Hung-wu (1328-1398) was the founder of the Ming dynasty of China. He provided the basis for much of China's subsequent development and expansion.
Born into a poor peasant family in modern Anhwei Province, Chu Yüan-chang, as Hung-wu was originally named, had no schooling and was orphaned at the age of 16. He entered a monastery for subsistence, became a mendicant monk in the Huai River valley, and participated in the popular uprisings organized by the White Lotus—Maitreya secret societies against the Mongol rule.
Rise to Power
In April 1352 Chu joined the local leader Kuo Tzuhsing and soon gained his confidence. By marrying Kuo's foster daughter, Chu succeeded to the command after Kuo's death in 1355 and set out to contest power with his rivals. Chu differed from other rebels in restraining his men from killing and plunder and in his effort to recruit educated people to his service.
After some initial success Chu led his forces across the Yangtze, capturing Nanking (1356) and defeating his leading opponent, Ch'en Yu-liang (1363); he proclaimed himself the prince of Wu in 1364. He continued campaigning to eliminate his adversaries, first Chang Shihch'eng, then Fang Kuo-chen in 1364-1367, while his general captured Peking in 1368. On Jan. 23, 1368, Chu, not yet 40, ascended the throne of Ming (Brilliance), adopted the reign title Hung-wu (Grand Military Achievement), and made his capital in Nanking.
Emperor of China
Hung-wu directed his lieutenants to complete the unification of China. In 1368-1369 his general Hsü Ta campaigned against the Mongols in Shansi and Shensi. Szechwan was captured in 1371, and Ming forces moved into Manchuria. Yünnan became a Chinese province in 1381. Ming forces went as far as Karakorum and Hami (in Dzungaria). In the east, Korea and Japan both acknowledged Chinese suzerainty, while traditional vassals in Southeast Asia such as Annam and Champa also submitted.
On the other hand, Hung-wu devoted himself to restructuring the political and military institutions by synthesizing the traditional system with Mongol precedent. The Emperor took personal supervision over the six ministries: personnel, revenue, rites, war, justice, and works. The branch central secretariat, which once exercised overall power in a province, was changed to a system of administrative commissioners. The central military commission created in 1361 was fragmented into five military commissions in 1380. National defense fell on "military families," who alternated between military duties and cultivating their fields for subsistence. The system of civil service was revived, and traditional institutions such as the Censorate, Hanlin Academy, and the National University were restored. In 1382 the Emperor organized a secret service known as the "Embroidered-uniform Guard" with unlimited police and judicial authority over every individual in the state.
In social and economic spheres the Emperor devised various measures for control over the population and the inflow of revenue. Foremost of these was a scheme of population registration known as the li-chia system. Every 10 households formed a chia with one man as chief; 10 chia made a li, which, together with 10 chia chiefs, made a total of 110 households headed by a li leader. This served as a basis for labor services as well as a security check.
In addition the Emperor revived the Yüan system of population classification, under which people were grouped under three heads, military, civil, and crafts, and were forbidden to shift from one class to another. The Emperor was known for his benevolent treatment of the peasants. He established a special agricultural bureau to assist farmers and reduced or suspended their tax payment in times of distress. However, he treated the rich differently. The head of a wealthy family was usually chosen as "tax captain" for the collection and delivery of the allotted quota of revenue to the government. For effective collection of taxes, population and land registers were compiled and kept up to date.
Assessment of His Reign
Hung-wu's reign, despite its achievement, was marred by excessive violence against officials and scholars whom the Emperor regarded as dangerous to his throne. The terror was a product of the Emperor's uneasiness over the arrogance of the intellectuals who secretly despised his humble origin. While it was common for officials to suffer harsh treatment, the Emperor inaugurated three successive purges against his former comrades which took a heavy toll of lives.
The most notorious was the case of Hu Wei-yung, the prime minister who was executed on the charge of sedition in 1380. The second and third purges, in 1385 and 1393, were designed to eliminate military officials whom the Emperor considered too powerful to be acquiesced to. Altogether, several tens of thousands of innocent people were put to death on trumped-up charges.
Hung-wu died in June 1398 and received the posthumous temple name T'ai-tzu (Grand Progenitor). Hungwu was a controversial figure in history. Condemned as a ruthless dictator and cruel tyrant for the notorious means to achieve his ends, he was also praised as a vigorous ruler for founding a new dynasty out of ruins and for laying the foundation of the Chinese systems and achievements of the subsequent centuries. Hung-wu was quick to learn from his tutors and became quite conversant with the literary tradition. About 20 titles of works attributed to his authorship are still extant today.
Further Reading on Hung-wu
There is no book-length biography of Hung-wu in English, although several substantial contributions have lately appeared in Sinological journals. A brief but out-of-date biographical notice is included in H. A. Giles, A Chinese Biographical Dictionary (1898). A succinct résumé of Hung-wu's rise to power is in F. W. Mote, The Poet Kao Ch'i, 1336-1374 (1962). For details on the government institutions founded by Hungwu see Charles O. Hucker, The Traditional Chinese State in Ming Times, 1368-1644 (1961) and Chinese Government in Ming Times (1969). Recommended for background are C. P. Fitzgerald, China: A Short Cultural History (1935); L. Carrington Goodrich, A Short History of the Chinese People (1943); and Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, East Asia: The Great Tradition (1958).