Ming dynasty (/mɪŋ/) was the ruling dynasty of
China – then
known as the Great Ming
Empire – for 276 years (1368–1644)
following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. The Ming,
described by Edwin O. Reischauer,
John K. Fairbank and Albert M. Craig
as "one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social
stability in human history", was the last imperial dynasty in China
ruled by ethnic Han Chinese. Although the primary capital of Beijing
fell in 1644 to a rebellion led by
Li Zicheng (who established the
Shun dynasty, soon replaced by the Manchu-led Qing dynasty), regimes
loyal to the Ming throne – collectively called the
Southern Ming –
survived until 1683.
Hongwu Emperor (ruled 1368–98) attempted to create a society of
self-sufficient rural communities ordered in a rigid, immobile system
that would guarantee and support a permanent class of soldiers for his
dynasty: the empire's standing army exceeded one million troops and
the navy's dockyards in
Nanjing were the largest in the world. He
also took great care breaking the power of the court eunuchs and
unrelated magnates, enfeoffing his many sons throughout
attempting to guide these princes through the Huang Ming Zu Xun, a set
of published dynastic instructions. This failed spectacularly when his
teenage successor, the Jianwen Emperor, attempted to curtail his
uncles' power, prompting the Jingnan Campaign, an uprising that placed
the Prince of Yan upon the throne as the
Yongle Emperor in 1402. The
Yongle Emperor established Yan as a secondary capital and renamed it
Beijing, constructed the Forbidden City, and restored the Grand Canal
and the primacy of the imperial examinations in official appointments.
He rewarded his eunuch supporters and employed them as a counterweight
against the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats. One, Zheng He, led seven
enormous voyages of exploration into the Indian Ocean as far as Arabia
and the eastern coasts of Africa.
The rise of new emperors and new factions diminished such
extravagances; the capture of the
Zhengtong Emperor during the 1449
Tumu Crisis ended them completely. The imperial navy was allowed to
fall into disrepair while forced labor constructed the Liaodong
palisade and connected and fortified the
Great Wall of
China into its
modern form. Wide-ranging censuses of the entire empire were conducted
decennially, but the desire to avoid labor and taxes and the
difficulty of storing and reviewing the enormous archives at Nanjing
hampered accurate figures. Estimates for the late-Ming population
vary from 160 to 200 million, but necessary revenues were squeezed
out of smaller and smaller numbers of farmers as more disappeared from
the official records or "donated" their lands to tax-exempt eunuchs or
Haijin laws intended to protect the coasts from "Japanese"
pirates instead turned many into smugglers and pirates themselves.
By the 16th century, however, the expansion of European trade –
albeit restricted to islands near
Macau – spread the
Columbian Exchange of crops, plants, and animals into China,
introducing chili peppers to
Sichuan cuisine and highly productive
corn and potatoes, which diminished famines and spurred population
growth. The growth of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch trade created new
demand for Chinese products and produced a massive influx of Japanese
and American silver. This abundance of specie remonetized the Ming
economy, whose paper money had suffered repeated hyperinflation and
was no longer trusted. While traditional Confucians opposed such a
prominent role for commerce and the newly rich it created, the
heterodoxy introduced by
Wang Yangming permitted a more accommodating
attitude. Zhang Juzheng's initially successful reforms proved
devastating when a slowdown in agriculture produced by the Little Ice
Age joined changes in Japanese and Spanish policy that quickly cut off
the supply of silver now necessary for farmers to be able to pay their
taxes. Combined with crop failure, floods, and epidemic, the dynasty
collapsed before the rebel leader Li Zicheng, who was defeated by the
Eight Banner armies who founded the Qing dynasty.
1.1.1 Revolt and rebel rivalry
1.1.2 Reign of the Hongwu Emperor
1.1.3 South-Western frontier
1.1.4 Campaign in the North-East
1.1.5 Relations with Tibet
1.2 Reign of the Yongle Emperor
1.2.1 Rise to power
1.2.2 New capital and foreign engagement
Tumu Crisis and the Ming Mongols
1.4 Decline and fall of the Ming dynasty
1.4.1 Reign of the Wanli Emperor
1.4.2 Role of eunuchs
1.4.3 Economic breakdown and natural disasters
1.4.4 Rise of the Manchu
1.4.5 Rebellion, invasion, collapse
2.1 Province, prefecture, subprefecture, county
2.2 Institutions and bureaus
2.2.1 Institutional trends
Grand Secretariat and Six Ministries
2.2.3 Bureaus and offices for the imperial household
2.3.2 Lesser functionaries
2.3.3 Eunuchs, princes, and generals
3 Society and culture
3.1 Literature and arts
3.3.1 Wang Yangming's Confucianism
3.3.2 Conservative reaction
3.4 Urban and rural life
4 Science and technology
6 See also
8.2 Works cited
9 Further reading
10 External links
History of the Ming dynasty
History of the Ming dynasty and List of emperors of the
See also: Timeline of the Ming dynasty
Revolt and rebel rivalry
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) ruled before the
establishment of the Ming dynasty. Explanations for the demise of the
Yuan include institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han
Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, overtaxation of areas
hard-hit by inflation, and massive flooding of the
Yellow River as a
result of the abandonment of irrigation projects. Consequently,
agriculture and the economy were in shambles, and rebellion broke out
among the hundreds of thousands of peasants called upon to work on
repairing the dykes of the Yellow River. A number of Han Chinese
groups revolted, including the Red Turbans in 1351. The Red Turbans
were affiliated with the White Lotus, a Buddhist secret society. Zhu
Yuanzhang was a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk who joined the Red
Turbans in 1352; he soon gained a reputation after marrying the foster
daughter of a rebel commander. In 1356, Zhu's rebel force captured
the city of Nanjing, which he would later establish as the capital
of the Ming dynasty.
Yuan dynasty crumbling, competing rebel groups began fighting
for control of the country and thus the right to establish a new
dynasty. In 1363,
Zhu Yuanzhang eliminated his archrival and leader of
the rebel Han faction, Chen Youliang, in the Battle of Lake Poyang,
arguably the largest naval battle in history. Known for its ambitious
use of fire ships, Zhu's force of 200,000 Ming sailors were able to
defeat a Han rebel force over triple their size, claimed to be
650,000-strong. The victory destroyed the last opposing rebel faction,
Zhu Yuanzhang in uncontested control of the bountiful Yangtze
River Valley and cementing his power in the south. After the dynastic
head of the Red Turbans suspiciously died in 1367 while a guest of
Zhu, there was no one left who was remotely capable of contesting his
march to the throne, and he made his imperial ambitions known by
sending an army toward the Yuan capital Dadu (present-day Beijing) in
1368. The last Yuan emperor fled north to the upper capital
Shangdu, and Zhu declared the founding of the
Ming dynasty after
razing the Yuan palaces in Dadu to the ground; the city was
renamed Beiping in the same year.
Zhu Yuanzhang took Hongwu, or
"Vastly Martial", as his era name.
Reign of the Hongwu Emperor
Portrait of the
Hongwu Emperor (ruled in 1368–98)
Hongwu made an immediate effort to rebuild state infrastructure. He
built a 48 km (30 mi) long wall around Nanjing, as well as
new palaces and government halls. The
History of Ming states that
as early as 1364
Zhu Yuanzhang had begun drafting a new Confucian law
code, the Da Ming Lü, which was completed by 1397 and repeated
certain clauses found in the old
Tang Code of 653. Hongwu
organized a military system known as the weisuo, which was similar to
the fubing system of the
Tang dynasty (618–907).
In 1380 Hongwu had the Chancellor
Hu Weiyong executed upon suspicion
of a conspiracy plot to overthrow him; after that Hongwu abolished the
Chancellery and assumed this role as chief executive and emperor, a
precedent mostly followed throughout the Ming period. With a
growing suspicion of his ministers and subjects, Hongwu established
the Jinyiwei, a network of secret police drawn from his own palace
guard. Some 100,000 people were executed in a series of purges during
The Hongwu emperor issued many edicts forbidding Mongol practices and
proclaiming his intention to purify
China of barbarian influence.
However, he also sought to use the Yuan legacy to legitimize his
China and other areas ruled by the Yuan. He adopted many
Yuan military practices, recruited Mongol soldiers, and continued to
request Korean concubines and eunuchs.
Main article: Ming conquest of Yunnan
In Qinghai, the Salar Muslims voluntarily came under Ming rule, their
clan leaders capitulating around 1370. Uyghur troops under Uyghur
general Hala Bashi suppressed the Miao Rebellions of the 1370s and
settled in Changde, Hunan. Hui Muslim troops also settled in
Changde, Hunan after serving the Ming in campaigns against other
aboriginal tribes. In 1381, the
Ming dynasty annexed the areas of
the southwest that had once been part of the
Kingdom of Dali
Kingdom of Dali following
the successful effort by Hui Muslim Ming armies to defeat
Yuan-loyalist Mongol and Hui Muslim troops holding out in Yunnan
province. The Hui troops under General Mu Ying, who was appointed
Governor of Yunnan, were resettled in the region as part of a
colonization effort. By the end of the 14th century, some 200,000
military colonists settled some 2,000,000 mu (350,000 acres) of land
in what is now
Yunnan and Guizhou. Roughly half a million more Chinese
settlers came in later periods; these migrations caused a major shift
in the ethnic make-up of the region, since formerly more than half of
the population were non-Han peoples. Resentment over such massive
changes in population and the resulting government presence and
policies sparked more Miao and Yao revolts in 1464 to 1466, which were
crushed by an army of 30,000 Ming troops (including 1,000 Mongols)
joining the 160,000 local
Guangxi (see Miao Rebellions (Ming
dynasty)). After the scholar and philosopher Wang Yangming
(1472–1529) suppressed another rebellion in the region, he advocated
single, unitary administration of Chinese and indigenous ethnic groups
in order to bring about sinification of the local peoples.
Campaign in the North-East
Manchuria under Ming rule
Great Wall of China: Although the rammed earth walls of the
Warring States were combined into a unified wall under the Qin
and Han dynasties, the vast majority of the brick and stone Great Wall
seen today is a product of the Ming dynasty.
After the overthrow of the Mongol
Yuan dynasty by the
Ming dynasty in
Manchuria remained under control of the
Mongols of the Northern
Yuan dynasty based in Mongolia. Naghachu, a former Yuan official and a
Uriankhai general of the Northern Yuan dynasty, won hegemony over the
Mongol tribes in
Liaoyang province of the former Yuan
dynasty). He grew strong in the northeast, with forces large enough
(numbering hundreds of thousands) to threaten invasion of the newly
Ming dynasty in order to restore the
Mongols to power in
China. The Ming decided to defeat him instead of waiting for the
Mongols to attack. In 1387 the Ming sent a military campaign to attack
Naghachu, which concluded with the surrender of
Naghachu and Ming
conquest of Manchuria.
The early Ming court could not, and did not, aspire to the control
imposed upon the Jurchens in
Manchuria by the Mongols, yet it created
a norm of organization that would ultimately serve as the principal
vehicle for the relations with peoples along the northeast frontiers.
By the end of the Hongwu reign, the essentials of a policy toward the
Jurchens had taken shape. Most of the inhabitants of Manchuria, except
for the wild Jurchens, were at peace with China. The Ming had created
many guards (衛, wei) in Manchuria, but the creation of a guard did
not necessarily imply political control. In 1409, the Ming dynasty
Yongle Emperor established the Nurgan Regional Military
Commission on the banks of the Amur River, and Yishiha, a eunuch of
Haixi Jurchen derivation, was ordered to lead an expedition to the
mouth of the Amur to pacify the Wild Jurchens. After the death of
Yongle Emperor, the
Nurgan Regional Military Commission
Nurgan Regional Military Commission was abolished
in 1435, and the Ming court ceased to have substantial activities
there, although the guards continued to exist in Manchuria. By the
late Ming period, Ming political presence in
Manchuria had waned
Relations with Tibet
Main article: Sino-Tibetan relations during the Ming dynasty
A 17th-century Tibetan thangka of Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra; the Ming
dynasty court gathered various tribute items that were native products
Tibet (such as thangkas), and in return granted gifts to
Mingshi – the official history of the
Ming dynasty compiled by
Qing dynasty in 1739 – states that the Ming established
itinerant commanderies overseeing Tibetan administration while also
renewing titles of ex-
Yuan dynasty officials from
Tibet and conferring
new princely titles on leaders of Tibetan Buddhist sects. However,
Turrell V. Wylie states that censorship in the
Mingshi in favor of
bolstering the Ming emperor's prestige and reputation at all costs
obfuscates the nuanced history of Sino-Tibetan relations during the
Modern scholars debate whether the
Ming dynasty had sovereignty over
Tibet. Some believe it was a relationship of loose suzerainty that was
largely cut off when the
Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521–67) persecuted
Buddhism in favor of
Daoism at court. Others argue that the
significant religious nature of the relationship with Tibetan lamas is
underrepresented in modern scholarship. Others note the Ming
need for Central Asian horses and the need to maintain the tea-horse
The Ming sporadically sent armed forays into
Tibet during the 14th
century, which the Tibetans successfully resisted. Several
scholars point out that unlike the preceding Mongols, the Ming dynasty
did not garrison permanent troops in Tibet. The Wanli Emperor
(r. 1572–1620) attempted to reestablish Sino-Tibetan relations in
the wake of a Mongol-Tibetan alliance initiated in 1578, an alliance
which affected the foreign policy of the subsequent Manchu Qing
dynasty (1644–1912) in their support for the
Dalai Lama of the
Yellow Hat sect. By the late 16th century, the Mongols
proved to be successful armed protectors of the Yellow Hat Dalai Lama
after their increasing presence in the
Amdo region, culminating in the
Güshi Khan (1582–1655) in 1642,
establishing the Khoshut Khanate.
Reign of the Yongle Emperor
Main article: Yongle Emperor
Rise to power
Portrait of the
Yongle Emperor (ruled in 1402–24)
Hongwu Emperor specified his grandson Zhu Yunwen as his successor,
and he assumed the throne as the
Jianwen Emperor (1398–1402) after
Hongwu's death in 1398. The most powerful of Hongwu's sons, Zhu Di,
then the militarily mighty disagreed with this, and soon a political
showdown erupted between him and his nephew Jianwen. After Jianwen
arrested many of Zhu Di's associates, Zhu Di plotted a rebellion that
sparked a three-year civil war. Under the pretext of rescuing the
young Jianwen from corrupting officials, Zhu Di personally led forces
in the revolt; the palace in
Nanjing was burned to the ground, along
with Jianwen himself, his wife, mother, and courtiers. Zhu Di assumed
the throne as the
Yongle Emperor (1402–1424); his reign is
universally viewed by scholars as a "second founding" of the Ming
dynasty since he reversed many of his father's policies.
New capital and foreign engagement
Nanjing to a secondary capital and in 1403 announced
the new capital of
China was to be at his power base in Beijing.
Construction of a new city there lasted from 1407 to 1420, employing
hundreds of thousands of workers daily. At the center was the
political node of the Imperial City, and at the center of this was the
Forbidden City, the palatial residence of the emperor and his family.
By 1553, the Outer City was added to the south, which brought the
overall size of
Beijing to 4 by 4½ miles.
Ming Tombs located 50 km (31 mi) north of Beijing; the
site was chosen by Yongle.
Beginning in 1405, the
Yongle Emperor entrusted his favored eunuch
Zheng He (1371–1433) as the admiral for a gigantic new
fleet of ships designated for international tributary missions. The
Chinese had sent diplomatic missions over land since the Han dynasty
(202 BCE – 220 CE) and engaged in private overseas trade, but these
missions were unprecedented in grandeur and scale. To service seven
different tributary voyages, the
Nanjing shipyards constructed two
thousand vessels from 1403 to 1419, including treasure ships measuring
112 m (370 ft) to 134 m (440 ft) in length and
45 m (150 ft) to 54 m (180 ft) in width.
Yongle used woodblock printing to spread Chinese culture. He also used
the military to expand China's borders. This included the brief
occupation of Vietnam, from the initial invasion in 1406 until the
Ming withdrawal in 1427 as a result of protracted guerrilla warfare
led by Lê Lợi, the founder of the Vietnamese Lê dynasty.
Tumu Crisis and the Ming Mongols
Tumu Crisis and Rebellion of Cao Qin
A Bengali envoy presenting a giraffe as a tributary gift in the name
of King Saif Al-Din Hamzah Shah of Bengal (r. 1410–12) to the Yongle
Emperor of Ming
China (r. 1402–24).
The Oirat leader
Esen Tayisi launched an invasion into Ming
July 1449. The chief eunuch Wang Zhen encouraged the Zhengtong Emperor
(r. 1435–49) to lead a force personally to face the
Oirats after a
recent Ming defeat; the emperor left the capital and put his
Zhu Qiyu in charge of affairs as temporary regent. On 8
September, Esen routed Zhengtong's army, and Zhengtong was captured
– an event known as the Tumu Crisis. The
Oirats held the
Zhengtong Emperor for ransom. However, this scheme was foiled once the
emperor's younger brother assumed the throne under the era name
Jingtai (r. 1449–57); the
Oirats were also repelled once the Jingtai
Emperor's confidant and defense minister
Yu Qian (1398–1457) gained
control of the Ming armed forces. Holding the
Zhengtong Emperor in
captivity was a useless bargaining chip for the
Oirats as long as
another sat on his throne, so they released him back into Ming
China. The former emperor was placed under house arrest in the
palace until the coup against the
Jingtai Emperor in 1457 known as the
"Wresting the Gate Incident". The former emperor retook the throne
under the new era name Tianshun (r. 1457–64).
Tianshun proved to be a troubled time and Mongol forces within the
Ming military structure continued to be problematic. On 7 August 1461,
the Chinese general Cao Qin and his Ming troops of Mongol descent
staged a coup against the Tianshun Emperor out of fear of being next
on his purge-list of those who aided him in the Wresting the Gate
Incident. Cao's rebel force managed to set fire to the western and
eastern gates of the Imperial City (doused by rain during the battle)
and killed several leading ministers before his forces were finally
cornered and he was forced to commit suicide.
Yongle Emperor had staged five major offensives north of the
Great Wall against the
Mongols and the Oirats, the constant threat of
Oirat incursions prompted the Ming authorities to fortify the Great
Wall from the late 15th century to the 16th century; nevertheless,
John Fairbank notes that "it proved to be a futile military gesture
but vividly expressed China's siege mentality." Yet the Great Wall
was not meant to be a purely defensive fortification; its towers
functioned rather as a series of lit beacons and signalling stations
to allow rapid warning to friendly units of advancing enemy
Decline and fall of the Ming dynasty
Main article: Fall of the Ming dynasty
Reign of the Wanli Emperor
Wanli Emperor (ruled in 1572–1620) in state ceremonial court
The financial drain of the
Imjin War in Korea against the Japanese was
one of the many problems – fiscal or other – facing Ming China
during the reign of the
Wanli Emperor (1572–1620). In the beginning
of his reign, Wanli surrounded himself with able advisors and made a
conscientious effort to handle state affairs. His Grand Secretary
Zhang Juzheng (1572–82) built up an effective network of alliances
with senior officials. However, there was no one after him skilled
enough to maintain the stability of these alliances; officials
soon banded together in opposing political factions. Over time Wanli
grew tired of court affairs and frequent political quarreling amongst
his ministers, preferring to stay behind the walls of the Forbidden
City and out of his officials' sight. Scholar-officials lost
prominence in administration as eunuchs became intermediaries between
the aloof emperor and his officials; any senior official who wanted to
discuss state matters had to persuade powerful eunuchs with a bribe
simply to have his demands or message relayed to the emperor.
Role of eunuchs
Tianqi-era teacups, from the Nantoyōsō Collection in Japan; the
Tianqi Emperor was heavily influenced and largely controlled by the
Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627).
Hongwu Emperor forbade eunuchs to learn how to read or engage in
politics. Whether or not these restrictions were carried out with
absolute success in his reign, eunuchs during the Yongle Emperor's
reign and afterwards managed huge imperial workshops, commanded
armies, and participated in matters of appointment and promotion of
officials. The eunuchs developed their own bureaucracy that was
organized parallel to but was not subject to the civil service
bureaucracy. Although there were several dictatorial eunuchs
throughout the Ming, such as Wang Zhen, Wang Zhi, and Liu Jin,
excessive tyrannical eunuch power did not become evident until the
1590s when the
Wanli Emperor increased their rights over the civil
bureaucracy and granted them power to collect provincial
Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) dominated the court of the
Tianqi Emperor (r. 1620–1627) and had his political rivals tortured
to death, mostly the vocal critics from the faction of the Donglin
Society. He ordered temples built in his honor throughout the Ming
Empire, and built personal palaces created with funds allocated for
building the previous emperor's tombs. His friends and family gained
important positions without qualifications. Wei also published a
historical work lambasting and belittling his political opponents.
The instability at court came right as natural calamity, pestilence,
rebellion, and foreign invasion came to a peak. The Chongzhen Emperor
(r. 1627–44) had Wei dismissed from court, which led to Wei's
suicide shortly after.
Economic breakdown and natural disasters
Further information: Europeans in Medieval China
Spring morning in a Han palace, by
Qiu Ying (1494–1552); excessive
luxury and decadence marked the late Ming period, spurred by the
enormous state bullion of incoming silver and by private transactions
During the last years of the Wanli era and those of his two
successors, an economic crisis developed that was centered on a sudden
widespread lack of the empire's chief medium of exchange: silver. The
Portuguese first established trade with
China in 1516, trading
Japanese silver for Chinese silk, and after some initial
hostilities gained consent from the Ming court in 1557 to settle Macau
as their permanent trade base in China. Their role in providing
silver was gradually surpassed by the Spanish, while even the
Dutch challenged them for control of this trade. Philip IV of
Spain (reigned 1621–1665) began cracking down on illegal smuggling
of silver from New Spain and Peru across the Pacific through the
Philippines towards China, in favor of shipping American-mined silver
through Spanish ports. In 1639 the new Tokugawa regime of Japan shut
down most of its foreign trade with European powers, cutting off
another source of silver coming into China. These events occurring at
roughly the same time caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver
and made paying taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. People
began hoarding precious silver as there was progressively less of it,
forcing the ratio of the value of copper to silver into a steep
decline. In the 1630s a string of one thousand copper coins equaled an
ounce of silver; by 1640 that sum could fetch half an ounce; and, by
1643 only one-third of an ounce. For peasants this meant economic
disaster, since they paid taxes in silver while conducting local trade
and crop sales in copper.
Famines became common in northern
China in the early 17th century
because of unusually dry and cold weather that shortened the growing
season – effects of a larger ecological event now known as the
Little Ice Age. Famine, alongside tax increases, widespread
military desertions, a declining relief system, and natural disasters
such as flooding and inability of the government to properly manage
irrigation and flood-control projects caused widespread loss of life
and normal civility. The central government, starved of resources,
could do very little to mitigate the effects of these calamities.
Making matters worse, a widespread epidemic spread across
Zhejiang to Henan, killing an unknown but large number of people.
The deadliest earthquake of all time, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556,
occurred during the Jiajing Emperor's reign, killing approximately
Rise of the Manchu
Shanhaiguan along the Great Wall, the gate where the Manchus were
repeatedly repelled before being finally let through by
Wu Sangui in
A Jurchen tribal leader named
Nurhaci (r. 1616–26), starting with
just a small tribe, rapidly gained control over all the Manchurian
tribes. During the Japanese invasions of
Joseon Korea in the 1590s, he
offered to lead his tribes in support of the Ming and
This offer was declined, but he was granted honorific Ming titles for
his gesture. Recognizing the weakness of Ming authority north of their
border, he united all of the adjacent northern tribes and consolidated
power in the region surrounding his homeland as the Jurchen Jin
dynasty had done previously. In 1610, he broke relations with the
Ming court, and in 1618 demanded a tribute from them to redress "Seven
By 1636, Nurhaci's son
Huang Taiji renamed his dynasty from the "Later
Jin" to the "Great Qing" at Mukden, which had fallen to Qing forces in
1621 and was made their capital in 1625.
Huang Taiji also
adopted the Chinese imperial title huangdi, declared the Chongde
("Revering Virtue") era, and changed the ethnic name of his people
from "Jurchen" to "Manchu". In 1638 the Manchu defeated and
conquered Ming China's traditional ally
Joseon with an army of 100,000
troops in the Second Manchu invasion of Korea. Shortly after, the
Koreans renounced their long-held loyalty to the Ming dynasty.
Rebellion, invasion, collapse
Main article: Qing conquest of the Ming
A peasant soldier named
Li Zicheng mutinied with his fellow soldiers
in western Shaanxi in the early 1630s after the Ming government failed
to ship much-needed supplies there. In 1634 he was captured by a
Ming general and released only on the terms that he return to
service. The agreement soon broke down when a local magistrate had
thirty-six of his fellow rebels executed; Li's troops retaliated by
killing the officials and continued to lead a rebellion based in
Henan province by 1635. By the 1640s, an
ex-soldier and rival to Li –
Zhang Xianzhong (1606–47) – had
created a firm rebel base in Chengdu, Sichuan, while Li's center of
power was in
Hubei with extended influence over Shaanxi and Henan.
In 1640, masses of Chinese peasants who were starving, unable to pay
their taxes, and no longer in fear of the frequently defeated Chinese
army, began to form into huge bands of rebels. The Chinese military,
caught between fruitless efforts to defeat the Manchu raiders from the
north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces, essentially fell
apart. Unpaid and unfed, the army was defeated by
Li Zicheng – now
self-styled as the Prince of Shun – and deserted the capital without
much of a fight. On 26 May 1644,
Beijing fell to a rebel army led by
Li Zicheng when the city gates were opened by rebel allies from
within. During the turmoil, the last Ming emperor hanged himself on a
tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City.
Portrait of the
Chongzhen Emperor (r. 1627–1644)
Seizing opportunity, the
Eight Banners crossed the
Great Wall after
the Ming border general
Wu Sangui (1612–1678) opened the gates at
Shanhai Pass. This occurred shortly after he learned about the fate of
the capital and an army of
Li Zicheng marching towards him; weighing
his options of alliance, he decided to side with the Manchus. The
Eight Banners under the Manchu Prince
Dorgon (1612–50) and Wu Sangui
Beijing after the army sent by Li was destroyed at
Shanhaiguan; the Prince of Shun's army fled the capital on the fourth
of June. On 6 June, the Manchus and Wu entered the capital and
proclaimed the young
Shunzhi Emperor ruler of China. After being
forced out of
Xi'an by the Qing, chased along the Han River to
Wuchang, and finally along the northern border of
Jiangxi province, Li
Zicheng died there in the summer of 1645, thus ending the Shun
dynasty. One report says his death was a suicide; another states that
he was beaten to death by peasants after he was caught stealing their
Despite the loss of
Beijing and the death of the emperor, the Ming
were not yet totally destroyed. Nanjing, Fujian, Guangdong, Shanxi,
Yunnan were all strongholds of Ming resistance. However, there
were several pretenders for the Ming throne, and their forces were
divided. These scattered Ming remnants in southern
China after 1644
were collectively designated by 19th-century historians as the
Southern Ming. Each bastion of resistance was individually
defeated by the Qing until 1662, when the last southern Ming Emperor
died, the Yongli Emperor, Zhu Youlang. The last Ming Princes to hold
out were the Prince of Ningjing
Zhu Shugui and the son of Zhu Yihai,
the Prince of Lu Zhu Honghuan (朱弘桓) who stayed with Koxinga's
Ming loyalists in the
Kingdom of Tungning
Kingdom of Tungning (in Taiwan) until 1683. Zhu
Shugui proclaimed that he acted in the name of the deceased Yongli
Emperor. The Qing eventually sent the seventeen Ming princes still
Taiwan back to mainland
China where they spent the rest of
In 1725 the Qing
Yongzheng Emperor bestowed the hereditary title of
Marquis on a descendant of the
Ming dynasty Imperial family, Zhu
Zhilian (朱之璉), who received a salary from the Qing government
and whose duty was to perform rituals at the Ming tombs. The Chinese
Plain White Banner was also inducted in the Eight Banners. Later the
Qianlong Emperor bestowed the title Marquis of Extended Grace
posthumously on Zhu Zhilian in 1750, and the title passed on through
twelve generations of Ming descendants until the end of the Qing
dynasty in 1912. The last Marquis of Extended Grance was Zhu Yuxun
(朱煜勳). In 1912, after the overthrow of the
Qing dynasty in the
Xinhai Revolution, some advocated that a
Han Chinese be installed as
Emperor, either the descendant of Confucius, who was the Duke
Yansheng, or the
Ming dynasty Imperial family
descendant, the Marquis of Extended Grace.
Province, prefecture, subprefecture, county
Ming dynasty in 1409
The Ming emperors took over the provincial administration system of
the Yuan dynasty, and the thirteen Ming provinces are the precursors
of the modern provinces. Throughout the Song dynasty, the largest
political division was the circuit (lu 路). However, after the
Jurchen invasion in 1127, the Song court established four
semi-autonomous regional command systems based on territorial and
military units, with a detached service secretariat that would become
the provincial administrations of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing
dynasties. Copied on the Yuan model, the Ming provincial
bureaucracy contained three commissions: one civil, one military, and
one for surveillance. Below the level of the province (sheng 省) were
prefectures (fu 府) operating under a prefect (zhifu 知府),
followed by subprefectures (zhou 州) under a subprefect. The lowest
unit was the county (xian 縣), overseen by a magistrate. Besides the
provinces, there were also two large areas that belonged to no
province, but were metropolitan areas (jing 亰) attached to Nanjing
Institutions and bureaus
The Forbidden City, the official imperial household of the Ming and
Qing dynasties from 1420 until 1924, when the Republic of China
Puyi from the Inner Court.
Departing from the main central administrative system generally known
Three Departments and Six Ministries system, which was
instituted by various dynasties since late Han (202 BCE – 220 CE),
the Ming administration had only one Department, the Secretariat, that
controlled the Six Ministries. Following the execution of the
Hu Weiyong in 1380, the
Hongwu Emperor abolished the
Secretariat, the Censorate, and the Chief Military Commission and
personally took charge of the Six Ministries and the regional Five
Military Commissions. Thus a whole level of administration was
cut out and only partially rebuilt by subsequent rulers. The Grand
Secretariat, at the beginning a secretarial institution that assisted
the emperor with administrative paperwork, was instituted, but without
employing grand counselors, or chancellors.
Hongwu Emperor sent his heir apparent to Shaanxi in 1391 to "tour
and soothe" (xunfu) the region; in 1421 the Yongle Emperor
commissioned 26 officials to travel the empire and uphold similar
investigatory and patrimonial duties. By 1430 these xunfu assignments
became institutionalized as "grand coordinators". Hence, the Censorate
was reinstalled and first staffed with investigating censors, later
with censors-in-chief. By 1453, the grand coordinators were granted
the title vice censor-in-chief or assistant censor-in-chief and were
allowed direct access to the emperor. As in prior dynasties, the
provincial administrations were monitored by a travelling inspector
from the Censorate. Censors had the power to impeach officials on an
irregular basis, unlike the senior officials who were to do so only in
triennial evaluations of junior officials.
Although decentralization of state power within the provinces occurred
in the early Ming, the trend of central government officials delegated
to the provinces as virtual provincial governors began in the 1420s.
By the late Ming dynasty, there were central government officials
delegated to two or more provinces as supreme commanders and viceroys,
a system which reined in the power and influence of the military by
the civil establishment.
Grand Secretariat and Six Ministries
A portrait of Jiang Shunfu, an official under the Hongzhi Emperor, now
Nanjing Museum. The decoration of two cranes on his chest is a
"rank badge" that indicates he was a civil official of the first rank.
Processional figurines from the
Shanghai tomb of Pan Yongzheng, a Ming
dynasty official who lived during the 16th century
Governmental institutions in
China conformed to a similar pattern for
some two thousand years, but each dynasty installed special offices
and bureaus, reflecting its own particular interests. The Ming
Grand Secretaries to assist the emperor,
handling paperwork under the reign of the
Yongle Emperor and later
appointed as top officials of agencies and Grand Preceptor, a
top-ranking, non-functional civil service post, under the Hongxi
Emperor (ruled 1424–25). The
Grand Secretariat drew its members
Hanlin Academy and were considered part of the imperial
authority, not the ministerial one (hence being at odds with both the
emperor and ministers at times). The Secretariat operated as a
coordinating agency, whereas the Six Ministries—Personnel, Revenue,
Rites, War, Justice, and Public Works—were direct administrative
organs of the state:
Ministry of Personnel was in charge of appointments, merit
ratings, promotions, and demotions of officials, as well as granting
of honorific titles.
The Ministry of Revenue was in charge of gathering census data,
collecting taxes, and handling state revenues, while there were two
offices of currency that were subordinate to it.
Ministry of Rites was in charge of state ceremonies, rituals, and
sacrifices; it also oversaw registers for Buddhist and Daoist
priesthoods and even the reception of envoys from tributary
The Ministry of War was in charge of the appointments, promotions, and
demotions of military officers, the maintenance of military
installations, equipment, and weapons, as well as the courier
The Ministry of Justice was in charge of judicial and penal processes,
but had no supervisory role over the
Censorate or the Grand Court of
The Ministry of Public Works had charge of government construction
projects, hiring of artisans and laborers for temporary service,
manufacturing government equipment, the maintenance of roads and
canals, standardization of weights and measures, and the gathering of
resources from the countryside.
Bureaus and offices for the imperial household
Ming coinage, 14–17th century
The imperial household was staffed almost entirely by eunuchs and
ladies with their own bureaus. Female servants were organized
into the Bureau of Palace Attendance, Bureau of Ceremonies, Bureau of
Apparel, Bureau of Foodstuffs, Bureau of the Bedchamber, Bureau of
Handicrafts, and Office of Staff Surveillance. Starting in the
1420s, eunuchs began taking over these ladies' positions until only
the Bureau of Apparel with its four subsidiary offices remained.
Hongwu had his eunuchs organized into the Directorate of Palace
Attendants, but as eunuch power at court increased, so did their
administrative offices, with eventual twelve directorates, four
offices, and eight bureaus. The dynasty had a vast imperial
household, staffed with thousands of eunuchs, who were headed by the
Directorate of Palace Attendants. The eunuchs were divided into
different directorates in charge of staff surveillance, ceremonial
rites, food, utensils, documents, stables, seals, apparel, and so
on. The offices were in charge of providing fuel, music, paper,
and baths. The bureaus were in charge of weapons, silverwork,
laundering, headgear, bronzework, textile manufacture, wineries, and
gardens. At times, the most influential eunuch in the Directorate
of Ceremonial acted as a de facto dictator over the state.
Although the imperial household was staffed mostly by eunuchs and
palace ladies, there was a civil service office called the Seal
Office, which cooperated with eunuch agencies in maintaining imperial
seals, tallies, and stamps. There were also civil service offices
to oversee the affairs of imperial princes.
Candidates who had taken the civil service examinations would crowd
around the wall where the results were posted; detail from a
handscroll in ink and color on silk, by
Qiu Ying (1494–1552).
The Hongwu emperor from 1373 to 1384 staffed his bureaus with
officials gathered through recommendations only. After that the
scholar-officials who populated the many ranks of bureaucracy were
recruited through a rigorous examination system that was initially
established by the
Sui dynasty (581–618).
Theoretically the system of exams allowed anyone to join the ranks of
imperial officials (although it was frowned upon for merchants to
join); in reality the time and funding needed to support the study in
preparation for the exam generally limited participants to those
already coming from the landholding class. However, the government did
exact provincial quotas while drafting officials. This was an
effort to curb monopolization of power by landholding gentry who came
from the most prosperous regions, where education was the most
advanced. The expansion of the printing industry since Song times
enhanced the spread of knowledge and number of potential exam
candidates throughout the provinces. For young schoolchildren
there were printed multiplication tables and primers for elementary
vocabulary; for adult examination candidates there were mass-produced,
inexpensive volumes of Confucian classics and successful examination
As in earlier periods, the focus of the examination was classical
Confucian texts, while the bulk of test material centered on the
Four Books outlined by
Zhu Xi in the 12th century. Ming era
examinations were perhaps more difficult to pass since the 1487
requirement of completing the "eight-legged essay", a departure from
basing essays off progressing literary trends. The exams
increased in difficulty as the student progressed from the local
level, and appropriate titles were accordingly awarded successful
applicants. Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, each
grade divided into two degrees, with ranging salaries (nominally paid
in piculs of rice) according to their rank. While provincial
graduates who were appointed to office were immediately assigned to
low-ranking posts like the county graduates, those who passed the
palace examination were awarded a jinshi ('presented scholar') degree
and assured a high-level position. In 276 years of Ming rule
and ninety palace examinations, the number of doctoral degrees granted
by passing the palace examinations was 24,874. Ebrey states that
"there were only two to four thousand of these jinshi at any given
time, on the order of one out of 10,000 adult males." This was in
comparison to the 100,000 shengyuan ('government students'), the
lowest tier of graduates, by the 16th century.
The maximum tenure in office was nine years, but every three years
officials were graded on their performance by senior officials.
If they were graded as superior then they were promoted, if graded
adequate then they retained their ranks, and if graded inadequate they
were demoted one rank. In extreme cases, officials would be dismissed
or punished. Only capital officials of grade 4 and above were exempt
from the scrutiny of recorded evaluation, although they were expected
to confess any of their faults. There were over 4,000 school
instructors in county and prefectural schools who were subject to
evaluations every nine years. The Chief Instructor on the prefectural
level was classified as equal to a second-grade county graduate.
The Supervisorate of Imperial Instruction oversaw the education of the
heir apparent to the throne; this office was headed by a Grand
Supervisor of Instruction, who was ranked as first class of grade
Xuande Emperor playing chuiwan with his eunuchs, a game similar to
golf, by an anonymous court painter of the
Xuande period (1425–35).
Scholar-officials who entered civil service through examinations acted
as executive officials to a much larger body of non-ranked personnel
called lesser functionaries. They outnumbered officials by four to
one; Charles Hucker estimates that they were perhaps as many as
100,000 throughout the empire. These lesser functionaries performed
clerical and technical tasks for government agencies. Yet they should
not be confused with lowly lictors, runners, and bearers; lesser
functionaries were given periodic merit evaluations like officials and
after nine years of service might be accepted into a low civil service
rank. The one great advantage of the lesser functionaries over
officials was that officials were periodically rotated and assigned to
different regional posts and had to rely on the good service and
cooperation of the local lesser functionaries.
Eunuchs, princes, and generals
Detail of The Emperor's Approach showing the Wanli Emperor's royal
carriage being pulled by elephants and escorted by cavalry (full
panoramic painting here)
Eunuchs gained unprecedented power over state affairs during the Ming
dynasty. One of the most effective means of control was the secret
service stationed in what was called the
Eastern Depot at the
beginning of the dynasty, later the Western Depot. This secret service
was overseen by the Directorate of Ceremonial, hence this state
organ's often totalitarian affiliation. Eunuchs had ranks that
were equivalent to civil service ranks, only theirs had four grades
instead of nine.
Descendants of the first Ming emperor were made princes and given
(typically nominal) military commands, annual stipends, and large
estates. The title used was "king" (王, wáng) but – unlike the
princes in the Han and Jin dynasties – these estates were not
feudatories, the princes did not serve any administrative function,
and they partook in military affairs only during the reigns of the
first two emperors. The rebellion of the Prince of Yan was
justified in part as upholding the rights of the princes, but once the
Yongle Emperor was enthroned, he continued his nephew's policy of
disarming his brothers and moved their fiefs away from the militarized
northern border. Although princes served no organ of state
administration, the princes, consorts of the imperial princesses, and
ennobled relatives did staff the Imperial Clan Court, which supervised
the imperial genealogy.
Like scholar-officials, military generals were ranked in a hierarchic
grading system and were given merit evaluations every five years (as
opposed to three years for officials). However, military officers
had less prestige than officials. This was due to their hereditary
service (instead of solely merit-based) and Confucian values that
dictated those who chose the profession of violence (wu) over the
cultured pursuits of knowledge (wen). Although seen as less
prestigious, military officers were not excluded from taking civil
service examinations, and after 1478 the military even held their own
examinations to test military skills. In addition to taking over
the established bureaucratic structure from the Yuan period, the Ming
emperors established the new post of the travelling military
inspector. In the early half of the dynasty, men of noble lineage
dominated the higher ranks of military office; this trend was reversed
during the latter half of the dynasty as men from more humble origins
eventually displaced them.
Society and culture
Literature and arts
Ming dynasty painting
Ming dynasty painting and Ming poetry
Lofty Mount Lu, by Shen Zhou, 1467.
Literature, painting, poetry, music, and
Chinese opera of various
types flourished during the Ming dynasty, especially in the
economically prosperous lower Yangzi valley. Although short fiction
had been popular as far back as the
Tang dynasty (618–907), and
the works of contemporaneous authors such as Xu Guangqi, Xu Xiake, and
Song Yingxing were often technical and encyclopedic, the most striking
literary development was the vernacular novel. While the gentry elite
were educated enough to fully comprehend the language of Classical
Chinese, those with rudimentary education – such as women in
educated families, merchants, and shop clerks – became a large
potential audience for literature and performing arts that employed
Vernacular Chinese. Literati scholars edited or developed major
Chinese novels into mature form in this period, such as Water Margin
and Journey to the West. Jin Ping Mei, published in 1610, although
incorporating earlier material, marks the trend toward independent
composition and concern with psychology. In the later years of
Feng Menglong and
Ling Mengchu innovated with vernacular
short fiction. Theater scripts were equally imaginative. The most
famous, The Peony Pavilion, was written by
Tang Xianzu (1550–1616),
with its first performance at the
Pavilion of Prince Teng
Pavilion of Prince Teng in 1598.
Informal essay and travel writing was another highlight. Xu Xiake
(1587–1641), a travel literature author, published his Travel
Diaries in 404,000 written characters, with information on everything
from local geography to mineralogy. The first reference to
the publishing of private newspapers in
Beijing was in 1582; by 1638
Gazette switched from using woodblock print to movable
type printing. The new literary field of the moral guide to
business ethics was developed during the late Ming period, for the
readership of the merchant class.
Poetry of Min Ding, 17th century
In contrast to Xu Xiake, who focused on technical aspects in his
travel literature, the Chinese poet and official Yuan Hongdao
(1568–1610) used travel literature to express his desires for
individualism as well as autonomy from and frustration with Confucian
court politics. Yuan desired to free himself from the ethical
compromises that were inseparable from the career of a
scholar-official. This anti-official sentiment in Yuan's travel
literature and poetry was actually following in the tradition of the
Song dynasty poet and official
Su Shi (1037–1101). Yuan Hongdao
and his two brothers, Yuan Zongdao (1560–1600) and Yuan Zhongdao
(1570–1623), were the founders of the Gong'an School of
letters. This highly individualistic school of poetry and prose
was criticized by the Confucian establishment for its association with
intense sensual lyricism, which was also apparent in Ming vernacular
novels such as the Jin Ping Mei. Yet even gentry and
scholar-officials were affected by the new popular romantic
literature, seeking courtesans as soulmates to reenact the heroic love
stories that arranged marriages often could not provide or
Painting of flowers, a butterfly, and rock sculpture by Chen Hongshou
(1598–1652); small leaf album paintings like this one first became
popular in the Song dynasty.
Famous painters included
Ni Zan and Dong Qichang, as well as the Four
Masters of the Ming dynasty, Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming, and
Qiu Ying. They drew upon the techniques, styles, and complexity in
painting achieved by their Song and Yuan predecessors, but added
techniques and styles. Well-known Ming artists could make a living
simply by painting due to the high prices they demanded for their
artworks and the great demand by the highly cultured community to
collect precious works of art. The artist
Qiu Ying was once paid
2.8 kg (100 oz) of silver to paint a long handscroll for the
eightieth birthday celebration of the mother of a wealthy patron.
Renowned artists often gathered an entourage of followers, some who
were amateurs who painted while pursuing an official career and others
who were full-time painters.
Xuande mark and period (1426–35) imperial blue and
white vase. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The period was also renowned for ceramics and porcelains.The major
production centers for porcelain were the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen
Jiangxi province and
Fujian province. The
factories catered to European tastes by creating Chinese export
porcelain by the 16th century. Individual potters also became known,
such as He Chaozong, who became famous in the early 17th century for
his style of white porcelain sculpture. In The Ceramic Trade in Asia,
Chuimei Ho estimates that about 16% of late Ming era Chinese ceramic
exports were sent to Europe, while the rest were destined for Japan
and South East Asia.
Carved designs in lacquerware and designs glazed onto porcelain wares
displayed intricate scenes similar in complexity to those in painting.
These items could be found in the homes of the wealthy, alongside
embroidered silks and wares in jade, ivory, and cloisonné. The houses
of the rich were also furnished with rosewood furniture and feathery
latticework. The writing materials in a scholar's private study,
including elaborately carved brush holders made of stone or wood, were
designed and arranged ritually to give an aesthetic appeal.
Connoisseurship in the late Ming period centered on these items of
refined artistic taste, which provided work for art dealers and even
underground scammers who themselves made imitations and false
attributions. The Jesuit
Matteo Ricci while staying in Nanjing
wrote that Chinese scam artists were ingenious at making forgeries and
huge profits. However, there were guides to help the wary new
Liu Tong (died 1637) wrote a book printed in 1635 that
told his readers how to spot fake and authentic pieces of art. He
revealed that a
Xuande era (1426–1435) bronzework could be
authenticated by judging its sheen; porcelain wares from the Yongle
era (1402–1424) could be judged authentic by their thickness.
See also: Islam during the Ming dynasty, Jesuit
China missions, and
Chinese Rites Controversy
Chinese glazed stoneware statue of a
Daoist deity, from the Ming
dynasty, 16th century.
The dominant religious beliefs during the
Ming dynasty were the
various forms of
Chinese folk religion
Chinese folk religion and the
Three Teachings –
Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The Yuan-supported Tibetan lamas
fell from favor, and the early Ming emperors particularly favored
Taoism, granting its practitioners many positions in the state's
ritual offices. The
Hongwu Emperor curtailed the cosmopolitan
culture of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and the prolific Prince of Ning
Zhu Quan even composed one encyclopedia attacking
Buddhism as a
foreign "mourning cult", deleterious to the state, and another
encyclopedia that subsequently joined the Taoist canon.
Islam was also well-established throughout China, with a history said
to have begun with
Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas
Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas during the
Tang dynasty and
strong official support during the Yuan. Although the Ming sharply
curtailed this support, there were still several prominent Muslim
figures early on, including the Hongwu Emperor's generals Chang Yuqun,
Lan Yu, Ding Dexing, and Mu Ying, as well as the Yongle Emperor's
powerful eunuch Zheng He.
Manjusri in Blanc-de-Chine, by He Chaozong, 17th century;
Song Yingxing devoted an entire section of his book to the ceramics
industry in the making of porcelain items like this.
The advent of the Ming was initially devastating to Christianity: in
his first year, the
Hongwu Emperor declared the eighty-year-old
Franciscan missions among the Yuan heterodox and illegal. The
centuries-old Nestorian church also disappeared. During the later Ming
a new wave of Christian missionaries arrived – particularly Jesuits
– who employed new western science and technology in their arguments
for conversion. They were educated in
Chinese language and culture at
St. Paul's College on
Macau after its founding in 1579. The most
influential was Matteo Ricci, whose "Map of the Myriad Countries of
the World" upended traditional geography throughout East Asia, and
whose work with the convert
Xu Guangqi led to the first Chinese
Euclid's Elements in 1607. The discovery of a Nestorian
Xi'an in 1625 also permitted Christianity to be treated as an
old and established faith, rather than as a new and dangerous cult.
However, there were strong disagreements about the extent to which
converts could continue to perform rituals to the emperor, Confucius,
or their ancestors: Ricci had been very accommodating and an attempt
by his successors to backtrack from this policy led to the Nanjing
Incident of 1616, which exiled four Jesuits to
Macau and forced the
others out of public life for six years. A series of spectacular
failures by the Chinese astronomers – including missing an eclipse
easily computed by
Xu Guangqi and
Sabatino de Ursis
Sabatino de Ursis – and a return
by the Jesuits to presenting themselves as educated scholars in the
Confucian mold restored their fortunes. However, by the end of
the Ming the Dominicans had begun the
Chinese Rites controversy
Chinese Rites controversy in
Rome that would eventually lead to a full ban of Christianity under
the Qing dynasty.
During his mission, Ricci was also contacted in
Beijing by one of the
Kaifeng Jews and introduced them and their long
China to Europe. However, the 1642 flood caused by
Kaifeng's Ming governor devastated the community, which lost five of
its twelve families, its synagogue, and most of its Torah.
Wang Yangming's Confucianism
Wang Yangming (1472–1529), considered the most influential Confucian
thinker since Zhu Xi
During the Ming dynasty, the Neo-Confucian doctrines of the Song
Zhu Xi were embraced by the court and the Chinese literati at
large, although the direct line of his school was destroyed by the
Yongle Emperor's extermination of the ten degrees of kinship of Fang
Xiaoru in 1402. The Ming scholar most influential upon subsequent
generations, however, was
Wang Yangming (1472–1529), whose teachings
were attacked in his own time for their similarity to Chan
Buddhism. Building upon Zhu Xi's concept of the "extension of
knowledge" (理學 or 格物致知), gaining understanding through
careful and rational investigation of things and events, Wang argued
that universal concepts would appear in the minds of anyone.
Therefore, he claimed that anyone – no matter their pedigree or
education – could become as wise as
Mencius had been
and that their writings were not sources of truth but merely guides
that might have flaws when carefully examined. A peasant with a
great deal of experience and intelligence would then be wiser than an
official who had memorized the Classics but not experienced the real
Ming dynasty print drawing of
Confucius on his way to the Zhou
dynasty capital of Luoyang.
Other scholar-bureaucrats were wary of Wang's heterodoxy, the
increasing number of his disciples while he was still in office, and
his overall socially rebellious message. To curb his influence, he was
often sent out to deal with military affairs and rebellions far away
from the capital. Yet his ideas penetrated mainstream Chinese thought
and spurred new interest in
Taoism and Buddhism. Furthermore,
people began to question the validity of the social hierarchy and the
idea that the scholar should be above the farmer. Wang Yangming's
disciple and salt-mine worker Wang Gen gave lectures to commoners
about pursuing education to improve their lives, while his follower He
Xinyin (何心隱) challenged the elevation and emphasis of the family
in Chinese society. His contemporary Li Zhi even taught that
women were the intellectual equals of men and should be given a better
education; both Li and He eventually died in prison, jailed on charges
of spreading "dangerous ideas". Yet these "dangerous ideas" of
educating women had long been embraced by some mothers and by
courtesans who were as literate and skillful in calligraphy, painting,
and poetry as their male guests.
The liberal views of
Wang Yangming were opposed by the
by the Donglin Academy, re-established in 1604. These conservatives
wanted a revival of orthodox Confucian ethics. Conservatives such as
Gu Xiancheng (1550–1612) argued against Wang's idea of innate moral
knowledge, stating that this was simply a legitimization for
unscrupulous behavior such as greedy pursuits and personal gain. These
two strands of Confucian thought, hardened by Chinese scholars'
notions of obligation towards their mentors, developed into pervasive
factionalism among the ministers of state, who used any opportunity to
impeach members of the other faction from court.
Urban and rural life
Ming dynasty red lacquer box with intricate carving of people in the
countryside, surrounded by a floral border design.
Beijing in Ming Dynasty
Wang Gen was able to give philosophical lectures to many commoners
from different regions because – following the trend already
apparent in the
Song dynasty – communities in Ming society were
becoming less isolated as the distance between market towns was
shrinking. Schools, descent groups, religious associations, and other
local voluntary organizations were increasing in number and allowing
more contact between educated men and local villagers. Jonathan
Spence writes that the distinction between what was town and country
was blurred in Ming China, since suburban areas with farms were
located just outside and in some cases within the walls of a city. Not
only was the blurring of town and country evident, but also of
socioeconomic class in the traditional four occupations (Chinese:
士農工商), since artisans sometimes worked on farms in peak
periods, and farmers often traveled into the city to find work during
times of dearth.
A variety of occupations could be chosen or inherited from a father's
line of work. This would include – but was not limited to –
coffinmakers, ironworkers and blacksmiths, tailors, cooks and
noodle-makers, retail merchants, tavern, teahouse, or winehouse
managers, shoemakers, seal cutters, pawnshop owners, brothel heads,
and merchant bankers engaging in a proto-banking system involving
notes of exchange. Virtually every town had a brothel where
female and male prostitutes could be had. Male catamites fetched
a higher price than female concubines since pederasty with a teenage
boy was seen as a mark of elite status, regardless of sodomy being
repugnant to sexual norms.
Public bathing became much more common
than in earlier periods. Urban shops and retailers sold a variety
of goods such as special paper money to burn at ancestral sacrifices,
specialized luxury goods, headgear, fine cloth, teas, and others.
Smaller communities and townships too poor or scattered to support
shops and artisans obtained their goods from periodic market fairs and
traveling peddlers. A small township also provided a place for simple
schooling, news and gossip, matchmaking, religious festivals,
traveling theater groups, tax collection, and bases of famine relief
Farming villagers in the north spent their days harvesting crops like
wheat and millet, while farmers south of the
Huai River engaged in
intensive rice cultivation and had lakes and ponds where ducks and
fish could be raised. The cultivation of mulberry trees for silkworms
and tea bushes could be found mostly south of the Yangzi River; even
further south sugarcane and citrus were grown as basic crops.
Some people in the mountainous southwest made a living by selling
lumber from hard bamboo. Besides cutting down trees to sell wood, the
poor also made a living by turning wood into charcoal, and by burning
oyster shells to make lime and fired pots, and weaving mats and
baskets. In the north traveling by horse and carriage was most
common, while in the south the myriad of rivers, canals, and lakes
provided cheap and easy water transport. Although the south had the
characteristic of the wealthy landlord and tenant farmers, there were
on average many more owner-cultivators north of the
Huai River due to
harsher climate, living not far above subsistence level.
Science and technology
Further information: History of science and technology in China, List
of Chinese inventions, and List of Chinese discoveries
The puddling process of smelting iron ore to make pig iron and then
wrought iron, with the right illustration displaying men working a
blast furnace, from the
Tiangong Kaiwu encyclopedia, 1637.
Map of the known world by Zheng He:
India at the top,
Ceylon at the
upper right and
East Africa along the bottom. Sailing directions and
distances are marked using zhenlu (針路) or compass route.
Compared to the flourishing of science and technology in the Song
Ming dynasty perhaps saw fewer advancements in science
and technology compared to the pace of discovery in the Western world.
In fact, key advances in Chinese science in the late Ming were spurred
by contact with Europe. In 1626
Johann Adam Schall von Bell
Johann Adam Schall von Bell wrote the
first Chinese treatise on the telescope, the Yuanjingshuo (Far Seeing
Optic Glass); in 1634 the
Chongzhen Emperor acquired the telescope of
Johann Schreck (1576–1630). The heliocentric model of
the solar system was rejected by the Catholic missionaries in China,
Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei's ideas slowly trickled into
China starting with the Polish Jesuit
Michael Boym (1612–59) in
1627, Adam Schall von Bell's treatise in 1640, and finally Joseph
Edkins, Alex Wylie, and John Fryer in the 19th century. Catholic
China would promote Copernican theory at court, yet at the
same time embrace the Ptolemaic system in their writing; it was not
until 1865 that Catholic missionaries in
China sponsored the
heliocentric model as their Protestant peers did. Although Shen
Kuo (1031–95) and
Guo Shoujing (1231–1316) had laid the basis for
trigonometry in China, another important work in Chinese trigonometry
would not be published again until 1607 with the efforts of Xu Guangqi
and Matteo Ricci. Ironically, some inventions which had their
origins in ancient
China were reintroduced to
China from Europe during
the late Ming; for example, the field mill.
Chinese calendar was in need of reform since it inadequately
measured the solar year at 365 ¼ days, giving an error of 10 min and
14 sec a year or roughly a full day every 128 years. Although the
Ming had adopted Guo Shoujing's Shoushi calendar of 1281, which was
just as accurate as the Gregorian Calendar, the Ming Directorate of
Astronomy failed to periodically readjust it; this was perhaps due to
their lack of expertise since their offices had become hereditary in
the Ming and the Statutes of the Ming prohibited private involvement
in astronomy. A sixth-generation descendant of the Hongxi
Emperor, the "Prince"
Zhu Zaiyu (1536–611), submitted a proposal to
fix the calendar in 1595, but the ultra-conservative astronomical
commission rejected it. This was the same
Zhu Zaiyu who
discovered the system of tuning known as equal temperament, a
discovery made simultaneously by
Simon Stevin (1548–1620) in
Europe. In addition to publishing his works on music, he was able
to publish his findings on the calendar in 1597. A year earlier,
the memorial of Xing Yunlu suggesting a calendar improvement was
rejected by the Supervisor of the Astronomical Bureau due to the law
banning private practice of astronomy; Xing would later serve with Xu
Guangqi in reforming the calendar (Chinese: 崇禎暦書) in 1629
according to Western standards.
A 24-point compass chart employed by
Zheng He during his explorations.
When the Ming founder Hongwu came upon the mechanical devices housed
in the Yuan dynasty's palace at
Khanbaliq – such as fountains with
balls dancing on their jets, self-operating tiger automata,
dragon-headed devices that spouted mists of perfume, and mechanical
clocks in the tradition of
Yi Xing (683–727) and Su Song
(1020–101) – he associated all of them with the decadence of
Mongol rule and had them destroyed. This was described in full
length by the Divisional Director of the Ministry of Works, Xiao Xun,
who also carefully preserved details on the architecture and layout of
Yuan dynasty palace. Later, European Jesuits such as Matteo
Nicolas Trigault would briefly mention indigenous Chinese
clockworks that featured drive wheels. However, both Ricci and
Trigault were quick to point out that 16th-century European clockworks
were far more advanced than the common time keeping devices in China,
which they listed as water clocks, incense clocks, and "other
instruments ... with wheels rotated by sand as if by water"
(Chinese: 沙漏). Chinese records – namely the Yuan Shi –
describe the 'five-wheeled sand clock', a mechanism pioneered by Zhan
Xiyuan (fl. 1360–80) which featured the scoop wheel of Su Song's
earlier astronomical clock and a stationary dial face over which a
pointer circulated, similar to European models of the time. This
sand-driven wheel clock was improved upon by Zhou Shuxue (fl.
1530–58) who added a fourth large gear wheel, changed gear ratios,
and widened the orifice for collecting sand grains since he criticized
the earlier model for clogging up too often.
Matteo Ricci by Yu Wenhui, Latinized as Emmanuel Pereira,
dated the year of Ricci's death, 1610
The Chinese were intrigued with European technology, but so were
visiting Europeans of Chinese technology. In 1584, Abraham Ortelius
(1527–1598) featured in his atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum the
peculiar Chinese innovation of mounting masts and sails onto
carriages, just like Chinese ships. Gonzales de Mendoza also
mentioned this a year later – noting even the designs of them on
Chinese silken robes – while
Gerardus Mercator (1512–94) featured
them in his atlas,
John Milton (1608–74) in one of his famous poems,
Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest
Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest (1739–801) in the
writings of his travel diary in China. The encyclopedist Song
Yingxing (1587–1666) documented a wide array of technologies,
metallurgic and industrial processes in his Tiangong Kaiwu
encyclopedia of 1637. This includes mechanical and hydraulic powered
devices for agriculture and irrigation, nautical technology such
as vessel types and snorkeling gear for pearl divers,
the annual processes of sericulture and weaving with the loom,
metallurgic processes such as the crucible technique and
quenching, manufacturing processes such as for roasting iron
pyrite in converting sulphide to oxide in sulfur used in gunpowder
compositions – illustrating how ore was piled up with coal
briquettes in an earthen furnace with a still-head that sent over
sulfur as vapor that would solidify and crystallize – and the
use of gunpowder weapons such as a naval mine ignited by use of a
rip-cord and steel flint wheel.
A cannon from the Huolongjing, compiled by
Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen
before the latter's death in 1375.
Focusing on agriculture in his Nongzheng Quanshu, the agronomist Xu
Guangqi (1562–1633) took an interest in irrigation, fertilizers,
famine relief, economic and textile crops, and empirical observation
of the elements that gave insight into early understandings of
There were many advances and new designs in gunpowder weapons during
the beginning of the dynasty, but by the mid to late Ming the Chinese
began to frequently employ European-style artillery and firearms.
The Huolongjing, compiled by
Jiao Yu and
Liu Bowen sometime before the
latter's death on 16 May 1375 (with a preface added by Jiao in
1412), featured many types of cutting-edge gunpowder weaponry for
the time. This includes hollow, gunpowder-filled exploding
cannonballs, land mines that used a complex trigger mechanism of
falling weights, pins, and a steel wheellock to ignite the train of
fuses, naval mines, fin-mounted winged rockets for
aerodynamic control, multistage rockets propelled by booster
rockets before igniting a swarm of smaller rockets issuing forth from
the end of the missile (shaped like a dragon's head), and hand
cannons that had up to ten barrels.
Li Shizhen (1518–93) – one of the most renowned pharmacologists
and physicians in Chinese history – belonged to the late Ming
Bencao Gangmu is a medical text with 1,892 entries, each
entry with its own name called a gang. The mu in the title refers to
the synonyms of each name. Inoculation, although it can be traced
to earlier Chinese folk medicine, was detailed in Chinese texts by the
sixteenth century. Throughout the Ming dynasty, around fifty texts
were published on the treatment of smallpox. In regards to oral
hygiene, the ancient Egyptians had a primitive toothbrush of a twig
frayed at the end, but the Chinese were the first to invent the modern
bristle toothbrush in 1498, although it used stiff pig hair.
Appreciating Plums, by
Chen Hongshou (1598–1652) showing a lady
holding an oval fan while enjoying the beauty of the plum.
Sinologist historians debate the population figures for each era in
the Ming dynasty. The historian
Timothy Brook notes that the Ming
government census figures are dubious since fiscal obligations
prompted many families to underreport the number of people in their
households and many county officials to underreport the number of
households in their jurisdiction. Children were often
underreported, especially female children, as shown by skewed
population statistics throughout the Ming. Even adult women were
underreported; for example, the Daming Prefecture in North Zhili
reported a population of 378,167 males and 226,982 females in
1502. The government attempted to revise the census figures using
estimates of the expected average number of people in each household,
but this did not solve the widespread problem of tax
registration. Some part of the gender imbalance may be attributed
to the practice of female infanticide. The practice is well documented
in China, going back over two thousand years, and it was described as
"rampant" and "practiced by almost every family" by contemporary
authors. However, the dramatically skewed sex ratios, which many
counties reported exceeding 2:1 by 1586, cannot likely be explained by
Xuande Emperor (r. 1425–35); he stated in 1428 that his populace
was dwindling due to palace construction and military adventures. But
the population was rising under him, a fact noted by Zhou Chen –
governor of South Zhili – in his 1432 report to the throne about
widespread itinerant commerce.
The number of people counted in the census of 1381 was 59,873,305;
however, this number dropped significantly when the government found
that some 3 million people were missing from the tax census of
1391. Even though underreporting figures was made a capital crime
in 1381, the need for survival pushed many to abandon the tax
registration and wander from their region, where Hongwu had attempted
to impose rigid immobility on the populace. The government tried to
mitigate this by creating their own conservative estimate of
60,545,812 people in 1393. In his Studies on the Population of
China, Ho Ping-ti suggests revising the 1393 census to 65 million
people, noting that large areas of North
China and frontier areas were
not counted in that census. Brook states that the population
figures gathered in the official censuses after 1393 ranged between 51
and 62 million, while the population was in fact increasing. Even
Hongzhi Emperor (r. 1487–505) remarked that the daily increase
in subjects coincided with the daily dwindling amount of registered
civilians and soldiers. William Atwell states that around 1400
the population of
China was perhaps 90 million people, citing Heijdra
Historians are now turning to local gazetteers of Ming
China for clues
that would show consistent growth in population. Using the
gazetteers, Brook estimates that the overall population under the
Chenghua Emperor (r. 1464–1487) was roughly 75 million, despite
mid-Ming census figures hovering around 62 million. While
prefectures across the empire in the mid-Ming period were reporting
either a drop in or stagnant population size, local gazetteers
reported massive amounts of incoming vagrant workers with not enough
good cultivated land for them to till, so that many would become
drifters, conmen, or wood-cutters that contributed to
deforestation. The Hongzhi and Zhengde emperors lessened the
penalties against those who had fled their home region, while the
Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521–67) finally had officials register migrants
wherever they had moved or fled in order to bring in more
Even with the Jiajing reforms to document migrant workers and
merchants, by the late Ming era the government census still did not
accurately reflect the enormous growth in population. Gazetteers
across the empire noted this and made their own estimations of the
overall population in the Ming, some guessing that it had doubled,
tripled, or even grown fivefold since 1368. Fairbank estimates
that the population was perhaps 160 million in the late Ming
dynasty, while Brook estimates 175 million, and Ebrey states
perhaps as large as 200 million. However, a great epidemic that
China through the northwest in 1641 ravaged the densely
populated areas along the Grand Canal; a gazetteer in northern
Zhejiang noted more than half the population fell ill that year and
that 90% of the local populace in one area was dead by 1642.
List of emperors of the Ming dynasty
Ming emperors family tree
Economy of the Ming dynasty
Taxation in premodern China
Ye Chunji (for further information on rural economics in the Ming)
Kaifeng flood of 1642
Ming official headwear
List of tributaries of Imperial China
Manchuria under Ming rule
Kingdom of Tungning
Military conquests of the Ming dynasty
Qing conquest of the Ming
^ Primary capital after 1403; secondary capital after 1421.
^ Secondary capital until 1421; primary capital afterwards.
^ The capitals-in-exile of the
Southern Ming were
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^ For the lower population estimate, see (Fairbank & Goldman
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^ a b Gascoigne (2003), p. 150.
^ Ebrey (1999), pp. 190–191.
^ Gascoigne (2003), p. 151.
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response to the state. Volume 13 of Routledge studies –
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ISBN 0-415-28372-8. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
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settlement and sects. Richmond: Curzon Press. p. 34.
ISBN 0-7007-1026-4. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
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Council. People's Republic of
China (2002). Testimony of History.
China Intercontinental Press. p. 73.
^ Wang & Nyima (1997), pp. 39–41.
^ Mingshi-Geography I «明史•地理一»:
Geography III «明史•地理三»:
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^ Wang & Nyima (1997), pp. 1–40.
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^ Robinson (2000), p. 527.
^ Atwell (2002), p. 84.
^ Ebrey, Walthall & Palais (2006), p. 272.
^ a b Ebrey (1999), p. 194.
^ Fairbank & Goldman (2006), p. 137.
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^ Robinson (1999), p. 83.
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^ Hucker (1958), p. 11.
^ Spence (1999), pp. 17–18.
^ Brook (1998), p. 124.
^ Spence (1999), pp. 19–20.
^ Wills (1998), pp. 343–349.
^ a b c Spence (1999), p. 20.
^ Brook (1998), p. 205.
^ Brook (1998), pp. 206, 208.
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^ Brook (1998), p. 208.
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^ a b c Spence (1999), p. 21.
^ Spence (1999), pp. 22–24.
^ Tsunami among world's worst disasters. BBC News. 30 December 2004.
^ Spence (1999), p. 27.
^ Spence (1999), pp. 24, 28.
^ a b Chang (2007), p. 92.
^ a b Spence (1999), p. 31.
^ Spence (1999), pp. 21–22.
^ a b Spence (1999), p. 22.
^ Spence (1999), p. 25.
^ Spence (1999), pp. 32–33.
^ Spence (1999), p. 33.
^ Dennerline, Jerry P. (1985). "The Southern Ming, 1644–1662. By
Lynn A. Struve". The Journal of Asian Studies. 44 (4): 824–25.
^ John Robert Shepherd (1993). Statecraft and Political Economy on the
Taiwan Frontier, 1600-1800. Stanford University Press.
pp. 469–70. ISBN 978-0-8047-2066-3.
^ Manthorpe 2008, p. 108.
^ Eiko Woodhouse (2 August 2004). The Chinese Hsinhai Revolution: G.
E. Morrison and Anglo-Japanese Relations, 1897-1920. Routledge.
pp. 113–. ISBN 978-1-134-35242-5.
^ Jonathan D. Spence (28 October 1982). The Gate of Heavenly Peace:
The Chinese and Their Revolution. Penguin Publishing Group.
pp. 84–. ISBN 978-1-101-17372-5.
^ Shêng Hu; Danian Liu (1983). The 1911 Revolution: A Retrospective
After 70 Years. New World Press. p. 55.
^ The National Review, China. 1913. p. 200.
^ Monumenta Serica. H. Vetch. 1967. p. 67.
^ Percy Horace Braund Kent (1912). The Passing of the Manchus. E.
Arnold. pp. 382–.
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Guide to China's Capital Through the Ages. Hong Kong University Press.
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^ a b Hucker (1958), p. 28.
^ Chang (2007), p. 15, footnote 42.
^ a b Chang (2007), p. 16.
^ a b Hucker (1958), p. 16.
^ Hucker (1958), p. 23.
^ Hucker (1958), pp. 29–30.
^ Hucker (1958), p. 30.
^ Hucker (1958), pp. 31–32.
^ Hucker (1958), p. 32.
^ Hucker (1958), p. 33.
^ Hucker (1958), pp. 33–35.
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^ a b Hucker (1958), p. 36.
^ a b c d Hucker (1958), p. 24.
^ a b c d Hucker (1958), p. 25.
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^ Hucker (1958), pp. 25–26.
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^ Ebrey (1999), p. 200.
^ a b Hucker (1958), p. 12.
^ Ebrey, Walthall & Palais (2006), p. 96.
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^ a b Hucker (1958), p. 14.
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^ Hucker (1958), p. 18.
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^ Ebrey (1999), pp. 202–203.
^ Andrew H. Plaks, Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel. (Princeton, New
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Plaks counts Romance of the Three Kingdoms,
Water Margin (or, Men of
the Marshes), Journey to the West, and Golden Lotus (or Plum in a
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^ Brook (1998), p. 230.
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^ a b c Spence (1999), p. 13.
^ a b Spence (1999), pp. 12–13.
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in History. University of Chicago Press. p. 110.
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practice ... in all, some fifty texts on the treatment of
smallpox are known to have been published in
China during the Ming
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^ a b Brook (1998), p. 267.
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