Zhu Yuanzhang — A Beggar, Monk, Soldier, and Founder Emperor of the Ming Dynasty
Zhu Yuanzhang (1328 — 1398), honored as Emperor Taizu of Ming or Hongwu Emperor, was the founder of the Ming Dynasty.
As a kid born into an impoverished peasant family, he suffered from hunger, was an orphan, had experienced years of being a monk that begged for food, and started fighting as an ordinary soldier.
In the end, he overthrew the powerful Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), defeated other strong forces, and established the Ming Dynasty.
After gaining supreme power, he implemented policies that took good care of poor people and fought against corruption and unqualified officials.
In Chinese history, Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was an extraordinary monarch with unique characteristics, remarkable accomplishments, and legendary experience.
Portrait of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, Painted by A Court Artist of Ming Empire.
Sad and Poor Childhood
Born into an impoverished family, Zhu had been working as a peasant for a wealthy family.
When he was 15, his parents and older brothers died from hunger and disease.
He and another brother poorly buried their late family members and left their home separately, trying to stay alive.
Then Zhu came into a temple to be a monk, where he learned some reading and writing skills.
Later, the temple couldn’t afford to feed them anymore, so he and other monks started to beg for food.
Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Self Description, Wrote on the Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106) — Palace Museum
Three Years of Begging Life Around the Country
Zhu then begged for food in different places in China for three years.
At that time, the Yuan Dynasty’s rule had already been in danger, plus years of natural disasters and racial unfairness, and many uprising armies had been fighting for a long time.
During these three years of walking around the nation, Zhu saw countless injured, hungry, homeless, and dead people.
Besides, he witnessed the cruel treatment of poor civilians and endless fights and blood.
No one could tell exactly what he had suffered during that period as a poor kid living in a chaotic society.
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)
Joining Uprising Army and Marrying The Love of His Life
When he was 25 years old, Zhu was invited to join an uprising army by his childhood friend, so he left the temple and officially became a soldier.
Afterward, he changed his name to Zhu Yuanzhang, a sharp and powerful weapon to perish the Yuan Empire.
As a common soldier, he was fearless and intelligent. Meanwhile, his ability to read and write soon got his first promotion to a group leader of ten warriors.
Sometime later, his current general Guo highly appreciated his courage and personality and married his adoptive daughter Ma Xiuying to Zhu Yuanzhang.
This woman was the love of his life and accompanied him all the time, from an ordinary soldier to the emperor of a prosperous and powerful empire.
Portrait of Empress Ma Xiuying or Empress Xiaocigao, Painted by A Court Artist of Ming.
Zhu Yuanzhang’s First Troop and Constant Winnings
Later, he returned to his hometown and recruited his first army with about 700 people, including his childhood friends, refugees, and soldiers from other failed armies.
Since none of his soldiers were professional, Zhu Yuanzhang spent lots of time training his troop from an inattentive army to a professional and aggressive one.
During this time, he encountered and recruited the most important and remarkable generals and officials of the Ming Dynasty.
Meanwhile, he and his wife adopted many children, some of whom grew up to be exceptional marshals.
Assisted by intelligent officials and brave warriors, his army kept winning.
Soon, his army expanded to a considerable troop with over 300,000 soldiers, but Zhu Yuanzhang still respected Guo as his commander until Guo passed away.
Unearthed Gold Tablet, Carved with the Testament of Exceptional General Mu Ying the King of Qianning, An Adoptive Son of Zhu Yuanzhang and Ma Xiuying — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Establishment of the Ming Dynasty
Zhu Yuanzhang was not only a remarkable general but also a thoughtful monarch.
Unlike other armies who would collect food from civilians of their occupied cities, Zhu Yuanzhang asked his army to do farm work; they even helped local people to construct water conservancy projects.
By doing this, he gained the civilians’ heartiest support, and his warriors became more responsible, competitive, and disciplined.
After years of intense wars, Zhu Yuanzhang defeated other strong uprising armies in southern China and established the Ming Empire.
Battle of Poyang Lake: the largest scale water battle in the Medieval Era, when Zhu Yuanzhang led 200, 000 warriors and defeated his rival’s 650, 000 soldiers in Poyang Lake. After this important battle, he eliminated his strongest rival in the south.
Then, he continued to march northward, under the name of expelling nomads and recovering ancestors’ reign. This effectively inspired most northern Han people still under Empire Yuan’s rule.
A few months after the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang’s army marched toward the Yuan Empire’s capital, Beijing.
The last emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, Toghon Temür, an excellent engineer and astrologer, took his people and escaped northward after reading the divination from the stars.
Then, the Ming Empire occupied most places in China south of the Great Wall.
Wars Against the Former Yuan Dynasty
The escape of Emperor Toghon Temür preserved most of his people and their powerful Mongolian cavalrymen troops.
Hence, they built another government, the Northern Yuan, on the north side of the Great Wall.
Therefore, in the following 26 years, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang initiated eight Northern Expedition wars against this new government to perish their effective strength.
Except for a big failure of the second Northern Expeditions, the Ming Empire’s army succeeded in all the other wars, while the Mongol army kept losing and retreating.
Ming Dynasty Great Wall, Photo by Gucheng.
In the sixth Northern Expedition, an excellent marshal named Lan Yu led 150,000 of the Ming’s soldiers, carried very little food and water, and arrived at the current Bell Lake.
They ambushed the Northern Yuan government and captured about 80,000 of their people, including many princes and princesses and other nobles.
This was the Battle of Buir Lake, after which Genghis Khan’s Golden Family officially lost control over the Mongolian Plateau.
Their kingdom was then separated into three regimes.
Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573－1620 － National Museum of China
Those three clans all complied and tribute Ming as monarch.
They still had wars against Ming sometimes, but the tributary system and complied relationship had barely changed.
Because Zhu Yuanzhang’s policy concerning soldiers should do farm work and supply themselves, Empire Ming’s armies could almost be self-sufficient under his ruling period.
Consequently, despite those long-term and large-scale wars, Zhu Yuanzhang never delayed development within his empire.
Underglaze Red Porcelain Yuhuchun Vase with Peony Pattern Produced During Reign of Hongwu Emperor — Macao Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Great Hongwu Emperor and His Policies
As one of the most extraordinary emperors in the history of China, Zhu Yuanzhang’s policies and governance had very obvious personal characteristics.
Because of his poverty origin, his painful childhood experience, and everything he had suffered and witnessed during his three years of begging life, he truly cared about ordinary people’s well-being.
One of the best welfare systems in the history of China was established under his reign:
The government offered free medication, foster care, houses, and tombs;
People over 70 and people who respected their parents could get free food and money;
Childless old people would be taken care of by the government;
The only child of older adults would be exempted from national labor services.
Exquisite Furniture of Ming Dynasty, Unearthed From Tomb of Zhu Tan (the Tenth Son of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang) — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Economically, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang exempted or lowered taxes, encouraged agriculture, suppressed business, and built many irrigation systems nationwide.
He also implemented a vast immigration activity, which evened the north and south population and cultivated more farmlands.
Meanwhile, the Imperial Examination and many Han etiquettes abolished in the Yuan Dynasty were re-established.
Many intelligent people from low-income families were selected and supported to study at the national college.
Part of Painting "Prosperous City Nanjing of the Ming Dynasty" (Nan Du Fan Hui Tu), By Artist Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552) — National Museum of China
Fighting Against Corruption
Another feature of his governance was his great hatred for corruption.
As an emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang was very frugal and diligent, and he tried his best to promote this lifestyle to his officials.
Everything that he had suffered in his early years, most of which, he believed, was caused by greedy officials and the corrupted system.
After he became the monarch, he enhanced centralized power and combated corruption with very strict penalties: about 150,000 officials were sentenced to death because of corruption, no matter how much they illegally occupied.
Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When they Met with the Emperors in the Ming Dynasty — Ningxia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
He encouraged civilians to learn about laws and specific terms regarding the punishment of corrupt officials and created a system that allowed civilians to sue officials directly to the emperor or other superior ministers.
The government would cover civilians’ travel costs if they wanted to escort law-breaking officials to the capital themselves.
He also established a famous military spy agency (Jin Yi Wei) to monitor officials, which was abolished in his later years.
From Zhu Yuanzhang’s perspective, civilians’ interests triumphed over bureaucrats’; all those officials should be seen as servants instead of the ruling classes with privileges.
Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Calligraphy Work "Da Jun Tie" — Palace Museum
Losing of Beloved Crown Prince
Besides his wonderful queen, he also had a perfect heir named Zhu Biao, the first son of him and his beloved queen.
Zhu Biao was a kind and talented crown prince whom Zhu Yuanzhang loved and supported heartily.
Zhu Yuanzhang sent his best ministers and marshals to teach and serve him. Whenever he led an army and fought far away, the crown prince would be trusted with everything on the home front.
Zhu Biao always managed everything well and gained the respect and support of all marshals and ministers of the Ming Empire through his genuine kindness and exceptional political talent.
However, the capable and contributive crown prince, his favorite and beloved first son, passed away when Zhu Yuanzhang was 62.
Besides the extreme grief, this also left the old emperor with a big problem, who should be his next heir?
Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian), Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Massacres For the New Heir
Many of his other sons were mature and excelled in the military since most had followed Zhu Yuanzhang and fought on the battlefields several times.
But the emperor chose his late crown prince’s first son, his beloved grandson, as the legit heir of his empire and commanded his other sons to support this young crown prince.
After nominating his young grandson as the heir, he started a mass slaughter, the most controversial decision in his life.
At that time, many excellent generals with exceptional military accomplishments were also related to other of Zhu Yuanzhang’s sons through marriage.
Those people were, Zhu Yuanzhang believed, very possible to overthrow the young heir to support their related princes to be the new emperor and then cause more wars.
Dragon Shaped Jade Belt Hook of the Ming Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Consequently, the emperor used some excuses to sentence many people whom he suspected to have the potential to rebel; tens of thousands of people were executed in his later years.
As a great emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang probably had not expected this to be a big mistake for the flawless empire that he left to his grandson.
He believed his other sons with excellent military skills were excellent enough to protect the Ming Empire, which was correct.
However, he overestimated the family bond while severely underestimating the desire for power and the throne.
Years later, his fourth son Zhu Di snatched his beloved grandson's throne through a war, the Incident of Jingnan.
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)
Accomplishments of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang
Zhu Yuanzhang joined the uprising army as a common soldier when he was 25 and established the Ming Dynasty when he was 40.
From a poverty orphan to a monk who needed to beg for food, to an excellent general, and then a monarch, his achievements were marvelous.
During his 31 years of reign, he decisively defeated the former powerful empire's effective strength, established an intelligent and efficient system, and brought prosperous and stable lives to his people.
The Mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and His Empress Ma — Ming Xiao Ling in Nanjing City
Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was sometimes criticized for his cruelness in slaughtering corrupted officials and contributive generals in his later years.
However, he highly restrained the power of the ruling class. He was always caring and thoughtful to his civilians, making him an epic politician and a magnificent monarch in the history of China.
After he departed, many of his strict policies aimed at restraining officials were gradually abolished.
Maybe, unlike Zhu Yuanzhang, most emperors still considered themselves allies of the bureaucracy, which was important assistance in their reign.
Generals and Soldiers of the Late Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573－1620 － National Museum of China
Next Story: Queen with Saint Personality — Ma Xiuying
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