Ming Dynasty reigned over China for 276 years from 1368 to 1644. During their reign, China was the largest economy in the world with larger area and more literate people than any other country. Many construction projects were undertaken including extending and strengthening the Great Wall of China; and building the Forbidden City. There were developments in architecture, economy, printing, literature, medicine, arts and culture. Also Chinese blue and white porcelain became famous worldwide. The Ming era is considered as one of the three golden ages in China. Know about the contributions of the Ming Dynasty through their 10 major achievements and accomplishments.

 

#1 Majority of the existing Great Wall of China was built in the Ming era

Construction of a unified Great Wall of China was first started in late 3rd century BC during the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. However, little of that wall remains. Due to the threat of attacks by Mongolian tribes, the Ming authorities decided to renovate and enhance the wall. For a period of around 80 years from the late 1500s to mid-1600s, the Great Wall was extended and made stronger through use of granite, limestone and fired bricks of clay, strengthened with sticky rice. This taller and thicker wall stretched from the Bohai Sea in the east to the Jiayu Pass in the west; and had numerous watchtowers, barracks and storehouses. The majority of the existing Great Wall is from the Ming era.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling

 

#2 Seven epic voyages were led by the great Chinese admiral Zheng He

Yongle emperor of Ming made his favored eunuch Zheng He the admiral of a giant fleet of over 27,000 men. Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He led seven epic voyages to the Indian Ocean establishing Chinese authority in the region and expanding China’s tributary trade system farther afield than ever before. His fleet traveled as far west as Africa visiting many regions including Brunei, Java, Thailand, India, Arabia and Africa. Such was the magnitude of Zheng He’s fleet that all the ships of Columbus and Da Gama combined could have been stored on a single deck of its single vessel. Zheng He is considered one of the greatest admirals in Chinese history.

Model of Zheng He's Treasure Ship
A full-size model of a middle-sized treasure ship of Zheng He

 

#3 Ming period saw great development in printing

The Ming dynasty was a prosperous period in the history of printing in China. Previous methods of printing were enhanced and paper, ink and woodblock carving techniques reached an unprecedented standard. Full-color effects could be achieved with the invention of woodblock color printing. China’s first metal movable type printing was created by Ming scholar Hua Sui. Also the volume of printing reached unprecedented levels.

Ming dynasty woodblock print
A Ming dynasty woodblock print

 

#4 The most comprehensive book on traditional Chinese medicine was written

Li Shizhen (1518 – 1593), one of the most renowned pharmacologists and physicians in Chinese history, was active during the Ming period. Shizhen’s most important contribution is Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu), regarded as the most comprehensive medical book ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine. A 27-year work, it contains 1892 entries, details about more than 1,800 drugs including 1,100 illustrations and 11,000 prescriptions. Bencao Gangmu describes the type, form, flavor, nature and application in disease treatment of 1,094 herbs. It also corrected many mistakes and misapprehensions of the nature of herbs and diseases. It still remains the premier reference work for herbal medicine.

Bencao Gangmu by Li Shizhen
A page from a copy of Li Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu

 

#5 The Forbidden City was constructed during the reign of Yongle Emperor

The Yongle Emperor of Ming dynasty made Beiping (present-day Beijing) the new imperial capital. There, between the years 1406 to 1420, the Forbidden City was constructed as the Chinese imperial palace. A complex of 980 buildings and covering 72 ha (180 acres), it served as the home of Chinese emperors; and the ceremonial and political center of their government, for almost 500 years from 1420 to 1912. It also influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. In 1987, The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site.  It now houses the Palace Museum, which with over 14 million annual visitors, is the most visited museum in the world.

Forbidden City Meridian Gate
Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing

 

#6 The largest written encyclopedia was compiled during the Ming period

An encyclopedia was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor of Ming dynasty in 1403. Compiled by thousands of Chinese scholars, it was completed by 1408 and contained a broad range of Chinese knowledge, including astronomy, geography, medicine, religion, technology and art. Known as the Yongle Encyclopedia or Yongle Dadian, it comprised of 22,937 chapters in 11,095 volumes and 917,480 pages. It was not only the largest written encyclopedia but was also one of the first. Yongle Encyclopedia held the record for the largest overall encyclopedia in history until it was surpassed by Wikipedia in 2007.

The Yongle Encyclopedia
The Yongle Encyclopedia

 

#7 The famous Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing was built during Ming era

Porcelain Pagoda (or Tower) of Nanjing was constructed in the 15th century during the Ming period. It was an 80-metre-high Buddhist monastery faceted with white, yellow and green tiles, and adorned with lanterns and tinkling bells. The Porcelain Pagoda was considered one of the wonders of the world before its destruction during the Taiping Rebellion in 1856. Other prominent structures built during the reign of Ming dynasty include the Golden Hall in the Wudang Mountains, one of the biggest gilded copper temples in China; and Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the tomb of the Hongwu Emperor in Nanjing.

Porcelain Tower in Nanjing illustration
European illustration of the Porcelain Tower in Nanjing

 

#8 There was unprecedented development in vernacular literature

After the development of the novel as a literary form during the preceding Yuan dynasty, the most striking literary development during the Ming era was the vernacular novel. Journey to the West, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, was published in the 16th century during the Ming dynasty. The renowned play Peony Pavilion was written by Tang Xianzu of Ming and first performed in 1598. Two main painting traditions of Ming period were “literati painting” (wenrenhua) of the Wu school and the “professional academics” (huayuanpai) of the Zhe school. Most influential painters were the Four Masters of the Ming dynasty – Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, Tang Yin and Qiu Ying.

 

#9 Chinese ceramics became popular around the world

Ming dynasty porcelain vase
Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain vase

The creation of bristle toothbrush is considered to have occurred around 1498 during the reign of the Hongzhi Emperor of Ming. Also, there were many new developments in ceramics, along with the continuation of established traditions. Three major types of decoration emerged – monochromatic glazes, under-glaze and over-glaze. Blue and white porcelain of the Jiangzi Province factory town of Jingdezhen became popular worldwide. Another influential ware was the stoneware of Yixing in Jiangsu.

#10 China was the largest economy in the world during the Ming era

Along with Han and Song periods, the Ming era is regarded as one of China’s three golden ages. The economy of the Ming dynasty of China was the largest in the world. The agricultural reforms of the Hongwu Emperor, the first emperor of Ming who himself was a poor peasant once, led to a massive agricultural surplus that became the basis of a market economy. Due to large influx of silver through trade, silver replaced paper money as the primary means of exchange in their economy. Another key feature was privatization with wealthy merchants replacing the state as the dominant movers behind Chinese industry.

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