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Imperial China, The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Di, Yongle Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, admiral Zheng

In 1368 Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed the Ming dynasty and established the capital at Nanjing on the Yangtze River. Zhu was the first commoner to become emperor in 1,500 years. Known as the Hongwu Emperor, he proved one of China's most despotic rulers. At first a secretariat, headed by a chief counselor, dominated the administrative affairs of the central government. In 1380, however, Hongwu abolished all executive posts in the secretariat because he suspected treason on the part of the chief counselor. Hongwu became the sole coordinator of the central government. Throughout his 30-year reign, Hongwu humiliated, dismissed, and even cruelly executed officials he came to suspect.

After Hongwu’s death in 1398, a grandson succeeded him as emperor. However, in 1402, Zhu Di, Hongwu’s son and the new emperor’s uncle, usurped the throne. Known as the Yongle Emperor, he pursued aggressive and expansionist policies. He led five campaigns against the Mongols in the north and acquired territory from them. To oversee his new territory more closely, he moved the capital north from Nanjing to Beijing, where he built an elaborate palace compound known as the Forbidden City. He also reacted to turbulence in what is now Vietnam by sending an expeditionary force to the area. Yongle sent the admiral Zheng He on tribute-collecting voyages into the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. On one early voyage, Zheng He intervened in a civil war in Java and established a new king there; on another, he captured the hostile king of Sinhala (now Sri Lanka) and took him to China as a prisoner.

Most Ming emperors after Yongle, who died in 1424, were weak. In the 16th century China’s problems with foreign encroachment multiplied. Japanese pirates plundered the southeastern coast, while Mongols routinely raided the Ming’s northern frontier despite the presence of defensive walls, known collectively today as the Great Wall, that the Ming had constructed to keep the Mongols out of China.

Internally, the Ming bureaucracy became absorbed by partisan controversies. The harassed emperors abandoned more and more of their responsibilities to eunuchs. In 1592, when Japanese forces under Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea, the Ming sent its armies in support of Korea. The seven-year war left the Ming exhausted and the imperial treasuries depleted. Sporadic peasant uprisings began in 1628, and soon rebellions were occurring all over North China. The death toll mounted steadily, especially after a group of rebels cut the dikes of the Huang He in 1642 and several hundred thousand people died in the flood and subsequent famine. Beijing fell to the rebel Li Zicheng in 1644, the day after the last Ming emperor committed suicide.

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