Zhu Yuanzhang, also known as emperor Hongwu, founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), was once regarded as a hero in Chinese history for ending the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) by driving the Mongols back to the Mongolian steppes and restoring the ethnic Han people’s rule of the country. However, he is remembered today mostly for his beggar-turned-emperor story and his creation of an unprecedented system of “sagacious governance.”
Emperor Shunzhi, the third emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), once called Zhu Yuanzhang the “most sagacious emperor” in China’s history since the founding of the Han Dynasty in 206 BC.
Zhu was born into a very poor peasant family in today’s Fengyang County in east China’s Anhui Province. He was the eighth and youngest child in his family. With the exception of him and his eldest brother, all his siblings were given away because their parents couldn’t find enough food for them.
In 1344, when Zhu was 16, his parents and eldest brother died within a period of about a fortnight when his home village was hit by a devastating drought, a plague of locusts and disease. Alone, Zhu went to find shelter at a local Buddhist monastery and became a monk.
However, Zhu didn’t stay there long as the monastery itself ran short of food and he was forced to wander all around the country as a beggar monk. In the years that followed, he led a miserable life and witnessed the widespread poverty and constant rebellions staged by desperate peasants.
Three years later, Zhu returned to the monastery and stayed there until he was 24. During this time, Zhu learned to read and write. However, the monastery was destroyed by the Yuan government troops fighting rebel peasants in nearby areas.
Since he had nowhere to go, by recommendation of a friend, Zhu joined the Red Turban rebel force led by Guo Zixing. In the rebel force, Zhu displayed a talent for leadership and military strategy and rose quickly through the ranks to become a rebel leader. Zhu was also a rigid disciplinarian. He strictly forbade his troops from raping and looting when they seized towns and villages.
Also, he always distributed food to poor peasants and protected their homes. As a result, Zhu’s troops won great public support.
In the years that followed, Zhu conquered a series of important cities and military strongholds, and in 1368 the Yuan Dynasty gave up its capital, today’s Beijing, and retreated to the Mongolian steppes.
In the same year, Zhu proclaimed himself Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty and chose today’s Nanjing in east China’s Jiangsu Province as his capital. Then the new ruler immediately issued a state policy of “recuperation and reconstruction.”
The new emperor told local government officials: “Our new dynasty has just emerged and people have just begun to rebuild their homes. Like a young bird just learning to fly, you should not pluck its feathers; like a newly-planted tree, you should never disturb its roots.”
The new emperor also adopted a series of preferential policies to encourage agriculture and built water conservation projects. In addition, he reformed the country’s military, government and land systems to improve efficiency and strengthen centralized control. Coming from a poor family background, Zhu had a deep hatred for corrupt officials.
So after he became the emperor, he launched a large-scale anti-corruption campaign in the country and imposed the death penalty on any official who took a bribe valued at 60 taels of silver or more.
As the founder of one of the longest dynasties in China, Zhu is considered by many historians as one of the most significant emperors in the country and his beggar-turned-emperor story has been adapted into numerous novels, stage plays, operas, TV series and movies.