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The Ming Dynasty Restores the Old Order A.D. 1368-1644

THE MEN who took over from the Mongols came to be known as Hung-wu, or “Vast Military Power.” Hung-wu named his dynasty ming, or “brilliant.” As things turned out, however, the Ming dynasty was not particularly brilliant. It was, in fact, humdrum compared to the Han, the T’ang, or even the Sung. Nevertheless, it gave China nearly three centuries of order, from 1368 to 1644.

Hung-wu was born in a hut near Nanking in 1328. His parents soon died and the boy entered a Buddhist monastery, where he learned to read and write. His studies completed, he went out into the streets and begged for a living. Then, at twenty-five, he joined a band of rebels. Through character, intelligence and energy, he became its leader. In 1356, he captured Nanking from the Mongols and then, little by little, occupied the entire Yangtze Valley. In 1368 at the age of forty, he seized Peking and proclaimed himself emperor.


Hung-wu chose Nanking as his capital. At first he ruled through government departrnents, but as time went on he treated his ministers more and more contemptuously. In 1 375, he had one of them publicly beaten to death with bamboo sticks. Five years later, suspecting his prime minister of plotting against him, he abolished the office and took all state business into his own hands. The older he grew, the more distrustful he became.

Fat and pig-like, with tufts of hair growing out of his ears and nostrils, Hung-wu was a sad and lonely man all his life. His personality was so commanding and his achievements so vast that after he died in 1398 nobody could forget him. His successors tried to copy his one-man government. Like him, they had officials who displeased them beaten, tortured and killed.

Next to Hung-wu, the most notable Ming emperor was Hung’s fourth son, Chu Ti. After defeating his nephew, the rightful emperor, in a war which caused untold misery, Chu Ti took the name Yung-lo, meaning -“Perpetual Happiness.” Yung-lo (1403-1424) was a great builder. In 1421 he moved his court to Peking, which he rebuilt on an ambitious plan. Peking’s walls, forty feet high and fourteen miles long, formed a square with nine gates. At its center stood the Imperial City, which covered an area of 25 square miles. Within the Imperial City, surrounded by a moat, rose the high red walls of the Forbidden City — the emperor’s palace, roofed with gold tiles and its grounds.

Both Hung-wu and Yung-lo tried to get the rulers of other countries to send them tribute. The beginnings of this tribute system went far back into history. China was not only the largest and oldest country in east Asia, it was also the most advanced. What civilization its neighbors possessed had mostly come from China, which was therefore their cultural father and mother. The Chinese expected foreigners to pay homage to them as a matter of course, just as they expected children to honour their own parents and ancestors. As for Hung-wu, he had a personal reason for seeking a show of respect from abroad. He had risen from humble beginnings; how could he convince the most civilized people in the world that he was the true Son of Heaven if other, less civilized peoples did not also admit it?


So Hung-wu sent ambassadors to all the courts of the known world. When the ambassadors failed to persuade a ruler to send tribute, they made threats. When threats failed, as happened with China’s old enemies, the nomads, they calmly offered to pay for tribute. The gesture of sending tribute was what counted; the reason why it was made was less important. Soon, missions bearing tribute arrived in Peking from Korea, the Ryukyu Islands and Vietnam; from Japan, Cambodia and Siam; from Borneo, Java and Sumatra; from several small states in the Malay Peninsula and from southwest India.


Before long, however, trouble developed with Japan. Japanese pirates kept raiding Chinese ports and boarding the Chinese ships called junks. Again and again Hung-wu’s ambassadors warned the Japanese to stop this; again and again they were told it would be done, but the raids went on. Although Japanese tribute-bearers continued to arrive, they did not always bow low enough, or lie absolutely flat on their stomachs, or keep from making the slightest sound in the emperor’s presence. Worse, it turned out that they had not been sent by the emperor of Japan after all, but by a warlord who was looking for more trade with China.

On learning this, Hung-wu exploded with rage. He dictated a furious letter to the “king of Japan.” “You stupid eastern barbarians!” it began. “Living so far across the sea, you are haughty and disloyal. You let your subjects do evil.” The Japanese ruler kept silent for two whole years. “Heaven and earth are vast,” he answered finally. “They are not monopolized by one ruler. The world is the world’s world; it does not belong to a single person.” The only reply that Hung-wu could think of was to break off relations with Japan.

In Yung-lo’s time, however, the Japanese ruler proved to be more reasonable. He sent the emperor a lavish tribute of horses, fans, screens, armour, swords and gold, together with a letter which he had written, he said, “in real fear and dread and kneeling again and again.” Yung-lo was charmed. “Japan,” he wrote back, “has always been called the country of poems and books and it has always been in Our Heart.” Further on in the letter, however, he issued a sharp command that made it clear who was in charge: “Keep your mind on obedience and loyalty and thereby stick to the rules.”

The Japanese, however, did not “stick to the rules.” They went right on molesting Chinese ports and ships and even seized strips of the south China coast. Meanwhile, the Mongols kept raiding north China, in spite of their agreements to stay on their side of the Great Wall in exchange for bribes. So China was constantly annoyed from two directions by these two enemies, the “southern pirates” and the “northern barbarians.”

All this made the Chinese dislike foreigners even more. When Europeans arrived by sea in south China early in the sixteenth century, their opinion of foreigners sank lower still. The newcomers were Portuguese merchant-adventurers in search of trade and Christian converts. The Chinese massacred some and forced the rest to sail away.


By the middle of the century, however, the Ming government had weakened. Between 1552 and 1560, it let the Portuguese settle in Macao, on the south coast. From there, missionaries of the Jesuit order kept trying to get into the empire. At last a group of them reached Peking, where they so impressed the scholar-officials of the court that they were put in charge of the national Bureau of Astronomy. In the meantime, Portuguese traders had introduced several plants from the Portuguese possessions in America, including corn, sweet potatoes, peanuts and tobacco. These plants were a boon to the Chinese farmers. They could grow on land where grain, rice, or cotton would not grow and they added variety to the people’s limited diet.

By now, the emperors had completely lost touch with the people. One, who reigned from 1573 to 1620, avoided his ministers for years on end and refused to conduct any state business. His feebleminded fifteen-year-old successor was only interested in wood-working and gladly turned over the government to a friend of his nurse. This man, formerly a butler, had temples erected in his own honor throughout the land. At the same time he dismissed, one after another, the generals who were doing their best to hold south Manchuria against the forces of an energetic new nomad nation, the Manchus.


A rebellion broke out, led by a man who called himself the “Dashing General.” He raised an army, proclaimed a dynasty, handed out titles and issued coins. He captured Peking in April, 1644, at the very hour when the last Ming emperor, alone and in despair, hanged himself on a hill overlooking the Forbidden City.


The “Dashing General” was quickly robbed of his victory. The Ming general Wu San-kuei, arriving too late to save his imperial master, refused to surrender to a despised bandit. Instead, he surrendered to the chief of the Manchus and their two armies drove the rebel leader out of Peking. A year later they hunted him down and killed him and his men. For thirty years General Wu helped the Manchus map up the last Ming resistance and to establish their dynasty, the Ch’ing (“Pure”) dynasty, in power.

Throughout most of the Ming era, Chinese civilization had existed more or less in isolation, without being refreshed by ideas from abroad. Confucianism was the unchallenged faith of educated men. For the most part, the emperors had played their traditional role as the country’s foremost patrons of learning and the arts. Some scholarly projects of Ming times were extremely ambitious. The Encyclopedia of the Yang-lo Period, for instance, kept more than two thousand scholars at work for several years. A collection of all the principal works on history, government, geography, ethics and other subjects that had come down from the past, it ran to 11,095 volumes. In the end, it proved too large to print.

On a social level so low as to be beneath the notice of the emperors, plays and novels were popular. These two forms, which had first appeared in Sung times, were written in the slangy speech of the lower-class city dwellers. Their heroes were almost always men of the people, such as soldiers or bandits, rather than scholar-officials or princes.



The art form for which the Ming dynasty is chiefly remembered is pottery. Throughout the world, the vases and other creations of the Ming master potters are prized for their beauty. In such works, Hung-wu’s hopes for the dynasty he founded came true, for they are truly ming, or brilliant.

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