In the latter fourteenth century when Chu Yuan-chang (1328-1398) declared himself emperor of China, the Ming dynasty was born. It spanned almost three centuries and proved to be one of the most successful governments in China's history.
Chu Yuan-chang was born on October 21, 1328 in Hao-chou China, in the province of Anhui, about 100 miles northwest of Naking near China's east coast. At 16 he was orphaned and followed the path often taken by the sons of peasant families, he became a Buddhist monk. Chu began his monastic life at the Huang-chueh monastery near Feng-yang. To avoid starvation during his subsequent wanderings, he frequently begged for food in the area surrounding Ho-fei. This was an area where little or no authority existed, providing a certain safety for Chu and others in the same predicament.
Northern and central China was experiencing a difficult time, suffering from extended periods of drought and famine. Rebellions led by bandits had begun as early as 1325. By 1352, times had not improved. At the age of 24, Chu left the monastery and joined a band of rebels led by Kuo Tzu-hsing (Guo Zixing). Upon Kuo's death in 1355, Chu became their leader. His group stole from the wealthy and distributed their ill-gotten gains among the common people.
Conquoring the Yuan Dynasty
During the period from 1271 to 1368, China was ruled by the Mongol dynasty. In 1271, Kublai Khan swept down from northern China and, after numerous struggles, finally defeated the Sung dynasty in 1279. Kahn had taken the Chinese name Yuan and thus the Yuan dynasty was born. The Mongols discriminated against the Chinese and Khan stationed Mongol troops throughout the country to prevent rebellion. Kahn was succeeded by nine rulers who were more Chinese than Mongol. Gradually they lost influence over other Mongol lands as well as within China itself. The situation was ripe for takeover. In 1356 with the leadership in the Yuan dynasty flagging, Chu and his band of rebels took over Nanjing (Nanking).
Chu was considered to be a brilliant military leader and in 1356 he took Nanking. By 1364 he had conquered the provinces of Hupeh, Hunan, Kiam and proclaimed himself Prince of Wu. By 1368 Chu had consolidated control of the Yangtze Valley, seized the Yuan capital of Khanbligh (Beijing) and proclaimed himself emperor. He first established the Ming dynasty at the city of Nanjing (Nanking) where Chu took the reigning name of Hongwu (HungWu).
Leading an army of 250,000 men, he drove the Yuan emperor Shun Di along with the Mongol leaders out of Beijing. He pursued the armies of the Yuan dynasty into Mongolia and won a final victory in 1388 at the Battle of Puir Nor. He took over 70,000 Mongol prisoners and destroyed Karakorum, the seat of the Mongol empire.
The Ming Dynasty
Once the Mongol leaders were driven from China, Chu began to centralize power in his own hands, establishing despotic rule. He killed any of his own generals if he suspected them of plotting against him and he eliminated rival rebel leaders in order to solidify his rule. Chu ensured his power base by introducing reform throughout his government including military, educational and administrative areas. Administrative control was delegated to the ministers of six boards—each being responsible directly to him. He established schools and extended his rule as far as southern Manchuria. Chu gained power as a feudal lord over Korea and Annam. He eliminated the office of prime minister and issued new legal codes. Chu directed farmers to grow cotton. As a result, the spinning and weaving of cotton became the single most important subsidiary occupation of the peasants.
With the continued growth of the Ming dynasty came improved administrative systems and public works and the development of foreign trade. Social divisions had little meaning when applied to scholars, farmers, artists and merchants. Social division did, however, exist between the learned and the uneducated masses.
The Ming dynasty was known as a time of prosperity. Population growth increased from an early estimate of 60 million to nearly 150 million. One of the most widely recognized contributions was its manufacture of high quality, easily recognizable porcelain. It is believed that the Dutch delftware was inspired by the traditional blue-and-white Ming porcelain.
Strong Organizational Skills
As brilliant a military leader as he proved to be, Chu also excelled in organizational skills. His administrators painstakingly documented the size of each small farm, large estate and everything in between. These lists were used to enforce proper taxation. He set up collective units within population sections. Each unit was charged with providing a variety of services. Tasks were rotated. Their functions included secretarial work, penal activities, and delivering supplies throughout the empire. In many ways, Chu's reign represented a collection of small communities rather than one large nation.
Chu's military was self supporting and primarily a defensive unit. The military hierarchy had less prestige than the civilian bureaucracy and frequently found itself at odds with civil officials. The bureaucracy of the early Ming dynasty was self-governing with more than 20,000 positions at various levels of authority. The bureaucracy policed itself and managed its own personnel.
A Legacy of Peace
In retrospect, the legacy of Chu's reign was one of peace and prosperity. The age of great military conquests in this area had passed and the European nations had yet to make their way across either land or sea. Trade flourished. The arts, medicine and political structure reached their peak.
Chu was known by many names—his reigning name Hangwo (HungWu), his born name, Chu Yuan-chang or Zhu-Yuanzhang, his temple name, T'ai Tsu and his posthumous name, Kao-ti. Although his name may not be familiar to many, contributions of the Ming dynasty will not be forgotten. Chu died on June 24, 1398.
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