For almost two hundred and eighty years (1368 to 1644) China was ruled by the Ming Dynasty. It arose from the rebellion against Mongolian foreign rule and replaced the Yuan Dynasty. It was a time of economic and cultural prosperity.
Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the dynasty, was a man of the people. After the successful battle of a rebel group called ‘Red Turbans’, he seized power as their leader. He began his reign under the name ‘Hongwu’ – ‘comprehensive warfare’. Since the administration of the Mongol Empire, which Kublai Khan had so skilfully built up, had collapsed in neglect over the years, he had nothing to fall back on. He restructured the empire.
Hongwu focused on the economic reconstruction of the empire. Moreover, despite his warlike name, he recognized that he needed not only soldiers but also administrators. But this did not mean that he gave up control. Instead, he enacted hard laws. They were brutally enforced. Officials who opposed them were sentenced to death. Important posts were also filled with members of the imperial family and old leadership structures were destroyed. Hongwu became an absolutist ruler.
From Nanjing to Beijing
In the early fifteenth century, the Mongols became more active again at the border. Emperor Yongle, the second son of Hongwu, then moved the capital from Nanjing, near the border, to Beijing. For additional protection, he had a large wall built around the city and began building the Forbidden City. The Great Wall of China was also improved and repaired under his rule. The Mongols advanced nevertheless. The attackers, however, were divided and had not reunited to the old power. In 1449 they besieged Beijing, but were repulsed and driven back. The Ming Dynasty thus proved to be very stable not only economically, but also militarily.
Economy and trade
This stability led to enormous growth and international trade. Especially in the sixteenth century, trade relations with foreign countries were consolidated. The conservative trade laws were relaxed. A brisk trade with neighboring countries as well as with Spain, Belgium and Portgal developed. Large quantities of silver thus ended up in China. Portugal even had a trading post on Macao from 1557. This wealth naturally also led to an increase in trade criminality, especially piracy. However, the more the Ming invested in their fleet, the more this problem disappeared.
After Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492, completely new products were brought to China from there. Potatoes, corn and tobacco had been unknown until then. It was the food in particular that made it even easier to supply the population, so that it grew rapidly. The more the urban zones grew as a result, the freer the women of the richer classes became in contrast to earlier times. They built up their own businesses and were able to live independently. Culturally, too, China became stronger and stronger. The wealth offered space for art and culture.
Like every great empire in history, the Ming dynasty suffered from a hunger for power. Intrigue and corruption became a growing problem over the years. The clear structures that had made the empire great offered much power to a few. Officers made their soldiers work as their servants, powerful families fought each other, provincial administrators squeezed the people at their mercy. All this led to growing unrest, protests and rebellion.
When Emperor Wanli took office in 1572, when he was less than ten years old, power was in the hands of Zhang Juzheng. Under his leadership the empire seemed to stabilize and experienced a late bloom. Juzheng took action against corruption and instability. Once again, culture and art grew and social justice began to emerge. In 1582, however, Juzheng died and the 18-year-old Wanli took over the government. From that time on, the empire disintegrated more and more. Severe crises and wars shook the declining dynasty. This difficult time opened the gap between rich and poor again and the unrest among the people turned into rebellion.
Emperor Wanli died in 1620. His son, who succeeded him, was seriously ill and died only a month later. Emperor Tianqi reigned for a few years and could not stop the decline. After his death at the tender age of twenty-two, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, took office.
Death of the last emperor
During the Chongzhen era, a former soldier, Li Zicheng, rose up in the popular rebellion. Many Ming troops defected to him, making him a powerful warlord. In 1644 he took Beijing. Emperor Chongzhen hanged himself. However, Li Zicheng did not succeed in building stability and the Jurchens or Manchurians, who in the meantime had been united by Nurhaci to a strong people, took the opportunity. They in turn took Beijing and thus laid the foundation for the Qing Dynasty.