Empire of the Great Ming – Chinese Culture and Tradition

Chinese history of the Ming Dynasty under Emperor Hongwu and Emperor Yongle

The Ming (‘Brilliant’) Dynasty also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling dynasty of China from the years 1368 to 1644, one of the longest and most stable periods in China’s history. The founder of the Ming, Zhu Yuanzhang came from a very poor peasant background, being orphaned at the age of 16 years and having to fend for himself. Later he lived  at a monastery until he was 24 years of age. When the Monastery was burnt to the ground by the Mongols he joined a rebel group. Gifted with natural leadership abilities he quickly rose to become their leader. They then joined a rebel sect  called the Red Turban movement. He became the leader of the Red Turban movement at 27 years age and successfully defeated the Mongol  army of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. He took the title of Emperor Hongwu, and became the first of the Ming Emperors.

Emperor-Hongwu (temple name Tai Zu)

Emperor-Hongwu (temple name Emperor Tai Zu)

Emperor Hongwu made radical changes to the Central and local government, taking direct responsibility for overseeing all the imperial administrations himself. He then brought in the Brocade Guards to control the highest officials at the court. The Brocade Guards were the only people he trusted, namely the eunuchs, and they acted like a secret service to the Emperor.

The Emperor was also concerned with the tradition and culture of the ordinary Chinese people and their livelihood, and provided much-needed support for agricultural development.  He encouraged reclamation of wasteland areas for the growing of cash crops  such as cotton and others by the local peasants. Throughout the country the government supported the development of water conservation projects . He brought in a fairer tax system which provided a guaranteed revenue for the country and brought the economy towards a gradual recovery and prosperity under his reign.

Emperor Hongwu appointed his grandson to be his successor. However upon Emperor Hongwu’s death, his son the Prince of Yan, who already controlled the region around Beijing overthrew his nephew, proclaiming himself Emperor Yongle (“Everlasting Joy”) and promptly shifted the capital to Beijing. This period under Emperor Yongle’s reign was one of most constructive and prosperous of the Ming Dynasty, with Beijing becoming the official capital in 1421.

Yongle-Emperor, personal name Zhu Di

Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty(personal name Zhu Di)

 Rule under Emperor Yongle, saw establishment of the Forbidden City, and a new city based on traditional principles of Chinese city planning. The entire city enclosed and walled for protection, walls within walls. Construction of the Forbidden City took 15 years with more than one million workers employed. Other massive construction projects were undertaken including restoration of the Grand Canal and the restoration and extension of the Great Wall of China outside Beijing. It is estimated that at that time  population of Beijing was between 160-200 million inhabitants.

Under the reign of Emperor Yongle, a huge navy and an enormous regular army of one million troops were established. In earlier dynasties maritime trade and official tribute missions from China had already taken place. By the 15th century China had become a significant maritime power. The tributary fleet under the Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He, surpassed all others with huge ships larger than anything seen before. Admiral Zheng He, on six maritime expeditions which reached as far as the east coast of Africa. Luxury items such as blue and white porcelain and silk were strongly in demand in Japan, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Portuguese traders first landed in China in 1514 seeking shipments of tea, silk, porcelain and other luxury items. The Spanish and Dutch traders arrived later in the 16th century, and this heralded a new era for China providing a burgeoning global trade of new goods, plants, animals and food crops.

Blue-and-White-Porcelain-Yongle period Ming Dynasty

Blue-and-White-Porcelain-Yongle period Ming Dynasty

The common medium of exchange in China at that time was copper and paper banknotes, but due to the flourishing trade  Europe and the Japanese this form of exchange was being replaced with quantities of silver. During the last decades of the Ming dynasty trade decreased and the flow of silver into China also diminished, this in turn undermined the Ming economy. The economy was already struggling with natural disasters such as a large earthquake, famine, crop failure, and sudden epidemics. This severely affected people’s livelihood and unrest was rife, as control by the authorities weakened and allowed a rebel leader, Li Zicheng to challenge the Ming Emperors.

Beijing fell in 1644 to rebel leader, Li Zicheng who established the Shun Dynasty. However a short time later, at the battle of Shanhai Pass,Li’s army defeated by Ming general Wu Sangui and the Manchurians. China was then ruled by the Manchu or Qing (pure) Dynasty, which seized control after Li Zicheng’s defeat on May 27, 1644.

Chinese culture and tradition – Ming Dynasty

During the Ming Dynasty, under Emperor Yongle court dress became an essential part of Chinese and tradition.The use of mandarin  squares were first authorized as an embroidered badge on court dress during Emperor Yongle’s reign. Court dress regulations were first published in 1368. The mandarin squares were richly embroidered with depictions of birds for civil officials, and animals used for military officials. Embroidered on the second rank civil badge is the Golden Pheasant, and on the fifth-rank is the Silver pheasant. The Third-rank was an embroidered Peacock. The peacock is also native to China and a revered bird in Chinese culture and tradition. These embroidered badges worn by Ming nobles and officials. They became part of traditional Chinese cloths to be worn at court on special occasions. Prior to the Ming Dynasty, during the Yang Dynasty similar type decoration was also used on court robes. The embroidered mandarin square used throughout the remainder of the Ming Dynasty, and continued in use during the Qing Dynasty, as part of Chinese culture and tradition in  court dress, until the fall of the imperial system in 1912.

Rank-Badges-from-2nd-Rank civil servant Ming Dynasty

Embroidered rank badges worn by Ming nobles and officials under Emperor Yongle.

Top rank depiction of a Crane

Embroidered Crane symbolic of the top rank badge for civil officials Ming Dynasty

The images used here taken from the book The History and Civilization of China.
This is a fabulous book of images with the history of China, Chinese culture and tradition  from the earliest period of their civilization. The images tell it all!

Editors: Yingpin Zhang, Wei Fan, The History and Civilization of China Central Party Literature Pub House, 2003.

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