Lecture Twenty-Three

The Ming Golden Age

Scope: The 15th and 16th centuries became a new age of economic growth, far surpassing that of the Song. Art and literature flourished, in part driven by the consumer power of a revived merchant class. Printing expanded and fueled a growth in literacy, which in turn, reinforced the demand for more and cheaper books. This dynamic economy created tensions in society, as commercial wealth gave greater power to non-literati elites, who increasingly challenged their systematic exclusion from participation in government. Merchants were legally barred from taking the Confucian examinations, but that restriction, which had extended to three generations, was reduced to one in the Ming. The great voyages of exploration at the beginning of the 15th century, however, did not lead to a redefinition of China’s role in the larger world. After the 1430s, China returned to its traditional security concerns in Inner Asia and left the maritime world to private traders.


I. The Ming imperial order stabilized in the middle decades of the 15th century.

A. After the reign of Zhu Di, there were several weak or juvenile emperors who allowed the power of the literati to reemerge.

1. Zhu Gaozhi reigned for less than a year in 1425.

2. Zhu Zhanji held the throne from 1426-1435 but was not a dynamic ruler.

3. Zhu Qizhen was only eight years old when he came to the throne in 1435.

B. The Grand Secretariat became the central office of the imperial government.

1. Three men, all with the surname Yang, served as grand secretaries during this time.

2. Yang Shiqi was a leading literary figure, as well.

3. Yang Rong and Yang Pu had become grand secretaries under Zhu Di and continued to guide government policies after his death.

C. Eunuchs also began to gain power in the Inner Palace.

1. Eunuchs had been politically powerful in the Han and Tang periods.

2. Zhu Yuanzhang had legally excluded them from meddling in government, but Zhu Di had begun to employ them as spies and secret agents.

3. In the 1420s, a school was set up to teach eunuchs to read and to train them in handling imperial documents.

D. The mature Ming state saw a balance of power between civil officials and eunuchs.

1. Although the Confucian literati despised eunuchs, they also needed their cooperation in dealing with the emperor, who was often strongly influenced by his Inner Palace eunuch advisors.

2. Eunuchs, in turn, sought to legitimize themselves outside the palace by patronizing Buddhist monasteries or supporting charitable works.

II. While the government settled into a long era of relatively smooth operations, society underwent rapid growth.

A. The Ming government set up an efficient system of postal communications using a network of roadways and way stations that fostered trade and promoted market integration.

1. The postal system spanned the entire empire.

2. Horses were maintained at each station, and lodgings were provided for couriers.

3. Other travelers, especially merchants, began to use these routes, because the Ming military protected them.

4. Private businesses, including hostels and stables, grew up alongside the government post stations.

5. Merchants were also allowed to ship goods on government barges on the Grand Canal if there was room.

B. The process of regional economic specialization that had begun in the Song resumed with even greater strength.

1. Improvements in technology fed growth in the textile industry in Jiangnan.

2. Better overland and riverine trade networks encouraged tea production in Zhejiang and Hunan.

3. The kilns in Jingdezhen returned to their large-scale operations.

4. Further developments in financial markets, especially the rise of banking houses in Shanxi, also helped promote economic development.

C. International trade was a complex but important field of growth.

1. The Ming government remained officially aloof from maritime trade and often sought to suppress it.

2. Coastal trade sometimes took the form of pirate raids, causing serious security concerns.

3. Eventually, a “tally” trade with Japan developed, using matching markers to legitimate the roles of trading partners.

4. The trade with Japan was especially important as a source of silver, which helped increase the monetization of the Chinese economy.

5. In the later 16th century, silver from the new Spanish mines in Latin America began to flow into China via the Manila trade, further accelerating commercialization and monetization.

D. Economic growth was matched by population expansion.

1. In 1380, the Ming population was about 155 million.

2. By 1500, it had grown to around 230 million.

3. At the end of the Ming dynasty in the middle 17th century, it would rise to nearly 270 million.

4. Despite this large increase in population, economic growth was sufficient to produce rising standards of living for the vast majority of the Chinese.

III. The Ming did face some serious challenges.

A. The Mongols threatened the northern frontier from time to time.

1. In 1449, Mongol raids provoked a Ming military campaign that ended in disaster, with the emperor being captured and held for ransom.

2. A century later, in 1550, Mongol forces raided within sight of the walls of Beijing, and the question of border security became a major political issue in the 1550s.

B. So-called Japanese pirates raided the Jiangnan coastal region.

1. Government attempts to restrict coastal trade drove merchants into outlaw activities.

2. After suppressing the raids militarily, the Ming relaxed their policies and allowed some trade to proceed.

3. Actual maritime trade was always much greater than that officially acknowledged or tolerated by the government.

C. By the late 16th century, new problems began to emerge.

1. Some were the result of the very success of the dynasty and the rapid growth of the economy.

2. Others resulted from social and political stresses and related cultural and intellectual developments.

3. Still others were the result of changes taking place outside China.

4. We will turn to the late Ming in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure.

Supplemental Reading:

John Dardess, A Ming Society.

Kenneth J. Hammond, ed., The Human Tradition in Premodern China.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why did the Ming government continue to discriminate against merchants in barring their sons from taking the Confucian examinations?

2. The Ming state prohibited most trade with foreigners, yet China was one of the most important participants in the global economy of the 15th-17th centuries. Could or should the Ming state have played a more active role in promoting international trade?

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