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 Chinese emperors often kept themselves secluded from their subjects and were largely confined to their palaces. Some emperors rarely left their palaces except to go hunting or visit their ancestors graves. The Ming dynasty ruler, Emperor Wam-li, virtually imprisoned himself within the Forbidden City with his wives and concubines. Even his ministers of state were not allowed to address him directly and whenever he traveled the roads were cleared so no one could see him.

In the 16th century Matteo Ricci wrote: "The kings... abandoned the custom of going out in public...When they did leave the royal enclosure, they would never dare to do so without a thousand preliminary precautions. On such occasions 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 of 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."

Ming Dynasty Rulers (Name: Reign Title, Reign Dates): 1) Taizu: Hongwu (1368–98); 2) (Huidi): Jianwen (1399–1402); 3) Chengzu: Yongle (1403–24); 4) Renzong: Hongxi (1425); 5) Xuanzong: Xuande (1426–35); 6) Yingzong: 7) Zhengtong (1436–49); 8) Daizong: Jingtai (1450–56); 9) Yingzong *: Dienshun (1457–64); 10) Xianzong: Chenghua (1465–87); 11) Xiaozong: Hongzhi (1488–1505); 12) Wuzong: Zhengde (1506–21); 13) Shizong: Jiajing (1522–66); 14) Muzong: Longqing (1567–72); 15) Shenzong: Wanli (1573–1620); 16) Guangzong: 17) Taichang (1620); 18) Hsizong: Dianqi (1621–27); 19) (Ssuzong): Chongzheng (1628–44). *Restored to throne

Website on the Ming Dynasty Wikipedia ; Ming Tombs Wikipedia Wikipedia : UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Good Websites and Sources on Imperial China: List of Emperors and Other World Historical Leaders friesian.com/sangoku ; List of Emperors PaulNoll.com ; Wikipedia Long List with references to major historical events Wikipedia ; Wikipedia shorter list Wikipedia Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi etext.virginia.edu ; Book: Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor by Ann Paludan.

Forbidden City: Book:Forbidden City by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist. Web Sites FORBIDDEN CITY factsanddetails.com/china ; Wikipedia; China Vista ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites World Heritage Site ; Maps China Map Guide Links in this Website: Temple of Heaven: Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO World Heritage Site Map on China Map Guide China Map Guide

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Books: 1) Cambridge History of China multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Emperor Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang)


Zhu Yuanzhang (born: 1328, 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.

Zhu Yuanzhang’s Life

Zhu Yuanzhang

Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398) rose from obscure poverty to become a military strongman and founder of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Born into a poor family in modern Anhui province and orphaned at an early age, Zhu spent some time as a Buddhist beggar-monk in which he wandered the countryside begging for food. During his travels through his home province of Anhui, he witnessed widespread starvation and suffering by peasants under Mongol rule. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse May 16, 2016]

In 1352, Zhu joined one of the many rebellions against the crumbling government of the Yuan dynasty.Although barely literate, Zhu proved a capable leader of men and a successful general. He quickly rose to become its leader of his rebel group and then took command of a union of rebel forces that captured the Mongol capital of Daidu (present-day Beijing) in 1368 and chased the hapless Mongols back to Mongolia. He founded the Ming Dynasty and , and established his dynastic capital in the city of Nanjing.

Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang) as Emperor

Tristan Shaw wrote in Listverse, “In the same year that the last Yuan emperor left China, the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed the beginning of the Ming dynasty and took the title of Hongwu. The new emperor was a notoriously tough, paranoid, and ugly man. Once in power, Hongwu concentrated on driving out the last of the Mongols and restoring Chinese culture and values. In 1369, he ordered public schools to be built across the country, where students would study classic Chinese texts. Later, he reestablished the bureaucratic civil service exam, an emblem of Chinese culture that had earlier been abolished by the Mongols. He also reformed the tax system and left behind an influential legal code before his death in 1398. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 ***]

“Despite these accomplishments, Hongwu’s legacy is mostly mixed. While some historians have praised him for bringing an end to Mongol rule, others have expressed disdain for the inefficiency of his reforms and the brutal and paranoid nature of his reign. Anybody who criticized him was publicly flogged on their bare buttocks in court or sometimes even sentenced to death. ***

“Distrustful of his own officials, Hongwu was also constantly afraid that he would be overthrown. In 1380, after uncovering an actual plot by his prime minister to depose him, Hongwu abolished the office and had the man beheaded. He then went on a mad purge to kill the man’s family and anybody he suspected of plotting against him, possibly executing as many as 100,000 people.” ***

Hongwu’s “Imperial Edict Restraining Officials from Evil"

In “An Imperial Edict Restraining Officials from Evil”, Zhu Yuanzhang, as the Hongwu Emperor, reminded his civil and military officials that they are to “refrain from evil”:“To all civil and military officials: I have told you to refrain from evil. Doing so would enable you to bring glory to your ancestors, your wives and children, and yourselves. With your virtue, you then could assist me in my endeavors to bring good fortune and prosperity to the people. You would establish names for yourselves in Heaven and on earth, and for thousands and thousands of years, you would be praised as worthy men.[Source: translated by Lily Hwa, “From “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,”” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993);Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]


“However, after assuming your posts, how many of you really followed my instructions? Those of you in charge of money and grain have stolen them yourselves; those of you in charge of criminal laws and punishments have neglected the regulations. In this way grievances are not redressed and false charges are ignored. Those with genuine grievances have nowhere to turn; even when they merely wish to state their complaints, their words never reach the higher officials. Occasionally these unjust matters come to my attention. After I discover the truth, I capture and imprison the corrupt, villainous, and oppressive officials involved. I punish them with the death penalty or forced labor or have them flogged with bamboo sticks in order to make manifest the consequences of good or evil actions. <|>

“Previously, during the final years of the Yuan dynasty, there were many ambitious men competing for power who did not treasure their sons and daughters but prized jade and silk coveted fine horses and beautiful clothes, relished drunken singing and unrestrained pleasure and enjoyed separating people from their parents, wives, and children. I also lived in that chaotic period. How did I avoid such snares? I was able to do so because I valued my reputation and wanted to preserve my life. Therefore I did not dare to do these evil things. <|>

“For fourteen years, while the empire was still unpacified, I fought in the cities and fields competing with numerous heroes, yet never did I take a woman or girl improperly for my own pleasure. The only exception occurred after I conquered the city of Wuchang. I was enraged at Chen Youliang’s invasion, so after I took over the city, I also took over his former concubine. Now I am suddenly suspicious of my own intentions in that case. Was it for the beauty of the woman? Or was it the manifestation of a hero’s triumph? Only the wise will be able to judge. In order to protect my reputation and to preserve my life, I have done away with music beautiful girls, and valuable objects. Those who love such things are usually “a success in the morning, a failure in the evening.” Being aware of the fallacy of such behavior, I will not indulge such foolish fancies. It is not really that hard to do away with these tempting things.” <|>

Punishments in Hongwu’s “Imperial Edict Restraining Officials from Evil

On punishment, Zhu Yuanzhang wrote in “An Imperial Edict Restraining Officials from Evil”: “Those who have died from their punishments are mute. However, those who survive confuse the truth by speaking falsely. Lying to their friends and neighbors, they all say they are innocent. They complain, “The court’s punishments are savage and cruel.” This kind of slander is all too common. Yet I had clearly warned my officials from the beginning not to do anything wrong. Too often they have not followed my words, thereby bringing disaster upon themselves. [Source: translated by Lily Hwa, “From “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,”” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993);Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

“When a criminal commits a crime or when a good person mistakenly violates the law, he is going to be punished. Among these guilty ones there will always be some who are so afraid of being flogged or dying that they will try to bribe the law enforcement officials with gold and silk. The law enforcement officials, for their part, place no value on bringing glory to their ancestors, their wives and children, or themselves; nor do they seek to preserve their own lives. <|>

“The guilty persons, afraid of death, use money to buy their lives. The officials, not afraid of death, accept the money, thereby putting their lives in danger of the law. Yet later, when they are about to be punished or are on their way to the execution ground, they begin to tremble in fear. They look up to Heaven and they gaze down at the earth. They open their eyes wide seeking for help in every direction. Alas, by then it is too late for them to repent their actions. It is more than too late, for they now are no longer able to preserve their lives. <|>

“For example, the former vice-president of the ministry of war, Wang Zhi, accepted a bribe of 222,000 cash for making up false reports on runaway soldiers and other matters. I questioned him face to face, “Why are you so greedy?” He replied, “Money and profit confused my mind. They made me forget my parents and my ruler.” I then asked, “At this moment what do you think about what you did?” “Facing punishment,” he replied, “I begin to feel remorse, but it is too late.” Alas, how easily money and profit can bewitch a person! With the exception of the righteous person, the true gentleman, and the sage, no one is able to avoid the temptation of money. But is it really so difficult to reject the temptation of profit? The truth is people have not really tried.” <|>

Jianwen: Hongwu’s Successor

Tristan Shaw of Listverse wrote: “In 1398, Jianwen succeeded his grandfather, Hongwu, as the second emperor of the Ming dynasty. This was a controversial move that had greatly angered Jianwen’s uncles, whose power he quickly moved to reduce. His uncle Zhu Di, a successful military veteran who helped keep the Mongols out of China, seized control of the northern part of the country and launched a rebellion to take the rest. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 <=>]

“After fighting Jianwen for three years, Zhu Di and his supporters invaded the imperial capital of Nanjing in 1402. Although the city went down quite easily, Zhu Di had a bit of a problem: Jianwen’s palace was destroyed during the invasion, and nobody could find his body. Zhu Di claimed that his nephew accidentally died in the palace fire, but others believed that the old emperor had escaped and left China. <=>

“Four days after Jianwen allegedly died in the fire, Zhu Di declared himself the Yongle emperor. Yongle wanted his predecessor’s reign completely erased from history, going so far as to rewrite himself in historical records as Hongwu’s successor. He also launched a bloody purge across the southern side of the country, wiping out the former government’s supporters. <=>

“Despite the official story of Jianwen being dead, it seems that Yongle might have believed otherwise. In 1405, when he commissioned Zheng He’s first expedition to explore the world, Yongle told the renowned explorer to look for information about Jianwen. The old emperor never popped up during Zheng He’s travels, however, and whether he really died that day in Nanjing remains a mystery.” <=>

Indulgent Ming Emperors and Ming Eunuchs

While the eunuchs ran China in much of the Ming period, 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.

Ming Emperor Xuande's eunuchs

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.

Zhengde: the Emperor Who Loved Kidnapping Women

Tristan Shaw of Listverse wrote: “The emperor Zhengde, also known as Wuzong, is little remembered today except for his extravagant and shocking lifestyle. With the help of his friend Jiang Bin, Zhengde enjoyed kidnapping women and raping them. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 <=>]

“In one infamous incident, after fighting a rebellious prince, Zhengde and his men raped an untold number of virgins and widows as they made their way across the city of Yangzhou. One historian said, “His violence plunged the city into such a panic that families grabbed any young men available to marry their daughters.”<=>

“Zhengde eventually abducted so many women that there was no room in the Imperial Palace to keep all of them. His “Leopard Quarter,” a second palace complete with a zoo, was where he spent much of his time. The emperor’s taste for sex was endless, and it was even rumored that he had a sexual relationship with his eunuch Wang Wei. <=>

“In autumn 1520, when he was 29 years old, Zhengde became sick after falling off a capsized boat and almost drowning. He never recovered from his illness and died several months later in the comfort of his Leopard Quarter. While his reign might have been short of any actual accomplishments, Zhengde’s larger-than-life personality and free spirit were celebrated in many works of literature after his death.” <=>


Jiajing: The Emperor Nearly Killed by His Concubines

Tristan Shaw of Listverse wrote: “While many Chinese emperors survived assassination attempts by family members or rivals, only one of them was nearly killed by his concubines. Emperor Jiajing, the successor to Zhengde, reigned from 1521 until 1567. Although China enjoyed great stability under his long rule, Jiajing was also a very cruel man. In 1542, a group of Jiajing’s concubines decided that they would put an end to his tyranny. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 <=>]

“On November 27 of that year, while Jiajing was sleeping alone in a concubine’s room, 18 of his other concubines suddenly came in and ambushed him. While some girls drove hairpins into Jiajing’s crotch, others wrapped a silk cord around his neck and tried to strangle him. The emperor eventually fell unconscious, but he survived the attack because his concubines couldn’t tighten their cord hard enough to kill him. <=>

“While her husband lay unconscious, Empress Fang had all of the conspirators behind the assassination plot immediately executed. After recovering from his close brush with death, Jiajing moved out of the Imperial Palace and dabbled with Daoist magic at a self-designed palace near old Zhengde’s Leopard Quarters. He then spent the next 25 years of his rule generally ignoring his duties, devoting himself instead to having sex with virgins and drinking “magic” potions made from bodily fluids.” <=>

Taichang and His Mysterious Death

Tristan Shaw of Listverse wrote: “The death of Taichang, a Ming-era emperor who ruled for little more than a month in 1620, is said to be one of the dynasty’s greatest mysteries. After taking the throne on August 28 of that year, Taichang suddenly fell sick a few days later. Within two weeks, he had become so weak that he couldn’t sleep or walk. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 <=>]


“By September 25, Taichang was desperate to try anything. Li Keshao, a man recommended to the emperor by 13 of his officials, gave and personally prepared for Taichang a special red pill. Miraculously, the emperor began to recover after taking Li’s pill. He could sleep again, and he regained his appetite as well. When the evening came, Taichang relapsed and was given another pill. A second dose failed to improve his condition, however, and the emperor died by early morning. <=>

“Taichang’s sudden death caused a great deal of controversy. Some cried of a conspiracy, accusing Li and the 13 officials who had visited Taichang the day before his death of assassinating him. It seemed strange that Li, a man with no real medical training, was allowed to give his mysterious red pills to Taichang.” <=>

“It soon surfaced that Taichang was given a laxative by an eunuch around the time that he started to get sick. There was also a rumor, earlier denied by Taichang himself, that an old concubine of his father named Zheng had deliberately worsened his health by sending off eight palace maids to have sex with him. Zheng, a palace woman who wanted to become empress, was alleged to have acted in a plot with another palace woman and some other power-hungry officials to get rid of Taichang. Whether Taichang died from taking Li Keshao’s medicine, either accidentally or deliberately, has never been established.” <=>

Chongzhen Emperor, the Last Ming Emperor

The Chongzhen Emperor (1611 – 1644), personal name Zhu Youjian, was the 16th and last emperor of the Ming dynasty. "Chongzhen", the era name of his reign, means "honorable and auspicious". He once nearly converted to Christianity. Zhu Youjian was the fifth son of Zhu Changluo, the Taichang Emperor. His mother, Lady Liu, was a low-ranking concubine of the Taichang Emperor. When Zhu Youjian was four years old, his mother was executed by his father for reasons unknown and was buried secretly. Zhu Youjian was then adopted by his father's other concubines. [Source: Wikipedia +]

All of the Taichang Emperor's sons died before reaching adulthood except for Zhu Youxiao and Zhu Youjian. Zhu Youjian grew up in a relatively lonely but quiet environment. After the Taichang Emperor died in 1620, Zhu Youxiao succeeded his father and was enthroned as the Tianqi Emperor. When the Tianqi Emperor died in October 1627, Zhu Youjian, then about 16 years old, ascended the throne as the Chongzhen Emperor. His succession was helped by Empress Zhang, despite the manoeuvres of Wei Zhongxian to keep dominating the imperial court. +


From the beginning of his rule, the Chongzhen Emperor did his best to salvage the Ming dynasty. His efforts at reform focused on the top ranks of the civil and military establishment. However, years of internal corruption and an empty treasury made it almost impossible to find capable ministers to fill important government posts. The emperor also tended to be suspicious of his subordinates, executing dozens of field commanders, including the general Yuan Chonghuan, who had directed the defence of the northern frontier against the Manchu-led Later Jin dynasty (later the Qing dynasty). The Chongzhen Emperor's reign was marked by his fear of factionalism among his officials, which had been a serious issue during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor. Soon after his brother's death, the Chongzhen Emperor immediately eliminated Wei Zhongxian and Madam Ke, as well as other officials thought to be involved in the "Wei-Ke conspiracy". +

The Chongzhen Emperor faces peasant rebellions and Manchu invasions from the north.In April 1644, when rebel forces were advancing on Beijing, their leader Li Zicheng offered the emperor an opportunity to surrender, but the negotiations produced no result. Rather than face capture by the rebels, the Chongzhen Emperor gathered all members of the imperial household except his sons. Using his sword, he killed Consort Yuan and Princess Kunyi, and severed the arm of Princess Changping. The empress hanged herself. Tthe Chongzhen Emperor was said to have walked to Meishan, a small hill in present-day Jingshan Park. There, he either hanged himself, or strangled himself with a sash. By some accounts, the emperor left a suicide note which said, "I die unable to face my ancestors in the underworld, dejected and ashamed. May the rebels dismember my corpse and slaughter my officials, but let them not despoil the imperial tombs nor harm a single one of our people."According to a servant who discovered the emperor's body under a tree, however, the words tianzi (Son of Heaven) were the only written evidence left after his death. The emperor was buried in the Ming tombs.

The Manchus were quick to exploit the death of the Chongzhen Emperor: by claiming to "avenge the emperor," they rallied support from loyalist Ming forces and civilians. The Shun dynasty lasted less than a year with Li Zicheng's defeat at the Battle of Shanhai Pass. The victorious Manchus established the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing dynasty as ruler of all China. Because the Chongzhen Emperor had refused to move the court south to Nanjing, the new Qing government was able to take over a largely intact Beijing bureaucracy, aiding their efforts to displace the Ming.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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