Ming China

The Commercial Revolution


   Under the Ming dynasty, China experienced one of the greatest economic expansions in its history. This expansion affected every area of Chinese economic life: agriculture, commerce, and maritime trade and exploration. It was under the Ming that the Chinese first began to trade and interact with Europeans on any significant scale. The presence of Europeans would eventually prove to be the most contentious aspect of modern Chinese history, but during the Ming, European trade greatly expanded Chinese economic life, particularly in the south.

Maritime Expansion

   Through most of their history, the Chinese have concentrated largely on land commerce and exploration. However, the Yung-lo emperor (1403-1424), the third emperor of the dynasty, began to sponsor a series of naval expeditions between 1405; these expeditions continued under his successors, the Hung-hsi emperor (1425) and the Hsüan-te emperor (1426-1435).

   The reason for these naval expeditions are varied, but the Yung-lo emperor wanted to expand trade with other countries and had a taste for imported and exotic goods. These expeditions sailed to East Asia, Southeast Asia, southern India, Ceylon, the Persian Gulf, and Africa. Trading from Africa to Southeast Asia, these expeditions made China the world's greatest commercial naval power in the world at the time, far superior to any European power. This led to great prestige throughout the world; it was at this time that China first received embassies from major Islamic countries such as Europe. In 1435, however, the court scholars convinced the emperor that the decline of the dynasty would be signalled by a taste for exotic wares, so China greatly contracted its commercial and maritime expansion it had begun so auspiciously.

The Agricultural Revolution

   The Hong-wu emperor had as one of his central tasks the rebuilding of the Chinese economy which had been devestated by the excesses of the Mongol rulers. Between 1370 and 1398, China experienced a revolution in agriculture unparalleled in its history. Rice was the staple food of the population of China, and rice production had increased in the eleventh century with the use of terraces. The Ming introduced the use of Champa rice from southeast Asia; this rice, though less nutritious than Chinese rice, could be grown in a little over half the growing season of regular rice and produced much larger harvests. The most important innovation introduced in the Ming period was the practice of crop rotation, by which fields could be kept continuously in cultivation while still maintaining their fertility. In addition, peasants began using irrigation pumps and stocking the rice paddies with fish, which fertilized the rice (this also added another item to the peasant diet). In addition, however, peasants also began experimenting with cash crops, such as cotton for clothing, indigo for clothing dyes, and cane.

   Hong-wu's most aggressive agricultural project involved reforestation beginning in the 1390's. Nanjing was reforested with 50 million trees in 1391; these trees became the lumber that built the naval fleet put together by Yung-lo in the early 1400's. In 1392 and again in 1396, peasants were ordered to plant fruit trees in the provinces of Anhui, Hunan and Hupeh. All in all, over one billion trees were planted in this decade. This reforestation greatly replenished both the timber and the food supply.

The Commercial Revolution

   The Ming dynasty is characterized by rapid and dramatic population growth, largely due to the increased food supply on account of the agricultural revolution. Urbanization was largely carried out on a small scale; small urban centers with markets proliferated around the country rather than the growth of a few large cities. Town markets mainly traded food with some necessary manufactures such as pins or oil.

   The large urban centers, however, also grew. The growth of large cities such as Nanjing inspired the growth of industry as well. In the mid-sixteenth century, because of the growth of large cities and the loosening of restrictive laws, commerce began to boom in China. This expansion of Chinese commerce, which lasted from 1500 to 1800 is considered the "Third Commercial Revolution" in Chinese history. In particular, small business grew that specialized in paper, silk, cotton and porcelain goods (the unique brand of porcelain ware that was all the fashion during the Ming consisted of white porcelain with blue paintings).

   This commercial revolution included extensive trade with foreign countries, including direct trade with Europe. By the late sixteenth century, China was intimately a part of the growing global economy. The Chinese were trading actively with the Portugese, the Dutch, and the Japanese, who traded silver for Chinese silks and porcelain. The Ming, however, had built their own merchant marine using the trees planted by the Hong-wu emperor in the 1390's. With this fleet, which rivalled that of any European power, the Ming shipped silks, cotton, and porcelain to Manila in the Philippines and there traded with the Spanish for silver, firearms, and American goods such as sugar, potatoes, and tobacco. The Chinese porcelains, marked by the Ming style of blue painting on a white ceramic background, became all the rage in Europe in the seventeenth century. The Dutch, however, began importing tea, which became wildly popular all throughout Europe.

   All this trade had made China one of the leading manufacturing economies in the world. In exchange for raw goods such as silver—probably half the silver mined in the Americas from the mid-1500's to 1800 ended up in China—the Chinese shipped out manufactured goods such as textiles and porcelain. By the mid-1500's, China was well on its way to becoming an urban, industrial, and mercantile economy. The growth of the industrial sector spawned a technological boom in every area, from silk looms to paper manufacture to the development of new machines for planting, growing, and harvesting crops

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The Decline of the Ming Empire


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97