Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) 

— Epoch of All Round Prosperity

16 Emperors —  276 Years

Royal Palace of the Ming Dynasty — The Forbidden City in Beijing

Facts about the Ming Dynasty

 

1  Ming Dynasty is believed as one of the kingdoms that achieved the throne in the most orthodox, righteous way. 

 

   The first emperor & founder of Ming, Zhu Yuanzhang (also honored as Hongwu Emperor), was born into a poverty family. 

 

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

 

2  Queens of the Ming Dynasty usually came from ordinary or lower class officials’ families. This was aimed at preventing powerful clans of the queens that may manipulate politics. 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

6 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 — Suzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmiying)

7 Every official, even the most powerful prime minister, should return to their hometown after they retired; therefore, they couldn’t obtain any political privileges nor form big political clans. 

8  Challenging and criticizing emperors were highly encouraged in the Ming Dynasty; they were considered as the representative of integrity, honor, and courage.

9  Factional conflicts were quite intense in the last few decades of the Ming Dynasty; those political factions 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 — Ningxia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

10  Ming Dynasty had been fought against many foreign regimes, including England, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Netherland, etc. Ming Empire all won in the end. 

 

11  Ming’s Capital city was moved to Beijing by Emperor Zhu Di. Since then, Beijing had been besieged and in danger several times, but had never been occupied, until Ming ended. 

12  Ming Dynasty had the most numbers of dependent countries in Chinese history. 

Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

13  Elizabeth I of England had sent a letter to the Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, suggesting to develop trade between China and England. But the ship of the envoy encountered a big storm in the sea, and this letter didn’t reach to Ming.  

14  Names of royal family members of the Ming Dynasty 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.

 

   When 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, most of them 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 — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

15 During the Ming Dynasty, the earliest, biggest encyclopedia Yong Le Da Dian was edited and published.

 

16  Novels were quite popular; three of the Four Greatest Novels in Chinese history were finished in the Ming Dynasty. 

 

17  Royal Printing Press of the Ming Dynasty 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 — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

18  Ming Dynasty had very good welfare system:

 

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

 

  • People over 70 years old could have one of their sons exempted from tax so that this son could pay more attention to take care of his parents. 

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

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

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

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

Brief History of the Ming Dynasty

 

Establishment of the Ming Dynasty by Commoner Zhu Yuanzhang

Zhu Yuanzhang was a poor orphan and then a monk that begged for food for years; later he joined an uprising army in the late Yuan Dynasty, as a common soldier. He fought bravely there and married to 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 Kingdom Ming in city 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. 

 

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

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

 

The new empire that he built was open-minded, independent, and prosperous, in which people could have stable, wealthy lives.

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

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

Snatching the Throne and Changing of the Capital City

 

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang gave the throne to his grandson, a talented, nice young monarch. However, his fourth son did not satisfy with his power being taken away by this young monarch. 

So, his fourth son 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. 

This was the ambitious Zhu Di, honored as Yongle Emperor (or Emperor Chengzu of Ming). He 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. 

His favorite grandson was Zhu Zhanji, whom he even took to the battlefields and taught him in person how to fight in a war, as well as how to 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

Crisis of the Ming Dynasty and the Great Savior Yu Qian

The grandson of Emperor Zhu Di, however, almost buried the Ming Empire.

 

This was the Emperor Zhu Qizhen, who led the Ming’s main force 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 Empire perished, the emperor himself got captured, and the nomadic troop soon marched outside of the Beijing City. 

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

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

Flourishing and Developing of the Ming Empire

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

 

He then became a fine monarch, so was his son. 

His grandson was the Emperor Zhu Youcheng, a perfect, remarkable monarch that prospered the empire. Ming was soon recovered from the former huge loss and reached a peak under his reign.  

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

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

Zhu Houzhao, honored as Zhengde Emperor (or Emperor Wuzong of Ming), was one of the most controversial monarchs in Chinese history, who was spoiled, extremely ridiculous, but gained excellent achievements. 

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

Unearthed Exquisite Gold Wares of the Ming Dynasty (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

A Great Reformer and the Last Prosperous Era of the Ming Dynasty

Under the governance of the Taoist Emperor Zhu Houcong, the border of the Ming Empire 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 an advanced reform that made the Ming Empire wealthy, strong, and stable again.

However, Emperor Zhu Yijun abolished many of the reform policies after Zhang Juzheng passed away. The Ming Dynasty started to decline in the late years of his reign.

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

Rising of National Crisis and Struggling of the Ming Dynasty

After he 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, who made the empire a worse, chaotic place 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 honored 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, partial conflicting, constant nationwide refugee-peasant uprisings, and a powerful nomadic regime named Manchu in the northeast. 

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

Falling and Tragic Ending of the Ming Dynasty 

 

In the year 1644, when a refugee army broke into the Beijing city, 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 marched across the Great Wall, who later occupied the middle kingdom. 

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

The Ming Dynasty was officially ended ever since. 

Crystal Drum of the Ming Dynasty — Zhongxiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Systems of the Ming Dynasty

 

Population:

 

Population: 59 million — 150 million (beginning — peak) 

 

Political System:

 

In the central government, every department directly reported to the emperor:

 

  • Cabinet System: It started as a consultant agency; since the middle Ming, it became the most powerful administrative, decision-making department. The Cabinet consisted of 1 to 7 Grand Secretariats whom all gained good scores in the Imperial Examination; some of them also worked as teachers of crown princes. 

 

  • Ministry of Personnel: Appointment, Assessment, and Removal of Officers 

  • Ministry of Revenue: Household Registration, Finance, and Tax

  • Ministry of Rites: Ceremony and Education

  • Ministry of National Defense: Military Affairs 

  • Ministry of Justice: Law, Judiciary and Punishment

  • Ministry of Constructions: Design and Implementation of National Constructions

 

  • Department of Imperial Censors: Supervise everyone and everything, from emperors to ordinary officers and soldiers, from nominating of crown princes to other officers’ inappropriate behaviors. According to the law, no one should be sentenced to death because of their speech. 

  • Secret Police Agency: An intelligence agency to collect both domestic and foreign information, and directly report to the emperor. 

In the local was the Branch Secretariats, also named as Province System, which is still used today.

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

Official Selection System: 

Imperial Examination, which allows talented men to enter the ruling class based on their talents, instead of class origin.

 

Civil and military officials were both selected through the system. 

Tax:

 

  • People should pay a certain amount of money or fabrics in the summer, and farmland products in the autumn; numbers of tax that one was supposed to pay differed based on the production situations and quality of farmlands.

 

  • Labor services in Ming Dynasty also differed based on families’ situations.

 

Rich families with more numbers of men would be assigned heavier jobs or works that require more money, vice versa.

 

One could pay others to do the labor services, or pay a certain amount of money to be exempted. 

 

  • In Prime Minister Zhang Juzheng’s reform, all types of taxes and labor services were replaced by paying money. 

Copper Currencies of the Ming Dynasty

Military Service:

 

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

 

The soldiers cultivated their land when they were free, and fought on the battlefield when there’s war.

 

They did not need to pay for taxes, but the army needed to provide for themselves. 

 

  • In the middle to late Ming Dynasty, some recruited private forces appeared, to fight with the increasing enemies.

 

Land System:

 

Private Ownership of Land.

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

Scientific Development

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

 

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

Restoration Model of Zheng He's Main Boat of the Ming Dynasty — 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 disseminating of sound and atmospheric refraction phenomena, etc. But 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) (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, a masterpiece of the Borrowing of Scenes. 

 

  • Publishing of 132 cloud charts to forecast the weather.

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

  • The invention of Variolation to prevent smallpox.

  • Firearms of the Ming Dynasty were well developed and advanced.

Advanced Firearms 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, which contains 1892 medicines and 11096 prescriptions.

 

In areas of botany, zoology, mineralogy, physics, chemistry, agriculture, this book also contributed exceptionally. 

Exquisite Artifacts of the Ming Dynasty

Photo by Museum Photographer Dongmaiying

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