A brief history of the Chinese Ming dynasty, which drove out foreign rule and sought to reestablish China’s traditional cultural and economic roles.

The Ming dynasty, one of the most widely-known regimes in China, was started by the fierce ruler Zhu Yuanzhang, who led the country harshly for decades. The regime lasted almost three centuries and transformed the country.

Out of the number of dynasties who have ruled China through the country’s entire history, the Ming dynasty is one of the most highly significant.

Though they were kept under strict rule, the Chinese people experienced a cultural boom during the three centuries the Ming dynasty reigned, developing new styles of art and cultural awareness, and explored many corners of the world. For more information on the Ming dynasty, read on.

Who Are the Ming Dynasty?

The people of the Ming dynasty lived anywhere between the years 1368 and 1644 throughout all of China. These people, who were once ruled by the Mongols, had now become ruled by an authoritarian military leader named Zhu Yuanzhang.

The Ming dynasty developed deeply rooted cultural traditions of fine literature, detailed and highly sought-after pottery, and near-global exploration. Though there were many cultural successes in this era, there were also several downfalls due to the militarized leadership that gripped the country.

Origins of the Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty was formed by Zhu Yuanzhang (also known as the Hongwu Emperor), who was born in the early 1300s in China. His family was killed when he was younger, and he ended up fleeing to a Buddhist monastery where he had hoped to find shelter. This worked for a period of time until a militia razed the temple.

After this event, Zhu Yuanzhang joined the White Lotus Society, which was a rebel military group. Zhu Yuanzhang soon became an integral part of this rebel group and overthrew the Mongols who were ruling China at the time, declaring his era the time of the Ming dynasty.

Name Origins

The Ming dynasty is so named because the word “ming” in Chinese roughly translates to “light” or “brightness.” This name was given by Zhu Yuanzhang to his empire as a way to reflect his vision for China – shining a light to guide the way for a heavily militarized and powerful regime of his own design.

Culture and Beliefs of the Ming Dynasty

Reasserting Chinese culture and identity was the central goal of the movement which established the Ming dynasty. After driving out the Mongolian ruling class of the Yuan dynasty, the Ming authorities refocused on Chinese traditions and culture, and backed this up with military authority.

Economics in the Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty began with economic success and left upon China a legacy of global exploration and trade. Explorers were regarded with the highest honor and were often in close contact with the ruling emperors of the era.

Arguably the most famous of all the explorers during the reign of the Ming dynasty was Zheng He, an explorer who lived from 1371 to 1433. He was successful in exporting several goods that, even today, the world sees as uniquely Chinese, including silks and tea. In return, he returned to China with exotic animals and spices.

Spirituality in the Ming Dynasty

The main spiritual framework of the Ming dynasty was Confucianism. Confucianism was, and still is, a belief system that prioritizes social status and respect over pursuits of enlightenment or heaven, which became the Ming dynasty’s foundation.

Confucius, the founder of this belief system, wrote heavily on the concepts of piety, or cultural and spiritual dedication, which he considered to come in a number of forms, including reverence towards one’s parents and elders and reverence of husbands by their wives.

History of the Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty was started by a fierce ruler, Zhu Yuanzhang, who ruled the country in a highly militarized manner. With this style of power, he struck fear into his citizens. Eventually, his reign ended and was taken over by leaders who embraced less harsh rule and opened up trade.

Through the more liberal leaders of the Ming dynasty, China became a world trade power, as it remains to this day. The country experienced a boom in artistic and cultural wisdom and began to open up to new ideas and experiences.

However, the prosperity didn’t last, and in 1644, the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Qing dynasty, which remained in rule for many years to come. The Ming dynasty left a deep impression on China, which is still felt to this day.

The Rise of the Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty was formed on a highly militarized foundation. Because of his history as one of the uppermost leaders in the Chinese military, Zhu Yuanzhang ruled the country like an army, even during peacetime.

Instead of obtaining rule of China through cordial negotiation and charm or familial inheritance, he killed his way to the top, making him the highest leader in the land.

Many scholars write about how ruthless Zhu Yuanzhang was – it is suggested that he turned his palace into a system of secret police to demolish any signs of disloyalty. Zhu Yuanzhang had thousands of people killed because he was convinced that they weren’t loyal to him.

The Fall of the Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty lasted until 1633, almost three hundred years after Zhu Yuanzhang claimed his role as emperor. The downfall of the dynasty was a long time coming. For years leading up to the final fall of the dynasty, the power of the emperor had been weakening.

Throughout the centuries of the Ming dynasty’s existence, corruption had been constant and ever-present. Many of the royal court members wanted to curry favor from whichever emperor had been in charge at the time, and others wanted to extort people for their money.

Simultaneously, reflecting the chaos inside the court, the outside world revolted against the emperor, and peasants began to revolt against excessive taxation by the emperor and his associates. Eventually, in 1644, rebels took control of Beijing, where the emperor’s power was located.

Chonzhen, the last emperor of the Ming dynasty, killed himself before the invaders could execute him. Just as the rebels invaded, the Manchu people took over the city, ridding the rebels’ capital and establishing what they called the Qing dynasty.

Geography of the Ming Dynasty

As the successor to the Yuan dynasty, the Ming dynasty inherited the traditional heartland of Chinese territory, which it continued to hold and expand. Ethnic Han Chinese were moved into lands formerly left to ethnic minorities, and economic ties opened up with the outside world.

The Ming Dynasty in Greater China

Prior to the Ming dynasty, ethnic minorities of China, particularly those in the southern regions, were largely autonomous. They were regarded as tributary states and ruled by tribal chieftains known as Tusi. These chieftains and their tribes would recognize and pay tribute to the central authority in Nanjing (and Beijing) in return for their continued autonomy.

This changed as the Mings began to reestablish trading relationships with the outside world. Before this period, the central Chinese authorities saw maintaining a large urban population in many of these regions as unsustainable, as the terrain was not able to support the large-scale farming practices used. However, with new trading ties, new crops also began to arrive from the Americas. Crops maize and potatoes were able to grow in previously uncultivated areas of the country, leading to an immense expansion of the Han Chinese majority into these areas.

This expansion of direct Ming control came at the cost of existing ethnic minorities in these areas. Several ethnic minority groups are recorded to have come into conflict with the Ming Dynasty, perhaps the most consequential of which was the Bo tribe of modern Sichuan and Yunnan, whose resistance led to their genocide.

The Bo people resisted the subjugation and displacement by the Mings, making their stand in the region’s mountainous terrain. The final recorded battle between the Ming and the Bo occurred at Jiusi Mountain (九絲山). Here, the Mings laid siege to the fortress for 10 days in the year 1573 CE, and ended up massacring 40,000 Bo people, effectively exterminating the remaining Bo population.

The Ming Dynasty in India

Eventually becoming known for their widespread trade efforts, the Ming dynasty began to establish a presence around the Eastern world in the 1500s. One of the first places they were able to send their ships was India, one of the world’s largest trade destinations during this time.

India was and still is known for its flavorful and medicinal spices, brilliantly-colored jewels, and general academic knowledge. Through their naval adventures in Southeast Asia, the Ming dynasty’s naval fleets were able to bring home not only material goods but also cultural and spiritual knowledge.

The Ming Dynasty in Europe

Living on in the popular legend stated by Marco Polo, China was one of the most important and pivotal destinations for European explorers in the 1500s. Much like India, China was renowned for its exports. Such goods include handmade silk garments, a variety of spices, as well as highly-prized teas.

In exchange for these plentiful goods, the Ming dynasty received goods from both Europe and their South and Central American colonies. The most popular of these imports came from the “New World,” which was the name for indigenous South American land, and included silver, peanuts, sweet potatoes, maize, and tobacco.

What Happened to the Ming Dynasty?

The Ming dynasty came to an end in 1644, when it was defeated by rebel forces. In a rather ironic way, the rebels took over Beijing, only to be defeated themselves almost immediately after by a group of Manchurian people.

These Manchurian people claimed the throne and officially ended the reign of the Ming Dynasty. In the place of the Ming Dynasty, the newly-formed Qing dynasty arose, and a new regime took over the courts.

Cities of the Ming Dynasty

Beijing

Nanjing

Xi’an

Chengdu

Chongqing

Monuments of the Ming Dynasty

Xi’an City Wall

Xi’an Bell Tower

Chongqing City Wall

Ningxia Great Wall

Fast Facts

Name: Ming dynasty
Origin: Rebellion by ethnic Chinese to overthrow the ruling Mongol Yuan Dynasty.
Language: Chinese (Mandarin)
Religion: Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist
Era:  1368 to 1644 CE
Location: Mainland China
Capital: Beijing and Nanjing
Decline: Economic trouble and natural disasters led to rebellion, followed by attacks from the Manchus in the north.

Glossary

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Confucianism
Indigenous Chinese religion promoting ancestor worship, filial piety, and duty to the state.

Daoism
Indigenous Chinese religion promoting detachment and non-purposeful action.

Ming Dynasty
The ruling dynasty of China from 1368-1644 CE. Ming doctrine was characterized by isolationist policies and focus on internal matters and expansion.

Sichuan (四川)
Province in southwestern China made up of mountains, river valleys, and sections of the Tibetan Plateau.

xiānghuǒ qián (香火钱)
Literally “incense money” whereby monetary offerings are made at temples and other sacred sites in order to gain supernatural blessings from ancestors or the Buddha. 

Yibin (宜宾)
A large district located in southern Sichuan province.

Yuan dynasty
The ruling dynasty of China from 1271-1368 CE. Yuan was founded after the Mongol conquest of China and continued expansion of their territory.

Yunnan (云南)
Province in southwestern China consisting of many ethnic minorities, with landscapes ranging from jungles to snow-capped mountains.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

What are your thoughts?