Ming Dynasty: The Rise & Fall of China’s Despotic State

The Ming Dynasty arose during the violent unrest that followed the collapse of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in the early 14th century.

Jul 20, 2023By Kristoffer Uggerud, MA Area studies, BA History
ming dynasty overview


The collapse of the Yuan dynasty occurred in the same manner in which other dynasties have repeatedly lost power in China’s extraordinarily long and well-documented history. Internal strife occurred, in which warlords stood against warlords, combined with enormous natural disasters. The Yuan dynasty, which Kublai Khan established, collapsed for these reasons. The Ming Dynasty would do the same but only after 276 years.


The First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty

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The Stele Pavilion in Ming Tombs, China, which holds the tomb of the Hongwu Emperor, via architecturaldigest.com


Zhu Yuanzhang became the first Chinese emperor in nearly 2,000 years to come from a poor peasant family. As a child, Zhu lost his parents to a major flood. Like many other orphans in China throughout history, he became a monk in a Buddhist monastery for a short period. Through extraordinary skill and cunning as a soldier and military strategist, he eventually became the founder of a new dynasty. As Emperor Hongwu (1328-1398), he ruled the world’s most sophisticated country from 1368 until his death.


The emperor immediately demonstrated strong ability and a willingness to exact brutal power to make clear that the Ming Dynasty represented stability and continuity, whereas the Yuan Dynasty represented rupture and chaos. The economy and agriculture were in dire straits and the state administration had almost collapsed. Hongwu promised to cleanse China of the influence of what was described as the Mongol barbarians, and a strong state with strong leadership was seen as an absolute necessity.


Emperor Hongwu has been described as a visionary leader and a creative genius, but eventually he showed symptoms of paranoia. In 1380 he accused his most important adviser of sedition and sentenced him to death. In the hunt for conspirators, 30,000 people were murdered. He was always careful to demonstrate his power and institutionalized a system where blows with a heavy bamboo stick became a common method of punishment. Members of the top bureaucracy could be beaten to death for the slightest disobedience. The Mandarins were Mandarins on one basis: they worked on behalf of the Emperor.


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He is also known for the following statement, explaining what he had once done to people who did not follow his orders: “I went to Taiping Port and had them flogged many times and cut off their feet. Then I ordered them back to work, to set an example for others.”


From Nanjing to Beijing: The Reign of the Yongle Emperor

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The Yongle Emperor, from the Ming Dynasty, via Wikipedia Commons


Another Ming emperor should also be mentioned because of his importance. Zhu Di (1360-1424), the fourth son of Emperor Hongwu, took power in the early 15th century after a series of bloody rebellions with close relatives. He took the name Yongle and, like his father, represented typical features of this dynastic period: Relative stability in society and improvement in living conditions, brutal rule, and fierce efforts to control the water system. It was he who moved the capital from hot Nanjing to Beijing. He gained eternal life in history because he completed the Grand Canal and sent the Muslim eunuch Zheng He as the head of an armada of ships across the Indian Ocean to East Africa.


The Yongle Emperor also immediately demonstrated his will for absolute power. He had asked one of China’s most respected Confucian bureaucrats, Fang Xiaoru, to write his inauguration speech, but Fang refused. He thought Yongle was a traitor who did not obey his father’s will. Fang was sentenced to death, and the punishment was to be sawed across the hips. To demonstrate his rejection of the new emperor, Fang said that the Yongle Emperor should go even further and kill him via an old rule of the extermination of nine levels of kin. Around 800 relatives are said to have been murdered while Fang was forced to watch. After Fang was sawn in half, legend has it that he dipped his finger in his own blood and wrote “throne robber.”


The Ming Dynasty was a state in which there were no formal limits to the emperor’s exercise of power. There were no checks or balances in the management system. It was thus a very strong state, but with no rule of law at all. The emperor carried out murders when he saw it necessary, people were assigned to collective labor when necessary, slavery was widespread, and eunuchs — most often captured as slaves, then castrated and then given access to the court — eventually formed a bureaucracy of tens of thousands of people. The dynasty also established an extensive espionage network against its citizens.


The Glorious Dynasty

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Scroll showing the Jiajing Emperor on State Barge, 1538, via Theculturetrip.com


The Ming Period as a whole, despite the great differences in the emperors’ manners, was characterized by relative stability and harmony, where agriculture expanded and well-educated officials led the state. This is also why the dynasty has served and still serves as an illustration that Confucian social philosophy is a prerequisite for a good society in China. There were economic and ecological reasons why just such a dynasty created harmony, and in some periods, was called “The Glorious Dynasty.”


China was an agricultural society where the dominant cultivation method was based on various forms of artificial irrigation and thus the control of rivers and canals. It is estimated that the total area under artificial irrigation in the Ming Period was about 90 million acres at most. It is believed that the Ming Dynasty was behind a tripling of the cultivation area within a few decades. The Ming emperors had thousands of dykes, canals, and reservoirs restored and repaired and many new ones built. At the same time as the state ensured the farmers’ water supply and security, the position of the Ming emperors was further strengthened.


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Achievements of the Ming Dynasty, featuring the Porcelain tower, the Great Wall of china, the forbidden city, and a Ming vessel, from via Learnodo Newtonic


Building dykes was not something one chose to do, it was an absolute prerequisite for maintaining settlement and agriculture on the plains along the Yellow River. Such systems required a strong state, both so that they could be built, and so that they could be maintained and repaired. This important relationship between society and water meant close cooperation between the regions under a robust and united leadership.


The crown jewel of China’s pervasive water-moving projects was the Grand Canal or Imperial Canal. Begun in the fifth century BCE, it became a unified communication system for the empire for the first time in the 8th century CE. The canal formed the backbone of China’s domestic transportation system, allowing food, raw materials, and soldiers to be transported from south to north with unparalleled regularity and on a scale unmatched by any other country. When the Ming Dynasty extended and expanded the Grand Canal in the 15th century, it was a magnificent achievement. The canal was the core of an extremely complex project involving the control of several large waterways. It required a very strong, efficient, and rich state with a correspondingly efficient bureaucracy that could keep the administration of the entire canal complex together. This state was the Ming, and it showed that it was the strongest state in world history until then.


Eunuchs in Power: Liu Jin and the Corruption of the Ming Court

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Mural from the tomb of the prince Zhanghuai, 706 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the major problems the Ming Dynasty had was the extent of corruption in society. The personnel of the court were appointed by the emperor and it was mostly populated by eunuchs to reduce the possibility of family plots against the emperor. In the early years of the Ming Dynasty, the emperor launched an anti-corruption campaign. The punishment was merciless. People who accepted bribes were cut up piece by piece until they died as punishment. In more serious cases, entire clans were collectively punished with death.


A particularly well-known example is Liu Jin(1451-1510), a powerful eunuch under Emperor Zhengde(1506-1521). He is known for being one of the most corrupt in China’s history and is also considered one of the world’s richest men throughout history. In his residence, he is said to have stored 450 kilograms of gold and 9,682 kilograms of silver. The emperor ordered his death according to the “one thousand cuts” method. During three days, Liu is said to have been stabbed 3,357 times. He died after the executioners cut 3-400 pieces from his body, while onlookers bought the pieces of meat, fried them, and ate them with rice wine while cursing his name.


When Floods and Droughts Lead to Rebellions: The Ming Dynasty’s Downfall

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Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, by Xie Huan, ca 1437, via The MET Museum


Under the Ming, as under all dynasties in China, the emperor’s legitimacy depended on the Mandate of Heaven not being withdrawn. This mandate gave the Emperor unique power, but it also made him and his dynasty vulnerable. The stability assumed that nature played in teams, especially the large rivers. The moment Yangtze and Yellow Rivers failed to deliver what society expected of them, not only did it affect the economy, but the emperor’s political legitimacy was also threatened. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, one flood and drought disaster occurred after another. Despite the dynasty’s superior technological competence, they were unable to prevent them.


The Grand Canal had to be closed in 1571 and 1572 due to flooding, and it became necessary to transport foodstuffs along the unsafe coastal road. When the Mandate of Heaven was withdrawn, the people had the right to overthrow their rulers, and so rebellions have often followed in the wake of natural disasters in Chinese history. In the very last year of the dynasty, the Grand Canal also had to be closed, definitely a sign of the end of the dynasty in China. The Ming Dynasty was unable to withstand the rebellions that followed. Conquerors moved in from the north, and the Great Wall did not help the Ming. The Manchus just marched outside of it. Some 300 years after they had seized power themselves by crushing the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the last Ming emperor hanged himself from a tree outside the Forbidden City, while foreign rulers were on their way to Beijing.

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By Kristoffer UggerudMA Area studies, BA HistoryKristoffer is a History and Social Studies high school teacher in Norway. Both of his degrees are from the University of Oslo, Norway. He enjoys hunting, fishing, and spending time with my family in his spare time.