Amongst all the civilizations that developed in Asia thousands of years ago, the Chinese Civilization grew to become one of the mightiest. But it had little contact with the outside world. The region was surrounded by oceans, mountains, and the Gobi Desert, which made it virtually inaccessible to invaders. The first dynasty which evolved in China was known as Xia, and it ruled the region from the twenty-first to the sixteenth century B.C.
The Ming dynasty emerged after the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, and is often regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization. It is also considered to be the dynasty in which early signs of capitalism emerged. This was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644.
The Rise and Fall of the Dynasty
Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Dynasty after demolishing the Yuan palaces in Dadu. He chose the name 'Ming' for his dynasty, which means 'brilliant'. He was born in 1328, in a village in Haozhou, and after the declaration of the Ming dynasty, he took Hongwu as his title. Although he suppressed religion after he became the emperor, he implemented a series of policies in order to reduce the peasants' burden, and to ensure the overall development of the whole society. After the death of Zhu, his grandson Zhu Yunwen took over the throne, but his reign lasted for only four years. After him, Zhu Di, fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang, became the Emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty. The period under Di's rule is considered one of the most prosperous periods in the history of China. The influence of the Ming dynasty was greatly expanded during his reign. Chengzu also began the construction of an imperial palace in 1406, and moved the capital city from Yingtian to Beijing in 1421.
The reign of Zhu Di was followed by different emperors who contributed to the dynasty in their own ways. Some of them were Zhu Gaozhi, Zhu Zhanji, Zhu Qiyu, Zhu Houzhao, and Zhu Zaihou. After the death of Zhang Juzheng, the skillful chancellor of Emperor Shenzong, the latter began to neglect state affairs. At this point of time, the Ming army also faced a defeat fighting against the leader of the 'Latter Jin' regime Nurhachu, in the Battle of Sarhu. The last emperor of the Ming dynasty was Weizong Xian. The fundamental reason for the downfall of the dynasty was the corruption of the court officials. In 1644, Li Zicheng, who was one of the leaders of the rebel armies, captured Xian and founded a new regime called Dashun.
Government and Culture
The Ming provincial bureaucracy consisted of three commissions, one each for civil, military, and surveillance. The highest level was province (sheng), which was the administrative division. Below it were the prefectures (fu), who operated under a prefect (zhifu). There were also sub-prefectures (zhou) under a sub-prefect. The lowest unit under the province was the county (xian), which formed the third level of administrative hierarchy.
The cultural inclinations of the rulers of the Ming Dynasty led to valuable developments in the spheres of literature and philosophy. The masterpieces written in this era include Journey to the West, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Folk literature also flourished during this time, and was represented by a group of writers, including Tang Yin, Song Lian, Zhang Dai and Yuan Hongdao.
Science and Economy
Besides the invention of the powerful artillery known as huochong gun, the Ming dynasty is famous for many scientific books, which appeared in the early and middle period. Some of these were Compendium of Materia Medica by Li Shizhen and Travels of Xu Xiake by Xu Xiake. Military technology was also relatively advanced in the period, and with the help of science, both the implements and production of agriculture reached an all-time high. The handicraft industry in the southern areas also developed rapidly and became a major source of the state finance.
During the reigns of Emperor Shizong and Emperor Shenzong, the sale of silk, alcohol, porcelain, and tobacco increased in the market. By the 16th century, the economy of the dynasty was stimulated by trade with the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch.
However, later on, commercial development was greatly hampered after the new policies of restraining commerce were introduced and a stringent ban on shipping was imposed. All these factors contributed to the downfall of this great dynasty. Nevertheless, the Ming dynasty left an indelible mark on Chinese history, forming an integral part of Chinese culture.