World History 1 272 - 17.2.3 Ming China and Its Neighbors

The ascendance of the Turks and the decline of Mongol rule in western Asia in the thirteenth century were soon followed by the decline of Mongol dominance in East Asia as well. By the second half of the thirteenth century, China found itself beset by problems. The Yuan dynasty emperor Kublai Khan waged a series of expensive campaigns against the kingdoms of Burma (now Myanmar), Annam, and Champa in Southeast Asia, and Java in the Indian Ocean. Two attempts to invade Japan failed, and revolts against Mongol rule erupted.

One of these revolts was the Ispah Rebellion, which began in Quanzhou. A major port city in southeastern China’s Fujian Province, Quanzhou was on the Maritime Silk Road, an ocean trading route that connected China to other trading ports in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, India, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and Egypt. Along this route, highly sought-after Chinese goods like porcelain and silk flowed westward to Europe, Africa, India, and western Asia.

Quanzhou had a population of more than two million, making it the largest port in China and likely in the world in the thirteenth century. Most of the population were foreign-born merchants from Arabia, Persia, India, Armenia, and other lands. The Muslims who lived in Quanzhou were among the many Arabs, Persians, and Turks from western and central Asia who had come to China to trade or to serve the Yuan government. Though they encouraged Muslims from elsewhere in Asia to settle in China, Yuan officials often discriminated against them, forbidding the butchering of animals according to Islamic law and interfering with Muslim marriage laws and efforts by the Muslim community to govern themselves. In 1357, Muslims in Quanzhou rose against the Mongols. The rebellion was not crushed until 1367.

Attempts to suppress such revolts, which continued after the death of Kublai, drained the treasury, as had Kublai’s unsuccessful military campaigns. His successors often mismanaged the treasury and sometimes held the throne for only brief periods of time. By the first half of the fourteenth century, natural disasters were compounding the difficulties China already faced. Droughts and floods led to food shortages and famines. Inflation and scarcity combined to raise the price of food beyond the reach of many peasants. Unusually cold weather worsened people’s suffering, and from the 1330s through the 1350s, epidemics swept through various parts of the country, killing millions. Bandits roamed the countryside, and the army made little effort to hunt down the numerous outlaws who preyed on the populace.

A number of religious sects arose foretelling the end of days. One of these was the White Lotus, a sect of Buddhism that announced the coming of a new Buddha and thus a new age (Figure 17.22). Seizing on the White Lotus prophecy, a secret peasant society named the Red Turbans called for the overthrow of Mongol rule and the return of the Song dynasty. Armed rebellion broke out in 1351. In 1352, a young wandering Buddhist monk named Zhu Yuanzhang joined the Red Turbans and married the daughter of one of its leaders. In 1356, his forces captured the southern Chinese city of Nanjing. After eliminating his rivals within the Red Turbans, in 1368 Zhu defeated the last Yuan emperor, who then abandoned China. Zhu destroyed the Yuan palace in the capital of Dadu (Beijing), proclaimed himself emperor with the name of Hongwu, meaning vast and martial, and dubbed his new dynasty the Ming (“bright”).

An image of a drawing is shown on a dark brown paper with ripped edges along the bottom. The black drawing shows five figures sitting around a rectangular table with a sixth figure standing in the right side of the image. The figures at the table wear long light colored robes with darker trim around the edges and dark slippers. Three on the left have hair in buns and two have facial hair, while the other two on the right side of the table wear dark hats and have long moustaches. The man standing has no facial hair and a dark hat. On the table there are three round objects and writing implements as well as scrolls of paper. The man standing holds a roll that is dark and decorated. Five Asian letterings are seen on the background.
Figure 17.22 The White Lotus Society, a meeting of which is depicted in ink on this fifteenth-century paper handscroll, was originally established in China to spread the teachings of a novel sect of Buddhism that foresaw the coming of a new age. (credit: “White Lotus Society” by Unknown/John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

Hongwu began by enforcing his power and bolstering China’s security as the Ming dynasty’s first emperor (Figure 17.23). Although he tried to resolve social disparities by abolishing slavery and increasing taxes on the wealthy, the cost of his army put a significant strain on the Chinese economy. He was never able to fully bridge the gap between rich and poor, and his attempts to protect China from invasion and rebellion led to repressive domestic policies. Nevertheless, with the restoration of agricultural productivity and political stability, the early Ming era was a time of significant wealth and power for China.

An image of a painting is shown. In the image a man sits on a brown chair on an intricately detailed red, black, and white rug along a pale brown wall. The figure wears a black cap, has a black thin moustache and feathery beard. He wears a yellow, long shirt dress with a gold design on the front and on each of his shoulders. He wears a red and green belt and black shoes. A red collar is seen around his neck.
Figure 17.23 This hanging scroll silk painting of the fourteenth century is an official court portrait of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. It is about 8 feet high by about 5 feet wide. (credit: “Official court painting of the Hongwu Emperor” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Hongwu’s reign was marked by efforts to consolidate his own power, to protect himself from attack, and to reassert and expand Chinese influence. He eliminated the office of chief minister so that he might govern without interference, established a force of secret police, and ordered the execution of thousands of people who he believed disagreed with his polices. He also acted swiftly to stamp out rebellions. A revolt by the Miao ethnic group in Hunan Province in the southwest was crushed. The Kingdom of Dali, where Mongol forces had taken refuge in what is now Yunnan Province in the southeast, was defeated and the region incorporated into China. In 1387, Ming forces invaded Manchuria in the northeast, where Mongols loyal to the Yuan dynasty had also established a foothold. To protect the borders in underpopulated areas, Hongwu made military service in these regions hereditary. He forced the mass relocation of peasants from the south to augment the population in parts of central and northern China that had been hard hit by crop failures and epidemics.

Hongwu’s efforts to expand Chinese power continued under his successor, his son Zhu Di, known as the Yongle emperor. From 1406 to 1427, Chinese forces tried unsuccessfully to invade and subdue the kingdom of Vietnam, and to counter the continuing Mongol threat, the Great Wall of China was repaired and lengthened. In other ways, though, Zhu Di reversed his father’s policies. Hongwu had wanted to isolate China from dangerous foreign influences and so had forbidden nearly all maritime trade. The Yongle emperor strove instead to establish relations with foreign lands in order to make their rulers aware of China’s wealth and power. To this end, he dispatched Admiral Zheng He on seven naval expeditions between 1405 and 1433. Chinese fleets consisting of thousands of ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. Zheng He presented foreign rulers with gifts of porcelain, silk, and gold to impress upon them the splendor of the Ming dynasty, and he returned with tribute for the emperor in the form of ivory and exotic animals such as zebras and ostriches.

Zhu Di also established diplomatic relations with Shah Rukh, the son and heir of Timur, as well as with rulers in the Philippines and the Indian Ocean. China had no direct contact with the Ottoman state, however. When he ascended the throne, Hongwu sent an announcement to the Byzantine emperor, who he believed was still in power in Constantinople. After this, however, there was no correspondence or direct contact between the two states for at least a century.

The Yongle emperor moved the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing, in the center of which he began construction of the new Forbidden City, a walled compound consisting of palaces, temples, and gardens for use by the emperor and the members of his household. In 1420, he also ordered the building of an elaborate tomb north of Beijing, where other members of the dynasty also built final resting places for themselves (Figure 17.24). All these structures conveyed an image of China’s power, wealth, and magnificence.

An image of a large valley is shown in pale beige, gray, pink, and green colors. In the bottom left of the image five rectangle white and pale blue arches are shown leading to a stone bridge over a waterway that weaves all throughout the image. Next, the path leads to a pink colored archway with three openings and a gold roof. The path continues through another pink and gold single archway that then leads to a long path that goes to the right lined with animals on both sides. The path goes off into the background which is filled with tiered colorful buildings, tall white windowed towers, hills, trees, and roads. Behind the rows of animals are rounded stone structures surrounded by trees and other stone structures.
Figure 17.24 Ming dynasty emperors built thirteen tombs at the foot of the Jundu Mountains near Beijing, shown here in a nineteenth-century ink and watercolor image. The three red arches in the lower left mark the beginning of the Spirit Way, a four-mile road that runs through the valley. (credit: “Ming shi san ling tu” by Arthur W. Hummel/Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Public Domain)

Beyond the Book

The Forbidden City

The construction of the Forbidden City (Figure 17.25) in the center of Beijing began in the reign of the Yongle emperor. Within its walls were gardens, palaces, and temples. Guards at its gates carefully limited access to only the important people who lived and worked inside it. The main entrance was the Meridian Gate, which had five separate gateways. The central one was reserved for exclusive use by the emperor with only two exceptions: the empress could use the central gate on her wedding day, as could men who had successfully passed the imperial examinations for entering into state service as an administrator.

The Ming emperors held court in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. During the Ming dynasty, the emperor lived in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, while the empress lived nearby in the smaller Palace of Earthly Tranquility. To either side of these palaces were the six western palaces and the six eastern palaces where the emperor’s consorts lived.

A map titled “Forbidden City (Beijing) is shown on a yellow background. White labelled streets run horizontal and vertical throughout the image and a scale is located in the bottom left in “m” and “yards.” Three blue areas at the left top are visible, labelled Bei Hai,  Zhonghai, and Nanhai, from top to bottom. The top blue area is labelled Ben Hai Park and the Pavilion of Five Dragons and the Screen of Nine Dragons are located at the top and a green mass in the lower right is labelled Chonghuadao with a red and white block inside labelled White Dagoba. Southwest is located the Peking Library. A green rectangle is to the east labelled Jing Shan (Coal Hill) Park and below is a large white rectangle littered with red dots and squares labelled Palace Museum. Inside, the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Gate of Supreme Harmony are labelled as well as the Meridian Gate at the bottom. The letters A (Gate of Divine Might), B (Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility), C (Hall of Military Eminence), and D (Hall of Literary Glory) are located at the north, south, west, and east sides, respectively. South of the Palace Museum are green and white areas with streets crisscrossing and labels for the following: Sun Yat-sen Memorial Ha (cut off), Working People’s Palace of Culture, Duan Gate, Gate of Heavenly Peace, Zhongshan (Sun-Yat sen) Park, and Park of the People’s Culture. On the south end of the map these locations are labelled: Tian An Men Square, Great Hall of the People (Parliament), Monument to the People’s Heroes, Museum of the Chinese Revolution and Museum of Chinese History, Mao Zedong Mausoleum, and the Front Gate. Along the east side of the map, these locations are labelled, from north to south: People’s Market, National Art Gallery, Huaqiao Hotel, Shoudu Theatre, Dongfeng Market, Peking Hotel, Chinese Youth Art Theatre, and Xinqiao Hotel.
Figure 17.25 This map of central Beijing shows the location of the palace complex known as the Forbidden City, now a national museum. Note how the layout and names of important buildings and other structures within the compound compare to those of the surrounding area. (credit: modification of work “Map of Forbidden City, 1987” by Nathan Hughes Hamilton/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
  • Examine the layout of the Forbidden City and the names of its palaces, gates, and other structures. What does this compound tell you about the values of the Ming dynasty?
  • Can you think of any complexes that are similar to the Forbidden City? If so, what and where are they?

Despite their wealth and power, the Ming emperors could still find themselves helpless in the face of Mongol aggression. The Yongle emperor tried unsuccessfully to subdue the Oirats, the westernmost of the Mongol tribes, who lived in what is now western Mongolia and the Altai region of Siberia. In 1449, the Oirat leader Esen took the twenty-one-year-old Ming emperor Yingzong hostage after the Mongol army defeated a much larger Chinese military force at the Battle of Tumu Fortress. The Ming responded by demoting Yingzong to the rank of “retired emperor” and placed his younger half-brother on the throne instead.

Esen’s efforts to return Yingzong to Beijing—after conveniently marrying the captive emperor to his daughter—failed, and Mongol efforts to take Beijing by force were repulsed. Yingzong remained a prisoner of the Oirat until a member of his court ransomed him and returned him to Beijing, where he was placed under house arrest in a palace in the Forbidden City by his half-brother, who had no intention of giving up the throne. It was another seven years before Yingzong managed to unseat (and kill) his half-brother and reclaim his throne.

Yingzong was forced to confront Mongol forces again in 1461 when the Chinese general Cao Qin attempted a coup with the assistance of Mongol soldiers. The emperor was saved only when a timely downpour foiled efforts to burn the gates that blocked the rebels’ entry to the Forbidden City.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax