MING DYNASTY (1368-1644)
Ming Emperor The Ming dynasty, the last native Chinese dynasty in China, ruled for nearly 300 years. Chinese science and technological inventiveness declined during this period and Jesuit scholars introduced Western science. Painting and ceramic production however thrived and the merchant class rose in status and power.
according to The History of East Asian Civilization The Ming Dynasty was “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history." Ming rule saw the construction of a vast navy and a standing army of one million troops. 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. [Source: Oliver Pickup, Daily Mail, March 8, 2011]
“Ming” means brightness. The name was chosen by the first Ming Emperor as a contrast to the dark period in which the dynasty came to power. The Ming Dynasty was a time of economic growth and cultural splendor which produced the first commercial contacts with the West. During much of the Ming dynasty, China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product.
Contemporary sources on the Ming period are rare. Of the several million documents on the period once kept in the central government archives all but around 10,000 were destroyed in fighting at the end of the dynasty. By contrast 14 million original government documents remain from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia ; Ming Tombs Wikipedia Wikipedia : UNESCO World Heritage Site (click 1001wonders.org at the bottom): UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ;Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site ; Photos Stuebegreen.com
Links in this Website: IMPERIAL CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE ART FROM THE GREAT DYNASTIES factsanddetails.com/china ; CHINESE DYNASTIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; COURT LIFE AND EMPERORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; MANDARINS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EUNUCHS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TANG DYNASTY (A.D. 690-907) Factsanddetails.com/China ; SONG DYNASTY (960-1279) Factsanddetails.com/China ; YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) ; MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ; QING (MANCHU) DYNASTY (1644-1911) Factsanddetails.com/China ; THEMES IN CHINESE HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FIRSTS--GUNPOWDER, MACHINES, FOODS AND CHAIRS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FIRSTS--PAPER, MONEY, ASTRONOMY, CLOCKS Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT WALL OF CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE EXPLORATION AND ZHENG HE factsanddetails.com ; EARLY EUROPEANS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com
Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 2) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 3) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; 4) Chinese Text Project chinese.dsturgeon.net ; 5) Minnesota State University site mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory ; 6) ChinaVoc.com ChinaVoc.com ; 7) Early Medieval China Journal languages.ufl.edu/EMC ; 8) History of China history-of-china.com ; 9) U.S.C. Education usc.edu/libraries/archives Book: The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press)
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) Brooklyn College site academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge chinaknowledge.de ; 5) China History Forum chinahistoryforum.com ; 6) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; 7 ) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia
Ming Come to Power
Rivalry among the Mongol imperial heirs, natural disasters, and numerous peasant uprisings led to the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was founded by a Han Chinese peasant and former Buddhist monk turned rebel army leader.
A rebellion against the Mongols was launched by Zhu Yuanzhang (Hung Wu), a "self-made man of great talents" and the son of a farm laborer who lost his entire family in an epidemic when he was only seventeen. After spending several years in a Buddhist monastery Zhu launched what became a thirteen year revolt against the Mongols as the head of a Chinese peasant insurgency, called the Red Turbans, made up of Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists and Manichaeists.
Mongols cracked down ruthlessly on the Chinese but failed to suppress the Chinese custom of exchanging little round full moon cakes during the coming of the full moon. Like fortune cookies, the cakes carried paper messages. The clever rebels used the innocent-looking cakes to give instructions to the Chinese population to rise up and massacre the Mongols at the time of the full moon in August 1368.
The end of Yuan dynasty came in 1368 when the rebels surrounded Beijing. The last Yuan emperor, Toghon Temür Khan, didn't even attempt to defend his khanate. Instead he fled with his empress and concubines—first to Shangdu (Xanadu), then to Karakoram, the original Mongol capital, where he was killed when Zhu Yuanzhang became the leader of the Ming Dynasty.
Power of Ming Emperors
Having its capital first at Nanjing (which means Southern Capital) and later at Beijing (Northern Capital), the Ming reached the zenith of power during the first quarter of the fifteenth century.The Ming emperors usurped unprecedented personal power as the Confucian bureaucracy began to suffer from inertia. They increased their authority by granting themselves the power to dismiss any prime minister who opposed them.
"The Ming," wrote military historian Jack Keegan, "in effect militarized China and created a hereditary military class; it was under the Ming that China embarked on it only sustained effort of overseas expansion, and its largest effort to control the steppe by direct offensive action; five great expeditions were mounted north of the Great Wall, which was also then rebuilt in the form we see it today." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
The Ming were not very skilled at dealing with the Central Asian tribes that challenged them. They eschewed both diplomacy and war but were too weak too drive them out and too proud to make deals. The Ming built walls and mocked the Central Asia horsemen, demanding that they be referred to as yi (“barbarians”) and insisting that yi always be written in the smallest possible letters.
See Great Wall of China, Early History
Exploration and Expansion During the Ming Dynasty
The Chinese armies reconquered Annam, as northern Vietnam was then known, in Southeast Asia and kept back the Mongols, while the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean, cruising as far as the east coast of Africa. The maritime Asian nations sent envoys with tribute for the Chinese emperor. Internally, the Grand Canal was expanded to its farthest limits and proved to be a stimulus to domestic trade.[Source: The Library of Congress]
“The Ming maritime expeditions stopped rather suddenly after 1433, the date of the last voyage. Historians have given as one of the reasons the great expense of large-scale expeditions at a time of preoccupation with northern defenses against the Mongols. Opposition at court also may have been a contributing factor, as conservative officials found the concept of expansion and commercial ventures alien to Chinese ideas of government. Pressure from the powerful Neo-Confucian bureaucracy led to a revival of strict agrarian-centered society. The stability of the Ming dynasty, which was without major disruptions of the population (then around 100 million), economy, arts, society, or politics, promoted a belief among the Chinese that they had achieved the most satisfactory civilization on earth and that nothing foreign was needed or welcome.
See Chinese Exploration
Court eunuchs reached the height of their political power under the Ming Emperor Wanhi , who employed over 10,000 eunuchs in the imperial court and had 70,000 to 100,000 of them in official positions throughout the country. While the emperor was preoccupied with his beautiful concubines powerful eunuchs embezzled huge fortunes. In the 1620s an eunuch named Wei Zhinganxian for all intents and purposes ran China.
During the Ming dynasty, the Forbidden City contained a special eunuch clinic where candidates had their genitals removed while sitting on a special chair with a hole in it. Candidates that didn't survive were carried away with their penis and testicles in a pouch for reunification in the afterlife.
Wokou, Japanese Pirates
Wokou, which literally translates as "Japanese pirates" in English, were pirates of varying origins who raided the coastlines of China and Korea from the 13th century onwards. Originally, the Wokou were mainly soldiers, ronin, merchants and smugglers from Japan; however in later centuries most of the pirates actually originated in China. [Source: Wikipedia]
The early phase of Wokou activity began in the 13th century and extended to the second half of the 14th century. Pirates from Japan focused their raids on the Korean peninsula and spread across the Yellow Sea to China. Ming China implemented a policy to forbid civil trade with Japan while maintaining governmental trade, known as Haijin. The Ming court believed that limiting non-government trade would in turn expel the Wokou. Instead, it forced many Chinese merchants to trade with Japan illegally to protect their own interests. This led to the second major phase of Wokou activity which occurred in the early to mid-16th century, where Japanese pirates colluded with their Chinese counterparts and expanded their forces. During this period the composition and leadership of the Wokou changed significantly to include greater numbers of Chinese. At their height in the 1550s, the Wo-kòu operated throughout the seas of East Asia, even sailing up large river systems such as the Yangtze. [Ibid]
The first raid by Wokou on record occurred in the summer of 1223, on the south coast of Goryeo Korea. The history book Goryeosa states that "Japanese (pirates) attacked Gumju". Two more minor attacks are recorded for 1226, and continued intermittently for the next four decades. The Wokou resumed their activities in earnest in 1350, driven by chaotic conditions and the lack of a strong authority in Japan. For the next half-century, sailing principally from Iki and Tsushima, they engulfed the southern half of Goryeo. The worst period was the decade between 1376 and 1385, when no fewer than 174 instances of pirate raids were recorded in Korea. Some involved bands of as many as three thousand penetrating deep into the Korean interior. The raiders repeatedly looted the Korean capital Gaeseong, and on occasion reached as far north as the mouth of the Taedong River and the general area of Pyongyang. They looted grain stores and took people away for slavery and ransom. In 1523, for example, the Hosokawa trading party in Ningbo attacked its rival mission from the O-uchi clan and then proceeded to loot the city. It seized a number of ships, and set sail. The Ming commander sent in pursuit was killed in a sea battle. [Ibid]
The 1550s and 1560s saw a resurgence of the Wokou tide. The period of greatest Wokou activity was during the Jiajing and Wanli eras, also some of the weakest in Ming history. In the period from 1369 to 1466, the Wokou raided Zhejiang 34 times, on average once every three years. By comparison, in the period 1523 to 1588, they made 66 raids, on average once a year. [Ibid]
In contrast with previous Wokou, however, the pirate bands of the middle 16th century no longer consisted preponderantly of Japanese. Although Wokou remained the common label by which they were identified, most of these bandits were in fact Chinese. An inequitable taxation and property system, combined with endemic corruption, forced many Chinese farmers in Fujian, Guangdong and Zhejiang to seek livelihoods on the sea. The Ming ban on ocean-going, selectively enforced by local authorities, made these people dissidents. Sometimes pirates and sometimes merchants, they used their local knowledge to make successful raiding expeditions. In 1533 the Ming Ministry of War complained that armed fleets were pillaging at will along the coast. Pirates often also engaged in illegal smuggling operations and raided rival merchant marine. During the 1540s the disparate groups of Chinese pirates and traders became more organised. They gathered on islands off the eastern coastline and colluded with the Japanese. [Ibid]
From 1539, the tribute trade system broke down altogether. The size of Japanese fleets sailing from Japan to trade with private Chinese merchants grew each year and so did the associated violence. The typical Wokou attack at this time was for the sea-based raiders to make swift assaults from their island strongholds and then retreat to their ships. In many cases violent altercations were the result of conflict over payment of debts by wealthy families to their trading creditors. One of the Xie family's estates in Shaoxing was looted and burned in the summer of 1547 for this reason. [Ibid]
In November 1547 Zhu Wan was put in charge of the of Zhejiang and Fujian, to eradicate the perceived cause of piracy - overseas trade. In February 1548 a large body of pirates raided the coastal counties of Ningbo and Taizhou, killing, burning, and looting without encountering any effective resistance. Zhu arrived in Ningbo in April and shortly thereafter, he led an attack on a Wokou harbour at Shuangyu Island. In March 1549 he attacked a large merchant fleet anchored off the coast of southern Fujian. [Ibid]
Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang
Zhu Yuanzhang (ruled 1368-1398), the man who led the rebellion that toppled the Mongols, created the Ming Dynasty and became its first emperor at the age of 40. He established the Chinese capital in the southern city of Nanking. During his 30-year rule China was reunified once again under a Chinese leader and traditional Chinese rites, music, costumes and ritual vessels were revived. .
Emperor Zhu had a violent side. A bit insecure about his lowly origins and his upbringing with Buddhist monks, he once ordered the execution of two Buddhists after they sent him a congratulatory message that used the word "birth" (sheng) which the Emperor construed as a pun on "monk" (seng). On another occasion, he ordered the execution of 15,000 people in Nanking when he suspected a rebellion over his policies might be brewing.
Emperor Zhu was also not very fond of the scholar-bureaucrat class. On many occasions he ordered high officials to be stripped and beaten to death by court eunuchs while their colleagues, dressed in their full ceremonial robes, looked on in horror. Once Zhu had 10,000 scholars and their families put death during a purge of his administration.
The Yongle Emperor (ruled 1403-1424) seized power from Zhu Yuanzhang's son with the help of a powerful group of court eunuchs. One of China's greatest emperors, he sent a great 300-ship armada to the Indian Ocean and Africa, restored the capital to Beijing, built the Forbidden City with a million workers, and invaded Mongolia and Vietnam.
Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, “Zhu Di (1360-1424), who would be called Yongle (Perpetual Happiness), is often compared to Peter the Great; the analogy fits in terms of brilliance, ambition, historical importance and brutality. Like Peter the Great, Yongle was a study in contradictions. A devout Tibetan Buddhist to the point of fanaticism, he ruthlessly executed not only his enemies but also their families and friends, sometimes in great numbers. And like Peter, he encouraged cultural openness, maintaining diplomatic ties with the Mamluk Empire based in Egypt and Syria, the Timurid Empire of Iran and Afghanistan and the Ashikaga shogunate in Japan. He also took full advantage of the accomplished workshops, populated by craftsmen from all of Asia, that the Yuan emperors had built. [Source: Roberta Smith, New York Times, April 1, 2005]
The great Yongle (pronounced YOONG-LUH) ruled China from 1403 to 1424. His father Zhu Yuanzhang, was the first Ming emperor, and a commoner who seized the throne after playing a leading role in the rebellion against the Mongol emperors of the Yuan Dynasty. Yongle, his fourth son, Smith wrote, “was not supposed to succeed him, and he didn't. The son of an older brother was named emperor when Yongle's father died in 1398, but after three years of civil war, Yongle drove him from the throne. He then set about laying the cultural, political and physical foundations that would sustain China for centuries to come. During his relatively brief reign, he moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing and vastly expanded the Forbidden City that 22 successive emperors would call home. He completed the Grand Canal connecting the Yangtze River to northern China and sent out six large armadas for trade and exploration. At home, he commissioned scholars to write an encyclopedia of classical and contemporary knowledge, which eventually numbered more than 11,000 volumes. His centralization of power and money was a particular spur to the decorative arts. Yongle's reign is considered the classic period for white porcelains and brought a revival of excellence in carved cinnabar lacquer.
Rule of the Yongle Emperor
The Yongle emperor came to power by staging a rebellion in 1402 and deposing his nephew. He was helped by the eunuch Zheng He, today known as China's greatest explorer. Yongle means “Eternal Happiness.” His devotion to Tibetan-Buddhism enabled him to forge a strong relationship with Tibet.
The Yongle emperor did everything in a big way. When he made his relatively frequent trips between the old capital of Nanjing and the new capital in Beijing his entourage was accompanied by 10,000 cavalry soldiers and 40,000 foot soldiers. The encyclopedia he commissioned, the Yongle Dadian, contained 11,099 volumes and was kept in the Hall of Literary Glory in the Forbidden City. Listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest publication and largest encyclopedia ever, it contained 22,937 chapters produced by 2,000 Chinese scholar between 1403 and 1408.
The Yongle emperor had a brutal side. One of his first acts after seizing power was torturing to death all those who opposed him. He was said to be particularly found of the death-by-a-thousand-cuts method of execution in which victims were bled to death very slowly and once declared that anyone was found with banned works "should be killed, together with their entire families." One victim, the great Confucian scholar Fang Xiaoru, was cut to pieces in a public square and 900 people associated with him were killed because he refused to express loyalty to the emperor.
Art from the Court of the Yongle Emperor
"Defining Yongle: Imperial Art in Early 15th-Century China" was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005 that featured about 50 objects from court of the Yongle Emperor. The first show at the Met to focus on one Chinese ruler, it included paintings, sculpture, lacquer ware, metalwork, textiles, cloisonné and ivory. It was organized by Denise Patry Leidy, associate curator in the museum's department of Asian art, and James C. Y. Watt, the department's chairman. [Source: Roberta Smith, New York Times, April 1, 2005]
Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, the “show is a kind of tasting menu of those workshops' extraordinary capabilities and includes examples of all the imperial and Buddhist art forms produced during Yongle's reign. On its own, nearly every object here is a kind of exquisite morsel...But together the objects illuminate the messy cultural openness of Yongle's court, reminding us that any culture is always an amalgam of many. In this case the amalgam included elements from India, Nepal and especially Tibet, as well as the Mamluk and Timurid cultures.
One vitrine displays a 15th-century Yongle period Ming porcelain blue and white basin beside a 14th-century Mamluk dynasty enameled glass basin. They are all but identical in shape and size, but the Mamluk basin is decorated with willowy Arabic script, while the Yongle basin is a controlled riot of scrolling vines of lotuses, chrysanthemums and peonies. A blue-and-white porcelain flask reflects the adaptation of an Islamic eight-pointed medallion, but the eight leaf-tip shapes nudging into its central circle introduce naturalistic (and painterly) inconsistencies that enliven the entire design.
Much of the power of this show resides in the details, and in the psychological intensity that exquisite craftsmanship and its tolerance for subtle variations can exude. This intensity legislates a kind of equality between different mediums and stylistic modes, especially the decorative and the representational. It is also reflected in the way certain motifs and devices migrate from object to object, and from art to life. A ritual staff and other ritual weapons made of iron inlaid with gold and silver are similar to those held by small gilt bronze statues of a sinuous Bodhisattva of Wisdom and a bristling multiheaded god, Yamantaka-Vajrabhairava; the detail in all three objects attests to the Yongle workshops' extraordinary level of craftsmanship in casting and metalwork. (Yamantaka-Vajrabhairava also appears, equally vehement, on an astonishing silk embroidery mounted like a Tibetan tangka, his 16 legs stomping evil spirits with precise, trill-like repetition.)
An intricate flywhisk made of woven and flowing palm-leaf fibers is a real-life version of a minuscule one that can be detected in a scene carved into a lacquer platter. On the platter, it is held by a servant attending scholars as they relax on a terrace, whose tile surface is detailed in fine tight patterns, as are the waves and starry sky beyond them and the leaves of several species of trees. The pictorial acuity of such carved-lacquer scenes finds an equivalent in three Tibetan-style paintings of Arhat, or enlightened beings, seated on rocklike thrones beneath trees. The exchange between the two mediums is one of several high points in this charged, not-so-little small show, which suggests that in the end the imperial art of Yongle may not submit to definition so easily.
Yongle Emperor, the Forbidden City and Other Projects
Yongle Encyclopedia In 1409 Yongle, moved the capital of the Chinese Empire from Nanking to back Beijing in his effort to dominate the Mongol empire, the same way the Mongol's dominated Chinese empire.
Yongle oversaw the construction of the "Violet-Purple Forbidden City"(the Forbidden City). Thousands of craftsmen, hundreds of thousands of laborers and building material from all over China were utilized in the project. Some scholars estimate that over two million laborers and craftspeople took part in the project. The basic outline of the palace was built between 1406 and 1420 under the Emperor Yongle. The majority of the five halls and 17 palaces that stand today were built after 1700.
The Yangshan Stone Tablet is a massive 31,000-ton monument created by Yongle to honor the founder of the Ming Dynasty. The size of skyscraper, it is located in an imperial quarry set among hills and canyons 15 miles from Nanjing. The idea was to create the world's largest monument in three parts: a base, steale and cap, that together would have stood 25 stories high. Thousands of workers spent years carving the stone from the mountain at great expense but ultimately the project was abandoned because no one could figure out a way to move the stones (even today it can’t be done).
The Yongle emperor also vastly expanded the Grand Canal and the Great Wall and built hundreds of temples and palaces. His grand projects however drained the treasury and bled the country dry.
Indulgent Ming Emperors and Ming Eunuchs
While the eunuchs ran China, the emperors indulged themselves in their individual passions. One emperor was so into carpentry, for example, that he was overjoyed when an earthquake destroyed much of his palace and he had an opportunity to use his skills.
Some Ming emperors had more than 9,000 maids of honors at their disposal as well as countless servants and concubines. The emperor's women remained on the court payroll even after they passed their primes and the emperors were no longer interested in them. When imperial funds ran low, the court collected taxes and tributes instead of cutting back on expenses.
Vast amounts of resources were spent building tombs for the Ming emperors north of Beijing. The second largest tomb, built for Emperor Wan Li (1573-1620) took half a million workers over six years to build. Before he died the emperor held a huge party in the necropolis. The tomb for Emperor Young Lee ( took 18 years to build. Sixteen concubines were reportedly buried alive inside with the dead emperor. See Ming Tombs, Places.
During the reign of Zhu Houzhao, Chinese were not allowed to raise or eat pigs because “Zhu” is a homophone for “pig.” Xuande, the fifth Ming ruler, reportedly killed three Mongols with his own bow.
Matteo Ricci's Account of the Ming Court
Ming seals The 16th century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who spent a lot of time in the Ming court, wrote:"Just as this people is grossly subject to superstition, so, too they have very little regard for the truth, acting always with great circumspection, and very cautious about trusting anyone. Subject to this same fear,the king of modern times abandoned the custom of going out in public. Even formerly, when they did leave the royal enclosure, they would never dare to do so without a thousand preliminary precautions."
"On such occasions," Ricci continued, "the whole court was placed under military guard. Secret servicemen were placed along the route over which the King was to travel and on all roads leading into it. He was not only hidden from view, but the public never knew in which of the palanquins in the cortege he was actually riding. One would think he was making a journey through enemy country rather than among multitudes of his own subjects."
Arts During the Ming Dynasty
During the Ming Dynasty scholarly painting continued to prevail and ink wash painting of the Imperial Painting Academy and Southern Song court was briefly popular. Paintings were often filled with human figures, whose size was an indication of their rank.
During the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties two approaches to scholarly painting were developed: the first in which artists copied and studied ancient themes and subjects, and the second in which artists abandoned models and expressed their own creativity through inventive means. The individualist expressive form predominated in the mid Qing dynasty. Research on ancient inscriptions influenced painting in the late Qing period. Hanging scroll portraits of emperors and other nobleman contained Tibetan and Islamic influences.
Ming Dynasty ceramics were known for the boldness of their form and decoration and the varieties of design. Craftsmen made both huge and highly decorated vessels and small, delicate, white ones. Many of the wonderful decorations and glazes—peach bloom, moonlight blue, cracked ice, and ox blood glazes; and rice grain, rose pink and black decorations—were inspired by nature.
In 1402, the Ming Emperor Jianwen ordered the establishment of an imperial porcelain factory in Jingdezhen. It's sole function was to produce porcelain for court use in state and religious ceremonies and for tableware and gifts.
Between 1350 and 1750 Jiangdezhen was the production center for nearly all of the world's porcelain. Jiangdezhen was located near abundant supplies of kaolin, the clay used in porcelain making, and fuel needed to fire up kilns. It also had access to China's coast, which was used for transporting finished products to places in China and around the world. So much porcelain was made that Jingdezhen now sits on a foundation of shards from discarded pottery that over is four meters deep in places.
Ming Porcelain Exports
From the beginning production at the Ming porcelain factories in Jingdezhen were oriented towards the export market. The factories produced coffee cups and beer mugs centuries before these drinks became popular in China. They also produced plates with Arabic and Persian motifs and place setting emblazoned with European coats of arms.
The porcelain trade was so lucrative that the porcelain making processes were closely guarded secrets and Jingdezhen was officially off limits to visitors to keep spies from uncovering these secrets. Over three million pieces were exported to Europe between 1604 and 1657 alone. This was around that the same time that the word "china" began being used in England to describe porcelains because the two were so closely associated with each other.
Pere d’Entrecolles, a Jesuit missionary from France, secretly entered Jingdezhen and described porcelain making in the city in letters that made their way to Europe in the early 1700s. He described a city with a million people and 3,000 kilns that were fired up day and night and filled the night sky with an orange glow. He learned the process but confused the clays.
Around he same time that d’Entrecolles was describing porcelain-making in Jingdezhen, Germans working independently in their homeland discovered the secret to making porcelain Large scale porcelain production began in the West in 1710 in Meissen, Germany.
Chinese porcelain dominated the world until European manufacturers such as those in Messen, Germany and Wedgewood, England began producing products of equal quality but at a cheaper price. After that the Chinese porcelain industry collapsed as many industries have done today when underpriced by cheap Chinese imports.
Decline and Fall of the Ming Dynasty
“Long wars with the Mongols, incursions by the Japanese into Korea, and harassment of Chinese coastal cities by the Japanese in the sixteenth century weakened Ming rule, which became, as earlier Chinese dynasties had, ripe for an alien takeover. In 1644 the Manchus took Beijing from the north and became masters of north China, establishing the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644- 1911).
The Ming court was very corrupt. Some court eunuchs and civil servants made small fortunes by setting fires and getting kickbacks from the contractors who repaired the damage. Others embezzled money that was intended to buy food for the court elephants.
In its final years the Ming Dynasty was weakened by corruption, power-hungry eunuchs and political trouble on its borders. The decline was accelerated after a costly war against Japan over Korea. The Ming dynasty finally collapsed as a result of a peasant rebellion launched in the Shaanxi province after a devastating famine there and an invasion of Manchus from the north. The last Ming emperor killed himself by hanging himself from a tree in the northern edge of the Forbidden rather that being captured.
After Manchu invasion from the north, the great 16th century historian Zhang Dai wrote that Beijing was overrun with “unemployed soldiers and clerks, laid off couriers, miners, landless laborers driven from the desiccated farms, refugees from the Manchu-dominated areas north of the Great Wall, Muslim and other traders who had lost their money as the Silk Road trade faltered.”
The Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchus in 1644. The impact of this one historian said "was comparable to that experienced by the Christian world after the loss of the Holy Land to the Muslim world."
In March 2011, the Daily Mail reported: “The corpse of the high-ranking woman believed to be from the Ming Dynasty was stumbled across by a team who were looking to expand a street in the city of Taizhou, in the Jiangsu Province. Discovered two metres below the road surface and preserved in a brown liquid, the woman's features - from her head to her shoes - have retained their original condition, and have hardly deteriorated. [Source: Oliver Pickup, Daily Mail, March 8 2011]
When the discovery was made by the road workers in February 2011 Chinese archaeologists, from the nearby Museum of Taizhou, were called into excavate the area, the state agency Xinhua News reported. They were surprised by the remarkably good condition of the woman's skin, hair, eyelashes and face. It was as though she had only recently died.
The woman is thought to be 700 years old. She is wearing Ming Dynasty dress and has a ring on her right hand. The skin is well preserved. The eyebrows are still intact. Her body, which measures 1.5 metres high, was found at the construction site immersed in a brown liquid inside the coffin. Also in the coffin were bones, ceramics, ancient writings and other relics. A map of the Ming Dynasty and two other wooden coffins were also discovered This is the latest discovery after a lull of three years in the area. Between 1979 and 2008 five mummies were found, all in very good condition.
Those findings raised the interest in learning the techniques to better understand the Ming dynasty's expertise in mummifying as well as their funeral rituals and customs. Director of the Museum of Taizhou, Wang Weiyin, told Xinhua that the mummy's clothes are made mostly of silk, with a little cotton. He said usually silk and cotton are very hard to preserve and excavations found that this mummifying technology was used only at very high-profile funerals.
The first finding of the Ming Dynasty in Taizhou dates from May 1979 and led the opening of the museum. At that time the bodies were also found intact, but due to lack of experience of archaeologists only clothing, belts and clamps could be preserved.
Ming-Era Pirate Ship Found in the Marine Silk Road
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: Just off the coast of the southern Chinese island of Nan'ao, Chinese archeologists are excavating the underwater wreck of a Ming-era ship. Named the Nan'ao Number One, the wreck lies along a stretch of ocean that Chinese historians regard as the country's "Marine Silk Road." During China's heyday as a maritime power during and shortly after the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279), the route was popular with traders but prone to dangerous storms, resulting in a trail of sunken ships. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
In this litter of wrecks the Nan'ao Number One is unique. It is the only known wreck from the late Ming Dynasty. Archaeologists estimate the ship sailed between 1573 and 1620, a period when China had turned inward, banned maritime commerce, and begun to dismantle its once-great fleets. In another time, the vessel would have been a merchant ship, following a busy trade route. But when China closed its shores and docks, maritime trade and commerce became piracy and smuggling. Officially, the Nan'ao ship never should have been in the water—it was likely moving along the coast illegally.
The Nan'ao ship is a rare find, but its fate is a familiar one in this part of the ocean. "This is a dangerous passage," Chinese archaeologist Cui Yong told Archaeology. As the boat snuck along the coast, something, whether bad weather or hidden rocks, caused it to sink and deposit its load of contraband—ceramics, copper coins, and ironware—onto the sea floor.
The wreck, which contains more than 10,000 pieces of Ming Dynasty porcelain, much of it still stacked for transport, was discovered in 2007 bylocal fishermen who pulled Ming Dynasty porcelain out of the ocean with their catch. When Cui arrived at the island and made his first dive, the Nan'ao site proved better than he had imagined. The wreck was unusually well preserved and the conditions were good for excavating. It was deep, but the water was clear and the mud at the bottom of the ocean soft and manageable. "I got lucky," he says.
The Nan'ao sank at the mouth of a particularly dangerous stretch of water. It sits at the northern edge of present-day Guangdong Province, near the entrance to the strait between the coasts of China and Taiwan. Typhoons frequent this passage and could blow shipsinto hidden rocks or smash them along the coast.
Underwater Excavations of the Ming-Era Pirate Ship
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: Excavations at the site move painstakingly slowly. Because of the depth of the site, around 90 feet down, a diver is only allowed 25 minutes at the bottom and only one dive a day. If a storm hits, or if the wind is simply too high, no one dives. This, says Cui, generally rules out fieldwork nine months of the year. And even on good days, he is concerned for the safety of his divers. They descend in pairs and keep close tabs on bottom time. Cui is quick to point out one of the key features on his boat is a decompression chamber. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
Cui's excavation team was given permission to begin digging in 2009. Since then he has spent as much time as weather permits floating above Nan'ao Number One. After one excavation season, nearly half the wreck is exposed. The top decks have been worn away, but its belly lies undisturbed, oriented along a northnsouth line. Two curves of wood are exposed toward the stern, hemming in rows of porcelain bowls, platters, and cups, many still stacked neatly. On excavation maps, archaeologists have filled in where they speculate the sides of the boat continue, and they estimate the Nan'ao runs around 90 feet from bow to stern.
The excavation of the Nan'ao and tales of a Ming Dynasty pirate ship attracted a fair amount of attention. Wrecks like the Nan'ao, Cui said, help attract media and increase government funding. But the increased exposure also attracts looters and adds pressure. It is a delicate balancing act involving journalists sharing deck space on his boat with border patrol officers in fatigues and orange life jackets. The border guards help retrieve and clean pieces of porcelain as they come up from the wreck and remain on guard even beyond the excavation season because the risk of looting by local fishermen is high.
Piracy in the Time of the Ming-Era Pirate Ship
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: The fact that the Nan'ao wreck has any artifacts at all is testament to the determination of Ming Dynasty businessmen. Boats caught defying the ban on maritime trade could be scuttled and their crews thrown in jail. These deterrents did not keep the Nan'ao merchants down—they simply became smugglers. "The ban was regularly ignored in southern China," says Wu Chongming, a colleague of Cui's who teaches at the Maritime Archaeology Research Center at Xiamen University in Fujian. Some historians theorize that the ban on international trade was originally intended to starve increasingly bold Japanese pirates. Rather than give up the business, Chinese merchants turned to piracy themselves—both smuggling and raiding. The Chinese still called smugglers and raiders wokou, a derogatory term for Japanese pirates, but just a few years into the ban, Chinese pirates had taken over the South China Sea. "There is a saying in Chinese," says Wu. "When the market closes, all the businessmen become smugglers." [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
Items Found on the Ming-Era Pirate Ship
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: The pieces Cui's team are bringing up were likely not the most valuable items onboard, explains Cui. They were probably, in fact, an afterthought for the Ming Dynasty smugglers. "It was probably ballast," says Cui. Other cargo, such as tea or the strings of copper coins that have been found on the wreck, would have been the ship's real treasure. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
Chen Huasha, a researcher from the Beijing Palace Museum, who has spent time on the Nan Tianshun for two years running, believes the bulk of the porcelain uncovered comes from kilns that were operating in China's Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. When asked how she can tell, Chen says, "There are characteristics." Chen selects a large dish that shows a woman plucking a flower. The round dish, she explains, represents the moon, and the woman standing at its center is Chang'e, the moon goddess in Chinese folklore. The flower, she says, could have to do with success at an imperial examination, a process that was called "picking flowers" at the time. Later, Chen pulls out a dish decorated with the figure of a woman with a bouffant hairdo. "Her hair looks like a flower," Chen says. "This was fashionable among royal women during the late Ming Dynasty." The subjects on the porcelain are so characteristically Chinese that Chen suspects they were intended for other Asian markets, such as Japan or the Philippines.
In addition to its porcelain, Nan'ao Number One stands out for its weaponry, bronze cannons. Xiamen University's Wu told Archaeology, "This is the first boat found with cannons on board," he says. They could have been used to protect the smugglers from imperial forces. "They would confiscate your goods, put you in jail, and sink your ship—the stakes were high." The cannons could also have served to protect the boat against other pirates or raiders. The sailors might also have feared becoming entangled in the intermittent battles that occurred between the Dutch and Portuguese through the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth.
Image Sources: 1) Ming Emporer, China Page website ; 2) Map, St. Martins edu ; 3) Ming founder, Brooklyn College; 4) Yongle, wikipedia; 5) Encyclopedia, wikipedia; 6) Ming tomb. Bucklin archives http://www.bucklinchinaarchive.com/ ; 7) Vase, Brooklyn College.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated November 2012