The Ming Dynasty
The Ming Dynasty is one of the most recognized time periods in the history of China because of its social stability and orderly government. It lasted for 276 years from 1368 until 1644 when the capital city of Beijing was captured by Li Zicheng during a rebellion that led into the short-lived Shun Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty was also the last one that was controlled by ethnic Han Chinese, which also adds to its significance in the nation’s history.
Emperors of the Ming Dynasty
Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398) Emperor Hongwu was the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He was the one that established the dynasty during a time when plagues, revolts, and famine were prevalent in the nation. He stepped up and led the forces that conquered the leaders of the Yuan Dynasty. His forces captured the capital city, which is now Beijing but was called Khanbaliq at the time, and he claimed the Mandate of Heaven in order to establish the Ming Dynasty. Because he only trusted people who were his family, Emperor Hongwu made princes of several of his sons. He also replaced the Mongol bureaucrats in the government with Chinese people and revamped the Confucian examination system for government positions. Instead of basing a decision on this system which rewarded merit and knowledge, those who wanted to hold a civil service position had to pass a competitive exam in the Classics.
One of the main things that Emperor Hongwu is known for is consolidating most of the power into his own hands in order to prevent other groups from being able to overthrow him. He abolished the Imperial Secretariat, which previous dynasties had used as the ruling and administrative bodies. He also wanted to keep the eunuchs, who served as castrated servants for the emperor, illiterate so they would not have any influence over others.
After reigning for 30 years, Emperor Hongwu died.
Emperor Jianwen (1398-1402) Emperor Jianwen of the Ming Dynasty took over the throne after the death of his grandfather, Emperor Hongwu, in 1398. The name “Jianwen” was given to him and this era because it means “establishing civility,” which was the cornerstone of his reign which lasted from 1398 until 1402.
The short four-year reign of Emperor Jianwen was due in part because of his powerful uncles rebelling against him as ruler. They led the Jingnan rebellion which resulted in usurping the emperor. The emperor who succeeded Jianwen presented a completely burned body that he said was that of Jianwen, but there rumors that Jianwen had actually escaped his palace while it burned.
As emperor, Jianwen continued several of his grandfather’s policies, including oppressing the eunuchs in the emperor’s court and consolidating power. Jianwen also won the support of Mongolian tribes by burning down his brother’s capital.
Emperor Yongle (1402-1424) Emperor Yongle was an ambitious emperor of the Ming Dynasty. One of his biggest and most ambitious projects during his reign was to widen the Grand Canal, which is a canal in China that was used for trading between Beijing in the north and the southern region of China.
Another one of his accomplishments was that he oversaw the building of the Forbidden City during his reign. He was also known for fending off a number of attacks from the Mongols who wanted to overtake the Ming Dynasty.
Potentially one of his greatest accomplishments, however, was commissioning the great and legendary voyages of Zheng He. Emperor Yongle sent Zheng He on six voyages to the West. These voyages helped establish China as a known country and they helped increase trade with other nations. The voyages also helped Emperor Yongle’s influence and reputation throughout the world.
In 1421, things took a turn for the worse in Emperor Yongle’s empire. One of his wives died and soon after, a eunuch in his administration was caught having sex with two concubines. As a result, Yongle purged his staff and executed thousands of eunuchs and servants. He was also thrown from a horse later that year in an accident that ended up crushing his hand completely.
In 1424, on a return march from Beijing following an attack, Emperor Yongle died. Many of the men with him made a coffin and carried him back to Beijing where they buried him nearby.
Emperor Hongxi (1424-1425) In September of 1424, Emperor Hongxi took the throne as the fourth emperor of the Ming Dynasty. His first major act as emperor was cancelling Zheng He’s expeditions to other parts of the world. He restored the Confucian officials and gave those officials he was close to higher ranks in his administration.
Emperor Hongxi also improved the nation’s economy with several strategies. For one thing, he cancelled any outstanding requisitions for gold, silver, and lumber. He also appointed a team for investigating the nation’s taxes. But before he could do much more, he died of a potential heart attack in May of 1425.
Emperor Xuande (1425-1435) Following the short reign of Emperor Hongxi, Emperor Xuande was placed into power in 1425 and his reign lasted for 10 years until 1435. After the previous emperor cancelled Zheng He’s seventh and final voyage, Emperor Xuande permitted him to command the voyage as his last expedition.
Emperor Xuande was also known for reducing taxes on imperial lands during his reign and allowing civilian control over the nation’s military. His time of rule was marked by peace with no major revolts or problems inside or outside of his administration. But he contracted an illness and died after only 10 years on the throne. Many consider his time as emperor to be part of the Ming Dynasty’s golden era.
Emperor Zhengtong (1435-1449) and (1457-1464) Emperor Zhengtong ruled the Ming Dynasty from 1435 until 1449 and then again from 1457 until 1464. When he took the throne in 1435 at the age of 8, following the death of Emperor Xuande, the nation was a prosperous one. He was the first child emperor of the Ming Dynasty, making him highly impressionable and easily influenced. He relied heavily on one of his eunuchs for advice.
Following the Battle of Tumum Fortress at the age of 22, Emperor Zhengtong was captured by the Mongols and put into prison. His brother, Zhu Quyi, assumed the throne during the time that Zhengton was in prison. When Zhengton returned home from prison, his brother put him on house arrest for seven more years. He was allowed minimal contacts with the outside world. When Emperor Jingtai, his brother, fell ill, Zhengtong formed a coup and overthrew him to regain power for a second reign which lasted from 1457 until 1464, when he died at the age of 36.
Emperor Jingtai (1449-1457) Emperor Jingtai was the older brother of Emperor Zhengtong and ruled in the place of Zhengtong for several years while he was in prison. His reign lasted for about eight years until he got sick and his older brother formed a coup to overthrow him and regain power.
Emperor Chenghua (1464-1487) Emperor Chenghua was an emperor of the Ming Dynasty for more than 13 years. He took the throne at the age of 16 and changed government policies to include reduced taxes. However, there were still peasant uprisings and revolts that occurred during his reign, but they were met with major violence to suppress them and stop them right away.
Emperor Chenghua’s favorite advisor was a concubine by the name of Lady Wan, who was about twice his age. She controlled the emperor’s harem to prevent any of the other concubines from having his children. If she found out that one of them was pregnant by him, she and her eunuchs either induced abortion or poisoned the mother and the baby.
After reigning for 23 years, Emperor Chenghua died in 1487.
Emperor Hongzhi (1487-1505) From 1487 until 1505, Emperor Hongzi was the emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty. He was the son of Emperor Chenghua and the name of his era means “great government.” In fact, the time of Emperor Hongzhi’s reign is often referred to by historians as the Hongzhi Silver Age. One of the things that Emperor Hongzhi was known for was being monogamous. He had no concubines in his palace and he only had one empress. He was also known as a peaceful emperor.
Emperor Hongzi modeled his administration after the ideology of Confucius and he oversaw the affairs of the state. He reduced government spending and lowered taxes. He also made responsible decisions when appointing people to government positions. This emperor even accepted criticisms about himself that others had, unlike most other emperors who either stifled criticism or punished those who had anything negative to say about the way they ruled the nation.
Emperor Zhengde (1505-1521) Zhengde was one of two sons that Emperor Hongzhi had, but the other died while he was still an infant. Emperor Zhengde took the throne in 1505 at a young age of about 10 years old. He was well-versed in Confucian literature and other subjects, leading many to believe that he would be a great emperor.
Emperor Zhengde was not known for taking an interest in state affairs. He married at the age of 14 and he is described as being a reckless and foolish ruler who was very irresponsible. He indulged in women and frequented brothels. He also had such a large harem that many of the women starved to death because of the lack of food that was available to feed them all properly.
At the age of 30, Emperor Zhengde died. The accepted story of how he died was due to falling in the lake one day in 1520 from being drunk. He almost drowned, but he also contracted illnesses from the water, which eventually led to his death.
Emperor Jiajing (1521-1567) The cousin of Emperor Zhengde succeeded him in 1521 to become the eleventh emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Since Zhengde had no offspring that lived past childhood, his cousin ascended to the throne at the age of 14.
Emperor Jiajing chose to live outside of the capital city so he could be isolated from others. He ignored state affairs, much like his predecessor, and is described as a cruel emperor who appointed incompetent people to high government positions. As a result of his cruelty, there were plots to assassinate him, including a plot among his concubines to strangle him to death while he was sleeping. His rule was also plagued by attacks from other countries and the largest earthquake in history, the Shaanxi earthquake in 1556, which killed more than 800,000 people.
After ruling for 45 years, which is the second longest reign of any Ming Dynasty emperor, Emperor Jiajing died. It is believed that he died from an overdose of mercury. His lack of tending to his official duties began to spell the end of the Ming Dynasty.
Emperor Longqing (1567-1572) After Emperor Jiajing left the nation of China in disarray and corruption, Emperor Longqing took the throne with a goal of reforming the government. One of the ways he planned to do this was to replace the incompetent government officials with more qualified ones. He also banished the corrupt officials that were currently in the administration and he began trading with other major empires once again, including parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe.
After a few short years of ruling, Emperor Longqing died at the age of 35. He did not have a chance to accomplish his goals of reforming the government, which caused the nation to continue to decline into corruption.
Emperor Wanli (1572-1620) The 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Wanli, was the third son of the previous emperor. He reigned for 48 years, which was the longest rule of any emperor during the Ming Dynasty. About 10 years into his reign, he decided to take full control of the government. After doing this, the economy prospered and China was seen as a powerful nation.
During the later years of his reign, however, Emperor Wanli was preoccupied. He did not attend meetings concerning state affairs very often and he rarely read reports sent to him by his ministers. Instead, he oversaw the construction of his tomb, a project which took decades to finish.
Wanli’s rule helped contribute to further the Ming Dynasty’s decline. His administration was not satisfied with him and parts of China’s border were raided by the Manchu. He died in 1620 and he was buried in his tomb, which is still one of the biggest tombs in the entire region.
Emperor Taichang (1620) Emperor Taichang succeeded his father, but his reign lasted for less than 30 days. During the first few days of his reign, some important government positions were filled and he revoked some unpopular taxes and policies that the previous emperor had imposed on the people.
However, about 10 days after he officially took the throne, he came down with an illness. Some reports claim the illness was a result of sexual indulgences. He was found dead a few days later.
Emperor Tianqi (1620-1627) The 15th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Tianqi, ruled from 1620 until 1627. He became emperor at the age of 15 and was more interested in his carpentry hobby than the affairs of the state. As a result, his main eunuch and his nanny usurped his power. They appointed their friends to high positions in the administration and they starved the emperor’s harem to death by locking the women away.
Emperor Tianqi died in 1627 and his younger brother ascended to the throne because Tianqi had no heirs to take his place.
Emperor Chongzhen (1627-1644) Emperor Chongzhen was the last emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty. During his rule, China underwent some horrible conditions, including famines, droughts, and uprisings by the farmers. There was a Little Ice Age that occurred during this time, causing many of these problems. But the uprisings were the most difficult to contend with as the Ming armies were already spread thin trying to protect China from the attacks by the Manchu in the north.
One of the revolts, led by Li Zicheng, attacked the capital city of Beijing. Instead of being captured and executed by his enemies, Emperor Chongzhen arranged a feast for everybody in the imperial household besides his sons. He pulled out his sword and killed everybody at the feast, except for one daughter who blocked the sword with her arm. Emperor Chongzhen then fled to an area behind the palace and hung himself from a tree.
Decline of the Ming Dynasty
The capturing of Beijing, the death of Emperor Chongzhen, and the uprisings along various borders of China led to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty. The decline had been coming for quite some time as the leadership of the empire began to diminish and eunuchs held more control over the government than the actual emperors.