Post-classical history

Part Five



Chapter Ninety


The Withdrawal of the Ming

Between 1405 and 1455, the Mongol north and the Da Viet south fall to the Ming, and great ships sail to the west, but then victory and exploration come to a sudden end

THE MING EMPIRE OF CHINA had come into existence under the Hongwu Emperor, severe and ascetic; in his hands, the inner workings of the country had been entirely revamped, opposition mowed down, the remnants of the Yuan dynasty thoroughly beaten.

The ruined Yuan court, retreating to the north, hunkered down at the old Mongol city of Karakorum, but the safety of the sacred site proved an illusion. The Ming army pushed into it, sacked and burned it, and took seventy thousand men prisoner. The title of Yuan emperor survived, claimed by more and more distant relations of the long-dead Kublai Khan. But with the center of the Mongol homeland violated, the Yuan name lost the last of its cohesive power. The Mongols of the north spun apart, as the Yuan dug into its last remaining territory in the northeast, and the western Mongols reclaimed their old tribal identities. Together, four of those tribes joined into a coalition known as the Oirat.

Neither the Oirat nor the Ming were exactly sure where China began and the lands of the nomadic steppe dwellers ended, which made the border war complicated. And the Hongwu Emperor, cautious by nature, was wary of launching unnecessary campaigns. But he was also aware (with an almost pathological intensity) that a line between China and barbarian existed, even if he didn’t know exactly where it was. “The Yuan was created by northern barbarians entering and residing in China,” he wrote, early in his reign. “How could the barbarians rule the Chinese? I fear that the heartland has long been stained with the stink of mutton. . . . Therefore I have led forth armies to make a clean sweep. My aim is to chase out the Mongol slaves . . . to cleanse China of shame.” By the end of his reign, in 1398, he had built a string of fortresses out into the steppe country, bases from which to raid deep into Northern Yuan and Oirat lands. 1

He had many sons, but the oldest, his crown prince, had died before him; and so he had chosen the crown prince’s oldest son, Jianwen, to succeed him. When the grandson was crowned in Nanjing, the Hongwu Emperor’s fourth son Zhu Di, military governor of the old Mongol city of Dadu, challenged him. More than three years of civil war followed. In 1402, Zhu Di and his army marched into Nanjing and burned down young Jianwen’s imperial palace. The boy himself was said to have died in the fire, but rumors of his reappearance would spread constantly through the rest of his uncle’s reign. 2

Zhu Di named himself the Yongle Emperor and ordered that the brief rule of his nephew be wiped from the official Ming record books. Like his autocratic father, he crushed all possible opposition with an immediate purge: tens of thousands of Jianwen’s supporters (or suspected supporters) were murdered. When the boy’s chief counselor, Fang Xia, refused to recognize the new Yongle Emperor as legitimate, he was sentenced to death by public dismemberment: zhe, a version of drawing and quartering that could take as long as three days.3

The Hongwu Emperor had fought on land; the Yongle Emperor set his sights on the sea.

Between 1405 and 1422, he ordered six massive naval expeditions launched from the coast of China, headed out to the western ports: first to India and then to the shores of south Asia, to Sri Lanka, to the islands of the Maldives, to Mecca, and finally to the eastern edge of the African continent. The commander in chief of these expeditions was the Grand Eunuch Cheng Ho, the superintendent of all royal eunuchs; the voyages were recorded by the geographer Ma-Huan, who accompanied Cheng Ho from the second journey on.

Like his Muslim counterparts, Ma-Huan made note of the customs, the landscapes, the food and drink of a dozen different countries. But these were not voyages of discovery. Cheng Ho’s “star-guided rafts” were loaded with armed Ming soldiers; his mission was to collect tribute and submission from every king he encountered. He was tasked with conquest, not diplomacy: “Upon arriving at foreign cities, capture those barbarian kings who resist civilization and are disrespectful,” he summed up his instructions, in his own words. “Exterminate those bandit soldiers that indulge in violence and plunder. The ocean routes will be safe thanks to this.” He had the hardware to back up his intentions: hundreds and hundreds of nine-masted ships, thousands of deck-mounted bronze cannon, tens of thousands of Ming marines packed aboard. 4

While Cheng Ho led his fleets farther and farther abroad, the Emperor Yongle personally conducted five different campaigns against the Oirats and the Northern Yuan. He fought in the north; Cheng Ho sailed to the west; and yet another Ming army was dispatched to the south.


90.1. The Sea Voyages of the Yongle Emperor

This south-pointing army, five hundred thousand strong, was ostensibly sent to restore the Tran dynasty to the throne of the Dai Viet, and to remove the usurping Ho ruler. This was a good and moral motivation, a “righteous war” according to Confucian doctrines, carried out to restore the proper order. “When the criminal [Ho] is captured, we will select a virtuous offspring of the Tran family as king,” Yongle decreed. “We will help him rule the place, and then withdraw our forces.” 5

It was a good front, but once the Ming soldiers had destroyed the Ho power—the capital city was overrun in 1406, the usurping king Ho and his son taken prisoner in 1407—the Emperor Yongle found himself unwilling to let it out of his hands. Instead, he sent an administrator to run the country, and formally annexed it as a province of Ming China. He renamed it Jiaozhi, its name in ancient times, when it had been claimed by the Tang dynasty.*

For twenty years, the Ming ruled the Dai Viet directly, in the Fourth Chinese Domination. It was a plum conquest for Yongle, who captured over a quarter of a million elephants, horses, and cattle, nine thousand ships, and nearly fourteen million “shoulderloads” of grain—an amount somewhere around nine hundred thousand tons.6

Meanwhile, fighting continued in the north. By the time the last expedition against the Oirat had ended, the emperor had pushed the Ming border all the way out to the Amur river, far beyond the old Yuan frontiers. He had increased the size of the Ming army, from around forty thousand cavalry at the beginning of his reign to a million and half near the end. He had begun a massive repair effort on the crumbling Great Wall to the north. He had claimed old Dadu, the southern capital of the Yuan, as his personal capital. Now renamed Beijing, it was the home to his gargantuan new royal residence, a city within the city, decades in construction: the Forbidden City, for use by the emperor and the royal family alone.7

ALL OF THIS cost a lot of money.

The expenditures were already starting to pinch in 1418, when the northern Dai Viet aristocrat Le Loi, youngest of three sons, began to organize a resistance to the Chinese occupation. At first, he chose to throw his weight behind the restoration of the old and vanished Tran dynasty; he picked an inoffensive Tran figurehead and proclaimed that he would help return the Tran to the throne.

But before long, he simply led the rebellion himself, under the royal name Binh Dinh Vuong: Pacifying King of the Dai Viet. His right-hand man and chief general, Nguyen Trai, helped him to rally the Dai Viet countryside behind his cause; Nguyen Trai, a well-educated and crafty man, is said to have gone into the forest and written “Le Loi is the king and Nguyen Trai his servant” with animal fat on hundreds of leaves. When the ants ate away the fat, the message showed up as perforated letters, appearing to the uneducated villagers in the countryside as a supernatural prophecy.8


90.2 The Ming and the Oirat

With the peasants rallying behind him, Le Loi and Nguyen Trai carried on a guerrilla war, the strategy of the weaker side in a fight. More and more Ming troops were sent into the Dai Viet jungles; regiment by regiment, they disappeared at the hands of the guerrilla forces that waited. For ten years, the Dai Viet battlefield sucked away at the Ming army.

While this was going on, Yongle was continuing to spend lavishly on keeping up appearances in the capital city. An ambassador from Baghdad, visiting the capital city Beijing in 1421, was present at a royal feast where a thousand different dishes were served: “geese, fowls, roasted meat, fresh and dry fruits . . . filberts, jujubes, walnuts, peeled chestnuts, lemons, garlics and onions pickled in vinegar . . . and various kinds of intoxicants.” The diplomats present were required to perform eight prostrations in front of the emperor; in return they were loaded with lavish presents of silver, weapons, hawks, and horses.9

Yongle did not live to see the consequences of his expansiveness. He died in 1424, while on campaign in the north. He was followed by his son, the Emperor Hongxi; Hongxi lived only two more years, leaving the Ming rule to his son, the Emperor Xuande, in turn.

The Emperor Xuande was no coward. He had fought with his grandfather in the north as a young man, and he planned to continue the campaigns against the Mongols. But, faced with a shrinking treasury and an unending war in the south, he chose to triage the Ming resources: to halt the sea expeditions and withdraw from the troublesome Dai Viet war: “We have used military forces every year in Jiaozhi,” he told his court. “Many innocent people have been killed, and the people of China are exhausted.” His advisors were divided, half of them protesting that withdrawal would be a dangerous sign of weakness, the other half pointing out that the Dai Viet kingdom was always a problem, and that no Chinese dynasty had ever managed to hold on to it without headaches.10

While they dithered, Le Loi led his men in a series of concerted attacks on the Chinese front. By 1427, at least ninety thousand Ming soldiers had fallen in the Dai Viet jungles.

The Emperor Xuande called a halt. The Ming soldiers withdrew; Le Loi claimed victory, along with the throne of a now-independent Dai Viet. He was the first king of a new dynasty, the Le, which would rule until the eighteenth century. And the final sea expedition of the Ming returned in 1433. The ships never again left the Ming ports.11

Despite Xuande’s efforts to refocus on the northern battlefield, the Oirat were increasingly victorious.

A new Oirat khan named Esen Tayisi had inherited the leadership of the coalition, and was proving alarmingly good at welding more and more of the surrounding Mongol tribes and petty states into his following. At the same time, the Ming were suffering from a lack of leadership. The cautious Xuande died after just ten years, leaving the throne to his seven-year-old son, the Emperor Zhengtong. The empire was in the hands of the child’s advisors; they were divided over strategy, and the Oirat advance pushed the Ming front steadily, frighteningly, backwards. Frantic fortification of the Great Wall and a series of new barriers inside it—the “inner Great Wall,” nei-ch’ang-ch’eng—did little to hold the Oirat off. By the time the young emperor turned twenty-one, Esen Tayisi had advanced to within two hundred miles of Beijing itself.12

In 1449, Zhengtong, on the advice of his chief eunuch, Wang Zhen, agreed to personally lead an army against the Oirat. The royal counselors were once again divided over strategy: “The Son of Heaven, although the most exalted of men, should not get personally into these dangers,” one opponent of the expedition offered, tactfully. “We officials, although the most stupid of men, insist that this must not occur.” The phrasing suggests that Zhengtong was not receptive to criticism; his actions suggest that he had delusions of a glorious victory. In the searing heat of August, he marched from Beijing with half a million men. It was the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, the Ghost Month, when the gates of hell were said to be open so that the dead could roam among the living.13

As they neared the Oirat front, they passed heaps of unburied Ming corpses, victims of a recent Oirat attack on the nearby fortress of Datong, two weeks earlier. But there was no sign of the Oirat army. The landscape was eerily empty; the piles of bodies grew higher; and the spooked emperor decided to turn around and go back to Beijing.

It was already too late. Esen Tayisi had silently surrounded them, cutting off their escape route, and on the first day of September he pulled the noose tight. With the Ming army camped at Tumu, the Oirat suddenly emerged, cutting down thousands with a hail of arrows and then charging over the bodies to scatter the rest. The eunuch Wang Zhen died in the fighting, probably murdered by his own angry and terrified men. The Emperor Zhengtong himself, recognizing defeat, sat down on the ground and waited silently to be taken prisoner.

Esen Tayisi now sent a demand for a massive ransom payment to Beijing. He had expected the Ming to hand over cash to retrieve their emperor without quarrel; instead, the royal court at Beijing simply declared the captive Zhengtong to be Grand Senior Emperor and crowned his younger brother Junior Emperor in his place.14

Disgusted, Esen Tayisi set his young prisoner free; he probably hoped that the merciful act would eventually give him a foothold in Beijing. But when Zhengtong made his way back to the capital, he found his brother less than pleased to see him, and his people uninclined to restore him to full reign. He spent the rest of his life in the Forbidden City, walled away from his people, remote and withdrawn.

As the emperor went, so went the Ming.

The days of ambitious military campaigns, wide-ranging sea voyages, and international diplomacy were trickling to an end. The Oirat threat dwindled; Esen Tayisi was murdered by his own men in 1455, during a sharp struggle between the tribes over control of the coalition, and the massive attacks on the northern border ceased. But the Ming emperor did not try to retake the land. No new offenses were planned, no campaigns to foreign lands, no diplomatic missions demanding tribute. The manpower and tax revenue remaining to the Ming all went to the support of a passive internal policy: the fortification of boundary walls, a retreat to the safe land within them.15


*The three early periods known to the Dai Viet as “Chinese Domination” were 207 bc–ad 39, ad 43–544, and ad 602–905.

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