Ming China

The Ming State

The Fall of the Yüan

   In reality, the Mongol imperial dynasty, the Yüan, had begun to decline long before revolutions began to break out in the 1350's. In Chinese accounts of history, the fall of the Yüan had largely to do with the gradual abandonment of the emperor and his advisors to the pursuit of pleasure. Like all dynasties, the Yüan had begun with dynamic and beneficent rule under Kubilai Khan. The government, according to the Chinese, was simple and moral; the attitude towards the people was lenient. Towards the end, abandoning themselves to corruption and pleasure, the emperor and his government ceased to be concerned about the welfare of the people and neglected their duties. Officials seized power and so caused revolts throughout the country; the revolts caused hardship on the common people.

   This formula, standard in Chinese dynastic history, accords with Western versions of Yüan history as well. Western historians believe that in the 109 year rule of the Mongols, only the first Mongol emperor, Khubilai Khan, was a competent ruler. The remaining ten monarchs were largely autocratic and self-serving. Most of them only served a few years as monarchs; only the last, Togan-Temour, had a reign as long as Khubilai's (35 years)—this leaves nine monarchs reigning one after another for only 39 years.

   Because of this succession of brief reigns of incompetent monarchs, the Chinese government was really in the hands of ministers and the eunuchs of the palace. Even Khubilai, the best of the Mongol emperors, made serious errors in his administration of China. The most serious was his decision to continue wars of conquest after seizing the imperial of throne of China. He led two expeditions against Japan, both of which ended in humiliating defeat at the hands of nature. Rather than consolidating his rule of China, he followed the footsteps of his grandfather, the great Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan.

   Two factors led to the incitement of rebellion in the fourteenth century. The first were the racial distinctions that the Mongols introduced into Chinese government and the inequality that was built from these race distinctions. The Mongol emperors divided China into four distinct groups: Mongols, Se-mu (immigrants from Turkestan and Europeans), Han-jen (northern Chinese, Khitans, and Manchurians), and Nan-jen (southern Chinese, the population of the Southern Sung Empire). In addition to the racial distinctions, which were cause of bitter discontent, the Mongols lived luxuriously and lavishly endowed Lamaist Buddhist monasteries. In order to pay for their extravagances, they forced impossibly hard exactions on the population; this in turn caused uncontrollable inflation throughout the empire. By the end of the dynasty, the paper money of the empire had become completely worthless.

   Numerous rebellions started breaking out in the late 1340's. The most serious early threat came from the Red Army, which was under the leadership of Liu Fu-t'ung. With an army of over ten thousand men, he proclaimed a descendant of the Sung as Emperor of China under the name Hsiao Ming-wang, or "Junior King of Light." The rebellion, however, fell through when the two principles began fighting among themselves.

   In the 1350's, the pace of rebellion picked up. Several rebel leaders, almost all of whom came from the merchant or lower classes, seized cities and set themselves up as kings or even, with just a small bit of territory, proclaimed themselves Emperor. China was no longer in the control of the Emperor—it had been carved up among the rebel warlords.

   One of these warlords was called Kuo Tzu-hsing; he controlled the territory of Anhui. However, it isn't Kuo Tzu-hsing that interests us; it is, rather, the general he appointed in 1355, Chu Yüan-chang, who would become the founder of the Ming dynasty. Chu was a peasant; along with Liu Bang (ruled 206-195 BC), he was the only peasant to found a Chinese dynasty. When Kuo Tzu-hsing died, Chu set about his real ambition: conquering the whole of China. It is said that a scholar told him he would succeed if he followed three rules: a.) build strong city walls; b.) gather as much grain in storage as possible; c.) be slow to assume titles. Chu followed these rules assiduously.

   With his army, Chu slowly conquered one warlord's territory after another while carefully watching the government's army. By 1368, he had conquered all of southern China; this is the date at which the Ming dynasty officially begins. By 1369 he had driven the Mongols out of China. Except for Szechwan in the east (which was conquered in 1371) and Yünnan in the southeast (conquered in 1382), Chu controlled all of China in 1369.

Hong Wu and the Ming Dynasty

   Chu established the Ming ("Brilliant") dynasty in 1368 and called himself Hong Wu after the style of his government; he ruled China from 1368 to 1398 and is considered by both Chinese and Western historians as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, emperors of China. The Hong Wu emperor established the capital at Nanching, and set about remedying what he saw were the defects of the Mongol system. Principle among these, he thought, was the diffusion of imperial government. In order to rectify this situation, he sought to consolidate rule into absolute rule by the Emperor. He did not believe that he was bound by the old traditions, for he had risen to the throne from the peasantry. In order to consolidate his authority over the nobility, which had been his comrades-in-arms in his rise to power, he demanded that they live at his court in Nanjing. He established complex rituals in order to give his person and his office a rarefied and divine air, and he tightened the bureaucracy to allow for absolute control.

   Hong Wu allowed for no dissension or criticism of the Emperor from administrators or scholars. Conscious of his low origin, he executed several scholars whom he felt had insulted his majesty. He adopted the Sui and Yüan practice of publicly beating incompetent or corrupt bureaucratic officials. Mainly beaten on the buttocks by more than a hundred soldiers with clubs, almost nobody so punished survived.The Hong Wu emperor also understood the threat that the court eunuchs, empress, concubines, and court ladies posed to the stability of the throne. Chinese history is filled with the assumption of power by the court eunuchs or by boy emperors being ruled by the Empress Dowager and her family. He instituted a number of measures to severely curtail the power of these groups in the court.



   However, the single most important innovation that the Hong Wu emperor instituted in Chinese imperial government was the abolishment of the officeof Chief Minister. In Chinese government, the Chief Minister was in charge of the imperial administration; he reported directly to the Emperor but he also controlled the administration. Under the Chief Minister, the imperial administration was more or less independent of the emperor; emperors came and went, but the bureaucracy carried on as if nothing had happened. By eliminating the position of Chief Minister, Hong Wu essentially took over the administration of China. All administration officials now became his servants. All of these policies combined helped the Hong Wu emperor to consolidate all power in his person, becoming one of the most powerful emperors in the history of China. Unfortunately, this consolidation of power would eventually lead to the downfall of the Ming. In order to administer the government, the Hong Wu emperor had to hold court three times a day; it was a hard and gruelling job. The first three Ming emperors threw themselves into the work, but later emperors, having been raised in the lap of luxury, were not disposed to this difficult schedule of hard work and began to transfer their responsibilities to others.

   From 1364 to his death in 1397, the Hong Wu emperor worked tirelessly on a code of laws for China. The code he wrote, called the Ta-Ming lü, is the most famous of Chinese code of laws. Hong Wu started from scratch and build a code of laws that were meant to address the practical needs of the China he ruled. In addition to the , or "unchanging laws" codified in the Ta-Ming lü , the Hong Wu emperor also established another set of laws, the li . The li were intended to supplement the in order to meet changing conditions. The Hong Wu emperor and his immediate successors, though, intended the li to only be used sparingly; if laws were changed too readily, the people would lose confidence in them. The li statute system contributed greatly to the decline of the Ming as later emperors, court officials applied the li rather than the in order to advance their interests; as the Hong Wu emperor had predicted, such cavalier attitude towards the law produced corruption and unrest.

   In order to better administer the state, the Hong Wu emperor ordered several surveys and censuses be taken of China and the data gathered in government registers. It was on this vast bookkeeping that the central government regulated taxation. In addition, however, he made all occupations hereditary in order to prevent social mobility; he understood, as a rebel peasant, the danger of social mobility. All members of Chinese society were grouped into three large hereditary classes: peasants, craftspeople, and soldiers.

   The Hong Wu emperor also worked to revive scholarship and philosophy that had fallen into bad days under the Mongols. He sponsored scholarship and himself studied it, but his most significant contribution to scholarship and Chinese administration was the readoption of the civil-service examiniation system. Under Hong Wu, the civil service examinatin became a three part exam at the district, provincial, and imperial levels. The exam required extremely detailed knowledge of the Chinese classics and an ability to write with a high level of style in a format, the "eight-legged essay," that was rigorously difficult to compose in. While the Hong Wu emperor advanced people into the bureaucracy without the civil service examination, some positions in the administration were filled by examination graduates. The reforms that the Hong Wu emperor instituted in the civil service examination made it a standard part of Chinese life and administration up until the early twentieth century.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97