Ming Porcelain

Ming Porcelain

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

The porcelain of the Ming Dynasty of China (1368-1644 CE) benefitted, as did other arts, from the economic success of the 15th century CE, in particular, and the consequent surge in demand for quality handcraft production both at home and abroad. The Ming dynasty is rightly famous for its fine ceramics and especially the cobalt blue-and-white porcelain produced in such towns as Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province. Still highly prized by collectors today, Ming porcelain would have a major influence on the ceramics of many other countries from Japan to Britain.

Evolution & Developments

Porcelain is only one of many different types of pottery but it is usually valued more than others because of the smoothness of its surface, its pure whiteness, and its translucent quality. Using a particular mix of clay and minerals and firing it at very high temperatures (1280-1400 ºC), porcelain had first been produced centuries earlier, but during the Ming, it was developed to new heights of perfection. The first driver of this evolution was the growth in home demand as ceramics, along with other crafts such as jade carving and lacquerware, finally began to rival painting and calligraphy as the most highly-prized of all the Chinese arts. As economic prosperity grew under the Ming, so the rich sought to express their new status not only by showing off art objects but also displaying a deep knowledge of it. Thus, connoisseurship developed and, consequently, the social status of fine artists also rose.

Such was the fame of Chinese porcelain that all fine white porcelain wares were often simply called 'China'.

Jingdezhen (Chingtechen) has grabbed the headlines as the great centre of Ming porcelain but there were other pottery towns producing high-quality wares, notably Dehua and Foshan. Jingdezhen was the first such centre, though, and, thanks to rich local clay deposits, its production of pottery goes back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 202 CE). The town produced pottery vessels for the emperors of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and by the time of the Ming, it had become one of the great industrial centres of China and probably one of the earliest in the world to reach such a scale of production. The imperial court was a major customer, regularly making huge orders of porcelain from this remote southern town.

In the first period of Ming rule blue-and-white porcelain was the most highly prized, as it had been under the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1215-1368 CE). The blue (cobalt oxide sourced from central Asia, particularly Iran) was painted onto the porcelain body and then covered with a glaze called Yingqing. An alternative but less common colour was red and orange, achieved by using copper instead of cobalt. Early designs were often influenced by the high demand from Arab clients who wanted the decoration on the porcelain to mimic the intricate abstract floral designs of their own textiles and carpets. From the 15th century CE, decoration became more restrained and delicate, with birds and flowers - subjects and styles popular in landscape painting - being particularly common but with much more of the porcelain left white. Indeed, Ming porcelain from Dehua was noted for its pure white wares.

As the Ming dynasty wore on, porcelain decoration became much more elaborate, again perhaps in response to foreign demand, especially in Japan and Europe. Porcelain became a major export, along with such goods as silk and lacquerware, and was exchanged, in particular, for Spanish silver which came from the Americas via Manila. The designs by the 16th century CE, then, included multi-coloured scenes using red, blue, yellow, and greens, often with human figures in intricate robes.

Jingdezhen, in particular, would outlast the Ming dynasty itself as a world producer of ceramics, so much so that by the 18th century CE the town came to boast 100,000 workers and the perfection of techniques had become so specialised that a single porcelain item might go through the hands of 70 workers before it was deemed finished. Still, the general quality of production went down as the quantities went up, and even the cobalt needed for the distinctive blue decoration became scarce following a decline in trade with central Asia for political reasons.

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

There was another downside to all this industrial activity as Jingdezhen became infamous as the 'town of year-round thunder and lightning' (Dawson, 228) with its countless kilns spouting non-stop fire and smoke into the skies. Such was the fame and dominance of Chinese porcelain in the world ceramics market that all fine, bone-hard, and white porcelain wares were often simply called 'China'. As these fine wares combined beauty and the allure of their mysterious production - it was only in the 18th century CE that the secrets of porcelain manufacture were learnt in Europe - there even developed a collectorship of them in the West, and many of these collections have since been passed on to museums worldwide. Occasionally, exceptional pieces turn up at prestigious auction houses, such as the tall Ming vase sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2011 CE for a cool $21.6 million.


Porcelain could take just about any form besides the traditional vases (from small flower vases to large wine vessels), jars, cups (with or without stems and handles), shallow bowls, and plates long seen in Chinese ceramics. There were flasks (including the distinctive flattish and circular 'moon flasks'), wine-ewers which look like teapots, lamps, brush rests - often in the form of a mountain range, brush holders, ink stones, lidded boxes of all shapes and sizes, incense burners, tiles, ceramic pillows, and even bird feeders. Elegant curves, clean lines, and narrow necks are common features of vases, in particular.

Decorative Designs

Popular subjects for decoration included stylised flowers, grapes, waves, lotus scrolls, vine scrolls, reeds, fruit sprays, and other motifs commonly used in paintings and textiles. These motifs are usually restricted to the borders of wares. Scenes with fish or birds, including songbirds and herons but also seemingly less elegant ones like geese and chickens (particularly common on small wine cups), were prevalent. Landscapes were another subject matter borrowed from painting. Mythical creatures were popular, especially the dragon, symbolic of good fortune in Chinese culture. Another popular theme was the combination of pines, plum trees, and bamboo, known as the 'Three Friends of the Cold Season'. As the Ming Dynasty progressed, ceramic artists favoured a greater naturalism in their designs.

One particular type of decoration was cloisonné, that is to 'paint' the entire glazed object in brightly coloured enamel paste set between very fine bands of metal. Fired again and then polished, the vessel was given a bright jewel-like sheen. Indeed, some examples from royal tombs actually have semi-precious stones set in them. The cloisonné wares would continue to be very popular in the subsequent Qing Dynasty (1636-1912 CE) and much imitated in Europe. During the Ming Dynasty, cloisonné pieces were generally reserved for the imperial court and temples since the scholarly class considered them rather too garish to adorn their own homes.

Not strictly speaking part of the decoration but, nevertheless, an important development in Chinese ceramics was the habit of adding Ming imperial reign dates to wares, something not at all common in the ceramics of previous Chinese dynasties. By the 16th century CE, it was becoming common for artists to sign their ceramics, too, something which could greatly affect their price; such was the reputation of some artists.

As mentioned, there was an influence of foreign art on Ming decoration such as the floral patterns of Persian and Arab peoples and the highly stylised flowers of Tibetan art. Often pieces also carried inscriptions in Persian, Arabic and Tibetan, illustrating the wide geographical distribution of the Ming porcelain market. Despite this external influence on some wares, it is also true that the traditional Chinese shapes and decorations used in many Ming porcelains greatly influenced foreign potters in such places as Japan, Southeast Asia, Turkey, Iran and eventually, Europe.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Porcelain

The early Ming dynasty was a period of cultural restoration and expansion. The reestablishment of an indigenous Chinese ruling house led to the imposition of court-dictated styles in the arts. Painters recruited by the Ming court were instructed to return to the styles of the earlier Southern Song (1127–1279) Imperial Painting Academy. Large-scale landscapes, flower-and-bird compositions, and figural narratives were favored as images that would glorify the new dynasty.

Hongwu period (1368-98) 洪武年製

The Jingdezhen kilns suffered a temporary decline during the transition from the Yuan to Ming Dynasty. There is no consensus on the date when the official kiln was established in Jingdezhen. Two conflicting dates were mentioned in ancient texts. One put it as A.D 1369 and the other A.D 1402 (which would be 4th year of Ming Jianwen). However, in the 1990s numerous shards including those of large blue and white and copper red chargers, copper red larger ewers, big bowls and jars were recovered from the ancient official kiln site in Zhusan . It confirmed porcelain production for the palace was substantial and that the Hongwu official kiln probably came into operation at a date earlier than 1402 A.D.

Blue and white continued to be produced during the Hongwu period for the imperial palace. As compared with those of the Yuan period, the design has evolved with some stylistic differences. The motifs are more sparsely laid out. The depiction of the floral motif became more stiff and lacked the vitality of their Yuan counterparts. The variety of the motif has also became more limited. Human and mystical animals such as the chilin were no longer produced. The most commonly used motifs are floral scrolls, dragon, phoenix, garden scene, 3 friends of winter (pine, bamboo and prunus) motif. Large chargers with diameter of at least 45 cm continued to be produced. The outer base is not glazed and the paste usually oxidized into a orange color.

Somehow, the potters has also lost the ability to produced the vibrant blue color despite scientific tests that confirmed similar imported cobalt was used to draw the motif. The supply of imported cobalt was cut off when subsequently Hongwu imposed the foreign trade ban. So far, no evidence is available to show that local cobalt was replaced to continue producing blue and white for the Imperial palace. Some Chinese ceramics experts are even of the view that local cobalt was only used for minyao (folk kiln) blue and white later than Hongwu period. To find out more regarding the basis of their argument, please read this article.

An interesting development of Hongwu period was large number of wares with underglaze copper red decoration being produced. With dwindling supply of imported cobalt, the potters may have been forced to use copper oxide although it is a difficult material to control. It is unstable and volatile. Many finished products has blackish purple or very pale gray purplish red instead. It is difficult to find a piece with the desire shade of red.

The Chinese potters has a long established tradition of using iron oxide to produced brown/black underglaze decoration. It is a much more easy material to control compare with copper oxide. Why this has not been selected as a substitute for cobalt oxide? It may have been due to the Emperor's preference for red. Interestingly, there was a find of a dish decorated with overglaze iron-red enameled dragon motif within ruin of the Nanjing palace.

During this period, monochrome such as white, black and red glaze were also produced. But there are very few extant pieces.

The reestablishment of an indigenous Chinese ruling house led to the imposition of court-dictated styles in the arts. For porcelain made at the private kilns, a relatively high degree of control was imposed. For example, during the reign of Hongwu, a decree was issued in the year 1371 which forbid certain subjects such as previous emperors, queens, sages or saints, dragon, phoenix, lion and chilin on porcelains. During the Hongwu period, there were many instances of capital punishment for infringement of these policies. For example, one artist was executed because he painted a celestial being riding a dragon. That was deemed a grave offense since the dragon was a symbol of the emperor.

Hence, Hongwu imperial blue and white have only motifs which are limited in scope. They consisted mostly of various types of ornaments and flowers. There were none with human subjects. The composition and style of the decoration still show influence of Yuan blue and white.

Jianwen Period 1399-1402

The Yongle (1403-23), Hongxi (1425), Xuande (1426-35) Periods

During the reign of Yongle, the use of reign mark on vessels was first introduced The archaic form of 4 characters "Yongle Nianzhi mark" mark is either impressed, incised or written in underglaze blue and white. The only known blue and white examples were found in cups (dia. 9.3 cm) called yashou bei in Chinese. The four characters are on the inner base within a flower or embroidered ball and two lions. The incised/impressed reign mark is found in some white or monochrome red cups/stem cups. Majority of the vessels however still did not bear any reign mark.

Yongle emperor favored white wares. During his reign, a refined sugary white glaze called tianbai was widely produced. It was an improvement over the shufu white glaze produced during the Yuan dynasty. The jade-like glaze has a smooth texture. Many of the tianbai vessels have finely incised/impressed motif. For example, on monk's hat jug, there are some with finely incised floral scrolls top with Buddhist precious objects. The white tianbai vessels were mainly used for Buddhist ritual ceremony.

Another significant development was the phasing out of large complicated jars and vases with lugs popular during the Yuan period. Majority of the vessels medium and smaller in size. The form is more simple and graceful Some notable newly introduced shapes are the tankard, flat moon-shape vase and flat rim basins. However, the potters were also capable of producing technical difficult items such as large chargers with a diameter of more than 60 cm.

In July 1405, the first of seven expeditions set sail, over 50 years before Columbus' voyage to the New World. The fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. They were designed to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin.

During the reign of Yongle, admiral Zhenghe, kown as Sanbao (Three Jewels), sent out magnificent fleets on diplomatic trips to Southeast Asia, India and reached as far as East Africa. Imported cobalt called sumali qin was brought back during the trips. This enabled the production of imperial blue and white to resume. Compared with Hongwu blue and white, the motifs of those on Yongle vessels are even more sparsely laid out. Visually, the larger white space set off the motifs. There are also more variety of floral sprays and fruits introduced as decorative motifs. Human subject such as the middle eastern looking dancer and infants in garden were found in extant examples. The paste of vessels of this period is refined and smooth. The glaze is smooth, thick and glossy. The blue is brilliant with certain areas displaying the heap and piles effect. However, the cobalt along the outline of the motifs tends to diffuse into the glaze and hence the motif appears fuzzy and less well defined.

There was also further improvement in the use of copper red for decoration. An interesting new product was stem cup with decoration of three fishes in red on white ground. There are also monochrome red bowls and saucers incised with dragon and cloud motif.

An interesting discovery was a pear shaped ewer excavated in Zhusan in Jingdezhen. It was decorated with incised dragon covered with green enamel and yellow ground. It was a fore-runner of those vessels (mainly saucers and bowls) decorated with similar decorative technique and previously thought to originate during the Chenghua period.

Jar, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period (1426–1435)
Underglaze blue and white decoration of a Dragon. Height 19 in. (48.3 cm)

During Xuande period, reign mark became a common feature on the imperial wares. It is either in 6 characters standard script "Da ming Xuande Nianzhi" 大明宣德年製 or 4 characters "Xuande Nianzhi". There were also rare examples with 4 characters archaic script. The location of the written mark varies: such as on the outer base, rim, shoulder, spout or handle and etc. The reign of Xuande is a short 10 year duration. But the quantity of vessels produced was huge. For example, in the Ming official record "Da Ming Hui Dian", it was mentioned that in the 8th year of Xuande (1433 A.D), the palace ordered the official kiln in Jingdezhen to produce 443,500 vessels with dragon and phoenix design.

The variety of motifs was numerous. Besides the ever popular floral scrolls and floral sprays, there were also many varieties of dragon and phoenix design. The dragon of Yongle/Xuande is strong and ferocious looking, symbolic of the power of the empire. Buddhist precious objects and sanskrit/tibetan characters were also commonly used as part of the design on vessels. There was also more depiction of animal motif such as lions and human related subjects including ladies or infants in garden. Some of the blue and white vessels also has part of the motif incised. For example, the dragon having a blue and white outline but with the scale incised. A new product of the period was underglaze floral decoration with yellow ground.

The glaze on Xuande vessels is usually slightly uneven with an orange peel effect.

In the Xuande period, the potters were able to produce consistently brilliant copper red. The monochrome copper red of Xuande is highly prized. Another common technique involved incising the dragon motif on the biscuit and subsequently filling the motif with the copper oxide enamel before glazing and firing. After firing the incised outline of the motif appeared in a deeper red. Other well known examples on bowls and stem cups are red glaze with decoration of the fish in silhouette or fish or peach in copper red on a white ground. There are also rare examples of underglaze copper red combined with cobalt blue dragon motif.

There are also examples of low relief and finely incised floral motif in white on a cobalt blue or iron brown ground. Monochrome in imitation of ancient famous ceramics such as celadon, Ru and Ge glaze were also produced.

Another important product of Xuande period was underglaze blue and white combined with overglaze enameled motif. An example of a dish with mandarin ducks in lotus pond was recovered from the ancient official kiln site. In the Xuande dish, the outline of the motif is mainly incised and partly drawn in underglaze cobalt blue. The space within the outline was then applied with overglaze enamels. Some ceramic experts accepts this as doucai while others prefer to call it wucai (ie 5 colors with blue treated as a color. It should be noted that wucai does not mean strictly 5 colors are used. It can be less or more than 5). Why the inconsistency in the definition? For the 'purist', doucai must strictly meet the criteria of underglaze blue outline of motif with the area within applied with overglaze enamels. To them, the Xuande dish is not fully outlined in blue and hence does not meet the criteria.

More importantly, the use of underglaze blue and overglaze enamels for decoration of motif was an innovation. There is an extant stem bowl with such decorative motif in Sakya monastery in Tibet.

Interregnum Period - Zhengtong (1436-49), Jingtai (1450-56) and Tianshun (1457-64)

No example of imperial ware with reign mark was found during this duration commonly termed interregnum period. This was a period of political unrest. Zhengtong emperor was captured by the Mongolian forces. His brother was enthroned as emperor Jingtai. The mongols released him and subsequently he plotted to remove Jingtai and regained the throne. Based on official records, the official kiln did not cease production but production was on a much reduced scale. The absence of reign mark however make the identification of vessels made by the official kiln problematic. It appeared that at least part of the palace use of porcelains was met by commercial kilns. For example in Ming shilu (Veritable records of the Ming Dynasty), it was mentioned that in the 1st year of Zhengtong, 50,000 pieces of porcelains produced in commercial kilns was presented as tribute by a Fouliang official named Lu Zishun.

One of the most famous motif of this period depicts human in a pavilion with scrolled clouds and mountain in the background. They are usually drawn on meiping and big jars. Despite the high quality, they were most likely products of commercial kilns. So far, the only known published examples of official kiln porcelains of Zhengtong period was excavated fragments of huge pots (more than 60 cm in diameter) with dragon motif.

Chenghua period (1465-87)

In the initial years, the motifs on the vessels produced were essentially a continuation of those found since Xuande period. Many still used imported cobalt. But in the later years, production focused on mainly small thinly potted vessels which are highly elegant and delicate looking. The glaze is purer and highly glossy. This is typified by the palace bowl with floral scrolls The whole motif is executed in fine lines and completed with thin wash of blue. The cobalt used was a local cobalt called "pingdeng (potang) qing", mined in Jiangxi. It is paler and when applied as a wash over motif, the blue is more even. Decorative motifs using this cobalt blue include phoenix, dragon, children playing, 3 friends of winter, Tibetan/sanskrit inscription, vajra and etc. The six characters reign mark 'Da Ming Chenghua Nianzhi' is either enclosed within a circle or square. There are also jars without reign mark but with a character 'tian', ie heaven written instead.

Cup, Ming dynasty, Chenghua mark and period (1465–1487)
Porcelain painted in "doucai" underglaze blue and overglaze enamel decoration. Diam. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm)

But if there is one product that represented the highest standard of craftsmanship in Chenghua period and rightly considered as one of the peaks of excellence in the history of Chinese porcelain, it must be the doucai porcelain. During the Wanli period, a pair of doucai cups with chicken motif was said to be worth 100,000 taels of silver. The motif is first outlined in cobalt blue, glazed and fired. The space within the outline is then filled with overglaze enamels, such as light green, yellow, purple and red enamels. The enamels are fixed by a second firing at a lower temperature. Some well known decorative motifs includes floral spray/birds, grapes and vines, chickens in landscape and human subject. Usually, they are depicted on exquisitely made small vessels including stem cups, small vases and cups.

It is possible that the patronage of the emperor's favorite, Wan Gufei, was responsible for the promotion of several decorative techniques at the Jingdezhen kilns. Premier among these is the fabled Chenghua doucai ("contrasting colors" or "contending colors"), which is a combination of two ornamental processes. In doucai decoration, designs were completely outlined in cobalt blue on the unfired vessel, and a few areas of blue wash were painted in as well. After glazing and the usual high-temperature firing, the outlines were filled in with overglaze red, green, yellow, and aubergine enamels that were then fired at low temperatures. Doucai-style enameling was usually reserved for intimate objects of exquisite refinement, and the rare examples of Chenghua date are some of the most highly treasured of all Ming-dynasty porcelains.

Excavations in Zhushan revealed that Chenghua period continued to use a wide variety of decorative techniques of the earlier reign. For example, copper red fishes with white ground, incised dragon covered with green enamel and yellow ground, incised dragon covered with aubergine enamel and yellow grounds, overglaze iron red motif, blue and white floral motif with yellow ground, imitation of Longquan celadon and ge type glaze, susancai and etc. From Chenghua onwards, vessels with monochrome red or decoration with underglaze copper red became rare.

Hongzhi (1488-1505) and Zhengde period (1506-21)

The imperial porcelains produced during the Hongzhi and Zhengde period essentially continued to use decorative techniques of Chengua period. Hongzhi is a frugal emperor who is able to empathies with the sufferings of the people. During his reign, officials records showed that he issued edict on several occasions to reduce production in the official kilns. The main type of porcelain produced were blue and white.

Dish, Ming dynasty, Hongzhi mark and period (1488–1505), MET, NY.
Yellow enamels and undeglaze blue decoration. The dish belongs to a series of rather heavily potted dishes with this decoration that originated in the Xuande period (1426–35) and continued to be produced until at least the Jiajing reign (1522–66). It is generally assumed that the Xuande pieces was an original order, and that the dishes from subsequent reigns were manufactured as replacements for dishes that had been broken.

Hongzhi period is most noted for its beautiful yellow enameled ground dishes with underglaze blue decoration. Their quality are superior as compared with similar type produced since Xuande period and after Hongzhi period. Some other more commonly used decorative technique include those with incised dragon either left in biscuit form or painted with green enamel and with the ground in white or covered with overglaze enamel (more commonly in yellow but also other colors).

Blue and white vessels were also the most common porcelain found during the Zhengde period. Other type includes doucai, overglaze enameled decoration with colored ground, underglaze blue with yellow ground and etc. One interesting new decorative element in Zhengde is the inclusion of Arabic script in some of the vessels, mainly desk furniture such as brush rest, ink slab and boxes.

Jiajing (1522-66), Longqing (1567-72) and Wanli period (1573-1620)

The palace demand for porcelain was huge during the Jiajing and Wanli period. The official kiln on its own was unable to produce the required quantity. A system called Guan da min shao (government order people fire) was implemented during the Jiajing period. Selected commercial kilns were roped in to complete majority of the palace order at a low price. If the commercial kilns were unable to meet the order, they were forced to meet the shortfall by buying them from the official kiln at a high price. The system inflicted great sufferings on the commercial kilns but also forced the potters to improve on the quality of their products.

During the Jiajing period, an imported cobalt called hui qing was mixed with local cobalt to produce a distinctive violet blue. The ideal mixture is one portion local cobalt (ie 10 % in the mixture is local cobalt). Underglaze copper red decoration was very rare. To achieve semblance of such decoration, overglaze iron red decoration was used instead. There were more variety of decoration using a combination of two overglaze enamels, such as red motif on yellow ground, yellow on red, red on green, green on red and etc. Wucai decoration was also popular. Jiajing is a pious Taoist. During this period, taoist related subject such as the 8 immortals and the 8 taoist precious objects was widely used.

Imperial porcelain produced during the short Longqing period was of a relatively small amount and consisted of mainly blue and whites.

The reign of Wanli was long and porcelain production huge. Basically, the types of porcelains produced were a continuation of those in Jiajing period. However, one category of underglaze blue and overglaze enameled wares commonly called Qinghua Wucai stood out. The color tone of the enamels is strong with generous use of iron red. Combined with the violet blue, they are very attention catching. They lack the soft, quiet and delicate elegance of the Chenghua doucai but has an innocence charm nevertheless.

This was a period of great turbulence in Jingdezhen. There were many reports of riots by the potters because of the very bad working condition. In one incident, a potter named Dong Bing committed suicide by throwing himself into the kiln fire to protest against the unreasonable and excessive demand of Pan Xiang, a Eunuch appointed by the Emperor to supervise the official kiln.

The Taichang (1620) Tianqi (1621-27) and Chongzhen (1628-44) Periods

After the death of Wanli, the demand for porcelains for the imperial palace was small. The country was plagued by civil rebellions and threats from the Manchus. Many ceramics scholars believe the official kiln ceased to operate after Wanli. There are very few known examples of porcelain with reign marks of the two reigns.



Revolt and rebel rivalry

The Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) ruled before the establishment of the Ming dynasty. Explanations for the demise of the Yuan include institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, overtaxation of areas hard-hit by inflation, and massive flooding of the Yellow River as a result of the abandonment of irrigation projects. [12] Consequently, agriculture and the economy were in shambles, and rebellion broke out among the hundreds of thousands of peasants called upon to work on repairing the dykes of the Yellow River. [12] A number of Han Chinese groups revolted, including the Red Turbans in 1351. The Red Turbans were affiliated with the White Lotus, a Buddhist secret society. Zhu Yuanzhang was a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk who joined the Red Turbans in 1352 he soon gained a reputation after marrying the foster daughter of a rebel commander. [13] In 1356, Zhu's rebel force captured the city of Nanjing, [14] which he would later establish as the capital of the Ming dynasty.

With the Yuan dynasty crumbling, competing rebel groups began fighting for control of the country and thus the right to establish a new dynasty. In 1363, Zhu Yuanzhang eliminated his archrival and leader of the rebel Han faction, Chen Youliang, in the Battle of Lake Poyang, arguably the largest naval battle in history. Known for its ambitious use of fire ships, Zhu's force of 200,000 Ming sailors were able to defeat a Han rebel force over triple their size, claimed to be 650,000-strong. The victory destroyed the last opposing rebel faction, leaving Zhu Yuanzhang in uncontested control of the bountiful Yangtze River Valley and cementing his power in the south. After the dynastic head of the Red Turbans suspiciously died in 1367 while a guest of Zhu, there was no one left who was remotely capable of contesting his march to the throne, and he made his imperial ambitions known by sending an army toward the Yuan capital Dadu (present-day Beijing) in 1368. [15] The last Yuan emperor fled north to the upper capital Shangdu, and Zhu declared the founding of the Ming dynasty after razing the Yuan palaces in Dadu to the ground [15] the city was renamed Beiping in the same year. [16] Zhu Yuanzhang took Hongwu, or "Vastly Martial", as his era name.

Reign of the Hongwu Emperor

Hongwu made an immediate effort to rebuild state infrastructure. He built a 48 km (30 mi) long wall around Nanjing, as well as new palaces and government halls. [15] The History of Ming states that as early as 1364 Zhu Yuanzhang had begun drafting a new Confucian law code, the Da Ming Lü, which was completed by 1397 and repeated certain clauses found in the old Tang Code of 653. [17] Hongwu organized a military system known as the weisuo, which was similar to the fubing system of the Tang dynasty (618–907).

In 1380 Hongwu had the Chancellor Hu Weiyong executed upon suspicion of a conspiracy plot to overthrow him after that Hongwu abolished the Chancellery and assumed this role as chief executive and emperor, a precedent mostly followed throughout the Ming period. [18] [19] With a growing suspicion of his ministers and subjects, Hongwu established the Jinyiwei, a network of secret police drawn from his own palace guard. Some 100,000 people were executed in a series of purges during his rule. [18] [20]

The Hongwu emperor issued many edicts forbidding Mongol practices and proclaiming his intention to purify China of barbarian influence. However, he also sought to use the Yuan legacy to legitimize his authority in China and other areas ruled by the Yuan. He continued policies of the Yuan dynasty such as continued request for Korean concubines and eunuchs, Mongol-style hereditary military institutions, Mongol-style clothing and hats, promoting archery and horseback riding, and having large numbers of Mongols serve in the Ming military. Until the late 16th century Mongols still constituted one-in-three officers serving in capital forces like the Embroidered Uniform Guard, and other peoples such as Jurchens were also prominent. [21] He frequently wrote to Mongol, Japanese, Korean, Jurchen, Tibetan, and Southwest frontier rulers offering advice on their governmental and dynastic policy, and insisted on leaders from these regions visiting the Ming capital for audiences. He resettled 100,000 Mongols into his territory, with many serving as guards in the capital. The emperor also strongly advertised the hospitality and role granted to Chinggisid nobles in his court. [22]

South-Western frontier

In Qinghai, the Salar Muslims voluntarily came under Ming rule, their clan leaders capitulating around 1370. Uyghur troops under Uyghur general Hala Bashi suppressed the Miao Rebellions of the 1370s and settled in Changde, Hunan. [23] Hui Muslim troops also settled in Changde, Hunan after serving the Ming in campaigns against other aboriginal tribes. [24] In 1381, the Ming dynasty annexed the areas of the southwest that had once been part of the Kingdom of Dali following the successful effort by Hui Muslim Ming armies to defeat Yuan-loyalist Mongol and Hui Muslim troops holding out in Yunnan province. The Hui troops under General Mu Ying, who was appointed Governor of Yunnan, were resettled in the region as part of a colonization effort. [25] By the end of the 14th century, some 200,000 military colonists settled some 2,000,000 mu (350,000 acres) of land in what is now Yunnan and Guizhou. Roughly half a million more Chinese settlers came in later periods these migrations caused a major shift in the ethnic make-up of the region, since formerly more than half of the population were non-Han peoples. Resentment over such massive changes in population and the resulting government presence and policies sparked more Miao and Yao revolts in 1464 to 1466, which were crushed by an army of 30,000 Ming troops (including 1,000 Mongols) joining the 160,000 local Guangxi (see Miao Rebellions (Ming dynasty)). After the scholar and philosopher Wang Yangming (1472–1529) suppressed another rebellion in the region, he advocated single, unitary administration of Chinese and indigenous ethnic groups in order to bring about sinification of the local peoples. [26]

Campaign in the North-East

After the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan dynasty by the Ming dynasty in 1368, Manchuria remained under control of the Mongols of the Northern Yuan dynasty based in Mongolia. Naghachu, a former Yuan official and a Uriankhai general of the Northern Yuan dynasty, won hegemony over the Mongol tribes in Manchuria (Liaoyang province of the former Yuan dynasty). He grew strong in the northeast, with forces large enough (numbering hundreds of thousands) to threaten invasion of the newly founded Ming dynasty in order to restore the Mongols to power in China. The Ming decided to defeat him instead of waiting for the Mongols to attack. In 1387 the Ming sent a military campaign to attack Naghachu, [27] which concluded with the surrender of Naghachu and Ming conquest of Manchuria.

The early Ming court could not, and did not, aspire to the control imposed upon the Jurchens in Manchuria by the Mongols, yet it created a norm of organization that would ultimately serve as the main instrument for the relations with peoples along the northeast frontiers. By the end of the Hongwu reign, the essentials of a policy toward the Jurchens had taken shape. Most of the inhabitants of Manchuria, except for the Wild Jurchens, were at peace with China. In 1409, under the Yongle Emperor, the Ming Dynasty established the Nurgan Regional Military Commission on the banks of the Amur River, and Yishiha, a eunuch of Haixi Jurchen origin, was ordered to lead an expedition to the mouth of the Amur to pacify the Wild Jurchens. After the death of Yongle Emperor, the Nurgan Regional Military Commission was abolished in 1435, and the Ming court ceased to have substantial activities there, although the guards continued to exist in Manchuria. Throughout its existence, the Ming established a total of 384 guards (衛, wei) and 24 battalions (所, suo) in Manchuria, but these were probably only nominal offices and did not necessarily imply political control. [28] By the late Ming period, Ming's political presence in Manchuria has declined significantly.

Relations with Tibet

The Mingshi – the official history of the Ming dynasty compiled by the Qing dynasty in 1739 – states that the Ming established itinerant commanderies overseeing Tibetan administration while also renewing titles of ex-Yuan dynasty officials from Tibet and conferring new princely titles on leaders of Tibetan Buddhist sects. [31] However, Turrell V. Wylie states that censorship in the Mingshi in favor of bolstering the Ming emperor's prestige and reputation at all costs obfuscates the nuanced history of Sino-Tibetan relations during the Ming era. [32]

Modern scholars debate whether the Ming dynasty had sovereignty over Tibet. Some believe it was a relationship of loose suzerainty that was largely cut off when the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521–67) persecuted Buddhism in favor of Daoism at court. [32] [33] Others argue that the significant religious nature of the relationship with Tibetan lamas is underrepresented in modern scholarship. [34] [35] Others note the Ming need for Central Asian horses and the need to maintain the tea-horse trade. [36] [37] [38] [39]

The Ming sporadically sent armed forays into Tibet during the 14th century, which the Tibetans successfully resisted. [40] [41] Several scholars point out that unlike the preceding Mongols, the Ming dynasty did not garrison permanent troops in Tibet. [42] [43] The Wanli Emperor (r. 1572–1620) attempted to reestablish Sino-Tibetan relations in the wake of a Mongol-Tibetan alliance initiated in 1578, an alliance which affected the foreign policy of the subsequent Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in their support for the Dalai Lama of the Yellow Hat sect. [32] [44] [45] [46] By the late 16th century, the Mongols proved to be successful armed protectors of the Yellow Hat Dalai Lama after their increasing presence in the Amdo region, culminating in the conquest of Tibet by Güshi Khan (1582–1655) in 1642, [32] [47] [48] establishing the Khoshut Khanate.

Reign of the Yongle Emperor

Rise to power

The Hongwu Emperor specified his grandson Zhu Yunwen as his successor, and he assumed the throne as the Jianwen Emperor (1398–1402) after Hongwu's death in 1398. The most powerful of Hongwu's sons, Zhu Di, then the militarily mighty disagreed with this, and soon a political showdown erupted between him and his nephew Jianwen. [49] After Jianwen arrested many of Zhu Di's associates, Zhu Di plotted a rebellion that sparked a three-year civil war. Under the pretext of rescuing the young Jianwen from corrupting officials, Zhu Di personally led forces in the revolt the palace in Nanjing was burned to the ground, along with Jianwen himself, his wife, mother, and courtiers. Zhu Di assumed the throne as the Yongle Emperor (1402–1424) his reign is universally viewed by scholars as a "second founding" of the Ming dynasty since he reversed many of his father's policies. [50]

New capital and foreign engagement

Yongle demoted Nanjing to a secondary capital and in 1403 announced the new capital of China was to be at his power base in Beijing. Construction of a new city there lasted from 1407 to 1420, employing hundreds of thousands of workers daily. [51] At the center was the political node of the Imperial City, and at the center of this was the Forbidden City, the palatial residence of the emperor and his family. By 1553, the Outer City was added to the south, which brought the overall size of Beijing to 6.5 by 7 kilometres (4 by 4 + 1 ⁄ 2 miles). [52]

Beginning in 1405, the Yongle Emperor entrusted his favored eunuch commander Zheng He (1371–1433) as the admiral for a gigantic new fleet of ships designated for international tributary missions. Among the Kingdoms visited by Zheng He, Yongle Emperor proclaimed the Kingdom of Cochin to be its protectorate. [53] The Chinese had sent diplomatic missions over land since the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) and engaged in private overseas trade, but these missions were unprecedented in grandeur and scale. To service seven different tributary voyages, the Nanjing shipyards constructed two thousand vessels from 1403 to 1419, including treasure ships measuring 112 m (370 ft) to 134 m (440 ft) in length and 45 m (150 ft) to 54 m (180 ft) in width. [54]

Yongle used woodblock printing to spread Chinese culture. He also used the military to expand China's borders. This included the brief occupation of Vietnam, from the initial invasion in 1406 until the Ming withdrawal in 1427 as a result of protracted guerrilla warfare led by Lê Lợi, the founder of the Vietnamese Lê dynasty. [55]

Tumu Crisis and the Ming Mongols

The Oirat leader Esen Tayisi launched an invasion into Ming China in July 1449. The chief eunuch Wang Zhen encouraged the Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1435–49) to lead a force personally to face the Oirats after a recent Ming defeat the emperor left the capital and put his half-brother Zhu Qiyu in charge of affairs as temporary regent. On 8 September, Esen routed Zhengtong's army, and Zhengtong was captured – an event known as the Tumu Crisis. [56] The Oirats held the Zhengtong Emperor for ransom. However, this scheme was foiled once the emperor's younger brother assumed the throne under the era name Jingtai (r. 1449–57) the Oirats were also repelled once the Jingtai Emperor's confidant and defense minister Yu Qian (1398–1457) gained control of the Ming armed forces. Holding the Zhengtong Emperor in captivity was a useless bargaining chip for the Oirats as long as another sat on his throne, so they released him back into Ming China. [56] The former emperor was placed under house arrest in the palace until the coup against the Jingtai Emperor in 1457 known as the "Wresting the Gate Incident". [57] The former emperor retook the throne under the new era name Tianshun (r. 1457–64).

Tianshun proved to be a troubled time and Mongol forces within the Ming military structure continued to be problematic. On 7 August 1461, the Chinese general Cao Qin and his Ming troops of Mongol descent staged a coup against the Tianshun Emperor out of fear of being next on his purge-list of those who aided him in the Wresting the Gate Incident. [58] Cao's rebel force managed to set fire to the western and eastern gates of the Imperial City (doused by rain during the battle) and killed several leading ministers before his forces were finally cornered and he was forced to commit suicide. [59]

While the Yongle Emperor had staged five major offensives north of the Great Wall against the Mongols and the Oirats, the constant threat of Oirat incursions prompted the Ming authorities to fortify the Great Wall from the late 15th century to the 16th century nevertheless, John Fairbank notes that "it proved to be a futile military gesture but vividly expressed China's siege mentality." [60] Yet the Great Wall was not meant to be a purely defensive fortification its towers functioned rather as a series of lit beacons and signalling stations to allow rapid warning to friendly units of advancing enemy troops. [61]

Decline and fall of the Ming dynasty

Later reign of the Wanli Emperor

The financial drain of the Imjin War in Korea against the Japanese was one of the many problems – fiscal or other – facing Ming China during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620). In the beginning of his reign, Wanli surrounded himself with able advisors and made a conscientious effort to handle state affairs. His Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (1572–82) built up an effective network of alliances with senior officials. However, there was no one after him skilled enough to maintain the stability of these alliances [62] officials soon banded together in opposing political factions. Over time Wanli grew tired of court affairs and frequent political quarreling amongst his ministers, preferring to stay behind the walls of the Forbidden City and out of his officials' sight. [63] Scholar-officials lost prominence in administration as eunuchs became intermediaries between the aloof emperor and his officials any senior official who wanted to discuss state matters had to persuade powerful eunuchs with a bribe simply to have his demands or message relayed to the emperor. [64] The Bozhou rebellion by the Chiefdom of Bozhou was going on in southwestern China at the same time as the Imjin War. [65] [66] [67] [68]

Role of eunuchs

The Hongwu Emperor forbade eunuchs to learn how to read or engage in politics. Whether or not these restrictions were carried out with absolute success in his reign, eunuchs during the Yongle Emperor's reign (1402–1424) and afterwards managed huge imperial workshops, commanded armies, and participated in matters of appointment and promotion of officials. Yongle put 75 eunuchs in charge of foreign policy they traveled frequently to vassal states including Annam, Mongolia, the Ryukyu Islands, and Tibet and less frequently to farther-flung places like Japan and Nepal. In the later 15th century, however, eunuch envoys generally only traveled to Korea. [69]

The eunuchs developed their own bureaucracy that was organized parallel to but was not subject to the civil service bureaucracy. [70] Although there were several dictatorial eunuchs throughout the Ming, such as Wang Zhen, Wang Zhi, and Liu Jin, excessive tyrannical eunuch power did not become evident until the 1590s when the Wanli Emperor increased their rights over the civil bureaucracy and granted them power to collect provincial taxes. [64] [71]

The eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) dominated the court of the Tianqi Emperor (r. 1620–1627) and had his political rivals tortured to death, mostly the vocal critics from the faction of the Donglin Society. He ordered temples built in his honor throughout the Ming Empire, and built personal palaces created with funds allocated for building the previous emperor's tombs. His friends and family gained important positions without qualifications. Wei also published a historical work lambasting and belittling his political opponents. [72] The instability at court came right as natural calamity, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invasion came to a peak. The Chongzhen Emperor (r. 1627–44) had Wei dismissed from court, which led to Wei's suicide shortly after.

The eunuchs built their own social structure, providing and gaining support to their birth clans. Instead of fathers promoting sons, it was a matter of uncles promoting nephews. The Heishanhui Society in Peking sponsored the temple that conducted rituals for worshiping the memory of Gang Tie, a powerful eunuch of the Yuan dynasty. The Temple became an influential base for highly placed eunuchs, and continued in a somewhat diminished role during the Qing dynasty. [73] [74] [75]

Economic breakdown and natural disasters

During the last years of the Wanli era and those of his two successors, an economic crisis developed that was centered on a sudden widespread lack of the empire's chief medium of exchange: silver. The Portuguese first established trade with China in 1516, [76] trading Japanese silver for Chinese silk, [77] and after some initial hostilities gained consent from the Ming court in 1557 to settle Macau as their permanent trade base in China. [78] Their role in providing silver was gradually surpassed by the Spanish, [79] [80] [81] while even the Dutch challenged them for control of this trade. [82] [83] Philip IV of Spain (r. 1621–1665) began cracking down on illegal smuggling of silver from New Spain and Peru across the Pacific through the Philippines towards China, in favor of shipping American-mined silver through Spanish ports. In 1639 the new Tokugawa regime of Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with European powers, cutting off another source of silver coming into China. These events occurring at roughly the same time caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver and made paying taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. [84] People began hoarding precious silver as there was progressively less of it, forcing the ratio of the value of copper to silver into a steep decline. In the 1630s a string of one thousand copper coins equaled an ounce of silver by 1640 that sum could fetch half an ounce and, by 1643 only one-third of an ounce. [79] For peasants this meant economic disaster, since they paid taxes in silver while conducting local trade and crop sales in copper. [85] Recent historians have debated the validity of the theory that silver shortages caused the downfall of the Ming dynasty. [86] [87]

Famines became common in northern China in the early 17th century because of unusually dry and cold weather that shortened the growing season – effects of a larger ecological event now known as the Little Ice Age. [88] Famine, alongside tax increases, widespread military desertions, a declining relief system, and natural disasters such as flooding and inability of the government to properly manage irrigation and flood-control projects caused widespread loss of life and normal civility. [88] The central government, starved of resources, could do very little to mitigate the effects of these calamities. Making matters worse, a widespread epidemic, the Great Plague in late Ming Dynasty, spread across China from Zhejiang to Henan, killing an unknown but large number of people. [89] The deadliest earthquake of all time, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, occurred during the Jiajing Emperor's reign, killing approximately 830,000 people. [90]

Rise of the Manchu

A Jurchen tribal leader named Nurhaci (r. 1616–26), starting with just a small tribe, rapidly gained control over all the Manchurian tribes. During the Japanese invasions of Joseon Korea in the 1590s, he offered to lead his tribes in support of the Ming and Joseon army. This offer was declined, but he was granted honorific Ming titles for his gesture. Recognizing the weakness of Ming authority north of their border, he united all of the adjacent northern tribes and consolidated power in the region surrounding his homeland as the Jurchen Jin dynasty had done previously. [91] In 1610, he broke relations with the Ming court, and in 1618 demanded a tribute from them to redress "Seven Grievances".

By 1636, Nurhaci's son Huang Taiji renamed his dynasty from the "Later Jin" to the "Great Qing" at Mukden, which had fallen to Qing forces in 1621 and was made their capital in 1625. [92] [93] Huang Taiji also adopted the Chinese imperial title huangdi, declared the Chongde ("Revering Virtue") era, and changed the ethnic name of his people from "Jurchen" to "Manchu". [93] [94] In 1638 the Manchu defeated and conquered Ming China's traditional ally Joseon with an army of 100,000 troops in the Second Manchu invasion of Korea. Shortly after, the Koreans renounced their long-held loyalty to the Ming dynasty. [94]

Rebellion, invasion, collapse

A peasant soldier named Li Zicheng mutinied with his fellow soldiers in western Shaanxi in the early 1630s after the Ming government failed to ship much-needed supplies there. [88] In 1634 he was captured by a Ming general and released only on the terms that he return to service. [95] The agreement soon broke down when a local magistrate had thirty-six of his fellow rebels executed Li's troops retaliated by killing the officials and continued to lead a rebellion based in Rongyang, central Henan province by 1635. [96] By the 1640s, an ex-soldier and rival to Li – Zhang Xianzhong (1606–1647) – had created a firm rebel base in Chengdu, Sichuan, while Li's center of power was in Hubei with extended influence over Shaanxi and Henan. [96]

In 1640, masses of Chinese peasants who were starving, unable to pay their taxes, and no longer in fear of the frequently defeated Chinese army, began to form into huge bands of rebels. The Chinese military, caught between fruitless efforts to defeat the Manchu raiders from the north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces, essentially fell apart. Unpaid and unfed, the army was defeated by Li Zicheng – now self-styled as the Prince of Shun – and deserted the capital without much of a fight. On 25 April 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng when the city gates were opened by rebel allies from within. During the turmoil, the last Ming emperor hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City. [97]

Seizing opportunity, the Eight Banners crossed the Great Wall after the Ming border general Wu Sangui (1612–1678) opened the gates at Shanhai Pass. This occurred shortly after he learned about the fate of the capital and an army of Li Zicheng marching towards him weighing his options of alliance, he decided to side with the Manchus. [98] The Eight Banners under the Manchu Prince Dorgon (1612–1650) and Wu Sangui approached Beijing after the army sent by Li was destroyed at Shanhaiguan the Prince of Shun's army fled the capital on the fourth of June. On 6 June, the Manchus and Wu entered the capital and proclaimed the young Shunzhi Emperor ruler of China. After being forced out of Xi'an by the Qing, chased along the Han River to Wuchang, and finally along the northern border of Jiangxi province, Li Zicheng died there in the summer of 1645, thus ending the Shun dynasty. One report says his death was a suicide another states that he was beaten to death by peasants after he was caught stealing their food. [99]

Despite the loss of Beijing and the death of the emperor, the Ming were not yet totally destroyed. Nanjing, Fujian, Guangdong, Shanxi, and Yunnan were all strongholds of Ming resistance. However, there were several pretenders for the Ming throne, and their forces were divided. These scattered Ming remnants in southern China after 1644 were collectively designated by 19th-century historians as the Southern Ming. [100] Each bastion of resistance was individually defeated by the Qing until 1662, when the last southern Ming Emperor died, the Yongli Emperor, Zhu Youlang. The last Ming Princes to hold out were the Prince of Ningjing Zhu Shugui and the son of Zhu Yihai, the Prince of Lu Zhu Honghuan (朱弘桓) who stayed with Koxinga's Ming loyalists in the Kingdom of Tungning (in Taiwan) until 1683. Zhu Shugui proclaimed that he acted in the name of the deceased Yongli Emperor. [101] The Qing eventually sent the seventeen Ming princes still living in Taiwan back to mainland China where they spent the rest of their lives. [102]

In 1725 the Qing Yongzheng Emperor bestowed the hereditary title of Marquis on a descendant of the Ming dynasty Imperial family, Zhu Zhilian (朱之璉), who received a salary from the Qing government and whose duty was to perform rituals at the Ming tombs. The Chinese Plain White Banner was also inducted in the Eight Banners. Later the Qianlong Emperor bestowed the title Marquis of Extended Grace posthumously on Zhu Zhilian in 1750, and the title passed on through twelve generations of Ming descendants until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912. The last Marquis of Extended Grance was Zhu Yuxun (朱煜勳). In 1912, after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in the Xinhai Revolution, some advocated that a Han Chinese be installed as Emperor, either the descendant of Confucius, who was the Duke Yansheng, [103] [104] [105] [106] [107] or the Ming dynasty Imperial family descendant, the Marquis of Extended Grace. [108] [109]

Province, prefecture, subprefecture, county

Described as "one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history" by Edwin O. Reischauer, John K. Fairbank and Albert M. Craig, [110] the Ming emperors took over the provincial administration system of the Yuan dynasty, and the thirteen Ming provinces are the precursors of the modern provinces. Throughout the Song dynasty, the largest political division was the circuit (lu 路). [111] However, after the Jurchen invasion in 1127, the Song court established four semi-autonomous regional command systems based on territorial and military units, with a detached service secretariat that would become the provincial administrations of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. [112] Copied on the Yuan model, the Ming provincial bureaucracy contained three commissions: one civil, one military, and one for surveillance. Below the level of the province (sheng 省) were prefectures (fu 府) operating under a prefect (zhifu 知府), followed by subprefectures (zhou 州) under a subprefect. The lowest unit was the county (xian 縣), overseen by a magistrate. Besides the provinces, there were also two large areas that belonged to no province, but were metropolitan areas (jing 京) attached to Nanjing and Beijing. [113]

Institutions and bureaus

Institutional trends

Departing from the main central administrative system generally known as the Three Departments and Six Ministries system, which was instituted by various dynasties since late Han (202 BCE – 220 CE), the Ming administration had only one Department, the Secretariat, that controlled the Six Ministries. Following the execution of the Chancellor Hu Weiyong in 1380, the Hongwu Emperor abolished the Secretariat, the Censorate, and the Chief Military Commission and personally took charge of the Six Ministries and the regional Five Military Commissions. [114] [115] Thus a whole level of administration was cut out and only partially rebuilt by subsequent rulers. [114] The Grand Secretariat, at the beginning a secretarial institution that assisted the emperor with administrative paperwork, was instituted, but without employing grand counselors, or chancellors.

The Hongwu Emperor sent his heir apparent to Shaanxi in 1391 to "tour and soothe" (xunfu) the region in 1421 the Yongle Emperor commissioned 26 officials to travel the empire and uphold similar investigatory and patrimonial duties. By 1430 these xunfu assignments became institutionalized as "grand coordinators". Hence, the Censorate was reinstalled and first staffed with investigating censors, later with censors-in-chief. By 1453, the grand coordinators were granted the title vice censor-in-chief or assistant censor-in-chief and were allowed direct access to the emperor. [116] As in prior dynasties, the provincial administrations were monitored by a travelling inspector from the Censorate. Censors had the power to impeach officials on an irregular basis, unlike the senior officials who were to do so only in triennial evaluations of junior officials. [116] [117]

Although decentralization of state power within the provinces occurred in the early Ming, the trend of central government officials delegated to the provinces as virtual provincial governors began in the 1420s. By the late Ming dynasty, there were central government officials delegated to two or more provinces as supreme commanders and viceroys, a system which reined in the power and influence of the military by the civil establishment. [118]

Grand Secretariat and Six Ministries

Governmental institutions in China conformed to a similar pattern for some two thousand years, but each dynasty installed special offices and bureaus, reflecting its own particular interests. The Ming administration utilized Grand Secretaries to assist the emperor, handling paperwork under the reign of the Yongle Emperor and later appointed as top officials of agencies and Grand Preceptor, a top-ranking, non-functional civil service post, under the Hongxi Emperor (r. 1424–25). [119] The Grand Secretariat drew its members from the Hanlin Academy and were considered part of the imperial authority, not the ministerial one (hence being at odds with both the emperor and ministers at times). [120] The Secretariat operated as a coordinating agency, whereas the Six Ministries – Personnel, Revenue, Rites, War, Justice, and Public Works – were direct administrative organs of the state: [121]

  1. The Ministry of Personnel was in charge of appointments, merit ratings, promotions, and demotions of officials, as well as granting of honorific titles. [122]
  2. The Ministry of Revenue was in charge of gathering census data, collecting taxes, and handling state revenues, while there were two offices of currency that were subordinate to it. [123]
  3. The Ministry of Rites was in charge of state ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices it also oversaw registers for Buddhist and Daoist priesthoods and even the reception of envoys from tributary states. [124]
  4. The Ministry of War was in charge of the appointments, promotions, and demotions of military officers, the maintenance of military installations, equipment, and weapons, as well as the courier system. [125]
  5. The Ministry of Justice was in charge of judicial and penal processes, but had no supervisory role over the Censorate or the Grand Court of Revision. [126]
  6. The Ministry of Public Works had charge of government construction projects, hiring of artisans and laborers for temporary service, manufacturing government equipment, the maintenance of roads and canals, standardization of weights and measures, and the gathering of resources from the countryside. [126]

Bureaus and offices for the imperial household

The imperial household was staffed almost entirely by eunuchs and ladies with their own bureaus. [127] Female servants were organized into the Bureau of Palace Attendance, Bureau of Ceremonies, Bureau of Apparel, Bureau of Foodstuffs, Bureau of the Bedchamber, Bureau of Handicrafts, and Office of Staff Surveillance. [127] Starting in the 1420s, eunuchs began taking over these ladies' positions until only the Bureau of Apparel with its four subsidiary offices remained. [127] Hongwu had his eunuchs organized into the Directorate of Palace Attendants, but as eunuch power at court increased, so did their administrative offices, with eventual twelve directorates, four offices, and eight bureaus. [127] The dynasty had a vast imperial household, staffed with thousands of eunuchs, who were headed by the Directorate of Palace Attendants. The eunuchs were divided into different directorates in charge of staff surveillance, ceremonial rites, food, utensils, documents, stables, seals, apparel, and so on. [128] The offices were in charge of providing fuel, music, paper, and baths. [128] The bureaus were in charge of weapons, silverwork, laundering, headgear, bronze work, textile manufacture, wineries, and gardens. [128] At times, the most influential eunuch in the Directorate of Ceremonial acted as a de facto dictator over the state. [129]

Although the imperial household was staffed mostly by eunuchs and palace ladies, there was a civil service office called the Seal Office, which cooperated with eunuch agencies in maintaining imperial seals, tallies, and stamps. [130] There were also civil service offices to oversee the affairs of imperial princes. [131]



The Hongwu emperor from 1373 to 1384 staffed his bureaus with officials gathered through recommendations only. After that the scholar-officials who populated the many ranks of bureaucracy were recruited through a rigorous examination system that was initially established by the Sui dynasty (581–618). [133] [134] [135] Theoretically the system of exams allowed anyone to join the ranks of imperial officials (although it was frowned upon for merchants to join) in reality the time and funding needed to support the study in preparation for the exam generally limited participants to those already coming from the landholding class. However, the government did exact provincial quotas while drafting officials. This was an effort to curb monopolization of power by landholding gentry who came from the most prosperous regions, where education was the most advanced. The expansion of the printing industry since Song times enhanced the spread of knowledge and number of potential exam candidates throughout the provinces. For young schoolchildren there were printed multiplication tables and primers for elementary vocabulary for adult examination candidates there were mass-produced, inexpensive volumes of Confucian classics and successful examination answers. [136]

As in earlier periods, the focus of the examination was classical Confucian texts, while the bulk of test material centered on the Four Books outlined by Zhu Xi in the 12th century. [137] Ming era examinations were perhaps more difficult to pass since the 1487 requirement of completing the "eight-legged essay", a departure from basing essays off progressing literary trends. The exams increased in difficulty as the student progressed from the local level, and appropriate titles were accordingly awarded successful applicants. Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, each grade divided into two degrees, with ranging salaries (nominally paid in piculs of rice) according to their rank. While provincial graduates who were appointed to office were immediately assigned to low-ranking posts like the county graduates, those who passed the palace examination were awarded a jinshi ('presented scholar') degree and assured a high-level position. [138] In 276 years of Ming rule and ninety palace examinations, the number of doctoral degrees granted by passing the palace examinations was 24,874. [139] Ebrey states that "there were only two to four thousand of these jinshi at any given time, on the order of one out of 10,000 adult males." This was in comparison to the 100,000 shengyuan ('government students'), the lowest tier of graduates, by the 16th century. [140]

The maximum tenure in office was nine years, but every three years officials were graded on their performance by senior officials. If they were graded as superior then they were promoted, if graded adequate then they retained their ranks, and if graded inadequate they were demoted one rank. In extreme cases, officials would be dismissed or punished. Only capital officials of grade 4 and above were exempt from the scrutiny of recorded evaluation, although they were expected to confess any of their faults. There were over 4,000 school instructors in county and prefectural schools who were subject to evaluations every nine years. The Chief Instructor on the prefectural level was classified as equal to a second-grade county graduate. The Supervisorate of Imperial Instruction oversaw the education of the heir apparent to the throne this office was headed by a Grand Supervisor of Instruction, who was ranked as first class of grade three. [141]

Historians debate whether the examination system expanded or contracted upward social mobility. On the one hand, the exams were graded without regard to a candidate's social background, and were theoretically open to everyone. [142] In actual practice, the successful candidates had years of a very expensive, sophisticated tutoring of the sort that wealthy gentry families specialized in providing their talented sons. In practice, 90 percent of the population was ineligible due to lack of education, but the upper 10 percent had equal chances for moving to the top. To be successful young men had to have extensive, expensive training in classical Chinese, the use of Mandarin in spoken conversation, calligraphy, and had to master the intricate poetic requirements of the eight-legged essay. Not only did the traditional gentry dominated the system, they also learned that conservatism and resistance to new ideas was the path to success. For centuries critics had pointed out these problems, but the examination system only became more abstract and less relevant to the needs of China. [143] The consensus of scholars is that the eight-legged essay can be blamed as a major cause of "China's cultural stagnation and economic backwardness." However Benjamin Ellman argues there were some positive features, since the essay form was capable of fostering “abstract thinking, persuasiveness, and prosodic form” and that its elaborate structure discouraged a wandering, unfocused narrative”. [144]

Lesser functionaries

Scholar-officials who entered civil service through examinations acted as executive officials to a much larger body of non-ranked personnel called lesser functionaries. They outnumbered officials by four to one Charles Hucker estimates that they were perhaps as many as 100,000 throughout the empire. These lesser functionaries performed clerical and technical tasks for government agencies. Yet they should not be confused with lowly lictors, runners, and bearers lesser functionaries were given periodic merit evaluations like officials and after nine years of service might be accepted into a low civil service rank. [145] The one great advantage of the lesser functionaries over officials was that officials were periodically rotated and assigned to different regional posts and had to rely on the good service and cooperation of the local lesser functionaries. [146]

Eunuchs, princes, and generals

Eunuchs gained unprecedented power over state affairs during the Ming dynasty. One of the most effective means of control was the secret service stationed in what was called the Eastern Depot at the beginning of the dynasty, later the Western Depot. This secret service was overseen by the Directorate of Ceremonial, hence this state organ's often totalitarian affiliation. Eunuchs had ranks that were equivalent to civil service ranks, only theirs had four grades instead of nine. [147] [148]

Descendants of the first Ming emperor were made princes and given (typically nominal) military commands, annual stipends, and large estates. The title used was "king" ( 王 , wáng) but – unlike the princes in the Han and Jin dynasties – these estates were not feudatories, the princes did not serve any administrative function, and they partook in military affairs only during the reigns of the first two emperors. [149] The rebellion of the Prince of Yan was justified in part as upholding the rights of the princes, but once the Yongle Emperor was enthroned, he continued his nephew's policy of disarming his brothers and moved their fiefs away from the militarized northern border. Although princes served no organ of state administration, the princes, consorts of the imperial princesses, and ennobled relatives did staff the Imperial Clan Court, which supervised the imperial genealogy. [131]

Like scholar-officials, military generals were ranked in a hierarchic grading system and were given merit evaluations every five years (as opposed to three years for officials). [150] However, military officers had less prestige than officials. This was due to their hereditary service (instead of solely merit-based) and Confucian values that dictated those who chose the profession of violence (wu) over the cultured pursuits of knowledge (wen). [151] Although seen as less prestigious, military officers were not excluded from taking civil service examinations, and after 1478 the military even held their own examinations to test military skills. [152] In addition to taking over the established bureaucratic structure from the Yuan period, the Ming emperors established the new post of the travelling military inspector. In the early half of the dynasty, men of noble lineage dominated the higher ranks of military office this trend was reversed during the latter half of the dynasty as men from more humble origins eventually displaced them. [153]

Literature and arts

Literature, painting, poetry, music, and Chinese opera of various types flourished during the Ming dynasty, especially in the economically prosperous lower Yangzi valley. Although short fiction had been popular as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–907), [154] and the works of contemporaneous authors such as Xu Guangqi, Xu Xiake, and Song Yingxing were often technical and encyclopedic, the most striking literary development was the vernacular novel. While the gentry elite were educated enough to fully comprehend the language of Classical Chinese, those with rudimentary education – such as women in educated families, merchants, and shop clerks – became a large potential audience for literature and performing arts that employed Vernacular Chinese. [155] Literati scholars edited or developed major Chinese novels into mature form in this period, such as Water Margin and Journey to the West. Jin Ping Mei, published in 1610, although incorporating earlier material, marks the trend toward independent composition and concern with psychology. [156] In the later years of the dynasty, Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu innovated with vernacular short fiction. Theater scripts were equally imaginative. The most famous, The Peony Pavilion, was written by Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), with its first performance at the Pavilion of Prince Teng in 1598.

Informal essay and travel writing was another highlight. Xu Xiake (1587–1641), a travel literature author, published his Travel Diaries in 404,000 written characters, with information on everything from local geography to mineralogy. [157] [158] The first reference to the publishing of private newspapers in Beijing was in 1582 by 1638 the Peking Gazette switched from using woodblock print to movable type printing. [159] The new literary field of the moral guide to business ethics was developed during the late Ming period, for the readership of the merchant class. [160]

In contrast to Xu Xiake, who focused on technical aspects in his travel literature, the Chinese poet and official Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610) used travel literature to express his desires for individualism as well as autonomy from and frustration with Confucian court politics. [161] Yuan desired to free himself from the ethical compromises that were inseparable from the career of a scholar-official. This anti-official sentiment in Yuan's travel literature and poetry was actually following in the tradition of the Song dynasty poet and official Su Shi (1037–1101). [162] Yuan Hongdao and his two brothers, Yuan Zongdao (1560–1600) and Yuan Zhongdao (1570–1623), were the founders of the Gong'an School of letters. [163] This highly individualistic school of poetry and prose was criticized by the Confucian establishment for its association with intense sensual lyricism, which was also apparent in Ming vernacular novels such as the Jin Ping Mei. [163] Yet even gentry and scholar-officials were affected by the new popular romantic literature, seeking courtesans as soulmates to re-enact the heroic love stories that arranged marriages often could not provide or accommodate. [164]

Famous painters included Ni Zan and Dong Qichang, as well as the Four Masters of the Ming dynasty, Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming, and Qiu Ying. They drew upon the techniques, styles, and complexity in painting achieved by their Song and Yuan predecessors, but added techniques and styles. Well-known Ming artists could make a living simply by painting due to the high prices they demanded for their artworks and the great demand by the highly cultured community to collect precious works of art. The artist Qiu Ying was once paid 2.8 kg (100 oz) of silver to paint a long handscroll for the eightieth birthday celebration of the mother of a wealthy patron. Renowned artists often gathered an entourage of followers, some who were amateurs who painted while pursuing an official career and others who were full-time painters. [165]

The period was also renowned for ceramics and porcelains. The major production center for porcelain was the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, most famous in the period for blue and white porcelain, but also producing other styles. The Dehua porcelain factories in Fujian catered to European tastes by creating Chinese export porcelain by the late 16th century. Individual potters also became known, such as He Chaozong, who became famous in the early 17th century for his style of white porcelain sculpture. In The Ceramic Trade in Asia, Chuimei Ho estimates that about 16% of late Ming era Chinese ceramic exports were sent to Europe, while the rest were destined for Japan and South East Asia. [166]

Carved designs in lacquerware and designs glazed onto porcelain wares displayed intricate scenes similar in complexity to those in painting. These items could be found in the homes of the wealthy, alongside embroidered silks and wares in jade, ivory, and cloisonné. The houses of the rich were also furnished with rosewood furniture and feathery latticework. The writing materials in a scholar's private study, including elaborately carved brush holders made of stone or wood, were designed and arranged ritually to give an aesthetic appeal. [167]

Connoisseurship in the late Ming period centered on these items of refined artistic taste, which provided work for art dealers and even underground scammers who themselves made imitations and false attributions. [167] The Jesuit Matteo Ricci while staying in Nanjing wrote that Chinese scam artists were ingenious at making forgeries and huge profits. [168] However, there were guides to help the wary new connoisseur Liu Tong (died 1637) wrote a book printed in 1635 that told his readers how to spot fake and authentic pieces of art. [169] He revealed that a Xuande era (1426–1435) bronze work could be authenticated by judging its sheen porcelain wares from the Yongle era (1402–1424) could be judged authentic by their thickness. [170]


The dominant religious beliefs during the Ming dynasty were the various forms of Chinese folk religion and the Three Teachings – Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The Yuan-supported Tibetan lamas fell from favor, and the early Ming emperors particularly favored Taoism, granting its practitioners many positions in the state's ritual offices. [171] The Hongwu Emperor curtailed the cosmopolitan culture of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and the prolific Prince of Ning Zhu Quan even composed one encyclopedia attacking Buddhism as a foreign "mourning cult", deleterious to the state, and another encyclopedia that subsequently joined the Taoist canon. [171]

Islam was also well-established throughout China, with a history said to have begun with Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas during the Tang dynasty and strong official support during the Yuan. Although the Ming sharply curtailed this support, there were still several prominent Muslim figures early on, including the Hongwu Emperor's generals Chang Yuqun, Lan Yu, Ding Dexing, and Mu Ying, [172] as well as the Yongle Emperor's powerful eunuch Zheng He. Mongol and Central Asian Semu Muslim women and men were required by Ming Code to marry Han Chinese after the first Ming Emperor Hongwu passed the law in Article 122. [173] [174] [175]

The advent of the Ming was initially devastating to Christianity: in his first year, the Hongwu Emperor declared the eighty-year-old Franciscan missions among the Yuan heterodox and illegal. [177] The centuries-old Nestorian church also disappeared. During the later Ming a new wave of Christian missionaries arrived – particularly Jesuits – who employed new western science and technology in their arguments for conversion. They were educated in Chinese language and culture at St. Paul's College on Macau after its founding in 1579. The most influential was Matteo Ricci, whose "Map of the Myriad Countries of the World" upended traditional geography throughout East Asia, and whose work with the convert Xu Guangqi led to the first Chinese translation of Euclid's Elements in 1607. The discovery of a Nestorian stele at Xi'an in 1625 also permitted Christianity to be treated as an old and established faith, rather than as a new and dangerous cult. However, there were strong disagreements about the extent to which converts could continue to perform rituals to the emperor, Confucius, or their ancestors: Ricci had been very accommodating and an attempt by his successors to backtrack from this policy led to the Nanjing Incident of 1616, which exiled four Jesuits to Macau and forced the others out of public life for six years. [178] A series of spectacular failures by the Chinese astronomers – including missing an eclipse easily computed by Xu Guangqi and Sabatino de Ursis – and a return by the Jesuits to presenting themselves as educated scholars in the Confucian mold [179] restored their fortunes. However, by the end of the Ming the Dominicans had begun the Chinese Rites controversy in Rome that would eventually lead to a full ban of Christianity under the Qing dynasty.

During his mission, Ricci was also contacted in Beijing by one of the approximately 5,000 Kaifeng Jews and introduced them and their long history in China to Europe. [180] However, the 1642 flood caused by Kaifeng's Ming governor devastated the community, which lost five of its twelve families, its synagogue, and most of its Torah. [181]


Wang Yangming's Confucianism

During the Ming dynasty, the Neo-Confucian doctrines of the Song scholar Zhu Xi were embraced by the court and the Chinese literati at large, although the direct line of his school was destroyed by the Yongle Emperor's extermination of the ten degrees of kinship of Fang Xiaoru in 1402. The Ming scholar most influential upon subsequent generations, however, was Wang Yangming (1472–1529), whose teachings were attacked in his own time for their similarity to Chan Buddhism. [182] Building upon Zhu Xi's concept of the "extension of knowledge" ( 理學 or 格物致知 ), gaining understanding through careful and rational investigation of things and events, Wang argued that universal concepts would appear in the minds of anyone. [183] Therefore, he claimed that anyone – no matter their pedigree or education – could become as wise as Confucius and Mencius had been and that their writings were not sources of truth but merely guides that might have flaws when carefully examined. [184] A peasant with a great deal of experience and intelligence would then be wiser than an official who had memorized the Classics but not experienced the real world. [184]

Conservative reaction

Other scholar-bureaucrats were wary of Wang's heterodoxy, the increasing number of his disciples while he was still in office, and his overall socially rebellious message. To curb his influence, he was often sent out to deal with military affairs and rebellions far away from the capital. Yet his ideas penetrated mainstream Chinese thought and spurred new interest in Taoism and Buddhism. [182] Furthermore, people began to question the validity of the social hierarchy and the idea that the scholar should be above the farmer. Wang Yangming's disciple and salt-mine worker Wang Gen gave lectures to commoners about pursuing education to improve their lives, while his follower He Xinyin ( 何心隱 ) challenged the elevation and emphasis of the family in Chinese society. [182] His contemporary Li Zhi even taught that women were the intellectual equals of men and should be given a better education both Li and He eventually died in prison, jailed on charges of spreading "dangerous ideas". [185] Yet these "dangerous ideas" of educating women had long been embraced by some mothers [186] and by courtesans who were as literate and skillful in calligraphy, painting, and poetry as their male guests. [187]

The liberal views of Wang Yangming were opposed by the Censorate and by the Donglin Academy, re-established in 1604. These conservatives wanted a revival of orthodox Confucian ethics. Conservatives such as Gu Xiancheng (1550–1612) argued against Wang's idea of innate moral knowledge, stating that this was simply a legitimization for unscrupulous behavior such as greedy pursuits and personal gain. These two strands of Confucian thought, hardened by Chinese scholars' notions of obligation towards their mentors, developed into pervasive factionalism among the ministers of state, who used any opportunity to impeach members of the other faction from court. [188]

History Grade 10 - Topic 1 The Ming Dynasty

Chinese civilisation stretches back to least 2000 BC. It became a single empire in 221 BC. [1] China was ruled by a series of dynasties until 1911 and from 1368 to 1644, the Ming Dynasty ruled over China. This was the last native Chinese dynasty. [2] The word ‘Ming’ means bright, and is a fitting name for the Dynasty that had many developments during its lifespan. [3]

The Ming Dynasty had a total of sixteen emperors. This article will focus on the changes that took place during rule of the following Emperors: Hongwu (first emperor), Yongle (third emperor), Yingzong (sixth emperor) and Chongzhen (sixteenth emperor).

Below is a full list of Ming Dynasty Emperors:

First Emperor: 1368 – 1398
Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (Taizu) Image Source

Second Emperor: 1399 – 1402
Jianwen Emperor, Zhu Yunwen (Huidi) Image Source

Third Emperor: 1403 – 1424
Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di (Chengzu) Image Source

Forth Emperor: 1425
Hongxi Emperor, Zhu Gaochi (Renzong) Image Source

Fifth Emperor: 1426 – 1435
Xuande Emperor, Zhu Zhanji (Xuanzong) Image Source

Sixth Emperor: 1436 - 1449 & 1457 - 1464
Zhengtong and Tianshun Emperor, Zhu Qizhen (Yingzong) Image Source

Seventh Emperor: 1450 – 1456
Jingtai Emperor, Zhu Qiyu (Jingdi) Image Source

Eighth Emperor: 1465 – 1487
Chenghua Emperor, Zhu Jianshen (Zianzong) Image Source

Nineth Emperor: 1488 - 1505
Hongzhi Emperor, Zhu Youcheng (Xiaozong) Image Source

Tenth Emperor: 1506 – 1521
Zhengde Emperor, Zhu Houshao (Wuzong) Image Source

Eleventh Emperor: 1522 – 1566
Jiajing Emperor, Zhu Haucong (Shizong) Image Source

Twelfth Emperor: 1567 – 1572
Longqing Emperor, Zhu Zaiji Image Source

Thirteenth Emperor: 1573 – 1620
Wanli Emperor, Zhu Yijun (Shenzong) Image Source

Fourteenth Emperor: 1620
Taichang Emperor, Zhu Changluo (Guangzong) Image Source

Fifteenth Emperor: 1621 – 1627
Tianqi Emperor, Zhu Youjiao (Xizong) Image Source

Sixteenth Emperor: 1628 - 1644
Chongzhen Emperor, Zhu Youjian (Sizong) Image Source

The rise of the Ming Dynasty

Up until 1368, Mongolian rulers held the Yuan Dynasty in China. [5] In Mongolian Law, various groups of indigenous Chinese people, especially the Han, were considered ‘lower class’. Chinese groups were considered ‘dregs’ in the social order. Many Chinese peasants were enslaved in large numbers, had their lands confiscated, and were excluded from governmental positions. [6] Non-mongolian foreigners, such as Marco Polo, the Persian Ahmad and the Uighur Sengge, were welcomed as patrons in Yuan China. It could be argued that this hospitality was not shown towards Chinese locals. Internal class tension was exacerbated in the 1340s by natural disasters and forced conscription of Han peasants for labour. [7] Various rebel groups began to assemble and prepare for a rebellion. Zhu Yuanzhang was one of the main leaders of these rebel groups. He did not come from an affluent background, and spent years begging for a Buddhist monastery [8]. At the time, Yuan militia burned down the monastery in an attempt to stop an impending rebellion. Yuanzhang worked his way up through rebel ranks in 1352 A.D., when he joined a group related to the White Lotus Society. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang initiated a rebellion and captured Beijing. [9] This marked the official end of Mongolian control over China. Yuanzhang began the Ming Dynasty and took the title of Emperor Taizu, or the Hongwu Emperor. [10]

Government and Society

At the time, the Ming Dynasty had the most effective central bureaucracy in the world. Emperors were autocratic rulers who had absolute power over all aspects of life in their Empire. During the Ming Dynasty, the civil service system was perfected. Officials entered top levels of the bureaucracy by passing a government examination [11]. During Emperor Taizu’s reign, an office called the Censorate (Yushati) was made separate to the government. They investigated official cases of corruption and misconduct [12]. Each province had its own bureau that was attached to the central government. Instead of having a prime minister, the Emperor took personal control over the government and was assisted by a Grand Secretariat, also known as a Neige [13]. Castrated men, known as Eunuchs, were employed as advisors for the emperor. These advisors held a high position in the bureaucratic rank. By the 16th Century, weak Ming emperors were often dominated by their advisors. [14] The governmental structure of the Ming Dynasty lasted until China’s imperial system was abolished in 1911. [15]

During the beginning of his reign, Emperor Taizu enforced strict military discipline and reorganised the army to establish the ‘Brocade Guards’. These guards operated alongside spies and secret agents to purge corrupt officials. [16] Forms of punishment were severe and often included tattooing, severing of organs and castration, however, near the end of Taizu’s reign, these were outlawed in favour of corporal punishment and flogging. [17] In 1380 A.D., Taizu revised the legal code to ensure that his power could not be challenged in court. He also launched a series of land and tax reforms. [18] The palace guard launched an internal investigation 1380 A.D., this lasted for 14 years. A total of 30 000 executions were conducted during this time. [19]

The role of women

Women in Ming China had the ability to become property owners, if they were affluent enough. They also had access to literature when it was widely published. In the 17th Century, an anthology of Chinese poetry included poems from as many as 1000 women. Writer Li Yu is an example of an early feminist, arguing that women should be equal to men. [20]

In reality, women in Ming China lived domestic lives and bore children. Male children were more important than female children, and a common practice of killing female babies at birth was present. [21] This practice was officially discouraged but unofficially practiced. Status was strongly connected to class. Therefore, rural peasant women worked in the same conditions as men. Urban women, on the other hand, were employed in the fields of weaving and embroidery. [22] Upper class women were subjected to the practice of foot-binding, in an attempt to keep their feet small and feminine. When women’s feet were bound, their bones would often break and they could only make small strides when walking. [23]

Cultural Achievements

In 1406, Emperor Yongle transferred the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing [24]. Yongle ordered the construction an imperial palace complex called the Forbidden City, which remains the world’s largest to date. In 1420, the Forbidden City was occupied by the court. [25] The capital became a cultural hub where different types of craftsmanship took place. Decorative techniques, including cloisonné, lacquerwork and furniture sculpting also reached a peak during this time. [26] Ornamental carvings from wood, porcelain, ivory and jade were some features during this time. Decorative ceramics that used different techniques were a trademark. [27] Porcelain was one of the Ming Dynasty’s bets exports. Porcelain is created by grinding china-stone and mixing it with china-clay. This mix is then baked until it becomes translucent. [28] In 1368, an imperial factory was created in Jingdezhen to produce ceramics for the imperial court. [29] A common ceramic technique of enamel painting combined with a blue underglaze, called ‘blue and white’ was imitated China’s neighbouring countries. This technique was later adopted by European countries, although most of the porcelain was still produced in the Jingdezhen factory. [30]

A blue-and-white porcelain dish with a dragon. Image Source

Beijing was the main bureaucratic and military centre, while towns like Nanjing became famous for their social life and festivals. [31] It is suggested that cultural achievements of the Ming Dynasty were characterized by a conservative and ‘inward-looking’ attitude. [32] Urban culture grew as Chinese cities expanded. Under the Ming regime, literary examinations were re-established. This, combined with the growth in urban culture, resulted in a higher literacy rate. Consequently, a literacy boom emerged during the Ming Dynasty. Books became affordable for commoners. Religious books, Confucian literature and civil service examinations guides were popular. [33]

Writers of vernacular literature made significant contributions to novels and drama. Many of the full-length novels were adaptations of ancient story cycles that stemmed from centuries of oral tradition. [34] Some classic novels include The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Journey to the West [35]. To accompany these books, woodblock illustration was implemented. This method allowed for publishers to easily reproduce images. It was also a trademark that distinguished publishers from each other. [36]

An image of Chinese woodblock print. Image Source

Traditional Chinese drama practice was banned during the Song dynasty, and led the practice underground and further south. During the Ming Dynasty, this was brought back. Tang Xianzu was a playwright that was popular during the Ming Dynasty. [37] The musical theatre forms of chuanqi and kunqu were implemented. These forms were adapted to form fuller-length operas. Furthermore, painting traditions of the Ming Dynasty can be categorized according to ‘literati painting’ of the Wu school and ‘professional academic’ painting of the Zhe school. [38] Individual artists became popular during this time, leaving traces of their own personal styles in their work.

Travel, trade and scientific achievements

China sent their trade goods to western Asia and Europe via the Silk Road. This was a 6 400 kilometre overland journey that ended at the Mediterranean sea. [39] Another way that they traded was via ships on the ocean. Chinese junks were unique ships that were used from as early as the 5th Century AD.[40] China’s first imperial treasure fleets were commissioned by the Mongols who held the Yuan Dynasty, between 1271 and 1368. [41] The Chinese hoped to discover new lands and to establish new trading partners. They often returned with exotic animals, spices, ivory and prisoners of war. [42]

This fleet was extended by Emperor Yongle during the Ming Dynasty. Emperor Yongle invested a large amount of money into extending the fleet. Chinese junks had two predominant features: a yuloh oar for steering and stiffened sails supported by bamboo battens. [43] The yuloh rudder allowed ships to steer and turn, without having to take the rudder out of the water. Legend suggests that this design was inspired by the way that fish use their tails to thrust themselves forward [44]. Junks were huge, with a length of 122m and width of 46m.

An oil painting of Zheng He’s fleet. Image Source

The Chinese fleet reached its peak in the 15th Century, under the leadership of Muslim eunuch, Admiral Zheng He. [45] He conducted seven maritime expeditions. Emperor Yongle instructed Admiral Zheng He to explore the oceans in search of goods. [46] Between 1405 and 1433, representatives were sent to other countries to ask for tribute in money or goods to show that they recognised the power of the Chinese Empire. Zheng He’s fleet reached a total of 37 countries, expanding China’s influence along Asian sea routes. [47] China’s trade potential and peaceful voyages left a mark on the countries that they visited, demonstrating China’s trade potential and naval strength. [48] Although Zheng He is often depicted as an ‘ambassador of friendship’ who initiated contact between China and other countries, revisionist historians suggest that his voyages were attempts to colonise China’s neighbours.[49] The intention behind Emperor Yongle’s instruction was to establish tributary or vassal states in the East, and expand China’s hegemonic rule. [50] If China had a pax Ming (a period of peace in East Asia), the world would have seen the Chinese emperor as a legitimate ruler of the East. [51] Zheng He’s fleets were accompanied by military personnel that established depots in Southeast Asia, thus allowing them to control the waterways. [52] Chinese technology was far more advanced than anything in Europe at the time. The voyages of the Ming Dynasty demonstrated China’s technological and navigational ability to the world in the 15th Century. [53] Because of this, it was believed that China would discover the ‘new world’ before Christopher Columbus. [54]

Foreign countries were impressed by Chinese inventions and tradeable goods. Chinese inventions included the magnetic compass, paper, the wheelbarrow, suspension bridges, gunpowder, porcelain, movable type and the mechanical clock. The most commonly traded items from Zheng He’s fleet were silks and spices. [55] Zheng He’s fleet used a star chart and magnetic compasses to navigate the oceans. This technology allowed for more accurate travel towards their destinations. Zheng He departed for his final voyage in 1431 and visited Indochina, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), India, Iran, Zanzibar, the Red Sea and Java. [56] This voyage would mark the last of the Chinese fleet, and when it returned in 1433, China ended its expansionist policies.

A diagram of Ming Dynasty mariner’s compass. Image Source

Looking inwards after 1433

During the first five decades of the Ming Dynasty, The Mongols were driven north to what is now known as Mongolia. [57] Following this, the northern border a place of increasing threat. After Emperor Yongle’s death in 1424, the Ming Dynasty became extremely vulnerable to outside invasion. [58] In 1449, Mongol-speaking Oirat peoples invaded China. The emperor at the time, Yingzong, led an unsuccessful counterattack. Emperor Yingzong was ambushed at Tumu. [59] As a result, he was taken hostage. This incident caused a shift from expansionist policy to a defensive frontier strategy. Yingzong’s China lacked the military resources to defend against the Mongols. In 1474, a barrier over the Qin Dynasty walls were built out of brick and stone. This barrier became known as the Great Wall of China. [60].The Great Wall was strengthened and maintained throughout the Ming Dynasty.

There were also struggles with groups from other nationalities. To the south of China, early Ming Emperors attempted to invade Northern Vietnam, but were unsuccessful.[61] The boundary lines between China and Vietnam remained the same, and Ming Emperors stopped their attempts to push further south. The nomadic Jurchen people of the northeast placed pressure on the Ming armies until they gained the territory right until the Great Wall. [62] The Jurchen people stemmed from the Jin dynasty and consisted of both Mongols and Chinese. Jurchen leader, Huang Taiji, changed the name of the Jurchen people to the Manchus and introduced Chinese practices to his people. [63] Across the ocean, Japanese and Chinese pirates initiated costal raids, however, these did not threaten the control of the Ming Dynasty [64]

The Great Wall of China Image Source

Trade with the West & Decline of Ming Dynasty

By 1514, Portuguese merchants had reached China. Within the next 35 years, a trading station was established at Macao. [65] Chinese porcelain became very popular in 1604. At the time, Portuguese ships carrying Chinese porcelain were captured by the Dutch. [66] The porcelain was later put up for auction in Europe, starting a craze. By 1557, China’s tribute trade system shifted towards maritime trade. [67] This meant that China focused on producing goods for export and allowed a European presence in their empire. In following years, China’s mercantile relationship with the west would strengthen.

During the late 16th Century, the bureaucratic structures of the Ming Dynasty began to weaken. Some internal factors that contributed to the decline include conflict within government, interference by palace eunuchs, factional fighting between civil officials and weakening imperialism. [68] It is suggested that many of the emperors after Yingzong were dominated by their advisors, causing an oversight of many important issues. [33] In April 1644, rebel leader Li Zicheng took control of Beijing. This caused the Chongzhen Emperor to commit suicide, thereby becoming the last Ming emperor. [69] Following this, a change in leadership happened again when Li Zicheng initiated negotiations with Wu Sangui, a powerful northern commander, for the Manchus to pass through the great wall. [70] This was a fatal mistake, as the Manchus usurped control and invaded Beijing. The Ming Dynasty was succeeded by the Qing Dynasty, with Huang Taiji becoming the new emperor. The Qing Dynasty lasted until the abolition of imperial rule in 1911. [71]

This content was originally produced for the SAHO classroom by
Ilse Brookes, Amber Fox-Martin & Simone van der Colff

[1] J. Bottaro & P. Visser & N. Worden, Oxford in Search of History: Grade 10 Learner’s Book.

Canton Porcelain export

The secret of porcelain was kept from foreigners by only allowing trade in the precious cargo at Guangzhou (then known as Canton) far away from where the craftsmen made it. All the millions of items were carried south by boat along the Gan River, Jiangxi and then by foot over the mountains down to the Pearl River and then finally by river boat to the port of Guangzhou. Once the secret of porcelain was discovered, European manufacturers were able to make it from kaolin deposits elsewhere in the world, for example at St. Austell in Cornwall ➚ .

Five red dragons on bowl

Next Festival

There are many other joyful festivals spread throughout the year.
Read more.

From Ming into Qing times the range of colors increased and the majority of production was geared to export - increasingly to Europe. Famille Rose porcelain ➚ was made - the palette of colors was enhanced with colloidal gold to give a soft rose color in the late Ming dynasty. In the Qing Five color 五 彩 wǔ cǎi palette of colors came into prominence to be followed by the greenish Famille Verte palette. Designs reflected European tastes, often specifically commissioned, rather than using traditional Chinese motifs. China was produced with European scenes with European people and wildlife in the landscapes. Although technically the porcelain became progressively more refined and better made, the creativity of shapes and motifs was in decline. This was partly due to the imposition of central control over production from Beijing which stifled individual creativity. Pieces became larger and garishly colored and over-ornamented.

As well as fine, smooth porcelain, China has continued to produce unglazed earthenware vessels. Centered around places such as Yixing, Jiangsu where high quality clay is found, potteries developed their individual characteristics particular the famous their red and purple teapots ➚ which are said to enhance the flavor of the tea (they have a fairly rough surface that absorbs some of the flavor). These have been made since the Song dynasty and became very popular in Japan where they are known as 'temmoku ➚ '

See also

Chinese New Year

Great Inventions

Chinese Silk

Chinasage is a developing web resource dedicated to anything relating to China. We would be most grateful if you can help us improve this page. Feel free to share your interest on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr or Mix using the buttons. You can also use our contact page to leave comments and suggestions. Thanks.

Chinese Pottery (18,000 BCE - 1911 CE) Development of Porcelain, Celadon, Stoneware

Earthenware Budda
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.

For important dates, see:
History of Art Timeline.
For details of art movements
styles and genres, see:
History of Art.

Chinese Stone Age Pottery (c.18,000-2000 BCE)

Ancient pottery in China dates back to Paleolithic culture. In 2012, scientists announced that fragments of Xianrendong Cave Pottery (Jiangxi province) had been carbon-dated to 18,000 BCE, making them the oldest known pots in the world. (See: Oldest Stone Age Art.) The next oldest ceramic art from China (dating to 16,000 BCE) is the cache of Yuchanyan Cave pottery from Hunan Province. (For contemporaneous works outside China, see the independently instigated Vela Spila pottery from Croatia, and the Chinese-influenced Amur River Basin Pottery in Russia's Far East. Meanwhile, in Japan, clay-fired pots began with Jomon Pottery from 14,500 BCE.) Most of this early ceramic ware was hand-made by coiling, then fired in bonfires. Decoration was achieved by stamping, impressing and other simple methods. Motifs were typically abstract or geometric in nature. However, based on archeological excavations across south China, it appears that Chinese potters soon began to produce a range of delicate, polished and coloured vessels for more ceremonial purposes. These emerged in a number of Neolithic cultures which grew up along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys, like the Dadiwan (6000 BCE), Pan-po (5000 BCE), Miao-ti-kou (4000-3000 BCE), and Yangshao (4000-2000 BCE), and especially the more advanced Longshan (3000-2000 BCE) and Dawenkou (4500-3500 BCE). For details, see: Neolithic Art in China (7500-2000 BCE).

By 3000 BCE, these Stone Age ceramics exemplified a craftsmanship and elegance which was quite exceptional for the time. Closely interlinked with social status, as evidenced by the presence of fine pottery, jade carving and other precious objects in the burial mounds of prosperous individuals, this ceramic form of Chinese art was further enhanced by the early development of bronze, and Chinese lacquering techniques. For the chronological evolution of ceramics (earthenware and porcelain) in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (c.18,000 BCE - present). See also Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE onwards).

Goldfish Vase from Ming Dynasty
Under Jiajing Emperor (1521�).
See also Chinese Painters (220-present)

Chinese Bronze Age Pottery (c.1700-221 BCE)

Scientific, political and social developments in the Bronze Age during the Xia Dynasty Culture (2100-1600), as well as the Shang (c.1600-1050 BCE) and Zhou (1050-221 BCE) dynasties led to a number of changes in pottery production. (See: Shang Dynasty Art and its successor Zhou Dynasty Art.) Ceramicists experimented with techniques of high-fired glazing, creating pots with a brownish appearance which presaged Yueh ware, the later class of green ware known as celadon. Also, as prosperity increased and family groups coalesced to form new cities and principalities, a new market sprang up for the replacement of vessels and other objects cast in bronze to be made instead from cheaper clay, especially for home or funerary use. This expansion of the ceramics industry led to the emergence of a more streamlined mass-production process involving a clearer division of labour and facilitating greater use of lacquerware, molds, stamps and more elaborate methods of decoration.

For details and styles, see:
Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

Chinese Pottery During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE)

The ceramic highlight of Qin dynasty art was the Terracotta Army, a massive collection of 8,000 warriors, 130 chariots and 150 horses, along with numerous officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. This extravagant but awesomely lifelike set of clay figures, most of which still remain to be excavated, reputedly took 700,000 workers over 38 years to produce. It was commissioned by the Qin Emperor Qin Shihuang Ling for his mausoleum in Shaanxi province, and represents unquestionably the finest collection of terracotta sculpture in the history of art. Sadly, over the intervening years between their burial in 208 BCE and their discovery in 1974 CE, the sculptures have lost nearly all of their decorative paint.

[Note: The Qin Dynasty coincided with the final period of Classical Antiquity in the Mediterranean. For information about the art of ceramics in Ancient Greece, see: Greek Pottery.]

Chinese Pottery During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)

The first of China's four most important dynasties, the Han era witnessed numerous cultural developments as well as the establishment of The Silk Road - the main overland trade route with the Middle East and Europe. Han pottery production was strongly influenced by three factors. First, continued growth in demand for all types of ceramic vessel, as well as ornaments, figurines, architectural models, farmyard animals, and horses, which in turn stimulated the emergence of a countrywide assembly-line industry capable of producing large quantities of mass-produced mold-shaped earthenware. Second, the discovery of fine clays containing kaolinite, from which an early form of true porcelain was made, initially in the province of Zhejiang. Thirdly, the invention of lead glazing, in which clay slips were coloured with copper to produce a green glaze, or iron to create yellow or brown. A soft-bodied variety of lead-glazed earthenware was produced in central China, while a high-fired stoneware version was the favoured product in southern China. Other developments during the era of Han Dynasty Art (206 BCE - 220 CE) included new forms of lacquer ware and polished black pottery, in both glazed and unglazed varieties.

Chinese Pottery During the Six Dynasties (220-589)

The Han Dynasty was followed by over 350 years of wars and political disunity - an era usually referred to as the Six Dynasties - during which both Buddhism and Taoism increased in popularity at the expense of Confucianism. In spite of this, arts of the Six Dynasties Period continued to develop in the area of Chinese painting, calligraphy, printmaking (via the invention of woodblock printing), and sculpture. In the field of ceramics, the Six Dynasties period is chiefly known for developments in the production of "Yueh ware" - a class of high-fired porcelaineous stoneware marked by a range of coloured glazes, varying from shades of green (known as Celadon ware), to hues of yellow and blue. Potters created Yueh ware by using iron oxide as the glaze colouring agent and firing the clay in a reduction atmosphere over 1200 degrees centigrade. Colour control was achieved by varying the composition of the glaze and the conditions of firing.

Chinese Pottery During the Sui and Tang Dynasties (589-906)

The brief era of Sui Dynasty art (589-618) was followed by China's second great dynasty - the Tangs. Tang Dynasty art (618-906) was noted for a number of innovations. First, a popular range of exhuberant multi-coloured low-fired earthenware figurines (eg. camels and horses) for use as funerary items in tombs. Second, the invention of a set of highly unusual San-t'sai three-colour (green, yellow/amber, cream) or cobalt blue lead-glazes. Thirdly, a new range of lime-glazed Yueh celadon stoneware. Lastly, an improved variety of high-fired, translucent porcelains, manufactured in the northern provinces of Hebei and Henan. The last three innovations had a significant impact on succeeding generations of Chinese ceramicists, and - when news eventually filtered out - on ceramic styles throughout Europe. Tang porcelain, made from a combination of kaolin and petuntse (feldspar) and characterized by its translucent white clay body fired at a temperature between 1250-1450 degrees centigrade, was the thinnest yet hardest ceramic ever developed. Its pure white background gave ceramic artists the perfect base for colouring, and its plasticity made it ideal for delicate sculpture and ornamental work. It wasn't until the early 1700s, some eight centuries later, that comparable porcelain was produced in the West. For more chronological details on the evolution of East Asian ceramics, see: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE-1900).

Chinese Pottery During the Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Viewed as the golden age of Chinese ceramic art, the great era of Song Dynasty art witnessed a country of two halves: a Northern half which enjoyed a relatively high degree of tranquility, and a Southern zone beset by invasion and upheaval. Despite this, most art historians agree that pottery reached its apogee during the Song period. More subtle than either its predecessors or successors, Song pottery was characterized by flowing monochrome glazes and a depth of colour that moves the viewer to touch and contemplate. In terms of their technical prowess, innovation, and aesthetic sensitivity to glaze and shape, Song potters stand above all others in the quality of their ceramic art. For a guide to the aesthetic principles behind traditional arts and crafts in China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.

Here is a short list of the most notable examples of Song ceramic ware.

The most famous and refined of Song Dynasty white stoneware, made in the Ding kilns of Hepei Province, south-west of Beijing. Ding ware was characterized by impressed and incised floral designs on high-fired, grey-coloured clay, overlaid with ivory-white slips and transparent glazes. Some vessels were decorated with hand carved patterns as well as intricate pressed motifs.

Qingbai Ware (c.960-1350)

Qingbai (meaning blue-white), also referred to as 'yingqing' (shadow blue), was a type of early porcelain made from a fine white paste overlaid with a thin, shiny bluish-white glaze. Produced at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, Qingbai porcelain led to the later introduction of the blue-and-white idiom, in Jingdezhen. The bluish tint was created by the reducing effect of the fuel (pinewood) used to fire the clay. Although relatively highly priced, Qingbai ware was much sought after by the middle class throughout China.

Black-Glazed Pottery (c.960-1250)

Accounting for as much as 20 percent of all Song Dynasty pottery, black-glazed ware (sometimes browny-black-glazed) comprised a range of functional items popular among the lower middle classes. Production centres included Fujian province, whose kilns produced opulent black ware using iron rich glazes from which they derived their famous 'hare's-fur,' 'partridge-feather,' and 'oil-spot' varieties, and workshops in Jiangxi, which employed stencil, leaf, and other complex designs in their glazes to make their stoneware tea bowls. Black-glazed stoneware became exceptionally popular with all classes as Fujianese tea drinking spread throughout Chinese society.

Northern Celadon Pottery (c.960-1450)

Northern celadon ware denotes a highly popular form of high-fired stoneware made in kilns and workshops in Shanxi province. It comprised a type of thin grey-coloured ware decorated with impressed or hand carved designs (featuring flowers, waves, fish, dragons, clouds) and overlaid with a translucent olive-green glaze, which was created from a mixture of iron and titanium oxide.

Longquan Celadon (c.960-1279)

Reputedly the most sophisticated porcelaineous celadon of the Song Dynasty, Longquan greenware was made in the Southern province of Zhejiang. Initially featuring a blue-green glaze on a fine, hard-wearing porcelain body, potters later developed a series of lime-alkali and jade-coloured glazes which were revered and imitated by later ceramicists during the Qing dynasty during the 18th century.

Jun Ware Pottery (c.1050-1450)

Characterized by their rich, opalescent glazes in a range of colours such as lavender blue, light green, and blue with purple splashes, this dark bodied stoneware was produced in Honan province. The finest examples of Jun ware feature light grey vessels decorated with light blue glazes. In later varieties potters added splashes of darker colour (eg. crimson or purple) by mixing copper-rich materials to the glaze.

Tz'u-chou Pottery (960-1600)

Tz'u-chou ceramic ware encompasses a type of sturdy functional stoneware made in Honan, Shanxi, and Shandong provinces in Northern China during the Song and Ming dynasties (960-1644). It's signature feature is a creamy white slip which brightens the buff-grey tone of the clay body, typically decorated with black-and-white floral designs. The white slip led ceramicists to experiment with a wide variety of decorative techniques, including: incising, cut-glaze technique, black slip sgraffiato designs over the white slip, green lead-underglaze, and an early form of enamel overglaze.

Chinese Pottery During the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1365)

During the era of Yuan Dynasty art under the Mongols, led by Kublai Khan the grandson of Genghis Khan, the first blue-and-white porcelain was made and exported to Europe, startling everyone with its unique qualities. It was during the Yuan era that Jingdezhen, a town in the southern province of Jiangxi, started to become the most important centre of porcelain production in China and consequently the most important pottery centre in the world.

Chinese Pottery During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The last of the great four Chinese dynasties, the Ming era coincided with the European Renaissance and, as in Europe, it witnessed an upsurge in architecture, the arts and above all ceramic art. Porcelain - the signature feature of Ming Dynasty art - was perfected during the Ming Dynasty, and Xuande porcelain is now considered among the finest of all Ming ceramics. Moreover, the quality of Ming blue and whites is considered to be the greatest Chinese porcelain ever produced. All this contributed immensely to the global reputation of Chinese potters during the late Ming period when China shifted towards a market economy and began a huge program of porcelain exports to Europe during the rule of the Wanli Emperor (1572-1620).

Another major advance occured in enameled decoration, which flourished under the Chenghua Emperor (1464-1487). Improvements were also found in the formula for cobalt-blue glaze, whose colour had a tendency to bleed (spread) during firing. The addition of manganese to the glaze prevented this, although the result was less lustrous. Overall, workshops experimented with new methods of modelling and shaping, new painted designs (the most popular motifs being dragon and phoenix), and showed a new willingness to embrace foreign ideas.

Manufactured in Dehua, Fujian province, Blanc de Chine (China White) is a type of white Chinese porcelain which first appeared during the Ming Dynasty. The key characteristic of Dehua porcelain is its extremely low iron-oxide content, which gives it an instantly recognizable warm milk-white or ivory-white appearance. In contrast, Jingdezhen porcelain has a much higher iron content and a correspondingly different character. Although potters produced a wide variety of shapes in Blanc de Chine - such as: cups and bowls, brush holders, vases and jars, teapots, lamps, cup-stands, and so on - its greatest examples were figures, especially religious figures, such as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Blanc de Chine white porcelain from Dehua is especially popular in Japanese art where it is called hakugoraior or Korean white. One of the world's broadest collections of Ming pottery (including Blanc de Chine) outside China and Taiwan is in the British Museum, in London. Amassed over 250 years, the collection includes around 7000 Chinese pieces - from the Stone Age to the present - of which some 900 are Ming Dynasty ceramics.

Note: For the impact of Chinese painting, sculpture, jade carving and pottery on the culture of Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards).

Chinese Pottery During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911/12)

During the era of Qing Dynasty Art, potters began using bright colours to adorn plates and vases with meticulously painted scenes. Porcelain ceramicists began producing five-coloured ware by applying a variety of underglaze pigments to floral, landscape and figurative scenes - a style which was (and is) highly sought-after in the West. During the Yung Cheng era (1723-1735) porcelain was enhanced by the development of fencai enamel in a wide range of colours and tones.

Note: It was during the Qing Dynasty that Europe experienced a surge of interest in (pseudo) Chinese decorative art. Known as chinoiserie, this fashion included a range of motifs used in Chinese pottery.

Chinese Pottery During the Modern Era (1912-present)

The turmoil in China during the first two-thirds of the 20th century led to a decline in the quality and output of ceramics across the country, especially porcelain. However, over the last 20 years production has been revived by the authorities as part of its ongoing program to invigorate China's cultural reputation across the visual and plastic art spectrum. As well as modern methods of maufacture, a number of centres have been re-established to reproduce the traditional pottery of the great dynasties.


During the imperial era the population of the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi (collectively known as Lingnan) increased as peasants migrated into the region from North China and elsewhere. Significant growth occurred especially in the Ming era (1368-1644) because of long periods of relative peace and economic prosperity.

YearHouseholds (Thousands)
Source: Robert B. Marks, Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 85.

to the lower Yangzi region and areas even farther south, such as Lingnan, which primarily included the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

Trade Development. During the Ming period domestic trade was further developed. The establishment of Beijing and the construction of a canal system in the south stimulated trade between northern and southern China. The southerly population shift also contributed to commercial development in that region. Merchants from Jiangxi province, for example, exported porcelains, silk, tea, salt, and other local products. The expansion of trade in turn promoted specialized handicraft production and the development of early capitalistic industry. Jindezheng in Jiangxi province became the center of Chinese porcelain production pottery from this region was in high demand for its beauty and quality. It was made from a special clay, called gaoling (a hydrous silicate of alumina), that was found in a nearby hill. The Songjiang region near Shanghai was the center of cotton textile production its products were trans-ported everywhere in the country. Some textile shops hired more than twenty workers. These laborers, and the mass production of textiles, have inspired academic debate on whether incipient capitalism appeared in China before modern times. In the commercial centers, especially Beijing, regional guilds—usually sponsored by officials and merchants from the same geographical area to provide

mutual aid for its members while they traveled far from home—were established.

Li-Jia System. The land tax constituted the major income source for the Ming government. Based on the Double Tax system, this tax was collected in the summer and autumn. The summer tax (grain) was collected in the eighth lunar month the autumn tax (husked rice) was collected in the second month after the harvest. To ensure proper tax collection and to maintain peace and order at the local level, the Ming government established the li-jia system. 110 households were grouped into a //, which was divided into tenjia of 10 households each. Family heads from the additional 10 households, usually comprising local notables, each served as the lizhang (heads of //) for one year in a ten-year rotation and was responsible for collecting and delivering the summer and autumn taxes. The l’i were normally structured along existing natural villages and neighborhoods. In cases in which the villages were too small, several communities were combined to make a //. Otherwise, larger villages and towns were divided into several //.

Early Modern History

Ming Studies Research Series, published by the Society for Ming Studies, distributed by the Center for Early Modern History, and currently housed at the University of British Columbia began in 1984 with the publication of Keith Hazelton’s Synchronic Chinese-Western Calendar. Since then, the series has published both reference works and scholarship that have become essential resources for the Ming studies scholar.

Ming Studies, 2010A Late Ming Vision for Local Community: Ritual, Law and Social Ferment in the Proposals of Guan Zhidao.

This is the sixth title in the Ming Studies Research Series, published by the Society for Ming Studies and distributed by the Center for Early Modern History.

Guan Zhidao (1536-1608) was a Confucian thinker who was anxious to counter the moral confusion and social decay that accompanied the profound commercialization and urbanization occurring around the end of the Ming Dynasty. As Weisfogel puts it, "Guan Zhidao's world was falling apart." Guan Zhidao's response to this crisis was put forward in the form of "Proposals for Following the Men of Former Times to Safeguard Customs." Weisfogel's book is the first major scholarly study of Guan Zhidao and the only account in English of a late Ming thinker who has received less attention than many better-known contemporaries.

A promising young scholar in the field of Chinese intellectual history, Jaret Weisfogel wrote this book as a doctoral student at Columbia University. Tragically, he died of an illness shortly after its completion. Publication of this edited version was made possible by the support of the Weisfogel family and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures of Columbia University.

ISBN: 978-0980063929 (Hardcover), 2010, 218 pages

Local Administration in Ming China: The Changing Roles of Magistrates, Prefects, and Provincial Officials

Thomas G. Nimick, a leading authority on Ming government, draws on Chinese sources to provide the most detailed account of local Ming government available in English. Rational bureaucratic administration is one of China's greatest contributions to the art of governance. After centuries of evolution, the Chinese civil service system reached new heights during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Local Administration in Ming China traces the origins and evolution of the lowest level of administrative offices over the course of the dynasty. It starts with the Ming founder's experiments with using members of the local elite to collect taxes and goes on to the increased reliance on magistrates and prefects sent out from the center. The story concludes with the fiscal problems at the end of the dynasty.

ISBN 978-0980063912 (hardcover), 2008, 205 pages.

Long Live the Emperor! Uses of the Ming Founder across Six Centuries of East Asian History

Edited by Sarah Schneewind

The founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zhu Yuanzhang, was one of the most colorful rulers in China's long imperial history. His rise from poverty, participation in a millenarian movement, expulsion of the Mongols, unification of the empire, three decades of tumultuous rule, paranoia, and bloody purges are all the stuff of legend. Ever since his death in 1398 popular stories and more formal accounts from across East Asia have sought to make sense of the Ming founder and deploy his memory for a wide range of uses. Long Live the Emperor! brings together twenty essays examining how his stormy career has been interpreted in politics, the arts, outside of China, and in our own time. Sarah Schneewind conceived the idea of surveying the historiographical heritage of the Ming founder and brought together a constellation of specialist, each with a different story to tell.

ISBN 978-0980063905 (hardcover), 2008, 508 pages.

Ming History: An Introductory Guide to Research

Edward L. Farmer, Romeyn Taylor, and Ann Waltner

This work contains sections on the basics of Ming history research, selected documents with vocabulary notes, and handy reference aids.

ISBN 978-1886108028 (paperback), 1994, 451 pages.

Ming Studies in Japan 1961-1981: A Classified Bibliography

Classified, unannotated entries in Japanese with authors' names in romanization. A romanized index of authors' names is included.

Note: This work is superseded by Min daishi kenkyu bunken mokuroku, edited by Yamane Yukio (Tokyo, 1993).

Before the Ming, China was ruled by the Mongols, under the name Yuan. Although these foreign leaders claimed that Heaven had ordained them for rule in China, a series of natural disasters in the 1300s convinced the Chinese people otherwise, and a peasant rebellion was mounted against them. The Red Turban Army, as the peasants took to calling themselves, was led by a lowborn man named Zhu Yuanzhang. When the rebellion succeeded, Zhu Yuanzhang declared the beginning of the Ming dynasty and renamed himself the Hongwu Emperor, becoming the second commoner to rise to the highest position of power at the time in China.

Despite his humble beginnings, or perhaps because of them, the Hongwu Emperor deeply distrusted scholar-officials of the gentry class and established a secret eunuch police force to purge those whom he was at odds with. During his three decades-long reign, over 100,000 such officials were killed. He was also paranoid about further Mongol invasions and thus ordered the construction of garrisons along the Beijing lengths of the Great Wall. Some 130 garrisons went up before his death, after which his son, the Yongle Emperor, continued and expanded these defence strategies.

The Yongle Emperor also continued his father’s work with the secret police, granting the force unprecedented extralegal authority. One eunuch on the force, a favorite of the emperor named Zheng He, used this authority to launch a series of explorations through the South Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Zheng He’s voyages, although largely passed over by official Chinese histories, greatly contributed to China’s political clout abroad. One of He’s ships was reportedly a massive 400 feet long, well over four times the size of Christopher Columbus’ largest ship. In total, the Muslim eunuch undertook seven voyages, reaching places as far west as Mecca and Mombasa. As a measure of good will and to prove he was not attempting to conquer the lands he explored, He brought with him on each journey gold, silver, porcelain, and silk and, at times, returned with exotic new animals like ostriches, zebras, and camels. Sadly, He’s voyages had little lasting impact on Chinese trade, existing primarily to stroke the ego of the Yongle Emperor. After the Yongle Emperor’s death, the succeeding emperor ordered He to cease his voyages, and the Ming dynasty retreated to its shell once again.

The Ming dynasty continued to go strong in its isolationism, becoming one of the longest-lived Chinese dynasties. However, a combination of factionalism, eunuch interference, and a succession of weak emperors led to civil rebellion. In a moment of weakness, Ming leaders requested help fighting the rebels from Manchu tribes to China’s north. And in an ironic turn of events, the protectionist and xenophobic Ming was conquered by the Manchus, and the dynasty, which was preceded by a foreign dynasty, was succeeded by a foreign dynasty as well.

Access options

We thank the editor, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, and three anonymous reviewers whose suggestions have helped improve this article substantially. We also thank Ying Bai, Philip Hoffman, Debin Ma, Nathan Nunn, Jeffery Williamson, and seminar participants at various universities for helpful comments and suggestions, and Ting Chen for excellent research assistance. James Kung acknowledges the financial support of the Hong Kong Research Grants Council (GRF642711). We alone are responsible for any remaining errors.