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Useful Notes / Ming Dynasty

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Ming Dynasty under the reign of the Yongle Emperor

The Ming Dynasty (明朝, Míng Cháo, 1368–1644) was the second-to-last Chinese dynasty and the last to be ruled by the Han Chinese. This was also a dynasty generally considered to be more authoritarian, which had far-reaching effects and greatly influenced China's last dynasty, the Qing.

The Yuan Empire came apart at the seams in the early fourteenth century as regional autonomy and separatism rendered the central government at Dadu (later 'Beijing') increasingly cash-strapped and powerless. Despite several campaigns and measures to reverse this, including forming numerous coalitions with warlords still semi-loyal to the Yuan to take down non-loyal warlords, the area controlled by the central government (little more than the area around Dadu and Mongolia proper) was too weak and the warlords too selfish and fickle for the House of Genghis Khan to do anything but inexorably lose control over the country. This process started with the southernmost warlords along the Pearl River (Guangxi, Guangdong), whose geographical isolation (and therefore protection) led to them being the first to declare the restoration of the Song Empire/independence. For all intents and purposes, the Yuan Empire ceased to exist and split into at least nine different countries.

The mid-Yangtze was one of the most hotly-contested regions in all of China, as it was relatively populous and thus wealthy, and one of the hardest to hold because it was vulnerable to attacks from the lower and upper Yangtze, and from the north China plain. The kingdoms which had originally held these lands basically tore themselves apart through the strain of fighting, allowing several highly unorthodox figures to rise to the top of society. Among these was Zhu Yuanzhang, a brilliant commander and Self-Made Man from present-day Anhui Province who soon became a warlord in his own right. Through good strategic choices, including the forging of two key alliances (most notably the warlord Zhang Shicheng of Fujian and the lower Yangtze), and an excellent understanding of the operational and tactical levels of warfare, Zhu eventually conquered the entire Yangtze despite starting from virtually nothing and both his major allies (based in the upper and lower-Yangtze, respectively) turning on him once they'd divided up the entire Yangtze between the three of them. After he secured the entire Yangtze, Zhu spent several years building up his powerbase before declaring the foundation of the Ming Dynasty and crowning himself the Hongwu (洪武, 'eminently martial') Emperor. He then conquered the entire north China plain and after that the Pearl River region.

Zhu Yuanzhang was many things: born in a family of impoverished tenant farmers, he would emerge as one of China's foremost warlords. With brutal cunning, he managed to get the upper hand over his rivals, seized the throne, and with increasing age, became more and more paranoid and murderous. That's at least Rags to Royalty and Despotism Justifies the Means rolled into one. Zhu Yuanzhang was also significant in Chinese political history for abolishing the post of Grand Chancellor (丞相, Chéngxiàng; or 宰相, Zǎixiàng), a post which has existed in the Chinese imperial system in various forms ever since the Qin era.note  Zhu Yuanzhang actually wanted to abolish this post for some time in order to centralize all political power onto him & his heirs. But to do this, he needed to orchestrate a plan. By Obfuscating Stupidity, the Hongwu Emperor allowed his chancellor Hu Weiyong to be as greedy and corrupt as the latter wanted while he mustered evidence and witnesses behind the scenes. When the time came, Zhu Yuanzhang had Hu and his accomplices arrested and executed, resulting in one of the largest government purges in Chinese history, with a death toll reaching tens of thousands. To further ensure his power remain unchallenged, the Hongwu Emperor also instituted quite possibly the first Secret Police in a modern sense. These men were known as the Jinyiwei (锦衣卫), or Embroidered Uniform Guard, who answered only to the Emperor. Furthermore, they were granted almost full autonomy in conducting arrests, torture & punishment. These men would act against those deemed enemies of the state with little regard to the law and often overruled judicial proceedings.

Another far-reaching act by the Hongwu Emperor was to implement ting zhang (廷杖; literally "court rod") as a system. Ting zhang were beatings sanctioned by the emperor against officials, using barbed vines or bamboo rods. Pre-Ming, ting zhang was used sparingly by emperors. During the Ming era, the ting zhang system would claim numerous lives as various emperors sanctioned beatings against dissident officials, or sometimes because the emperors were irritated with particular officials note . This helped to expand imperial power; when lives are threatened, many officials chose to keep their misgivings about the emperor's deeds to themselves.

The death of Emperor Hongwu in 1398 led to a Succession Crisis that erupted into a civil war. Originally, the heir was to be Zhu Yuanzhang's eldest son, Zhu Biao, but the latter passed away at the age of 36. Instead of selecting one of his many other sons to become the next heir, Zhu Yuanzhang opted for Zhu Biao's son, Zhu Yunwen and future Jianwen Emperor. This did not go well with Zhu Yuanzhang's other sons, particularly his fourth son, Zhu Di, who was at that time an accomplished veteran of many battles. Emperor Jianwen had always been suspicious of his uncles, but in particular, Zhu Di. Thus the moment he held power, the Jianwen Emperor initiated a series of acts to repress his uncles, including numerous arrests, exiles, and even death in some cases. The plan was to isolate Zhu Di and prevent him from forming alliances with other Ming Princes. In midst of this chaos, Zhu Di pretended to be insane, and managed to buy enough time to muster his army, weapons & funding. Although initially outnumbered, Zhu Di nonetheless embarked on a campaign against the Jianwen Emperor, which lasted three years. At the end, Zhu Di, the future Yongle Emperor emerged victorious, and the Jianwen Emperor was nowhere to be found. With Zhu Yunwen's line broken, the future of the Ming Dynasty was therefore, in the hands of Zhu Di and his heirs.

Emperor Yongle further expanded Ming's territories, and moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. He also sent the eunuch admiral Zheng He, a Yunnanese Muslim descended from Sèmù (色目) servants of the Yuan Dynasty, starting from 1405, to explore the western seas as far as Sultanate of Zanzibar in modern-day Tanzania. Emperor Yongle did so with a fleet larger than all the world's navies of the time combined, ostensibly to search for the missing Emperor Jianwen, but more so to legitimize his rule and cement Chinese dominance in the world. These series of voyages continued well into his grandson, Emperor Xuande's reign. Nonetheless, the voyages were a huge money sink, and returned very little. Spices grew domestically or just a thousand kilometers to the south, furs were brought in overland from Siberia, and both cheap and high-quality/luxury manufactured goods were all produced domestically. The impoverished and geographically disadvantaged Europeans, on the other hand, had to traverse many [tens of] thousands of kilometers of open ocean to buy all of these things. For the Chinese, reaching out to the foreign market became unnecessary, because they were already coming to China to buy enormous quantities of Chinese goods. Thus, the amount of cultural posturing or diplomacy to distant lands at the time became redundant as it would not change the fundamental nature of Chinese trade with the outside world. Without a trading partner with notable wealth or a worthy adversary to justify maintaining the world's then largest and only blue-water navy, the voyages eventually ended and the fleets disbanded. To put this into a numerical perspective, the Ming fleet at its height hosted an array of some 3,000 blue-water vessels, this in comparison to the Spanish Armada of 1588, which at its height numbered not even 10% of the Ming fleet's total strength.

The Ming reached the height of its power & influence from the reign of the Yongle Emperor to his grandson, the Xuande Emperor. It was their successive reigns that defined the Ming as a ginormous Space-Filling Empire, which ruled over about a third of the entire world's population and was ridiculously rich and cultured by the standards of the day. The Ming was also notably aggressive, and more often than not resorted to the use of arms over diplomacy. These days, they are certainly most famous for the porcelain which they exported in such prodigious amounts (see Priceless Ming Vase) and for building most of the current Great Wall.

Domestically, the Ming were known for a fair bit more than all that, of course. Economically, the stability of their rule and lightness of their taxes allowed a lot of Smithian/pre-modern commercialisation and growth, which taken together with the tripling of the population (c. 80 to c. 250 million) gave the Ming more than twice the wealth of the Song (peak Song population was c. 120 million).note  Politically, they were more famous for retaining the anti-aristocratic policies of the Yuan and the Civil Service system (including examinations) of the Song, which ensured that a centralised state (with only minimal recourse for nobles and aristocrats) in which the monarchy and its civil service played the most important roles would be around to stay. They also oversaw a huge flowering of culture, which was helped in large part by their unprecedented wealth and the expansion in literacy (with up to 10% of men and 1% of women — yes, women — being literate) and printing (to the point that there were literally books and pamphlets on every subject*, something that had never happened before). Prose was still not really regarded as a 'proper' artistic field in the Ming, but some pretty awesome novels were produced, including 3 of 4 novels commonly regarded as the best in imperial Chinese canon: Water Margin, Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Yongle Encyclopedia, finished in 1408, would remain the most extensive encyclopedia ever compiled for just shy of 600 years, before finally being surpassed in 2007 by the current record-holder, Wikipedia. This period's dressing may remind people of Korea's due to Joseon Korea's inspiration by the Ming.

Behind the dazzling cities and powerful economy, however, the Ming were (as mentioned in the opening) authoritarian. The slightest hint of dissent would be crushed ruthlessly. Speech and expression were curbed to ensure they did not affront Imperial sensitivities, and the population at large were encouraged to maintain a standard of conformity or risk a visit from the Jinyiwei. Even Imperial Examinations were not free from censure, as attendees had to be meticulous with their answers to appease Imperial authorities or face severe punishments.

The Ming were contacted by the Portuguese and the Castilians when they first established trade posts across the East Indies in the 16th century, and later the Dutch when they seceded from the Habsburg Duchy of Burgundy (the modern-day Low Countries) and seized many Portuguese overseas possessions. Having run up a huge balance-of-trade deficit when buying Chinese luxury goods with hard currency, the Portuguese assented to a political union with Castile in 1580 so they could have tax-free access to Castilian silver imports (shipped over from modern-day Colombia and Mexico in what was then Castilian America). European ceramics- and clothes-making techniques were relatively crude because the region was so underpopulated and poor (much like northern China, Europe as a whole was too dry and cold for rice cultivation), meaning that Chinese goods were of incomparably higher quality than anything the region could produce domestically. Even Indian producers could not compete with Chinese ones at the higher end of the market, and so much silver flowed into China that late Ming suffered from severe inflationary pressure. The influx of silver from the Americas more than doubled the amount of silver in Europe in the 16th century and more than quadrupled it in the 17th, and silver coins minted in Castilian America became a de facto standard currency of the Ming Empire (as in Europe). From the Portuguese outposts also came a new wave of Christian missionaries to China, especially the Jesuits, who laid the foundation of modern Christianity in China and would contribute significantly to the court life of the later Qing Empire.

The war to defend Korea against Japan (late 16th century; during the reign of the Wanli Emperor) involved large land and sea battles and sieges on a scale which exceeded that of the greatest (Ottoman-Habsburg wars, Thirty Years' War) in contemporary Europe, chewing through huge numbers of recruits and resulting in critical shortages of trained archers and suitable bow-wood. However, it should be noted, the Korean campaign was only one out of numerous military campaigns engaged by the Ming at the time, and while this campaign was a major undertaking by both Koreans and Japanese, it was not the most pressing by Ming standards. The rebellions in Guizhou (Yang Yinglong's rebellion), the conflict in the Ordos Desert, and keeping the Jurchens in check were all the more critical than an incursion in the Korean peninsula. Accordingly, in midst of numerous military conflicts, the Ming resorted to manufacturing and issuing firearms, which were still more expensive than bows but required far less training (weeks versus years), to arm many of their troops. The naval battles and sieges also encouraged the manufacture and use of large artillery pieces. The Ming also employed the Jesuits to buy up all the very latest European gunsmith manuals and bring select Ming gunsmiths up to speed on the latest, most efficient weapons designs (as tested on Europe's myriad battlefields) and test-firing procedures, which the Ming gunsmiths would otherwise have had to figure out for themselves. Given that by the 1620s gunpowder weapons were more than twice as expensive in the Ming than they were in western Europe (due to high long-term demand for them in war-torn western Europe, which eventually pushed per-unit prices down), design trial-and-error was a pretty expensive proposition. There were also no wars in which they could determine the battlefield-efficiency of such indigenous prototypes either.

Towards the end of the dynasty, the flourishing of culture was not mirrored politically. The later Ming Emperors were known to exhibit certain 'peculiar characteristics', including an Immortality Seeker, a scrooge, a sex addict, an overaged Chuunibyou who styled himself as an all-conquering general, an infatuated carpenter (whose works actually contributed to the income of the Imperial household), and many other obsessions that added to the 'uniqueness' of this dynasty. In the 276 years of Ming's lifespan, the Emperors were absent from actual duty for over a century. This led to a power-vacuum in the imperial court where ambitious politicians & eunuchs were all too happy to exploit. Court corruption, natural disasters, the huge numbers of princes on the payrollnote  and costly military campaigns such as continuous wars in the North and the Intervention in Korea would strain imperial coffers. To top it all off, there was another wave of silver contraction, when King Philip IV began enforcing laws limiting direct trade between Spanish South America and China at about the same time the (then-new) Tokugawa shogunate in Japan restricted most of its foreign exports, cutting off Dutch and Portuguese access to its silver. The dramatic spike in silver's value in China made payment of taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. Ironically, it was not the Manchus who first brought an end to the dynasty: a peasant rebellion led by Li Zicheng marched into Beijing; during those tumultuous and tragic events, the last official Ming emperor (the Chongzhen Emperor) would be Driven to Suicide. Elsewhere, such as in Sichuan, warlords and other peasant leaders would take power, among them Zhang Xianzhong.

The last remnants (supposedly) loyal to the Ming dynasty, led by Zheng Chenggong (鄭成功, or if you must, Success Zheng), a some-time pirate also known as Koxinga to Westerners (from his Chinese title "Guoxingye" (国姓爷), "Lord of the Imperial Surname"), established a de facto independent state on the island of Taiwan in 1661 after driving out the Dutch who had established an outpost there. This state, called the Kingdom of Tungning (東寧王國/东宁王国), lasted until 1683, when the Qing troops under Admiral Shi Lang, who had formerly served under Zheng but defected to the Manchus, conquered the island.

The Ming is the first Chinese Empire we have anything more than very basic documentation for, with about 10,000 government documents remaining from the period—not enough for a detailed picture of government activity, but enough for a reasonably accurate outline. The minor cultural stuff (plays, songs, opera, etc.) wasn't so lucky and a lot was destroyed during the PRC's Cultural Revolution, leading to an ongoing hunt through overseas archives and collections for surviving copies.

Of the "24 Histories", "History of Ming" (明史, Míngshǐ) covers this era. Of note was that the only female general to be recorded in the "24 Histories" came from this period: Qin Liangyu (1574 — 1648).

Depictions in fiction