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The Ming dynasty, 1368-1644

Mongol rule in China would last only so long as the people of China remained cowed into accepting it. Mongol rule became increasingly corrupt, and it pushed China toward rebellion. Also, according to the historian Christopher Lloyd:

As the Mongols were steppe nomads at heart, it was probably not surprising that their neglect of China's agricultural needs eentually led to the fall of their dynasty [in China], the Yuan.

Under the Mongols, China's moralistic Confucians and Buddhists became increasingly aggrieved. Confucianists didn't make good revolutionaries. It was a Buddhist sect, the White Lotus, that began organizing for revolution, and it prophesied the coming of a Buddhist messiah. It was an army led by a Buddhist monk and former beggar boy, Yuanzhang that pushed out Mongol rule. Zhu Yangzhang won people to his side by demonstrating military power and by forbidding his soldiers to pillage. In 1356 his army captured Nanjing, and he made Nanjing his capital. There he won the support of Confucian scholars who issued pronouncements for him and performed rituals in his claim of having received the Mandate of Heaven. In 1387 – after more than thirty years of revolutionary war – Zhu Yangzhang took the title of Hongwu. Again, a man of some morality fighting for change would bring to China a new dynasty – the Ming – a new era orderly government and the social stability that would allow prosperity.

Writes Christopher Lloyd:

His reforms ensured that wealth was successfully generated through agricultural growth for many years to come. Hongwu confiscated large estates and gave them to the rural poor. encouraging them to build their own self-supporting agricultural communities. New administrative systems were introduced...

With prosperity, urbanization increased, as it was in Western Europe. And private industry was growing in urban centers. There were enterprises specializing in the production of paper, silk, cotton, and porcelain goods, while town markets mainly traded food.

Hongwu died in 1398 at the age of seventy, and his death was followed by four years of civil war and the disappearance of his son and heir, Jianwen. Jianwen had been indecisive and scholarly and no match for his uncle, the Prince of Yan, who in 1402 became Emperor Yongle (meaning Perpetual Happiness). Emperor Yongle made Beijing his capital, and power again began falling to palace eunuchs.

The economic momentum continued. Trade and other contacts with the outside world, particularly Japan, increased considerably. Chinese merchants explored all of the Indian Ocean, and reached East Africa. Between 1405 and 1433, China's imperial government launched seven naval expeditions designed, according to Lloyd, "to impress the rest of its known world with its awesome power."

Meanwhile, the Mongols were still considered a threat. Military garrisons had been established at strategic points. A military caste had been created that sustained itself by farming – to be ever-ready for war. In the mid-1400s the Mongols were making border raids, and interest in a great navy and in merchant shipping declined. Confucianist influence had increased at court, and it was hostile to commerce and foreign contacts. The Confucianists had little or no interest in seeing China develop into a great maritime trading power. They saw internal trade as enough. The government ended its sponsorship of naval expeditions, and it forbade multi-masted ships sailing out of port. China was turning isolationist at the same time that many were thinking of its greatness.

The development of world maritime trade was left to Europeans, who were beginning to extend their voyages. It would be the Europeans rather than the Chinese who extended themselves across the globe.

For the Ming dynasty, decline continued into the 1500s. The celebration of greatness would not include the idea of ending the country's monarchical system, the political system that had repeatedly created disasters for China. That would not come until 1912. Into the 1500s there were the usual natural disasters, including a great epidemic and the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556. And there was the finanial trouble arose in the late 1590s that arose with another war against Koreans – the Imjin War involving Japan. Into the 1600s, people in China were rebelling again. It wasn't the coming of Mongols again that would end Ming rule; it was Manchu armies (from Manchuria) taking advantage of China's internal weaknesses. In 1644 the Manchu overthrew that last Ming emperor, and the Manchu (led by the Qing dynasty) would rule until 1912, while the West was becoming more industrial and democratic.


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