5 Significant People Who Shaped Ming China

Discover why these five key historical figures were crucial to the development of Ming China through the ages.

Oct 27, 2022By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

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Throughout its rich and varied history, very rarely has China developed to such an extent as it did during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming era lasted from 1368 until 1644, and throughout the 276 years of rule, huge changes happened in Ming China. These range from the voyages of Zheng He on the famous Dragon Fleet to the secret nature of future Ming Emperors, and the development of the Chinese education system.


1. Zheng He: Admiral of the Treasure Fleet in Ming China

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Depiction of Admiral Zheng He, via historyofyesterday.com


When key figures from the Ming Dynasty period are mentioned, the first one who springs to mind for many people is Zheng He.


Born as Ma He in 1371 in Yunnan, he was raised as a Muslim and captured by invading Ming soldiers aged 10 (this was the final expulsion of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty that ushered in the Ming period). Sometime before he turned 14, Ma He was castrated, and thus became a eunuch, and he was sent to serve under Zhu Di, who would become the future Yongle Emperor. It was during this period of his life that he learned a huge amount of military knowledge.


He was educated in Beijing, and he defended the city after a rebellion by the Jianwen Emperor.  He set up the defense of the Zhenglunba reservoir, from where he gained the name “Zheng”.

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In 1403, the Yongle Emperor ordered the construction of the Treasure Fleet, a huge naval fleet with the aim of expanding Ming China’s knowledge of the outside world. Zheng He was named Admiral of the Treasure Fleet.


In total, Zheng He went on seven voyages on the treasure fleet and visited numerous different cultures. On his first voyage, he traversed the “Western” (Indian) Ocean, visiting territories which are now parts of the of modern-day countries of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. On his second voyage he visited parts of Thailand and India and established a strong trading connection between India and China; even being commemorated with a stone tablet in Calicut.


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Admiral Zheng He, surrounded by the “treasure ships,” by Hong Nian Zhang, late twentieth century, via National Geographic Magazine


The third voyage resulted in Zheng He being involved in military affairs, and suppressing a rebellion in Sri Lanka in 1410; the Treasure Fleet never experienced any more hostilities on their voyages to Sri Lanka after this.


The fourth voyage took the Treasure Fleet further west than it had ever been before, reaching Ormus on the Arabian Peninsula, and the Maldives as well. Perhaps the most interesting element of the following voyage was that the Treasure Fleet reached the east African coast, visiting Somalia and Kenya. African wildlife was brought back to China for the Yongle Emperor, including a giraffe — the likes of which had obviously never been seen in China before.


The sixth voyage saw the Treasure Fleet stay relatively close to Chinese shores, while the seventh and final reached as far west as Mecca, in modern-day Saudi Arabia.


Following Zheng He’s death sometime between 1433 and 1435, the Treasure Fleet was suspended permanently, and left to rot in the harbor. The legacy of this meant that China adopted a largely secretive profile for the next three centuries, believing that they already knew everything they needed to know about the world, and essentially isolating themselves as much as possible.


2. Empress Ma Xiaocigao: A Voice of Reason in Ming China

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Portrait of Empress Ma, c. 14th-15th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Another key figure during the early years of the Ming Dynasty was Empress Xiaocigao, who was empress consort of the Ming Dynasty, married to the Hongwu Emperor.


What is particularly interesting about her is that she was born into a poor family: She was not a member of the nobility. She was born simply named Ma, on 18 July 1332 in Suzhou, in Eastern China. Because she was not from the nobility, she did not have bound feet like many high-class Chinese women at the time. The only things we know about Ma’s early life are that her mother died when she was young, and that she fled with her father to Dingyuan after he had committed murder.


It was during their tenure in Dingyuan that Ma’s father met and befriended the founder of the Red Turban Army, Guo Zixing, who held influence at court. He adopted Ma after her father died and married her to one of his officers named Zhu Yuanzhang, who would become the future Hongwu Emperor.


When Zhu became emperor in 1368, he named Ma as his empress. Yet despite her social elevation from a poor family to empress of the Ming Dynasty, she continued to remain humble and just, carrying on with her economic upbringing. Yet despite this, she was not feeble nor stupid. She was a key political advisor to her husband, and also kept control of the state documents. It was even reported that she prevented her husband from acting brashly at times, such as when he was prepared to execute an academic named Song Lian.


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A seated portrait of the Hongwu Emperor, c. 1377, via National Palace Museum, Taipei


Empress Ma was also aware of social injustices and felt a deep sympathy for the common people. She encouraged tax reductions and campaigned to reduce the burden of heavy workloads. She also encouraged her husband to build a granary in Nanjing, in order to provide food for the students and their families who were studying in the city.


However, despite her charitable efforts, the Hongwu Emperor did not like her having so much control. He established regulations which prevented empresses and consorts from being involved in state affairs and forbade women from below the rank of empress from leaving the palaces unattended. Empress Ma simply retorted back to him that, “If the Emperor is the Father of the People, the Empress is their Mother; how then could their Mother stop caring for the comfort of their children?”


Empress Ma continued to live charitably, and even provided blankets for the poor who could not afford them. She, meanwhile, continued to wear old clothes until they were no longer durable. She died on 23 September 1382, aged 50. Without her influence, it is likely that the Hongwu Emperor would have been far more radical, and social changes during the early Ming period would not have taken place.


3. The Yongle Emperor: Expansion and Exploration

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Portrait of the Yongle Emperor, c. 1400, via Wikimedia Commons


The Yongle Emperor (personal name Zhu Di, born 2 May 1360) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor and Empress Ma. His elder brother, Zhu Biao, was intended to succeed the Hongwu Emperor, but his untimely death meant that there was a succession crisis, and the imperial crown went instead to Zhu Biao’s son, who took on the title of the Jianwen Emperor.


After the Jianwen Emperor began executing his uncles and other senior family members, Zhu Di rebelled against him, and overthrew him, and became the Yongle Emperor in 1404. He is often regarded as one of the Ming Dynasty’s — and in fact China’s — finest emperors.


One of the most important changes he brought about to the Ming Dynasty was changing the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where it remains to this day. This also brought thousands of jobs to the local populace, due to the construction of palaces for the Emperor. A new residence was built over a period of fifteen years, known as the Forbidden City, and it became the heart of the government district, called the Imperial City.


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Drawing of the Grand Canal, by William Alexander (draughtsman to the Macartney Embassy to China), 1793, via Fineartamerica.com


Another achievement during the Yongle Emperor’s reign was the construction of the Grand Canal; a marvel of engineering which was built using pound locks (the same locks that canals are constructed with to this day) which took the canal to its greatest height of 138 feet (42m). This extension allowed the new capital of Beijing to be supplied with grain.


Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Yongle Emperor was his willingness to see a Chinese expansion into the “Western” (Indian) Ocean, and his desire to build a maritime trading system around the Asian nations to China’s south. The Yongle Emperor was successful at overseeing this, having sent Zheng He and his Treasure Fleet on several different voyages throughout his reign. The Yongle Emperor died on 12 August 1424, aged 64.


4. Matteo Ricci: A Scholar on a Mission

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A Chinese portrait of Matteo Ricci, by Yu Wen-hui, 1610, via Boston College


Matteo Ricci is the only non-Chinese character to feature on this list, but he is just as important as the others. Born in Macerata in the Papal States (modern-day Italy) on 6 October 1552, he went on to study classics and law in Rome, before entering the Society of Jesus in 1571. After six years, he applied for a missionary expedition to the Far East, and set sail from Lisbon in 1578, landing in Goa (a then-Portuguese colony on the southwest coast of India) in September 1579. He stayed in Goa until Lent 1582 when he was summoned to Macau (south-east China) to continue his Jesuit teachings there.


Upon his arrival in Macau, it was noticeable that any missionary work in China had been centered around the city, with a few Chinese residents having converted to Christianity. Matteo Ricci took it upon himself to learn the Chinese language and customs, which became an almost lifelong project of his, in an attempt to become one of the first western scholars to master Classical Chinese. It was also during his time in Macau that he developed the first edition of his map of the world, titled The Great Map of Ten Thousand Countries.


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Portrait of the Wanli Emperor, c. 16th-17th century, via sahistory.org


In 1588, he gained permission to travel to Shaoguan and to re-establish his mission there. He taught Chinese scholars mathematics that he had learned from his teacher back in Rome, Christopher Clavius. It is likely that this was the first time that European and Chinese mathematical ideas had entwined.


Ricci attempted to visit Beijing in 1595 but found that the city was closed to foreigners, and he was instead received at Nanjing, where he continued his education and teaching. However, in 1601 he was invited to become an imperial advisor to the Wanli Emperor, becoming the first westerner to be invited into the Forbidden City. This invitation was an honor, given due to his mathematical knowledge and his ability to predict solar eclipses, which were hugely important to Chinese culture at the time.


Once he had firmly established himself in Beijing, he managed to convert some senior officials to Christianity, thus fulfilling his initial mission to the Far East. Ricci died on 11 May 1610, aged 57. Under the laws of the Ming Dynasty, foreigners who died in China were to be buried in Macau, but Diego de Pantoja (a Spanish Jesuit missionary) pleaded a case against the Wanli Emperor that Ricci should be buried in Beijing, for his contributions to China. The Wanli Emperor granted this request, and Ricci’s final resting place is still in Beijing.


5. The Chongzhen Emperor: The Final Emperor of Ming China

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Portrait of the Chongzhen Emperor, c. 17th-18th century, via Calenderz.com


The Chongzhen Emperor appears on this list as he was the final of the 17 Ming Emperors. His death (by suicide) ushered in the era of the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 until 1912.


He was born as Zhu Youjian on 6 February 1611, and was the younger brother of his predecessor, the Tianqui Emperor, and the son of his predecessor, the Taichang Emperor. Unfortunately for Zhu, his two predecessors had been seeing the steady decline of the Ming Dynasty, due to raids in the north and economic crises, which ultimately left him in an awkward position.


After his elder brother died in a mysterious explosion in Beijing, Zhu ascended the Dragon Throne as the Chongzhen Emperor on 2 October 1627, aged 16. Although he attempted to slow down the inevitable decline of the Ming Empire, an empty treasury did not help when it came to finding suitable and experienced government ministers. He was also reported to be suspicious of his subordinates, and had dozens of field commanders executed, including General Yuan Chonghuan, who had successfully led a defensive campaign against the Manchus (who would later style themselves as the Qing Dynasty).


The Chongzhen Emperor also had to deal with peasant rebellions, accelerated by the Mini Ice Age which led to poor crop harvests and thus a hungry population. Throughout the 1630s these rebellions increased, and resentment towards the Chongzhen Emperor grew, culminating in the rebellious forces from the north reaching ever closer to Beijing.


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The Shunzhi Emperor, first emperor of the Qing Dynasty, c. 17th century, via the US Naval Institute


The defenders of Beijing were mainly old and feeble soldiers, who were severely malnourished because the eunuchs overseeing their food provisions were not doing their jobs properly. In February and March 1644, the Chongzhen Emperor refused proposals to move the Ming capital back south to Nanjing. On 23rd April 1644, word reached Beijing that the rebels had almost captured the city, and two days later the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide, either by hanging himself from a tree or strangling himself with a sash.


There was a very short-lived Shun Dynasty that took over briefly, but these were soon dispatched by the Manchu rebels a year later, who became the Qing Dynasty. Because of the Chongzhen Emperor’s refusal to move the capital south, the Qing had a largely intact capital city to take over and conduct their governing from. Ultimately, it was a sad end for the 276-year-old Ming Dynasty.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.