The beginning of the Ming Dynasty
The Ming dynasty began in 1368 after the soon to be Emperor Hongwu led a rebel group to defeat the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. Hongwu, the son of a peasant, began his time as emperor by securing Nanjing as the Chinese capital and slowly fighting against the Mongols while implementing some cultural, economic and agricultural reforms.
Emperor Hongwu’s reforms
Hongwu encouraged a return to Confucian values which was quashed under Mongolian rule, which entailed an end to the hierarchical system that had been in place for the past few decades. Hongwu reformed agricultural policy by distributing land from wealthy landowners to peasants who were previously renting the land. The thought behind this was that the peasants would work twice as hard if they owned the land they farmed on, and the reforms would satisfy them and stop any rebellious thoughts from crossing their minds.
Emperor Hongwu’s vassal states
Other nations acknowledged China’s military and cultural might under Hongwu’s reign with Japan, Vietnam, and Tibet. All envious of China, the nations requested to become vassal states which meant they would be a tribute which consisted of money, women, and gifts to gain friendship and trade with China. This brought prestige and wealth to the Ming Dynasty.
Hongwu died of natural causes after 30 years in charge and subsequently left a power hole which Hongwu’s nephew filled for a short time before being overthrown by Yonglo who was Emperor Hongwu’s son.
Yonglo moved the capital of China to Beijing which was an aggressive move as it was near to the Mongolian border and showed that China no longer feared the Mongols.
Yonglo’s exploration plans
Yonglo wanted to expand upon the vassal state system and increased the payments from Japan, Vietnam, and Tibet. He also wanted to find more vassal states and launched exploration voyages to India and Africa.
The Forbidden City
Some of the most famous buildings in China were built during the Ming dynasty, the first of which was the Forbidden City which took 14 years to construct. Built upon a ruined Mongolian Palace, the design was colossal as the Forbidden City was to be where the emperor was to spend most of his time. The city was surrounded by a 35-foot high red wall supposedly encasing 9,999 rooms (as the number 9 is considered lucky in Chinese culture).
Only the emperor, his wives, (which went into the 1000’s) and the servants were allowed in the Forbidden City hence the name, commoners and foreigners were not allowed entrance at any time. The servants were all eunuchs in order to protect against cuckoldry. To our modern minds removing one’s manhood to be a servant sounds ridiculous but one must consider the culture and society at the time to understand why many chose to become eunuchs.
The reasons why many made the conscious decision to become a eunuch was because they would be in proximity to the emperor which was an incredible honor and something that a peasant could only dream of. They could also potentially have influence and power as many eunuchs were placed into high power and able to manipulate the emperor.
Some eunuchs were put into positions of authority after gaining the emperor’s favor. Although the Ming Dynasty had improved life for the peasants, it was still a hard life with plague a constant fear and with poor hygiene and shocking living conditions. Becoming a eunuch slave offered a way out.
The Great Wall
With positive trade and economic stability, the emperor looked to future defense against the Mongolian Empire by refurbishing the north side of the Great Wall above Beijing into the enormous spectacle we see today. Limestone was used for the majority of the improvements which encased the old structure of the wall, making it wider and taller.
Cracks in the Ming Dynasty
Up to the 15th century, the Ming Dynasty was regarded in high esteem and with the opinion of the emperor’s being positive, many thought the Ming Dynasty would last for many centuries to come. It was a collection of unfortunate events which led to the slow decline and then downfall of the Ming dynasty.
The earthquake began with an earthquake in Shaanxi which reached 8.0 on the Richter scale and killed near 1 million Chinese people. This led to nationwide mourning and managing the effects of the earthquake was very costly.
Little Ice Age
The agricultural changes that Emperor Hongwu made, which had initially been productive, had proved devastating when the ‘Little Ice Age’ hit China, as crop failure combined with flooding and cold temperature decimated China’s crop production. Subsequently, farmers could no longer pay their taxes as they had no crops to sell and the people and soldiers starved.
Wars against Japan
Japan saw these natural disasters and the effect it had on China as a chance to attack and mounted three wars against the Chinese in the 15th century. Although China defended and won all three wars, it was incredibly costly, and many soldiers deserted the army after not receiving their wages or food. This stirred a revolutionary spirit among the people.
Learning of China’s troubles, Spain and Japan decided to remove all trade of silver which was China’s currency. The removal of silver caused hyperinflation, and people started to hoard their wealth, and thus the economy stagnated.
The Ming Dynasty ended when a group of Chinese soldiers rebelled against the Ming dynasty and found that the emperor had hung himself on a tree inside the Forbidden City. The Ming dynasty ended not with a bang but a whimper.