The long reign of the Ming dynasty bridged two periods during which China was ruled by foreign invaders, the Mongols (1271 1368) and the Manchus (1644 1912). The first Ming emperor, Chu Yuan chang, drove the Mongols from Peking in 1368. After providing China with nearly three centuries of relative peace, stability and prosperity, the Ming dynasty lost the capital city to a Manchu army in 1644.
The Mongol Empire, which in its heyday included Central Asia, most of Russia and Persia as well as China, was founded by Genghis Khan. Mongol forces conquered Northern China in 1234 and ousted the Song dynasty from Southern China in 1271. Thereafter, Kublai Khan, one of Genghis' grandsons, ruled China with a firm hand until his death in 1294. During its last seven decades, the Mongol Empire gradually disintegrated as a result of recurrent succession struggles, factionalism, favoritism in appointments, a worthless currency, high inflation and, after the flooding of the Yellow River in 1340, widespread unrest and famine in the countryside. Latourette says that "the Mongols were divided among themselves and could not present a united front to their enemies" (Latourette 215). Anti foreign feeling was fanned by various secret societies, including the militant Red Turbans, whose forces captured Nanking in 1364 and Peking in 1368. The leader of the Red Turbans was Chu Yuang chang, who later became known as Taizu or Hong Wu (Great Military Warrior) and who was described by Goodrich as a Buddhist "monk of humble origin, grotesque appearance, and more than ordinary brains, cruelty and ability to lead" (Goodrich 189). Taizu used cannon in the siege of Peking. (Gunpowder had been invented in China in the 1300s.)
The new dynasty consolidated its power during the Early Ming Period (1368 1424) under the forceful leadership of Taizu (1368 1398) and, after a four year interregnum, Yung Lo, who engineered a successful palace coup against Taizu's young grandson, and led China from 1403 to 1424. These first emperors, especially Taizu, ruled in a highly autocratic manner, suppressed the secret societies and eliminated other internal rivals. The Mongols had established a strong, centralized imperial administration, on which Taizu built. Fairbank says that Taizu virtually "decapitated the civilian bureaucracy" (Fairbank 130). To offset the power of the Confucian scholar mandarins, Taizu relied on castrated eunuchs who formed his palace guard or Inner Court. To gain control over the gentry and the villages, he instituted the li jia system, which involved a network of informers, compulsory labor service and centrally appointed revenue collectors. Dikes and canals were repaired and/or constructed. Famine was alleviated. Taizu gave high priority to the strengthening of China's northern defenses. The Mongols made repeated incursions into China and remained a serious threat for nearly two centuries. The Great Wall was finally completed in the 1470s.
Under Yung Lo, shipbuilding became a major industry. Seven naval missions sailed forth into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. Maritime trade flourished. China took control of the southern province of Yunnan. The neighboring states of Annam and Korea recognized Chinese suzerainty over them. New crops were introduced. Industries such as porcelain (Ming china), the manufacture of cotton cloth, silk weaving and iron forging developed rapidly during this period. In power terms, Ming China probably reached its peak in the early 15th century. According to Latourette, Yung Lo "vigorously maintained and [increased] Chinese prestige abroad and gave the Empire an energetic domestic administration" (Latourette 228). Architecture and many of the arts, such as drama, fiction and painting, thrived under the Mings until the mid 17th century. The term Ming, which means "beautiful" or "glorious," appeared to be apt.
One of the first signs of incipient decay was...