoid using paper money, which had sparked hyperinflation during the 1450s.
While traditional Confucians opposed such a prominent role for commerce and the newly rich it created, a person emerged with a heterodoxy. Wang Yangming permitted a more accommodating attitude. Zhang Juzheng’s initially successful reforms proved devastating when a slowdown in agriculture produced by the Little Ice Age was met with Japanese and Spanish policies that quickly cut off the supply of silver now necessary for farmers to be able to pay their taxes. Combined with crop failure, floods, and epidemic, the dynasty was considered to have lost the Mandate of Heaven and collapsed before the rebel leader Li Zicheng and a Manchurian invasion.
Remembering that Ming taxation was extremely light. For example, taxes on agriculture were only 1/30 of agricultural produce, and were later reduced to 1/50 of produce. Taxes on commerce amounted to 1/30 of commerce also, but was later reduced to 1.5%. The low taxes spurred trade, but also severely weakened the state (government are typically not able to manage their finances). With the coming of the Little Ice Age in the 17th century (an uncontrollable environmental accident with long term consequences), the state’s low revenues and its inability to raise taxes caused massive deficits, and large numbers of Ming troops defected or rebelled because they had not been paid. (raising taxes under these conditions would have caused further revolts and without military forces it becomes a circle of problems).
When the Wanli Emperor sought to increase the salt tax, his measures were opposed by violence and the eunuchs he sent to collect the tax were beheaded by local officials.
Final Stage – Financial, economic and natural disasters
The central government, starved of resources, could do very little to mitigate the effects of these natural calamities. Making matters worse, a widespread epidemic spread across China from Zhejiang to Henan, killing an unknown but large number of people. The deadliest earthquake of all time, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, occurred during the Jiajing Emperor’s reign, killing approximately 830,000 people.
In 1640, masses of Chinese peasants who were starving, unable to pay their taxes, and no longer in fear of the frequently defeated Chinese army. These masses now began to form into huge bands of rebels. The Chinese military, caught between fruitless efforts to defeat the Manchu raiders from the north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces, finally started to fall apart. Unpaid and unfed, the army was easily defeated by Li Zicheng— now self-styled as the Prince of Shun —entered the capital without much of a fight. On May 26, 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng when the city gates were treacherously opened from within. During the turmoil, the last Ming emperor hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City.
Each bastion of resistance was individually defeated by the Qing until 1662, when the last real hopes of a Ming revival died with the Yongli Emperor, Zhu Youlang. (Despite the Ming defeat and long after the Qing Dynasty was declared, smaller loyalist movements continued until the proclamation of the Republic of China, October 10, 1911).

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