The Mighty Ming Dynasty in 5 Key Developments

From medicine to porcelain, find out how these 5 developments shaped the Ming Dynasty.

Oct 24, 2022By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History
great wall china hongwu emperor painting


Throughout China’s rich and varied history, few eras have matched the technological advancements of the Ming dynasty. The Ming period, from 1368 to 1644, saw huge changes in Chinese history, including the development of the world-famous Great Wall of China to how we know it today, the construction of the imperial governing house and the Forbidden City, and voyages across the Indian Ocean as far afield as the Persian Gulf and Indonesia. This period of Chinese history is synonymous with exploration, construction, and art, to name just a few key events from the Ming era.


1. The Great Wall of China: The Border Fortress of the Ming Dynasty

great wall china ming dynasty
The Great Wall of China, photo by Hung Chung Chih, via National Geographic


Ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Wall of China stretches for over a total of 21,000 kilometers (13,000 miles), from the Russian border to the north, to the Tao River to the South, and along almost the entire Mongolian border from East to West.


The earliest foundations of the wall were laid in the 7th century BCE, and certain parts were joined up by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, who ruled from 220-206 BCE. However, the majority of the Great Wall as we know it today was constructed during the Ming era.


It was largely due to the imminent threat of strong Mongolian forces (aided by the unification of the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century) that the Great Wall was developed even further, and strengthened around the Sino-Mongolian border.


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By the time the Hongwu Emperor came on the Imperial Throne in 1368 as the first Ming Emperor, he knew that the Mongols were going to be a threat, having just ousted the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty from China. He set up eight outer garrisons and an inner line of forts around the Mongolian border, with the aim of containing the threat. This marked the first stage of the Ming Wall’s construction.


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


The Yongle Emperor (the Hongwu emperor’s successor) set up more defenses during his reign from 1402-24. He moved the capital from Nanjing in the south to Beijing in the north to deal with the Mongol threat more effectively. However, the Ming Empire’s borders were altered during his reign, and this resulted in all but one of his father’s eight garrisons being left intact.


In the late fifteenth century, the need for a wall was more apparent than ever, and from 1473-74 a 1000km (680 mile) long wall was erected across the border. This took the efforts of 40,000 men and cost 1,000,000 silver taels. However, it proved its worth when in 1482, a large group of Mongol raiders was trapped within the double lines of the fortifications and easily defeated by a smaller Ming force.


In the sixteenth century, a military general called Qi Jiguang repaired and restored the parts of the wall that had suffered damage, and constructed 1200 watchtowers along it. Even toward the end of the Ming dynasty, the wall still kept out Manchu raiders from 1600 onwards, and the Manchus only finally passed the Great Wall in 1644, after the Ming dynasty had come to an end.


Still regarded as one of the most recognisable and incredible achievements on Earth, thanks to the efforts of the Ming Dynasty the Great Wall definitely deserves a place on this list.


2. Zheng He’s Voyages: From China to Africa and Beyond

admiral zheng he depiction
Depiction of Admiral Zheng He, via


A key highlight of the early Ming Dynasty, Zheng He’s voyages across the “Western” (Indian) Ocean and beyond, took Chinese culture and trade to areas they had never been to before.


Zheng He was born in 1371 in Yunnan Province and raised as a Muslim. He was captured by Ming forces and placed in the household of the future Yongle Emperor, where he served the emperor and accompanied him on campaign. He was also castrated and became a court eunuch. He received a good education, and when the Yongle Emperor decided that he wanted China to explore outside of its borders, Zheng He was made Admiral of the Treasure Fleet.


The ships of the Treasure Fleet were absolutely enormous, much larger than the ships that both Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus sailed on, later in the fifteenth century. The aim of the Ming treasure voyages was to establish trade with seafaring islands and nations and to introduce them to Chinese culture. In total, Zheng He undertook seven voyages with his Treasure Fleet. The first voyage left Chinese shores in 1405, and the last one returned in 1434.


Throughout the course of these voyages, many nations were discovered by the Chinese for the very first time, including the modern-day countries of Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia.


Some of the more exotic places that Zheng He visited on his travels included the east coast of Africa, where he was gifted a giraffe for the emperor, and which amazingly survived the journey from East Africa back to China and was presented to the emperor at court.


treasure boat ming dynasty
Full-size model of a middle-size treasure boat (63.25m long), built in 2005 in Nanjing Shipyard, via Business Insider


New trade with India was another especially important achievement, and it was even commemorated on a stone tablet, that emphasized the positive relationship that China and India had with each other. The commodities that were traded included silks and ceramics from China, in return for spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon from India.


Zheng He died in either 1433 or 1434, and unfortunately, after his death, no other major expansionist program was undertaken for centuries afterward.


3. The Forbidden City: Home of the Dragon Throne for 500 Years

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The Forbidden City, photo by JuniperPhoton, via Unsplash


A further key feature of the Ming Dynasty was the construction of the Forbidden City, which was built between 1406 and 1420, under the instruction of the Yongle Emperor. It went on to serve as the home of the Chinese emperors and their households from the Yongle Emperor up to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, and it also doubled up as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for over 500 years.


The construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406, shortly after the Yongle Emperor had moved the capital of the Ming Empire from Nanjing to Beijing. The city was constructed over a period of 14 years, and required 1,000,000 workers to finish it. It was largely constructed of wood and marble; the wood was sourced from Phoebe Zhennan trees found in the jungles of south-west China, while marble was found in large quarries nearer to Beijing. Suzhou provided the “golden bricks” of the flooring in the major halls; these were bricks that were specially baked to give them a golden hue. The Forbidden City itself is a huge structure, consisting of 980 buildings with 8886 rooms and covering a total area of 720,000 square meters (72 hectares/178 acres).


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Portrait of the Yongle Emperor, c. 1400, via Britannica


UNESCO has even declared the Forbidden City the largest collection of preserved wooden structures in the world. Since 1925, the Forbidden City has been under the control of the Palace Museum, and it was declared a World heritage Site in 1987. In 2018, the Forbidden City was given an estimated market value of 70 billion US dollars, making it the most valuable palace and piece of real estate anywhere in the world. It also received 19 million visitors in 2019, making it the most visited tourist attraction anywhere globally.


The fact that such an astonishing piece of architecture and construction was built during the Ming Dynasty and still holds numerous world records today conveys how well-designed it was, especially for the time period.


4. The Medicinal Works of Li Shizhen: Herbology Still Used Today

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Peking University Health Center statue of Li Shihzen, via Wikimedia Commons


Moving on from the early Ming period, during the sixteenth century the largest and most comprehensive book on Chinese medicine was compiled by Li Shizhen (1518-93).


Born into a family of doctors (both his grandfather and father were physicians), Li’s father initially encouraged him to work as a civil servant. However, after Li failed the entrance exam three times, he turned to medicine instead.


When he was a practicing physician aged 38, he cured the son of the Prince of Chu and was invited to become a physician there. From there, he was offered a role as Assistant President of the Imperial Medical Institute in Beijing. However, after staying for a year or so, he left to continue practicing as a working doctor.


Yet it was during his tenure at the Imperial Medical Institute that he was able to have access to rare and important medical books. Upon reading these, Li began to notice mistakes, and started correcting them. It was then that he started writing his own book, which would become the famous Compendium of Materia Medica (known as Bencao Gangmu in Chinese).


siku quanshu bencao gangmu
The Siku Quanshu edition of Bencao Gangmu, via


This work would take another 27 years to write and publish. It was largely focused on traditional Chinese medicines, and contained a stunning 1892 entries, with details of over 1800 traditional Chinese medicines, 11,000 prescriptions, and over 1000 illustrations to accompany the text. In addition, the work described the type, flavor, nature, form, and application of disease treatments using over 1000 different herbs.


The book ended up taking over Li’s life, and it was reported that he spent ten consecutive years indoors writing it, revising it, then re-writing sections of it. Eventually, this took a huge toll on Li’s health, and he died before it was published. To this day, the Compendium is still the primary reference work for herbal medicine.


5. Ming Dynasty Porcelain: The Most Sought-After Ming China Product

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A Ming era porcelain vase with dragon, 15th century, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


When Chinese art is mentioned, the first images that come to mind are usually stunning pictures of horses, or stunning illustrations of koi carp swimming in sparkling blue waters, surrounded by water lilies and greenery that seems to go on forever. Another item that comes to mind is porcelain. The aforementioned designs from Ming China are often found on porcelain in a traditional blue and white pattern. It was because of the Ming Dynasty that china became a noun for the style of pottery that came from China.


Thanks to the economic successes of the fifteenth century globally and in China, Ming porcelain became highly sought-after both at home and abroad. It was made using a mixture of clay and other minerals, fired at extremely high temperatures (usually between 1300 and 1400 degrees Celsius/2450-2550 Fahrenheit) to achieve its signature pure whiteness and translucency.


The blue colour came from cobalt oxide, mined from Central Asia (particularly Iran), which was then painted onto the ceramics to depict scenes ranging from Chinese history to mythology and legends from the Far East. Ming porcelain is still highly prized today, and it can cost a small fortune for an original.

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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.