Ming dynasty

gigatos | May 24, 2022


The Ming Dynasty (pinyin: míng cháo) was a line of emperors that ruled China from 1368 to 1644. The Ming Dynasty was the last Chinese dynasty dominated by the Han. It came to power after the collapse of the Mongol-dominated Yuan Dynasty, and lasted until the capture of its capital Beijing in 1644 during the rebellion led by Li Zicheng, who was soon supplanted by the Manchu Qing Dynasty. Regimes loyal to the Ming throne (collectively called the Southern Ming) existed until 1662, when they finally submitted to the Qing.

The founder of the dynasty, Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398), attempted to establish a society of self-sufficient rural communities within a rigid and immobile system that would have no need to associate with the commercial life of urban centers. His reconstruction of China”s agricultural base and the strengthening of communication routes contributed to the empire”s agricultural boom, which led to the creation of large grain surpluses that could be sold in markets sprouting up along the communication routes. The cities underwent an important phase of demographic and commercial growth, as well as artisanal growth with the multiplication of large workshops employing thousands of workers. The upper classes of society, gathered in the lower nobility, were also affected by this new culture focused on consumption. Moving away from tradition, merchant families began to integrate into the administration and bureaucracy and adopted the cultural traits and practices of the nobility.

The Ming presided over the construction of a powerful navy and a professional army of a million men. Although trade and diplomatic missions had existed during the previous dynasties, the size of the fleet leading the various expeditions of Admiral Zheng He was vastly superior and went on to demonstrate the power of the empire as far away as the Middle East. There were huge construction projects including the restoration of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall as well as the founding of Beijing with its Forbidden City during the first quarter of the 15th century. The population at the end of the Ming Dynasty is estimated to be between 160 and 200 million people.

The Ming period was remarkable from the point of view of literary creation. Stimulated by the rise of printing, which led to the rise of the book market, the production of works exploded in quantity. It is from this period that the “four extraordinary books” (The Three Kingdoms, At the Water”s Edge, The Journey to the West, Jin Ping Mei) and some of the greatest Chinese plays (The Peony Pavilion) date. More broadly, aesthetic collectors became interested in various art forms (painting, calligraphy, ceramics, furniture), which had a considerable impact on artistic and craft production. While the scholarly class remained largely influenced by the Confucian tradition, which remained the standard for imperial competitive examinations, several critical figures had an important voice, most notably Wang Yangming. Criticism of government policy, and thus the politicization of intellectual thought and debate, were also prominent phenomena of the late Ming period.

From the 16th century onwards, the Ming economy was stimulated by international trade with the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. China was involved in the Columbian exchange which saw large reciprocal transfers of goods, plants and animals between the Old and New Worlds. Trade with the European powers and Japan led to a massive influx of money which became the standard medium of exchange in China. During the last century of the dynasty, the effects of the Little Ice Age were felt in agriculture, natural disasters and epidemics, while political life at court and then in the empire became increasingly unstable. The ensuing collapse of the administration was a prelude to the final fall of the dynasty.

Formation and rise of the Ming Dynasty

The Mongolian Yuan dynasty began to lose control of China a little less than a century after unifying it. Popular insurrections broke out as early as 1351, especially that of the Red Turbans in the Central Plain, and it took only a few years for the empire to fragment. It was a warlord from the south, dominating part of present-day Anhui and allied with the Red Turbans, Zhu Yuanzhang, who came out on top. He first dominated the rich region of the Lower Yangtze and founded the Ming dynasty in Nanjing in 1368. In the same year his troops overthrew the Yuan capital of Peking, and in the following years they got rid of the remaining Mongol armies, as well as other warlords dominating important outlying provinces, such as Sichuan and Yunnan. By 1387, Zhu Yuanzhang, who took the name of the Hongwu reign (1368-1399), dominated all of China. His empire was, however, less extensive than that of the Yuan, and in particular he lost much of the northern steppe regions which had been the focus of Mongol power.

Although he established his empire using anti-Mongol rhetoric, invoking Chinese patriotism against a foreign occupier and presenting his desire to follow the model of the last truly Chinese dynasty, the Song, Hongwu in fact took over much of the political heritage of the Yuan. reflecting a particularly hard personality, the regime he established has been described by historians as “despotic” or “autocratic”, probably in an exaggerated way. Dissatisfied with the current laws, proclaimed in the Ming Code from the beginning of his reign, whose penalties he considered too mild, he established a collection of legal texts, the Great Declarations (Dagao). He was the only one who could pronounce the very brutal sentences (excessive in the eyes of many of his servants) provided for in this text, while hoping that they would inspire the judges who served him.

His temperament was illustrated during the greatest internal crisis of his reign, the accusation of conspiracy which affected his prime minister and companion of the first hour Hu Weiyong (en), suspected of having sought the support of foreign forces (Japanese, Vietnamese, even Mongolian). He was executed in 1380 along with his relatives (15,000 people according to sources). The after-effects of this crisis were felt during the following years, which saw a veritable purge in the civil service, leading to the death of some 40,000 people in total. The emperor then reorganized the high administration, favouring a stronger concentration of his power: he abolished the post of prime minister with the office of the Grand Secretariat (Zhongshu Sheng), placed under his direct control the six main ministries (Civil Service, Finance, Rites, Army, Justice and Works) as well as the office of censorship and the military high command, and created a military police force, the “Guards in Brocade Clothes” (jinyiwei), in charge of watching over the high officials. This explains why Hongwu inherited a detestable reputation in the Chinese literary tradition. In fact, he had set up a system that created a climate of suspicion among the high officials. He could never really rule alone, however, and had to establish a new order in the central administration, relying on the office of the Hanlin Academy scholars to draft his edicts, which in effect became an imperial cabinet. The Grand Secretary of this institution played the role of prime minister without having all the prerogatives that Hu Weiyong had had.

Other measures were taken to re-establish order in the empire, to restore the economy and to ensure the control of the populations by the imperial institutions. Numerous projects to rehabilitate agriculture flourished: restoration of irrigation systems, cultivation of lands deserted by the displacement of peasant populations. This was all the more crucial as the Ming tax system was based on levies on agricultural production and peasants, relegating to the background commercial taxes, which had been preponderant at the end of the Song and were still important under the Yuan. These measures responded to Hongwu”s vision of society, which wanted peasant families to live in a self-sufficient mode of production, in a system called lijia, which organized them into groups of families in charge of distributing taxes and chores among themselves, and more broadly, of organizing local life collectively. The emperor wished to set up a functional organization of the population which was to lead to the creation of hereditary classes of farmers, craftsmen and soldiers, supervised by the administration, who were to work for the empire and generate significant tax revenues. This system never really worked because the administrative institutions were not able to control it, especially because of the small number of provincial officials. In addition, the vision of a static and autarkic society clashed with the realities of the time, marked by large population movements and a market economy in which trade was essential. It would take almost two centuries to adapt the tax system to the real economy.

Hongwu appointed his grandson Zhu Yunwen (the eldest son of his late eldest son) as his successor, and he ruled as Jianwen until his death in 1399. However, Jianwen was only a child when he ascended the throne. That is why he relied heavily on his ministers, who advised him to disarm his uncles, who were hurt and angered by the appointment of their late father. In particular the Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, who had a considerable army under him. Of course, when Jianwen summoned him to lay down his arms, the former commander of the northern troops revolted. The conflict lasted three years and ended with the capture of Nanjing by the rebel troops. It is worth remembering that Hongwu had decapitated the high military command with the great purge of 1380. The young Jianwen was then short of competent generals, and his army was broken by Zhu Di”s. Even today, Jianwen”s fate is unclear. Some think that he avoided death by going into exile, others think that he was executed by his uncle. In any case, Zhu Di ascended the throne under the name of Yongle (1403-1424). It took him a few years to bring the high administration, mostly from the South, into line, hostile to the authority of the one who was often seen as a usurper, and who was established in the distant lands of the North. This “pacification of the South” cost the lives of tens of thousands of officials, and Yongle preferred to return to the North, making Beijing his capital in 1420.

His reign, like that of the dynasty”s founder, was generally spared from climatic accidents and epidemics if we except the one in 1411, thus creating favorable conditions for the stabilization of the empire and its economic expansion. To better assert his power and secure his rule, Yongle led offensives in the north against the Mongols and in Manchuria, as well as in the south against the Đại Việt where a new province was founded, before Chinese rule began to crumble there by the end of his reign in the face of insubordination by the local populations who waged a very effective war of resistance. The assertion of the power of the Ming Empire which took place at the instigation of Yongle was finally expressed during the maritime expeditions of Zheng He in South Asia, whose first goal was diplomatic and political (they were brutally stopped in 1433, undoubtedly because they were judged too expensive.

Reorganization of power and first crises

Yongle was succeeded by his son Hongxi (1424-1425), then his grandson Xuande (1425-1435), and finally the latter”s son Zhengtong (1435-1449) who was only eight years old when he was enthroned. If the Great Secretaries ensured the regency during his minority, they then lost their authority which passed into the hands of the eunuchs who were part of the Ceremonial Office.

The 1430s saw several natural disasters that destabilized the empire, especially when they were combined: chronicles indicate a cold snap followed by famine and epidemics in 1433, then floods and other very cold episodes in the following years. The political choices were equally unfortunate.

In 1449, Zhengtong wished to lead expeditions against the Oirats, who were threatening the northern border of the empire under the leadership of their khan Esen. This campaign ended in a debacle, and the capture of the emperor himself at the fortress of Tumu. At court, it was then decided not to leave the empire without a monarch and Zhengtong”s brother was enthroned as Jingtai.

His reign was catastrophic, marked by a terrible drought, while Zhengtong, released by Esen because he had lost all his value as a hostage, was put under house arrest by his brother who refused to give up power. But Jingtai”s legitimacy was further weakened. He fell ill in 1457 and was deposed just before his death by Zhengtong, who ascended the throne a second time, changing his reign name to Tianshun (1457-1464). The military failure against the northern peoples had resulted in the loss of several provinces. He refused to attempt to recapture them, preferring to strengthen the defensive system of the Great Wall by creating a second line of defense, especially near the capital, in the second half of the 15th century.

At court, the power of the eunuchs had increased considerably. As early as the reign of Xuande, in 1426, the “Pavilion of the Interior” (snow) had been created, which in fact became the private council of the emperor, giving the eunuchs who constituted it control over the entire administration. They also placed under their authority the various organs of the imperial secret police. The eunuchs, who normally dealt with matters relating to the emperor”s person, had extended their military power from their control of the Imperial Guard to direct the field army as well. They also managed the imperial workshops and diplomatic and tributary exchanges with foreign courts, which enhanced their economic power.

The omnipotence of the eunuchs only increased the mistrust traditionally felt towards them by the literate officials, all the more so as the former were northerners of low extraction, thus opposed by their social and geographical origins to the majority of the literates who were for the most part from the southern elites.

During the reign of Zhengde (1505-1521), the power of the eunuchs was very strong, and their leader, Liu Jin, effectively ruled the empire, attracting the resentment of the officials by his brutal measures. When one of the emperor”s relatives, the prince of Anhua, rebelled in 1510 and was defeated, Liu Jin took authoritarian measures which his opponents took advantage of to accuse him of wanting to get rid of the emperor, who then had him executed. The end of Zhengde”s reign was as bad as its beginning, with notably the revolt of the prince of Ning in 1519.

If after Zhengtong”s death

Longqing (1567-1572) and Wanli (1572-1620) ascended the throne smoothly. From the point of view of military affairs, the years 1570-1580 saw the conclusion of peace with the Mongols in the north, and the cessation of pirate attacks in the east. Longqing had initiated a moderation of the authoritarian policy of the central power. This was continued at the beginning of Wanli”s reign, under the regency of the Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng. He sought to reduce central government expenditures and reform the tax system, initiating a new land census and accelerating the process of tax monetization, which was more in line with the growing weight of silver money in the economy. This was the so-called “one-shot” reform (Yi Tiao Bian Fa). Bold and undoubtedly conducive to the restoration of the state, these measures were unpopular because they were seen as brutal, and were never carried through.

The death of Zhang Juzheng in 1582 and the majority of Wanli were favorable to a return of the eunuchs to the forefront, as well as to an increase in the sumptuary expenses of the court and the imperial princes. To add to the Ming”s financial problems, between 1595 and 1598 they were drawn into a conflict in Korea against the Japanese troops of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, from which they emerged painfully victorious.

Faced with its financial difficulties, the imperial power increased taxes on commercial activities and agriculture, and proceeded to important cuts in the imperial workshops. This, combined with agrarian crises, created general discontent and several outbreaks of insurrection. The end of Wanli”s reign was a period of severe crisis, marked in the years 1615-1617 by a major famine in the empire, which was not followed by a recovery due to the court and border unrest that followed. In the same years, conflicts resumed on the northern frontier at the instigation of a Jürchen tribal chief, Nurhachi, who had been an ally of the Ming during the Korean wars but stopped paying tribute to them in 1615. He attacked Liaodong in 1618, and the Ming were unable to respond effectively because of insufficient funding. This worthy adversary caused them to suffer several defeats (including a particularly disastrous one in the series of clashes at the Battle of Sarhu in 1619) and they had to abandon all the territories north of the Great Wall to him.

Since 1604, the opposition to power had gathered around the Donglin Academy, created by southern intellectuals and opposed to the party of the eunuchs. With them, a dynamic political life was established, marked by episodes of particularly free criticism of the power and its autocratic inclinations, several of the protesters presenting themselves as the voice of “the people” (which could be considered an embryonic form of democracy). The question of Wanli”s succession crystallized the tensions at court: not appreciating his eldest son, he wanted to name the son of his favorite concubine as heir apparent. He could not succeed, because the supporters of ritual legitimacy were too powerful to be swayed by his personal preferences.

The failure of recovery and the final Ming crisis

The principle of succession was respected, but the turn of events proved cruel to the stability of the dynasty: as soon as Wanli ascended the throne in 1620, his eldest son Taichang died. He was succeeded by his own eldest son Tianqi, who was unanimously recognized as incapable.

The power fell to the eunuch Wei Zhongxian, who was blamed by some for Taichang”s death. To do this, he had dismissed the Donglin scholars, who were victims of his vindictiveness throughout Tianqi”s reign, and had infiltrated the high administration by placing people in his pay. He did not survive Tianqi”s death in 1628.Chongzhen (1628-1644), brother of the previous emperor, ascended to the imperial throne facing extremely difficult problems, probably impossible to solve because of their diversity and magnitude. The years 1627-1628 were marked by a drought of terrible magnitude that led to a devastating famine, and the situation did not recover in the 1630s, so much so (cold waves, locust invasions, droughts, smallpox epidemic). This period of crisis, unprecedented for the Ming period, left some regions depopulated in the early 1640s, the empire disorganized, and the tax revenues of an already beleaguered treasury falling dramatically. This situation soon degenerated into revolts in several provinces, from which emerged warlords who removed important regions from Peking”s control: Li Zicheng in the North, Zhang Xianzhong in the South.

In the north, the Jürchen had taken the name of Manchus in 1635 under the reign of Huang Taiji, successor of Nurhaci, who built a state in imitation of that of the Chinese (he integrated many Chinese originating from the conquered territories in his administration and even his army), taking the dynastic name of Qing in 1636. The military ventures of the Manchus proceeded with great regularity, allowing them to bring under their control the territory that was later to be referred to as Manchuria, and the adjacent regions, including the Korean peninsula, which recognized their authority.

The fall of the Ming dynasty took place in several stages, involving the main military forces that had emerged in the early 1640s. It was Li Zicheng, a warlord from the north, who took Peking in April 1644, with the Chongzhen emperor committing suicide before his palace was taken. On hearing the news, Wu Sangui, one of the generals fighting against the Manchus, called for their help. The Manchus, led by their general Dorgon, took Peking without a blow and the Qing dynasty proclaimed its intention to dominate China.

It took the Qing a few more years to eliminate the last resistance that had sprung up in the south. First they subdued Zhang Xianzhong, then several princes of the Ming dynasty, the “Ming of the South”, who resisted them for a long time, notably Zhu Youlang who proclaimed himself emperor under the name of Yongli (1647-1662). The Qing then had to quell the rebellion of the “Three Feudatories” (including the general Wu Sangui, who had joined them in the fight against the Southern Ming before seeking to form his own dynasty) before firmly dominating the South in the early 1680s, and then subduing the island of Taiwan where a thalassocratic kingdom had been founded by Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga for Westerners, 1624-1662), whose successors ruled until 1683. By then they had completely taken over and expanded the Ming empire, and the century that was to follow this turmoil would be one of the most prosperous in Chinese history.

Beijing, capital of the Ming

The first Ming capital was the southern metropolis of Nanjing (the “Southern Capital”), under the reign of Hongwu, who had undertaken major works there (extension of the walls, construction of an imperial palace that prefigured the Forbidden City). After having eliminated part of the southern elites following his seizure of power, Yongle decided to transfer the capital to the north, to the former capital of the Yuan, Dadu, which then became the “Capital of the North”, Beijing. This change was decided in 1405, and required extensive work to make the city a capital worthy of the Ming Empire, which lasted until 1421. The choice of such a northern location as the capital of a Chinese empire was unprecedented (the city had only served as the capital of dynasties of non-Chinese origin) and may have been motivated by a desire to get closer to the northern lands that Yongle was trying to integrate into his state. If this was indeed his motivation, it backfired under his successors, as the city was exposed to threats from the northern peoples once the military balance of power shifted in their favor. This transfer also had the effect of moving the capital away from the richer and more dynamic regions of the south, but it proved to be a lasting one as Beijing”s status as capital has not really been contested since.

The construction work was one of the great affairs of Yongle”s reign, mobilizing resources on an exceptional scale. As soon as the construction began, nearly 100,000 households were moved to Beijing from neighboring Shanxi, and they were joined by wealthy families from the former southern capital, tens of thousands of military families and craftsmen. The Grand Canal was restored to supply the capital, an artificial construction whose needs far exceeded what the nearby regions could produce. Important works were also accomplished in the city during the reign of Zhengtong, and finally in the middle of the 16th century with the erection of the walls around the southern part of the city. The latter included the main place of worship of the capital, originally dedicated to Heaven and Earth, then from the reign of Jiajing to Heaven alone (Temple of Heaven), while outside the northern city shrines dedicated to the other major cosmic entities were erected: Earth (to the north), Sun (to the east) and Moon (to the west).

During the last century of the Ming period, Beijing was a huge city, defended by nearly 24 kilometers of walls studded with bastions and pierced by several monumental gates. The wall actually delimited two cities within the city: the main city in the north, roughly square in shape, and the southern city which was delimited later. The official sector, the imperial city, was located in the center of the northern city. It was here that the imperial palace was erected and dominated the landscape of the capital. The main avenues were laid out in a regular grid pattern. The residences of the elites were spread throughout the city, with a predilection for the sector located to the east of the imperial city. Numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, with their pagodas, also marked the urban landscape. The main markets were located next to the gates and also the shrines. Beijing was also very marked by handicraft activities. It was a very cosmopolitan city due to the many forced or voluntary migrations of families from various backgrounds that populated it, especially in its early days. It had perhaps 1 million inhabitants, whose residences spread well beyond the walls.

The emperor and the court

The emperor”s palace was built in the heart of the imperial city, on a rectangular space of about 1 kilometer from north to south and 760 meters from east to west, defended by large walls and water-filled moats. It was the “Forbidden Purple City” (Zijincheng). Its main entrance, the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) is located in the south. It opens onto a vast inner courtyard, the north side of which is flanked by the South Gate (Wumen). Behind it was the imperial residence itself, dominated by the Pavilion of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) where the most important receptions and ceremonies were held. Other smaller pavilions served as reception and ritual areas. A final inner enclosure isolated the emperor”s private residence, the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqingsong), and the residences of the imperial wives and concubines and eunuchs, surrounded by gardens.

The emperor, “Son of Heaven”, spent most of his life within the walls of the Forbidden City. Conceived as the pivot of relations between humans and Heaven, he was obliged to perform numerous rituals towards the supreme deities ensuring the protection of the empire (Heaven, therefore, but also Earth, the imperial ancestors) and participated in numerous ceremonies marking the important events of his life and that of the empire (promotion of an heir son, of a concubine, granting of fiefs, reception of ambassadors, metropolitan examinations, etc). He had to hold audiences, in principle daily, during which his subjects had to show their submission by prostrating themselves before him. But in fact most decisions were made by the Grand Secretariat and the ministries. When he travelled, he was accompanied by an impressive procession, defended by his imperial guard.

The Forbidden City was home to a large population. The reigning empress (there must have been only one) had a large pavilion, and participated in several major rituals. Beside her, the emperor had many concubines, who had lower ranks. The heir to the throne was normally the son of the principal wife, and if she did not have one it was the son of a concubine. The heir had to be trained for his future function from his youth. His brothers received important titles and were usually sent to fiefs far from the capital, not being able to exercise an official career to avoid that they constituted a threat for the emperor. In exchange they were maintained by the treasury, and by the end of the dynasty the imperial family was so numerous that it constituted a major budgetary item. The daily service of the emperor and his wives and concubines was provided by eunuchs, who could develop very close relations with the imperial family and thus have significant political power. Under the weaker emperors, eunuchs accumulated powers and fortunes that caused scandal. Some, like Wei Zhongxian and Liu Jin, even became the de facto rulers of the empire.

The court was also an important artistic center, as shown by several remarkable paintings commissioned by emperors. Xuande”s imperial tours were thus commemorated by paintings made by several hands, whose quality of execution is remarkable in spite of their very conventional style: two impressive scrolls of 26 and 30 meters long presenting one of his journeys and then his trip to the imperial tombs to perform funeral rituals. The court painters, in addition to immortalizing the various great figures of the court in portraits (primarily emperors and empresses), also left several scrolls of great quality of execution representing scenes of palace life. Shang Xi thus represented Xuande as a man of action on horseback, or playing a sport similar to golf.

The imperial tombs

The death of an emperor was an event of primary importance in the political life of the empire, but also in its ritual life. The Ming emperors continued the tradition of building monumental burial complexes for emperors and their families. Hongwu was buried at the site of Xiaoling, near Nanjing, and Jianwen had no official burial. Following the relocation of the capital under Yongle, the other emperors were buried at the mountainous site of Sishanling, northwest of Beijing (with the exception of Jingtai, who was considered a usurper and buried elsewhere). The organization of the site, planned from the beginning, followed that of the ancient imperial burial complexes. The main entrance was set between two large hills, and marked by a first large red gate. A second gate with a stele under it opened onto the “path of the spirits” (shendao) lined with monumental sculptures of protective creatures and beings, and closed by the dragon gate and the pavilion of souls where the major rites of the imperial funerary cult were held. From here begins the funeral park proper, including the various tombs of the thirteen emperors who were buried there. The tomb of Yongle, Changling, occupies a central position. The tomb is located under a large tumulus, the sacred complex of which consists of three successive courtyards arranged to the south. The tomb of Wanli, Dingling, was unearthed and comprised five large burial chambers, the most important of which, to the north, included the burial of the emperor and his two empresses. Approximately 3,000 objects were unearthed, arranged at the time of their discovery in some twenty lacquer chests of remarkable workmanship; among the most splendid is an empress”s crown containing more than 5,000 pearls.


Sinologists debate the true population figures of China during the Ming Dynasty. Timothy Brook notes that the information given by government censuses is questionable because tax obligations caused many families to underreport the number of people in the household and many officials did not report the exact number of households in their jurisdiction. Children, especially girls, were often unreported as evidenced by skewed population statistics throughout the Ming period. Even adult population figures are questionable; for example, Daming Prefecture in Northern Zhili Province (present-day Hebei) reported a population of 378,167 males and 226,982 females in 1502. The government attempted to revise the census figures by using estimates of the expected number of people in each household, but this did not solve the problem of taxes. Parts of the gender imbalance can be attributed to the practice of female infanticide. The practice is well documented in China and dates back over 2,000 years; it has been described as “endemic” and “practiced by almost every family” by contemporary authors. However, the imbalance that exceeded 2:1 in some counties in 1586 probably cannot be explained by infanticide alone.

The number of people reported in the 1381 census was 59,873,305, but the government discovered that about 3 million people were missing from the 1391 tax census. Although reporting underreported numbers became a crime punishable by death in 1381, the need to survive caused many people to skip the census and leave their areas, prompting the emperor to introduce strong measures to prevent such displacement. The government tried to revise its figures by making an estimate of 60,545,812 inhabitants in 1393. Ho Ping-ti suggests that the 1393 figure should be revised to 65 million because large areas of northern China and the borders were not counted in the census, Brook argues that the population figures in the post-1393 censuses were between 51 and 62 million as the population grew, while others put the figure at around 90 million around 1400.

Historians look to local monographs (relating to a city or district and providing a variety of information, including ancient history and recent events, and usually updated after about sixty years) for clues to population growth. Using this method, Brook estimates that the overall population under Emperor Chenghua (reign 1464-1487) was about 75 million, even though the census figures of the time were around 62 million. While the prefectures of the empire in the mid-Ming period reported either a decline in population or stagnation, local monographs indicated that there were large numbers of landless itinerant laborers seeking to settle. Emperors Hongzhi and Zhengde reduced penalties against those who fled their home areas, and Emperor Jiajing called for a census of immigrants to increase revenue. But even with these reforms to document itinerant workers and merchants, government censuses in the late dynasty still did not reflect the enormous increase in population. Local monographs of the empire noted this and made their own estimates that indicated that the population had doubled, tripled, or even quintupled since 1368. Fairbank estimated that the population was perhaps 160 million at the end of the Ming dynasty, while Brook put the figure at 175 million and Ebrey suggested 200 million.

Family, kinship and gender relations

The people of Ming China normally resided with their extended family, which included the core family (father, mother and children) as well as the forefathers (paternal grandparents). And, in a broader sense, lineage was a primary component of society, in which each person had a specific rank according to a very subtle hierarchy determined by the generation to which one belonged and the position of one”s ancestors (elders or cadets). Each person then owed a specific mark of respect to each of the other members of the lineage according to this position. According to the patriarchal principles that governed Ming society, the head of the family was the father, to whom the children owed respect, following the ancient principle of filial piety (xiao). Succession was based on the principle of patrilineage, with the eldest son succeeding the father as head of the family. In the lineage, it was therefore the head of the family of the oldest eldest branch who played the role of superior authority, coming to the aid of the poorest members of the group: he employed them in his business, maintained the sanctuaries and cemeteries of the lineage, and financed the studies of the most brilliant young men of the less wealthy branches of his kin. The metaphor of kinship also extended to the relations between officials and the governed, the former being conceived as the fathers of the latter, and it was extended to the scale of the whole empire, the loyalty of the subjects to the emperor responding to that which a child owed to his father.

The importance of lineages in society increased during the Ming period, in line with previous periods, largely due to the influence of neo-Confucian principles that valued kinship group membership. This movement was supported by the central power, which encouraged the construction of ancestral temples, which often supplanted the temples of local deities, becoming the focal points of local cults. This accompanied another important phenomenon of the period, that of the constitution of villages populated by people belonging to the same lineage. The lineage managed undivided and inalienable property (which has been compared to “trusts”), starting with the ancestral temple, but also in many cases the land that depended on it and funds intended for the financing of marriages and burials in the lineage, for charitable expenses, and for loans to members of the lineage. This phenomenon was more pronounced in the southern regions, where these lineage organizations became powerful economic institutions, managing large agricultural or forestry estates, workshops, and commercial and financial activities. It should be noted that these lineage organizations were not necessarily very exclusive, and some included members who were not related by blood to the group.

Families extended and consolidated their social relationships through marriages. These were arranged, and social necessity took precedence over the interests of the prospective spouses, whose opinion was not required. The role of marriage as a social bond was so pronounced that some families arranged posthumous marriages between two deceased youths in order to establish kinship relationships between them.

In order to establish these links, parents called upon matchmakers to find an ideal spouse for their offspring, of similar or even higher rank and financial means than their own, with a good reputation, and not having too close a family link. Omen were also used to determine the appropriateness of the alliance, as well as the date of the marriage when it was concluded. The wedding ceremony was marked by several ceremonies and banquets, during which the bride was integrated into the family of her husband, in whose house she was to reside. In principle, only the husband could decide on the dissolution of the marriage, especially if his wife behaved badly, cheated on him, or did not give him children, but she still had guarantees against a quick repudiation. The husband could take one or more concubines, provided he had the means to do so, because the union was negotiated in this case according to purely financial principles, thus taking the form of a transaction; the purchase was therefore possible for the more affluent, while the women sold in this way came from the less privileged social strata.

The asymmetry of the relationship between men and women in marriage was also seen when one of them died: the man was expected to remarry, while in principle the widow was not, and those who followed this course of action were valued (and could receive tax benefits). A moralist of the time even advised suicide for a widow who did not remain chaste. However, it turns out that the remarriage of widows was common, probably because the practice of female infanticide led to a lack of women of marriageable age that had to be compensated for, even if it meant breaking the moral code.

The first thing that was expected of a wife was that she should bear children. Her infertility was a reason to repudiate her and bring opprobrium upon her. If it was accepted that she should remain, concubines could be imposed on her. Infant mortality was high: about one in two children did not reach adulthood. Deaths in childbirth also made childbirth a perilous time for mothers and newborns. According to the patriarchal principle, the wife had to give birth to a son first and foremost, and after fulfilling this duty her position in her family was unquestioned. The practice of female infanticide already mentioned clearly indicates the inferior position of daughters, as well as the habit among poor families of selling daughters as concubines to the wealthy. Women were also subject to rather restrictive modesty obligations, especially in the privileged class, having to limit their contact with men to the strict minimum, apart from their husbands and those of their birth family. In particular, their feet were an attention-grabbing part of their body, as they were charged with erotic appeal; the practice of bandaging feet spread during the Ming period, even among the working classes, as women with small feet were considered more attractive.

In principle, activities were organized within the family according to gender: men were responsible for outdoor activities, women for those carried out in the home. In practice, this was not always the case: women sometimes participated in field work, while with the development of urban crafts, men were increasingly employed in weaving workshops, a traditionally female activity. Among the women who escaped the traditional family framework were those who joined Buddhist monastic orders, or prostitutes.

Some iconoclastic thinkers challenged the asymmetry of male-female relations, against the prevailing view. Li Zhi (1527-1602) taught that women were equal to men and deserved a better education. These words were called “dangerous ideas”. Women”s education existed in some forms, notably through certain mothers who gave their daughters a basic education, as well as in the milieu of literate courtesans who could be as well versed in calligraphy, painting and poetry as their male guests.

Social groups and economic activities

The traditional, static vision of society grouped people according to their activity into “four peoples” (simin): scholars, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. Each of these components had to ensure the satisfaction of the empire”s needs. The classification was not more detailed, except for a few specific categories such as the miners in charge of extracting salt, the soldiers organized in agricultural colonies in order to ensure their maintenance, the “nobles” (with the title of duke, marquis or count) and the imperial clan (still some 40,000 people at the end of the Ming period) which dominated society. The déclassés formed a motley population of people whom the traditional view of society considered inferior, some of whom engaged in activities considered immoral: dancers, singers, prostitutes, vagrants, slaves, etc.

In fact, the society was very fluid, crossed by dynamics of social ascension and descent. It cannot be understood as a whole compartmentalized into watertight social categories. Migration was common, motivated above all by economic needs. In fact, it was not uncommon to find populations from different social and geographical backgrounds in certain places. The inability of government officials to produce reliable censuses was in large part a result of this fluidity. The state was also responsible for a fraction of these displacements: the measures taken for the restoration of agriculture and the repopulation of deserted agricultural regions (notably in return for tax exemptions) initiated numerous displacements, and the elevation of Beijing to the rank of capital led to the forced displacement of tens of thousands of families.

The first part of the Ming Dynasty, marked by a state voluntarism in favor of agricultural development and rarely disturbed by climatic incidents, was favorable to an expansion of agriculture. This expansion was notably driven by the increasing commercialization of products, in the straight line of the Song dynasty, and once again accompanied by the action of the State, with the re-establishment of communication axes, in particular the Grand Canal. Commercial crops developed: cotton, sugar cane, vegetable oils, etc. The concentration of land was aggravated by the fact that the heavy agrarian tax burden affected primarily the poorest, as well as the peasants of the military agricultural colonies, and that attempts at tax reform to improve the situation did not bear fruit. Many poor peasants were deprived of the agricultural land necessary for their livelihood; in Zhejiang, about one-tenth of the population owned all the land. In response to this situation, many people migrated and took up other activities. A magistrate observed in 1566 that the old tax records no longer corresponded to the reality of his district because of land consolidation, and many of the large landowners had presumably grown rich by taking advantage of the prevailing vagueness to evade taxation.

For the officials, another main task in addition to taxation was to ensure that the supply of grain to their constituents was efficient. Public granaries existed to store the necessary reserves in case of a shortage. But more and more free trade was used to make up for shortages in one region with surpluses in another. This was done at the cost of sometimes considerable speculation, against which the state sought to fight by imposing a “fair price”: a profit was certainly allowed to encourage merchants to supply the deficit localities, but it was limited. Agricultural production capacity was based on the rich rice-growing regions of the Lower Yangtze, the Huai Valley and Zhejiang. The sixteenth century also saw the significant diversification of subsistence crops with the introduction of crops from America, such as sweet potato, which was quickly adopted in the south because it could grow in soils not conducive to cereals, as well as peanut and corn.

The development of trade and handicrafts was particularly marked from the 16th century onwards, even though the trend had been apparent earlier. Many uprooted peasants went to small urban trades. Capital also seems to have flowed from the countryside into commercial and craft activities. The most dynamic workshops became large enterprises with hundreds of workers, most of them poorly paid by the day, forming an urban proletariat. Only the most skilled could expect to earn a decent income. Some of the more profitable activities took on a real industrial aspect in the localities where they represented the basis of prosperity. The most famous cases are the porcelain workshops of Jingdezhen and Dehua, but we can also mention the cotton weaving workshops in Songjiang (where nearly 200,000 workers were employed around 1600), the silk factories of Suzhou, the foundries of Cixian, etc. This was accompanied by the emergence of wealthy merchants, bankers, shipowners and entrepreneurs whose private initiatives greatly contributed to the economic boom of the second part of the Ming period. This opposition between increasingly rich and organized “capitalists” and “proletarians” forming a salaried workforce living in precarious conditions could be read in a Marxist vein as a revelation of the “buds of capitalism” about to blossom in China from the 17th century onwards.

The means of transaction used for current exchanges remained the copper coins pierced in their center (the “sapèques”). The paper money issued by the state at the beginning of the dynasty never gained confidence and was abandoned after 1520. Moreover, Ming monetary policy was chaotic: they were unable to impose a single value throughout the empire and counterfeits circulated widely (up to three quarters of the coins in circulation by 1600). Despite the fact that the quality of the coins rarely matched their face value, the strong monetization of exchanges following the obligation to pay taxes in money, the rise of wage labor and various transactions made them indispensable to the smooth running of the economic system. With the expansion of international trade from the 16th century onwards, money (it circulated in the form of roughly cut ingots that were weighed.

Handicrafts and especially trade became the major factors in the development of cities, relegating administrative functions to a secondary role in this process. Suzhou became a major metropolis through its industry and trade, with probably one million inhabitants, making it the largest city in the empire, ahead of Beijing and Nanjing. The Ming period also saw the development of the port of Shanghai. Everywhere trade stimulated the development of medium-sized cities. However, very few traces of the urban architecture of the period remain to give a better idea of the appearance of these cities. The best preserved group of buildings from this period is in the city of Pingyao (Shanxi), which specialized in banking at the time, and which has preserved its Ming-era walls. Other cities such as Nanjing and Xi”an have also preserved sections of early Ming walls, as well as drum and bell towers similar to those in Beijing.

The holders of the highest imperial competitions constituted roughly the category of those who could be considered rich. Their position granted them significant emoluments, as well as tax exemptions (which concerned all scholars) and other types of gratuities, in addition to opportunities for illegal enrichment (bribery, embezzlement of public funds, etc.). They were generally wealthy landowners, heads of lineages with important social networks, and took advantage of the achievements of their ancestors who had held prestigious positions, so much so that it was not necessary for each generation of the family to pass examinations to preserve their position. The majority of the literati were less well off, holding menial jobs in the local civil service, but playing an important social role at the interface between the working class and the wealthy.

The relationship between the literate elite and the wealthy merchants was ambiguous, due to the social contempt with which the latter were treated, which contrasted with their progressive enrichment which made them part of the economic elite of the empire. In fact, many wealthy merchants chose for at least one of their sons a career as a scholar (since ideally another son should also ensure the continuity of the family business), to the point that many officials came from merchant families. More broadly, some merchants sought to espouse the values of the Confucian ideology of the literate elites and their intellectual activities. A more direct method of gaining access to the literati was to enter into a matrimonial alliance with an established family of officials, preferably one that was in financial difficulty and therefore less reluctant to ally itself with a less prestigious family.

The economic and social dynamics of the Ming period generated uncertainty and social unrest. While many uprooted people from the poorer sections of the population sought better fortunes in urban occupations, many also turned to smuggling, piracy and brigandage. Periods of economic crisis, marked by shortages, famines and epidemics, were likely to create hotbeds of instability and even insurrections. A major rebellion in Zhejiang and Fujian in 1448-1449, led by Deng Maoqi, brought together the poor from the highly productive but unequal countryside of these provinces, and joined the revolt of the miners (often clandestine) of these same regions, who were used to insurrectionary episodes. Other episodes of this type were repeated until the end of the dynasty, some apparently involving sectarian movements such as the white lotus sect, until those participating in its fall.


Since medieval times, the religious beliefs of the Chinese were divided between the “three teachings” (sanjiao): Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. This situation is rather a matter of cohabitation: the majority of the population mixed beliefs and practices from these three traditions, which had long been brought together by syncretism. Among the literate elites, the majority of whom were Confucianists, they tended to consider that these were only three ways of describing the same thing, and that it was therefore necessary to try to reconcile them.

But this conciliation did not mean for these scholars that Buddha or Laozi should be regarded with the same deference as Confucius. Tensions between the different currents were indeed not absent, in particular in the circles of power and more widely among the provincial elites. The Hongwu emperor, who was more influenced by popular Buddhist traditions, mocked the beliefs of Confucian scholars on the fate of spirits in the afterlife, because they excluded the possibility of their returning to haunt the living. The emperor”s favor for Buddhism faded during his reign, however, without being counterbalanced by the influence of another current. The imperial power, supported by Confucian scholars, sought above all to regulate the number of monks, above all to avoid too many people benefiting from the exemptions from drudgery granted to the sanctuaries. However, Buddhism always retained a strong power of attraction, including among the elites of the South.

The Chinese religious universe mixes a set of deities, the spirits, and worship was given as much to tutelary figures such as Confucius and Laozi, as to nature spirits, Taoist immortals and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Each of the three teachings had its own places of worship. The temples dedicated to Confucius were thus favored by the scholars, who went there regularly to pray, especially for success in exams, and also to study since they housed schools. The most important was the temple in the sage”s hometown, Qufu, which the Ming emperors honored. Only the Buddhist and Taoist temples had monks (who also took up hermitages away from inhabited areas), because there was no Confucian clergy, the actors of this cult, which was rarely public, being the scholars. As a whole, all the temples had roughly the same architectural characteristics, with their steeply pitched roofs higher than those of the residences, and the strong presence of the color red, seen as honorific. Buddhist shrines were distinguished by the presence of imposing pagodas, a Chinese variant of the Indian stupa (in particular the “porcelain pagoda” of Nanjing which struck European visitors). Some non-urban places of worship had achieved great popularity, in particular the five sacred mountains, which have been the object of great veneration since ancient times, and under the influence of Buddhism they were important places of pilgrimage.

Religious festivals were important moments of urban life, marked by processions, shows and fairs. In contrast, the daily worship observed by believers took place in small chapels that were permanently open, or in front of domestic altars where one worshipped deities as well as the spirits of the family ancestors. Ancestral worship was indeed an essential element of the Chinese religious universe, whether it was done to attract the good graces of the ancestral spirits or, from a Buddhist point of view, to ensure their good reincarnation. Important events in family life (birth, marriage, passing an exam, etc.) were to be accompanied by offerings at the family altar, so as to invite the ancestors to the celebration. The “Festival of Pure Light” (it was marked by banquets during which one ate cold food, and the cleaning of family tombs. The worship of the Taoist and Buddhist temples was animated jointly by the monks and associations of laymen, who regularly financed the renovation of the buildings and their decoration, as well as works of charity as regards more specifically the Buddhists. Some of these groups had ended up becoming very important and had a great weight in the society, like the white lotus sect which fomented several popular revolts in period of serious crisis.

Folk religion also involved magical practices that blended the various traditions, including the use of protective talismans to ward off evils (diseases that were blamed on demons), the observance of good and bad days, and divination that could take various forms. Self-cultivation practices from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, consisting of gymnastic exercises to ensure the proper circulation of the vital breath (qi – the antecedents of qigong), were also widespread among monks and laypeople, although disdained by Confucian scholars. They sometimes met the traditions of martial arts (wushu), for example among the monks of the Shaolin monastery who developed their famous fighting art in the 16th century.

The end of the Ming dynasty saw the arrival of the first European Jesuit missionaries: after a first attempt by Francis Xavier in the middle of the sixteenth century, Matteo Ricci succeeded in bringing about more conversions, and his effort was continued by others (Nicolas Trigault, Johann Adam Schall von Bell). Other Christian orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans also established themselves in China. But converts numbered only a few thousand in the first half of the seventeenth century, and it was mainly because of their scientific knowledge that the Jesuits aroused interest among Chinese scholars at this time.

In addition to Christianity, the Jews of Kaifeng had a long history in China dating back to the 7th century. Islam also existed in China since the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century. Important people of that time were Muslims, such as Admiral Zheng He or the generals Chang Yuqun, Lan Yu, Ding Dexing and Mu Ying.


Recreational activities had become increasingly important with the development of urban life, especially since the Song period. The Chinese had access to a wide range of leisure activities in the city, but also in the countryside. Fashions were above all a dynamic of diffusion from above: the elites, and in particular the imperial court, repeatedly set the tone. But on the other hand, popular leisure activities, such as street performances, attracted the attention of the educated, especially those marked by less conformist currents that valued the arts in the vernacular.

Traditionally, banquets were an important moment of relaxation, charged with numerous social meanings, allowing to show one”s prestige and to maintain one”s relations, while being subjected to a sometimes rather heavy protocol. Imperial meals, to which subjects could be invited (notably the winners of metropolitan competitions, but also the ambassadors of tributary countries), had to be the most munificent, taking place in the great halls of the imperial palaces or their gardens. At their level, the provincial officials reproduced this practice of official meals, in which the place of the guests and the dishes presented were according to their rank. Each lineage had to hold banquets on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, New Year”s Eve, the success of a member of the lineage in a competition, and the trades as well as the religious groups of laymen did the same. The banquets were accompanied by songs and music, sometimes acrobatic performances, and among the elite were invited courtesans to cheer up the guests, because married women were generally excluded. The collective festivities were obviously in full swing during the great religious festivals, which were the occasion for numerous recreational events. Thus the New Year”s celebrations were marked by the offering of gifts to relatives, large fireworks, then the ceremony of the lighting of the fires during the festival of the lanterns.

Music, singing and dancing were important in the entertainment activities. Music was certainly an art that every good scholar had to master to show his knowledge and good taste. But when it came to entertainment, less socially valued troupes were called upon and those who made their living from music and dance were not well regarded. The same was true for actors in street shows and theatrical performances, which were very common in urban areas, whose art mixed dance, song, music and acrobatics. Stories could also be told by storytellers, or performed by puppeteers and shadow theaters. Traveling troupes toured the cities to perform popular plays with romantic, fantastic or heroic stories. The plays were never disregarded by the temples (during religious festivals) or the social elite (who had private theaters) who often participated in the financing of the actors” troupes and increasingly influenced the content of the works. This resulted in content that was increasingly purged of its subversive aspects, with the appearance of elitist plays written by renowned scholars (see below).

In their daily lives, the Chinese practiced various leisure activities, many of which involved gambling. This was the case for games of chance such as dice, cards or various kinds of domino games that were in vogue at the time, as well as games of skill. These activities were practiced in the residences, but also on the markets, at the courtesans”, in sorts of gambling dens, etc., and the sums at stake were such that some found themselves ruined after several failures, going so far as to bet their concubines or even their wives in extreme cases. In principle, the law was against such gambling, but it was so popular that the authorities were not able to prevent it. Other puzzle games such as mahjong, weiqi (known in Europe by its Japanese name go) or xiangqi (Chinese chess) were also widely played.

Among the sports activities, the ball game, cuju, was very popular with many Ming emperors. Games of strength, archery or wrestling competitions and other martial arts were common during the festivities. In another register, the Xuande emperor enjoyed cricket fights, and his passion invaded the whole society, giving birth to a remarkable craft of cricket cages, as well as to the writing of treatises related to this insect, in particular that of the great writer Yuan Hongdao. Cockfighting was also very common among the variety of animal fights that existed at the time, and gave rise to a great deal of betting and investment in training the animals. Less violent shows of tamers were also widespread; among the most original were shows of birds trained to recognize writing characters, or toads capable of chanting Buddhist sutras, as well as monkey theaters.

Currents of thought

The reign of Yongle saw the writing of a vast compilation commissioned by the emperor and directed between 1403 and 1408 by his Great Secretary Xie Jin, the Encyclopedia of the Yongle Era (Yongle dadian). It was intended to include all works written in Chinese, and contained a whopping 22,877 chapters, organized by subject. It was handwritten and never printed because its size prevented any attempt to do so, and only a small part of its original content remains today. Other anthologies were published at the beginning of the Ming period, bringing together texts by thinkers of the neo-Confucian tradition of the Song period (that of Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, the “Cheng-Zhu” current), including commentaries on the classics that provided the essential ideas of the official thought that was to be part of the baggage of candidates for the imperial competitions.

These works laid the foundations of intellectual life in the Ming period, and left their mark on the imperial examinations, which were characterized by rigid tests valorizing the Confucian ideal and a rather “antique” style, such as the “eight-legged composition”, baguwen (en), in which all scholars tried to excel, and which was to be the object of vigorous criticism in the early Qing period. But some soon distanced themselves from the “orthodox” writings. Thus, from the first century of the dynasty, the ideal of withdrawal from the world manifested by certain brilliant minds such as Wu Yubi (1392-1469), Hu Juren (1434-1484) and Chen Xianzhang (1428-1500), refused official functions in order to devote themselves in particular to manual work and spiritual research, under the influence of Buddhism.

Wang Yangming (or Wang Shouren, 1472-1529) was the most prominent critic of the mainstream during the early part of the dynasty, and his influence on later thinkers was considerable, for they were forced, so to speak, to position themselves according to his thought. Wang was certainly an important figure in his time, for in addition to being a scholarly official who passed the imperial examinations, he was also a general with a distinguished career. His thinking was influenced by Confucian and Buddhist heritage, as well as Taoist longevity techniques. He is generally remembered as being part of the “school of the spirit” going back to Lu Xiangshan, a great thinker of the Song period whose views are opposed to those of Zhu Xi. Wang in turn took up the idea of the innate goodness of the human soul from the reflections of Mencius. In order to attain the holiness permitted by this natural state, it would be necessary, according to him, to work on one”s mind, which presides over all things (“the mind is the principle”), in order to attain the extension of innate moral knowledge (the influence of Chan Buddhist thought is evident on this point). Contrary to the prevailing dogma, Wang argued that anyone, regardless of background or material wealth, could become as wise as the ancient thinkers Confucius and Mencius, and that the writings of the latter were not the truth but guides that could contain errors. A man of action, Wang professed that practice is necessary, and allows the revelation of knowledge (“knowledge and action are one”). He thus formulated a thought that was more engaged with the world than that of the Cheng-Zhu school. In Wang”s mind, a peasant who had had many experiences and had learned from them was wiser than the thinker who had carefully studied the classics but had no experience of the real world and had not observed what was true.

There also emerged thoughts that were more challenging to the established order. Wang Gen (1483-1541), a Lower Yangtze saunter influenced by the teachings of Wang Yangming, sought to develop a popular form of neo-Confucianism (the “Taizhou school”), aimed at all, through discussion groups on Confucian texts and the valorization of practical experience. One of his epigones, Li Zhi (1527-1602), was one of the most important critics of the mandarin order, for which he was eventually imprisoned and committed suicide. He treated the writings of the great Confucian masters with irreverence, and pushed to the extreme Wang Yangming”s idea that anyone could become a saint, and that this required the rejection of traditional rules and morals. He had an important influence on several critical writers of his time, such as Yang Shen and Yuan Hongdao.

In general, the challenge to the official ideology was less radical. Some thinkers tried to bring back to the center thoughts about energy (qi) as the source of life and unity, while others tried to develop syncretic thoughts mixing the dominant Confucianism with Buddhism and Taoism, considering these three teachings as one. In opposition to Wang Yangming”s “liberal” ideas were the conservatives of the censorate, a governmental institution with the right and responsibility to rule against wrongdoing and abuse of power, as well as Confucian scholars who were certainly dissenting but still marked by orthodox currents, They included the Confucian scholars who were certainly dissenters but still marked by orthodox currents, attached to the Donglin academy (see below), or the thinker Liu Zongzhou (1578-1645) who remained within the orthodox framework but tried to integrate elements of Wang”s thought by reshaping them, while at the same time being a critic of government policy. In fact, by the second half of the sixteenth century, philosophical reflection and discussion had become very free and politicized, giving rise to a period of intense reflection on the exercise of power.

This outpouring of criticism worried the authorities as early as 1579: the Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng ordered the closure of private academies in order to better control independent minds (he even had one of the most virulent of them, He Xinyin, executed). This did not prevent the activity of (admittedly less extreme) think tanks from reviving in the early 17th century, as evidenced by Gu Xiancheng”s (1550-1612) re-establishment of the old Donglin (“Eastern Forest”, originally from Jiangsu) academy in 1604, to become an instrument for criticism of government policy. The southern scholars in this circle had often been placarded or dismissed by the central government, especially at the instigation of the eunuchs. They distinguished themselves from the most critical currents by rejecting the ideal of withdrawal from the world, insisting instead on the need to remain in the political apparatus in order to act on the world. In doing so, they referred to the traditional morality and ritualism of Confucianism. The second head of the Donglin Academy, Gao Panlong, was arrested in 1626 at the instigation of the eunuch Wei Zhongxian, and chose to commit suicide. The academy was reborn shortly afterwards as the “Society of Renewal” (Fushe) in Suzhou, participating first in the resistance against the eunuchs, then in the resistance against the Manchus after 1644. Some of its members were close to scholars converted to Christianity, such as Xu Guangqi. It was also from these circles that the future great intellectuals of the early Qing dynasty emerged: Gu Yanwu and Huang Zongxi, members of the Society of Renewal, Wang Fuzhi who founded his own society.

Letters, arts and aesthetics

The Ming period saw the development among the elite of a taste for the search for valuable objects, which were valued not only for their primary usefulness but also for the symbolic aspect and prestige that their possession conferred. This was certainly not an innovation of the time, far from it, but the search for these objects developed as never before, spreading to a large part of the wealthy population and leading at the end of the dynasty to the appearance of an important market of collectibles. It was animated by many amateurs who “used them to express the most sublime ideas of their culture: meditative contemplation, aesthetic discernment and good taste” (Brook).

At the beginning of the period, collectors concentrated on what had long been valued by scholars, namely paintings and calligraphy, or ancient pieces such as jade objects, seals, and antique bronzes. Then the field of sought-after objects gradually expanded to include porcelain, furniture, lacquerware, as well as quality printed books. Older pieces were the rarest and therefore the most expensive, but the work of specialized craftsmen from recent eras was also in great demand. The residences of the richest and most refined people had to have beautiful furniture in the different rooms, paintings, libraries with many books, quality vases containing bouquets of flowers, all of which had to show the taste and the sense of style of the master of the house.

The demand towards the end of the Ming period provided work for art dealers and even forgers who made imitations. This was noticed by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci while in Nanjing and he wrote that Chinese forgers could make very fine works of art for a large profit. Nevertheless, there were guides to help the cautious connoisseur and the book by Liu Tong (?-1637) printed in 1635 offered the reader methods to determine not only the quality but also the authenticity of an object.

The scholars were logically great lovers of books. Many of them were true bibliophiles, collecting numerous works, especially the most original, the most beautiful or the oldest, which they treated with extreme care (and often in fear of a fire that would destroy their precious collection).

The supply of books became more important during the Ming dynasty, with the diffusion of printing which was no longer limited to official editions supervised by the imperial power. The editions were then made by the process of xylography (the principle of movable characters was known but not widespread), which can be made at low cost. This method of printing also allowed for the easy reproduction of images, which became common in books, and was highly appreciated by bibliophiles of the time, especially when it came to color prints (which were more expensive). Thanks to these advances and to the high demand in a society whose elites were increasingly wealthy, a dynamic book market developed. Some scholars were able to accumulate thousands of books: it was not uncommon around 1600 to find private libraries with 10,000 books, which would have been unthinkable before. If the boom in the production and distribution of books concerned ancient works, it also encouraged publishers to distribute recent creations in significant quantities, and also a greater variety of genres, ranging from novels of low literary quality published for “commercial” purposes to scientific and technical works, and others of a more scholarly nature with a more confidential distribution. The offer was not only considerably larger, it was highly diversified.

Narrative fiction flourished during the Ming period, continuing in print the interest in storytelling and theatrical performance that had been shown in urban circles for the same purpose. Short stories in the vulgar language, especially huaben, dealing with fantasy, romance, sometimes with burlesque and eroticism, were highly prized. They gradually gained more respectability at the end of the period thanks to compilations and editions that aimed to enhance their language register, such as the Tales of the Serene Mountain (Qingpingshantang huaben) published in 1550, and above all the works of Feng Menglong (1574-1646), two authors whose tales were later included in the Curious Shows of Today and Yesteryear (Jingu qiguan) around 1640. Longer tales were also developed, sometimes reaching a hundred chapters, which made them real novels. This is the case of the most famous novels of the Ming period, seen as masterpieces of Chinese literature, the “four extraordinary books”: The Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi yanyi) a historical novel, At the Water”s Edge (Shuihu zhuan) a kind of cloak-and-dagger novel featuring big-hearted brigands, The Westward Peregrination (Xi Youji) relating the fantastic journey of a Buddhist monk to India, and the Jin Ping Mei, a novel of manners; another famous fantasy novel of this period is The Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen Yanyi or Fengshen Bang).

The other literary form, having the same origins, which flourished and attracted more interest from the scholars was the theater, which can also be called “opera” because of the numerous sung passages that the plays contained (their authors must therefore have had talents as poets and musicians). This was accompanied by the writing of critical works on this art (the Introduction to Southern Theater by Xu Wei, also a remarkable playwright), and of plays recognized as major works, first of all The Peony Pavilion (Mudanting) by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), one of the most famous in Chinese history. More generally, a distinction was made between the four-act theater of the North, zaju, and the freer-formed theater of the South, chuanqi, from which the more refined and elitist opera plays, kunqu, were derived. This affirmation of a theater

Among the great men of letters of the Ming period, Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610) should also be mentioned. Marked by the nonconformism of Li Zhi, to whom he was close, he despised literature in classical styles and preferred literature in vulgar language, such as stories, ballads, novels and plays. With his brothers Yuan Zongdao and Yuan Zhongdao, he developed a poetic style close to the spoken language, the “Gong”an style”. A great traveler, he left remarkable essays in the category of travel reports, which were very fashionable at the time, describing the sites he discovered and the emotions they aroused in him. He is also known for his mastery of poetic prose, epistolary and biographical writing. Travel literature knew at the end of the Ming period another of its most remarkable representatives, the tireless traveler and geographer Xu Xiake (1586-1641).

There were many talented painters during the Ming period such as Shen Zhou, Dai Jin, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming, Qiu Ying and Dong Qichang. The latter, one of the leaders of the “Wu school” (the country of Suzhou), was also a great critic of painting, whose influence on the later periods was major. These painters adopted, with new elements, the techniques and styles of the masters of the Song (Mi Fu) and Yuan (Ni Zan and Wang Meng) dynasties, whose works were highly sought after by art lovers at the time, even though they generally had to make do with copies. Narrative painting is horizontal and the eye follows the narrative from right to left. This period is particularly rich in paintings of this genre, including those produced by painters of the “Wu School”, led by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Qiu Ying (c. 1494-1552) from the 1520s. Shen Zhou, another representative painter of the Suzhou School, distinguished himself in the main styles of literary painting, elegantly combining painting, poetry and calligraphy: landscape painting (The Greatness of Mount Lu) and “bird and flower” painting. Dai Jin, another outstanding representative of the more “romantic” “Zhe school” (Zhejiang), had a notable influence in Japan, but not in China, where the most renowned critics (including Dong Qichang) did not think much of him. Several painters also excelled in the depiction of figures, whether they were private portraits, a form of painting that spread from the 16th century onwards to the upper classes of society, whereas it had previously been limited to the circle of the imperial family, scenes illustrating poems, representations of scholars, moments of present and past imperial life (Qiu Ying”s Spring Morning in the Han Palace), or religious scenes depicting Buddhist and Taoist deities. Because of the high demand, renowned artists could make a living from their art and were in great demand. This was the case of Qiu Ying, recognized as one of the most outstanding copyists of his time and whose line and coloring quality was considered unparalleled, who was paid 2.8 kg of silver to paint a long scroll for the 80th birthday of the mother of a rich patron.

Furniture design is another area that made the artistic reputation of the Ming period (even if cabinetmakers remained anonymous craftsmen), by the quality of the works mixing a simple aesthetic with the search for functionality: armchairs, tables, canopy beds, storage furniture, chests. Hardwoods and precious woods were prized for these creations, in particular Dalbergia odorifera, a variety of rosewood known in China as huanghuali. Not only did the execution gain in finesse, but it also showed a will to adapt to the shapes of the bodies. The forms were more refined, thanks to the progress of carpentry techniques which allowed the elimination of the elements ensuring the cohesion of the furniture, notably the nails, being satisfied with a discreet assembly by tenon and mortise or joints. This refined furniture was much sought after by men of taste, who had a large quantity of it in their residences, as the few surviving inventories of the period attest.

The care given to the decoration of the wealthy residences was also manifested outside of them, in the gardens which formed in the purest Chinese aesthetic tradition a universe of their own, elaborated in an artistic and meditative perspective. The Treatise on the Art of Gardens (Yuanye) by Ji Cheng, a renowned master gardener, published in 1634, bears witness to the complexity of this art. The garden had to leave an impression of idealized nature, paradise, inspired by landscape painting and that associating animals and flowers: it thus included rocks recreating a semblance of relief, springs and water points, trees, plants chosen in such a way as to awaken the senses, both sight and smell, at different times of the day and at different seasons of the year. In order to better admire these places, kiosks, pavilions, study rooms, terraces, etc. were placed and even the balconies and windows of the house were designed to allow this contemplation.

Science and technology

After the scientific and technological boom of the Song dynasty, the pace of discoveries during the Ming dynasty was less sustained, even if the general level remained high. To judge this, it is sufficient to take into account the important scientific literary production of the end of the period, which had above all a practical aspect, thus taking up the advances of the preceding periods to amplify their diffusion thanks to printing. In comparison, however, Europe began to make rapid technological progress, although it is not possible to speak of a real advance until the eighteenth century. Some important advances at the end of the Ming period were accomplished through contacts with Europe, through the Jesuits who were in advanced contact with several Chinese intellectuals.

The Chinese calendar was in need of reform because it counted the tropical year as 365 and a half days, resulting in an error of 10 min and 14 s every year or about one day every 128 years. Even though the Ming had adopted Guo Shoujing”s Shoushi calendar of 1281 which was as accurate as the Gregorian calendar, the Ming astronomers failed to periodically readjust it. A descendant of the Hongxi emperor, Prince Zhu Zaiyu (1536-1611), presented a solution to correct the calendar in 1595 but the conservative astronomical committee rejected his proposal. It was the same Zhu Zaiyu who discovered a tuning system called the tempered scale which was simultaneously discovered in Europe by Simon Stevin (1548-1620).

When the first Hongwu emperor discovered the mechanical systems of the Yuan dynasty in the Khanbaliq palace such as fountains with dancing balls on their jets, an automaton in the shape of a tiger, mechanisms blowing clouds of perfume and clocks of the tradition of Yi Xing (683-727) and Su Song (1020-1101), he associated them with Mongolian decadence and had them destroyed. Later, European Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault briefly mentioned Chinese clocks with gears. However, both men knew that sixteenth-century European clocks were far more sophisticated than the time-measuring systems commonly used in China such as clepsydra, fire clocks, and “other instruments…with wheels driven by sand as if it were water.”

Numerous works presenting agricultural, hydraulic, artisanal or military techniques were published, combining texts and illustrations to improve their pedagogical effectiveness. Song Yingxing (1587-1666) documented a large number of metallurgical and industrial technologies and processes in an encyclopedia with numerous xylographic images, the Tiangong kaiwu, published in 1637. It presented mechanical and hydraulic systems for agriculture, marine technologies and snorkeling equipment for pearl fishing, the annual process of sericulture and weaving with looms, metallurgical techniques such as quenching or crucible, processes of making gunpowder by heating pyrite to extract sulfur, and its military use such as in sea mines triggered by a detonating cord and a spinning wheel. One of the main authors of works on machines at the end of the Ming period, Wang Zheng (1571-1644), together with the Jesuit Johann Schreck, wrote the Illustrated Explanations on the Strange Machines of the Far West (Yuanxi qiqi tushuo), a presentation of European technology to the Chinese public. The convert Xu Guangqi was also an important writer of technical works, such as the Nonzheng quanshu (1639) describing Chinese agricultural techniques, but also data on European hydraulic knowledge. Ironically, some technologies that had been invented in China but later forgotten were reintroduced by Europeans at the end of the Ming period, such as the mobile mill.

In another register but with a similar practical purpose, manuals of calculation and practical mathematics were published, explaining the functioning of the abacus (suanpan), to which public finance officials and merchants had more and more recourse with the development of transactions, as well as the way to solve various common financial problems. On a more theoretical level, although Shen Kuo (1031-1095) and Guo Shoujing (1231-1316) had laid the foundations of trigonometry in China, it was not until 1607 that another major work in this field was published, thanks to the translations of Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci, in particular that of Euclid”s Elements in 1611.

The Ming Dynasty saw the diversification of gunpowder weapons, but from the middle of the period, the Chinese began to make frequent use of European-type firearms. The Huolongjing, compiled by Jiao Yu and Liu Ji and published in 1412, presented various artillery technologies at the cutting edge of the technology of the time. Examples include explosive cannonballs, landmines that used a complex mechanism of weights and pins, and rockets, some of which had multiple stages. Another major military treatise of the period was Mao Yuanyi”s Wubeizi (1621), which also included developments on firearms. European techniques in this field aroused much interest from the 1590s onwards, when many officials favored developing relations with the Europeans in order to acquire their guns.

Li Shizhen (1518-1593), one of the most renowned pharmacologists and physicians of traditional Chinese medicine, lived in the late Ming period. Between 1552 and 1578, he wrote the Bencao gangmu, printed with illustrations in 1596, which detailed the use of hundreds of plants and animal products for medicinal purposes, as well as the variolization process. According to legend, it was a Taoist hermit on Mount Emei who invented the inoculation process for smallpox in the late tenth century, and the technique spread to China in the second half of the sixteenth century, long before it was developed in Europe. If the ancient Egyptians had invented a primitive toothbrush in the form of a twig frayed at the end, it was the Chinese who invented the modern brush in 1498 even though it used pig hair.

In the field of cartography and astronomy, the influence of the Jesuits was important at the end of the period. Ricci”s works also helped to advance Chinese cartography, contributing to the popularization of the representation of the Earth as a sphere. In 1626, Johann Adam Schall von Bell wrote the first Chinese treatise on the telescope, the Yuanjingshuo, and in 1634, the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, bought the telescope of the late Johann Schreck (1576-1630). The heliocentric model of the solar system was rejected by Catholic missionaries in China, but the ideas of Johannes Kepler and Galileo slowly seeped into China thanks to the Polish Jesuit Michał Piotr Boym (1612-1659) in 1627 and the treatise of Adam Schall von Bell in 1640. The Jesuits in China defended Copernicus” theory but embraced Ptolemy”s ideas in their writings, and it was not until 1865 that Catholic missionaries promoted the heliocentric model like their Protestant brethren.

The rulers of the “Middle Kingdom” perceived themselves as the most civilized power in the world, and considered each foreign country as being in a peripheral and subordinate position in relation to them. In principle, China only entered into relations with these countries if they paid tribute in exchange for honorary gifts, which eventually allowed the establishment of strictly controlled exchanges. The border areas were very closely monitored in order to regulate relations with the outside world and to strictly limit the number of foreigners who could enter the empire, whether by the customs offices of the ports open to traffic with the outside world or by the garrisons holding the land borders. It was undoubtedly along the Great Wall that this desire for control found its most eloquent expression.

But in reality, borders were porous and the desire to limit or even ban trade in certain places was always thwarted by the existence of a fruitful smuggling trade, sometimes linked to acts of brigandage and piracy, which counterbalanced the reputation of “closure” traditionally attributed to the Ming dynasty. This period saw an expansion of international trade, particularly on the maritime front of the empire, and incentives for the development of foreign trade took precedence over the ideal of restriction. In particular, China was in great demand for silver mined in Japan and Bolivia, the massive importation of which had important effects on its domestic economy, while its workshops produced fabrics and porcelain which were exported as far as Europe. Towards the end of the period, the growing presence of Europeans in Asia began to be felt in China itself, heralding the upheavals of the Qing era.

The defense of the northern border and the Great Wall

The Ming army was organized around military regions roughly corresponding to the administrative provinces, which had garrisons where the soldiers in charge of the defense of the empire were stationed. These were in principle recruited from families registered as soldiers, who had to provide each generation with fighters. In exchange, they were exempted from drudgery and were provided with military agricultural colonies whose production was supposed to allow them to survive. These garrisons were particularly concentrated along the northern border and in the vicinity of Peking, the areas most likely to be the object of attacks from the northern populations (Mongols, then Oirats and Manchus), and also in the southwest, another border region where military activities were important. This system gradually fell into decadence due to the disappearance of military families, particularly as a result of desertions. This was increasingly compensated for by the hiring of mercenaries, who were better paid, which put an increasing strain on the treasury, but were not obliged to perform permanent service. At the end of the dynasty, the garrisons of the northern frontier of the empire were thus made up of almost equal parts of soldiers from hereditary military families and mercenaries. This border area was not only a militarized space, but also a zone of exchange between China and the peoples of the steppe, which could take the form of official trade on state markets or smuggling. The Chinese mainly imported horses from the North, or furs and ginseng from Manchuria; for the northern peoples, trade with China was of a more vital nature (foodstuffs, tea) or concerned utilitarian and prestigious objects (fabrics, porcelain, tools).

The network of garrisons on the northern border of China was completed by the beginning of the 15th century with the erection of long walls. The Ming were not innovative in this, since this kind of construction had antecedents going back to the ancient period. The first defensive system they reorganized followed the pattern of sixth-century fortifications erected in Hebei and Shanxi. But they gradually extended these barriers to form a system of Great Walls such as had never existed before. This was in response to the threat posed by the Mongols to the north of the empire and in particular to its capital in the second half of the 15th century. A second line of defenses was erected under Zhengtong between northern Shanxi and Beijing, and then the system was extended westward (into Gansu) under Chenghua. In the second half of the 16th century, the Great Walls were again the object of large-scale construction from 1567 onwards, during the reign of Longqing who entrusted the task to one of his main generals, Qi Jiguang (1528-1588). The walls built at that time reached the sea to the east, so as to protect the capital region against any attack from the north, and it is there that the best preserved portions are nowadays found. The brick walls could be up to 6-8 meters high, and generally followed the ridge lines of the steep hills they crossed. Watchtowers were placed at regular intervals, as well as arsenals and forts housing the larger garrisons. Despite the considerable efforts that were made and its defensive qualities, this system was too large a structure to be properly secured and maintained (several sections were in poor condition).

Maritime expeditions and relations with Eastern and Southern countries

One of the specificities of the Ming period in Chinese history was the organization of maritime expeditions during the reign of Yongle, led by the eunuch Zheng He, a Muslim from Yunnan. Rather than an exploration enterprise similar to those initiated by European countries a few decades later, these were primarily political and diplomatic operations aimed at visiting foreign states that were already known (these were not “discoveries”) and considered vassals of Yongle, in order to have them recognize this status and their role as tributaries. Commercial objectives were not necessarily absent from these undertakings. They were finally stopped, in the context of the end of the “expansionist” phase of Yongle”s reign, perhaps also because these enterprises were considered too costly by the central administration.

Admiral Zheng He led seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433, each lasting about two years. The Chinese fleet visited many countries: Champa (South Vietnam), Majapahit (Java), Palembang (Sumatra), Siam, Ceylon, the cities of present-day Kerala, including Calicut, and further on Ormuz, several cities in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and secondary fleets even went to Jeddah and Mecca, and the coast of Somalia. The fleet, consisting of large junks (the “treasure ships”, baochuan), could carry some 20,000 men each time. On the strength of this, Zheng He intervened in political affairs (a succession case to the Majapahit throne) and even engaged militarily in Ceylon where he defeated the local ruler. Luxury and exotic objects were brought back from the various countries traveled to, revealing that these expeditions were also motivated by the goal of bringing prestige goods to the imperial court. These journeys were commemorated in several geographical works, including those of the eunuch Ma Huan who had participated in some of the expeditions. Zheng He and his impressive fleet were remembered in many of the countries they visited, and the admiral is revered as a deity in some of these countries.

If it is Zheng He”s expeditions that have most attracted the attention of Western historians, and rightly so because of their magnitude, they were part of a series of official journeys marking the suzerainty of the Ming over several kingdoms of Southeast and East Asia: in Hongwu”s reign, ambassadors from the major states of these regions had paid homage to the emperor in Nanjing, and in Yongle”s it was the same, even to a king of Borneo who died during his visit to Nanjing and was buried there. The beginning of Yongle”s reign saw the first expeditions of eunuchs representing the emperor, as early as 1403. Since at least the Tang period, trade networks had been woven from China to the Middle East, passing through the rich cities of Southeast Asia and India, with China exporting in particular those ceramics which were considered to be of a much higher quality than those of Western countries. Muslim (Arabs and Iranians) and Chinese merchants were involved in these exchanges. The Chinese authorities more or less tried to regulate the arrival of ships in their ports, by imposing a limit on embassies (thus a delegation of two ships and 200 people maximum every 10 years for Japan under Yongle), and single ports of arrival for ships from foreign countries where customs offices had to strictly control the arrival of foreigners and assign them official lodgings (Ningbo for Japan, Quanzhou and then Fuzhou for the Philippines, Guangzhou for South East Asia). In spite of these restrictions, the embassies were an opportunity to exchange numerous objects, and also to maintain cultural relations allowing China to assert its influence on its neighbors: the Japanese Buddhist monks who took part in the embassies of this country were thus important transmitters of the religious, artistic and intellectual influence of China on their country of origin during this period.

Expansion of international trade and trade in money

From the beginning of the 16th century, the maritime networks entered a new era. They were driven by a new dynamic linked to the arrival of Europeans in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, first the Portuguese, then the Spanish (who settled in Manila in 1571) and the Dutch of the East India Company (who settled in Java and then Taiwan in the early 17th century). This led to the creation of what F. Braudel calls a “world-economy” in the vast region of Southeast Asia, where the exchange networks were intense and led to a form of economic integration. In a geographical work relating to this area, the Survey of the Eastern and Western Oceans (Donxi yang kao), Zhang Xie, a Chinese from the maritime province of Fujian, distinguished two major routes: the Eastern Sea route, linking his native region to Taiwan, then on to the Philippines and also to Japan; and the Western Sea route, following the coast of Viet Nam to reach the Straits of Malacca, then the Indian Ocean or Java.

Because of its economic prosperity and the popularity abroad of the products that came out of its workshops (above all porcelain, silks and other fine fabrics, iron tools, but also increasingly tea), China became a dominant pole in these exchange networks. On the other hand, if the Ming Empire was part of the “Columbian exchange” by adopting the cultivation of American plants (sweet potato, corn, peanut), manufactured goods from abroad were generally not much appreciated there, especially those from Europe, with a few exceptions (firearms). What was most desired at the time was silver, which was increasingly in demand in the empire”s economy due to its demographic and economic growth. Traditionally, the Chinese imported this metal from the mines of Japan, but with the arrival of the Europeans silver from the American mines of Mexico and Bolivia was introduced into Asia, and gradually became the majority. It was introduced indirectly after transiting through Europe or directly from America through the Manila galleon, which organized the maritime trade between Acapulco in New Spain and the Spanish Philippines. A strong Chinese community was already established on this island and grew with the development of Manila. Because Europeans were forbidden to trade in China, it was the merchants of Fujian who carried out the trade: they organized shipments to coincide with the arrival of American money. This trade was profitable for both sides: Chinese handicrafts, especially porcelain, were sold in Asian markets at a much lower price than in Europe, while silver was more expensive in China than in Europe. Certainly there was unrest when the galleons from America sank before they arrived in Manila, resulting in two episodes of violence that ended with the deaths of thousands of Chinese. But in general the profits were such that the tensions were forgotten, and Wanli-era China saw an influx of silver, which had by then become the main metal of transaction (to the detriment of copper or paper money), and merchants in the ports of southern China were able to generate considerable profits.

Smuggling and piracy in coastal areas

The growth of maritime trade posed a variety of security and economic problems in the coastal regions. As late as the fifteenth century, tributaries provided many of the ships that docked, but many usurped this status to profit from the profitable trade with China. The imperial authorities allowed this to happen, considering at first that the trade was too profitable for stricter measures to be necessary. The control of the coastline posed other more acute problems. Even before the Ming era, acts of piracy were common on the Chinese coast, especially those initiated by pirates of Japanese origin, the Wakō (Wokou in Chinese). In fact, this nebula soon included people from various backgrounds, including many Chinese, Koreans, Malays, then Portuguese, etc. In addition to brigandage and marauding, these groups engaged in smuggling, and had woven commercial networks that included established merchants as well as corrupt officials, thus circumventing the restrictions imposed by the state.

Faced with an upsurge in attacks at the beginning of the 16th century, the Jiajing emperor decided to close the maritime border completely (a policy known as haijin, “maritime interdiction”), authorizing only fishing vessels to take to the sea; in particular, Japan was targeted, whose nationals were accused of being the source of the evils, often with good reason, even if they were not completely so. The measure was certainly effective at first in limiting violent acts, but maritime trade had become so indispensable that smuggling developed amply, and with it piracy, which resumed with greater vigor to reach its most flourishing period in the years 1550-1560. One of the main pirate leaders of this period was a former Chinese merchant by the name of Wang Zhi, established in the southern islands of the Japanese archipelago, who had become a major player in coastal smuggling, before being eliminated in 1557. The development of piracy and illicit trade was inseparable from the growth of maritime trade in this period, and also responded to the difficulties of the declining peasant and urban populations, who swelled the ranks of pirates and smugglers. After Jiajing”s death in 1567, the trade ban was quickly dropped, but the restrictions did not cease. This and the vigorous reaction of the Chinese authorities against pirates ended the great era of piracy, but did not completely eliminate the problem. At the turning point between the Ming and Qing periods, Zheng Zhilong, thus set up a vast system of smuggling and piracy, especially between Fujian and Japan, which he directed from Taiwan and which became a kind of maritime empire under his son Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga).

Europeans in China

Among the foreigners who came into contact with China during the Ming period, the Europeans were the least known and the most curious. The first to arrive were the Portuguese, who made their presence felt in Canton as early as 1514-1517, but were not easily accepted by the Chinese authorities. By dint of perseverance, they managed to settle in Macao in 1557 and became major players in regional trade. The Spaniards were satisfied with their establishment in Manila and the fruitful trade that developed there with the help of Chinese merchants. The Dutch, unable to access the Chinese coast, settled in Taiwan in the 17th century. The Chinese recognized the merchant and navigational skills of those they called “Franks” (Folanji, the Portuguese and Spanish) and “Red-Haired Barbarians” (Hongmaoyi, the Dutch) and were particularly interested in their mastery of artillery, which surpassed their own.

However, it was the Jesuits, not the merchants, who generally limited themselves to the ports, who were responsible for giving the Chinese a more precise idea of Europe. Their missionary impulse reached China as early as 1549, and did not dry up thereafter, with the protection of the Portuguese who saw a way to better penetrate this country, notably through converts to Christianity. The Italians Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) and especially Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) managed to establish themselves in the empire, the latter obtaining permission to erect a church in Peking, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Peking, taking advantage of the local authorities” ignorance of his religion to deceive them (he sometimes passed himself off as a Buddhist, sometimes as a Confucianist, or as a Portuguese tributary). However, he did not succeed in meeting the emperor Wanli as he wished. The first attempts at conversion were unsuccessful, as the missionaries and their religion, which was very foreign to Chinese traditions, aroused incomprehension and mistrust, if not outright hostility. Ricci and others who followed him (Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Johann Schreck) are especially credited with having opened the way to intellectual exchanges between China and Europe. Their knowledge was of great interest to the former, and the Jesuits, with their solid scientific training, were able to meet their expectations. Ricci thus worked with one of the most eminent scholars who had converted to Christianity at that time, Xu Guangqi (Paolo by his Christian name) to translate scientific works into Chinese, as mentioned above. In the other direction, the Jesuits translated Chinese works and published reviews and dictionaries, laying the groundwork for a better knowledge of China by Europe.

External links


  1. Dynastie Ming
  2. Ming dynasty
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