Between 1368 and 1644, 16 emperors of the Ming dynasty ruled for a total of 276 years. They built the largest man-made structure on the planet and suffered the worst recorded earthquake ever. Founded by a peasant and overthrown by one as well, we give you the rise, rule and fall of one of China’s golden dynasties, the Ming dynasty.
1. A peasant Buddhist monk founded the Ming dynasty
Before the Ming dynasty, the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty ruled China. However, an anti-Mongol attitude prevailed in the country, which gave rise to the Red Turban Rebellion. It was held in 1351 against the Yuan. The first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was a poor Buddhist monk then; however, he became the movement leader. Orphaned at 16, Zhu begged for a living before joining the Buddhist monastery. As a result of the rebellion between the Yuans and Buddhists, “Red Turbans,” Zhu joined the rebel group. Very quickly, he acquired higher positions and even married one of the commander’s daughters.
As the Yuan dynasty came to a decline, the rebel groups struggled. Zhu’s 200,000 sailors defeated his enemy, Chen Youliang’s 650,000 men, in 1363. It is the most massive naval battle in terms of the number of fighters involved and is called the Battle of Lake Poyang. Zhu sent his army to Dadu (present-day Beijing), the Yuan capital, in 1368. This caused the last Yuan emperor to flee and the Ming dynasty thus took over. The name Zhu gave to his dynasty, Ming, means “bright.”
2. Beijing, the “Forbidden City”
The Yongle emperor, Hongwu’s son, supervised the capital change from Nanjing to a new city in Beijing. This happened in the early 15th century and the town stood around 550 miles to the northwest. The new Ming capital was next to the old Dadu, the Yuan dynasty’s capital, an older dynasty. Dadu was built in early 1264 by Kubai Khan. A 15 miles long and 40 feet high wall surrounded the Ming dynasty’s new capital. It was an administrative hub filled with offices for government officials. The centre of the capital had a palace with almost 10,000 rooms; however, entry was permitted only with the emperor’s permission. “Zijin Cheng,” or “Purple Forbidden City,” was the name given to Beijing during the Ming dynasty. This was not just a reference to the colourful walls found here but also its night sky that showed a purplish constellation with the North Star in the centre. The emperor’s palace was built facing north and the city was called “Forbidden” as the ordinary public wasn’t allowed to visit it.
3. Emperor Yongle was the greatest Ming ruler
Emperor Hongwu made Zhu Yunwen, his grandson, his successor after his death in 1398. Yunwen was known as the Jianwen Emperor. Out of all of Hongwu’s sons, Zhu Di was most potent. He plotted a rebellion against his nephew, which lead to a civil war that lasted three years. Hongwu, during his reign, reduced the power given to eunuchs in his court as he found them destructive. However, Zhu Di used them as part of his coup while burning the Nanjing palace along with the Jianwen Emperor. After Jianwen Emperor, Zhu Di took over in 1402 and was called the Yongle Emperor. He made Beijing the new capital moving Nanjing to the second position. The monumental Yongle Encyclopedia was also made during his reign.
4. The Ming dynasty created one of the Seven Wonders of the World
You must know of the Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This largest man-made structure in the world, lasting 4500 miles, was made during the Ming dynasty. Its oldest parts date back to the 7th century B.C. The rulers built it to keep enemies from the north away. Although between 204 and 201 B.C., hundreds of thousands of workers worked on the Wall, the dynasty received new threats in the 1500s. Due to this, the Ming rulers began an 80 year of refurbishing of the Wall with granite, limestone, sticky rice and clay bricks. This version stretched from the Bohai Sea in the east to the Jiayu Pass in the west.
5. The longest-serving emperor sparked the decline of an era
The 13th ruler of the Ming dynasty was Zhu Yijun, known as the Wanli Emperor. He seemed like an able king initially; however, he began to have no control of the political quarrels in the court. Thus, he resided behind the four walls of the Forbidden City. For sending a simple message, officials had to bribe eunuchs. During his reign, eunuchs grew very powerful as Zhu Yijun increased their rights and granted them the right to provincial taxes. This brought instability to the court. Although Wanli ruled for the most prolonged period, a whopping 48 years, his rule marked the Ming dynasty’s decline.
6. The Ming dynasty went from paper currency to coins unlike other kingdoms
Most regions began with using coins made of metals and then moved to paper currency. However, China introduced paper money first during the Tang and Song dynasties. By the middle of the Ming era, coins replaced paper currency as Spain and Japan imported silver.
7. The era grew and died because of silver
There was a massive growth in trade in China by the 16th century. This lead to the availability of silver from Spain and Japan. The Ming dynasty initially used coins and paper as currency. However, soon, they used silver as the primary means of exchange. A trade dispute took place in Hiroshima in 1639 and conflict with Spain cut off the supply of silver to China. Due to its shortage, silver spiked in price. The most affected by the crisis was the peasants who paid their taxes with silver. Along with this came a natural calamity, rebellion, foreign invasion and court instabilities, which led to the decline of the Ming dynasty.
8. The Ming dynasty faced the world’s worst-ever recorded earthquake
On an infamous morning on 23 January 1556, a massive earthquake hit Shaanxi’s 840 kilometers province in Northwest China. It affected over 96 countries too. The death toll came around 830,000 and to date, it is the deadliest recorded earthquake in history and the third-largest natural disaster in the world.
9. The Yellow River flood that killed 300,000 people was a man-made disaster
In 1642, the Yellow River flood was a human-made disaster that affected the Xuzhou and Kaifeng provinces. It caused a death toll of 300,000 out of the 378,000 residents. The country had a Jewish settlement of around 5,000 people, which came to an end owing to the Yellow River flood.
10. Once again, another peasant began the next dynasty, after overthrowing the Ming
A famine hit the Shaanxi region in the early 1630s. However, the Ming dynasty failed to ship as many supplies, thus angering the people. A leader arose named Li Zicheng. He was a peasant and, in three years, rallied more than 20,000 men. The dynasty was unable to stop his rebellion and on 26 May 1644, Li’s army seized Beijing, the Ming dynasty’s capital. The last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, thereby hung himself. Li founded the Shun dynasty; however, the Qing dynasty overthrew it in a year.
11. The Ming dynasty is one of China’s three golden ages
Despite its fall, the Ming era is considered one of China’s three golden ages along with the Han and Song periods. For a long time, the country prospered under their rule, making it the world’s largest economy. Along with economic growth came an expansion in culture, knowledge and products to and from China.