Ming Dynasty

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  • Dates: 1368-1644
  • Chinese/Japanese: 明 (Míng / Min)

The Ming Dynasty was the last Chinese dynasty to be ruled by a Han Chinese Imperial line. The dynasty began with the 1368 overthrow of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty by Han Chinese rebels, and ended with the fall of Beijing to Manchu invaders in 1644, marking the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, China's last imperial dynasty.

The Ming is known for numerous prominent cultural developments, including the voyages of Zheng He, the development of kunqu drama, the rise of literati painting (and concordant decline in appreciation for court painting), the publishing of several of the greatest Chinese novels, and the reconstruction of the Great Wall and Forbidden City. The Ming capital was originally established at Nanjing by the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu Emperor, but after the Yongle Emperor seized power in 1402 by attacking and destroying the palace at Nanjing, he returned the capital to Beijing. Much of the Ming elements of the Great Wall and Forbidden City survive today.

The Ming Dynasty was also the first to establish tribute relations with Japan (briefly, under the Ashikaga shogunate), and with the Ryûkyû Kingdom. Though the Ming, at times, implemented strict policies of maritime restrictions, in other ways, or at other times, it was also a high point of trade and foreign relations.

The population of China is believed to have been around 60-90 million at the beginning of the Ming, growing to around 125-150 million by the end of the period,[1] and comprising perhaps 1/3 of the total human population of the planet. Though roughly 90% of Chinese lived in rural areas, the period saw considerable urban growth as well, with Beijing reaching perhaps one million inhabitants, and Nanjing only somewhat fewer.[2]



The founder of the Ming, the Hongwu Emperor, is often described as an autocrat and despot. He abolished the Grand Secretariat which in previous periods had handled important matters of state, insisting instead on handling such matters himself. He had three prime ministers killed, and no one was reappointed to that post for the duration of the dynasty. Further, unlike in earlier dynasties, regents were not appointed for young emperors, and in fact close male relatives of the emperor - essentially anyone who could contest his claim to the throne, or contest the succession - were removed from the palace, given lavish villas in the provinces, and were forbidden from traveling without the emperor's authorization.

With no prime minister (chancellor, chengxiang) to help handle the daily administrative business of governance, Ming emperors, even those not yet in their majority, thus bore more of the brunt of day-to-day administration than their predecessors.[3] The Hongwu Emperor himself is reported to have handled 1,660 memorials on 3,391 different matters in one particular 10-day period.[4] Some later emperors were not as able, or as willing, to handle such a load, and during certain reigns, government processes slowed down and backed up dramatically. In the late Ming period, a succession of emperors showed little interest in governance; one even remained illiterate throughout his reign. As a result, the re-established Grand Secretariat and palace eunuchs gained considerable power at over policy and administration.

Hongwu also implemented a "Great Ming Code," attempting to transform and regulate society in accordance with a legal framework informed by ancient precedents. This included numerous structures which did have lasting impact; however, the Hongwu Emperor also frequently contradicted his own Great Code to suit needs of the immediate moment, or purely on a whim. One of his lasting changes was the establishment of a system known as li-jia, in which every ten families in a neighborhood or village constituted a jia, and each ten jia a li; each li and jia was then mutually responsible for ensuring the good conduct of its members, a system not entirely unlike the Edo period Japanese system of goningumi (five person groups).[4]

The Hongwu Emperor also continued a trend in significantly increasing the emperor's standing relative to his ministers, requiring them to bow in his presence, where they had stood in the emperor's presence during the Song Dynasty, and sat before him or even alongside him during the Tang Dynasty.[4]

Demographic & Economic Expansion

While the Song Dynasty is often credited with seeing the emergence of many proto-modern economic institutions, including banking, paper money, and extensive interconnected domestic commercial networks, it was in the Ming period that these advances spread more completely throughout the country. Following the Han Dynasty and the Song, the Ming is often said to represent China's third commercial revolution, bringing considerable expansion of cities, and of the use and flow of metal coinage.

The economic growth of the Ming period was fueled in part by considerable influxes of silver, from domestic mines opened in the southwest, and from mines overseas, chiefly in Japan and South America. Beginning in the late 16th century, Spanish galleons in particular journeyed between China, Manila in the Spanish Philippines, Acapulco in Nueva España (Mexico), and elsewhere in the Spanish Empire, bringing silver from South America into China, and Chinese porcelains and silks to the Americas and Europe. By some estimates, a full one-third of the silver mined in the New World in this period ended up in Chinese coffers.[5]

Song agricultural advances, including new strains of rice, combined with the expansion of lands under cultivation, contributed to a considerable increase in agricultural production throughout much of the country. This boost in the food supply, combined with commercial growth, fueled a considerable expansion of population, which in turn further fueled commercial and urban growth. These in turn led to an increased need for administrative organization both in the cities and the provinces, and so the scholar-bureaucrat class grew in numbers and importance. By the end of the Ming period, the jìnshì degree, held only those who had passed the top levels of the civil examinations, became quite standard for anyone claiming elite status, while the social value or status of the degrees held by those who passed only regional and provincial exams decreased considerably.

Areas of northern China which became relatively depopulated during the period of Mongol rule were resettled during the Ming, and the Grand Canal was reopened in 1415, reconnecting a vital trade route between north and south. Expanded Chinese settlement of certain upland areas of the southwest led to conflicts with the Miao people, while many Chinese also began settling on the island of Taiwan and in various parts of Southeast Asia.

The lower Yangzi region surrounding the cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou (and modern-day Shanghai) recovered from being discriminated against by the Hongwu Emperor (following their resistance to his forces prior to the founding of the dynasty),[4] and became increasingly densely populated and commercialized over the course of the Ming period. Ninety percent of agricultural land in that region came to be owned by absentee landlords, who rented out the land to tenant farmers, and who came to chiefly grow cash crops such as cotton and silk. Textile merchants in the cities began to organize and oversee entire streams of production, from the tenant farmers producing raw materials, to networks of spinners, weavers, and dyers working out of their homes in rural areas and provincial cities & towns, to their own storefronts in the big cities. By the 17th century, spinning and weaving were China's top industries.[2] Meanwhile, the southeast remained China's most populous and prosperous region.[4]

North of the Huai River, much of the land was severely deforested as early as the 16th century, and the heavily silted-up Yellow River regularly changed course, flooding farms and villages. Relatively flat, wide open plains allowed military and police forces to move quickly and easily, but also allowed bandits and raiders to do the same, whereas in the south, such bandit activity was severely hindered by the great numbers of dikes, canals, and wet rice paddies crisscrossing the landscape. Lineage groups that enabled extensive social networking and societal safety nets in the south were less common in the north, and while most southerners were either landlords or tenant farmers, in the north the solitary landowner who cultivated his own plots was more typical.[6]

While rural areas and big cities (Beijing, Hangzhou, Canton) saw considerable growth over the course of the Ming period, it was these provincial cities which saw the most urban expansion. Numerous large cities across the empire were home to vibrant social life and a bustling diversity of commercial activities and opportunities, including moneylenders, moneychangers, restaurants, bars, teahouses, and brothels, fruit and vegetable stands, publishers & booksellers, noodlemakers, meat & fishmongers, and all sorts of artisans & craftsmen. Where previously landlords had been based on their rural estates, many now invested themselves in urban commercial and manufacturing endeavors - cotton and silk were perhaps the two chief sectors of proto-industrial growth in this period - turning their attention away from the comparatively less profitable agricultural production of their estates. Meanwhile, rural families began to engage in by-employments, sometimes devoting just as much, or even more, time to cotton spinning, silk weaving, or other craft work than to agriculture.[7] Jiangxi province continued as a major center of ceramics and porcelain production; Nanjing is known for its cotton, and Suzhou for its silk weaving industry, while Hebei province remained the center of iron production, and Anhui province that for dyeing.[4]

Even so, regional economic activity remained far stronger than national networks.[8] Urbanization brought with it the further expansion & development of urban landscapes which first emerged in a serious way in the Song Dynasty, filled with restaurants, teahouses, and brothels. Schools began to grow more numerous and widespread, and book publishing took off, beginning in the late 16th century. Color woodblock printing never reached the heights it did in Japan, but it was developed first in China, and full-color erotic prints were particularly popular in the late Ming, roughly 150-200 years before such materials reached their heights in Japan. The novel also burgeoned in the Ming Dynasty, and four Ming novels are considered among the greatest works of Chinese literature today: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, Journey to the West, and The Plum in the Golden Vase (aka The Golden Lotus).[4] Literacy expanded considerably over the course of the period, among commoners, as well as among women; while some male commentators at the time expressed fears about the negative consequences for society of women's autonomy, many expressed that greater literacy among women would benefit society, through better child-rearing, household management, and moral education.[9]

The tax system was streamlined in the 16th century, in what was known as the Single Whip Reform. Thirty or forty separate land taxes were combined into a single tax obligation, no longer paid in kind (i.e. in grain, or other products), but in silver. Farmers were expected to sell their agricultural products at market to earn the coin necessary to pay their taxes.

Foreign Relations

Having overthrown the Mongols, the first foreign (barbarian) group to conquer all of China, and who ruled for nearly a hundred years, the Ming have been described as perpetually paranoid about the Mongols. The Ming Court rebuilt and expanded the Great Wall of China, and in the 1410s-20s launched five military expeditions deep into Mongolia. The Dynasty remained at war with various Mongol groups on and off for two hundred years, with one Emperor being captured by the Mongols in 1449, and a Mongol army at one point in the mid-16th century making its way to the very walls of Beijing. It was not until 1571 that the Ming managed to establish an official peace with the Mongols; and, only a few decades later, a separate group, the Manchus, came knocking on China's door.

The Yongle Emperor also launched military expeditions into Annam, but withdrew after twenty years of fighting, with no significant gains.

Formal tribute/tally trade relations were established with Japan for the first time in 1401-1402, under the Jianwen Emperor, and then continued briefly under the Yongle Emperor before being severed by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimochi. Relations were later restored, then severed again in the 1550s, due in part to pirate/raider activity (see below), which was blamed on the Japanese. Official Sino-Japanese relations would not be restored again until the late 19th century, but unofficially (and thus, for the most part, illegally in the eyes of the Chinese Court) a vibrant trade continued between China and Japan throughout the Ming and Qing periods. Up until the very last years of the Ming Dynasty, Chinese and Japanese merchants both traveled in great numbers between the two countries, trading Chinese silk for Japanese silver, among many other goods; though the Chinese had opened new mines in the southwest, many of their other silver mines were already beginning to run dry at the very beginning of the Ming period, and so the influx of silver from Japan and the New World (carried by European trade) was much welcome. From the 1540s onward, Europeans were also prominent intermediaries in transporting and selling Chinese goods to Japan, and vice versa.[10]

The famous voyages of Zheng He were undertaken in the early Ming, as well. Zheng journeyed across the Indian Ocean on a series of trips from 1405-1433, ostensibly spreading awareness of the power and virtue of the Chinese Emperor, seeking nominal pledges of submission and tribute, and bringing back numerous luxuries, including exotic animals. However, such voyages were terminated as expensive and unnecessary, a luxury that the Court could not afford while focusing efforts on the more vital concerns of domestic matters, and border defense against the Mongols.

By sometime early in the dynasty, Chinese luxury goods were already widely traded and treasured in distant parts of the world. Silks and porcelains in particular were prized by wealthy elites from India to Iberia. Ming traders operating chiefly out of the ports of Hangzhou, Quanzhou, and Guangzhou sailed to the Pescadores, Taiwan, Kyushu, the Ryukyus, Luzon, and other parts of maritime Southeast Asia, while Chinese ports and coastal towns grew and flourished as sites of import and transshipment of goods from all around the world, as well.[11] Every year, as many as one hundred Chinese ships, with 20,000 tons of cargo space between them, sailed for Southeast Asian ports, bringing back thousands of pieces of silver, plus a myriad of tropical products. Chinese activity at Batavia (Jakarta) alone exceeded the entirety of the Dutch East India Company's operations throughout the region.[12]

While this was a period of lively maritime activity, the vast majority of such activity was illicit, or at least private trade; the Ming Court severely limited both the size and frequency of tribute missions which each polity could send, and did not officially recognize or condone most other maritime activity. Official disinterest in maritime trade was aided by the completion in 1417 of a series of locks along the Grand Canal that allowed the Canal to be used effectively year-round, thus obviating the need to rely entirely on sea trade for any part of the year.[4] At times, for lengthy periods, the Court outlawed much maritime activity, rendering the many Chinese and non-Chinese traders on the high seas as smugglers. No longer able to rely on the authorities for protection, many of these smugglers armed themselves, in order to defend themselves against attack, or against unfair dealings; likewise, many also armed themselves in order to force upon others unfair dealings, turning to extortion, piracy, coastal raiding and so forth. Thus was born the wakô (lit. "Japanese pirates/raiders"). Though many wakô were Japanese, many were also Chinese, Korean, Malay, or from other Southeast Asian origins; nevertheless, they continue to be remembered today in China and Korea as "Japanese," and as examples of the violent and predatory nature of the Japanese people; though the Ming government demanded on numerous occasions that the Ashikaga shogunate (and, later, figures such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi) take steps to end the pirate threat, the pirates were not encouraged or commanded by Japanese central authorities, and such authorities had no effective power to move against them.

In addition to its various conflicts with nomadic groups such as the Mongols, and later the Manchus, as well as in Vietnam to the south, the Ming faced a significant conflict in Korea, as samurai forces under Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded the peninsula twice in the 1590s. Though the allied Ming-Joseon forces were ultimately successful in repelling the Japanese invasion, this was a particularly significant series of events, both militarily, and in terms of later implications for Chinese-Japanese and especially Korean-Japanese relations.

The Fall of the Ming

By the beginning of the 17th century, the Ming was beginning to severely weaken, due to a number of factors. Declining tax revenues made it difficult to pay officials and the military, leading to many disgruntled army officers and soldiers; meanwhile, British and Dutch attacks on Iberian shipping severely impacted the amount of silver flowing into China, causing silver to become more precious - peasants who made their income in copper coin but paid their taxes in silver now had to pay two or three times as much copper for the same amount of silver. Further, the Little Ice Age contributed to famines and pestilence in various parts of the empire, exacerbated by poor granary emergency preparation policies.[13]

A weakened Ming Dynasty saw the rise of numerous rebel and bandit groups, in part in response to these famines and onerous tax burdens. One rebel leader, Li Zicheng, captured Beijing in 1644, finding only a few companies of soldiers and a few thousand eunuchs defending the city's twenty-one miles of city walls. The Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself two days later.[14]

Meanwhile, the Ming had been fighting the Manchus in the north, suffering a notable early defeat in 1619, but otherwise managing to hold back the steppe nomads. Hearing of the fall of Beijing, however, hundreds of Ming Imperial princes across the country began to gather followers in order to fight to regain the capital and restore the dynasty, resulting in widespread conflict over the succession and leaving the Ming military scattered and occupied, unable to present a unified front against either the rebels or the Manchus. The commander of the Ming armies in the northeast, Wu Sangui, commanded one of the largest and best-equipped forces in the empire, numbering perhaps as many as 100,000 and armed with some number of the best artillery (cannon) in all of East Asia. Wu was stuck in a quandary. Were he to leave his post and march to Beijing to defeat the rebels in hopes of restoring the Ming, the Great Wall would go undefended and the Manchu hordes would flow into China; if, on the other hand, he remained at his post and continued to impede the progress of the Manchus, there would be no Ming to defend (and besides, which of the hundreds of claimants would he support?). In the end, Wu enlisted the aid of the Manchus to help oust Li Zicheng. The Manchu armies, led by Ming forces to Beijing, did just that, defeating Li Zicheng, but afterwards, they kept Beijing for themselves, going on to conquer the remainder of China in the ensuing decades.[14]

Within China, many people committed suicide in the wake of the fall of Beijing, many took up arms (and many of these died fighting), and as was the case following the Mongol conquest centuries earlier, many scholar-officials simply resigned their posts and refused to serve under the new government. Some of the latter also gathered materials about the Ming, in order to compile their own pro-Ming accounts of the dynasty's history, and of the resistance against the Manchus, separate from the official histories the Qing would produce.[15]

Descendants of the Ming emperors gathered followers around them, and competed with one another to gather support to combat the Manchus and restore the dynasty. Soon, a few such princes emerged on top, putting up some resistance in Fuzhou, Canton, and southwest China, but all were swiftly crushed by the Manchus and their Chinese allies (including Wu Sangui).

Other groups of Ming loyalists, including a group led by Zheng Chenggong, initially fled to Fujian province, attempting to set up an Imperial Court in exile there,[16] and remained active in southern China and Taiwan into the 1680s, sending numerous requests for aid to Japan. The Japanese referred to those bringing these requests as Nihon kisshi (日本乞師). Some prominent shogunate officials supported the notion of sending support, and the matter was briefly discussed; the shogunate went so far as to send messages to the Korean court, via Tsushima han, testing out Korean support for such pro-Ming actions. However, a number of prominent officials opposed sending any support. They pointed to the Ming's unfriendly and even hostile attitudes for nearly a century against Japanese ships coming to China, and to the fact that the loyalists requesting aid were not clear representatives of the Ming Imperial Court, but were essentially unknowns. In the end, no aid was offered or provided by the shogunate.[17]

The Ming continued to live on in the popular imagination throughout the region. Japanese popular publications continued to associate the Ming with the true Chinese rulers, or the true Chinese culture, down into the 19th century, and the royal courts & aristocracies of Korea and Ryûkyû considered themselves, in certain respects, the successors to the Ming tradition - the inheritors of the true Chinese civilization, as China proper had fallen to the "barbarians" (the Manchus).

Emperors of the Ming Dynasty

  1. Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368-1398)
  2. Jianwen Emperor (r. 1398-1402)
  3. Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424)
  4. Hongxi Emperor (r. 1424-1426)
  5. Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1435)
  6. Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1436-1449)
  7. Jingtai Emperor (r. 1450-1457)
  8. Tianshun Emperor (r. 1456-1465)
  9. Chenghua Emperor (1465-1488)
  10. Hongzhi Emperor (1488-1505)
  11. Zhengde Emperor (1505-1521)
  12. Jiajing Emperor (1522-1567)
  13. Longqing Emperor (1568-1573)
  14. Wanli Emperor (1573-1620)
  15. Taichang Emperor (1620)
  16. Tianqi Emperor (1620-1627)
  17. Chongzhen Emperor (1627-1644)

Preceded by:
Yuan Dynasty
Ming Dynasty
Succeeded by:
Qing Dynasty


  • Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 98-113.
  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 369-407.
  1. Craig, 100.; Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, University of California Press (2000), 130.; This figure exceeded the population of all European nations at that time, combined. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 7.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 470.
  3. Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 18.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 242-267.
  5. Tignor, Elman, et al, 443.
  6. Spence, 14.
  7. Lloyd Eastman, Family, Fields, and Ancestors: Constancy and Change in China's Social and Economic History, 1550-1949, Oxford University Press (1988), 73.
  8. By contrast, Edo period Japan saw considerable national integration, with goods from all regions passing through Edo and Osaka, and making their way throughout the country.
  9. Spence, 9.
  10. Eastman, 125.
  11. Tignor, Elman, et al, 430.
  12. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 24.
  13. Spence, 3, 20-21.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Tignor, Elman, et al., 501.
  15. Spence, 61.
  16. Jansen, 26.
  17. Mizuno Norihito, “China in Tokugawa Foreign Relations: The Tokugawa Bakufu’s Perception of and Attitudes toward Ming-Qing China,” Sino-Japanese Studies 15 (2003), 138.; Jansen, 27.
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