Key events: Ming dynasty was last ethnic Han dynasty of China. First period of this dynasty can be seen as still prosperous for China but in later period China started to stagnate as we will see.

Ming dynasty inherited territories of Yuan dynasty except parts of Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang which will be regained later. Some areas of Xinjiang and Manchuria were under direct rule of Ming emperor. Parts of Manchuria was governed by Jurchens( Manchus) while some other Manchu states recognized supremacy of Ming same as some Turkic tribes of West. Tibet was not under direct control by Ming troops but was in tributary relation and didnt exist as one territorial unit. It was divided on 5 parts where each lord had limited sovereignty since local religious authorities and local aristocrats were more powerful. They were paying tribute to Ming court and Ming court interfered in lobbying in favor of religious sects that they favored. Few times Ming court sent military visits to Tibet.

MING map

During Hongwu rule Han Chinese and Hui Muslims were settling in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces in order to outbalance Miao and other ethnic minorities. Many of Uighurs living in parts of Xinjiang and Qinghai voluntarily accepted Ming rule.

In Manchuria Ming troops defeated several times between 1380 and 1387 Manchu and Mongol tribes. Parts of Manchuria which were inhabited by Sinicized Manchus accepted Ming rule while those unsinicized were fighting still and attacking constantly on Ming troops. Yongle Emperor established Military Commandery which had to strictly control areas of Manchuria and protect them. It was later abolished on lower military presence in middle of 15th century.

First Ming Emperor was Hongwu as we mentioned in previous chapter. Hongwu governed between 1368 and 1398 and was one of longest ruling Ming emperors. Natural conditions improved during his reign and he reestablished Censorate as special body determined for anti-corruption. He relied heavily on literati and pursued importance of state examination. Hongwu assured to keep eunuchs out of politics since they often were corrupt and acted as own clan that disrupted bureaucracy. Until later times of Ming era they were  mostly excluded from political life but acted as servants in imperial court. Hongwu wanted to focus more on agriculture than trade since he was former peasant and following Confucian principles he considered merchants as parasites. He wanted to reduce dependence of China on foreign trade and industry unlike Tang and Song dynasties but wanted to depend on agriculture. Therefore he lowered taxes for peasants maximally and poorest peasants were completely freed from taxes. This stimulated growth of agriculture and peasants lived better. On another hand he wanted to reduce trade and increase taxes for merchants drastically. But he didnt expect that merchants would start to sell for even more expensive prices their products abroad and that strengthened  mecrhant class. Hongwu acted very aggressively towards any opponents or anyone who said some critic towards him. He used his secret police to eliminate potential threats and he killed thousands of people in this way. In 1380 thunder hit his palace and he started to fear that he can lose „Mandate of  Heaven“ and started to be less oppressive. Because of his irrational printing of money printed currency largely devalued and silver and bronze coins were again widely used instead of paper money which started to be less used. He died in 1398. He was speaking against foreign trade and need to reduce it but his successors such as Yongle didnt follow it.

After Hongwu Jianwen became emperor and ruled only until 1402. Zhu Di nephew of Jianwen Emperor initiated a coup against his uncle and overthrew him in 1402. He became Emperor Yongle and moved capital to Beijing.  Since beginning of 15th century until 1927 and than again from 1949 and still is Beijing capital of China. Emperor Yongle built new grand palace in the heart of Beijing known as Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven determined for worshipping heaven. About it will be more in next chapter. In order to increase importance of new capital it was widely invested in renewing section of Grand Canal that connects Beijing. He also strengthened parts of Great Wall that were nearby Beijing in order to prevent Mongol and Jurchen invasions. These sections of Great Wall are best preserved today.

In 1406 Yongle attacked Vietnam and occupied it successfully. Occupation lasted until 1427. There were numerous guerrila factions who constantly fought against Chinese troops. It led to withdrawal of troups and leader of guerillas established Le dynasty in Vietnam. But anyway Vietnam stayed tributary state.

China was one of most powerful countries in economic, technological and military terms during that time. In order to assure world dominance Yongle Emperor sent large fleet commanded by Zhang He. More about Zhang He will be in next part but here is important to say that he was sent on expedition to collect tributes and get recognition of many states worldwide. Between 1405 and 1433 Zhang He led 7 expeditions between China, South Asia, India and East Africa. He became very important and respected figure in China and abroad. Zhang visited Mecca during hajj since he was Muslim. Aim was to increase positive image of China and show its power.  Also he showed woodblock print to other countries to show prosperity of China. He was collecting there very specific gifts and brought even giraffes to China which were considered as holy animals since they reminded on qilin a mythological being. Zhang He travelled over existing routes where private merchants were moving. Even there was plan to continue further trips which could lead to journeys to North Africa, Europe or even Americas but after Yongles death new Emperor Hongxi ( 1424-1425)and than Emperor Xuande ( 1426-1435) discouraged expeditions.

Zheng He, source:
Zheng He fleet
Zheng Hes mighty fleet, source:

In 1449 large battle at Tumu occurred. Mongols with only 20 000 soldiers launched attack on  China. Ming court sent 500 000 soldiers to confront them but due to poor coordination of troops they were severely defeated. During battle Mongols captured Emperor Zhengtong and wanted to use him as a object in negotiations. However his brother declared himself as Emperor Jingtai. When Mongols realized that it was useless to keep him they set him free but he was under house arrest in China ordered by his brother. In 1457 he arranged coup against his brother and overthrew Jingtai and he became emperor again under new name Tianshun.  Cao Qin general with some Mongol soldiers who served in Ming army initiated coup against Emperor Tianshun because of his oppressive policies in 1461. They tried to set Forbidden City on fire. Some gates were burnt but coup was surpassed.

With Honxi and Xuande discourage of trade started and they ordered building of smaller ships. Later about impact of stopping discoveries and journeys will be more spoken in next chapter. Problems started to appear since China avoided to engage in trade as some Confucians believed it is good for China to allow too much foreign influence and depend on trade.  Confucians believed that social order is more important than prosperity and flexibility. China was entering isolation which was a grave decision for empire. China was self-sufficient but it was cut from events around world and wasnt in touch with new inventions.  Silk Road was closed because of falling interest to trade and because Uighurs often attacked routes so it became too risky to travel on road. European powers focused on maritime trade but China avoided it and wasnt engaged in trade anymore, motivation for inventions dropped and therefore lost chance to be a potentially first industrialized country in world and to discover many places in world.

Since middle of 15th century only partial trade was allowed with Dutch and Portuguese merchants in some moderately open ports.  There were several open ports for free trade but under Chinese regulations. In 1521 short Sino-Portuguese war occurred. Reason was that at Tunmen Portuguese were stealing Chinese children and selling. Portuguese fleet was blocked by Chinese and severely defeated.  In 1522 new Sino-Portuguese war occurred and reason was that Portugal attacked Mallacca Sultanate which was Chinese tribute. China wanted to provide help to its tribute and again severely defeated Portuguese fleet at Xicaowan.  Chinese fleet captured 20 Portuguese canons and produced its version based on copying taken ones.  In 16th century relations improved and Chinese gave port Macao as a rent to Portuguese merchants and army to conduct trade under some taxes.


Last successful Emperor was Wanli Emperor who ruled between 1572 to 1620. At beginning he was very active and decisive in conducting state affairs and had many things over control. He also gave some power to eunuchs and they were not just servants at court but got some civil service positions and could collect provincial taxes. But eunuchs were usually too corrupt and took to much money for them what destabilized state apparatus. Between 1592 and 1598 China fought a war on side with Joseon Korean Kingdom against Japan which attacked Korea. At the end they defeated Japan and Japan withdrew from Korean peninsula. In last few years of rule Wanli emperor wasn’t interested anymore in state affairs and spent time enjoying in palace. With that eunuchs strengthened their position and different aristocratic and bureaucratic clans started to fight for supremacy in court. Afte Wanli Emperor Tianqi came to power and reigned until 1627. Wei Zhongxian was strongest eunuch of that time and Emperors advisor but was very cruel. He was killing and torturing all opponents and spent too much money on building palaces.

Trade was still stable in some free ports. China was selling silk for silver to Spanish, Dutch and Portugal. Netherlands were demanding more openness of Chinese market and insisted to trade by copper while China was refusing and wanted only silver. This led to Dutch-Sino war. Dutch were angry on Chinese because they provided Macau port for Portuguese and demanded from China to open one port in Fujian for Dutch. Chinese refused it and Dutch fleet attacked Chinese merchant boats in 1618.  In 1622 Dutch were defeated by Portuguese at Macau and than attacked and captured Penghu and built a fort there. Chinese demanded from Dutch to withdraw back to Taiwan and conduct trade from there while Dutch were refusing and attacking Chinese merchant junks. In 1622 and 1623 they attacked Xiamen several times. In 1624 Dutch were finally defeated and expelled from Penghu and they had to withdraw to Taiwan. In 1633 another battle occurred at Liaoluo Bay in Taiwan strait. Dutch fleet attempted to control trade in strait again and it angered China and it attacked again.. Dutch were again defeated and their position at Taiwan was weakened.

Often wars, draughts and floods were destabilizing country. Famine occurred which killed millions between since 1630. Also epidemic of plague started which killed many. Lack of trade which was limited also negatively contributed to economy and state. Peasants were starving and unable to pay taxes.  Also threat from north appeared and these were Manchu tribes. Strong tribal leader Nurhaci( 1616-1626) united all Manchu tribes and declared Later Jin dynasty on territories of Manchuria. Nurchaci ceased tributary relations with Ming court. Later Jin capital was Shenyang where they built large palace. Nurchaci is often considered as founder of Qing dynasty but his son renamed it to Qing. His son Abahai took Chinese name became Hong Taiji. He was very ambitious and preparing to conquer whole China under his dynasty. He realized that he must lead harmonious politics if he wants to control large Han population and that they cant be excluded from politics like in time of Yuan dynasty or otherwise they will fail. He invited many educated officials from Ming court to serve at his court in Shenyang and completely copied political system of Ming dynasty.  Also  he promoted marriages between Han people and Manchu people.  In 1636 he changed name from Later Jin to Qing because of few reasons. First one was that he thought that name Later Jin may anger Han Chinese because Jin dynasty was name of Manchu dynasty which was hostile to ethnic Han Song dynasty.  Another reason was that behind name of Ming their protection element was fire and he gave name Qing to his dynasty what can mean pure and is related to water an element that overpowers fire.  So there is big influence of Taoist cosmology in power relations and showing dominance. So than he became Emperor of Qing while his father Nurhaci was Emperor of Later Jin.  In 1630ies Ming dynasty lost supremacy over Joseon Korean Kingdom as they were defeated by Qing armies. Joseon Kingdom became vassal of Qing dynasty and fought alongside them.

nurchaci a unifier of Manchu
Nurhaci, source:

With all this events Chinese people started to rebel  in 1640 because of natural disasters, famine, plague, foreign invasions and of course name which symbolized  more power for Qing that for Ming. People believed that Ming Emperor Chongzhen lost Mandate of Heaven. Li Zicheng a soldier organized rebels and took the tittle Prince Shun. He easily defeated government troops as they were underfed and unmotivated to fight. Firstly they captured Xian where Li Zicheng declared himself as Emperor of Shun dynasty. So rebels captured Beijing in May 1644. In Beijing’s imperial Jingshan park Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide in order to avoid captivity, torture or execution. In Jingshan park tree on which he hung himself still exists. This was end of Ming dynasty. Li Zicheng declared himself as Emperor of whole China. But powerful Qing troops crossed Great Wall and were joined by some dissolved Ming troops. Li Zicheng wanted to consolidate his power over whole China and gathered army but was severely defeated at Shanghai Pass in 1644. After that he withdrew and in June 1644 Qing troops with some former Ming troops captured Beijing. Young Qing Emperor Fulin was declared as Emperor of whole China in 1644 and claimed Mandate of Heaven. This was end of Ming dynasty and era of Qing a last Chinese imperial dynasty started.

tree jing
Tree in Jingshan park on which last Ming emperor hung himself,
Mukden palace, of first Qing rulers, source:

Source:  source of picture of map


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