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. .

Zhu Yuanzhang — who became Emperor Hong Wu (Hung Wu) — 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.

Website on the Ming Dynasty Ming Studies mingstudies.arts.ubc.ca; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Ming Tombs Wikipedia Wikipedia : UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu

Zhu Yuanzhang’s Life

Zhu Yuanzhang

Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398)was 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. He 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]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yuan-chang) was the son of a small peasant, probably a tenant farmer. Zhu's parents and all his relatives had died from a plague, leaving him destitute. He had first entered a monastery and become a monk. This was a favourite resource—and has been almost to the present day—for poor sons of peasants who were threatened with starvation. As a monk he had gone about begging, until in 1353 he returned to his home and collected a group, mostly men from his own village, sons of peasants and young fellows who had already been peasant leaders. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

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.

Zhu Yuanzhang Leads the Uprising That Brings the Ming to Power

Zhu Yuanzhang launched the rebellion against the Mongols that brought the Ming to power. 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.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In 1352 Kuo Tzuhsing rose in southern Henan. Kuo was the son of a wandering soothsayer and a blind beggar-woman. He had success; his group gained control of a considerable region round his home. There was no longer any serious resistance from the Mongols, for at this time the whole of eastern China was in full revolt. In 1353 Kuo was joined by Zhu Yuanzhang — then a monk Monks were often peasant leaders. They were trusted because they promised divine aid, and because they were usually rather better educated than the rest of the peasants. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Zhu at first also had contacts with a secret society, a branch of the White Lotus Society which several times in the course of Chinese history has been the nucleus of rebellious movements. Zhu took his small group which identified itself by a red turban and a red banner to Kuo, who received him gladly, entered into alliance with him, and in sign of friendship gave him his daughter in marriage. In 1355 Kuo died, and Zhu took over his army, now many thousands strong. In his campaigns against towns in eastern China, Zhu succeeded in winning over some capable members of the gentry. One was the chairman of a committee that yielded a town to Zhu; another was a scholar whose family had always been opposed to the Mongols, and who had himself suffered injustice several times in his official career, so that he was glad to join Zhu out of hatred of the Mongols.

“These men gained great influence over Zhu, and persuaded him to give up attacking rich individuals, and instead to establish an assured control over large parts of the country. He would then, they pointed out, be permanently enriched, while otherwise he would only be in funds at the moment of the plundering of a town. They set before him strategic plans with that aim. Through their counsel Zhu changed from the leader of a popular uprising into a fighter against the dynasty. Of all the peasant leaders he was now the only one pursuing a definite aim. He marched first against Nanking, the great city of central China, and captured it with ease. He then crossed the Yangtze, and conquered the rich provinces of the south-east. He was a rebel who no longer slaughtered the rich or plundered the towns, and the whole of the gentry with all their followers came over to him en masse. The armies of volunteers went over to Zhu, and the whole edifice of the dynasty collapsed.

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.” ***

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “After the founding of the dynasty by Zhu Yuanzhang, important questions had to be dealt with apart from the social legislation. What was to be done, for instance, with Zhu's helpers? Zhu, like many revolutionaries before and after him, recognized that these people had been serviceable in the years of struggle but could no longer remain useful. He got rid of them by the simple device of setting one against another so that they murdered one another. In the first decades of his rule the dangerous cliques of gentry had formed again, and were engaged in mutual struggles. The most formidable clique was led by Hu Wei-yung. Hu was a man of the gentry of Zhu's old homeland, and one of his oldest supporters. Hu and his relations controlled the country after 1370, until in 1380 Zhu succeeded in beheading Hu and exterminating his clique. New cliques formed before long and were exterminated in turn. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Zhu had founded Nanking in the years of revolution, and he made it his capital. In so doing he met the wishes of the rich grain producers of the Yangtze delta. But the north was the most threatened part of his empire, so that troops had to be permanently stationed there in considerable strength. Thus Beijing, where Zhu placed one of his sons as "king", was a post of exceptional importance.

Social Legislation Passed by Hongwu

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “At the time when Zhu Yuanzhang [Hongwu] conquered Beijing, in 1368, becoming the recognized emperor of China (Ming dynasty), it seemed as though he would remain a revolutionary in spite of everything. His first laws were directed against the rich. Many of the rich were compelled to migrate to the capital, Nanking, thus losing their land and the power based on it. Land was redistributed among poor peasants; new land registers were also compiled, in order to prevent the rich from evading taxation. The number of monks living in idleness was cut down and precisely determined; the possessions of the temples were reduced, land exempted from taxation being thus made taxable—all this, incidentally, although Zhu had himself been a monk! These laws might have paved the way to social harmony and removed the worst of the poverty of the Mongol epoch. But all this was frustrated in the very first years of Zhu's reign. The laws were only half carried into effect or not at all, especially in the hinterland of the present Shanghai. That region had been conquered by Zhu at the very beginning of the Ming epoch; in it lived the wealthy landowners who had already been paying the bulk of the taxes under the Mongols. The emperor depended on this wealthy class for the financing of his great armies, and so could not be too hard on it. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Chu Yuanzhang and his entourage were also unable to free themselves from some of the ideas of the Mongol epoch. Neither Zhu, nor anybody else before and long after him discussed the possibility of a form of government other than that of a monarchy. The first ever to discuss this question, although very timidly, was Huang Tsung-hsi (1610-1695), at the end of the Ming dynasty. Zhu's conception of an emperor was that of an absolute monarch, master over life and death of his subjects; it was formed by the Mongol emperors with their magnificence and the huge expenditure of their life in Beijing; Zhu was oblivious of the fact that Beijing had been the capital of a vast empire embracing almost the whole of Asia, and expenses could well be higher than for a capital only of China. It did not occur to Zhu and his supporters that they could have done without imperial state and splendour; on the contrary, they felt compelled to display it. At first Zhu personally showed no excessive signs of this tendency, though they emerged later; but he conferred great land grants on all his relatives, friends, and supporters; he would give to a single person land sufficient for 20,000 peasant families; he ordered the payment of state pensions to members of the imperial family, just as the Mongols had done, and the total of these pension payments was often higher than the revenue of the region involved. For the capital alone over eight million shih of grain had to be provided in payment of pensions—that is to say, more than 160,000 tons! These pension payments were in themselves a heavy burden on the state; not only that, but they formed a difficult transport problem! We have no close figure of the total population at the beginning of the Ming epoch; about 1500 it is estimated to have been 53,280,000, and this population had to provide some 266,000,000 shih in taxes. At the beginning of the Ming epoch the population and revenue must, however, have been smaller.

“The laws against the merchants and the restrictions under which the craftsmen worked, remained essentially as they had been under the Song, but now the remaining foreign merchants of Mongol time also fell under these laws, and their influence quickly diminished. All craftsmen, a total of some 300,000 men with families, were still registered and had to serve the government in the capital for three months once every three years; others had to serve ten days per month, if they lived close by. They were a hereditary caste as were the professional soldiers, and not allowed to change their occupation except by special imperial permission. When a craftsman or soldier died, another family member had to replace him; therefore, families of craftsmen were not allowed to separate into small nuclear families, in which there might not always be a suitable male. Yet, in an empire as large as that of the Ming, this system did not work too well: craftsmen lost too much time in travelling and often succeeded in running away while travelling. Therefore, from 1505 on, they had to pay a tax instead of working for the government, and from then on the craftsmen became relatively free.

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.”

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 \=/; 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 August 2021

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