Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy-Four


White Lotus, Red Turban

Between 1351 and 1382, the Yuan dynasty collapses, and the Ming take charge

WHILE THE PLAGUE across the Oxus had plenty of chroniclers, the plague in China went almost unrecorded. The only pointers we have to its severity are numerical: between the beginning and the end of the fourteenth century, the population of China dropped by forty million people.

Not all of this can be chalked up to bubonic plague. The century had begun with Mongol invasions; the establishment of the Yuan had happened at the cost of millions of lives. Like the rest of the world, China had seen severe weather patterns. Heat and drought, rain and mold, floods and windstorms, all had played a part in famine, failed crops, deaths from starvation. Plague had merely added itself to the catastrophes.

Misery had lent itself to the renewed spread of an old form of Buddhism: Amitabha, or Pure Land Buddhism, which promised rebirth into an undefiled and perfect world, the Western Paradise, for all who believed in the Buddha.* In the twelfth century, a charismatic Pure Land monk named Mao Ziyuan had preached that the Western Paradise could be experienced on earth, mystically: in the mind of the believer who was willing to meditate unceasingly on the name of the Buddha, concentrating all thought and will on the Pure Land. His followers took the name White Lotus Society. By the fourteenth century, the mystical White Lotus Society had flowered and divided into energetic subsects all over Yuan China. And it had developed a more immediate and less mystical hope: that a Prince of Light, a manifestation of the Buddha, would appear in the present and bring the Pure Land on earth. These White Lotus worshippers, looking forward to immediate deliverance, often adopted red turbans as a sign of their unity.1

The unhappy, unwieldy empire was still ruled by Kublai Khan’s great-great-great-grandson Toghon Temur, the “Emperor Huizong.” Toghon Temur was now thirty-one, a veteran of eighteen years of passive governing; his chancellor, the soldier-historian Toghto, was in charge of the country.

In 1351, Toghto was directing a massive repair project in the center of the empire. The Yellow river’s outlet to the sea frequently shifted—the land near the coast was flat, and silt buildup constantly pushed the river’s course back and forth—but the gargantuan flooding of the last years had now moved it far to the north, above the Shangdong Peninsula. The flooding had also blocked the Grand Canal. It had become impossible to transport grain from the rich farmland around the Yangtze to the southern capital, Kublai Khan’s perfectly square city of Dadu, except by sea.

Taking advantage of the city’s helplessness, a pirate named Fang Guozhen had assembled a fleet of outlaws and pranced along the coast, robbing coastal cities and intercepting grain ships to Dadu at will. The Yuan navy was unable to either capture or drive him off. But moving the Yellow river back to its old bed would make it possible to clean out and unblock the Grand Canal. Then the grain shipments from south to north could resume, protected by the shore from Fang Guozhen and his bandits.2

Such a project needed many hands, and so Toghto recruited corvée labor—workers drawn from the peasant and farmer classes, required to work unpaid at the Yellow river site for a certain number of months per year. Corvée labor was horrendously unpopular; while the workers were digging up silt, their fields at home were going untended, and they would return to a reduced harvest and the same tax burdens as before. Yet Toghto imposed it on almost two hundred thousand Chinese residents of the central Yuan empire.3

The backbreaking, heartbreaking work was the match that lit the stacked dry bonfire of Yuan China’s discontent.

One of the workmen press-ganged into the Yellow river project was a White Lotus follower named Han Shantong. Midway through the labor, he announced that he had uncovered, in the silt of the Yellow river, a one-eyed statue prophesying the arrival of the Prince of Light. Other White Lotus believers flocked to him, donning the red turbans as their mark. With their support Han Shantong proclaimed himself the rightful ruler of China, descendant of the last Northern Song emperor, sent to oust the oppressive and foreign Yuan powers.4

His little rebellion was immediately squashed into the mud by Toghto, who dispatched Yuan soldiers to arrest him. Han Shantong was promptly executed; his followers scattered, and his son Han Lin’er, whom he had declared his crown prince and heir apparent, disappeared into hiding. But Han Shantong had been merely the bellwether. Red Turban rebellions began to pop up all over the Yuan realm, fueled by wretched living conditions, fury at Yuan demands, and messianic hopes. After Han Shantong, at least five men proclaimed themselves the new emperor of China, and six or seven war leaders without imperial titles added themselves to the mix.5

Toghto, directing a tight and successful defense against the rebels, fell victim to the emperor’s incompetence. In 1354, Toghon Temur suddenly fired his chancellor. He was apparently annoyed that Toghto had not found the time, between desperate battles, to organize the elaborate ceremonial recognition of his son, Ayushiridara, as Crown Prince and heir; the decision shows just how out of touch with the realities of governing the Mongol emperor was. But Toghto, loyal to the end, stepped down at once. He was in the middle of conducting a siege of the rebel-held city of Gaoyou; it was on the verge of surrender, but when Toghto left, the Red Turbans who held it took heart.6

The failed siege of Gaoyou was a sign of things to come. Toghto took himself into exile and died a year later (possibly poisoned by one of the Crown Prince’s allies). The Yuan army was divided by squabbling generals, each hoping for ultimate command. Spread too thin, fighting too many rebels, the imperial force was unable to wipe any of them out. By the end of the decade, the emperor Toghon Temur controlled only the land directly around Dadu. The Red Turban rebels had shaken themselves out into two major movements; in the northeast, a strong force led by the Buddhist monk Zhu Yuanzhang, who had originally been a follower of Han Shantong’s son; and in the southwest, an uprising under a former Yuan provincial official named Chen Youliang. Chen Youliang proclaimed himself emperor of China in Jiangzhou, adopting the name Dahan, “Great Han,” for his era; Zhu Yuanzhang captured Nanjing and declared himself founder of the new Wu dynasty. Meanwhile, the pirate Fang Guozhen had seized the southern coast south of Hangzhou for his own.7

In 1363, the now ex-Buddhist monk Zhu Yuanzhang destroyed his competitor on Lake Poyang, near the southern coast. Chen Youliang was the first to enter the lake; a contemporary account describes his bold entrance, at the head of a fleet of three-decker warships, painted with red lacquer, filled with soldiers and horses, surmounted by iron-clad archers’ towers. He intended to lay siege to the shore town of Nanchang, held by Yuanzhang’s men.

To beat him off, Zhu Yuanzhang dispatched a fleet of his own from Nanjing; it took nine days for them to arrive. On August 30, the two fleets faced each other on the surface of the lake and fought for two days without victory. On the third day, Zhu Yuanzhang ordered dummy ships, manned by straw-stuffed uniforms and loaded with gunpowder, to be launched towards the enemy. Set fire with long fuses, the fireships blew into Chen Youliang’s line and exploded.8

This battle, followed a month later by a second short naval encounter during which Chen Youliang was struck in the eye by an arrow and died instantly, gave China to Zhu Yuanzhang. The southern Red Turban movement crumbled. The Yuan court held out at Dadu for four more years, but the country was in the hands of the northern Red Turban leader.


74.1 The Rise of the Ming

In November of 1367, Zhu Yuanzhang mounted a final attack on Dadu and overran it with ease. Toghon Temur fled with his court into the old Mongolian homeland to the north. He still controlled Shangdu, the northern capital of the great Kublai Khan; and he was still boldly proclaiming himself emperor of China. But he had become merely another northern warlord, clinging to a tiny local kingdom. A year later, he would lose Shangdu and be forced even farther into the steppe.

In the south, Zhu Yuanzhang had himself crowned emperor at his capital city of Nanjing. He announced the start of a new dynasty, the Ming, beginning with the New Year of 1368; for himself, he took the imperial name Taizu and named the era of his reign Hongwu, “Most Warlike.” He is generally known by his era name: the Hongwu Emperor.9

He was forty years old, and a lot of water had gone under the bridge since his days as a Buddhist monk. He was, says one source, the father of twenty-three sons, whom he installed across his new empire as prince-regents at strategic locations; this seems to be a condensation of a somewhat lengthy process that took place over a number of years, but shows just how determined he was to keep a tight hand on the running of the country.10

Which he did, for thirty years. He managed to stay on the throne long enough to revamp almost every part of his kingdom. He appointed a committee of scholars to revise, expand, and reissue the old Tang law code, replacing the knotty tangle of old customs and nomadic practices that the Yuan had followed. He poured money into the Confucian schools and reinstituted the old Confucian civil service tests, as a way of bringing competent officials to his notice: “The empire is of vast extent,” one of his very first decrees read; “because it most certainly cannot be governed by my solitary self, it is essential that all the worthy men of the realm now join in bringing order into it.”11

His intention was, above all, to bring tranquillity to China. In a letter to the Byzantine emperor, announcing the commencement of a new dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor pointed out that under the Yuan, his homeland had suffered nearly two decades of misery. “We, as a simple peasant of Huai-yu, conceived the patriotic idea to save the people,” the letter explained, “. . . [and we have now] established peace in the Empire, and restored the old boundaries. . . . Although We are not equal in wisdom to our ancient rulers whose virtue was recognized all over the universe, We cannot but let the world know Our intention to maintain peace within the four seas.”12

But he never forgot that he had come to the throne through rebellion, and he never placed too much trust in those worthy men. In 1380, afraid that his longtime friend and chief minister Hu Wei-yung was growing too powerful, the Hongwu Emperor tried him for treason, ordered him executed, and then began a purge of everyone else who might threaten his power. Thousands were put to death. Two years later, the emperor created a secret police, the “Embroidered Uniform Guards,” to be his spies and hit men; they had the authority to arrest and confine, in secret prisons, anyone who might threaten the security and tranquillity of the realm. To break up the power of aristocratic clans that might unite against him, he ruthlessly moved them off their land, resettled them far apart, and took their fields. In payment, he gave them monthly allowances of rice and cloth, making them completely dependent on his goodwill alone.13

His vendettas may have been paranoid, but they were never private or petty, and he was no hypocrite. “An emperor should suppress his desire for self interest, and refrain from indulgence in material enjoyment,” he announced. “Only when the emperor is virtuous, free from material desire, can he rule.” And so he refused to eat meat, wore patched shirts, and ordered the crown prince to plant his own vegetable garden to save money. He was a man of iron self-control and determination, and he was thoroughly determined: the new Ming empire would be peaceful, and no price was too high to pay for peace.14


*See Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 19–20.

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