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, and the rise of literati painting (and concordant decline in appreciation for court painting), 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, 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.
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. Later emperors, however, 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.
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.
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) 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.
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. Even so, regional economic activity remained far stronger than national networks. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
The Fall of the Ming
In the early decades, a weakened Ming Dynasty saw the rise of numerous rebel and bandit groups, in part in response to famines and onerous tax burdens. One rebel leader, Li Zicheng, known by some as a "dashing prince," 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.
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, the commander of the Ming armies in the northeast 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.
Ming loyalists initially fled to Fujian province, attempting to set up an Imperial Court in exile there, 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.
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
- Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368-1398)
- Jianwen Emperor (r. 1398-1402)
- Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424)
- Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1435)
- Yingzong Emperor (r. 1436-1449)
- Jingtai Emperor (r. 1450-1457)
- Tianshun Emperor (r. 1456-1465)
- Chenghua Emperor (1465-1488)
- Hongzhi Emperor (1488-1506)
- Zhengde Emperor (1506-1522)
- Jiajing Emperor (1522-1567)
- Longqing Emperor (1568-1573)
- Wanli Emperor (1573-1620)
- Taichang Emperor (1620)
- Tianqi Emperor (1620-1627)
- Chongzhen Emperor (1627-1644)
- 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.
- Craig, 100.; Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, University of California Press (2000), 130.
- Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 470.
- Tignor, Elman, et al, 443.
- 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.
- Tignor, Elman, et al, 430.
- Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 24.
- Tignor, Elman, et al., 501.
- Jansen, 26.
- 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.