Wednesday, January 17, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 9: The Ming Dynasty of 1368-1644

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments

6 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff discusses the second-to-last imperial Chinese dynasty, also the last dynasty governed by Chinese themselves.

Beijing: Wellwishers throw paper money at the Yongle emperor's feet

The Economics Correspondent is a little flustered to admit he has only two columns worth of material on the Ming. 

One would think the second-to-last imperial dynasty—276 years long and the last run by ethnic Chinese—might be full of exciting fireworks. But every text the Correspondent has ever read about the Ming has been the same narrow and surprisingly small number of important stories, in stark contrast to its successor: the far more interesting Qing dynasty.

(academic Ming scholars would probably chide this page for saying so, but there it is)

Nevertheless what there is to the Ming, however little for such a long period, is still important enough to write about so we’ll cover the basics here.

We’ve already covered the founder of the Ming in the last column. Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant boy from Anhui province whose entire family was wiped out by the plague and famine of the late Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, grew up in a monastery, spent time as a beggar, and eventually joined an anti-Mongol rebel society named the Red Turbans. Over time he rose to lead the Red Turban rebellion and, after chasing the last Yuan emperor out of China, proclaimed the restoration of Chinese rule and the Ming dynasty.

Zhu also declared himself the Hongwu emperor.


Diverting a moment away from Hongwu, it’s worth discussing Ming emperors in general, the succession of which follows a pattern similar to that of many other dynasties.

Whenever analyzing the longer-lived Chinese dynasties a familiar story repeats itself: the greater dynasties enjoyed leadership by anywhere from one to three very good, even excellent, emperors in their earlier phases, monarchs who built a strong administrative state and ushered in a period of stability and prosperity.

After the “good emperors” things start to go south, with a string of mediocre-to-bad emperors who oversee growing corruption and decline before the dynasty is overthrown.

The rise-and-fall pattern usually consists of a longer decline than the shorter ascent. Even as things get worse and the general populous becomes unhappy they are still reluctant to risk their necks by rebelling. But after many, many more decades of things deteriorating further the people finally become so fed up that they dare rise up in revolt. Even then some rebellions are brutally put down and the dynasty limps on for decades more, but after a long enough period of decay the dynasty finally falls.

The Correspondent noted at least the last 152 years of the Tang dynasty were marked by civil wars, insurrection, famine, and general suffering among the people before the weakened regime finally collapsed.

The Song dynasty also enjoyed a near century-long golden age which started to reverse in 1070. Then over the next 209 years the Song was wrecked by monetary inflation, invaded and then split into two by the Jurchen tribes of the north. The then Southern Song dynasty was later hit by inflation and corruption again and invaded by the Mongols in 1235 before being overrun in 1279.

The same pattern: about a century of ascent followed by over two centuries of reversal, decline, and final collapse.

The Ming follows a similar timeline. By the Correspondent’s estimates the Ming benefited from two good (one very good) emperors from its founding in 1368 to 1424, a shorter 56 years. After the death of the last good emperor, the Ming leveled off and underwent a steady 220 year decline characterized by growing corruption and influence of imperial eunuchs, monetary inflation, frequent famines, plagues, and rebellion.


So who are these two good emperors who laid the framework which would keep the Ming in power, even through two long centuries of decline?

The first is founding emperor Hongwu himself who we’ve already mentioned. Once he established the Ming dynasty he moved China’s capital from the northern city of Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing) to Nanjing, translated literally as “southern capital.”

Wikipedia does a good job of summarizing what Hongwu did right in rebuilding China after a half-century of Mongol neglect, explaining his reign was…

”…notable for his unprecedented political reforms. The emperor abolished the position of chancellor, drastically reduced the role of court eunuchs, and adopted draconian measures to address corruption… …The emperor encouraged agriculture, reduced taxes, incentivized the cultivation of new land, and established laws protecting peasants' property. He also confiscated land held by large estates and forbade private slavery.”

If Hongwu had accomplished this much and then died he would be hailed unquestionably as one of China’s greatest emperors.

Unfortunately he lived too long, and in the process also built a vast secret police network. In his old age Hongwu became increasingly paranoid and ordered the arbitrary arrest, torture, and execution of tens of thousands of suspected and imagined enemies. 

His final decades are recorded by historians as being incredibly cruel and despotic. He swiftly executed concubines who displeased him, sometimes doing it personally by his own sword, and he reintroduced the “mass sacrifice of concubines” system to prevent factional power struggles after his death. When Hongwu died at least 38 concubines received the dreaded “red silk decree” and were promptly executed as part of his funeral human sacrifice.

Hongwu also outlived his oldest sons, leaving the throne to his grandson—the Jianwen emperor—by way of his eldest son who had died six years earlier.

Jianwen is not one of the Ming’s good emperors, and after assuming power he quickly began executing any uncles he thought might pose a threat to his authority. Eventually one of his most powerful uncles, named Zhu Di and responsible for the armies guarding the northern frontier from Mongols, decided Jianwen had gone too far. Not only had many of Zhu Di’s brothers already been executed, the Jianwen emperor also began killing his closest aides and tried to reduce his influence.

Zhu Di rebelled and a brief civil war ensued with Zhu coming out on top. In the end, Jianwen’s reign only lasted four years. Historians don’t know the exact date or method of his death although best estimates are he died shortly after being deposed (1402), perhaps by suicide.

Zhu Di declared himself the Yongle emperor (pronounced "yohng-luh"), imprisoned most of Jianwen’s sons and killed his closest aides. However once his power base was secure Yongle turned out to be the greatest of the sixteen total Ming emperors.

Yongle moved the capital north from Nanjing back to the old Mongol capital of Khanbaliq, renaming it Beijing (“northern capital”). He also ordered the construction of a city within the city, a huge compound of palace buildings and lakes. Construction took place from 1406 to 1420 after which Yongle and all future Chinese emperors made the complex their residence. In 1576 the name “Forbidden City” made its first official appearance and today it’s a national historic museum that attracts millions of tourists.

Yongle re-established a strong Chinese culture and implemented economic, educational, and military reforms that (according to Wikipedia again) “provided unprecedented benefits for the people.” One of the most frequently cited accomplishments of Yongle is his commissioning the eunuch Admiral Zheng He to send his navy to the far reaches of Asia and the Indian Ocean, sailing as far as the Horn of Africa. The early 15th century is recorded as an era of Chinese supremacy in seafaring, a distinction the Ming and Qing dynasties would eventually lose to rising European powers such as the British Royal Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy.

However Yongle preserved his father’s secret police apparatus and shared a streak of cruelty himself, sometimes acting as despot. Wikipedia summarizes the pros and cons of Yongle’s rule as such:

“Despite these negatives, the Yongle Emperor is considered an architect and keeper of Chinese culture, history, and statecraft and an influential ruler in Chinese history.”

On a final note, the Economics Correspondent visited Beijing nearly two decades ago where his tour group was shown the Ming tombs, including a large monument to Yongle. The tour guide mentioned highlights of Yongle’s life and the group was taken to a large statue of the emperor inside the tombs hall. Several hundred notes of paper currency were lying at Yongle’s feet—from wellwishers praying for Yongle to deliver good fortune in exchange for the money he will use in heaven.

In the next post we’ll discuss the fall of the Ming and its conquest by outsiders who would establish the final Qing dynasty of 1644-1912.

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