The Ming Dynasty: China’s ‘Brilliant’ Dynasty

The Ming dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644 and provided an era of relatively autocratic domestic rule lasting almost 300 years that followed a period of Mongol dominance.

The Ming dynasty saw numerous territorial conflicts involving ongoing battles to suppress the military forces of the former Yuan (Mongol) dynasty to the north, and invasions to the south in an attempt to extend the territory controlled by the Ming emperors.

The Ming dynasty period is characterized by China’s growing cultural and political influence over other parts of East Asia, the Turks in the west, and south-eastern parts of Asia such as Vietnam and Myanmar.

The arts developed and flourished during the Ming dynasty, not only the quintessential porcelain Ming vases, but paintings, written works, and novels, as well as the performing arts, which catered to growing public interest and demand in artistic endeavors. 

Key Facts

  • Dynasty dates: 1368 – 1644 AD
  • Preceding dynasty: Yuan (Mongol), 1206 – 1368 AD
  • Subsequent dynasties: The very short-lived Shun dynasty, immediately followed by the more successful and long-lasting Qing (Manchu) dynasty, 1644 – 1912 AD
  • First Ming emperor: Hongwu (original name – Zhu Yuanzhang, posthumous emperor name – Gao), 1368 – 1398
  • Total number of Ming emperors: 16
  • Longest Ming emperor reign: Wanli, the 13th emperor. His reign of forty-eight years (1572–1620) witnessed the steady decline of the Ming dynasty.
  • Final Emperor: Chongzen (original name – Zhu Youjian, posthumous emperor name – Lie), 1627 – 1644

The Founding of the Ming Dynasty

The fall of the Yuan dynasty was multi-dimensional and was driven primarily by Han Chinese rebellions. The Yuan rulers instigated institutionalized ethnic discrimination against the Han Chinese, over-taxation of areas affected by rising inflation, and to make matters worse, there was extensive flooding of the Yellow River arising from the abandonment of irrigation projects. Various rebellions broke out, including revolts by the huge army of peasants working to repair the Yellow River dykes, and by various groups affiliated with the Han Chinese, notably the Red Turban sect.

Zhu Yuanzhang, born in 1328, was a poor peasant who joined a revolutionary insurgent group in 1352. Rising through the ranks to become a commander, Zhu’s rebel force later joined with the Red Turbans. Zhu quickly became widely seen as a defender of Confucianism and neo-Confucianism among the predominantly Han Chinese population in China. He emerged as a leader of the rebels fighting to overthrow the Yuan dynasty.

Zhu’s rebels captured the city of Nanjing in 1356 which would later become the initial capital of the Ming dynasty. 

With the continuing unrest, the Yuan dynasty began to collapse, and there were various competing rebel groups across the country fighting for control, and the right to establish a brand-new ruling dynasty. By 1363, Zhu had eliminated his key rival in the Battle of Lake Poyang, which some claim to be the largest naval battle in history. Zhu’s victory left him in control of the Yangtze River Valley area. Zhu’s status as a rebel leader was further elevated in 1367 when the head of the Red Turbans died, some say suspiciously while staying with Zhu.

Zhu was supported in his imperial endeavors by Xu Da, a friend, and military general. Xu Da was also born in Fenyang, in 1332 and died in Nanjing in 1385, aged 53. 

Xu Da joined Zhu’s rebel group in 1353 and became the driving force behind the capture of the Yuan capital, Beijing, in 1368. With Beijing now in Zhu’s control, he declared the beginning of a new ruling dynasty.

Once the Ming dynasty had been established, Xu Da pursued the retreating Yuan emperor and the Mongol forces across the Gobi Desert and razed their capital – Karakorum. Xu continued north into Siberia, depleting the Mongol armies as he went.

An Overview of the Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty was founded by the peasant rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang (subsequently Emperor Hongwu). This Chinese dynasty succeeded the Yuan dynasty and was preceded by the short-lived Shun dynasty, which was in turn quickly followed by the Qing dynasty. At its height, the population ruled by the Ming dynasty was more than 150 million people and could have been as large as 200 million people.

During the Ming dynasty, there was a huge increase in the military might of China, including the development of a vast navy and an army of one million soldiers. There was also a spate of important construction projects, including the restorations of the Jing Hang Grand Canal which runs from Beijing to Hangzhou, the Great Wall of China, and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The Ming dynasty is renowned as a period of relatively stable domestic politics and government, and many of the civil service institutions instigated during the Ming dynasty were preserved by the following Qing dynasty.

The Ming period was characterized by territorial expansion and retraction, and for a short time, northern Vietnam was included in the territory ruled by the Ming emperors.

During the Ming dynasty, the state capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing. 

The Ming Dynasty Founder and First Emperor – Hongwu

Emperor Hongwu was born on October 21st, 1328, at Fengyang, in Anhui province. He was born a poor peasant, but reigned as emperor from 1368 until his death, on June 24th, 1398, aged 69, in Nanjing.

During his reign, Emperor Hongwu instituted military, administrative, and educational reforms that concentrated ultimate power on the emperor.

Hongwu’s reign was notable for its tolerance of minorities and religions, and for political reform. Hongwu abolished the position of Chancellor and drastically reduced the role of court eunuchs, whilst employing harsh measures to rid the court of widespread corruption. His Embroidered Uniform Guard was notorious for the widespread execution of various high-ranking officials and generals. Hongwu was not averse to cruelty and torture; there were agonizing executions for those who dared to criticize his rule or resist his military forces.

The Civil Service During the Ming Dynasty

Many aspects of the government working structure that were established during the Ming dynasty lasted all the way through to the abolition of the Chinese imperial system in 1911/12.

It’s fair to say that the Government machine during the time of the Ming dynasty was rife with intrigue, corruption, tension, and jealousy. State power became concentrated with the emperor following the abolition of the position of prime minister, and the emperor took overarching control of the government, assisted by the Grand Secretariat – the highest institution in the imperial government.

The civil service was reorganized during the Ming dynasty and become more hierarchical. An important part of the government was the Censorate, which was a government organization that investigated official misconduct and corruption. At the emperor’s court, a system of punishment was introduced that involved flogging by a stick, designed to humiliate civil servants and to ensure that ultimate power and control rested with the emperor. To maintain the emperor’s power, a huge spying operation was established, through three separate secret service agencies.

Similar to the earlier Song dynasty, the Ming dynasty relied on the literati (scholar-officials) to manage the bulk of state affairs. The literati were prestigious scholars in Chinese society and formed a distinct and elite social class appointed by the emperor to perform day-to-day political duties. Scholar-officials were highly educated, especially in literature and the arts, including calligraphy and Confucian writings. The literati dominated the Chinese government administration until the early 20th century.

Eunuchs (castrated males) were often employed as civil servants, and from the reign of emperor Yongle onwards (fourth son of emperor Hongwu, and third Ming emperor) the emperors relied increasingly on certain eunuchs to contain the influence of the literati. Castration was a way to gain employment in the emperor’s court, and many rose to become influential and high-ranking civil servants, trusted by the emperor because of their inability to have children, hence they would not be tempted to seize power and begin a new dynasty. Eunuchs were often considered more reliable than the literati, and there were often tensions between the literati and eunuchs based on jealousy and conflict. These tensions are a long-running theme running through Chinese history. Eunuchs often represented the personal will of the emperor, and the literati represented the political will of the state bureaucracy, and often they clashed over ideology or politics. In addition, castration broke conventional moral rules in China and contradicted the Confucian ideology followed by the literati. 

Ming Dynasty Conflicts – North and South

To the north, there were recurring clashes with Mongols during the early decades of the Ming dynasty. Whilst driven north, it was hard for the Ming emperors to claim a lasting and decisive victory against the Mongols, and towards the end of the dynasty the effective territorial border was the Great Wall. 

To the northeast, the Juchen pushed the Ming army south, and again the Great Wall became the Ming last line of defense. The Ming placed great weight on and invested considerable resources to maintain and strengthen the Great Wall.

In the early part of the Ming dynasty, China’s territory extended south by virtue of its successful invasion of northern Vietnam. But this invasion was short-lived and with continued resistance from Vietnamese guerrilla forces, the Chinese withdrew.

Art and Culture During the Ming Dynasty

The most prominent literary development during the Ming period was the rise of the vernacular novel. The educated elite classes read classical Chinese literature, but there was a growing demand amongst certain parts of the population for literature. Literati scholars edited or developed Chinese novels and short works of fiction so that they were more readable and accessible to a wider audience. Travel writing also started to become popular. These various, more widely published, works were in stark contrast to the stuffier works that were aligned with the Confucian establishment.

Painters become well-known during the Ming dynasty. Whilst drawing on the styles typical of Song and Yuan artists, they modified their approaches to painting and were able to command high prices for works of art that generated much interest and paintings were in great demand by a growing army of collectors.

No description of the Ming dynasty can ignore Ming pottery, ceramics, and porcelain. Major porcelain production centers were established at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and Dehua in Fujian province. Vast quantities of porcelain and ceramic products were exported to Europe, Japan, and South East Asia. The patterns and designs glazed onto porcelain products typically displayed intricate scenes similar in complexity to those seen in paintings. 

The Fall of the Ming Dynasty

The dramatic fall of the Ming dynasty began during the final years of Emperor Wanli’s reign and was driven by economic meltdown caused by huge reductions in the amount of silver entering China from the Americas and Japan. Silver was the main Ming currency at the time. 

The scarcity of silver resulted in a huge increase in the value of silver and a corresponding huge decrease in the value of copper. This was disastrous for tax-paying peasants who had to pay taxes in silver, but went about their day-to-day trades including the sale of their crops, using copper coins.

This economic crisis in the 17th century coincided with a series of natural disasters. The Little Ice Age resulted in widespread crop failure and famine. Other natural disasters, such as epidemics and flooding also took their toll. Conditions for peasants were extremely harsh, and with the Government starved of resources, it could not adequately help to relieve the situation. Rebellions began to break out, notably in Shaanxi led by rebel leaders such as Li Zicheng (founder of the short-lived Shun dynasty which was immediately followed by the Qing dynasty) and Zhang Xianzhong.

This unfortunate period in Ming history also saw conflicts taking place with the Manchu people in north-eastern China, the forerunners of the Qing dynasty. The Manchu armies were able to capture Ming China’s north-eastern Liaoning province and this conquest laid the groundwork for the overthrow of the Ming dynasty and for the creation of the Qing dynasty.

The Ming military forces were being attacked on two fronts – the Manchu raiders from the north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces. Eventually, the Ming military forces collapsed. On April 24, 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng who then proclaimed the beginning of a new dynasty – Shun. As Li’s forces approached Beijing, the last Ming emperor – Emperor Chongzhen – struck a bell to call his ministers to a war cabinet meeting. No one responded, and Chongzhe realizing that the game was up, hanged himself from a tree in the imperial garden. Li Zicheng’s power didn’t last long, by June he had been defeated by the ambitious Manchu leaders who had entered Beijing and established the reign of a new emperor that marked the start of a new dynasty to rule all of China – the Qing. Remnants of Ming dynasty power clung on in southern China for many years, but eventually, they were ousted by the Manchus.

Chongzhen – The Final Ming Dynasty Emperor

Chongzhen was the sixteenth and final Ming emperor. Chongzhen was born on February 6th, 1611 in Beijing. He died on April 25th, 1644, aged 33, in Beijing. Chongzhen was emperor from 1627 to 1644.

Chongzhen was still a teenager (16) when he ascended to the imperial throne on the death of his brother, emperor Tianqi who reigned from 1620 to 1627.

Chongzhen made great attempts, but ultimately failed, to revive the spiraling Ming government. He purged the government of duplicitous eunuchs and officials. However, he failed to control internal conflicts within the military which disrupted their attempts to deal with increasing peasant rebellions, and the invasion by the Manchus in the northeast which ultimately led to the fall of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of the Qing dynasty.


The Ming dynasty lasted almost 300 years and its emperors had to deal with many challenges, including natural disasters, famine, and economic turmoil, whilst also having to manage a royal court and civil service characterized by intrigue and conflict. 

During the dynasty, arts flourished and became more accessible to a growing and wider population. At the same time, the Ming emperors put great emphasis on the importance of great engineering projects such as maintaining the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. 

A series of unfortunate events led to widespread uprisings. These combined with Manchu invasions from the north resulted in the downfall of the Ming dynasty during the first part of the seventeenth century.

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