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Ming Dynasty — Epoch of All Round Prosperity

The Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) stands out as one of the most prosperous empires in ancient Chinese history.


During this era, culture, economy, science, poetry, art, and technology all underwent remarkable development.


The Ming Dynasty lasted for 276 years and was governed by 16 emperors.

Part of Painting "Prosperous City Nanjing of the Ming Dynasty"  (Nan Du Fan Hui Tu), By Artist Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552)

Part of Painting "Prosperous City Nanjing of Ming"  (Nan Du Fan Hui Tu), By Ming Artist Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552) — National Museum of China

Ming Dynasty Facts


  • Ming is believed to be one of the kingdoms that achieved the throne in the most orthodox, righteous way. 


The founding emperor of Ming, Zhu Yuanzhang (also honored as Hongwu Emperor), was born into a poor family. 


From a beggar, a common soldier, to a general, and then to the emperor of the giant empire, he made it through his extraordinary talent. ​


  • Besides emperors, the entire ruling class of Ming was strictly selected through the Imperial Examination.


  • Royal family members and nobles were not allowed to be involved in politics.

  • Queens of Ming usually came from ordinary or lower-class officials’ families.


This was aimed at preventing powerful clans of queens from manipulating politics. 

Unearthed Phoenix Crown of Queen Xiaoduan (the Queen of Emperor Wanli) of the Ming Dynasty

Phoenix Crown of Queen Xiaoduan (the Queen of Emperor Wanli) of Ming — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Every man, including people from the dependent countries of Ming, could participate in the Imperial Examination.


During the exam, the Ming government provided students with food and accommodation. 


  • Officials of the Ming were not well paid; even those very famous, powerful ones had to do farm work themselves to provide for the family.


Some of them then would run businesses, while some turned to corruption. 


  • A soldier could inherit his father’s title in the military, but he had to pass the tournament examination to keep it. 

Unearthed Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of the Ming Dynasty

Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of Ming — Suzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Every official, even the most powerful prime minister, should return to their hometown after they retire.


This way, they couldn’t obtain any political privileges or form big political groups. 

  • Challenging and criticizing emperors were highly encouraged during the Ming era; they were considered the representative of integrity, honor, and courage.

  • Factional conflicts were quite intense in the last few decades of the Ming.


Those political factions in the Ming Court were mainly based on their geographical relations. 

Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When they Met with the Emperors in the Ming Dynasty

Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When They Met with the Emperors of Ming — Ningxia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Ming had fought against foreign regimes, including England, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Netherlands, etc. The Ming Empire won in the end. 



Since then, Beijing had been besieged and in danger several times but had never been occupied until the Ming ended. 

  • Ming had the most dependent countries in Chinese history. 

Lotus Shaped Purple Glaze Writing Brush Wash of the Ming Dynasty

Lotus Shaped Purple Glaze Writing Brush Wash of Ming — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Elizabeth I of England had sent a letter to the Wanli Emperor, suggesting developing trade between China and England.


But the ship of the envoy encountered a big storm in the sea, and this letter didn't reach Ming.  

  • Names of royal family members of Ming were required to include the Five Elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth) and follow the theory that the element in the father's name should generate the son's.


With the royal family having more and more people, the existing Chinese characters were not enough for this standard.


Therefore, more Chinese characters involving the Five Elements were created and most formed the ones in the Chinese Periodic Table of Elements.

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian), Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian), Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of Ming — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • The earliest, biggest encyclopedia Yong Le Da Dian, was edited and published during the Ming era.



  • Royal Printing Press of Ming also did business for a while; they had printed books for everyone who paid money, including rebellion propaganda materials.


All booksellers were free of tax. 

Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of the Ming Dynasty

Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of Ming — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Ming had an excellent welfare system:


Under the financial support of wealthy families and nobilities, free medical care and graveyards were provided to all civilians. 


People over 70 could have one of their sons exempted from tax so that this son could pay more attention to caring for his parents. 

For people over 80, the government would provide full or partial financial support based on their children's economic conditions. 

Awards and honors would be given to people over 100, ensuring all the elders could be taken care of and highly respected. ​

Some free public houses were built for homeless people, but this policy wasn't implemented very long or nationwide. 

Exquisite Furnitures Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan of the Ming Dynasty

Exquisite Furnitures Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan of Ming — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Change of Capital City and Flourishing of the Empire


Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang gave the throne to his grandson, a talented, excellent young monarch who tried to take power away from other royals. 

This displeased one of his influential uncles, the fourth son of Ming's founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. 

This ambitious and aggressive prince Zhu Di, who later initiated a war, snatched the throne, moved Ming's capital to Beijing, and built the Forbidden City of Beijing as Ming's new royal palace. 

The new emperor Zhu Di, respected as Yongle Emperor or Emperor Chengzu of Ming, cruelly murdered those supporters of his nephew emperor, such as the intelligent Confucianist Fang Xiaoru and the beloved husband of Princess Zhu Changning.

As a sovereign, however, Zhu Di was quite remarkable. He invented the Cabinet System in the central government and sent the great navigator Zheng He and his unparalleled fleet to epic adventures. 


He also took his favorite grandson Zhu Zhanji to the battlefields and taught him in person how to fight in a war and manage a country.​


Therefore, After Emperor Zhu Di passed away, his son and grandson were both excellent sovereigns who further flourished the empire.

Part of the Court Painting "Zhu Zhanji Xing Le Tu" (690 cm × 36.7 cm), Presenting Emperor Zhu Zhanji's Entertainment Activities in the Royal Palace — The Palace Museum

Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Ming Dynasty


Establishment of the Ming Empire by Civilian Zhu Yuanzhang

Zhu Yuanzhang was a poor orphan and then a monk who begged for food for years. Later, he joined an uprising army in the late Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) as a common soldier.


He fought bravely, got promoted, and married the love of his life Ma Xiuying


Soon, he started to recruit his army and kept winning.


After his army defeated all other uprising forces, he built his Ming Empire in Nanjing and claimed himself the Emperor.


Zhu Yuanzhang, now the Hongwu Emperor (or Emperor Taizu of Ming), then sent his army to march northward to fight against the Yuan Empire. 

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Self Description, Wrote on the Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106)

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Self Description, Wrote on the Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106) — Palace Museum

At the same time, the last emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, Toghon Temür, took his entire government and army, escaped northward to the outside of the Great Wall, and built another Kingdom named the Northern Yuan. 

Then Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang commanded his army to fight against the Northern Yuan several times until General Lan Yu eliminated the Golden Family and the main force of the Northern Yuan and achieved final success.


The new empire Ming was open-minded, independent, and prosperous so that people could have stable, wealthy lives.

The largest palatial architecture in the Medieval Era, The Forbidden City of Nanjing (about 101. 35 million square meters), was soon constructed in the capital city. 

Unearthed Stone Dragon Stigma of the Relic of The Forbidden City of Nanjing (Built in 1366 — 1392) of the Ming Dynasty

Unearthed Stone Dragon Stigma of the Relic of The Forbidden City of Nanjing (Built in 1366 — 1392) of Ming — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Crisis of Ming and the Great Savior Yu Qian

However, Emperor Zhu Di's grandson almost buried the Ming Empire.


This was Emperor Zhu Qizhen, who led the Ming's main force and marched northward, trying to fight against the invasive nomadic regime.


He took many intelligent generals with him, but he only listened to his favorite eunuch. 

In the end, tens of thousands of good soldiers died without a decent fight, the strongest main force of the Ming perished, the emperor himself got captured, and the nomadic troops soon marched outside of Beijing City. 

The Ming government then, led by hero Yu Qian, enthroned Zhu Qizhen's younger brother as the new emperor, defeated the enemy, and saved the Ming Empire from perishing. 

Firearm (Huo Chong) Produced in 1450 to Protect Ming

Firearm (Huo Chong) of Ming that Produced to Protect the Capital City During this War — National Museum of China

Prosperity and Development of the Ming Empire

After Zhu Qizhen was sent back, he was imprisoned by his brother for seven years until some speculators helped him take the throne back when his brother was sick.


He then became an acceptable monarch, and so was his son. 

His grandson was Emperor Zhu Youcheng, a perfect, remarkable monarch who further developed the empire. Ming soon recovered from the former huge loss and peaked under his reign.  

Philosophy, art, and science all developed well; great philosopher Wang Shouren and exceptional artist Tang Yin left their masterpieces during this period. 

Zhu Youcheng, honored as Hongzhi Emperor or Emperor Xiaozong of Ming, was also the first and only Monogamous emperor in Chinese history who deeply loved his queen and their only son Zhu Houzhao

Zhu Houzhao, respected as Zhengde Emperor or Emperor Wuzong of Ming, was one of the most controversial monarchs, documented as being spoiled and highly ridiculous, but had achieved exceptional accomplishments. 

During this period, the Ming Empire was stable and well-developed. 

Unearthed Exquisite Gold Wares of Ming (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

A Great Reformer and the Last Prosperous Era of Ming

Under the governance of the Taoist Emperor Zhu Houcong, the border of Ming became unstable, and the economy started to decline slightly. 

After Emperor Zhu Yijun ascended to the throne as a kid, his regent was the extraordinary Zhang Juzheng

Zhang Juzheng, one of the best prime ministers in the history of China, implemented a series of progressive reforms that brought the empire the last wealthy, strong, and stable prime.

However, Emperor Zhu Yijun abolished many reform policies after Zhang Juzheng passed away; since then, Ming has declined.​

Colored Glaze Dragon Chiwen that was Widely used on House Ridge of the Ming Dynasty

Colored Glaze Dragon Chiwen that was Widely used on House Ridge of Ming, A Mythical Animal that Can Protect People From Fire — Jiexiu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Rise of Nationwide Crisis and Struggle of Ming

After Emperor Zhu Yijun and his son departed in the same year, his grandson Zhu Youjiao ascended to the throne.

Emperor Zhu Youjiao, an excellent carpenter, focused on his creative artistic works while letting his favorite eunuch be in charge of the central government.


This made the Ming a worse, chaotic empire that kept declining.

But he also sent his trusted teacher Sun Chengzong to defend the border, which proved to be one of his best decisions. 

Before he passed away, he gave the throne to his younger brother Zhu Youjian

Zhu Youjian, respected as Chongzhen Emperor or Emperor Sizong of Ming, started his unlucky life of being a sovereign who had to keep dealing with long-term natural disasters, faction conflict, constant nationwide refugee-peasant uprisings, and a powerful nomadic regime named Manchu in the northeast. 

Jade Horse of the Ming Dynasty

Jade Horse of Ming — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Fall and Tragic End of the Ming Dynasty


In 1644, when a refugee army led by Li Zicheng broke into Beijing, Emperor Zhu Youjian committed suicide in exchange for his people’s safety. 

Then, General Wu Sangui opened the gate of the Shanhai Pass, an important military site, let the Manchu army march across the Great Wall, and later occupied the middle kingdom. 

Many loyal people supported other royal princes of the Ming and established different regimes, trying to recover the Ming Empire; however, after decades of intense wars and cruel massacres, they all failed epically. 

The Ming Dynasty officially ended. 

Porcelain Produced During Wanli Emperor's Reign with "Longevity" Characters

Blue and White Porcelain of Ming with "Longevity" Characters — National Museum of China

Political Structure and Social Systems of the Ming Empire




At the pinnacle of its demographic expansion, the Ming Dynasty boasted an estimated population zenith of around 150 million.


Political System


In the central government, each department had the responsibility of directly reporting to the emperor:


  • Cabinet System: It began as a consulting agency, evolving into the most influential administrative decision-making department during the middle Ming period. Comprising 1 to 7 Grand Secretariats, all of whom achieved high scores in the Imperial Examination, some also served as teachers to the crown princes.


  • Ministry of Personnel: Responsible for the appointment, assessment, and removal of officers.

  • Ministry of Revenue: Manages household registration, finance, and taxation.

  • Ministry of Rites: Oversees ceremony and education.

  • Ministry of National Defense: Handles military affairs.

  • Ministry of Justice: Manages law, judiciary, and punishment.

  • Ministry of Constructions: Responsible for the design and implementation of national constructions.


  • Department of Imperial Censors: This department supervised everyone and everything, from emperors to ordinary officers and soldiers, overseeing tasks ranging from nominating crown princes to addressing inappropriate behaviors among officers. According to the law, no one should be sentenced to death because of their speech.

  • Secret Police Agency: An intelligence agency responsible for collecting both domestic and foreign information, with a direct reporting line to the emperor.

At the local levels were the Branch Secretariats, also known as the Province System, which is still in use today.

Imperial Edict to Bestow Honor to Dong Qichang in the Year 1596

Imperial Edict to Bestow Honor to Dong Qichang in the Year 1596 — Liaoning Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Official Selection System

The Imperial Examination was widely implemented during the Ming Dynasty, allowing individuals with talent to enter the ruling class based on their abilities rather than their class origin.


This process was applied to select both civil and military officials during the period.

Tax System


  • Civilians paid taxes twice a year, in the summer and autumn, using farmland products, textiles, or money. The tax amount and type were typically determined by the extent of their land and property holdings.


  • Labor services in the Ming era also varied based on families’ situations.


Wealthier families with more manpower were assigned heavier jobs or tasks that required greater financial contributions, and vice versa.


Individuals had the option to hire others to perform the labor services or pay a certain amount of money to be exempted.

  • In Zhang Juzheng’s reform, all types of taxes and labor services were replaced by monetary payments.

Copper Currency of the Ming Dynasty

Copper Currencies of Ming

Military Service


Hereditary, professional soldiers and their families were allocated a certain amount of farmland and money.


These soldiers cultivated their land during peacetime and engaged in battlefield duties during wars.


They were exempt from taxes, but the soldiers had to provide for themselves.


In the middle to late Ming period, some privately recruited forces emerged to counter the growing threats.

Land System


The Ming Empire implemented a system of Private Ownership of Land, allowing civilians to own, cultivate, and sell their farmland while fulfilling their tax obligations to the state.

Plum Shaped Agate Cup of the Ming Dynasty

Plum Shaped Agate Cup of Ming — Wuhan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ming Dynasty Achievements in Science and Technology

  • Great explorer Zheng He’s seven epic voyages, his great fleet, and Nautical Atlas:


His spectacular fleet (usually containing over 200 big ships and around 27000 well-trained soldiers and sailors) started from the west Pacific Ocean, crossed the Indian Ocean, reached West Asia and East Africa, bypassed the Cape of Good Hope, and finally arrived at the Atlantic Ocean. 

Restoration Model of Zheng He's Main Boat in the Ming Dynasty

Restoration Model of Zheng He's Main Boat of Ming — Wuhan Science and Technology Museum

  • Tian Gong Kai Wu (by Song Yingxing): Masterpiece of scientific and technical works, an encyclopedia of technology.


The writer also explained the dissemination of sound, atmospheric refraction phenomena, etc. However, most of his works were destroyed in the Qing Dynasty.


  • Great Universal Geographic Map: the first world map.

Great Universal Geographic Map (Kun Yu Wan Guo Quan Tu) of the Ming Dynasty

Great Universal Geographic Map (Kun Yu Wan Guo Quan Tu) (380.2 cm × 168.7 cm), Finished by Li Zhizao in the Year 1602, Painted in the Year 1608 — Nanjing Museum

  • The building of the Lingering Garden, the masterpiece of the Borrowing of Scenes. 

Beacon Towers on Ming Great Wall in Jinshanling Section

Beacon Towers on Ming Great Wall in Jinshanling Section, Photo by Gucheng.

  • ​Nong Zheng Quan Shu (by Xu Guangqi): one of the most important agricultural encyclopedias in ancient Chinese history, which includes agricultural policy and technology and how to deal with famine. 

  • The invention of Variolation to prevent smallpox.

  • The firearms of the Ming were well-developed and advanced.

  • Published 132 cloud charts to forecast the weather.

Cloud Charts of the Ming Dynasty
  • Ben Cao Gang Mu or Compendium of Materia Medica (by Li Shizhen):


A great pharmacology masterpiece and encyclopedia in Chinese history contains 1892 medicines and 11096 prescriptions.


This book also contributed exceptionally to botany, zoology, mineralogy, physics, chemistry, and agriculture. 

Ben Cao Gang Mu the Compendium of Materia Medica of the Ming Dynasty

Ming Dynasty Art and Artifacts

Photo by Museum Photographer Dongmaiying