Mongols and Ming  (1368-1644)


In looking at the history of China, I am studying especially the joints – the periods of ‘disunity’, when the Chinese empire fell apart – only to recover again. Why and when did the Chinese Empire fail? And then, how did it recover?

The Song dynasty was in many ways the most glorious of all the dynasties, but in politics it had one big problem: the Barbarians to the north. Like the Roman Empire, much of the strength of the Song dynasty was sapped by having to fight the Barbarians, and  as with Rome, the Barbarians eventually won. But with China, the Barbarian domination lasted barely two centuries before the Chinese bounced back with the Ming dynasty, which would rival the Song in its culture and splendour.


Genghis Khan as portrayed in a fourteenth century album.

The root of the problem was that the Barbarians were growing stronger and more organised. Possibly they may have been helped by climate, for the 12th and 13th centuries were the time of the climatic optimum when in the Atlantic the Vikings were sailing to America: did conditions on the Steppe improve? But this is the time when Genghis Khan and his successors created the Mongol Empire stretching from Persia to Korea, forming the largest contiguous empire in history. China is only part of the story but we must pause briefly to note how this huge empire was built.

Even before Genghis Khan, the Mongols were nibbling away at the northern parts of China. The earliest were the Khitans who from 946-1145, captured the northern fringes of China including Beijing. They even set themselves up as a dynasty, the Liao dynasty (946-1145) and re-named Beijing: Beijing means northern capital, but they provocatively called it their southern capital, their main capital being Shangjing.


Map to show the original empire of Genghis Khan (dark pink) and the empire in 1207 and 1227 (light pink).

However the real disaster came with the Jurchen tribesmen who pushed out the Khitans and conquered even more of China, in fact dividing it into two, roughly along the River Yangtze. The called themselves the Jin dynasty, but they left the southern Song independent for a further 150 years. The former Song capital at Luoyang was captured, but the southern Song set up a new capital at Hangzhou which is the city at the next inlet south of the mouth of the River Yangtze. The Southern Song (1127-1279)     proved to be a great success: arts and literature flourished and this is the period when Chinese civilisation was at its height.

However the real threat came from the Mongols who overthrew the Jurchen and then went on to capture the whole of South Song China as well, forming themselves into the Yuan dynasty.

The Mongol Empire was built up essentially by one man, one of the most successful conquerors in history, Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan was born around 1162 and having overcome all rivals, he was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. He then proceeded to form his great empire. In 1211 he attacked the Jin dynasty and three years later he captured Beijing after a long siege and sacked it. It is said that the city burnt for thirty days after its capture.   He then moved west and attacked and destroyed the Khwarizm dynasty in Persia and Central Asia, with its capital at Samarkand. Subsequently his sons expanded the empire by subjugating much of what is now Russia with the ‘Golden Horde’.

Genghis Khan must have been an impressive ruler. We tend to think of him entirely in terms of cruelty, in terms of sacking of cities and killing their population, but he must have been efficient and inspired great loyalty. He promoted religious freedom and Buddhists, Muslims and even Christians served in his army. He reorganised the army into troops of 100 and 1,000. He broke away largely from tribal and family loyalties and promoted his generals by merit. Cities who surrendered to him were spared; those who defied him were ruthlessly sacked.


Click on this map to show how the empire of Genghis Khan and his sons and generals expanded and then eventually declined. (Wikipedia)

Following his death in 1227, dynastic chaos followed. Rulers among the Mongols were meant to be elected by a council of chieftains, but Genghis Khan left the empire to his fourth son Ögedei . But the conquests continued, notably up into Russia, and then down into what remained of the Persian empire and up into Europe, to Hungary and Poland.

From the Chinese point of view the great ruler was his grandson, Khubilai Khan who ruled 1264-1294. In 1279 he eventually captured southern China thus bringing the southern Song dynasty to an end and reuniting China, albeit under foreign rule. He then decided to set up a proper dynasty all of his own which he called the Yuan dynasty and Chinese historians in fact allow the Yuan dynasty into the canon of dynasties. He also set up a new capital on the site of Beijing which he called Dadu, and it was here that Marco Polo, the most famous of all the European visitors came and admired the glories of Chinese civilisation.

The record of the Yuan dynasty is ambiguous: it is often said that the population of China halved during this period of foreign invasions. A census in the early 13th century recorded 120 million, the 1300 census recorded only 60 million. Historians argue over the figures (which are derived from numbers of households) and it is possible that a process of enserfment had taken place and the serfs are not counted in the later census. But the experiences of the peasants, the serfs, and the lower classes  deteriorated and poverty increased. It is one of the ironies of Chinese history that the lower classes always flourished under strong dynasties because the burdens on them were diminished and the Confucian bureaucratic philosophy placed great emphasis on looking after the poor. But the population generally chafed under foreign rule and when in 1368 a peasant called Zhu Yuanzhang led a revolt against the foreigner and established a new Chinese Ming dynasty, his rule was generally welcomed.


The Ming


The Ming is a difficult dynasty to comprehend. In the Song, China came to be on the verge of an industrial revolution, but in the Ming it turned away from trade and industry and looked back to a simpler agrarian life where money and trade were to be eliminated as far as possible. Yet despite this, arts and culture flourished, China was rich, and retained its position as the richest country in the world. But the promise it showed in the Song of undertaking an industrial revolution was not achieved, and at the end of the dynasty, the new European nations were beginning to hammer at the doors.

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Wine jars like this often displayed ladies of leisure enjoying the four main pleasures which cultivated Chinese were supposed to enjoy in their leisure: playing the zither, playing chess, practising calligraphy or demonstrating their connoisseurship of classical paintings. These finely decorated wine jars came from the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, 1,000 miles south of Beijing.

The problem of the Ming begins with the first emperor, the Hongwu emperor, who is one of the most enigmatic of all the Chinese emperors. Several founders of dynasties came from a humble background, but he came from the most humble of all, his parents dying from famine when he was sixteen, when he buried them with his own hands: he found his way to a Buddhist monastery but was then sent out to beg and eventually became a successful brigand leader, who led the revolution that toppled the hated Mongol dynasty and restored a proper Chinese dynasty.

The problem that absorbed him was why the Song dynasty had failed and let in the foreigners. He saw two reasons: firstly military weakness, and secondly that they had abandoned the old agricultural basis in favour of trade and commerce; he determined to go back to the wisdom of the Tang dynasty. He was in many ways an old fashioned socialist who believed in a welfare state, that should look after the peasants in every aspect of their lives. Society had previously been divided between peasant farmers, soldiers and artisans, but he now registered the whole population in either a military or civil registration. Those in the military registration were in the frontier zone and were expected to be soldiers. They paid few or no taxes and were given a small plot of land from which they were expected to support themselves, but the plots of land were too small and the system soon broke down.

Civil Registration was carried out in 1381, a sort of Doomsday book that was known as the Yellow Register, which recorded not only the name and the family and the size of the holding, but also their occupation. This was followed up by a more detailed register of land holding in 1387 known as the Fish-scale Register because it showed the numerous plots overlapping like fish scales. But once an occupation or land holding was registered it passed down from father to son, and you were not allowed to change occupation. This is the usual definition of serfdom, so the Chinese peasants now become serfs. Fortunately, the system did not work very well.

A new social organisation was set up in communes of 110 families of whom 10 were the leading families who were responsible for seeing that law and order was maintained and that taxes were paid. If proper taxes were not collected then the 10 families made up the difference. Inevitably however these soon became the leading families and landlords while the others became their tenants. Taxes were low but so were benefits and the individual local authorities had to cover the cost of the infrastructure. There were for instance major problems over travel: a travel network was established, the central government would issue passes, but the local communities were meant to provide food and lodgings and transport to the next stage for all travellers.

The rigidity of the system, its rejection of money (taxes were to be paid in grain or textiles) were to be the root of the problems that hampered the development of society throughout the Ming regime.

One big drawback was that the emperor had a terrible temper. Today he would probably be diagnosed as having paranoia:   he had pathological fears and was given over to compulsive sadism. In 1380 he suspected his chief councillor Hu Weiyong of rebellion and put him to death, but in the examination that followed over 15,000 were slaughtered; there were at least three such episodes that disfigured his reign.

Nevertheless the new emperor was a huge success. Cultivated land increased and so did the tax intake. The emperor was frugal and the central finances were put on a firm footing. Public works were undertaken everywhere, irrigation systems were made to work and a huge programme of tree planting was undertaken when local communities were ordered to plant trees, as the countryside had been denuded in the previous Yuan dynasty.

Following his death in 1398 there was an unedifying scramble from which his fourth son, the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424) emerged victorious. After an unsavoury start murdering his grandson and his brothers, he became one of the greatest of all Chinese emperors under whom China blossomed.

His greatest achievement lay in the re-founding of Beijing as the capital, where in 14 madcap years he built not only a new palace, – the Forbidden City – but also the Temple of Heaven while at Nanjing, former capital, he also built the now destroyed Porcelain Pagoda. He also renovated the Grand Canal and extended it so that it could also reach Beijing.


Map to show some of the voyages of Zheng He.

A further notable achievement is an event that illustrates both China’s greatness and also its weakness: between 1405 and 1431, his great admiral Zheng He made five great sea journeys over the Indian Ocean. These were made in huge armadas, several of over 300 vessels, led by huge treasure ships, some of which were reputed to be 400 feet long. The size of the ships has been doubted: the shipyards excavated at Nanjing would not have been big enough to build ships of the reported size. Nevertheless they were extremely sophisticated with watertight compartments, lavish accommodation and fish tanks with fresh fish. It is said that 180 medical personnel were spread among the 300 ships – which was greater than the total number of crew in Vasco da Gama’s fleet which first sailed round South Africa to reach India. Columbus first sailed to America with just three ships.

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The most exotic of the offerings collected by Zheng He was this giraffe sent by the ruler of Bengal. The emperors built up a zoo of the exotic animals they were sent as tribute.

But if the size of the ships was magnificent, the purpose of the voyages was pathetic, for it involved a complete reversal to gift exchange or tribute trade. They did not set out with any commercial intentions of trading with the nations they visited, but were simply designed to overawe the places they visited. They gave out suits of clothing, umbrellas and books and in return they brought back prestige gifts, most famous of all two giraffes which were placed in a zoo and much admired. They thought that they might be a living example of the Qilin, a mythical animal that was an auspicious omen. But the voyages were hugely expensive, so soon after his death, the voyages were abandoned, and the ships left to rot.

Economically however his reign was a disaster. The Treasury, which had been so carefully built up by his father, was soon depleted, and inflation which was already inherent in having paper currency, now became the worst in China’s history. Meanwhile the ordinary farmers, who were meant to do a month’s corvée labour a year, now found themselves away for years at a time, and their farms, on which ultimately the wealth of the country depended, soon fell into rack and ruin. It would be another 30 years before China recovered from his extravagances.

After a disputed succession, he was succeeded by his grandson, the Xuande Emperor who was in many ways the best of all the emperors. Xuande was urbane and efficient and was guided through much of his rule by three scholar officials all named Yang. He was a skilled painter who promoted the arts; his one fault – if it be a fault – was that he was a bit of a sex athlete, who sent out eunuchs to recruit virgins for his harem. When he died aged 37, 53 Korean princesses returned home from his harem as being surplus to need, and several thousand ‘palace women’ who had been kept in reserve, received permission to leave the palace service. But his reign was remarkably peaceful and is often seen as the golden age of the Ming Dynasty.

But he died at the early age of 37 and was succeeded by his eight-year-old son, the Zhengtong Emperor, who was a disaster. At first he was dominated by his grandmother but following her death, power fell into the hands of an evil eunuch Wang Zhen, and at the age of 21 he decided to prove that he was every bit as good a soldier as his predecessors, so he set off to fight the Mongols, and at Tumu he was defeated: his army was destroyed and he himself was captured and taken hostage by the Mongols. However the Mongols did not know what to do with him, so a year later he was returned. However by this time his brother had been appointed as Emperor, but when seven years later his brother died, he emperor for a second time, which is very confusing as he is Emperor under two different names. But he was not a success, and after him the Ming dynasty began to go downhill.

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The Chinese playing football with several leading players in their robes kicking a ball. The Emperor looks on – the sole spectator. To the right a player holds a spare ball for further action.

In the years that followed China was kept alive and indeed flourishing by the continued success of the examination system, and the continuing ethos of the Confucian ideals. (We in the west often contribute our success to the influence of Christian ideals, but I often feel that the Confucian idea of the scholar gentleman was rather more civilising than the monastic austerity of Christianity). But there was the constant conflict between the scholarly civil service and the eunuchs who ran the palace and who tended to have the emperor’s ear. Take for instance the Zhengde emperor (1505-1521). He came to the throne aged 14, but he was a fun loving young man who cancelled all his official lectures and preferred to play football and have sex. The eunuchs saw their opportunities and played up to him and their leader Liu Jin became a virtual dictator until he was eventually overthrown. The young emperor went boating when drunk, fell in and never recovered and died six months later at the age of 30.

Despite his sexual excesses, his children all died in infancy, so on his death, the civil servants decided to put a somewhat distant relative on the throne as the Jiajing emperor.   However the young man, aged again only 14, proved to have a mind of his own. He was not going to go through the rigmarole of being adopted, but said that his own parents should have been emperor and he was going to give them the post-mortem title of Emperor, which meant that when he arrived in Beijing he would enter the palace by the front door and not the side door. There was chaos, the Senior Grand Secretary – which was by this time the title given to the Prime Minister – Yang Tinghe who was one of the most impressive of all the civil servants at this period was eventually driven into exile. But despite this inauspicious start, he continued to reign for 45 years becoming immersed in the Daoist religion, while his performance as emperor became steadily worse. He died at the advanced age of 59, as a result of imbibing the Elixir of Life.

But despite all this the Ming dynasty survived and the country as a whole flourished. One of the greatest Chinese philosophers Wang Yangming (1472-1529) flourished in this period. He was not only a scholar and administrator and perhaps surprisingly a rather successful general, while at the same time being a very influential philosopher teaching the happy philosophy that practical living brings knowledge, so even the average person could pursue virtue.

The last Ming Emperor was in many ways the saddest of all, for though he tried hard, he failed utterly. The Chongzhu Emperor (1627 to 1644) came to the throne at the age of 16 on the death of his brother. He began well, getting rid of the wicked eunuch Wei Zhangxian, but the problems soon overwhelmed him. The weather was appalling – this was the depths of the Little Ice Age – there were droughts, the Treasury was empty, the officials were quarrelling, the eunuchs were being awkward, and he was eventually finished off by two peasant rebellions. Realising that the end was nigh, he went out to Coal Hill in the Palace grounds and hanged himself, leaving a suicide note: “I am unable to face my ancestors in the underworld . . . dismember my corpse if you must,. . . but leave my people unharmed”. The peasant rebellions were finished off by Manchu invaders from the North who established a new Qing dynasty

The Ming dynasty remains an enigma because it was both a failure and a success. There were four major problems. Firstly, the first emperor’s ideal of the soldier/cultivator did not work: soldiers needed to be paid and were a constant drain on the public purse. But the Ming was the age when the Great Wall of China was built in the form we see it today: first the wall itself, and then the turrets at half-mile intervals along its length. It was a hugely impressive and very expensive enterprise that was in the event a total failure as the Manchurians eventually walked round the end of it and established the Ching dynasty, the last of all the great dynasties in China.

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This is the head of an elaborate hairpin found in the tomb of Prince Lian Zhuang who died in AD 1441. However when his wife, the Princess Wei, died ten years later the tomb was reopened and she was laid to rest beside him together with this elaborate hairpin.

Secondly there were the administrative problems left behind by the utopian schemes of the first emperor. The taxes he levied soon proved to be insufficient, so extra-legal levies had to be raised to provide money , the very thing that he had tried to avoid with his taxation systems.

Nevertheless, the Ming period was in many ways very successful. This was the period when over 1000 cities received their walls, not so much to keep out enemies as to mark their importance. Popular culture flourished, this was the time when the first full-length novels were written and printing ensured that copies of books were widely distributed.

But the final problem is why, alongside this success, was it also a huge failure? Why did it turn inwards? This was the time when the West was beginning to forge a new world, but the Chinese rejected the new ideas. The Chinese had invented so many things: gunpowder, the compass, printing. The Chinese built their huge treasure ships but then let them rot. The west had smaller ships but sailed in them round the world. The Portuguese even established a station at Macau on the coast and Christian missionaries such as Matteo Ricci began exploring China: no Chinese missionary came to explore the west.

The Chinese historians have traditionally taken an analogy between Chinese history and the life of a human being – birth, growth, maturity, old age and death. It is an analogy that is vigorously rejected in the west, though I wonder whether this is part of the academic bias which I am setting out to challenge. But the end part of the Ming dynasty does tend to follow the Chinese analogy. Consider for instance the problem of the imperial clansmen – those who could claim to be relatives or descendants of the emperor and could thus claim immunity from taxation and would receive a stipend from the state. But the stipend was not enough to keep them alive and they were not allowed to work so they became a frequently impoverished burden on society: there were said to be some 20,000 of them by the end of the dynasty, indeed by some accounts as many as 100,000.

The state system was a dead weight, slowing down innovation and inhibiting the entrepreneurial commercial spirits that had animated the Song dynasty and which still persisted as an under-strain in Chinese society. Here my thesis as to the importance of the market economy, comes to the fore. There was a strong undercurrent of the market which began to come to the surface in the Song dynasty, despite its political problems. But when it was stifled in the Ming, the dynasty succumbed to old age. Eventually the dynasty could hold out no longer – Manchurian invaders from the north were strong and vibrant and brought new ideas and new opportunities. They would establish a new dynasty, the last and in many ways one of the most impressive of the Chinese dynasties and it is to this Qing dynasty that we must now turn our attention.


On to the Qing (Ching) dynasty


Created: 18th April 2015