The early years of Ming rule are characterized by an overt attempt to reassert Chinese rule in China. After defeating the Mongols in A.D. 1368, Ming rulers set about securing the borders of China to insure that no foreign invasion would bring alien rule to the Middle Kingdom again. Once the country had been reunited under Chinese rule, the Ming emperors sent emissaries to all Border States, demanding that they recognize the Chinese emperor as the Son of Heaven. The Chinese ambassadors and accomplished this by having emissaries collected tribute from Japan, Korea, Annam (Vietnam), Champa (south Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Burma and Tibet.
The Ming empire was founded by Zhu Yuan Zhang, a Chinese commoner who took advantage of the chaos of late Yuan rule to unite China, By A.D. 1367, Zhu had taken control of the Yangzi River basin, making a capital at Nanjing. One year later he led a huge peasant army across the Yellow River and captured Dadu. He proclaimed himself Emperor Hong Wu (“vast military power”) and called his dynasty the Ming (“brilliant”). His rule brought stability back to the common Chinese by rebuilding the infrastructure of the country. Imperial work forces rebuilt bridges, canals, roads, temples, shrines, and the walls of 500 cities. Hong Wu reinstituted the Civil-Service Exam again making it available to all literate Chinese.
Starting with Hong Wu Ming emperors took a much more active role in Chinese government, overseeing and administering the civil service directly. This new style probably developed because Hong Wu was a suspicious person, always, afraid that high ranking officials doubted him or were plotting against him. He made his decisions in secret, consulting only a few trusted eunuch advisors, and allowed no discussion of his decisions, ( Eunuchs were men who had their testicles cut off and were employed by the emperor because they could not father children, which insured they would not plot to set their sons up in the government) To maintain more direct control over his officials, Hong Wu abolished the Imperial Secretariat, which traditionally had functioned like the American cabinet and assumed their duties. He created a secret police of eunuchs loyal to him, whose findings led to the execution of thousands of people.
The lasting symbol of the Ming’s despotic rule is the palace complex, called the Forbidden City, located in Peking (today called Beijing). The magnificent new capital city- which took the labor of many thousands to build- was erected just north of the ruins of the Mongol capital of Dadu. At the center of Peking were the 40-foot-high walls of the imperial city, each 5 miles in length behind the City’s walls the highest-ranking civil servants lived in their beautiful homes, famous for their gently sloping tile roofs, built with the slightly curved eaves associated with Chinese architectural developments of antiquity? In the center of the Imperial City stand the high red walls of the emperor’s palace, The Forbidden City. Surrounded by a moat 2 miles in circumference, the Forbidden City is a magnificent complex of palaces, great halls, courtyards, gardens, moats, and beautifully arched bridges. Only the emperor his family and trusted officials and eunuchs were allowed inside the red walls.
The renewed vigor of traditional Chinese society during the Ming era resulted in a rebirth of adherence to a Confucian philosophy. Many Chinese combined beliefs in all three systems traditionally popular in China: Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. For instance emperor, Emperor Hong Wu had been a novice Buddhist monk before he led his peasant army against the Mongols, yet he presided over many Confucian services as China’s emperor.
The Ming Dynasty sponsored extensive overseas exploration at the beginning of their rule. The period of distant overseas exploration was begun by Emperor Young Le (reined A.D. 1403-1424) which means perpetual happiness.” Young Le commissioned a Muslim eunuch named Zheng He to lead a fleet of 63 junks on a trip west across the Indian Ocean. The fleet made seven journeys between A.D. 1405 and 1433. No one knows what the ultimate goal of Zheng He’s sea journeys were, but he did force 50 different heads of state to enroll on the list of states paying tribute to the emperor. When they refused to cooperate, the leaders of Sri Lanka and Sumatra were captured and forcibly brought to Young Le in the Imperial City. Another accomplishment of these journeys was a pilgrimage by four Chinese sailors to Mecca during the fifth voyage. During the seventh ostriches, zebras, and a giraffe, animals never before seen in China. Zheng He’s ships weighed 1500 tons or three times the weight of European ships of the time. Navigation by magnetic compass, an Chinese instrument then unknown in Europe, allowed the Chinese ships to know their location whether they were in sight of land or not.
For unknown reasons, the overseas explorations ceased in A.D. 1433, marking the beginning of China’s imperially mandated isolation from the rest of the world. At first, the effect of isolation on commoners was minimal, since most peasants were mostly concerned with only getting their crops to market. But the Ming emperors disallowed foreign trade, and this eventually reduced the market for Chinese goods dramatically. Less demand for Chinese products meant that peasants and workers who produced imported goods, like surplus agricultural products, or art objects, such as silk and porcelain, lost income. The deleterious effects of isolation were compounded when Ming emperors began wasting money on lavish court life. Huge feasts for 6000 guests, giant hunting parties, and expensive renovations to the Forbidden City drained the royal treasury. To raise funds to cover the expenses of this opulent lifestyle, Ming emperors raised taxes on the commoners. Forced with this heavy burden, and unable to capitalize on foreign markets, peasants became indebted to the government. Many were forced to sell their lands to ruthless large landlords, who indentured them as laborers. Eventually this trend led to peasant uprisings and civil wars, which weakened border security and opened China to invasion. The last Ming emperor hung himself on Prospect Hill, overlooking the Forbidden City, in A.D. 1644 as Beijing burned and the Manchu’s another northern people bent on invasion massed on the northern border.