An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Dynasty 明 (1368-1644)

Ming 明 (1368-1644)

Southern Ming 南明 (1644-1661)

The Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) was the first native dynasty that ruled over the whole of China after three hundred years of at least partial alien rule. The dynasty was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Emperor Taizu of the Ming 明太祖, r. 1368-1398, reign motto Hongwu 洪武), a person of humble origin who took his capital seat in Jiangning 江寧 (later called Nanjing 南京, today in the province of Jiangsu), expelled the last Mongol troops of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) from Chinese soil and eliminated his competitors for power. Zhu Yuanzhang is known as a mistrustful and brutal ruler (the "tyrant of Nanking") who abolished the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) and, as a thoroughly autocratic emperor, laid all administrative tasks into the hands of eunuchs, the only group of persons he really trusted. The latter, organised in the "brocade guards" (jinyiwei 錦衣衛), notoriously spied out civilian state officials. Eunuch factions (most famous was the eunuch "tyrant" Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢) and factions of officials (like the Donglin Faction 東林黨) regularly fought out internecine struggles at the court.

Emperor Chengzu 明成祖 (r. 1402-1424, reign motto Yongle 永樂), shifted the capital to the north, and established a system of two capitals, the northern one in Beijing 北京, and the southern one in Nanjing. He carried out several successful campaigns against the Mongols, but was not able to wipe of the Mongolian threat forever. Chengzu also sponsored the large expeditionary voyages led by Admiral Zheng He 鄭和 that served to demonstrate the political and military power of the Ming empire to the states of Southeast Asia and even at the coast of East Africa. The initial thrust of the Ming empire lost its impetus in the mid-fifteenth century, when the Mongols regained their strength, and pirates (called Wokou 倭寇) endangered the coastal cities of southeast China. The Ming court tried to prevent the pirates' raids by sealing off the whole coastline. This decision ended the long period of openness and more or less locked China's door to the outside world, at least to the maritime world. On the steppe frontier, Emperor Yingzong 明英宗 (r. 1435-1449 and 1457-1464) was captured by the Mongols, in their last attempt to regain control over north China. In order to ward off Mongol intrusions, Emperor Xianzong 明憲宗 (r. 1464-1487) had a long defense line built, known today as the Great Wall.

Bound by the instruction of the dynastic founder, never to alter his laws, the Ming emperors were only hesitatingly attempting reforms in the administrative and the financial sector. The most important of these was the single-whip method of taxation (yitiaobian fa 一條鞭法), which unified the poll tax with the field tax (tianfu 田賦). The Ming also repeatedly tried to introduce paper money as an alternative to copper coins and silver ingots, which increasingly dominated the monetary market. The influx of silver was a result of the early globalization, which also brought new world crops to China. They were introduced by Spanish and Portuguese traders, who were accompanied by Jesuit missionaries, who introduced Christianity to China. In the field of literature, the Ming period experienced the upcoming of popular novels.

In the late sixteenth century the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉 invaded Korea and endangered the Ming dominance of the Peninsula. At the same time the Jurchen tribes were united under the khan Nurhaci (Chinese name Taizu of the Qing 清太祖, r. 1616-1626). He founded the Later Jin dynasty 後金, the predecessor of the Qing 清 (1644-1911) that eventually conquered the Ming empire.

After the fall of Beijing in 1644, several Ming princes fought for the survival of the dynasty. This period is commonly known as that of the Southern Ming 南明 (1644-1661).

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Ming period, the geography of the empire and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts, the economy, literature and philosophy, and the history of technology and inventions.