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Kublai Khan

Khagan of the Mongol Empire
Founder of the Yuan Dynasty
Emperor of China
Portrait of Kublai Khan during the era of the Great Yuan.
Reign May 5, 1260 – February 18, 1294
Coronation May 5, 1260
Titles Zhongtong (中統) 1260–1264
Zhiyuan (至元) 1264–1294
Setsen Khan (Цэцэн хаан)
Temple name: Shizu (世祖)
Posthumous name: Emperor Shengde
Shengong Wenwu
Born 23 September 1215
Died 18 February 1294(aged 78–79)
Place of death Dadu (Khanbalic)
Buried Burkhan Khaldun, Khentii province
Predecessor Mongke Khan
Successor Temur Khan
Consort Chabi
Consort Tegulen
Wife Nambui
Royal House Borjigin
Mongolian: Боржигин
Royal anthem There is only god in heaven and only one lord Chingis khaan on earth.
Father Tolui
Mother Sorghaghtani Beki

Kublai (or Khubilai) Khan (Mongolian: Хубилай хаан; Chinese: 忽必烈; pinyin: Hūbìliè) (September 23, 1215[1] – February 18, 1294[2]) was the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire from 1260 to 1294 and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in East Asia. As the second son of Tolui and Sorghaghtani Beki and a grandson of Genghis Khan, he claimed the title of Khagan of the Ikh Mongol Uls (Mongol Empire) in 1260 after the death of his older brother Möngke in the previous year, though his younger brother Ariq Böke was also given this title in the Mongolian capital at Karakorum. He eventually won the battle against Ariq Böke in 1264, and the succession war essentially marked the beginning of disunity in the empire.[3] Kublai’s real power was limited to China and Mongolia after the victory over Ariq Böke, though his influence still remained in the Ilkhanate, and to a lesser degree, in the Golden Horde, in the western parts of the Mongol Empire.[4][5][6] His realm reached from the Pacific to the Urals, from Siberia to Afghanistan – one fifth of the world’s inhabited land area.[7]

In 1271, Kublai established the Yuan Dynasty, which at that time ruled over present-day Mongolia, Tibet, Eastern Turkestan, North China, much of Western China, and some adjacent areas, and assumed the role of Emperor of China. By 1279, the Yuan forces had successfully annihilated the last resistance of the Southern Song Dynasty, and Kublai thus became the first non-Chinese Emperor who conquered all China. He was the only Mongol khan after 1260 to win new great conquests.[8]

As the Mongol Emperor who welcomed Marco Polo to China, Kublai Khan became a legend in Europe.[8]


 Early years

Kublai (b. 23 Sep. 1215) was the second son of Tolui and Sorghaghtani Beki. As his grandfather Genghis Khan advised, Sorghaghtani chose as her son’s nurse a Buddhist Tangut woman whom Kublai later honored highly.

On his way back home after the conquest of Khwarizmian Empire, Genghis Khan performed the ceremony on his grandsons Mongke and Kublai after their first hunting in 1224 near the Ili River.[9] Kublai was nine years old and with his eldest brother killed a rabbit and an antelope. His grandfather smeared fat from killed animals onto Kublai’s middle finger following the Mongol tradition.

After the Mongol-Jin War, in 1236, Ogedei gave Hebei Province (attached with 80,000 households) to the family of Tolui who died in 1232. Kublai received an estate of his own and 10,000 households there. Because he was inexperienced, Kublai allowed local officials free rein. Corruption amongst his officials and aggressive taxation caused the flight of large numbers of Chinese peasants, which in turn led to a decline in tax revenues. Kublai quickly came to his appanage in Hebei and ordered reforms. Sorghaghtani sent new officials to help him and tax laws were revised. Thanks to those efforts, people returned to their old homes.

The most prominent, and arguably influential component of Kublai Khan’s early life was his study and strong attraction to contemporary Chinese culture. Kublai invited Haiyun, the leading Buddhist monk in North China, to his ordo in Mongolia. When he met Haiyun in Karakorum in 1242, Kublai asked him about the philosophy of Buddhism. Haiyun named Kublai’s son, Zhenjin (True Gold in Chinese language), who was born in 1243.[10] Haiyun also introduced Kublai the former Taoist and now Buddhist monk, Liu Bingzhong. Liu was a painter, calligrapher, poet and mathematician, and became Kublai’s advisor when Haiyun returned to run his temple in modern Beijing.[11] Kublai soon added the Shanxi scholar Zhao Bi to his entourage. Kublai employed other nationalities as well, for he was keen to balance local and imperial interests, Mongol and Turk.

 Khagan’s viceroy in North China

Portrait of young Kublai

In 1251, his eldest brother Möngke became Khan of the Mongol Empire, and Khwarizmian Mahmud Yalavach and Kublai were sent to China. Kublai received the viceroyalty over North China and moved his ordo to central Inner Mongolia. During his years as viceroy, Kublai managed his territory well, boosting the agricultural output of Henan and increasing social welfare spendings after receiving Xi’an. These acts received great acclaim from the Chinese warlords and were essential to the building of the Yuan Dynasty. In 1252 Kublai criticized Mahmud Yalavach, who never stood high in the valuation of his Chinese associates, over his cavalier execution of suspects during a judicial view and Zhao Bi attacked him for his presumptuous attitude toward the throne. With Chinese Confucian-trained officials’ resistance, Mongke dismissed Mahmud Yalavach.[12]

In 1253, Kublai was ordered to attack Yunnan, and he asked the Kingdom of Dali to submit. The ruling faimly, Gao, resisted and murdered Mongol envoys. The Mongols divided their forces into three. One wing rode eastward into the Sichuan basin. The second column under Subotai’s son Uryankhadai took a difficult way into the mountains of western Sichuan.[13] Kublai himself headed south over the grasslands, meeting up with the first column. While Uryankhadai galloping in along the lakeside from the north, Kublai took the capital city of Dali and spared the residents despite the slaying of his ambassadors. The Mongols appointed King Duan Xingzhi as local ruler and stationed a pacification commissioner there.[14] After Kublai’s departure, unrest broke out among the Black jang. By 1256, Uryankhadai had completely pacified Yunnan.

Kublai was attracted by the abilities of Tibetan monks as healers. In 1253 he made Phagspa lama of the Sakya order member of his entourage. Phagspa bestowed on Kublai and his wife, Chabi (Chabui), a Tantric Buddhist initiation. Kublai appointed Uyghur Lian Xixian (1231–1280) to head his Pacification Commission in 1254. Some officials who were jealous of Kublai’s success muttered that he was getting above himself, dreaming of his own empire by rivalling Mongke’s capital Karakorum (Хархорум). The Great Khan Mongke sent 2 tax inspectors, Alamdar (Ariq Böke’s close friend and governor in North China) and Liu Taiping, to audit Kublai’s officials in 1257. They found fault, listed 142 breaches of regulations, accused Chinese officials, even had some executed and Kublai’s new Pacification Commission was abolished.[15] Kublai sent a two-man embassy with his wives and then in person appealed to Mongke as brother to brother. Mongke publicly forgave his younger brother and reconciled with him.

The Taoists had exploited their wealth and status by seizing Buddhist temples. Mongke demanded that the Taoists cease their denigration of Buddhism repeatedly and ordered Kublai to end the clerical strife between the Taoists and Buddhists in his territory.[16] Kublai called a conference of Taoist and Buddhist leaders in early 1258. At the conference, the Taoist claim was officially declared refuted and Kublai forcibly converted their 237 temples to Buddhism and destroyed all copies of the fraudulent texts.[17][18][19][20]

In 1258, Möngke put Kublai in command of the Eastern Army and summoned him to assist with attack on Sichuan. Already suffering from gout, Kublai was allowed to stay, however, he moved to assist his brother, Mongke. Before Kublai could arrive in 1259, word reached him that Möngke had died. Kublai decided to keep the death of his brother a secret and continued to attack Wuhan, near Yangtze. While his force was besieging Wuchang, Subotai’s son Uryankhadai joined him.

 Enthronement and civil war

The Mongol Empire in 1259-60

The Song minister Jia Sidao made a secret approach to Kublai to propose terms and asked whether the Song paid an annual tribute of 200,000 taels of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk, in exchange for the Mongols agreeing that the Yangtze should be the frontier between the states.[21] Kublai first declined but reached a peace agreement with Jia Sidao and returned north to the Mongolian plains because he learned in a message from his wife that Ariq Böke had been raising troops.[22]

He soon received news that his younger brother Ariq Böke had held a kurultai at the Mongolian imperial capital of Karakorum and was pronounced Great Khan by Mongke’s old officials. Most of Genghis Khan’s descendants favored Ariq Böke as Great Khan; however, his two brothers Kublai and Hulegu were in opposition. Kublai’s Chinese staff encouraged him to ascend the throne, and virtually all the senior princes in North China and Manchuria supported his candidacy.[23] Upon returning to his own territories, Kublai summoned a kurultai of his own. Only a small number of the royal family supported Kublai’s claims to the title, though the small number of attendees, included representatives of all the Borjigin lines except that of Jochi, still proclaimed him Great Khan, on April 15, 1260, despite his younger brother Ariq Böke’s apparently legal claim.

Kublai was chosen by his supporters except the Golden Horde at the kurultai in 1260

This subsequently led to warfare between Kublai and his younger brother Ariq Böke, which resulted in the eventual destruction of the Mongolian capital at Karakorum. In Shaanxi and Sichuan, Mongke’s army supported Ariq Böke. Kublai dispatched Lian Xixian to Shaanxi and Sichuan where they executed Ariq Böke’s civil administrator Liu Taiping and won over several wavering generals.[24] To secure his southern front, Kublai did try for a diplomatic solution by sending envoys to Hangzhou, but Jia broke his promise and arrested them.[25] Kublai sent Abishqa as new khan to the Chagatai Khanate. Ariq Böke captured Abishqa, two other princes and 100 men and had his own man, Alghu, crowned khan of Chagatai‘s territory. Then came the first armed clash between Ariq Böke and Kublai. Ariq Böke was lost and his commander Alamdar was killed at the battle. In revenge, Ariq Böke had Abishqa executed. Kublai closed the food supply to Karakorum with the support of his cousin Khadan, son of Ogedei Khan. Karakorum fell quickly to Kublai’s large army, but in 1261 Ariq Böke temporarily took it again after Kublai’s departure. During the war with Ariq Böke, Yizhou governor Li Tan revolted against Mongol rule in February 1262. Hearing this, Kublai ordered his Chancellor Shi Tianze and Shi Shu to take the offense against Li Tan. These two armies crushed Li Tan’s revolt in a few months and Li Tan was executed. Execution was also the fate of Wang Wentong, who was the father-in-law of Li Tan and had been appointed the Chief Administrator of the Zhongshusheng, “Department of Central Governing”) early in Kublai’s reign and became one of the most trusted Han Chinese officials of Kublai. This incident instilled in him a strong distrust of ethnic Hans. After he became emperor, Kublai began to ban the titles of and tithes to Han Chinese warlords.

The Chagatayid Khan Alghu declared his allegiance to Kublai Khan and defeated a punitive expedition sent by Ariq Böke against him in 1262. Ilkhan Hulegu also sided with Kublai and criticized Ariq Böke. Ariq Böke surrendered to Kublai at Xanadu on August 21, 1264. The rulers of western khanates acknowledged the reality of Kublai’s victory and rule in Mongolia.[26] When Kublai summoned them to organize another kurultai, Alghu Khan demanded security for his illegal position from Kublai in return. Despite tensions between them, both Hulegu and Berke, khan of the Ulus of Jochi (Golden Horde), accepted Kublai’s invitation at first.[27][28] However, they soon declined to attend the new kurultai. Although, Kublai pardoned his younger brother, he executed Ariq Böke’s chief supporters.


Great Khan of the Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire in 1294. Mongol vassals are indicated in grey, except for Central Europe.

Suspicious deaths of 3 Jochid princes in Hulegu’s service, the sack of Baghdad, and unequal distribution of war booties strained the Ilkhanate’s relations with the Golden Horde. In 1262, Hulegu’s complete purge of the Jochid troops, and support for Kublai in his conflict with Ariq Böke brought open war with the Golden Horde. Khagan Kublai reinforced Hulegu with 30,000 young Mongols in order to stabilize the political crises in western regions of the Mongol Empire.[29] As soon as Hulegu died on 8 February 1264, Berke marched to cross near Tiflis to conquer the Ilkhanate, but he died on the way. Within a few months of these deaths, Alghu Khan of the Chagatai Khanate died too.In the new official version of the family history, Kublai Khan refused to write Berke’s name as the khan of the Golden Horde for his support to Ariq Böke and wars with Hulegu, however, Jochi’s family was fully recognized as legitimate family members.[30]

Kublai named Abagha as the new Ilkhan and nominated Batu’s grandson Mongke Temur for the throne of Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde.[31][32] The Kublaids in the east retained suzerainty over the Ilkhans (obedient khans) until the end of its regime.[33][34] Kublai also sent his protege Baraq to overthrow the court of Oirat Orghana, the empress of the Chagatai Khanate, who put her young son Mubarak Shah on the throne in 1265, without Kublai’s permission after her husband’s death. Ogedeid prince Kaidu declined to personally come to the court of Kublai. Kublai instigated Baraq to attack him. Baraq began to expand his realm northward, fighting Kaidu and the Jochids after he seized power in 1266. He also pushed out Great Khan’s overseer from Tarim basin. When Kaidu and Mongke Timur defeated him together, Baraq joined an alliance with the House of Ogedei and the Golden Horde against Kublai in the east and Abagha in the west. But smart Mongke Temur stayed out of any direct military expedition against the Empire of the Great Khan. The armies of Mongol Persia defeated Baraq’s invading forces in 1269. When Baraq died the next year, Kaidu took the control over the Chagatai Khanate.

Meanwhile, Kublai stabilized the Mongol rule in Korea by mobilizing for another Mongol invasion after he appointed Wonjong (r. 1260-1274) as the new Goryeo king in 1259 in Kanghwa. He forced two rulers of the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate to call a truce with each other in 1270 despite the Golden Horde’s interests in the Middle East and Caucasia.[35] He called 2 Iraqi siege engineers from the Ilkhanate in order to destroy the fortresses of the Song China. After the fall of Xiangyang in 1273, Kublai’s commanders, Aju and Liu Zheng, proposed to him a final campaign of annihilation against the Song Dynasty, and Kublai made Bayan the supreme commander.[36] Therefore, Kublai ordered Mongke Temur to revise the second census of the Golden Horde to provide sources and men for his conquest of China.[37] The census took place in all parts of the Golden Horde, including Smolensk and Vitebsk in 1274-75. The Khans also sent Nogai to Balkan to strengthen Mongol influence there.[38]

As the Great Khan Kublai renamed the Mongol regime in China Dai Yuan in 1271, he sought to sinicize his image as Emperor of China in order to win the control of millions Chinese people. When he moved his headquarters to Khanbalic or Dadu at modern Beijing, there was an uprising in the old capital Karakorum that he barely staunched. His actions were condemned by traditionalists and his critics still accused him of being too closely tied to Chinese culture. They sent a message to him: “The old customs of our Empire are not those of the Chinese laws… What will happen to the old customs?”.[39][40] Even Kaidu attracted the other elites of Mongol Khanates, declaring himself to be a legitimate heir to the throne instead of Kublai who had turned away from the ways of Genghis Khan.[41][42] Defections from Kublai’s Dynasty swelled the Ogedeids’ forces.

Painting of Kublai Khan on a hunting expedition, by Chinese court artist Liu Guandao, c. 1280.

The Song imperial family surrendered to the Yuan in 1276, making the Mongols the first non-Chinese people to conquer all of China. Three years later, Yuan marines crushed the last of the Song loyalists. The Song Empress Dowager and her grandson, Zhao Xian, were then settled in Khanbalic where they were given tax-free property. Kublai’s wife Chabi took a personal interest in their well-being. However, Kublai had Zhao sent away to become a monk to Zhangye later. Kublai succeeded in building powerful Empire, creating an academy, offices, trade ports and canals and sponsoring arts and science. The record of the Mongols lists 20,166 public schools created during his reign.[43] Achieving actual or nominal dominion over much of Eurasia, and having seen his successful conquest of China, Kublai was in a position to look beyond China.[44] However, Kublai’s costly invasions of Burma, Annam, Sakhalin and Champa secured only the vassal status of those countries. Mongol invasions of Japan (1274 and 1280) and Java (1293) failed. At the same time his nephew Ilkhan Abagha tried to form a grand alliance of the Mongols and the Western Europeans to defeat the Mamluks in Syria and North Africa that constantly invaded the Mongol dominions. Abagha and his uncle Kublai focused mostly on foreign alliances, and opened trade routes. Khagan Kublai dined with a large court every day, and met with many ambassadors, foreign merchants, and even offered to convert to Christianity if this religion was proved to be correct by 100 priests.

Kublai’s son Nomukhan and generals occupied Almaliq from 1266-76. In 1277, a group of Genghisid princes under Mongke’s son Shiregi rebelled, kidnapping Kublai’s two sons and his general Antong. The rebels handed them over to Kaidu and Mongke Temur. The latter was still allied with Kaidu who fashioned an alliance with him in 1269, although, he promised Kublai Khan his military support to protect him from the Ogedeids.[45] Great Khan’s armies suppressed the rebellion and strengthened the Yuan garrisons in Mongolia and Uighurstan. However, Kaidu took control over Almaliq.

Extract of the letter of Arghun to Philip IV of France, in the Mongolian script, dated 1289. French National Archives.

In 1279-80, Kublai decreed death for those who performed Islamic-Jewish slaughtering of cattles, which offended Mongolian custom.[46] When the Muslim Ahmad Teguder seized the throne of the Ilkhanate in 1282, attempting to make peace with the Mamluks, Abagha’s old Mongols under prince Arghun appealed to the Great Khan. After the execution of Ahmad, Kublai confirmed Arghun’s coronation and awarded his commander in chief Buqa who helped his master the title of chingsang. However, a large Muslim community was created in China under Kublai’s rule and the Muslims still shared power with the Mongols within his administration. In spite of his lack of direct control over the western khanates and the Mongol princes’ rebellions, it seems Kublai could intervene in their affairs because Abagha’s son Arghun wrote that Great Khan Kublai ordered him to conquer Egypt in his letter to the Pope Nicolas IV.[47]

Kublai’s niece Kelmish, who was married a Khunggirat general of the Golden Horde, was powerful enough to have Kublai’s sons Nomuqan and Kokhchu returned. The court of the Golden Horde sent them back as a peace overture to the Yuan Dynasty in 1282 and induced Kaidu to release the general of Kublai. Konchi, khan of White Horde, established friendly relations with the Yuan and the Ilkhanate, receiving luxury gifts and grain from Kublai as reward.[48] Despite political disagreement between contending branches of the family over the office of Khagan, the economic and commercial system which trumped their squabbles continued.[49][50][51][52]

Warfare and foreign relations

Hand cannon from the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368)

Despite Kublai restricted the functions of kheshig (khan’s bodyguard), he created a new imperial bodyguard, at first entirely Chinese in composition but later strengthened with Kipchak, Alan (Asud), and Russian units.[53][54][55] Once his own kheshig was organized in 1263, Kublai put three of the four shifts of the kheshig under descendants of Genghis Khan’s four steeds, Borokhula, Boorchu and Muqali. Kublai Khan began the practice of having the four great aristocrats in his kheshig sign all jarliqs (decree), a practice that spread to all other Mongol khanates.[56] Both Mongol and Chinese units were organized according to the same decimal organization that Genghis Khan used. The Mongols eagerly adopted new artillery and technologies. While Kublai’s younger brother Hulegu used 1,000 Chinese mangonel operators under Barga Mongol Ambaghai, he brought siege engineers, Ismail and Al al-Din, from Iraq and Iran. The world’s earliest known cannon, dated 1282, was found in Mongol-held Manchuria.[57] Kublai and his generals avoided total destruction of South China for economic benefits. Effective assimilation of Chinese naval techniques allowed the Yuan army to quickly conquer the Song and advance beyond the seas.

Diplomatically and militarily, Kublai’s foreign policy, as the previous Mongolian Khagans, was imperialistic. Kublai Khan made Goryeo (Korea) a tributary vassal in 1260. The Yuan helped Wonjong stabilize his control over Korea in 1271. After the Mongol invasion in 1273, the Goryeo was fully integrated in the Yuan realm.[58][59][60][61][62] The Goryeo in Korea became a Mongol military base and several myriarchy commands were established there. The court of the Goryeo supplied Korean troops and ocean naval force for the Mongol campaigns. Despite the opposition of his Confucian-trained Chinese advisers, Kublai decided to invade Japan, Burma, Vietnam and Java, following his Mongol officials. These costly conquests along with the introduction of paper currency, caused inflation. From 1273 to 1276 war against the Song Dynasty and Japan made emissions of paper currency explode from 110,000 ding to 1,420,000 ding.[63]


v • d • e
Mongol invasions

Central Asia (Khwarizm) – Georgia and Armenia – Volga Bulgaria (Samara Bend – Bilär) – Anatolia – Europe (Rus’ – Poland – Hungary) – Tibet – Baghdad – Korea – India – Japan (Bun’ei – Kōan) – Vietnam (Bạch Đằng) – China (Jin – Song) – Burma (Ngasaunggyan – Pagan  – Bhamo) – Java – Syria – Palestine (Ain Jalut)

 Invasions of Japan

The samurai Suenaga facing Mongol arrows and bombs. Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba (蒙古襲来絵詞), circa 1293.

Kublai Khan twice attempted to invade Japan; however, both times, it is believed that bad weather, or a flaw in the design of ships that were based on river boats without keels nevertheless destroyed his fleets. The first attempt took place in 1274, with a fleet of 900 ships. The second invasion occurred in 1281.The Mongols sent two separate forces this time; an impressive force of 900 ships containing 40,000 Korean, Chinese, and Mongol troops set out from Masan, while an even larger force of 100,000 sailed from southern China in 3,500 ships, each close to 240 feet (73 m) long. The fleet was hastily assembled and ill-equipped to handle the sea.

The Mongolian Yuan troops. Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba (蒙古襲来絵詞).

In November, they sailed out into the treacherous waters that separated Korea and Japan by 110 miles. The Mongols easily took over Tsushima Island about halfway across the strait and then Ika Island closer to Kyushu. The Korean fleet reached Hakata Bay on June 23, 1281 landing its forces and animals, but the ships from China were nowhere to be seen.

The samurai warriors rode out against the Mongol forces for individual combat, but the Mongols held their formation. As usual, the Mongols fought as a united force, not as individuals. Instead of coming out for duels, the Mongols bombarded the samurai with exploding missiles and showered them in arrows. Eventually, the remaining Japanese withdrew from the coastal zone inland to a fortress. The Mongol forces did not chase the fleeting Japanese into an area about which they lacked reliable intelligence at that time.

Dr. Kenzo Hayashida, a marine archaeologist, headed the investigation that discovered the wreckage of the second invasion fleet off the western coast of Takashima. His team’s findings strongly indicate that Kublai Khan rushed to invade Japan and attempted to construct his enormous fleet in only one year (a task that should have taken up to 5 years). This forced the Chinese to use any available ships, including river boats, in order to achieve readiness. Most importantly, the Chinese, then under Kublai’s control, were forced to build many ships quickly in order to contribute to the fleet in both of the invasions. Hayashida theorizes that, had Kublai used standard, well-constructed ocean-going ships, which have a curved keel to prevent capsizing, his navy might have survived the journey to and from Japan and might have conquered it as intended.

David Nicolle writes in The Mongol Warlords that “Huge losses had also been suffered in terms of casualties and sheer expense, while the myth of Mongol invincibility had been shattered throughout eastern Asia.” He also wrote that Kublai Khan was determined to mount a third invasion, despite the horrendous cost to the economy and to his and Mongol prestige of the first two defeats, and only his death and the unanimous agreement of his advisers not to invade prevented such a third attempt.

After his first invasion of Japan, in response, the Japanese pirates, known as Wokou, raided Korea. But the Mongol-Korean forces pushed them back, and the Wokou pirates experienced a low point of their activity due to the higher degree of military preparedness in the Goryeo and the Kamakura. In 1293, the Yuan navy captured 100 Japanese from Okinawa.[64]

Invasions of Vietnam

Map depicting Mongol campaign in Đại Việt(the name for Vietnam at the time, which consisted of the present-day northern Vietnam) in the north and Champa in the south in 1285

Kublai Khan also twice invaded Đại Việt. When Kublai became the Great Khan in 1260, the Trần Dynasty sent tribute every 3 years and received a darugachi.[65][66] But their king soon declined to attend the court in person. The first incursion (the second Mongol invasion of Đại Việt) began in December 1284 when Mongols under the command of Toghan, the prince of Kublai Khan, crossed the border and quickly occupied Thăng Long (now Hanoi) in January 1285 after the victorious battle of Omar in Vạn Kiếp (north east of Hanoi). At the same time Sogetu from Champa moved northward and rapidly marched to Nghe An (in the north central region of Vietnam now) where the army of the Tran under general Tran Kien surrendered to him. However, the Trần kings and the commander-in-chief Trần Hưng Đạo changed tactics from defence to attack and struck against the Mongols. In April, General Trần Quang Khải defeated Sogetu in Chuong Duong (now part of Hanoi) and then the Trần kings won a big battle in Tây Kết where Sogetu died. Soon after, general Trần Nhật Duật also won a battle in Hàm Tử (now part of Hưng Yên) while Toghan was defeated by General Trần Hưng Đạo and Kublai Khan failed in his first attempt to invade Đại Việt. Toghan had to hide himself inside a bronze pipe to avoid being killed by the Đại Việt archers; this shameful act became a disastrous humiliation for the Mongol Empire and for Toghan himself.

After his first failure, Kublai wanted to install Nhan Tong’s brother Tran Ich Tac, who had defected to the Mongols, as king of Annam, but hardship in the Yuan’s supply base in Hunan, and Kaidu’s invasion aborted his planned invasion. In 1285 the Brigung sect rebelled, attacking monasteries of Paghspa’s sect in Tibet. The Chagatayid Khan, Duwa, came in to aid the rebels, and laid siege to Kara-Kocho while defeating Kublai’s garrisons in the Tarim basin.[67] Kaidu destroyed an army at Beshbalik and occupied the city the next year. Many Uyghurs abandoned Kashgar for safer bases back east in the Yuan. Only after Kublai’s grandson Buqa-Temur crushed the resistance of the Brigung sect, killing 10,000 Tibetans in 1291, Tibet was fully pacified.

The second invasion of Đại Việt by Kublai Khan began in 1287 and was better organized than the previous effort, utilizing a large fleet and plentiful stocks of food. The Mongols, under the command of Toghan, moved to Vạn Kiếp (from the north west) and met the infantry and cavalry of Omar (coming by another way along the Red River) and there they quickly won the battle. The naval fleet rapidly attained victory in Vân Đồn (near Ha Long Bay) but they left the heavy cargo ships stocked with food behind which General Trần Khánh Dư quickly captured. As foreseen, the Mongolians in Thăng Long (now Hanoi) suffered an acute shortage of sustenance. Without any news about the supply fleet Toghan found himself in a tight corner and had to order his army to retreat to Vạn Kiếp. This was when Đại Việt’s Army began the general offensive by recapturing a number of locations occupied by the Mongol invaders. Groups of infantry were given orders to attack the Mongols in Vạn Kiếp. Toghan had to split his army into two and retreat.

In early April the naval fleet led by Kublai’s Kipchak commander Omar and escorted by infantry fled home along the Bạch Đằng river. As bridges and roads were destroyed and attacks were launched by Đại Việt’s troops, the Mongols reached Bạch Đằng without an infantry escort. Đại Việt’s small flotilla engaged in battle and pretended to retreat. The Mongols eagerly pursued Đại Việt troops and fell into their prearranged battlefield. “Thousands” of Đại Việt’s small boats from both banks quickly appeared, fiercely launched the attack and broke the combat formation of the enemy. Meeting a sudden and strong attack, the Mongols tried to withdraw to the sea in panic. Hitting the stakes, their boats were halted, many of which were broken and sank. At that time, a number of fire rafts quickly rushed toward them. Frightened, the Mongolian troops jumped down to get to the banks where they were dealt a heavy blow by an army led by the Trần king and Trần Hưng Đạo. The Mongolian naval fleet was totally destroyed and Omar was captured. At the same time, Đại Việt’s Army made continuous attacks and smashed to pieces Toghan’s army on its route of withdrawal through Lạng Sơn. Toghan risked his life making a shortcut through thick forest to flee home. Nevertheless, the Đại Việt and the Kingdom of Champa had recognized Kublai’s supremacy in order to avoid more conflicts.[66][68]

[edit] Southeast Asia and South seas

Three expeditions against Burma (1277, 1283, 1287) brought the Mongol forces to the Irrawaddy delta, and the Mongols captured Bagan, the capital of Pagan Kingdom in Burma, and established their puppet government.[69] Kublai had to be content with the acknowledgment of a formal suzerainty again but the Burmese finally became tributary state and sent tributes until the expulsion of the Mongols from China.[70] The Khmer kingdom of Cambodia and small states in Malay and South India submitted to Kublai’s rule between 1278-1294. Mongol interests in these parts had always been purely commercial and tributary relationship.

During the last years of his reign Kublai launched a naval punitive expedition of 20-30,000 men against the Javanese kingdom of Singhasari (1293), but the Mongol forces were compelled to withdraw, by the Majapahit Dynasty, after considerable losses of more than 3,000 troops. In 1294, two Thai kingdoms of Sukhotai and Chiangmai became vassal states of Kublai’s empire.[69]

[edit] Conquest of Sakhalin

The Mongol forces made several attacks on Sakhalin, beginning in 1264 and continuing until 1308.[71] Economically, the conquest of new peoples provided further wealth for the tribute-based Mongol Dynasty. The Nivkhs and the Orokhs were subjugated by the Mongols. However, the Ainu people raided Mongol posts and fought with the indigenous people of Sakhalin, who submitted to the Great Khan.[72] Finally, the Ainu tribes accepted Mongol supremacy in 1308.

[edit] Europe

Main articles: Marco Polo and Rabban Sauma

Kublai gives financial support to the Polo family.

Under Kublai, the opening of direct contact between East Asia and the West, made possible by the Mongol control of the central Asian trade routes and facilitated by the presence of efficient postal services, was another spectacular phenomenon in the Mongol Empire. In the beginning of the 13th century, large numbers of Europeans and Central Asians – merchants, travelers, and missionaries of different orders – made their way to China. The presence of the Mongol power also enabled throngs of Chinese, bent on warfare or trade, to make their appearance everywhere in the Mongol Empire, all the way to Russia, Persia, and Mesopotamia.

There were several direct exchanges of missions between the Pope and the Great Khan, though each with a different motive. In 1266 Kublai entrusted the Venetian merchants, the Polo brothers, to carry a request to the Pope for a hundred Christian scholars and engineers. The Polos arrived in Rome in 1269, receiving an audience from the future Pope Gregory X, and they set out with his blessing but no scholars.

Rabban Bar Sauma, the ambassador of Great Khan Kublai and Ilkhan Arghun, travelled from Dadu in the East, to Rome, Paris and Bordeaux in the West, meeting with the major rulers of the period in 1287-1288

Marco Polo, Niccolo’s son, who accompanied his father on this trip, was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China and Mongolia. It is said that he spent the next 17 years (1275–1292) under Kublai Khan, including official service in the salt administration and trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. Although the flaws in his description of China have tempted modern historians to dispute his sojourn in the Middle Kingdom, the popularity of his journal, Description of the World, was such that it subsequently generated unprecedented enthusiasm in Europe for going east.

Marco Polo had his East Asian counterpart in Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk born around Khanbalik/Dadu (modern Beijing). He crossed central Asia to the Il-Khan’s court in Iran in 1278 and was one of those whom the Mongols sent to Europe to seek Christian help against Islam. There must have been countless numbers of unknown others who crossed the Continent, spreading information about their land and bringing with them artifacts of their culture. Under Kublai, the first direct contact and cultural interchange between China and the West, however limited in scope, had become a reality never before achieved.

[edit] Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty, c. 1294 and its client state Goryeo in modern Korea

Kublai used traditional decimal organization of the Mongol Empire and set up special gerfalcon posts exclusively for the highest officials in 1261. He adopted Chinese political and cultural models, and also worked to minimize the influences of regional lords who had held immense power before and during the Song Dynasty. Kublai heavily relied on his Chinese advisers until 1276. Nevertheless, his mistrust of ethnic Han Chinese caused him to appoint Mongols, Central Asians, Muslims and few Europeans to high positions more often than Han Chinese. Kublai began to suspect Han Chinese when his Chinese minister’s son-in-law revolted against him while he was fighting against Ariq Böke in Mongolia,[73] though he continued to invite and use many Han Chinese advisers such as Liu Bingzhong and Xu Heng. He employed 66 Uyghur Turks, 21of whom were resident commissioner running Chinese districts.[74] In 1262 he appointed his wife’s Muslim provisioner, Ahmad Fanakati, fiscal commissioner in chief and prefect of his Inner Mongolian capital, Xanadu (Shangdu).[75]

Kublai also appointed Phagspa Lama his state preceptor, giving him power over all the empire’s Buddhist monks. In 1270, after Phagspa created the Square script, he was promoted to imperial preceptor. Kublai established the Supreme Control Commission under Phagspa to administer affairs of both Tibetan and Chinese monks. During Phagspa’s absence in Tibet, the Tibetan monk Sangha rose to high office and had the office renamed the Commission for Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. Assyrian Christians served Kublai and the Yuan court created Commission for the Promotion of Religion under the Assyrian physician, Isa, to supervise Christian churches and other religious affairs.[76][77] The Khagan set up a Muslim medical office for the court in 1270, a Directorate of Islamic astronomy in 1271, and a Muslim school for the sons of the dynasty in 1289. With deaths of his entrusted Chinese officials such as Liu Bingzhong (1274), Shi Tiaze (1275), Zhao Bi (1276) and Don Weibing (1278), Kublai turned to non-Chinese officials. Kublai appointed Ahmad Fanakati head of a department of state affairs. In 1286, Tibetan Sangha became the dynasty’s chief fiscal officer. However, their corruption later embittered Kublai. Thenceforwards, Kublai came to rely wholly on younger Mongol aristocrats. While Antong of the Jalayir, and Bayan of the Baarin served as grand councillors from 1265, Oz-temur of the Arulad headed the censorate. Borokhula’s descendant, Ochicher, headed a kheshig and the palace provision commission.

In the 8th Year of Zhiyuan (1271), Kublai Khan officially declared the creation of the Yuan Dynasty, and proclaimed the capital to be at Dadu (Chinese: 大都; Wade–Giles: Ta-tu, lit. “Great Capital”, known as Daidu to the Mongols, at today’s Beijing) in the following year. His summer capital was in Shangdu (Chinese: 上都, “Upper Capital”, a.k.a. Xanadu, near what today is Dolonnur). To unify China[78], Kublai Khan began a massive offensive against the remnants of the Southern Song Dynasty in the 11th year of Zhiyuan (1274), and finally destroyed the Song Dynasty in the 16th year of Zhiyuan (1279), unifying the country at last.

The Chinese opera flourished during the Mongol rule in China.

China proper, Korea[79] and Mongolia itself were administered in 11 provinces during his reign with a governor and vice-governor each.[80][81] Aside from the 11 provinces was the Central Region (Chinese: 腹裏), consisting of much of present-day North China, was considered the most important region of the dynasty and directly governed by the Zhongshusheng (Chinese: 中書省, “Department of Central Governing”) at Dadu. In addition, Tibet was governed by another top-level administrative department called the Xuanzheng Institute (Chinese: 宣政院).

He ruled well, promoting economic growth with the rebuilding of the Grand Canal, repairing public buildings, and extending highways. However, Kublai Khan’s domestic policy also included some aspects of the old Mongol living traditions, and as Kublai Khan continued his reign, these traditions would clash more and more frequently with traditional Chinese economic and social culture. Kublai decreed that partner merchants of the Mongols should be subject to taxes in 1263 and set up the Office of Market Taxes to supervise them in 1268. With the Mongol conquest of the Song, the merchants expanded their sphere of operations to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. In 1286 maritime trade was put under the Office of Market Taxes. The main source of revenue of the government was the salt monopoly.[82]

The Mongol administration issued paper currencies from 1227 on.[83][84] In August 1260, Kublai created the first unified paper currency with bills that circulated throughout the Yuan with no expiration date. To guard against devaluation, the currency was convertible with silver and gold, and the government accepted tax payments in paper currency. In 1273, He issued a new series of state sponsored bills to finance his conquest of the Song, although eventually a lack of fiscal discipline and inflation turned this move into an economic disaster in the later course of the dynasty. It was required to pay only in the form of paper money called Chao. To ensure its use in circles, Kublai’s government confiscated gold and silver from private citizens as well as foreign merchants. But traders received government-issued notes in exchange. That is why Kublai Khan is considered to be the first of fiat money makers. The paper bills made collecting taxes and administering the huge empire much easier while reducing cost of transporting coins.[85] In 1287 Kublai’s minister Sangha created a new currency, Zhiyuan, to deal with the budget shortfall.[86] It was non-convertible and denominated in copper cash. Later Gaykhatu of the Ilkhanate attempted to adopt the system in Persia and Middle east, which was however a complete failure, and he was assassinated shortly after that.

He encouraged Asian arts and demonstrated religious tolerance. Despite his anti-Taoist edicts, Kublai respected the Taoist master and appointed Zhang Liushan the patriarch of Taoist Xuanjiao order.[87] Under Zhang’s advice, Taoist temples were put under the Academy of Scholarly Worthies. The empire was visited by several Europeans, notably Marco Polo in the 1270s who may have seen the summer capital Shangdu.

The capital city of the Emperor

The White Stupa in Tadu (or Khanbalic)

After Kublai was proclaimed Khagan at his residence in Shangdu on 5 May 1260, he began to organize the country. Zhang Wenqian, who was a friend of Guo and like him was a central government official, was sent by Kublai Khan in 1260 to Daming where unrest had been reported in the local population. Guo accompanied Zhang on his mission. Guo was not only interested in engineering, but he was also an expert astronomer. In particular he was a skilled instrument maker and understood that good astronomical observations depended on expertly made instruments. He now began to construct astronomical instruments, including water clocks for accurate timing and armillary spheres which represent the celestial globe. Turkestani architect Ikhtiyar al-Din (also known as Igder) designed the buildings of the city of Khagan or Khanbalic.[88] The Great Khan also employed many foreign artists to build his new capital. One of them named Arniko from Nepal built the White Stupa which was the largest structure in Khanbalic/Dadu.[89]

Zhang advised Kublai Khan that his friend Guo was a leading expert in hydraulic engineering. Kublai knew the importance of water management, for irrigation, transport of grain, and flood control, and he asked Guo to look at these aspects in the area between Dadu (now Beijing or Peking) and the Yellow River. To provide Dadu with a new supply of water, Guo found the Baifu spring in the Shenshan Mountain and had a 30 km channel built to bring the water to Dadu. He proposed connecting the water supply across different river basins, built new canals with many sluices to control the water level, and achieved great success with the improvements which he was able to make. This pleased Kublai Khan and led to Guo being asked to undertake similar projects in other parts of the country. In 1264 he was asked to go to Gansu province to repair the damage that had been caused to the irrigation systems by the years of war during the Mongol advance through the region. Guo travelled extensively along with his friend Zhang taking notes of the work which needed to be done to unblock damaged parts of the system and to make improvements to its efficiency. He sent his report directly to Kublai Khan.

Nayan’s rebellion

During the conquest of the Jin, Genghis Khan’s younger brothers received large appanages in Manchuria.[90] Descendants of them strongly supported Kublai’s coronation in 1260, but the younger generation desired more independence. Kublai enforced Ogedei Khan’s regulations that the Mongol noblemen could appoint overseers, along with the Great Khan’s special officials, in their appanages, but otherwise respected appanage rights. His son Manggala established direct control over Singan and Shansi in 1272. In 1274 Kublai Khan appointed Lian Xixian to investigate abuses of power by Mongol appanage holders in Manchuria.[91] Lia-tung region was brought immediately under the Khagan’s control, in 1284, eliminating autonomy of the Mongol nobles there.[92]

The 19th century romantic view of Kublai’s four elephants.

Threatened by the advance of the Great Khan’s bureaucratization, Belgutei‘s fourth generation descendant, Nayan (not confused with Temuge’s descendant Nayan), instigated revolt in 1287. Nayan attempted to link up with Kublai’s competitor Kaidu in Central Asia.[93] Manchuria’s native Jurchens and Water Tatars, who had suffered famine, supported Nayan. Virtually all the fraternal lines under Qadaan, a descendant of Khachiun, and Shikqtur, a grandson of Qasar, joined his rebellion.[94] Because Nayan was popular prince, Ebugen, a grandson of Genghis Khan’s son Khulgen, and the family of Khuden, a younger brother of Guyuk Khan, contributed troops for his rebellion.[95]

The rebellion was crippled by early detection and timid leadership. Kublai sent Bayan to keep Nayan and Kaidu apart by occupying Karakorum, while he himself led another army against the rebels in Manchuria. Kublai’s commander Oz Temur’s Mongol force attacked Nayan’s 60,000 green soldiers on June 14, while Chinese and Alan guards under Li Ting protected Kublai. The army of Chungnyeol of Goryeo assisted Kublai in battle. After the hard fight, Nayan’s troops withdrew behind their carts, and Li Ting began bombardment and attacked Nayan’s camp that night. Kublai’s force pursued Nayan, who was eventually captured and executed in the traditional way for princes, without shedding of blood.[95] Meanwhile, the rebel prince Shikqtur invaded the Chinese districts in Liaoning but was defeated within a month. Kaidu pulled back westward to avoid a battle. However, Kaidu defeated a major Yuan army in Khangai and briefly occupied Karakorum in 1289. Kaidu had ridden away before Kublai himself mobilized a larger army.[96]

Widespread but uncoordinated risings of Nayan’s supporters continued until 1289 but were ruthlessly repressed. The rebel princes’ troops were taken from them and redistributed among the imperial family.[97] Kublai harshly punished the darugachis appointed by the rebels in Mongolia and Manchuria.[98] This rebellion forced Kublai to approve the creation of the Liaoyang Branch Secretariat on December 4, 1287, while rewarding loyal fraternal princes.

 Later years

Statue of Khubilai Khagan in Mongolia

Kublai dispatched his grandson Gammala to Burkhan Khaldun in 1291. Because Kublai wanted to make sure that he laid claims to the sacred place (Ikh Khorig), Burkhan Khaldun, where Genghis was buried, Mongolia was strongly protected by the Kublaids. With Bayan in control of Karakorum and reestablishing control over surrounding areas in 1293, Kublai’s rival relative Kaidu did not attempt anything large-scale for the next three years. From 1293 on Kublai’s army cleared Kaidu’s forces out of Central Siberian Plateau.

Kublai Khan originally designated his son Chingen-Temur (Zhenjin) as his successor. Chingen-Temur became the head of Zhongshusheng (“Department of Central Governing”), and actively administrated the dynasty in the Confucian fashion. After Nomukhan returned from the captivity in the Golden Horde, he expressed his resentment that Chingen-Temur had been made heir apparent. However, he was banished north. An official proposed that Kublai’s abdicate in favor Chingen Temur in 1285. This action angered the Khagan, and Kublai refused to see his son. Unfortunately, Chingen-Temur died in 1285, 9 years before his father. Kublai regretted and remained very close to his wife, Bairam (also known as Kokejin). With the death of Chabi, he began to withdraw from direct contact with his advisers, issuing instructions through one of his other queens Nambui. Kublai Khan, on the other hand, developed severe gout in the later part of his life. He also gained weight due to a fondness for eating animal organs and other delicacies. This also more than likely increased the amount of purines in his blood, leading to his problems with gout.

His illness may have been related to the deaths of not only his favorite wife, but also his chosen heir Zhenjin. Before his death, Kublai made Chingen-Temur’s son Temür the new Crown Prince, who in turn became the sixth Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the second ruler of the Yuan Dynasty after the death of Kublai Khan. Seeking an old companion to comfort him in his final illness, the palace staff could choose only Bayan, more than 30 years his junior. Kublai weakened steadily, and on 18 February 1294 he died. Two days later, the funeral cortege was ready and set out for the burial place of the khans in Mongolia.


Chabi, Khatun of Kublai and Empress of the Mongol Empire

Kublai married Tegulen at first but she died very early. Then he married Chabi Khatun of the Khunggirat. Chabi was his most beloved empress. After her death in 1286, Kublai married her young cousin, Nambui, in accordance with Chabi’s wish.

Kublai and his wives’ children included:

  • Dorji. He was the director of the Secretariat and head of the Bureau of Military Affairs from 1263. But he was sickly and died young.
  • Chingen-Temur (Zhenjin). He was the father of the Great Khan Temur.
  • Manggala. He was a viceroy in Shaanxi.
  • Nomukhan.
  • Khungjil
  • Aychi
  • Saqulghachi
  • Qughchu
  • Toghan, led Mongol armies into Burma and Vietnam.
  • Khulan-temur
  • Tsever
  • Khutugh beki. She married the king Chungnyeol and became the Empress of the Goryeo.[99]
  • and 1 son and 2 daughters


Kublai’s seizure of power in 1260 pushed the Mongolian Empire into a new direction. Despite his controversial election, which accelerated the disunity of the Mongols, his willingness to formalize the Mongol realm’s symbiotic relation with China gave the Mongolian Empire a cultural and administrative brilliance that impressed the world.

Kublai and his predecessors’ conquests were largely responsible for re-creating a unified, militarily powerful China. The Mongol rule of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia proper from a capital at modern Beijing also supplied the precedent for the Qing Dynasty‘s Inner Asian Empire.[100]

 See also

References in Art

  • Kublai and Shangdu or Xanadu are the subject of various later artworks, including the English Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s poem “Kubla Khan“, in which Coleridge makes Xanadu a symbol of mystery and splendour.
  • Kublai Khan and Xanadu are both mentioned in the song “Xanadu” by Canadian band Rush.

 Historical Fiction






The Ming Coinage

Two Interesting Questions about Cheng Ho:What kind of coins Cheng Ho would likely have had on board his ship during his sixth and seventh voyages? I also need to know what coin would definitely not be included.


These two questions are quite interesting to me. Do you think you can answer these questions? I am happy to give you some hints below about Cheng Ho’s voyages and also the email received from Mr.Barry LeMesurier of Torrance on April 25 2003.First Voyage (1405-1407)
Second Voyage (1407-1409)
Third Voyage (1409-1411)
Fourth Voyage (1413-1415)
Fifth Voyage (1417-1419)
Sixth Voyage (1421-1422)
Seventh Voyage (1431-1433)

I am amazed at the volume of Chinese coins. I’m trying to determine what kind of coins Cheng Ho would likely have had on board his ship during his sixth and seventh voyages. I am writing a screenplay. I also need to know what coin would definitely not be included. I.E. were Roman coins still in circulation then, would Japanese coins be used in China?. Any advice or direction would be greatly appreciated.



Tai Chung T’ung Pao (1361-1367)

Before Chu Yuan Chang founded the Ming Dynasty, he proclaimed himself the Duke of Wu and minted Tai Chung Tung Pao cash in 1361. Later, he established the Pao Chuan Chu in those under his control provinces in order to mint the Tai Chung Tung Pao in five denominations including one cash, two cash, three cash, five cash and ten cash copper coin in about 1364.

In the set of the Tai Chung T’ung Pao cash, normally one cash coin bore only one Chinese character to show its place of origin or no character on the reverse, the other coins bore an additional Chinese character to denote their respective denominations. Provincial Mint names were found appear on the reverse including Kwei Lin, Fu Kien, Shun Tien, Chih Li, Che Kiang, Ho Nan, Pei Ping, Shan Tung and Kwang Tung.

Coin No.: 356
Diameter : 23mm
Weight : 3.5g
Rareness : D
Obverse: Legend in Chinese characters Tai Chung T’ung Pao
Reverse: No mint mark on the reverse.

Hung Wu T’ung Pao (1368-1398)

Chu Yuan Chang (Emperor T’ai Tsu; Title: Ta Chung) ascended the throne as the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. His reign title is Hung Wu. He used Nanking of Che Kiang province as capital. He had introduced a quite complicated coinage including 4 varieties [Reverse bearing: 1.plain reverse; 2.mint of origin 3.value of cash; 4.value of silver] and five denominations similar to the Tai Chung T’ung Pao. There were about 61 different kinds of Hung Wu T’ung Pao.

Later, Ming used paper note again for the widespreading of forgery and shortage of bronze, the Ming government revived the using of paper money just as the Yuan Dynasty. From 1375, because the issue of the paper money Tai Ming Pao Chao, Hung Wu T’ung Pao coins ceased production in 1376. But the production resumed again in 1377 until 1387 when the paper money with small denominations was issued. After 1393, no cash coins were cast and copper cash were prohibited for circulation by the Ming government. Pao Chao system and silver taels were adopted for daily exchange purposes in various places. In quite long period of time, only a small amount of copper coins were cast.

Coin No.: 357
Diameter : 22.5mm
Weight : 3.1g
Rareness : E
Obverse: Legend in Chinese characters Hung Wu T’ung Pao.
Reverse: No mint mark on the reverse.

Yung Lo T’ung Pao (1408-1424)

Chu Ti (Ming Cheng Tsu), the fourth son of Emperor T’ai Tsu became the Emperor of Ming empire in 1402. He used Yung Lo as his reign and transferred the capital to Peking from Nanking.

Yung Lo Emperor revived the Ming navy by dispatching a great fleet to visit countries in South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean. A shipyard was built at the new capital of Nanking and also a school for training foreign languages was established by the Yung Lo Emperor.

In 1405, the Ming Emperor sent Cheng Ho (Zheng He) [1371-1435] as commander to started his first voyages with 62 large ships, 4 of them were approximately 138 meters long and 56 meters wide. They were the largest ships ever built in history. The Ming fleet was embarked with abount 28,000 men. The ships were filled with many Chinese goods for trading with other countries during the voyage. Cheng Ho, a Muslim from Yunnan province, who proved an excellent envoy with his great seaborne expeditions, he even reached as far as the east coast of Africa.

Emperor Yung Lo issued Yung Lo T’ung Pao in the sixth year of the Yung Lo reign (AD1408), but only limited numbers minted sporadically.
Together with the development of foreign trade, many of the Hung Wu and Yung Lo cash coins were transpored to Japan from China following the maritime trade of the three provinces of Kwangtung, Chekiang and Fukien.
On the other hand, at the end of the 10th century, the power of the Japanese government weakened, so the Japanese government suspended the mintage of coins. During the middle of the 12th century, the Japanese Heian government did not cast cash coins. The Japanese government officially allowed people to use Chinese coins for the local market in 1226, so that various kinds of Chinese coin (mainly including coins of Sung and Ming Dynasty) imported from China were used as money in Japan until the Edo Period (1636) [some of the Chinese scholars believe that the latter date is 1670]. The imported Chinese coins were known as “Toraisen” in Japan. Nowadays we still find Chinese coins easily in Japan.

Coin No.: 358
Diameter : 25.5mm
Weight : 4g
Rareness : E
Obverse: Legend in









*Ming Imperial Chreng Hua Saucer found in Riau

Chenghua Emperor


Chenghua Emperor
Emperor of China
Reign 28 February 1464 – 9 September 1487 (&000000000000002300000023 years, &0000000000000193000000193 days)
Predecessor Tianshun Emperor
Successor Hongzhi Emperor
Zhu Youtang, Hongzhi Emperor
Full name
Family name: Zhu (朱)
Given name: Jianjun (見濬), later Jianshen (見深)[1]
Era name and dates
Chénghuà (成化): 27 January 1465 – 13 February 1488
Posthumous name
Emperor Jitian Ningdao Chengming Renjing Chongwen Suwu Hongde Shengxiao Chun
Temple name
Ming Xianzong
House Ming Dynasty
Father Zhengtong Emperor
Mother Empress Xiao Su
Born 9 December 1447(1447-12-09)
Died 9 September 1487 (aged 39)
Burial Ming Dynasty Tombs, Beijing

The Chenghua Emperor (pronounced [tʂʰɤ̌ŋxwâ]; December 9, 1447 – September 9, 1487) was Emperor of the Ming dynasty in China, between 1464 and 1487. His era name means “Accomplished change”.



Born Zhu Jianshen, he was the Zhengtong Emperor‘s son. He was only 2 years old when his father – the Zhengtong emperor was captured by the Oirat Mongols and held captive in 1449. After that his uncle, the Jingtai Emperor took over whilst his father was put under house arrest for almost 7 years. During this time, Chenghua lived under his uncle’s shadow and even had his title of crown prince removed while Jingtai installed his own son as heir. Chenghua was only reinstated as crown prince on the eve of death of Emperor Jingtai in 1452, Reign as Emperor

Chenghua ascended the throne at the age of 16. During the early part of his administration, Chenghua carried out new government policies to reduce tax and strengthen the dynasty. However these did not last and by the closing years of his reign, governmental affairs once again fell into the hands of eunuchs, notably Wang Zhi. Peasant uprisings occurred throughout the country; however, they were violently suppressed. Chenghua’s reign was also more autocratic than his predecessors’ and freedom was sharply curtailed when Chenghua established institutes such as the Xi Chang (to complement the existing Dong Chang), monitoring all civilians’ actions and words. This institute, not unlike a spy agency, would administer punishment to those whom they suspected of treason. The Xi Chang would eventually be shut down but it was the start of a dangerous trend and Chenghua’s descendants would again revive the Xi Chang during the 16th century.

Chenghua was also under the influence of Lady Wan who was an imperial concubine more than twice his age. Lady Wan had been a mother figure to young Chenghua but after ascending the throne she quickly became Chenghua’s favourite consort after giving birth to a child in 1464. The child soon died however Lady Wan held sway over the imperial harem and prevented the young emperor from bearing any offspring. Lady Wan and her eunuchs would either induce abortion to those who were about to bear the emperor’s child or administer poison to mother and child if birth had occurred ¹.

A Song Dynasty (960–1279) painting of a mother hen and chicks, with a written eulogy at the top inscribed by the Chenghua Emperor describing his fondness for this work.

It was not until 1475 that Chenghua discovered that he had a son (later Hongzhi Emperor) who survived and was raised in secrecy.

Chenghua died in 1487, after 23 years on the throne. He was buried in Maoling (茂陵)。


Emperor Chenghua’s reign can be distinguished by his early attempts to reform the government and trying his best to rule the country. His reign also saw a cultural flourishing with famous Ming personnel such as Hu Juren and Chen Baisha dominating the academic scene. However Chenghua’s reign was prone to dominating individuals in the government and Chenghua was easily influenced into granting favours based on who he likes rather than their abilities. This led to the degradation at the ruling class and wasteful spending by corrupt individuals which eventually depleted the empire’s coffer.


  1. ^ His original given name Jianjun was changed into Jianshen in 1457 when his father was restored on the throne as Emperor Tianshun.


¹ Imperial China – 900-1800, F.W. Mote, Page 630, First Harvard University Press, 2003.

Chenghua Emperor

Born: December 9 1447 Died: September 9 1487

Regnal titles
Preceded by
The Tianshun Emperor
Emperor of China
Succeeded by
The Hongzhi Emperor
[hide]v • d • eList of Emperors of the Ming Dynasty




I found the late ming Wanli, Kuixing saucers three types, look at The Ming Monkey Ceramic  exhibition.

,before i think this is the monkey god sun go kong, but the collector NH KOH send the info that this are Kuixing the god of literatures.




The demon-faced like figure in the below picture is the God of Literature/Examiniation, Kui Xing.  He is usually depicted holding in one hand a brush and the other, a cake of ink.  He is widely worshipped by those who are seeking office or success in public examination.



The demon-faced like figure in the below picture is the God of Literature/Examiniation, Kui Xing.  He is usually depicted holding in one hand a brush and the other, a cake of ink.  He is widely worshipped by those who are seeking office or success in public examination.


In below figurine, he is depicted with one foot on the head of  a big turtle.  This is related to the auspicious message on imperial examination success: du zhan ao tou (独占螯头), literally  it can be translated as (du zhan) standing alone, (ao tou) on the head of the turtle. 

In ancient China, the top 3 candidates in the metroplitan examination are given an audience with the emperor.   During the audience, the top candidate would stand alone on one of the steps leading to the throne.  On that step is curved a turtle-like creature.  That is how the phrase “du zhan ao tou” originated.



In below figurine, he is depicted with one foot on the head of  a big turtle.  This is related to the auspicious message on imperial examination success: du zhan ao tou (独占螯头), literally  it can be translated as (du zhan) standing alone, (ao tou) on the head of the turtle. 

In ancient China, the top 3 candidates in the metroplitan examination are given an audience with the emperor.   During the audience, the top candidate would stand alone on one of the steps leading to the throne.  On that step is curved a turtle-like creature.  That is how the phrase “du zhan ao tou” originated.


Hsuan Te T’ung Pao (1433-1435)

During the Hsuan Te period (1426-1435), Emperor Hsuan Tsung (Chu Chan Chi) also issued a small numbers of Hsuan Te T’ung Pao cash coins. Later in 1527, the Emperor Shih Tsung (Chu Hou Chung) also issued a supplementary issue of these coins in lighter weight. I have another Hsuan Te T’ung Pao cash with the same diameter, its weight is 3.1 grams only.

Japanese, Annamese and Korean cash which were strongly influenced by the Chinese coinage system with Chinese dated inscriptions started to circulate from seventh century. Together with the development of foreign trade, foreign copper cash continued to circulate within China from the middle Ming Dynasty. Actually, forign copper cash still circulated occasionally during the early Repubic period.

Coin No.: 359
Diameter : 25mm
Weight : 4.9g
Rareness : D
Obverse: Legend in Chinese characters Shuan Te T’ung Pao.
Reverse: No mint mark on the reverse.

Hung Chih T’ung Pao (1503-1505)

About a century after the closure of the various provincial mints in the reign of Hung Wu, no copper cash were cast during the period of Hung Hsi (1425), Ching T’ai (1450-1456) and Cheng Hua (1465-1487).

In the early years of the Ming Dynasty, the main form of paper notes system of Tai Ming Pao Chao was quite stable. However, it was almost abolished in the Hung Chih reign (1487-1505). Emperor Hsiao Tsung (Chu Yu T’ang) issued Hung Chih T’ung Pao cash in the sixteenth year of Hung Chih reign (1503), it was because he understood that the failure of the currency system of paper money in the empire. He ordered to mint the new copper cash of Hung Chih T’ung Pao coin, but only limited numbers minted. Two years later, Emperor Hsuan Tsung passed away.
Some of the scholars suggest that Hsiao Tsung did not issue any coinage and the Hung Chih T’ung Pao cash was part of a supplementary issue made by the Emperor Shih Tsung in 1527. I cannot prove this now until I have a further study of Ming coinage.
As I know that the majority of copper cash circulated in the Ming Dynasty were of the T’ang and Sung periods with Sung cash predominating.

Coin No.: 360
Diameter : 24mm
Weight : 3.6g
Rareness : D
Obverse: Legend in Chinese characters Hung Chih T’ung Pao.
Reverse: No mint mark on the reverse.

After, you have read this page, you should know the answers of the above questions.

Hung Wu T’ung Pao and Yung Lo T’ung Pao copper cash would likely have had on board Cheng Ho’s ship during his sixth and seventh voyages. Copper cash minted later than Yung Lo T’ung Pao would definitely not be included.

Ming Dynasty


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Great Ming

Ming China under the reign of the Yongle Emperor

Capital Nanjing
Language(s) Chinese
Religion Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion
Government Monarchy
 – 1368-1398 Hongwu Emperor
 – 1627-1644 Chongzhen Emperor
 – 1368-1375 Liu Ji
 – ?-1568 Yan Song
 – 1568-1573 Tan Lun
 – 1572-1582 Zhang Juzheng
 – 1621-1625 Ye Xianggao
 – 1625-1627 Zhu Guozhen
 – Established in Nanjing January 23, 1368
 – Fall of Beijing to Li Zicheng June 6, 1644
 – End of the Southern Ming Dynasty April, 1662
 – 1450 [1] 6,500,000 km2 (2,509,664 sq mi)
 – 1393 est. 72,700,000 
 – 1400 est. 65,000,000¹ 
 – 1600 est. 150,000,000¹ 
 – 1644 est. 100,000,000 
Currency Chinese cash, Chinese coin, Paper currency (later abolished)
Remnants of the Ming Dynasty ruled southern China until 1662, a dynastic period which is known as the Southern Ming Dynasty.
¹ The numbers are based on estimates made by C.J. Peers in Late Imperial Chinese Armies: 1520-1840
History of China

History of China

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The Ming Dynasty (Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo; Wade–Giles: Ming Ch’ao; IPA: [mǐŋ tʂʰɑ̌ʊ̯]), or Empire of the Great Ming (simplified Chinese: 大明国; traditional Chinese: 大明國; pinyin: Dà Míng Guó; Wade–Giles: Ta Ming Kuo, also anachronistically simplified Chinese: 大明帝国; traditional Chinese: 大明帝國; pinyin: Dà Míng Dì Guó; Wade–Giles: Ta Ming Ti Kuo), was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644, following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The Ming, “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”,[2] was the last dynasty in China ruled by ethnic Hans. Although the Ming capital Beijing fell in 1644 to a rebellion led by Li Zicheng who established the Shun Dynasty, which was soon replaced by the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, regimes loyal to the Ming throne (collectively called the Southern Ming Dynasty) survived until 1662.

Ming rule saw the construction of a vast navy and a standing army of one million troops.[3] Although private maritime trade and official tribute missions from China had taken place in previous dynasties, the tributary fleet under the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He in the 15th century far surpassed all others in size. There were enormous construction projects, including the restoration of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the first quarter of the 15th century. Estimates for the late-Ming population vary from 160 to 200 million.[4] The Ming dynasty is often regarded as both a high point in Chinese civilization as well as a dynasty in which early signs of capitalism emerged.[5]

Emperor Hongwu (r. 1368–1398) attempted to create a society of self-sufficient rural communities in a rigid, immobile system that would have no need to engage with the commercial life and trade of urban centers. His rebuilding of China’s agricultural base and strengthening of communication routes through the militarized courier system had the unintended effect of creating a vast agricultural surplus that could be sold at burgeoning markets located along courier routes. Rural culture and commerce became influenced by urban trends. The upper echelons of society embodied in the scholarly gentry class were also affected by this new consumption-based culture. In a departure from tradition, merchant families began to produce examination candidates to become scholar-officials and adopted cultural traits and practices typical of the gentry. Parallel to this trend involving social class and commercial consumption were changes in social and political philosophy, bureaucracy and governmental institutions, and even arts and literature.

By the 16th century the Ming economy was stimulated by trade with the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Dutch. China became involved in a new global trade of goods, plants, animals, and food crops known as the Columbian Exchange. Trade with European powers and the Japanese brought in massive amounts of silver, which then replaced copper and paper banknotes as the common medium of exchange in China. During the last decades of the Ming the flow of silver into China was greatly diminished, thereby undermining state revenues and indeed the entire Ming economy. This damage to the economy was compounded by the effects on agriculture of the incipient Little Ice Age, natural calamities, crop failure, and sudden epidemics. The ensuing breakdown of authority and people’s livelihoods allowed rebel leaders such as Li Zicheng to challenge Ming authority.


[edit] History

For a more comprehensive list, see List of emperors of the Ming Dynasty

[edit] Founding

[edit] Revolt and rebel rivalry

A cannon from the Huolongjing, compiled by Jiao Yu and Liu Ji before the latter’s death in 1375.

The Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) ruled before the establishment of the Ming Dynasty. Alongside institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, other explanations for the Yuan’s demise included overtaxing areas hard-hit by inflation, and massive flooding of the Yellow River as a result of the abandonment of irrigation projects.[6] Consequently, agriculture and the economy were in shambles and rebellion broke out among the hundreds of thousands of peasants called upon to work on repairing the dykes of the Yellow River.[6]

A number of Han Chinese groups revolted, including the Red Turbans in 1351. The Red Turbans were affiliated with the White Lotus, a Buddhist secret society. Zhu Yuanzhang was a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk who joined the Red Turbans in 1352, but soon gained a reputation after marrying the foster daughter of a rebel commander.[7] In 1356 Zhu’s rebel force captured the city of Nanjing,[8] which he would later establish as the capital of the Ming Dynasty.

Zhu Yuanzhang cemented his power in the south by eliminating his arch rival and rebel leader Chen Youliang in the Battle of Lake Poyang in 1363. After the dynastic head of the Red Turbans suspiciously died in 1367 while a guest of Zhu, the latter made his imperial ambitions known by sending an army toward the Yuan capital Dadu (present-day Beijing) in 1368.[9] The last Yuan emperor fled north to Shangdu and Zhu declared the founding of the Ming Dynasty after razing the Yuan palaces in Dadu to the ground;[9] the city was renamed Beiping in the same year.[10]

Instead of the traditional way of naming a dynasty after the first ruler’s home district, Zhu’s choice of ‘Ming’ or ‘Brilliant’ for his dynasty followed a Mongol precedent of an uplifting title.[8] Zhu Yuanzhang also took Hongwu, or ‘Vastly Martial,’ as his reign title. Although the White Lotus had enabled his rise to power, Hongwu later denied that he had ever been a member of their organization and suppressed the religious movement after he became emperor.[8][11]

[edit] Reign of the Hongwu Emperor

Hongwu made an immediate effort to rebuild state infrastructure. He built a 48 km (30 mile) long wall around Nanjing, as well as new palaces and government halls.[9] The History of Ming states that as early as 1364 Zhu Yuanzhang had begun drafting a new Confucian law code, the Da Ming Lü, which was completed by 1397 and repeated certain clauses found in the old Tang Code of 653.[12] Hongwu organized a military system known as the weisuo, which was similar to the fubing system of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The goal was to have soldiers become self-reliant farmers in order to sustain themselves while not fighting or training.[13] The system of the self-sufficient agricultural soldier, however, was largely a farce; infrequent rations and awards were not enough to sustain the troops, and many deserted their ranks if they weren’t located in the heavily supplied frontier.[14]

Portrait of the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368 – 1398)

Although a Confucian, Hongwu had a deep distrust for the scholar-officials of the gentry class and was not afraid to have them beaten in court for offenses.[15] He halted the civil service examinations in 1373 after complaining that the 120 scholar-officials who obtained a jinshi degree were incompetent ministers.[16][17] After the examinations were reinstated in 1384,[17] he had the chief examiner executed after it was discovered that he allowed only candidates from the south to be granted jinshi degrees.[16]

In 1380 Hongwu had the Chancellor Hu Weiyong (胡惟庸) executed upon suspicion of a conspiracy plot to overthrow him; after that Hongwu abolished the Chancellery and assumed this role as chief executive and emperor.[18][19] With a growing suspicion of his ministers and subjects, Hongwu established the Jinyi Wei, a network of secret police drawn from his own palace guard. They were partly responsible for the loss of 100,000 lives in several purges over three decades of his rule.[18][20]

[edit] South-Western Frontier

The old south gate of the ancient city of Dali, Yunnan

In 1381, the Ming Dynasty annexed the areas of the southwest that had once been part of the Kingdom of Dali. By the end of the 14th century, some 200,000 military colonists settled some 2,000,000 mu (350,000 acres) of land in what is now Yunnan and Guizhou.[21] Roughly half a million more Chinese settlers came in later periods; these migrations caused a major shift in the ethnic make-up of the region, since more than half of the roughly 3,000,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty were non-Han peoples.[21] In this region, the Ming government adopted a policy of dual administration. Areas with majority ethnic Chinese were governed according to Ming laws and policies; areas where native tribal groups dominated had their own set of laws while tribal chiefs [disambiguation needed] promised to maintain order and send tribute to the Ming court in return for needed goods.[21] From 1464 to 1466, the Miao and Yao peoples revolted against what they saw as oppressive government rule; in response, the Ming government sent an army of 30,000 troops (including 1,000 Mongols) to join the 160,000 local troops of Guangxi and crushed the rebellion.[22] After the scholar and philosopher Wang Yangming (1472–1529) suppressed another rebellion in the region, he advocated joint administration of Chinese and local ethnic groups in order to bring about sinification in the local peoples’ cultures.[22]

[edit] Relations with Tibet

A 17th century Tibetan thangka of Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra; the Ming Dynasty court gathered various tribute items which were native products of Tibet (such as thangkas),[23] and in return granted gifts to Tibetan tribute-bearers.[24]

Scholarship outside China generally regards Tibet as having been independent during the Ming Dynasty, whereas historians in China today take an opposing point of view. The Mingshi— the official history of the Ming Dynasty compiled later by the Qing Dynasty in 1739—states that the Ming established itinerant commanderies overseeing Tibetan administration while also renewing titles of ex-Yuan Dynasty officials from Tibet and conferring new princely titles on leaders of Tibet’s Buddhist sects.[25] However, Turrell V. Wylie states that censorship in the Mingshi in favor of bolstering the Ming emperor’s prestige and reputation at all costs obfuscates the nuanced history of Sino-Tibetan relations during the Ming era.[26]

Modern scholars still debate on whether or not the Ming Dynasty really had sovereignty over Tibet at all, as some believe it was a relationship of loose suzerainty which was largely cut off when the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521-1567) persecuted Buddhism in favor of Daoism at court.[26][27][28] Helmut Hoffman states that the Ming upheld the facade of rule over Tibet through periodic missions of “tribute emissaries” to the Ming court and by granting nominal titles to ruling lamas, but did not actually interfere in Tibetan governance.[29] Wang Jiawei and Nyima Gyaincain disagree, stating that Ming China had sovereignty over Tibetans who did not inherit Ming titles, but were forced to travel to Beijing to renew them.[30] Melvyn C. Goldstein writes that the Ming had no real administrative authority over Tibet since the various titles given to Tibetan leaders already in power did not confer authority as earlier Mongol Yuan titles had; according to him, “the Ming emperors merely recognized political reality.”[31] Some scholars argue that the significant religious nature of the relationship of the Ming court with Tibetan lamas is underrepresented in modern scholarship.[32][33] Others underscore the commercial aspect of the relationship, noting the Ming Dynasty’s insufficient amount of horses and the need to maintain the tea-horse trade with Tibet.[34][35][36][37][38] Scholars also debate on how much power and influence—if any—the Ming Dynasty court had over the de facto successive ruling families of Tibet, the Phagmodru (1354–1436), Rinbung (1436–1565), and Tsangpa (1565–1642).[39][40][41][42][43][44]

The Ming initiated sporadic armed intervention in Tibet during the 14th century, while at times the Tibetans also used successful armed resistance against Ming forays.[45][46] Patricia Ebrey, Thomas Laird, Wang Jiawei, and Nyima Gyaincain all point out that the Ming Dynasty did not garrison permanent troops in Tibet,[42][47][48] unlike the former Mongol Yuan Dynasty.[42] The Wanli Emperor (r. 1572–1620) made attempts to reestablish Sino-Tibetan relations in the wake of a Mongol-Tibetan alliance initiated in 1578, the latter of which affected the foreign policy of the subsequent Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) of China in their support for the Dalai Lama of the Yellow Hat sect.[26][49][50][51][52] By the late 16th century, the Mongols proved to be successful armed protectors of the Yellow Hat Dalai Lama after their increasing presence in the Amdo region, culminating in Güshi Khan‘s (1582–1655) conquest of Tibet in 1642.[26][53][54][55]

[edit] Reversal of Hongwu’s policies

[edit] Imposing standards and relocations

According to historian Timothy Brook, the Hongwu Emperor attempted to immobilize society by creating rigid, state-regulated boundaries between villages and larger townships, discouraging trade and travel in society not permitted by the government.[56] Hongwu attempted to instill austere values by imposing uniform dress codes, standard methods of speech, and standard style of writing classical prose that did not flaunt the skills of the highly educated.[57] His suspicion for the educated elite matched his disdain for the commercial elites, imposing inordinately high taxes upon the hotbed of powerful merchant families in the region of Suzhou in Jiangsu.[16] He also forcibly moved thousands of wealthy families from the southeast and resettled them around Nanjing in the Jiangnan region, forbidding them to move once they were settled.[16][58] To keep track of the merchants’ activities, Hongwu forced them to register all of their goods once a month.[59] One of his main goals as ruler was to permanently curb the influence of merchants and landlords, yet several of his policies would eventually encourage them to amass more wealth.

Hongwu’s oppressive system of massive relocation and the desire to escape his harsh taxes encouraged many to become itinerant retailers, peddlers, or migrant workers finding tenant landowners who would rent them space to farm and labor on.[60] By the mid Ming era, emperors had abandoned Hongwu’s relocation scheme and instead trusted local officials to document migrant workers in order to bring in more revenue.[61] An elite of wealthy landlords and merchants reigning over land tenants, wage laborers, domestic servants, and migrant workers was hardly the vision of Hongwu’s: strict adherence to the hierarchic status system of the four occupations.[62]

[edit] Self-sufficient agriculture, surplus, and urban trends

A porcelain vase from the Jiajing reign period (1521-1567); Chinese culture became a consumptionary-based culture by the late Ming. Social elites were expected to know the difference between shoddy crafts and fine wares, and even which type of plants were to be appreciated as rare and exotic enough for one’s garden.[63]

Hongwu revived the agricultural sector to create self-sufficient communities that would not rely on commerce, which he assumed would remain only in urban areas.[64] Yet the surplus created from this revival encouraged rural farmers to make profits by first selling their goods at thoroughfares; by the mid Ming era they began selling their goods in regional urban markets.[65] As the countryside and urban areas became more connected through commerce, households in rural areas began taking on traditionally urban specializations, such as production of silk and cotton textiles.[66] By the late Ming there was a growing concern amongst conservative Confucians that the metaphorical delicate fabric holding together the communal social order was being undermined by country rustics accepting every manner of urban life and decadence.[67]

The rural farmer was not the only social group affected by growing commercialization of Chinese society; it also heavily influenced the landholding gentry that traditionally produced scholar-officials for civil service. The scholar-officials were traditionally held as frugal individuals who deterred themselves from arrogance in the wealth garnered from a prestigious career; they were known even to walk from their country homes into the city where they were employed.[68] By the time of the Zhengde Emperor (1505–1521), officials chose to be hauled around in luxurious sedan chairs and began purchasing lavish homes in affluent urban neighborhoods instead of living in the countryside.[68] By the late Ming era, gaining wealth became the prime indicator of social prestige, even more so than gaining a scholarly degree.[69]

[edit] Fusion of the merchant and gentry classes

Cishou Temple Pagoda, built in 1576; the Chinese believed that building pagodas on certain sites according to geomantic principles brought about auspicious events;[70] merchant-funding for such projects was needed by the late Ming period.

In the first half of the Ming era, scholar-officials would rarely mention the contribution of merchants in society while writing their local gazetteer;[71] officials were certainly capable of funding their own public works projects, a symbol of their virtuous political leadership.[72] However, by the second half of the Ming era it became common for officials to solicit money from merchants in order to fund their various projects, such as building bridges or establishing new schools of Confucian learning for the betterment of the gentry.[73] From that point on the gazetteers began mentioning merchants and often in high esteem, since the wealth produced by their economic activity produced resources for the state as well as increased production of books needed for the education of the gentry.[74] Merchants began taking on the highly cultured, connoisseur‘s attitude and cultivated traits of the gentry class, blurring the lines between merchant and gentry and paving the way for merchant families to produce scholar-officials.[75] The roots of this social transformation and class indistinction could be found in the Song Dynasty (960-1279),[76] but it became much more pronounced in the Ming. Writings of family instructions for lineage groups in the late Ming period display the fact that one no longer inherited his position in the categorization of the four occupations (in descending order): gentry, farmers, artisans, and merchants.[77]

[edit] Courier network and commercial growth

Hongwu believed that only government couriers and lowly retail merchants should have the right to travel far outside their home town.[59] Despite his efforts to impose this view, his building of an efficient communication network for his military and official personnel strengthened and fomented the rise of a potential commercial network running parallel to the courier network.[78] The shipwrecked Korean scholar-official Choe Bu (1454–1504) remarked in 1488 how the locals along the eastern coasts of China did not know the exact distances between certain places, which was virtually exclusive knowledge of the Ministry of War and courier agents.[79] This was in stark contrast to the late Ming period, when merchants not only traveled further distances to convey their goods, but also bribed courier officials to use their routes and even had printed geographical guides of commercial routes that imitated the couriers’ maps.[80]

[edit] Merchants, an open market, and silver

The only surviving piece of furniture from the “Orchard Factory” (the Imperial Lacquer Workshop) set up in Beijing in the early Ming Dynasty. Decorated in dragons and phoenixes, it was made during the Xuande era (1426-1435). The imperial workshops in the Ming era were overseen by a eunuch bureau.[81] (See closeup for detail)

The scholar-officials’ dependence upon the economic activities of the merchants became more than a trend when it was semi-institutionalized by the state in the mid Ming era. Qiu Jun (1420–1495), a scholar-official from Hainan, argued that the state should only mitigate market affairs during times of pending crisis and that merchants were the best gauge in determining the strength of a nation’s riches in resources.[82] The government followed this guideline by the mid Ming era when it allowed merchants to take over the state monopoly of salt production. This was a gradual process where the state supplied northern frontier armies with enough grain by granting merchants licenses to trade in salt in return for their shipping services.[83] The state realized that merchants could buy salt licenses with silver and in turn boost state revenues to the point where buying grain was not an issue.[83] The governments of both Hongwu and Zhengtong (r. 1435-1449) attempted to cut the flow of silver into the economy in favor of paper currency, yet mining the precious metal simply became a lucrative illegal pursuit practiced by many.[84] Hongwu was unaware of economic inflation even as he continued to hand out multitudes of banknotes as awards; by 1425, paper currency was worth only 0.025% to 0.014% its original value in the 14th century.[14] The value of standard copper coinage dropped significantly as well due to counterfeit minting; by the 16th century, new maritime trade contacts with Europe provided massive amounts of imported silver, which increasingly became the common medium of exchange.[85] As far back as 1436, the southern grain tax had been partially commuted to payments in silver.[86] In 1581 the Single Whip Reform installed by Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (1525–1582) finally assessed taxes on the amount of land paid entirely in silver.[87]

[edit] Reign of the Yongle Emperor

Portrait of the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424)

[edit] Rise to power

Hongwu’s grandson Zhu Yunwen assumed the throne as the Jianwen Emperor (1398–1402) after Hongwu’s death in 1398. In a prelude to a three-year-long civil war beginning in 1399,[88] Jianwen became engaged in a political showdown with his uncle Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. Jianwen was aware of the ambitions of his princely uncles, establishing measures to limit their authority. The militant Zhu Di, given charge over the area encompassing Beijing to watch the Mongols on the frontier, was the most feared of these princes. After Jianwen arrested many of Zhu Di’s associates, Zhu Di plotted a rebellion. Under the guise of rescuing the young Jianwen from corrupting officials, Zhu Di personally led forces in the revolt; the palace in Nanjing was burned to the ground, along with Zhu Di’s nephew Jianwen, his wife, mother, and courtiers. Zhu Di assumed the throne as the Yongle Emperor (1402–1424); his reign is universally viewed by scholars as a “second founding” of the Ming Dynasty since he reversed many of his father’s policies.[89]

[edit] New capital and a restored canal

Yongle demoted Nanjing to a secondary capital and in 1403 announced the new capital of China was to be at his power base in Beijing. Construction of a new city there lasted from 1407 to 1420, employing hundreds of thousands of workers daily.[90] At the center was the political node of the Imperial City, and at the center of this was the Forbidden City, the palatial residence of the emperor and his family. By 1553, the Outer City was added to the south, which brought the overall size of Beijing to 4 by 4½ miles.[91]

The Ming Dynasty Tombs located 50 km (31 miles) north of Beijing; the site was chosen by Yongle.

After laying dormant and dilapidated for decades, the Grand Canal was restored under Yongle from 1411-1415. The impetus for restoring the canal was to solve the perennial problem of shipping grain north to Beijing. Shipping the annual 4,000,000 shi (one shi is equal to 107 liters) was made difficult with an inefficient system of shipping grain through the East China Sea or by several different inland canals that necessitated the transferring of grain onto several different barge types in the process, including shallow and deep water barges.[92] Yongle commissioned some 165,000 workers to dredge the canal bed in western Shandong and built a series of fifteen canal locks.[91][93] The reopening of the Grand Canal had implications for Nanjing as well, as it was surpassed by the well-positioned city of Suzhou as the paramount commercial center of China.[94]

Although Yongle ordered episodes of bloody purges like his father—including the execution of Fang Xiaoru who refused to draft the proclamation of his succession—Yongle had a different attitude about the scholar-officials.[90] He had a selection of texts compiled from the ChengZhu school of Confucianism—or Neo-Confucianism—in order to assist those who studied for the civil service examinations.[90] Yongle commissioned two thousand scholars to create a 50-million word (22,938-chapter) long encyclopedia—the Yongle Encyclopedia—from seven thousand books.[90] This surpassed all previous encyclopedias in scope and size, including the 11th century compilation of the Four Great Books of Song. Yet the scholar-officials weren’t the only political group that Yongle had to cooperate with and appease. Historian Michael Chang points out that Yongle was an “emperor on horseback” who often traversed between two capitals like in the Mongol Yuan tradition and constantly led expeditions into Mongolia.[95] This was opposed by the Confucian establishment while it served to bolster the importance of eunuchs and military officers whose power depended upon the emperor’s favor.[95]

[edit] Treasure fleet

A giraffe brought from Africa in the 12th year of Yongle (1414); the Chinese associated the giraffe with the mythical qilin.

Beginning in 1405, the Yongle Emperor entrusted his favored eunuch commander Zheng He (1371–1433) as the admiral for a gigantic new fleet of ships designated for international tributary missions. The Chinese had sent diplomatic missions over land and west since the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) and had been engaged in private overseas trade leading all the way to East Africa for centuries—culminating in the Song and Yuan dynasties—but no government-sponsored tributary mission of this grandeur and size had ever been assembled before. To service seven different tributary missions abroad, the Nanjing shipyards constructed two thousand vessels from 1403 to 1419, which included the large treasure ships that measured 112 m (370 ft) to 134 m (440 ft) in length and 45 m (150 ft) to 54 m (180 ft) in width.[96] However, these claims have been called into question by some researchers who put the actual length of the ships to values as short as 59 m (~200 feet).[97][98] The first voyage from 1405 to 1407 contained 317 vessels with a staff of 70 eunuchs, 180 medical personnel, 5 astrologers, and 300 military officers commanding a total estimated force of 26,800 men.[99]

The enormous tributary missions were discontinued after the death of Zheng He, yet his death was only one of many culminating factors which brought the missions to an end. Yongle had conquered Vietnam in 1407, but Ming troops were pushed out in 1428 with significant costs to the Ming treasury; in 1431 the new Lê Dynasty of Vietnam was recognized as an independent tribute state.[100] There was also the threat and revival of Mongol power on the northern steppe which drew court attention away from other matters; to face this threat, a massive amount of funds were used to build the Great Wall after 1474.[101] Yongle’s moving of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing was largely in response to the court’s need of keeping a closer eye on the Mongol threat in the north.[102] Scholar-officials also associated the lavish expense of the fleets with eunuch power at court, and so halted funding for these ventures as a means to curtail further eunuch influence.[103]

[edit] Tumu Crisis and the Ming Mongols

The Great Wall of China; although the rammed earth walls of the ancient Warring States were combined into a unified wall under the Qin and Han dynasties, the vast majority of the brick and stone Great Wall as it is seen today is a product of the Ming Dynasty.

The Oirat Mongol leader Esen Tayisi launched an invasion into Ming China in July of 1449. The chief eunuch Wang Zhen encouraged Emperor Zhengtong (r. 1435-1449) to personally lead a force to face the Mongols after a recent Ming defeat; marching off with 50,000 troops, Zhengtong left the capital and put his half-brother Zhu Qiyu in charge of affairs as temporary regent. On September 8, Esen routed Zhengtong’s army, and Zhengtong was captured – an event known as the Tumu Crisis.[104] Esen then raided Ming territory as far as the suburbs of Beijing.[105] The Beijing area was again plundered in November by local bandits and ethnic Mongol deserters from the Imperial army posing as invading Mongols.[106] Many Han Chinese also took to brigandage soon after the Tumu incident.[107][108]

The Mongols held the Zhengtong Emperor for ransom. However, this scheme was foiled once Zhengtong’s younger brother assumed the throne as the Jingtai Emperor (r. 1449-1457); the Mongols were also repelled once Jingtai’s confidant and defense minister Yu Qian (1398–1457) gained control of the Ming armed forces. Holding Zhengtong in captivity was a useless bargaining chip for the Mongols as long as another sat on his throne, so they released him back into Ming China.[104] Zhengtong was placed under house arrest in the palace until the coup against Jingtai in 1457 known as the “Wresting the Gate Incident”.[109] Zhengtong retook the throne as the Tianshun Emperor (r. 1457-1464).

Tianshun’s reign was a troubled one and Mongol forces within the Ming military structure continued to be problematic. On August 7, 1461, the Chinese general Cao Qin and his Ming troops of Mongol descent staged a coup against Tianshun out of fear of being next on his purge-list of those who aided Jingtai’s succession.[110] Mongols serving the Ming military also became increasingly circumspect as the Chinese began to heavily distrust their Mongol subjects after the Tumu Crisis.[111] Cao’s rebel force managed to set fire to the western and eastern gates of the Imperial City (doused by rain during the battle) and killed several leading ministers before his forces were finally cornered and he was forced to commit suicide.[112]

Under Dayan Khan and his successors, the Mongol threat to China was at its greatest level in the 15th century, although periodic raiding continued throughout the dynasty. Like in the Tumu Crisis, the Mongol leader Altan Khan (1507–1582) invaded China and raided as far as the outskirts of Beijing.[113][114] The Ming employed troops of Mongol descent to fight back Altan Khan’s invasion, as well as Mongol military officers against Cao Qin’s abortive coup.[115] While the Ming Yongle Emperor staged five major offensives north of the Great Wall against the Mongols, following Emperor Hongwu’s crushing of the remnants of the Yuan, the constant threat of Mongol incursions prompted the Ming authorities to fortify the Great Wall from the late 15th century to the 16th century; nevertheless, John Fairbank notes that “it proved to be a futile military gesture but vividly expressed China’s siege mentality.”[101] Yet the Great Wall was not meant to be a purely defensive fortification; its towers functioned rather as a series of lit beacons and signalling stations to allow rapid warning to friendly units of advancing enemy troops.[116]

[edit] Isolation to globalization

[edit] Illegal trade, piracy, and war with Japan

16th century Japanese pirate raids.

Further information: Qi Jiguang

In 1479, the vice president of the Ministry of War burned the court records documenting Zheng He’s voyages; it was one of many events signalling China’s shift to an inward foreign policy.[100] Shipbuilding laws were implemented that restricted vessels to a small size; the concurrent decline of the Ming navy allowed the growth of piracy along China’s coasts.[101] Japanese pirates—or wokou—began staging raids on Chinese ships and coastal communities, although much of the piracy was carried out by native Chinese.[101]

Instead of mounting a counterattack, Ming authorities chose to shut down coastal facilities and starve the pirates out; all foreign trade was to be conducted by the state under the guise of formal tribute missions.[101] These policies were known as the hai jin laws, which enacted a strict ban on private maritime activity until the laws’ formal abolishment in 1567.[100] In this period government-managed overseas trade with Japan was carried out exclusively at the seaport of Ningbo, trade with the Philippines exclusively at Fuzhou, and trade with Indonesia exclusively at Guangzhou.[117] Even then the Japanese were only allowed into port once every ten years and were allowed to bring a maximum of three hundred men on two ships; these laws encouraged many Chinese merchants to engage in widespread illegal trade and smuggling.[117]

The low point in relations between Ming China and Japan occurred during the rule of the great Japanese warlord Hideyoshi, who in 1592 announced he was going to conquer China. In two campaigns that are known collectively as the Imjin War, the Japanese fought with the Korean and Ming armies. Both sides won victories in the war, which was fought almost entirely in Korea and the surrounding waters. Decisive battles were won by Ming and Korean forces, and with Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, the Japanese gave up their last Korean bases and retreated to Japan. However, the victory came at an enormous cost to the Ming government’s treasury: some 26,000,000 ounces of silver.[118]

[edit] Trade and contact with Europe

Military command centers in 1580, concentrated mostly along the seacoast, the northern border, and the southwest; major courier routes shown are based on a map from Timothy Brook’s The Confusions of Pleasure.

Although Jorge Álvares was the first to land on Lintin Island in the Pearl River Delta in May of 1513, it was Rafael Perestrello—a cousin of the famed Christopher Columbus—who became the first European explorer to land on the southern coast of mainland China and trade in Guangzhou in 1516, commanding a Portuguese vessel with a crew from a Malaysian junk that had sailed from Malacca.[119][120][121] The Portuguese sent a large subsequent expedition in 1517 to enter port at Guangzhou and open formal trade relations with Chinese authorities.[119] During this expedition the Portuguese attempted to send an inland delegation in the name of Manuel I of Portugal to the court of the Ming emperor Zhengde; instead the diplomatic mission languished in a Chinese jail and died there.[119] After the death of Zhengde in April 1521, the conservative faction at court that was against expanding commercial relations ordered that the Portuguese conquest of Malacca—a loyal vassal to the Ming—was grounds enough to reject the Portuguese embassy.[122] Simão de Andrade, brother to ambassador Fernão Pires de Andrade, had also stirred Chinese speculation that the Portuguese were kidnapping Chinese children to eat them; Simão had purchased kidnapped children as slaves who were later found in Diu, India.[123] In 1521, Ming Dynasty naval forces fought and repulsed Portuguese ships at Tuen Mun, where some of the first breech-loading culverins were introduced to China.[124] The Ming Dynasty Imperial Navy defeated a Portuguese navy led by Martim Afonso in 1522 at the Battle of Tamao. The Chinese destroyed one vessel by targeting its gunpowder magazine, and captured another Portuguese ship.[125][126]

Despite these initial hostilities, by 1549 the Portuguese were sending annual trade missions to Shangchuan Island.[119] In 1557 the Portuguese managed to convince the Ming court to agree on a legal port treaty that would establish Macau as an official Portuguese trade colony on the coasts of the South China Sea.[119] The Portuguese friar Gaspar da Cruz (c. 1520 – February 5, 1570) traveled to Guangzhou in 1556 and wrote the first complete book on China and the Ming Dynasty that was published in Europe (fifteen days after his death); it included information on its geography, provinces, royalty, official class, bureaucracy, shipping, architecture, farming, craftsmanship, merchant affairs, clothing, religious and social customs, music and instruments, writing, education, and justice.[127]

From China the major exports were silk and porcelain. The Dutch East India Company alone handled the trade of 6 million porcelain items from China to Europe between the years 1602 to 1682.[128] Antonio de Morga (1559–1636), a Spanish official in Manila, listed an extensive inventory of goods that were traded by Ming China at the turn of the 17th century, noting there were “rarities which, did I refer to them all, I would never finish, nor have sufficient paper for it”.[129] After noting the variety of silk goods traded to Europeans, Ebrey writes of the considerable size of commercial transactions:

Map of East Asia by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in 1602; Ricci (1552-1610) was the first European allowed into the Forbidden City, taught the Chinese how to construct and play the spinet, translated Chinese texts into Latin and vice versa, and worked closely with his Chinese associate Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) on mathematical work.

In one case a galleon to the Spanish territories in the New World carried over 50,000 pairs of silk stockings. In return China imported mostly silver from Peruvian and Mexican mines, transported via Manila. Chinese merchants were active in these trading ventures, and many emigrated to such places as the Philippines and Borneo to take advantage of the new commercial opportunities.[117]

After the Chinese had banned direct trade by Chinese merchants with Japan, the Portuguese filled this commercial vacuum as intermediaries between China and Japan.[130] The Portuguese bought Chinese silk and sold it to the Japanese in return for Japanese-mined silver; since silver was more highly valued in China, the Portuguese could then use Japanese silver to buy even larger stocks of Chinese silk.[130] However, by 1573—after the Spanish established a trading base in Manila—the Portuguese intermediary trade was trumped by the prime source of incoming silver to China from the Spanish Americas.[131][132]

Although the bulk of imports to China were silver, the Chinese also purchased New World crops from the Spanish Empire. This included sweet potatoes, maize, and peanuts, foods that could be cultivated in lands where traditional Chinese staple crops—wheat, millet, and rice—couldn’t grow, hence facilitating a rise in the population of China.[117][133] In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), rice had become the major staple crop of the poor;[134] after sweet potatoes were introduced to China around 1560, it gradually became the traditional food of the lower classes.[135]

[edit] Decline

[edit] Reign of the Wanli Emperor

Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620)

The financial drain of the Imjin War in Korea against the Japanese was one of the many problems—fiscal or other—facing Ming China during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620). In the beginning of his reign, Wanli surrounded himself with able advisors and made a conscientious effort to handle state affairs. His Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (in office from 1572 to 1582) built up an effective network of alliances with senior officials.[136] However, there was no one after him skilled enough to maintain the stability of these alliances;[136] officials soon banded together in opposing political factions. Over time Wanli grew tired of court affairs and frequent political quarreling amongst his ministers, preferring to stay behind the walls of the Forbidden City and out of his officials’ sight.[137]

Officials aggravated Wanli about which of his sons should succeed to the throne; he also grew equally disgusted with senior advisors constantly bickering about how to manage the state.[137] There were rising factions at court and across the intellectual sphere of China stemming from the philosophical debate for or against the teaching of Wang Yangming (1472–1529), the latter of whom rejected some of the orthodox views of Neo-Confucianism.[138][139] Annoyed by all of this, Wanli began neglecting his duties, remaining absent from court audiences to discuss politics, lost interest in studying the Confucian Classics, refused to read petitions and other state papers, and stopped filling the recurrent vacancies of vital upper level administrative posts.[137][140] Scholar-officials lost prominence in administration as eunuchs became intermediaries between the aloof emperor and his officials; any senior official who wanted to discuss state matters had to persuade powerful eunuchs with a bribe simply to have his demands or message relayed to the emperor.[141]

[edit] Role of eunuchs

Tianqi era teacups, from the Nantoyōsō Collection in Japan; the Tianqi Emperor was heavily influenced and largely controlled by the eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627).

It was said that Hongwu forbade eunuchs to learn how to read or engage in politics.[91] Whether or not these restrictions were carried out with absolute success in his reign, eunuchs in the Yongle reign period and after managed huge imperial workshops, commanded armies, and participated in matters of appointment and promotion of officials.[91] The eunuchs developed their own bureaucracy that was organized parallel to but was not subject to the civil service bureaucracy.[91] Although there were several dictatorial eunuchs throughout the Ming, such as Wang Zhen, Wang Zhi, and Liu Jin, excessive tyrannical eunuch power did not become evident until the 1590s when Wanli increased their rights over the civil bureaucracy and granted them power to collect provincial taxes.[140][141][142]

The eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) dominated the court of the Tianqi Emperor (r. 1620-1627) and had his political rivals tortured to death, mostly the vocal critics from the faction of the “Donglin Society“.[143] He ordered temples built in his honor throughout the Ming Empire,[141] and built personal palaces created with funds allocated for building the previous emperor’s tombs. His friends and family gained important positions without qualifications. Wei also published a historical work lambasting and belitting his political opponents.[141] The instability at court came right as natural calamity, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invasion came to a peak. Although the Chongzhen Emperor (r. 1627-1644) had Wei dismissed from court—which led to Wei’s suicide shortly after—the problem with court eunuchs persisted until the dynasty’s collapse less than two decades later.

[edit] Economic breakdown and disaster

Spring morning in a Han palace, by Qiu Ying (1494-1552); excessive luxury and decadence were hallmarks of the late Ming period, spurred by the enormous state bullion of incoming silver and private transactions involving silver.

During the last years of Wanli’s reign and those of his two successors, an economic crisis developed that was centered around a sudden widespread lack of the empire’s chief medium of exchange: silver. The Protestant powers of the Dutch Republic and the Kingdom of England staged frequent raids and acts of piracy against the Catholic-based empires of Spain and Portugal in order to weaken their global economic power.[144] Meanwhile, Philip IV of Spain (r. 1621-1665) began cracking down on illegal smuggling of silver from Mexico and Peru across the Pacific towards China, in favor of shipping American-mined silver directly from Spain to Manila. In 1639, the new Tokugawa regime of Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with European powers, causing a halt of yet another source of silver coming into China. However, the greatest stunt to the flow of silver came from the Americas, while Japanese silver still came into China in limited amounts.[145] Some scholars even assert that the price of silver rose in the 17th century due to a falling demand for goods, not declining silver stocks.[146]

These events occurring at roughly the same time caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver and made paying taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. People began hoarding precious silver as there was progressively less of it, forcing the ratio of the value of copper to silver into a steep decline.[131] In the 1630s, a string of one thousand copper coins was worth an ounce of silver; by 1640 this was reduced to the value of half an ounce; by 1643 it was worth roughly one-third of an ounce.[131] For peasants this was an economic disaster, since they paid taxes in silver while conducting local trade and selling their crops with copper coins.[147]

In this early half of the 17th century, famines became common in northern China because of unusual dry and cold weather that shortened the growing season; these were effects of a larger ecological event now known as the Little Ice Age.[148] Famine, alongside tax increases, widespread military desertions, a declining relief system, and natural disasters such as flooding and inability of the government to properly manage irrigation and flood-control projects caused widespread loss of life and normal civility.[148] The central government was starved of resources and could do very little to mitigate the effects of these calamities. Making matters worse, a widespread epidemic spread across China from Zhejiang to Henan, killing a large but unknown number of people.[149] The deadliest earthquake of all times, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 that killed approximately 830,000 people, occurred during the Jiajing Emperor‘s reign.[150]

Fall of the Ming Dynasty

 Rise of the Manchu

Shanhaiguan along the Great Wall, the gate where the Manchus were repeatedly repelled before being finally let through by Wu Sangui in 1644.

A remarkable tribal leader named Nurhaci (r. 1616-1626), starting with just a small tribe, rapidly gained control over all the Manchurian tribes. During the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598), he offered to lead his tribes in support of the Ming and Joseon army. This offer was declined, but he was granted honorific Ming titles for his gesture.[151] Recognizing the weakness of Ming authority north of their border, he took control over all of the other unrelated tribes surrounding his homeland.[151] In 1610 he broke relations with the Ming court; in 1618 he demanded the Ming pay tribute to him to redress the seven grievances which he documented and sent to the Ming court. This was effectively a declaration of war as the Ming were not about to pay money to a former tributary.

Under the brilliant commander Yuan Chonghuan (1584–1630), the Ming were able to fight off the Manchus repeatedly, notably in 1626 at the Battle of Ningyuan (in which Nurhaci was mortally wounded) and in 1628. Under Yuan’s command the Ming had securely fortified the Shanhai pass, thus blocking the Manchus from crossing the pass to attack Beijing. Using knowledge of firearms that he might have acquired from his cook, Yuan was able to stave off Nurhaci’s advances along the Liao River.[152] Although he was named field marshal of all the northeastern forces in 1628, he was executed in 1630 on trumped-up charges of colluding with the Manchus as they staged their raids.[153] Succeeding generals proved unable to eliminate the Manchu threat.

Unable to attack the heart of Ming directly, the Manchu instead bided their time, developing their own artillery and gathering allies. They were able to enlist Ming government officials and generals as their strategic advisors. A large part of the Ming Army deserted to the Manchu banner. In 1632, they had conquered much of Inner Mongolia,[152] resulting in a large scale recruitment of Mongol troops under the Manchu banner and the securing of an additional route into the Ming heartland.

By 1636, the Manchu ruler Huang Taiji renamed his dynasty from the “Latter Jin” to “Qing” at Shenyang, which had fallen to the Manchu in 1621 and was made their capital in 1625.[154][155] Huang Taiji also adopted the Chinese imperial title huangdi, took the reign title Chongde (“Revering Virtue”), and changed the ethnic name of his people from Jurchen to Manchu.[155][156] In 1638 the Manchu defeated and conquered Ming China’s traditional ally Joseon with an army of 100,000 troops. Shortly after the Koreans renounced their long-held loyalty to the Ming Dynasty.[156]

Rebellion, invasion, collapse

The Shunzhi Emperor (1644-1661), proclaimed the ruler of China on October 8, 1644.

A peasant soldier named Li Zicheng (1606–1645) mutinied with his fellow soldiers in western Shaanxi in the early 1630s after the government failed to ship much-needed supplies there.[148] In 1634 he was captured by a Ming general and released only on the terms that he return to service.[157] The agreement soon broke down when a local magistrate had thirty-six of his fellow rebels executed; Li’s troops retaliated by killing the officials and continued to lead a rebellion based in Rongyang, central Henan province by 1635.[158] By the 1640s, an ex-soldier and rival to Li—Zhang Xianzhong (1606–1647)—had created a firm rebel base in Chengdu, Sichuan, while Li’s center of power was in Hubei with extended influence over Shaanxi and Henan.[158]

In 1640, masses of Chinese peasants who were starving, unable to pay their taxes, and no longer in fear of the frequently defeated Chinese army, began to form into huge bands of rebels. The Chinese military, caught between fruitless efforts to defeat the Manchu raiders from the north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces, essentially fell apart. Unpaid and unfed, the army was defeated by Li Zicheng—now self-styled as the Prince of Shun—and deserted the capital without much of a fight.[159] Li’s forces were allowed into the city when the gates were treacherously opened from within.[159] On May 26, 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng; during the turmoil, the last Ming emperor hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City.[159]

Seizing opportunity, the Manchus crossed the Great Wall after the Ming border general Wu Sangui (1612–1678) opened the gates at Shanhai Pass. This occurred shortly after he learned about the fate of the capital and an army of Li Zicheng marching towards him; weighing his options of alliance, he decided to side with the Manchus.[160] The Manchu army under the Manchu Prince Dorgon (1612–1650) and Wu Sangui approached Beijing after the army sent by Li was destroyed at Shanhaiguan; the Prince of Shun’s army fled the capital on the fourth of June.[161] On June 6 the Manchus and Wu entered the capital and proclaimed the young Shunzhi Emperor ruler of China.[161] After being forced out of Xi’an by the Manchus, chased along the Han River to Wuchang, and finally along the northern border of Jiangxi province, Li Zicheng died there in the summer of 1645, thus ending the Shun Dynasty.[161] One report says his death was a suicide; another states that he was beaten to death by peasants after he was caught stealing their food.[161] Zhang Xianzhong was killed in January of 1647 by Manchu troops after he fled Chengdu and employed scorched earth policy.[162]

Scattered Ming remnants held out after 1644, including that of Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) on Taiwan (Formosa). Despite the loss of Beijing and the death of the emperor, Ming power was by no means totally destroyed. Nanjing, Fujian, Guangdong, Shanxi, and Yunnan were all strongholds of Ming resistance. However, there were several pretenders for the Ming throne, and their forces were divided. Each bastion of resistance was individually defeated by the Qing until 1662, when the last real hopes of a Ming revival died with the Yongli emperor, Zhu Youlang. Despite the Ming defeat, smaller loyalist movements continued until the proclamation of the Republic of China.

 GovernmProvince, prefecture, subprefecture, county

Processional figurines from the Shanghai tomb of Pan Yongzheng, a Ming Dynasty official who lived during the 16th century

The Ming emperors took over the provincial administration system of the Yuan Dynasty, and the thirteen Ming provinces are the precursors of the modern provinces. Throughout the Song Dynasty, the largest political division was the circuit (lu 路).[163] However, after the Jurchen invasion in 1127, the Song court established four semi-autonomous regional command systems based on territorial and military units, with a detached service secretariat that would become the provincial administrations of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.[164] Copied on the Yuan model, the Ming provincial bureaucracy contained three commissions: one civil, one military, and one for surveillance. Below the level of the province (sheng 省) were prefectures (fu 府) operating under a prefect (zhifu 知府), followed by subprefectures (zhou 州) under a subprefect.[165] The lowest unit was the county (xian 縣), overseen by a magistrate.[165] Besides the provinces, there were also two large areas that belonged to no province, but were metropolitan areas (jing 亰) attached to Nanjing and Beijing.[165]

Institutions and bureaus

 Institutional trends

The Forbidden City, the official imperial household of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 until 1924, when the Republic of China evicted Puyi from the Inner Court.

Departing from the main central administrative system generally known as the Three Departments and Six Ministries system, which was instituted by various dynasties since late Han (202 BCE – 220 CE), the Ming administration had only one Department, the Secretariat, that controlled the Six Ministries. Following the execution of the Chancellor Hu Weiyong in 1380, emperor Hongwu abolished the Secretariat, the Censorate, and the Chief Military Commission and personally took charge of the Six Ministries and the regional Five Military Commissions.[166][167] Thus a whole level of administration was cut out and only partially rebuilt by subsequent rulers.[166] The Grand Secretariat, at the beginning a secretarial institution that assisted the emperor with administrative paperwork, was instituted, but without employing grand counselors, or chancellors. The ministries, headed by a minister and run by directors remained under direct control of the emperor until the end of the Ming.

The Hongwu Emperor sent his heir apparent to Shaanxi in 1391 to “tour and soothe” (xunfu) the region; in 1421 the Yongle Emperor commissioned 26 officials to travel the empire and uphold similar investigatory and patrimonial duties.[168] By 1430 these xunfu assignments became institutionalized.[168] Hence, the Censorate was reinstalled and first staffed with investigating censors, later with censors-in-chief. By 1453, the “grand coordinators”—or “touring pacifiers” as Michael Chang notes—were granted the title vice censor-in-chief or assistant censor-in-chief and were allowed direct access to the emperor.[168] As in prior dynasties, the provincial administrations were monitored by a travelling inspector from the Censorate. Censors had the power to impeach officials on an irregular basis, unlike the senior officials who were to do so only in triennial evaluations of junior officials.[168][169]

Although decentralization of state power within the provinces occurred in the early Ming, the trend of central government officials delegated to the provinces as virtual provincial governors began in the 1420s.[170] By the late Ming Dynasty, there were central government officials delegated to two or more provinces as supreme commanders and viceroys, a system which reined in the power and influence of the military by the civil establishment.[170]

 Grand Secretariat and Six Ministries

A portrait of the official Jiang Shunfu (1453–1504), now in the Nanjing Museum. The decoration of two cranes on his chest is a “rank badge” that indicates he was a civil official of the first rank.

Governmental institutions in China conformed to a similar pattern for some two thousand years, but each dynasty installed special offices and bureaus, reflecting its own particular interests. The Ming administration had the Grand Secretaries assisting the emperor, with paperwork handled by them under Yongle‘s reign and finally appointed as top officials of agencies and Grand Preceptor, a top-ranking, non-functional civil service post, under the Hongxi Emperor (r. 1424-1425).[171] The Grand Secretariat drew its members from the Hanlin Academy and were considered part of the imperial authority, not the ministerial one (hence being at odds with both the emperor and ministers at times).[172] The Secretariat was a coordinating agency, whereas the Six Ministries—which were Personnel, Revenue, Rites, War, Justice, and Public Works—were direct administrative organs of the state.[173] The Ministry of Personnel was in charge of appointments, merit ratings, promotions, and demotions of officials, as well as granting of honorific titles.[174] The Ministry of Revenue was in charge of gathering census data, collecting taxes, and handling state revenues, while there were two offices of currency that were subordinate to it.[175] The Ministry of Rites was in charge of state ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices; it also oversaw registers for Buddhist and Daoist priesthoods and even the reception of envoys from tributary states.[176] The Ministry of War was in charge of the appointments, promotions, and demotions of military officers, the maintenance of military installations, equipment, and weapons, as well as the courier system.[177] The Ministry of Justice was in charge of judicial and penal processes, but had no supervisory role over the Censorate or the Grand Court of Revision.[178] The Ministry of Works was in charge of government construction projects, hiring of artisans and laborers for temporary service, manufacturing government equipment, the maintenance of roads and canals, standardization of weights and measures, and the gathering of resources from the countryside.[178]

 Bureaus and offices for the imperial household

Ming coinage, 14-17th century

The imperial household was staffed almost entirely by eunuchs and ladies with their own bureaus.[179] Female servants were organized into the Bureau of Palace Attendance, Bureau of Ceremonies, Bureau of Apparel, Bureau of Foodstuffs, Bureau of the Bedchamber, Bureau of Handicrafts, and Office of Staff Surveillance.[179] Starting in the 1420s, eunuchs began taking over these ladies’ positions until only the Bureau of Apparel with its four subsidiary offices remained.[179] Hongwu had his eunuchs organized into the Directorate of Palace Attendants, but as eunuch power at court increased, so did their administrative offices, with eventual twelve directorates, four offices, and eight bureaus.[179] The dynasty had a vast imperial household, staffed with thousands of eunuchs, who were headed by the Directorate of Palace Attendants. The eunuchs were divided into different directorates in charge of staff surveillance, ceremonial rites, food, utensils, documents, stables, seals, apparel, and so on.[81] The offices were in charge of providing fuel, music, paper, and baths.[81] The bureaus were in charge of weapons, silverwork, laundering, headgear, bronzework, textile manufacture, wineries, and gardens.[81] At times, the most influential eunuch in the Directorate of Ceremonial acted as a de facto dictator over the state.[180]

Although the imperial household was staffed mostly by eunuchs and palace ladies, there was a civil service office called the Seal Office, which cooperated with eunuch agencies in maintaining imperial seals, tallies, and stamps.[181] There were also civil service offices to oversee the affairs of imperial princes.[182]



Candidates who had taken the civil service examinations would crowd around the wall where the results were posted; detail from a handscroll in ink and color on silk, by Qiu Ying (1494-1552).[183]

After the reign of Hongwu—who from 1373 to 1384 staffed his bureaus with officials gathered through recommendations only—the scholar-officials who populated the many ranks of bureaucracy were recruited through a rigorous examination system that was first established by the Sui Dynasty (581-618).[184][185][186] Theoretically the system of exams allowed anyone to join the ranks of imperial officials (although frowned upon for merchants to join); in reality the time and funding needed to support the study in preparation for the exam generally limited participants to those already coming from the landholding class.[187] However, the government did exact provincial quotas while drafting officials.[188] This was an effort to curb monopolization of power by landholding gentry who came from the most prosperous regions, where education was the most advanced.[188] The expansion of the printing industry since Song times enhanced the spread of knowledge and number of potential exam candidates throughout the provinces.[189] For young schoolchildren there were printed multiplication tables and primers for elementary vocabulary; for adult examination candidates there were mass-produced, inexpensive volumes of Confucian classics and successful examination answers.[190]

As in earlier periods, the focus of the examination was classical Confucian texts,[184] while the bulk of test material centered on the Four Books outlined by Zhu Xi in the 12th century.[191] Ming era examinations were perhaps more difficult to pass since the 1487 requirement of completing the “eight-legged essay“, a departure from basing essays off progressing literary trends.[17][191] The exams increased in difficulty as the student progressed from the local level, and appropriate titles were accordingly awarded successful applicants. Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, each grade divided into two degrees, with ranging salaries (nominally paid in piculs of rice) according to their rank.[192] While provincial graduates who were appointed to office were immediately assigned to low-ranking posts like the county graduates, those who passed the palace examination were awarded a jinshi (‘presented scholar’) degree and assured a high-level position.[193][194] In 276 years of Ming rule and ninety palace examinations, the number of doctoral degrees granted by passing the palace examinations was 24,874.[193] Ebrey states that “there were only two to four thousand of these jinshi at any given time, on the order of one out of 10,000 adult males.”[187] This was in comparison to the 100,000 shengyuan (‘government students’), the lowest tier of graduates, by the 16th century.[187]

The maximum tenure in office was nine years, but every three years officials were graded on their performance by senior officials.[195] If they were graded as superior then they were promoted, if graded adequate then they retained their ranks, and if graded inadequate they were demoted one rank.[169] In extreme cases, officials would be dismissed or punished.[169] Only capital officials of grade 4 and above were exempt from the scrutiny of recorded evaluation, although they were expected to confess any of their faults.[169] There were over 4,000 school instructors in county and prefectural schools who were subject to evaluations every nine years.[196] The Chief Instructor on the prefectural level was classified as equal to a second-grade county graduate.[196] The Supervisorate of Imperial Instruction oversaw the education of the heir apparent to the throne; this office was headed by a Grand Supervisor of Instruction, who was ranked as first class of grade three.[182]

 Lesser functionaries

The Xuande Emperor playing chuiwan with his eunuchs, a game similar to golf, by an anonymous court painter of the Xuande period (1425-1435).

Scholar-officials who entered civil service through examinations acted as executive officials to a much larger body of non-ranked personnel called lesser functionaries.[197] They outnumbered officials by four to one; Charles Hucker estimates that they were perhaps as many as 100,000 throughout the empire.[197] These lesser functionaries performed clerical and technical tasks for government agencies.[197] Yet they should not be confused with lowly lictors, runners, and bearers; lesser functionaries were given periodic merit evaluations like officials and after nine years of service might be accepted into a low civil service rank.[197] The one great advantage of the lesser functionaries over officials was that officials were periodically rotated and assigned to different regional posts and had to rely on the good service and cooperation of the local lesser functionaries.[198]

 Eunuchs, princes, and generals

Detail of The Emperor’s Approach showing the Wanli Emperor‘s royal carriage being pulled by elephants and escorted by cavalry (full panoramic painting here)

Eunuchs during the Ming Dynasty gained unprecedented power over state affairs. One of the most effective means of control was the secret service stationed in what was called the Eastern Depot at the beginning of the dynasty, later the Western Depot.[81] This secret service was overseen by the Directorate of Ceremonial, hence this state organ’s often totalitarian affiliation.[81] Eunuchs had ranks that were equivalent to civil service ranks, only theirs had four grades instead of nine.[199]

Princes and descendants of the first Ming emperor were given nominal military commands and large land estates without title. These estates were not feudatories, the princes did not serve any administrative function, and it was only during the reign of the first two emperors that they partook in military affairs.[200] By contrast, princes in the Han and Jin Dynasties had been installed as local kings. Although princes served no organ of state administration, princes, consorts of imperial princesses, and ennobled relatives did staff the Imperial Clan Court, which took care of the imperial genealogy.[182]

Like scholar-officials, military generals were ranked in a hierarchic grading system and were given merit evaluations every five years (as opposed to three years for officials).[201] However, military officers had less prestige than officials. This was due to their hereditary service (instead of solely merit-based) and Confucian values that dictated those who chose the profession of violence (wu) over the cultured pursuits of knowledge (wen).[201][202] Although seen as less prestigious, military officers were not excluded from taking civil service examinations and after 1478 the military even held their own examinations to test military skills.[203] In addition to taking over the established bureaucratic structure from the Yuan period, the Ming emperors established the new post of the travelling military inspector. In the early half of the dynasty, men of noble lineage dominated the higher ranks of military office; this trend was reversed during the latter half of the dynasty as men from more humble origins eventually displaced them.[204]

 Society and culture

Literature and arts

Further information: Ming Dynasty painting

A Ming Dynasty red lacquer box with intricate carving of people in the countryside, surrounded by a floral border design.

As in earlier dynasties, the Ming Dynasty saw a flourishing in the arts, whether it was painting, poetry, music, literature, or dramatic theater. Carved designs in lacquerwares and designs glazed onto porcelain wares displayed intricate scenes similar in complexity to those in painting. These items could be found in the homes of the wealthy, alongside embroidered silks and wares in jade, ivory, and cloisonné.[205] The houses of the rich were also furnished with rosewood furniture and feathery latticework. The writing materials in a scholar’s private study, including elaborately carved brush holders made of stone or wood, were all designed and arranged ritually to give an aesthetic appeal.[205]

Connoisseurship in the late Ming period centered around these items of refined artistic taste, which provided work for art dealers and even underground scammers who made phony imitations of originals and false attributions to works of art.[205] This was noted even by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci while staying in Nanjing, writing that Chinese scam artists were ingenious when it came to making forgeries of artwork and made huge profits.[206] However, there were guides to help the wary new connoisseur; in Liu Tong‘s (d. 1637) book printed in 1635, he told his readers various ways to spot a fake and authentic pieces of art.[207] He revealed that a Xuande era (1426–1435) bronzework could be authenticated if one knew how to judge its sheen; porcelain wares from the Yongle era (1402–1424) could be judged authentic by their thickness.[208]

Lofty Mount Lu, by Shen Zhou, 1467.

There was a great amount of literary achievement in the Ming Dynasty. Xu Xiake (1587–1641), a travel literature author, published his Travel Diaries in 404,000 written characters, with information on everything from local geography to mineralogy.[209][210] The first reference to the publishing of private newspapers in Beijing was in 1582; by 1638 the Beijing Gazette switched from using woodblock print to movable type printing.[211] The new literary field of the moral guide to business ethics was developed by the late Ming period, for the readership of the merchant class.[212] Although short story fiction was popular as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907),[213] and the work of contemporaneous authors such as Xu Guangqi, Xu Xiake, and Song Yingxing were often technical and encyclopedic, the Ming era witnessed the development of the novel. While the gentry elite were educated enough to fully comprehend the language of Classical Chinese, those with rudimentary education—such as women in educated families, merchants, and shop clerks—became a large, potential audience for literature and performing arts that employed Vernacular Chinese.[214] The Jin Ping Mei—published in 1610—is considered by some to be the fifth great novel of pre-modern China, in reference to the Four Great Classical Novels. Two of these novels, the Water Margin and Journey to the West were products of the Ming Dynasty. To complement the work of novels, the theater scripts of playwrights were equally imaginative. One of the most famous plays in Chinese history, The Peony Pavilion, was written by the Ming playwright Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), with its first performance at the Pavilion of Prince Teng in 1598.

In contrast to Xu Xiake, who focused on technical aspects in his travel literature, the Chinese poet and official Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610) used travel literature to express his desires for individualism as well as autonomy from and frustration with Confucian court politics.[215] Yuan desired to free himself from the ethical compromises which were inseparable from the career of a scholar-official.[216] This anti-official sentiment in Yuan’s travel literature and poetry was actually following in the tradition of the Song Dynasty poet and official Su Shi (1037–1101).[216] Yuan Hongdao and his two brothers—Yuan Zongdao (1560–1600) and Yuan Zhongdao (1570–1623)—were the founders of the Gong’an School of letters.[217] This highly individualistic school of poetry and prose was criticized by the Confucian establishment for its association with intense sensual lyricism, which was also apparent in Ming vernacular novels such as the Jin Ping Mei.[217] Yet even gentry and scholar-officials were affected by the new popular romantic literature, seeking courtesans as soulmates to reenact the heroic love stories which arranged marriages often could not provide or accommodate.[218]

Painting of flowers, a butterfly, and rock sculpture by Chen Hongshou (1598-1652); small leaf album paintings like this one first became popular in the Song Dynasty.

There were many famous visual artists in the Ming period, including Ni Zan, Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming, Qiu Ying, Dong Qichang, and many others. They drew upon the techniques, styles, and complexity in painting achieved by their Song and Yuan predecessors, but added some new techniques and styles. Well-known Ming artists could make a living simply by painting, due to the high prices they demanded for their artworks and the great demand by the highly cultured community to collect precious works of art.[219] The artist Qiu Ying was once paid 2.8 kg (100 oz) of silver to paint a long handscroll for the occasion of an eightieth birthday celebration for the mother of a wealthy patron.[219] Renowned artists often gathered an entourage of followers, some who were amateurs who painted while pursuing an official career and others who were full-time painters.[219]

Beyond painters, some potters also became renowned for their artwork, such as He Chaozong in the early 17th century for his style of white porcelain sculpture. The major production centers for porcelain items in the Ming Dynasty were Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and Dehua in Fujian province. The Dehua porcelain factories catered to European tastes by creating Chinese export porcelain by the 16th century. In The Ceramic Trade in Asia, Chuimei Ho estimates that about 16% of late Ming era Chinese ceramic exports were sent to Europe while the rest were destined for Japan and South East Asia.[128]


Chinese glazed stoneware statue of a Daoist deity, from the Ming Dynasty, 16th century.

For thousands of years the beliefs in ancestor worship and practices of the ancestral cult were key features of Chinese civilization. The Chinese believed in a host of deities in what is termed as Chinese folk religion. Other religious denominations in the Ming included the ancient native ideology of Daoism (Taoism) and foreign originated Buddhism, although distinct Chinese Buddhism had long since developed.

Christianity had existed in China since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907), yet the late Ming period saw the first arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Europe such as Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault. There were also other denominations including the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Ricci worked with the Chinese mathematician, astronomer, and agronomist Xu Guangqi to translate the Greek mathematical work Euclid’s Elements into Chinese for the first time in 1607. The Chinese were impressed with European knowledge in astronomy, calendrical science, mathematics, hydraulics, and geography. Most European monks presented themselves more as educated elites than religious figures, in an effort to gain trust and admiration from the Chinese.[220] However, most Chinese were suspicious and even outright critical of Christianity due to Chinese beliefs and practices that did not coincide with the Christian faith.[220] The highpoint of this contention was the Nanjing Religious Incident of 1616-1622, a temporary triumph of the Confucian traditionalists when Western missionaries and science were rejected in favor of the belief that Western science derived from a superior Chinese model; this was soon rejected in favor of once again staffing the Imperial Astronomical Board with Western missionaries learned in science.[221]

Besides Christianity, the Kaifeng Jews had a long history in China; Ricci discovered this when he was contacted by one of them in Beijing and learned of their history in China.[222] Islam in China had existed since the early 7th century during the Tang Dynasty; during the Ming Dynasty there were several prominent figures—including Zheng He—who was Muslim. The Hongwu Emperor also employed Muslim commanders in his army, such as Chang Yuqun, Lan Yu, Ding Dexing, and Mu Ying.[223]


Wang Yangming (1472-1529), considered the most influential Confucian thinker since Zhu Xi.

 Wang Yangming’s Confucianism

During the Ming Dynasty, the doctrines of the Song Dynasty scholar-official Zhu Xi (1130–1200) and Neo-Confucianism were embraced by the court and the Chinese literati at large. However, total conformity to a single mode of thought was never a reality in the intellectual sphere of society. There were some in the Ming who—like Su Shi (1037–1101) of the Song—were rebels at heart and were not abashed to criticize the mainstream dogmatic modes of thought. Leading a new strand of Confucian teaching and philosophy was the scholar-official Wang Yangming (1472–1529), whose critics said that his teachings were contaminated by Chan Buddhism.[224]

In analyzing Zhu Xi’s concept of “the extension of knowledge” (i.e. gaining understanding through careful and rational investigation of things and events; Chinese: 理學, or 格物致知), Wang realized that universal principles were concepts espoused in the minds of all.[225] Breaking from the mold, Wang said that anyone, no matter what socioeconomic status or background, could become as wise as the ancient sages Confucius and Mencius, and that the writings of the latter two were not the source of truth, but merely guides that could have flaws if carefully examined.[226] In Wang’s mind, a peasant who had many experiences and drew natural truths from these was more wise than an official who had carefully studied the Classics but had not experienced the real world in order to observe what was true.[226]

 Conservative reaction

A Ming Dynasty print drawing of Confucius on his way to the Zhou Dynasty capital of Luoyang.

Conservative Confucian officials were wary of Wang’s philosophical interpretation of the Confucian classics, the increasing number of his disciples while still in office, and his overall socially rebellious message.[224] To curb his political influence he was often sent out to deal with military affairs and rebellions far away from the capital.[224] Yet his ideas penetrated mainstream Chinese thought, and spurred new interest in Daoism and Buddhism.[224] Furthermore, people began to question the validity of the social hierarchy and the idea that the scholar was above the farmer.[224] Wang Yangming’s disciple and salt-mine worker Wang Gen gave lectures to commoners about pursuing education to improve their lives, while his follower He Xinyin 何心隱 challenged the elevation and emphasis of the family in Chinese society.[224] His contemporary Li Zhi 李贄 (1527–1602) even taught that women were the intellectual equals of men and should be given a better education; both Li and He eventually died in prison, jailed on charges of spreading “dangerous ideas”.[227] Yet these “dangerous ideas” of educating women had long been embraced with mothers giving their children primary education,[228] as well as courtesans who were as literate and similarly trained in calligraphy, painting, and poetry as their male hosts.[229]

In opposition to the liberal views of Wang Yangming were the conservative officials in the censorate—a governmental institution with the right and responsibility to speak out against malfeasance and abuse of power—and the senior officials of the Donglin Academy, which was reestablished in 1604.[230] These conservatives wanted a revival of orthodox Confucian ethics. Conservatives such as Gu Xiancheng (1550–1612) argued against Wang Yangming’s idea of innate moral knowledge, stating that this was simply a legitimization for unscrupulous behavior such as greedy pursuits and personal gain.[230] These two strands of Confucian thought created factionalism amongst ministers of state, who—like the old days of Wang Anshi and Sima Guang in the Song Dynasty—used any opportunity to impeach members of the other faction from court.[230]

Urban and rural life

Wang Gen was able to give philosophical lectures to many commoners from different regions because—following the trend already apparent in the Song Dynasty—communities in Ming society were becoming less isolated as the distance between market towns was shrinking.[231] Schools, descent groups, religious associations, and other local voluntary organizations were increasing in number and allowing more contact between educated men and local villagers.[231] Jonathan Spence writes that the distinction between what was town and country was blurred in Ming China, since suburban areas with farms were located just outside and in some cases within the walls of a city.[232] Not only was the blurring of town and country evident, but also of socioeconomic class in the traditional four occupations (Chinese: 仕農工商), since artisans sometimes worked on farms in peak periods and farmers often traveled into the city to find work during times of dearth.[232]

Emperor Minghuang’s Journey to Sichuan, a Ming Dynasty painting after Qiu Ying (1494-1552).

A variety of occupations could be chosen or inherited from a father’s line of work. This would include—but was not limited to—coffinmakers, ironworkers and blacksmiths, tailors, cooks and noodle-makers, retail merchants, tavern, teahouse, or winehouse managers, shoemakers, seal cutters, pawnshop owners, brothel heads, and merchant bankers engaging in a proto-banking system involving notes of exchange.[131][233] Virtually every town had a brothel where female and male prostitutes could be had.[234] Male catamites fetched a higher price than female concubines since pederasty with a teenage boy was seen as a mark of elite status, regardless of sodomy being repugnant to sexual norms.[235] Public bathing became much more common than in earlier periods.[236] Urban shops and retailers sold a variety of goods such as special paper money to burn at ancestral sacrifices, specialized luxury goods, headgear, fine cloth, teas, and others.[233] Smaller communities and townships too poor or scattered to support shops and artisans obtained their goods from periodic market fairs and traveling peddlers.[232] A small township also provided a place for simple schooling, news and gossip, matchmaking, religious festivals, traveling theater groups, tax collection, and bases of famine relief distribution.[232]

Farming villagers in the north spent their days harvesting crops like wheat and millet, while farmers south of the Huai River engaged in intensive rice cultivation and had lakes and ponds where ducks and fish could be raised. The cultivation of mulberry trees for silkworms and tea bushes could be found mostly south of the Yangzi River; even further south of this sugarcane and citrus were grown as basic crops.[232] Some people in the mountainous southwest made a living by selling lumber from hard bamboo. Besides cutting down trees to sell wood, the poor also made a living by turning wood into charcoal, burning oyster shells to make lime, fired pots, and wove mats and baskets.[237] In the north traveling by horse and carriage was most common, while in the south the myriad of rivers, canals, and lakes provided cheap and easy water transport. Although the south had the characteristic of the wealthy landlord and tenant farmers, there were on average many more owner-cultivators north of the Huai River due to harsher climate, living not far above subsistence level.[238]

 Science and technology

The puddling process of smelting iron ore to make pig iron and then wrought iron, with the right illustration displaying men working a blast furnace, from the Tiangong Kaiwu encyclopedia, 1637.

Compared to the flourishing of science and technology in the Song Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty perhaps saw fewer advancements in science and technology compared to the pace of discovery in the Western world. In fact, key advances in Chinese science in the late Ming were spurred by contact with Europe. In 1626 Johann Adam Schall von Bell wrote the first Chinese treatise on the telescope, the Yuanjingshuo (Far Seeing Optic Glass); in 1634 the last Ming emperor Chongzhen acquired the telescope of the late Johann Schreck (1576–1630).[239] The heliocentric model of the solar system was rejected by the Catholic missionaries in China, but Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei‘s ideas slowly trickled into China starting with the Polish Jesuit Michael Boym (1612–1659) in 1627, Adam Schall von Bell’s treatise in 1640, and finally Joseph Edkins, Alex Wylie, and John Fryer in the 19th century.[240] Catholic Jesuits in China would promote Copernican theory at court, yet at the same time embrace the Ptolemaic system in their writing; it was not until 1865 that Catholic missionaries in China sponsored the heliocentric model as their Protestant peers did.[241] Although Shen Kuo (1031–1095) and Guo Shoujing (1231–1316) had laid the basis for trigonometry in China, another important work in Chinese trigonometry would not be published again until 1607 with the efforts of Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci.[242] Ironically, some inventions which had their origins in ancient China were reintroduced to China from Europe during the late Ming; for example, the field mill.[243]

The Chinese calendar was in need of reform since it inadequately measured the solar year at 365¼ days, giving an error of 10 min and 14 sec a year or roughly a full day every 128 years.[244] Although the Ming had adopted Guo Shoujing’s Shoushi calendar of 1281, which was just as accurate as the Gregorian Calendar, the Ming Directorate of Astronomy failed to periodically readjust it; this was perhaps due to their lack of expertise since their offices had become hereditary in the Ming and the Statutes of the Ming prohibited private involvement in astronomy.[245] A sixth-generation descendant of Emperor Hongxi, the “Prince” Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611), submitted a proposal to fix the calendar in 1595, but the ultra-conservative astronomical commission rejected it.[244][245] This was the same Zhu Zaiyu who discovered the system of tuning known as equal temperament, a discovery made simultaneously by Simon Stevin (1548–1620) in Europe.[246] In addition to publishing his works on music, he was able to publish his findings on the calendar in 1597.[245] A year earlier, the memorial of Xing Yunlu suggesting a calendar improvement was rejected by the Supervisor of the Astronomical Bureau due to the law banning private practice of astronomy; Xing would later serve with Xu Guangqi in reforming the calendar (Chinese: 崇禎歷書) in 1629 according to Western standards.[245]

Portrait of Matteo Ricci by Yu Wenhui, Latinized as Emmanuel Pereira, dated the year of Ricci’s death, 1610

When the Ming founder Hongwu came upon the mechanical devices housed in the Yuan Dynasty’s palace at Khanbaliq—such as fountains with balls dancing on their jets, self-operating tiger automata, dragon-headed devices that spouted mists of perfume, and mechanical clocks in the tradition of Yi Xing (683-727) and Su Song (1020–1101)—he associated all of them with the decadence of Mongol rule and had them destroyed.[247] This was described in full length by the Divisional Director of the Ministry of Works, Xiao Xun, who also carefully preserved details on the architecture and layout of the Yuan Dynasty palace.[247] Later, European Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault would briefly mention indigenous Chinese clockworks that featured drive wheels.[248] However, both Ricci and Trigault were quick to point out that 16th century European clockworks were far more advanced than the common time keeping devices in China, which they listed as water clocks, incense clocks, and “other instruments…with wheels rotated by sand as if by water” (Chinese: 沙漏).[249] Chinese records—namely the Yuan Shi (Chinese: 元史)—describe the ‘five-wheeled sand clock’, a mechanism pioneered by Zhan Xiyuan (fl. 1360-1380) which featured the scoop wheel of Su Song’s earlier astronomical clock and a stationary dial face over which a pointer circulated, similar to European models of the time.[250] This sand-driven wheel clock was improved upon by Zhou Shuxue (fl. 1530-1558) who added a fourth large gear wheel, changed gear ratios, and widened the orifice for collecting sand grains since he criticized the earlier model for clogging up too often.[251]

The Chinese were intrigued with European technology, but so were visiting Europeans of Chinese technology. In 1584, Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) featured in his atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum the peculiar Chinese innovation of mounting masts and sails onto carriages, just like Chinese ships.[252] Gonzales de Mendoza also mentioned this a year later—noting even the designs of them on Chinese silken robes—while Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594) featured them in his atlas, John Milton (1608–1674) in one of his famous poems, and Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest (1739–1801) in the writings of his travel diary in China.[253]

Bodhisattva Manjusri in Blanc-de-Chine, by He Chaozong, 17th century; Song Yingxing devoted an entire section of his book to the ceramics industry in the making of porcelain items like this.[254]

The encyclopedist Song Yingxing (1587–1666) documented a wide array of technologies, metallurgic and industrial processes in his Tiangong Kaiwu (Chinese: 天工開物) encyclopedia of 1637. This includes mechanical and hydraulic powered devices for agriculture and irrigation,[255] nautical technology such as vessel types and snorkeling gear for pearl divers,[256][257][258] the annual processes of sericulture and weaving with the loom,[259] metallurgic processes such as the crucible technique and quenching,[260] manufacturing processes such as for roasting iron pyrite in converting sulphide to oxide in sulfur used in gunpowder compositions—illustrating how ore was piled up with coal briquettes in an earthen furnace with a still-head that sent over sulfur as vapor that would solidify and crystallize[261]—and the use of gunpowder weapons such as a naval mine ignited by use of a rip-cord and steel flint wheel.[262]

Focusing on agriculture in his Nongzheng Quanshu, the agronomist Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) took an interest in irrigation, fertilizers, famine relief, economic and textile crops, and empirical observation of the elements that gave insight into early understandings of chemistry.[263]

There were many advances and new designs in gunpowder weapons during the beginning of the dynasty, but by the mid to late Ming the Chinese began to frequently employ European-style artillery and firearms.[264] The Huolongjing, compiled by Jiao Yu and Liu Ji sometime before the latter’s death on May 16, 1375 (with a preface added by Jiao in 1412),[265] featured many types of cutting-edge gunpowder weaponry for the time. This includes hollow, gunpowder-filled exploding cannonballs,[266] land mines that used a complex trigger mechanism of falling weights, pins, and a steel wheellock to ignite the train of fuses,[267] naval mines,[268] fin-mounted winged rockets for aerodynamic control,[269] multistage rockets propelled by booster rockets before igniting a swarm of smaller rockets issuing forth from the end of the missile (shaped like a dragon’s head),[270] and hand cannons that had up to ten barrels.[271]

Li Shizhen (1518–1593)—one of the most renowned pharmacologists and physicians in Chinese history—belonged to the late Ming period. In 1587, he completed the first draft of his Bencao Gangmu, which detailed the usage of over 1,800 medicinal drugs. Although it purportedly was invented by a Daoist hermit from Mount Emei in the late 10th century, the process of inoculation for smallpox patients was in widespread use in China by the reign of the Longqing Emperor (r. 1567-1572), long before it was applied anywhere else.[272] In regards to oral hygiene, the ancient Egyptians had a primitive toothbrush of a twig frayed at the end, but the Chinese were the first to invent the modern bristle toothbrush in 1498, although it used stiff pig hair.[273]



Appreciating Plums, by Chen Hongshou (1598 – 1652) showing a lady holding an oval fan while enjoying the beauty of the plum.

Sinologist historians still debate the actual population figures for each era in the Ming Dynasty. The historian Timothy Brook notes that the Ming government census figures are dubious since fiscal obligations prompted many families to underreport the number of people in their households and many county officials to underreport the number of households in their jurisdiction.[274] Children were often underreported, especially female children, as shown by skewed population statistics throughout the Ming.[275] Even adult women were underreported;[276] for example, the Daming Prefecture in North Zhili reported a population of 378,167 males and 226,982 females in 1502.[61] The government attempted to revise the census figures using estimates of the expected average number of people in each household, but this did not solve the widespread problem of tax registration.[277]

The Xuande Emperor, (r. 1425-1435); he stated in 1428 that his populace was dwindling due to palace construction and military adventures, but in fact the population was rising under him, a fact noted by Zhou Chen—Governor of South Zhili—in his 1432 report to the throne about widespread itinerant commerce.[278]

The number of people counted in the census of 1381 was 59,873,305; however, this number dropped significantly when the government found that some 3 million people were missing from the tax census of 1391.[279] Even though underreporting figures was made a capital crime in 1381, the need for survival pushed many to abandon the tax registration and wander from their region, where Hongwu had attempted to impose rigid immobility on the populace.[278] The government tried to mitigate this by creating their own conservative estimate of 60,545,812 people in 1393.[278] In his Studies on the Population of China, Ho Ping-ti suggests revising the 1393 census to 65 million people, noting that large areas of North China and frontier areas were not counted in that census.[280] Brook states that the population figures gathered in the official censuses after 1393 ranged between 51 and 62 million, while the population was in fact increasing.[278] Even the Hongzhi Emperor (r. 1487-1505) remarked that the daily increase in subjects coincided with the daily dwindling amount of registered civilians and soldiers.[237] William Atwell states that around 1400 the population of China was perhaps 90 million people, citing Heijdra and Mote.[281]

Historians are now turning to local gazetteers of Ming China for clues that would show consistent growth in population.[275] Using the gazetteers, Brook estimates that the overall population under the Chenghua Emperor (r. 1464-1487) was roughly 75 million,[277] despite mid-Ming census figures hovering around 62 million.[237] While prefectures across the empire in the mid-Ming period were reporting either a drop in or stagnant population size, local gazetteers reported massive amounts of incoming vagrant workers with not enough good cultivated land for them to till, so that many would become drifters, conmen, or wood-cutters that contributed to deforestation.[282] The Hongzhi and Zhengde emperors lessened the penalties against those who had fled their home region, while the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521-1567) finally had officials register migrants wherever they had moved or fled in order to bring in more revenues.[61]

Even with Jiajing’s reforms to document migrant workers and merchants, by the late Ming era the government census still did not accurately reflect the enormous growth in population. Gazetteers across the empire noted this and made their own estimations of the overall population in the Ming, some guessing that the population had doubled, tripled, or even grown fivefold since 1368.[283] Fairbank estimates that the population was perhaps 160 million in the late Ming Dynasty,[284] while Brook estimates 175 million,[283] and Ebrey states perhaps as large as 200 million.[21] However, a great epidemic that entered China through the northwest in 1641 ravaged the densely populated areas along the Grand Canal; a gazetteer in northern Zhejiang noted more than half the population fell ill that year and that 90% of the local populace in one area was dead by 1642.[285


the end@copyright Dr Iwan Suwandy 2010


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