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The Ming Dynasty

Ming dynasty of China (1368 – 1644)
Ming Hung-wu
Yuan Dynasty
Zhu Yuan-zhang
rectification of names
Imperial Secretariat
Li-Chia system
Ming Yong-le
Seven Great Voyages of Zheng-He
Emperor Cheng-t’ung
The Water Margin
Wang Yang-Ming

The Ming dynasty of China (1368 – 1644) defined itself in reaction to the preceding Mongol Yuen Dynasty. In the beginning, as Ming Hung-wu, the first Ming emperor, consolidated his power, his essential conservatism played a valuable role by helping him take a clear position as anti-Mongol and pro-Chinese in the midst of a backlash against the former Mongol rulers. By 1644, however, the conservatism of the Ming had made government unresponsive to the changing needs of society, and its fall was largely due to that fact.

The background to the creation of the Ming Dynasty is essential to understand. Since 1279, the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty) had ruled China. They had used the Chinese system of government, and had connected themselves to Confucianism through the scholarly class that served them, as it served other dynasties. However, they were not interested in ruling China for China’s sake, but rather, to enrich themselves. They depopulated northern China, forcing huge numbers of people to move off of farms to make way for sprawling estates of the Yuan elite. These farms were then let go, since the Mongols did not want to farm, but simply to possess wide tracts of land over which they could ride and hunt. The reservoirs for water were let go, fences were broken down or not mended, and millions were sent packing. The lack of food production in the north also led to a shortage of food throughout China. Mongol trade practices pressured Chinese producers of rice, wheat, porcelain, silks, and other fine items to produce and sell for below cost of production, thus creating huge financial losses for the makers of the goods the Mongols traded. The Chinese economy was falling apart.

By 1328, when Ming Hung-wu (named Zhu Yuan-zhang by his parents) was born, the situation was so dire that, as second son, he was compelled to leave the family farm and become an itinerant Buddhist Monk to beg for food on the side of the road. By 1348, he had organized a group of other commoners into a band of rebels (or better, perhaps "bandits"). By 1359, this rag-tag group had taken Nanking from the Mongols. By 1368, they had taken Peking, and Ming Hung-wu proclaimed the Ming Dynasty. He was only the second commoner ever to become emperor.

Once he became emperor, he was determined to be certain that his regime did not fail, and that it was accepted by the Chinese as fully legitimate in its authority. In short, the Ming regime was created as a reactionary, conservative court, with as few connections to the Yuan system of doing things as possible. Upon proclaiming the regime, Ming Hung-wu immediately set about rebuilding China’s infrastructure and economy. He gave tax incentives to anyone who would move their family north China and begin putting land back under the plough. Between 1371 and 1379, this resulted in the reclamation of 8.8 million hectares of land. To support these new farmers, he repaired 40,987 water reservoirs. He also caused nearly 1 billion trees to be planted around China – 500 million of them in the area of the capitol, Nanking, alone.

In order to pay for these new programs, and other expenses such as rebuilding the great wall to make certain the Mongols stayed out, the Ming increased grain taxes from 12 million shih to 33 million shih (roughly 22 million hundredweight of rice) in 1393. This nearly tripled the tax revenue of the government. The Ming government had decided that, rather than base their economy on trade, as the Mongols had, they would return the economy to its agricultural roots. Ming Hung-Wu taxed that agriculture as the basis of government income, thus grounding both the economy and the government in the land of China. Hung-Wu did this in part because he was familiar with agriculture – being the son of a farming family. His unfamiliarity with trade led to chronic under-taxation of the merchant class, as taxation methods in that area of the economy remained undeveloped. This led to a consistent loss of revenue for the government.

The concentration on agriculture was not only reactionary toward the policies of the Mongols; it was also popular and effective among Chinese. It helped to alleviate the hunger problem that had caused the rebellion against the Mongols. It also emphasized that Chinese were in possession of the land and the culture. Ming Hung-wu also put his faith in a Confucian philosophy of government, though he kept the old scholar-official class out of his government as much as possible because he saw them as traitors to China, having served the Yuan as they might a Chinese emperor. He did re-institute the examination system for official posts, and seems to have been a follower of Confucian morality himself. He was also keen to prevent corruption within his government.

The Ming government structure, set up by the first emperor, reflected the government structure of successful Chinese empires of the past. This is reminiscent of a Confucian idea known as the "rectification of names." This idea is that since everyone has a place in society, problems occur only because one or more people have gotten out of place, and are not doing what they should be doing. Thus, names should be rectified – people need to rediscover their true roles in society, and return to performing those duties. Therefore the Ming return to older government structures indicates a Confucian and conservative mindset.

The only exception to this was the fact that Ming Hung-wu was a busybody. He could not feel comfortable delegating responsibility, and so he was the hardest working man in China – regular 16 hour days were not uncommon. His interest in governing, and in personally commanding his armies, was unusual for emperors in Chinese history, and the older style political structures thus did not allow for an emperor who wanted to micro-manage the country. In order to be able to get the information, and hold all the reigns of power, directly, Hung-wu eliminated the Grand Secretariat, an office which had served as a sort of cabinet, but whose meetings were so stiff and formal that they served more as a barrier between emperor and government than as a conductor of information and orders. Hung-wu replaced the Grand Secretariat with a new body – the Imperial Secretariat, which functioned much as an American president’s cabinet does today, with the actual ministers of various departments reporting to, and taking instructions from, the emperor himself in regular working sessions. This, again, shows Ming Hung-wu’s conservatism and reaction to the Yuan regime. He was unwilling even for a moment to let others whom he did not trust hold the reigns of power. This was not just megalomania – though some of it surely was. He was also concerned with the Mandate of Heaven, and making sure that his government served the people of China well. Rooting out corruption (and punishing it severely), and making certain that he had absolute control of everything that was done was a way of insuring that his rule would be stable and acceptable by preventing change from the middle or lower ranks.

Later Ming government acts were also strikingly conservative in nature. They created a census system so that the government could begin to predict revenues and create budgets for the future. The system was so inaccurate, however, that while the actual population of the country increased from 70 million people to 130 million people by 1644, the Ming governments believed they had actually seen a population decline. This of course meant that, expecting steadily fewer people to be paying taxes, but, as governments will, seeing the need for ever greater expenditures, the Ming continued to increase taxes on those families that remained on the tax rolls. This, of course, encouraged corruption in that those who could, through bribery, or trickery, get their names and lands removed from the tax rolls did so. Those who could not saw themselves paying so much that many went bankrupt.

Other taxation problems made this worse, as well. The continued refusal of Ming officials to learn enough about trade (even though it was booming by the 1550’s) to be able to effectively tax it meant that a large sector of the economy was getting rich without sharing its wealth with the government and with China as a whole. This, of course, led to bitter controversy and even revolts as farmers, who saw themselves as morally much better than merchants, used protests and violence to call for a rectification of names, and a more fair economy and taxation system.

The Ming instituted a sort of collective responsibility system, known as the Li-Chia system, in which 10 families were all responsible for each others’ taxes. If one family couldn’t pay, the others would make up the difference. They also made sure that all families in the group paid. Since the wealthier members of the Li-chia groups were also the only ones who could do accounting, or reliably communicate with the government, Li-chia leadership often went to them by default, and their power and wealth grew as they manipulated their place in the system.

Thus, again, taxation policies based solely on agriculture were so conservative as to fail to take account of a significant and growing portion of the economy, thus causing social unrest. They also favored the rich in what is commonly identified world wide as a class supporting itself.

The census errors had further effects that can be seen as essentially conservative reactions due to misunderstanding of the social situation. First, since the population was seen to been declining, the emperors saw no need to increase the number of civil servants or local magistrates, who represented the emperor at the county level. This meant that there were never enough civil servants to handle the growing population, and the problem steadily got worse. By the 1600’s, the government officials had to rely increasingly on the help of local scholars and gentry, who had their own local goals in mind. Thus, because it was unaware of the population problem, the government did not react to it, and remained small.

The first Ming emperor also made a lasting impression by trying to freeze the Ming economy in place in 1368. To do this, he froze the status and occupation of all Chinese. This meant that soldiers at the great wall, and farmers in north China were required to continue with their current profession, and hand it to their children, for the foreseeable future. Their salaries, posts, and living conditions were not to change.

The economy did change, however, and those who were frozen were quickly left behind. By the mid-15th century, it was often more profitable for soldiers and farmers to abandon their lives and join roving bands of bandits who wandered the country looking for food and plunder. Not only did this mean that the army was badly understaffed, especially at the Great Wall, but also that the Ming had to deal with internal problems of justice at a far higher than normal level throughout the Dynasty’s existence.

In 1401, after the death of Hung-wu and a short power struggle, Ming Yong-le became emperor. His reign is probably the high point of the Ming Dynasty. While Hung-wu consolidated rule, and created legitimacy by rebuilding the economy and returning to so-called "Chinese" ways, Yong-le expanded both the borders and the prestige of China.

By 1404, Yong-le’s armies had occupied Manchuria and Annam (Vietnam). By 1410, he had defeated the Mongols of Ulan Bator and driven them back farther than ever. By 1407, he had begun one of China’s greatest international adventures – the Seven Great Voyages of Zheng-He (Cheng-Ho).

Zheng-He was an admiral, a Muslim, and a Eunuch absolutely loyal to the Yong-le Emperor. He was charged with building a fleet of ships to be used to bring Chinese prestige and power to the wider world. He succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. The ships built (in the first decade of the 1400’s) were all huge – some more than 400 feet in length, and 50 feet abeam. They all came equipped with watertight doors, magnetic compass, a primitive sextant known as an astrolabe, quartered maps, and fruit trees to prevent scurvy. Each expedition had a number of ships – some as many as 65. Each voyage carried with it officers, diplomats, crew, and an army contingent, all of which totaled at least 20,000 men. By 1433, when the last voyage came back to anchor, they had sailed through open ocean as far as Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and the southern tip of Africa – a place the Europeans would not reach until 1488. By 1433, however, the emperor’s scholars, and resurgent Mongols in the north, had convinced him that it was neither economical, nor moral, to continue these voyages, and he ended them.

This episode shows how conservative even the most adventurous of the Ming emperors was. Yong-le undertook the voyages not to conquer new lands for China, or even as trade ventures. That would have been immoral under Confucian rules that see trade as far beneath an emperor’s dignity. The voyages had been for the purpose of showing the world the power and technology of a resurgent Chinese (not Mongol) empire. Their goal was to meet with foreign kings, and get them to acknowledge the Chinese emperor as superior to them, and as the source of their power and moral authority. No fealty to China was expected – simply tribute in the form of an acknowledgment, and a gift. The gifts that foreign rulers gave had to be returned with more lavish gifts from the emperor of China so that he could avoid the appearance of trading. This meant that each voyage was, in fact, a money-losing venture. The emperor’s advisors also suggested it looked like the emperor was engaging in trade, too, and that might bring down the wrath of heaven. So the voyages were stopped for conservative reasons – the emperor decided to spend his money and energy at home, to bolster the government, and defend the empire, rather than be adventurous and conquer new territories.

Resurgent Mongol raids took up most of the Ming attentions from 1449, when Emperor Cheng-t’ung was taken captive by Mongols. He ruled from exile until he was released in 1457. During this time, all the way up to 1520, the Ming were on the defensive, and had no time or money – or wiggle room – to consider changing government systems, redressing land and tax problems, or fixing corruption. In terms of government organization and operations, things remained very much as Hung-wu had set them up in the late 14th century.

But society was undergoing change. New prosperity in business was creating new business systems, and new needs, including paper money, nation-wide merchant guilds, and sophisticated banking techniques. The wealth of unfairly taxed merchants was causing unbalances in society, where poor farmers were the losers. Those who defaulted on loans became renters who paid rent in crops produced to wealthy landowners who lived in the city, far away. Others sold the rights to the land below the topsoil, meaning that they were essentially renters, as they had to rent the land below their land, but also owners, so had to pay government taxes on their produce. These inequities in wealth and social class demanded a government response, but none was forthcoming from a Dynasty that saw understanding business – and taxing it – as below its dignity.

This kind of controversy led to the production of new kinds of art, literature, and cultural criticism that became some of the most important thought in Chinese history. Famous novels, including the tales of Monkey and The Water Margin were collections of stories about people marginalized by an increasingly rigid society in which one could easily find oneself unable to play by the rules. Wang Yang-Ming, a Confucian philosopher, began to explore the idea of knowledge as innate. This idea fundamentally leveled a society whose major social divisions were created by an examination – if knowledge and goodness came through contemplation, and not study, then sincerity, rather than memory, was the best measure of who could serve the government. Needless to say, Wang Yang-Ming was unpopular among scholars and officials.

The final fall of the Ming thus came less because of external pressure from the Manchus, who would take over in 1644, as from the inability of a conservative government to change to suit radical changes in Chinese society. This was a society whose very attempt to go back to Chinese roots failed to take into account major changes in China’s economy, international relations, and social structure. That failure led to a failure to change, and thus a failure to take care of all of the Chinese people. The Ming thus, in Chinese eyes, lost the Mandate of Heaven in 1644. In that year, the last Ming emperor hanged himself as groups of bandits and Manchus were approaching Pe