home | history

China from Mongols to the Ming

In China the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan died age 80 in 1294. His son and successor has been described as a competent emperor and as keeping things the way Kublai Khan had left them. But, as usual, the dynasty (Yuan) deteriorated — while there was a rising misery among those they ruled: the Chinese.

The Mongol emperor Ayurbarwada, who reigned nine years to 1320, was the first Yuan emperor who actively supported the adoption of Confucian principles into the Mongolian administration system, to the displeasure of some of his fellow Mongols. Confucianism didn't help much as future successions were marked by conflict, with top bureaucrats backing one royal contender or the other. There were short reigns marked by intrigues and rivalries. Corruption was on the rise, and under the Mongols, the Chinese became increasingly aggrieved.

There were natural disasters such as droughts, floods and the resulting famines, and the government's lack of effective policy led to social unrest. Outlaws ravaged the country without interference from the emperor's armies. 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 eventually led to the fall of their dynasty, the Yuan.

In 1351, rebellion grew into a nationwide uprising. In 1354, suspicion among rival Mongols in positions of power helped weaken Mongol rule. The emperor, Huizong, had no choice but to rely on local warlords' military power. He lost his interest in governing and fled Beijing northward while an organized military force that would create the Ming dynasty was moving in from the south.

Confucianists were ideologically unfit for revolution. It was a Buddhist sect, the White Lotus, that had organized the rebellion that was headed for success. It had prophesied the coming of a Buddhist messiah. The Buddhist army was led by a monk and former beggar boy, Zhu Yuanzhang. He won people to his side by demonstrating military power for a moral purpose 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 had come to accept a new authority that the masses should follow. The Confucianists issued proclamations for Zhu Yuanzhang 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 (meaning Vastly Martial). Again, a man of some morality fighting for change had brought China orderly government and the social stability that would allow prosperity.

Ming Accomplishments and Failures

With prosperity, urbanization increased — as was happening in Western Europe. Private industry was growing in urban centers, with enterprises specializing in the production of paper, silk, cotton, and porcelain goods, while town markets traded mainly in 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 moved his capital from Nanjing to Beijing, and there in 1406 construction by more than a million workers began on what was to be called the Forbidden City.

The construction lasted 14 years. It was the biggest and most extravagant palace complex: nearly 1,000 buildings and dozens of temples. Wooden blocked intricately fitted together without hardware like bolts, screws or nails allowed the structures to survive in a region of earthquakes of a violent intensity that would destroy nearby modern structures. (A PBS television documentary, NOVA, would describe it as "engineering genius."

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. The Jurchen people in the northeast had again become a military a threat. In the mid-1400s the Mongols were making border raids, and interest in a great navy and in merchant shipping declined.

To defend its northern border the Ming dynasty began filling in gaps in walls that were centuries old. A great army of manpower, composed of soldiers, prisoners and local people, completed the Great Wall that exists today.

Then the Ming withdrew as a naval power. 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 maritime trade. 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, a political decline continued into the 1500s. Passing rule from father to son again produced incompetent leadership. In 1506, a fourteen-year-old, Zhengde inherited. His father, Emperor Hongzhi, had warned that his son Zhengde was too inclined toward a love of ease and pleasure. Zhengde became a ruler interested in entertainments such as music, wrestling, magicians and acrobatics, interested also in riding, archery and hunting, and without much interest in the affairs of state.

During the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1521-67), government faltered as Jiajing focused on Taoism and immortality. He spent money on Taoist temples, but his spiritualism did not make him a worthy ruler at least in the eyes of eighteen of his concubines. In 1542 they conspired to strangle him while he slept. They failed. All were executed except for the concubine who had warned the empress.

Emperor Jiajing did little to improve China as a military power. Frontier military colonies had only about forty percent of the number of men originally intended to guard against the Mongols and others. Interior regiments were no more than ten percent of their prescribed strength. The government was not giving military men adequate pay or rations. Death and desertions thinned the army, and many of those recruited into the military were unwilling to risk their lives in combat.

There were natural disasters, including a great epidemic and the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556. And after Jiajing there was financial trouble in the late 1590s that arose with another war against Koreans — the Imjin War involving Japan.

China's political system were behind what it had accomplished technologically, economically and artistically. The last Ming ruler, the Chongzhen Emperor, meaning "honorable and auspicious." He ruled from 1611 to 1644. Drought and famine that came with what has been called the "Little Ice Age" burdened his rule with spreading rebellion. Defense forces in Beijing according to the historian Frederick Wakeman "consisted of old and feeble men, who were starving because of the corruption of eunuchs responsible for provisioning their supplies. The troops had not been paid for nearly a year." Rather than be captured by rebels, the empress and emperor hanged themselves. In 1655, an army from northeast moved past the Great Wall (Manchuria) and took advantage of China's political and military weakness to begin Manchu rule by what would become known as the Qing dynasty.

Map: including battles with Mongols, Japanese, Dutch, Manchu, and Portuguese intrusions

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.