The decline of the Chinese feudal society occurred during the period of the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the 14th to the 19th centuries. The Ming Dynasty lasted over 280 years from its establishment by Zhu Yuanzhang in Nanjing in 1368 to when Emperor Chongzhen hanged himself on the Coal Hill of Beijing in 1644. The early reign of the Qing Dynasty lasted over 190 years from Emperor Shunzhi’s entry into Beijing in 1644 to the outbreak of the Opium War in 1840. In the Ming Dynasty, there was a closer integration of the many ethnic groups that composed China. In the first half of the dynasty, the economy developed rapidly, and society was prosperous. Admiral Zheng He made seven long-distance voyages to the countries in the Western Seas to promote China’s friendly relations with foreign countries, The reigns of emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qian long of the Qing Dynasty are regarded as a golden age, in which the Chinese people created enormous material and spiritual wealth, and there emerged great numbers of statesmen, thinkers, strategists, explorers and scientists. They wrote a glorious page on Chinese history.
During this period, the whole world developed rapidly, as economic and cultural contacts between the East and the West became more and more frequent with the opening of new navigation routes making the world much closer. The growth of capitalism appeared in some cities along the Mediterranean coast of Europe during 14th and 15th centuries. The Bourgeois Revolution broke out successively in Britain, the DSA, and France during 17th and 18th centuries. World history had entered a new period. The developing countries in the west had entered the mature stage of the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism developed rapidly. However, China was left behind during this phase of history. Although the beginnings of capitalism had appeared at the end of the Ming Dynasty, restrictions imposed by the feudal political system hampered the development of productivity and commerce, causing the feudal society to decline. With the dragging of the development of Chinese society and the coming aggression by Western colonialists, the Chinese feudal rulers were forced to change their attitude to the outside world. They changed from opening intercourse to a closed-door policy, making the gap between China and the western countries bigger and bigger.
Xiaoling Mausoleum of the Ming Dynasty
Located in the south of Purple Gold Mountain in the suburb of Nanjing, Xiaoling Mausoleum of the Ming Dynasty is the tomb of Zhu Yuanzhang and Empress Ma. Empress Ma died in 1382 and was buried there. After she died, she was given the title “Xiaoci” (filial and kind), hence the name Xiaoling Mausoleum. After Zhu Yuanzhang died, he was buried together with Empress Ma in the tomb. The construction of the Xiaoling Mausoleum began in 1381 and took 32 years to finish. It has had a history of more than 600 years so far. It is composed of the Xiama (Dismount) Archway, Dajin (Great Gold) Gate, Tablet Pavilion, Square City and Bao (Treasure) City. It is one of the largest imperial tombs existing in China. Xiaoling Mausoleum is so spectacular and grandiose that it represents the highest level of the architecture and stone inscriptions of the early period of the Ming Dynasty. It directly influenced the tomb of more than 500 emperors in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. As a part of the imperial tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it was included in the World Cultural Heritage List by the UNESCO in 2003.
Zhu Yuanzhang, the First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty
A combination of incompetent rulers and natural disasters led to peasant uprisings which overthrew the Yuan Dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398) was a leader of one of these peasant uprisings. He was born into a poor peasant’s family in Haozhou (today’s Fengyang, Anhui Province). In 1352, Guo Zixing led a peasant uprising in Haozhou, and Zhu Yuanzhang joined the troops. Later, he was put in a very important position because of his bravery and wisdom. He became the leader of the troops after Guo Zixing’s death. In March 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang captured Jiqing (today’s Nanjing) and changed its name to Yingtian. He took his advisors’ suggestions and summoned many talented people in Yingtian. Meanwhile, with Yingtian as his base, he followed the strategy of wiping out the less powerful enemy first and the powerful ones later. He defeated the Yuan armies around him one by one. At the same time, the other uprising armies all took certain territory and proclaimed themselves as emperor. In 1364, Zhu Yuanzhang defeated the most powerful enemy, i.e. the uprising troops of Chen Youliang. Later, other peasant uprising troops were defeated one by one.
In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself emperor. He was historically known as Emperor Taizu of the Ming Dynasty, in Nanjing. In the autumn of the same year, the Ming army took Dadu, the capital of the Yuan Empire, putting an end to the rule of the Mongols. However, it took Zhu Yuanzhang nearly 20 more years to consolidate his hold over the whole country.
Zhu Yuanzhang said that since the country had just been stabilized, it was the same as a little bird that just left its nest and needed great care. His first concern was to restore agricultural production, which had been severely disrupted during the wars. He encouraged peasants who had fled from their homes during the fighting to return to their fields and to open up new land. He advocated that the planting of cash crops such as cotton, mulberries and hemp. He offered tax exemptions as an incentive. By 1393, the area of agricultural land had grown to four times as big as that at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. Also, irrigation works had been expanded greatly. Emperor Taizu also extended preferential treatment to craftsmen. All these measures provided advantageous conditions for the further overall development of society, economy, and culture nationwide.
Emperor Taizu abolished the position of the Prime Minister and set up six offices known as the “six boards” in the central government, which were directly responsible to the emperor. This method strengthened the centralization of authority. He set up a new institution of spies called “Guards in Embroidered Coats”, which strengthened the imperial power. At the same time, the emperor made a thorough overhaul of the existing laws, increasing the penalties for offenders and thus laid a good foundation for the rule of the Ming Dynasty.
Emperor Chengzu Moves the Capital
Zhu Di, Emperor Chengzu, was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu Biao, Emperor Taizu’s crown prince, died when his father was at the age of over 60, and his place was taken by Zhu Biao’s eldest son, Zhu Yunwen. After the new emperor came to the throne, Zhu Yunwen’s uncle, Zhu Di, the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang, dispatched an army from his power base of Yan (the present-day Beijing area) in July 1399, on the pretext of helping to restore order. In 1402, this army captured Nanjing. Zhu Yunwen disappeared in the turmoil, and Zhu Di declared himself Emperor Chengzu. Feeling insecure in Nanjing, Emperor Chengzu moved the capital to Beiping and changed its name to Beijing.
Zheng He’s Voyages to the Western Seas
In the early Ming Dynasty China was one of the most advanced and developed countries in the world. In order to display the national power and strengthen contacts with other countries, Emperor Chengzu sent Zheng He, a senior general, and eunuch, on six voyages to the Western Seas (Southeast Asia, west of Brunei and the Indian Ocean) on diplomatic missions.
Zheng He (1371-1435), an ethnic Hui (Moslem) pet named Sanbao or Eunuch Sanbao, was born in Yunnan Province. Due to his brightness and diligence, as well as his achievement in the battle, he won the trust of Emperor Chengzu and was sent to the Western Seas on diplomatic missions. In June 1405, Zheng He embarked on his first voyage. His fleet of more than 200 ships carried well over 20 000 men, including sailors, soldiers, technical personnel, interpreters, etc., and large amounts of gold and silk. The fleet set out from Liujiagang in Jiangsu Province, and sailed westward as far to the Red Sea, areas along the way including Zhancheng (a Vietnamese city), Java, and Bengal. Then the fleet went back by way of Ceylon and Guli (today’s Calicut in Indian). The round trip took two years. In the autumn of 1407, the fleet returned to Nanjing.
Zheng He’s fleets were loaded with large amounts of gold, precious stones, porcelain and silk which were used as gifts to express goodwill. Some of the countries Zheng He visited, also dispatched envoys bearing tribute to the Ming court on his ships. Meanwhile Zheng He exchanged with these countries special local products such as jewelry, spice and so on. Emperor Chengzu was satisfied with Zhen He’s achievements During the Seven voyages to the Western Seas, Zheng He sailed as far as the eastern coast of Africa and the Red Sea coast.
During this period, many kings, ambassadors and businessmen came to China. Zheng He’s voyages also made great contributions to the world’s navigational history. His first voyage was 87 years earlier than Columbus’ discovery of America, 93 years earlier than Da Gama’s route to the East, 116 years earlier than Magellan’s voyage to the Philippines. Zheng He’s voyages were a great feat in the history of the world. There are still many buildings in present Southeast Asia dedicated to his memory and respect.
Zheng He’s Seven Voyages to the Western Seas
First: 1405-1407 reached Sri Lanka
Second: 1407-1409 called at Calcutta and Sri Lanka
Third: 1409-1411 reached Hormuz on the Persian Gulf and Arabia
Fourth: 1413-1415 reached the east coast of Africa
Fifth: 1417-1419 revisited East Africa
Sixth: 1421-1422 revisited Hormuz (Persian Gulf) and Arabia
Seventh: 1431-1433 reached the Red Sea and Mecca
Qi Jiguang Repels Japanese Pirates
At the end of the Yuan Dynasty and in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, Japanese pirates often harassed China’s coastal areas, threatening people’s lives. Local people called these pirates “Wokou”. Since the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, strict restrictions on maritime trade and intercourse with foreign countries were carried out. Except for government links with foreign countries, all business over the sea was forbidden. During the middle Ming Dynasty, Wokou sometimes even colluded with Chinese pirates, smuggling arms over the sea, plundering and slaughtering. Finally, the Ming court resolved to bolster the coastal defenses and ordered Qi Jiguang to put an end to the pirate menace.
Qi Jiguang (1528-1587) was born in Penglai, Shandong Province. In 1556, he was assigned to deal with the problem of Japanese pirates in the coastal areas of Zhejiang Province. Dismayed at the low morale and the lack of training of the soldiers, Qi decided to raise and train his own army. Soon, he had a force of about 4 000 crack troops. They were known locally as “Qi’s army” and soon distinguished themselves.
In 1561, the Japanese pirates pretended to invade Fenghua and Ninghai with the real aim of attacking Taizhou. Qi Jiguang saw through the enemy’s trick and defeated the invaders at Taizhou. He fought nine battles and won nine times. After ridding Zhejiang of the pirate scourge, Qi Jiguang fought Japanese pirates wherever they appeared along the Chinese coastal areas. After nearly 10 years of hard fighting, he succeeded in driving the Japanese pirates out from the coastal areas of southeast China by 1565.
Hai Rui, an Upright and Incorruptible Official
Hai Rui (1514-1587) was born in Qiongzhou, Hainan Province. In 1558, he was appointed county magistrate of Chun’an County in Zhejiang Province. Previously, many county officials took bribes and bent the law. They often wound up cases carelessly. Hai Rui cleaned up this notoriously corrupt county, setting an example of honest government.
In 1564, Hai Rui was transferred to an official post in the capital. Emperor Shizong was obsessed with Taoism and the research for immortality and completely neglected state affairs. Though only a very junior official, Hai Rui had the courage to send a memorial to the throne, censuring the emperor. Fully convinced that the emperor would have him executed, Hai Rui bought a coffin, bade farewell to his wife, and settled his affairs. He was not, in fact, executed, but thrown into prison and not released until after Emperor Shizong’s death.
In 1569, Hai Rui was appointed an imperial inspector of the 10 areas under the administration of Yingtian (including Suzhou, Yingtian, Songjiang, Changzhou, Zhenjiang, Huizhou, and others). Yingtian was the most advanced region in both economy and culture in the Ming Dynasty. Senior officials there had carved out large estates for themselves. This deprived the state of large amounts of fertile land. Hai Rui insisted unconditionally on breaking up these estates, and the returning the land to the peasants. His enemies thereupon banded together to slander him to the emperor, Muzong, and Hai Rui was stripped of his official rank.
After 10 years living in retirement, Hai Rui was employed again by the new emperor Shenzong. He held the post until his death in 1587. He was renowned far and wide as a model of an upright and incorruptible official.
Daring King Li Zicheng
The emperors in the late years of the Ming Dynasty were fatuous and incompetent, and power gradually slipped into the hands of eunuchs. Bureaucrats and landlords forcibly occupied large tracts of fertile land, leaving many peasants landless. Taxes and natural disasters, which officials did little to relieve, added to the burdens on the peasants, and eventually, in 1627, a large-scale uprising broke out in the area of what is now northern Shaanxi Province. The unrest spread throughout the country. The strongest of the rebel peasant armies were led by Gao Yingxiang. Alter Gao’s death, his army was divided into two main parts: one was led by Zhang Xianzhong, and the other by Li Zicheng.
Li Zicheng (1606-1645) was born in Mizhi, Shaanxi Province. In 1630, he joined the uprising, rising rapidly to become a general under Gao Yingxiang. With the death of Ciao, he took command of the rebel forces in present-day Henan Province. Li Zicheng won the support of the people in tins disaster-stricken area by a policy of land reform and the abolition of agricultural taxes. Li’s army grew rapidly to become a million-strong force. Wherever Li Zicheng’s army went, it distributed the property of the landlords among the people. In 1644, Li Zicheng established the Dashun Dynasty in Xi’an. In the same year, he marched on to Beijing. As the rebels entered the capital, Emperor Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor, committed suicide by hanging himself on Coal Hill (today’s Jingshan), just behind the Forbidden City.
Li Zicheng enforced strict military discipline, punished officials guilty of crimes and corruption. The regime controlled a vast area from the south of the Great Wall to the north of the Huaihe River.
Meanwhile, Dorgon, the prince regent of the Qing Dynasty, which had been set up in 1636 by the United Manchu tribes of northeast China, hurriedly led an army southward. Breaking through the strategic Shanhai Pass, Dorgon made the general Wu Sangui surrender. Li Zicheng was forced to withdraw from Beijing. In 1645, Li Zicheng was killed in the battle at Mount Jiugong, in today’s Hubei Province.
The Qing Army Pours Through Shanhai Pass
In 1616, Nurhachi, leader of the Jurchen (Nuzhen) tribes, established the Jin regime, called Later Jin in history. In 1626, Huangtaiji succeeded to the throne. In 1635, he changed the name of Jurchen to Manchu; the next year, he changed the title of the regime to Qing and proclaimed himself emperor. In 1644, the Qing army attacked Shanhai Pass. Wu Sangui, the general garrisoning the pass, submitted to the Qing army. In October, Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty moved the capital from Shengjing (today’s Shenyang) to Beijing and commenced to reign over the whole of China.
Zheng Chenggong Recovers Taiwan
Taiwan has been an inseparable part of China since ancient times. It has beautiful scenery and is rich in agricultural products.
In 1624, Dutch colonialists started to seize Taiwan gradually by cheating. The Taiwan people could not bear the pressure and plunder upon them. Though they never gave up resistance, they were too weak to beat the Dutch. Zheng Chenggong, a Ming general who was resisting the Qing Dynasty in the coastal area of southeast China. He resolved to drive the Dutch colonialists off Taiwan.
In 1661, Zheng Chenggong set out with an army from Jinmen and landed on the Taiwan Island by the guidance of the local people. Hearing of his arrival, the Taiwan people went in groups to welcome him as a family member. Zheng’s forces had unimaginably spread all over the island and the sea before the Dutch began to respond. They besieged the Dutch in Chikan (today’s Tainan City) and cut off their water supply. The Dutch commander offered Zheng 100 000 taels to retreat, but Zheng rebutted and declared that Taiwan was always a part of China and the Dutch colonists had to withdraw at once. The Dutch increased the reinforcements, attempting to beat Zheng. However, the well-prepared Zheng made a head-on attack against the enemy and completely expelled them from Taiwan in 1662.
The recovery of Taiwan was a great victory for the Chinese people in their resistance to colonial invaders. For this, Zheng Chenggong became a national hero.
A Brief History of China’s Administration of Taiwan
In 230, Sun Quan, ruler of the State of Wu in the Three Kingdoms Period, sent his envoy Wei Wen to Taiwan.
In 607, Emperor Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty sent Zhu Kuan to Taiwan to reassure the local people.
In 1292, Kublai Khan, Emperor Shizu of the Yuan Dynasty, sent ministers to Taiwan to reassure the local people.
In 1335, the Yuan Dynasty set up the Penghu Inspectorate as the official administration of Taiwan.
In 1684, the Qing Dynasty set up the Taiwan Prefecture.
The Dalai and Panchen Lamas
In 1653, the Qing government officially recognized the fifth Dalai Lama as the head of the Gelugpa of Tibetan Buddhism, and in 1713, it recognized the fifth Panchen Lama as the head of the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the headquarters of a powerful sect of Tibetan Buddhism. From that time on, both the Dalai and Panchen lamas had to be confirmed by the central authority.
The Golden Age of Three Emperors
The reigns of the Qing emperors Kangxi (1661-1722), Yongzheng (1722-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796) marked a period of unprecedented prosperity both politically and economically.
Kangxi enjoyed the longest reign in Chinese history. He was also the wisest emperor of the Qing Dynasty. When he ascended the throne in 1661 as a child, the rule of the Qing Dynasty was unstable. Many officials of the old regime wanted to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and resume the Ming’s rule. Kangxi promoted a program of Sinicization of his government, including instituting Confucianism as the state ideology, appointing Han officials and promoting Han culture among the ruling Manchu class. It was also he who proposed to compile the Kangxi Dictionary and the first on-the-spot surveying map named the Map of China in Kangxi’s Reign.
Kangxi also attached great importance to the restoration of agricultural production, which had been devastated by years of war. He adopted a series of measures to lighten the burden of the peasants. He often took imperial tours of inspection to know the conditions and sufferings of people.
Kangxi suppressed the Revolt of the Three Feudatories (Wu Sangui, Geng Jingzhong, and Shang Kexi), separatist activities in Mongolia and Tibet, and wrested the control of Taiwan from the descendants of Zheng Chenggong. In addition, encroachment from tsarist Russia was halted. Kangxi thus made great contributions to the territorial integrity of the country, as well as to its security and prosperity.
Emperor Yongzheng proved a worthy successor to Kangxi’s policies. Emperor Qianlong, a son of Emperor Yongzheng, succeeded to the throne in 1735. He encouraged peasants to cultivate wasteland, and lightened their tax burden. He mitigated the intense relations between the central and regional officials caused in Yongzheng’s reign. He also strengthened the central government’s control over the ethnic-minority areas, particularly in Tibet.
During Qianlong’s reign, economy developed fast, the population also increased, and the Qing Dynasty entered its strongest phase.
Early in the Qing Dynasty, the government adopted a stricter policy against foreign communication in order to keep away the force against Qing government along the coastal areas. Though there were temporary openings allowing businessmen to trade in limited items, the Qing Dynasty had only one treaty port, Guangzhou, where traditional goods such as silk and tea were severely restricted. Bans on oversea commerce were also included in this policy which was called “Closed-door Policy”. Due to the lack of knowledge about the current situation, the Qing Dynasty adopted negative policies different from free-trade systems of the West, causing China to lose opportunities to make the same progress with the developed countries.
Great Scientists and Their Contributions
Li Shizhen and Bencao Gangmu
Li Shizhen (1518-1593) was born in Qizhou of Huguang (in today’s Qichun, Hubei province). He was a well-known medical specialist and pharmacologist. Influenced by his family, he was deeply interested in medical treatment and decided to devote himself to the art of healing. At the age of 24, I.i Shizhen formally began to make diagnoses and give medical treatment. Due to his diligence, his leechcraft was excellent and cured many complex diseases.
Noticing that the classical works on medicine contained many mistakes and obscurities, Li determined to write a definitive materia medica.
He read many medical books, and also paid close attention to site visits and collecting herbs. He spent 30 years on his work, which he completed at the age of 60. His book, titled Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica) contains details of over 1 800 kinds of herbs and other medicinal materials, 10 000 prescriptions and over 1 000 illustrations. It was the most scientific description of traditional Chinese medicine of its time and is still used today. It has been translated into several major languages.
Xu Guangqi and Encyclopedia of Agriculture
Xu Guangqi (1562-1633), born in Shanghai, studied astronomy, mathematics and the art of making firearms under Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary. He made great contributions to the introduction of Western natural science to China and to develop science in China, including scientific agriculture, as embodied in his Encyclopedia of Agriculture.
In his book, with a scientific approach X n summarized traditional Chinese technologies, such as agricultural tools, soil, irrigation, and fertilization, etc. He also introduced the irrigation works in Europe. There are pictures, endorsements, and illustrations in his book. Rich in content, it was regarded as one of the best of the ancient Chinese Encyclopedias on agriculture.
Song Yingxing and Exploitation of the Works of Nature
Song Yingxing (1587-c. 1666), born in Jiangxi, was one of the scientists of the late Ming Dynasty. Among the many books he wrote, his Exploitation of the Works of Nature was the most influential. Its contents cover almost every aspect of the social and economic life of China in the 17th century, and it was praised as the technology encyclopedia of that time.
Xu Xiake and Xu Xiake’s Travels
Xu Xiake (1586-1641), born in Jiangsu, was an eminent traveler and geographer of the 17th century. Puzzled by conflicting references in books of geography, history, and travels, he decided to investigate for himself. From the age of 22, Xu Xiake spent 30 years traveling all over China. He recorded his observations in diary form in his Xu Xiake’s Travels.
This book is still of great importance for the study of China’s geomorphology, hydrology, distribution of animals, plants, mineral resources, etc.