Ming Dynasty was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang who became the first emperor of the dynasty and took the name Hongwu Emperor. Reigning for a period of 276 years between 1368 and 1644, it was preceded by the Mongol Yuan dynasty and followed by the Manchu Qing dynasty. Ming era saw the reign of 16 emperors with the most successful among them being the Yongle Emperor. Last dynasty in China ruled by ethnic Han Chinese, Ming was overthrown by peasant rebel Li Zicheng. Here are 10 interesting facts about the founding, rise, reign and fall of the Ming dynasty of China.
#1 Ming dynasty was established in 1368 after it overthrew Mongol Yuan dynasty
Ming dynasty was preceded by the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. Due to anti-Mongol sentiment, the Red Turban Rebellion against Yuan began in 1351. During the rebellion, Zhu Yuanzhang, a poor peasant and Buddhist monk, became a prominent leader. With Yuan dynasty’s decline, there was a struggle between the rebel groups. In 1363, Zhu’s force of 200,000 sailors defeated his arch rival Chen Youliang’s force of 650,000 men in the Battle of Lake Poyang, arguably the largest naval battle ever in terms of personnel. In 1368, Zhu sent his army towards the Yuan capital Khanbaliq or Dadu (present-day Beijing). The last Yuan emperor fled and this is considered the overthrow of Mongol Yuan dynasty by Ming dynasty.
#2 Ming dynasty was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang or Hongwu Emperor
After founding the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang took the title Hongwu which means “vastly martial”. He made the city of Nanjing in East China his capital. The Mongols still had control of the region of Manchuria in Northeast China. Hongwu sent a military campaign against the Mongol chieftain Naghachu in Manchuria leading to Ming conquest of the region and surrender of the last remaining Mongol forces in China. Hongwu Emperor also established the imperial military secret police Jinyiwei to guard the emperor against possible rebellions and assassinations. Jinyiwei served Ming emperors till the overthrow of the dynasty.
#3 The capital of Ming was changed from Nanjing to Beijing by the Yongle Emperor
The Hongwu Emperor made his grandson Zhu Yunwen his successor. After Hongwu’s death in 1398, Yunwen assumed the throne as Jianwen Emperor. The most powerful of Hongwu’s sons, Zhu Di, plotted a rebellion against his nephew leading to a three-year civil war. Hongwu had noted the destructive role of court eunuchs and greatly reduced their power. Zhu Di used them during his coup burning the palace in Nanjing along with the Jianwen Emperor. He assumed the throne as the Yongle Emperor in 1402. Yongle made Beiping (present-day Beijing) as the new imperial capital demoting Nanjing to a secondary capital.
#4 Yongle Emperor is considered the greatest emperor of Ming
The Yongle Emperor restored the power of eunuchs. Among these eunuchs was Zheng He, who is considered as one of the greatest Chinese Admirals in history. Yongle used Zheng He’s fleet to expand China’s tributary trade system farther afield than ever before. He also expanded China’s borders through his military, which included brief occupation of Vietnam. Yongle directed the construction of the Forbidden City. Located in the center of Beijing, it served as the home and political center for emperors for almost 500 years from 1420 till the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912. Yongle used woodblock printing to spread Chinese culture. The monumental Yongle Encyclopedia was also completed during his reign.
#5 The Ming Dynasty was shook by the Tumu Crisis of 1449
Oirats is a designation for Western Mongol tribes. During the reign of Zhengtong, the sixth emperor of Ming, powerful Oirat leader Esen Taishi launched an invasion into China. Zhengtong Emperor personally led an army against the Oirats but was handed a crushing defeat at the Battle of Tumu Fortress in 1449 and was captured. This led to an event known as Tumu Crisis during which the Oirats demanded ransom to release the Ming emperor. However Zhu Qiyu, half-brother of Zhengtong, assumed the Ming throne as Jingtai Emperor. Oirats released Zhengtong as holding him captive was no more useful. Zhengtong was held under house arrest till 1457, when he retook the throne after a coup and assumed the new title Tianshun.
#6 The longest reigning ruler of Ming was Wanli Emperor
In 1572, Zhu Yijun became the 13th ruler of the Ming dynasty assuming the title of Wanli Emperor. Initially an able king, Wanli grew tired of constant political quarrels in court and started preferring to stay behind the walls of the Forbidden City, so much so that senior officials had to bribe powerful eunuchs even to have a simple message delivered. He enhanced the power of eunuchs by increasing their rights over civil bureaucracy and granting them power to collect provincial taxes. This furthered instability at court. Though Wanli’s reign of 48 years is the longest among Ming emperors, it started the decline of the Ming dynasty.
#7 A primary reason for the decline of Ming dynasty was shortage of silver supply
By 16th century, due to growth in trade there was new demand for Chinese products leading to large influx of silver, mainly from the Spanish Empire and Japan. Though the Ming dynasty initially used paper money, coins minted from silver later became the primary means of exchange in their economy. In 1639, a trade dispute in Hiroshima and a diplomatic conflict with Spain cut off China’s silver supplies. This led to a dramatic spike in the value of silver leading to its hoarding. The peasants were the worst hit since they paid their taxes in silver while conducting crop sales in copper. This economic crisis along with natural calamity, rebellion, foreign invasion and instability at court are the main reasons for the decline of Ming dynasty.
#8 Ming dynasty was overthrown by peasant rebel Li Zicheng
When Shaanxi region in northwest China was hit by a famine in early 1630s, the Ming failed to ship much needed supplies there leading to resentment among people. Li Zicheng, a poor peasant, became leader of the rebels and in three years he succeeded in rallying more than 20,000 men. The Ming government was unable to stop Li’s rebellion as most of its military was involved in battle against the Manchus, ethnic Chinese of Manchuria. On 26 May 1644, Ming capital Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng. The last Ming ruler, Chongzhen Emperor, hanged himself on a tree during the overthrow. Li Zicheng founded the Shun dynasty, but within a year it was defeated by the Manchus who established the Qing dynasty, which ruled over China till the foundation of the Republic of China in 1912.
#9 Ming China was hit by the deadliest earthquake in recorded history
On the morning of 23 January 1556, the Shaanxi province in Northwest China was hit by a catastrophic earthquake. An 840-kilometre-wide region of China was destroyed affecting more than 96 counties. With a death toll of 830,000, the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake is the deadliest earthquake and the third deadliest natural disaster in history. In 1642, Ming governor of Kaifeng destroyed the levees holding back the Yellow River to break the siege of the peasant army of Li Zicheng. Known as the 1642 Yellow River flood, this man-made disaster was responsible for the death of 300,000 of the 378,000 residents, mainly of Kaifeng and Xuzhou.
#10 Economic prosperity made Ming era one of China’s three golden ages
Ming era is regarded as one of China’s three golden ages along with Han and Song periods. For most part of their reign, China prospered economically and its economy was the largest in the world. Also the epic voyages of Zheng He, Columbian Exchange and expansion of European trade brought a period of unprecedented exchange of knowledge, culture and products between China and the world. Trade with Europe and Zheng He’s voyages exposed the world to Chinese gold, silver, porcelain and silk, among other things. Columbian Exchange spurred population growth and reduced famines with introduction of highly productive crops like corn and potatoes. There was also vast exchange of knowledge between European and Chinese scholars.