As a historian, there are few places more interesting to study than China. After all, China was one of the first known civilizations, and it has retained a fairly consistent culture ever since. While there are certainly changes that took place between different dynasties and rulers, there was never a time when China, in some form or fashion, did not exist.
With that being said, it is fascinating to see how different dynasties interpreted Chinese culture. Along with traditional questions of religion and governance, many dynasties were known for their art style and inventions. One dynasty that is critical when exploring how the Chinese saw themselves is the Ming Dynasty. This dynasty began on January 23 in 1368 AD, when a man named Zhu Yuanzhang became emperor.
Who was Zhu Yuanzhang?
Zhu Yuanzhang was born into poverty, as the youngest of many children in a peasant family. He saw how hard it was for farmers to survive, and after the Plague killed most of his family, he ended up travelling the country, experiencing the many failings of the current government.
He was born during the Yuan Dynasty, which was run by the descendants of the Mongols. However, the country was in a state of crisis. Between 1310 and 1340, there were nine different emperors, three of whom reigned for less than a year. The political turmoil coincided with environmental disasters that left the population desperate for stability and strength.
After a few years of wandering, he settled into a Buddhist monastery, where he learned to read and write. That may have been where he stayed, had the monastery not been looted by the army. This led Zhu to join a group of revolutionaries, the Red Turbans, where he swiftly became a commander.
Zhu Yuanzhang eventually took the city of Nanjing, where he established a competent government. He took the title of Duke of Wu. Over the next 12 years, he consolidated power by defeating other rebel leaders and the remaining Yuan forces. Only then was it time for his reign to begin.
How did Zhu Yuanzhang start a new dynasty in China?
On January 23, 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang took the name Hongwu and declared himself emperor of what would be the Ming Dynasty. During his reign, Hongwu reinstated Confucianism and focused on policies that benefitted the poor, with an emphasis on accessible education and innovative agriculture.
While Hongwu put forward policies to help the poor, he did not allow them (or anyone else) too much power in the government. He felt that a single leader was necessary, which led him to be ruthless with anyone he perceived as a threat. During his reign, thousands of officials and military leaders were executed for alleged coup attempts.
After his death, Hongwu was succeeded by his grandson and several other descendants. The Ming Dynasty would last from 1368 to 1644, when it was replaced by the Qing Dynasty.
What was the Ming Dynasty known for?
Following in Hongwu's footsteps, the various emperors of the Ming Dynasty preferred to keep as much power as possible concentrated with them and their children. This provided a lot of stability for China, but it was not a flexible system.
One of the most significant elements of the Ming Dynasty was that it was founded on the idea that Chinese culture should never be polluted by outside forces. This xenophobic view made sense, since the region had been controlled by the Mongols for the last century. The people wanted a return to Han Chinese superiority, in both government and culture.
One traditional Chinese ideal was that government should be run by those who are most talented, regardless of where they came from. Following this principal, Hongwu and his successors established more schools in China than any previous dynasty. Similarly following tradition, the primary belief systems in Ming China were based on Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism.
Despite having a stringent governing system, there were a few forms of art were perfected during the Ming period. Painting was an honored practice, and one of the few places where creativity and individuality was encouraged. Similarly, novels and musical theatre also thrived, with the kunqu style of theatre rising to prominence.
As the Chinese culture boomed, Ming emperors allowed more international trade, even allowing exploration to take place similarly to European imperialistic missions. However, they focused expansion on trade, rather than land acquisition, which helped spread Ming pottery around the world.
While European powers were trying to expand and mine colonial resources, the Ming Dynasty saw China restore its former glory and move toward international renown once again.
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