Lecture Twenty-Two

The Rise of the Ming

Scope: By the middle of the 14th century, Mongol power had waned. Without the continued stimulus of conquest, the Mongols lost much of the special role they had played in Asian history. Chinese bureaucratic elites returned to dominance in government and weakened the state through their internal conflicts over power. In the 1340s, the great plague, which caused the Black Death in Europe, also devastated central China. The failures of the Mongol dynasty or the Chinese landed elite to effectively respond to this disaster led to the outbreak of peasant rebellions and the fall of the Yuan. Zhu Yuanzhang rose to power as the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty but nearly wrecked his creation through his paranoid mistrust of the literati official whom he needed to administer his empire. Only in the reign of the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di, did the dynasty become truly stable.


I. The Yuan dynasty began to collapse in the middle decades of the 14th century.

A. The imperial government was paralyzed by internal conflicts.

1. Mongol nobles at court competed for influence over the emperor.

2. Chinese literati officials formed rival factions and fought for patronage and prestige.

B. A series of disasters caused great suffering among the people.

1. In the 1340s, a great plague swept through the Yangzi River valley in central China.

2. This was likely the same wave of infection that appeared in Europe around 1346 and became known there as the Black Death.

3. In parts of central China, as much as 50 percent of the population died.

4. This high mortality led to further problems, as failure to maintain the dykes along the river resulted in massive flooding and further disease and devastation.

C. Neither the imperial government nor the local literati elites responded effectively to these crises.

1. The government had no strong leadership to guide action.

2. Local elites were afraid of disease and hoarded their own grain supplies rather than providing relief.

II. Large-scale popular rebellions began to break out in the 1350s.

A. The center of this activity was the middle and lower Yangzi valley.

1. Local strongmen, often leaders of mystical peasant movements, rose up in several areas along the river.

2. The Yuan government effectively disappeared, and these rebel groups began to fight among themselves.

A. One leader who became prominent was Zhu Yuanzhang.

1. Zhu Yuanzhang was an orphan whose parents had died in the plagues.

2. He had lived as an itinerant monk, learning about mystical Buddhism and popular religion.

3. He joined one of the main peasant movements, the Red Turbans.

4. His military skills and intelligence helped him rise to a position as one of the leadership.

5. In the early 1360s, he took over as the main leader and changed the goal of the movement to the founding of a new dynasty.

6. In 1368, he proclaimed the Ming (“Bright”) dynasty and launched a military campaign to drive the Mongols out of China.

III. The Ming dynasty came to power as the Mongols withdrew to the grasslands.

A. Zhu Yuanzhang captured Dadu without a fight.

1. Mongol forces abandoned the city and crossed the mountains north of Beijing to return to their ancestral home in the grasslands.

2. Zhu Yuanzhang decided to make his capital at Nanjing, on the Yangzi River, but placed one of his sons, Zhu Di, in command of the former Mongol capital as a defense against their return.

B. Zhu Yuanzhang set up a traditional Chinese bureaucratic government.

1. He relied on the literati as his administrative elite.

2. But his relationship with the literati was strained by his resentment over the selfishness of elite families during the crises of the 1340s-1350s.

3. As a poorly educated man from a peasant background, he also feared the subtleties and sophistications of literati language and culture.

4. He established an examination system but suspended it after the first round of exams in 1370.

C. Zhu Yuanzhang soon began to manifest a paranoid attitude in his relations with his ministers.

1. He restored the examinations in 1380 but always mistrusted the literary gentlemen.

2. In 1380, he came to believe that his chief minister was plotting against him and had the minister executed, along with several thousand of his associates and family members.

3. Zhu Yuanzhang also abolished the office of chief minister and took that role into his own hands.

4. For the rest of his reign, until 1398, he carried out massive purges from time to time and became increasingly obsessed with perceived threats to his power.

IV. After Zhu Yuanzhang’s death, the Ming made a difficult transition to stability.

A. Zhu Yuanzhang was succeeded by his grandson Zhu Yunwen, known as the Jianwen emperor.

1. Zhu Yunwen had a much more trusting relationship with the literati.

2. He reoriented Ming government to a more Confucian model.

B. Zhu Di, the prince of Yan, resented being passed over for the succession.

1. Zhu Di felt that Zhu Yunwen was abandoning the policies of Zhu Yuanzhang.

2. He decided to seek the throne for himself.

3. Between 1400 and 1402, there was a series of political maneuvers which increased Zhu Di’s power.

4. In 1402, Zhu Di led his army south and captured Nanjing.

C. Zhu Di took the throne and proclaimed himself the Yongle emperor.

1. He executed leading Confucian officials who refused to recognize his usurpation.

2. But he continued many of the pro-Confucian policies of his nephew.

3. He especially increased the power of the Grand Secretariat, which became the most important body in the imperial government.

4. He moved the capital north to Beijing, which he built up into the great imperial city it remains today.

D. Zhu Di launched a great, but short-lived, age of maritime exploration.

1. Under the leadership of the eunuch admiral Zheng He, huge Chinese fleets made seven voyages of trade and exploration.

2. They sailed through Southeast Asia, across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and down the east coast of Africa at least as far as Mozambique.

3. These voyages were discontinued a few years after Zhu Di’s death in 1424, and the Ming dynasty entered a long middle period of stability and growth, which we will explore in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Edward L. Dreyer, Early Ming China.

Supplemental Reading:

Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas.

Questions to Consider:

1. Zhu Yuanzhang’s mistrust of the literati drove him to terrorize and abuse his highest officials. Yet by the end of the reign of the third Ming emperor, the literati had once again assumed effective control of the state. How could any emperor preserve his royal prerogatives in the face of bureaucratic government?

2. If China’s fleets of exploration between 1405 and 1435 had gone around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic and, perhaps, continued up the African coast to Europe, how might world history have been different over the last 500 years?

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