Political History of China (6): Ming Dynasty
Map of Ming Dynasty. The land under Ming domination was less than under either the Han or the Tang. The Ming dominion changed little after the first two decades. It was confined mostly to what is known as China proper, south of the Great Wall and east of Xinjiang and Tibet.
12. THE MING DYNASTY (1368-1644)Having restored Chinese rule to China, the first Ming emperor tried to model his rule after that of the Han, but the Ming fell far short of the Han's accomplishments. The land under Ming domination was less than under either the Han or the Tang. The Ming dominion changed little after the first two decades. It was confined mostly to what is known as China proper, south of the Great Wall and east of Xinjiang and Tibet.In culture, as well, the Ming lacked the Han's creativity and brilliance. Coming after almost a century of foreign domination, the Ming was a period of restoration and reorganization rather than a time of new discovery. In a sense, the Ming followed a typical dynastic cycle: initial rehabilitation of the economy and restoration of efficient government, followed by a time of stability and then a gradual decline and fall.The emperor Hongwu modeled his government on the Tang system, restoring the doctrine and practices of Confucianism and continuing the trend toward concentration of power in the imperial government, especially in the hands of the emperor himself. He tried to conduct state affairs single-handedly, but the work load proved overwhelming. To assist him, he gathered around him several loyal middle-level officials, thus creating an extra-governmental organization, the Grand Secretariat. The central bureaucracy was restored and filled by officials selected by the examination system. That system was further formalized by the introduction of a special essay style called the eight-legged essay, to be used in writing the examination. In addition, the subject matter of the examinations was restricted to the Five Classics, said to have been compiled, edited, or written by Confucius, and the Four Books, published by Zhu Xi (朱熹)In the field of provincial government, the emperor Hongwu 洪武 continued the Yuan practice of limiting the power of provincial governors and subjecting them directly to the central government. The empire was divided into 15 provinces. The first capital at Nanjing was in the economic heartland of China, but in 1421 the emperor Yongle 永乐, who took the throne after a civil war, moved the capital to Peking, where he began a massive construction project. The imperial palace, which is also known as the Forbidden City, was built at this time.The Ming produced two unique contributions: the maritime expeditions of the early 15th century and the philosophy of Wang Yangming. Between 1405 and 1433, seven major maritime expeditions were launched under the leadership of a Muslim eunuch, Zhenghe 郑和. Each expedition was provided with several seagoing vessels, which were 400 feet (122 meters) high, weighed 700 tons (635 metric tons), had multiple decks and 50 or 60 cabins, and carried several hundred people. During these expeditions, the Chinese sailed the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. They traveled as far west as eastern Africa and as far south as Java and Sumatra. But these missions ended just as suddenly as they had begun.In philosophy, Wang Yangming developed a system of thought that ran counter to the orthodox teaching of Zhu Xi. While Zhu Xi believed in learning based on reason and the "investigation of things," Wang Yangming believed in the "learning of the mind," an intuitive process.During the second half of the Ming Dynasty, European expansion began. Early in the 16th century Portuguese traders arrived and leased the island of Macao as their trading post. In 1582 Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary, arrived in Macao. Because of his knowledge of science, mathematics, and astronomy and his willingness to learn the Chinese language and adapt to Chinese life, he was accepted by the Chinese and became the first foreigner allowed to live in Peking permanently. Jesuits followed him and served the Ming emperors as mapmakers, calendar reformers, and astronomers.Unlike earlier brief contacts with the West or the later Western incursions into China, the 16th-century Sino-Western relationship was culturally oriented and mutually respectful. Both the Chinese and the Jesuits tried to find common ground in their thoughts. The Jesuits' activities produced 300,000 converts in 200 years, not a great number among a population of more than 100 million. Among them, however, were noted scholars such as Xu Guangqi and Li Zhizao, who translated many of the works that Jesuits brought to China. The Jesuits wrote over 300 Chinese works.In the last century of its existence, the Ming Dynasty faced numerous internal and external problems. The internal problem was tied to official corruption and taxation. Because the Ming bureaucracy was relatively small, tax collection was entrusted to locally powerful people who evaded paying taxes by passing the burden on to the poor. A succession of weak and inattentive emperors encouraged the spread of corruption and the greed of eunuchs. In the 1620s a struggle between the inner group of eunuchs and the outer circle of scholar-officials led to the execution of about 700 scholars.Externally, the security of the Ming empire was threatened from all directions. The Mongols returned and seized Peking in 1550, and their control of Turkestan and Tibet was recognized by the Ming in a peace treaty of 1570. Pirates preyed on the east coast, and Japanese pirates penetrated as far inland as Hangzhou and Nanjing. In the 1590s the Ming had to send expeditionary forces to rescue Korea from invading Japanese soldiers under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Ming drove back the Japanese forces, but not without depleting the treasury and weakening their defensive network against neighboring Manchuria to the northeast.In Manchuria the Manchus (Pinyin: Manzhou) had organized a Chinese-style state and strengthened their forces under a unique form of military organization called the banner system. However, it was not the Manchus who overthrew the Ming but a Chinese rebel, Li Zicheng, who became a leader among the bandits who had become desperate because of a famine in the northwest in 1628. By 1642 Li had become master of north China and in 1644 he captured Peking.There he found that the last Ming emperor had hanged himself, ending the "Brilliant" dynasty. Li, however, was not destined to rule. The rule was to pass once again into the hands of a people from beyond the Great Wall, the Manchus. They were invited into China by the Ming general Wu Sangui to eliminate the rebels. After driving the rebels from the capital, the Manchus stayed and established a new dynasty, the Qing.
Source:Paul Halsall/Brooklyn College/1996-99
Past coverage about: China political history Ming Dynasty
- Political History of China (5): Yuan Dynasty,Mongol Rule of China and Marco Polo 02-10-2010
- Political History of China (4): Song Dynasty (Northern Song and Southern Song) 02-10-2010
- Political History of China (3):Three Kingdoms,Period of Disunity,Sui Dynasty,Tang Dynasty 02-10-2010
- Political History of China (2):Qin Empire and Han Empire 02-10-2010