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 a poverty peasant family, he suffered from hunger and being 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 having gained paramount power, he implemented a series of 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 quite special characteristics, remarkable accomplishments, and legendary experiences. 

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang or Hongwu of Ming Dynasty in History of China

Sad and Poor Childhood

Born into a very poor family, Zhu had been working as a peasant for a rich family.

When he was 15 years old, his parents and older brothers all passed away because of 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.

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)

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 beggared for food around different places in China for 3 years.

At that time, the Yuan Dynasty’s ruling had been already in danger, plus years of natural disasters and racial unfairness, and many uprising armies had been fighting for a long time.

During these 3 years of walking around the nation, Zhu had seen lots of injured, hungry, homeless, and dead people; besides, he witnessed the cruel treatment of poor civilians, and endless fights and blood.

No one could exactly tell what he had suffered during that period, as a poor kid living in a chaotic society.

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 very brave and smart. Meanwhile, his ability to read and write soon got him his first promotion, to a group leader of ten warriors.

Sometime later, his courage and personality were highly appreciated by his current general Guo, who then 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. 

Ma Xiuying, the Wife and Queen of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang

Zhu Yuanzhang’s First Troop and Constant Winnings

Later, he went back to his hometown and recruited his first own army with about 700 people that included 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, Zhu Yuanzhang encountered and recruited the most important and remarkable generals and officials of the Ming Dynasty; also, 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 big troop with over 300, 000 soldiers, but he 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, the Adoptive Son of Empress Ma and Hongwu Emperor

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 he was 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 themselves; they even helped local people to construct water conservancy projects.

By doing this, he gained civilians’ heartiest support, and his warriors became more responsible, competitive, and disciplined. 

Zhu Yuanzhang defeated other strong uprising armies in southern China, and established the Ming Empire, after years of intense wars. 

Battle of Poyang Lake the largest scale water battle in the Medieval Era, led by Zhu Yuanzhang

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, which effectively inspired most of the northern Han people that were 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 city 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 in the 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; they built another government, the Northern Yuan, in the north of the Great Wall.

Therefore, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang initiated eight Northern Expedition wars against this new government, in the following 26 years, to perish their effective strength. 

Except for a big failure of the second Northern Expeditions, Ming Empire’s army succeeded in all the other wars, while the Mongol army kept losing and retreating. 

Ming Great Wall Section

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 separated into three regimes.

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

Underglaze Red Porcelain Yuhuchun Vase with Peony Pattern Produced During Reign of Hongwu Emperor — Macao Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and His Policies

As one of the greatest emperors in the history of China, Zhu Yuanzhang’s policies and governance had very obvious personal characteristics.

Because of his poverty origin, his sad experiences in his childhood, and everything that he had suffered and witnessed during his 3 years of begging life, he truly cared about common people’s well-being.

  • One of the best welfare system 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 old people would be exempted from national labor services. ​

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

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 huge immigration activity, which evened the population between the north and the south and cultivated more farmlands.

  • Meanwhile, the Imperial Examination and many Han etiquettes that were abolished in the Yuan Dynasty were re-established.

 

Many smart people from poverty families were selected and supported to study in the national college. 

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 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

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 corrupted officials and created a system that allowed civilians to sue officials directly to the emperor or other superior officers.

 

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, but this was abolished in his late years.

From Zhu Yuanzhang’s perspective, civilians’ interests triumphed over bureaucrats’; all of those officials should be seen themselves as servants, instead of the ruling classes with privileges. 

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Calligraphy Work "Da Jun Tie"

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, he and his beloved queen’s first son.

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. Every time he was leading an army and fighting 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 years old.

Besides the huge 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 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 Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang  — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Massacres For the New Heir

Many of his other sons were mature and excel in the military since most of them 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 having decided to nominate his young grandson as the heir, he started a mass slaughter, the most controversial decision in his life.

At that time, there were many excellent generals with exceptional military accomplishments who 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.

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

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 late 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 that his other sons with excellent military skills were excellent enough to protect the Ming Empire, which was very correct.

However, he overestimated the family bond, while severely underestimating the desire for power and the throne.

Years later, his beloved grandson's throne was snatched by his fourth son Zhu Di 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

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)

Remarkable Accomplishments of 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.

Starting 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 had not only defeated the former powerful empire's effective strength decisively, but also established a brilliant and efficient system, and brought prosperous and stable lives to his people. 

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was criticized sometimes for his cruelness in slaughtering corrupted officials and contributive generals in his late years, however, he highly restrained the power of the ruling class, and was always caring and thoughtful to his civilians, which made him an epic politician, as well as a magnificent monarch in the history of China.

After he departed, many of his strict policies that were aimed at restraining officials were gradually abolished; maybe, unlike Zhu Yuanzhang, most emperors still considered themselves allies of the bureaucracy, which was important assistance of their reign.

The Mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and His Empress Ma — Ming Xiao Ling in Nanjing City

The Mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and His Empress Ma — Ming Xiao Ling in Nanjing City