The Ming dynasty began in 1368 when Zhu Yuanzhang was crowned in Nanjing. During his 31-year reign, Zhu Yuanzhang, or Emperor Taizu, further centralized power of the feudal autocracy. He executed many officials and often used violence in dealing with suspected conspirators. After Taizu’s death, his grandson ascended to the throne and became known as Emperor Jianwen. He was defeated by his uncle, Zhu Di, who made himself Emperor Chengzu. In 1421 he moved the capital to Beijing from Nanjing.
Though central power of the government was strengthened, many emperors were either too foolish or too young to handle state affairs. The emperor’s power fell into the hands of the eunuchs, who were corrupted and often extorted money at random. Loyal court officials were persecuted and the central power was weakened. In the middle period of the dynasty’s reign, several revolts led by peasants took place, but they were all put down.
Zhang Juzheng, a famous statesman in the Ming dynasty, carried out reforms to secure the reign and alleviate social conflicts. He punished corrupt officials, encouraged agriculture, rebuilt transportation routes and reformed taxation. Ordinary people enjoyed somewhat better lives as a result of the changes.
Agriculture made much progress in the Ming Dynasty compared to previous ages. Silk weaving, porcelain making, iron mining, steel foundry, papermaking and shipbuilding all made large strides. Economic and cultural exchanges with other countries were more frequent. Famous navigator Zheng He made seven voyages to Southeast Asia and explored more than 30 countries in Asia and Africa. In the late period of the Ming dynasty, China was invaded by Spain, Portugal and Holland.
Early in the Ming dynasty, many lands were left ownerless and uncultivated. Emperor Taizu recruited homeless peasants to farm the lands. Little or no taxation was levied on them and, as a result, the number of peasants who owned their own land increased substantially. New plantations of tobacco, potatoes, corn and peanuts were introduced from abroad. The handicraft industry also reached new heights. Workshop owners hired weavers to work for them. The largest workshop operated 10 looms – a sign of China’s early capitalism. Various commodities also became available for the first time during this period. Commercial centers appeared and transportation improved. Cities like Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Guangzhou flourished.
The novel is considered a great cultural development of the Ming Dynasty. Magnificent works like Outlaws of the Marsh, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and The Golden Lotus were created in the Ming dynasty. The Travel Diaries of Xu Xiake was reqarded as a great travel guide. In the field of medicine, Li Shizhen wrote Compendium of Materia Medica. Xu Guangqi, an agricultural expert wrote the Complete Treatise on Agricultural Administration. Exploiting the Works of Nature by Song Yingxing and the Dictionary of Yongle were also completed during this period.
In the late Ming dynasty, lands became highly centralized and ownership was concentrated among fewer people. Royal manors appeared across the countryside. Taxation was increased and social conflicts became more common. Some officials began to worry about the situation and they tried to implement solutions. Among them was a demand to weaken the power of the royalty and the eunuchs. These officials gave lectures on their proposals and discussed court affairs openly. They came to be called the Donglin Party. But these statesmen provoked the eunuchs and their efforts resulted in making the society even more turbulent.
Revolts in the rural areas eventually intensified and by 1627 there was a famine in Shaanxi province. Hundreds of thousands of starving peasants rose up against the court. In 1644 the rebels made their way into Beijing and Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide.