A portrait of Zhu Yuanzhang, the imposing and often paranoid first emperor of the Ming dynasty, painted during his reign. Ink and color on silk.

Zhu Yuanzhang ??? was the founding emperor of the Ming ? dynasty (1368–1644). He rose from a life of suffering and adversity to become one of the most powerful and autocratic emperors in Chinese history.

Little is known of Zhu Yuanzhang’s childhood except that he suffered many hardships. When most of his family died during an epidemic in 1344, he sought refuge at a Buddhist temple, where he spent several years as a novice monk, begging for food and basic supplies for the temple and learning to read and write from some of the monks. In 1352, after the temple was attacked and burned by the Yuan ? military, he joined the Red Turban movement, part of the secret Buddhist-inspired White Lotus Society, which interpreted the floods, starvation, and chaos of the time as signs that the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, was about to appear and that the Mongols had lost the Mandate of Heaven and should be overthrown. The Mandate of Heaven, cited by every dynasty since the Zhou in 1045 BCE, refers to the belief that a benevolent Heaven bestowed the right to rule on every virtuous ruler.

Zhu was tall, physically imposing, intelligent, and fearless in battle. He quickly rose through the ranks and soon had troops under his command. He married his commander’s adopted daughter, and when his commander was killed in battle in 1355, Zhu seemed the natural choice to take his place. In 1356 his troops occupied the important regional city of Nanjing, which had been the seat of several southern kingdoms. He had gained the allegiance of several learned and experienced men, and rather than simply loot and plunder, he and his forces began to administer the territory surrounding Nanjing and to impose peace and order in areas that had been in chaos for over a decade.

He formally broke with the Red Turbans in 1366, and within two years he had eliminated his rivals among the Red Turban commanders. He then declared the founding of a new dynasty, the Ming (meaning “bright” or “light”) and sent his largest army in 1368 to invade and take over the former Yuan capital, which he renamed Beiping, “the north pacified.” The name was changed to Beijing, “the Northern Capital,” in the early fifteenth century.

The new emperor took the reign title Hongwu ??? (Abundantly Martial), and he is also known in history as Ming Taizu ?? (the Grand Progenitor of the Ming). He was energetic, smart, dedicated, and determined to ensure that the people of China would never have to suffer as he and his family had suffered. He ordered an empire-wide land and population survey, kept central government expenses low, and placed the dynasty on a firm financial footing. He put out many pleas, from 1368 on, for men of talent and dedication to come forward and aid him in the great enterprise of governing the empire. But after the empire was fully in his hands, he found it increasingly difficult to trust his officials and subordinates as implicitly as he had during his rise to power.

Whether from some deep character flaws, the insecurities of his youth, or the corruptions of power itself, he became a paranoid emperor who ultimately tried to control his officials through the blunt use of force and terror. In 1376 he ordered the execution of up to a thousand officials for having “prestamped” tax documents, which he took as a sign of corruption. In 1380 he turned on his prime minister, abolished his position, and had him killed along with another fifteen thousand officials. He ordered that his own Confucian admonitions and teachings be read aloud monthly at every village in the empire, so that the entire population could be taught the virtues of Confucian filial piety and loyalty to the emperor.

After his wife, Empress Ma, died in 1382 the emperor became even more paranoid and continued to order purge after purge, leaving the Confucian bureaucracy terrified and demoralized. Some have estimated that one hundred thousand people were executed by order of the “Abundantly Martial” emperor during his thirty years on the throne. Seldom has so much success and so much failure been combined in one life.

Further Reading

Dardess, J. W. (1983). Confucianism and autocracy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Farmer, E. (1995). Zhu Yuanzhang and early Ming legislation: The reordering of Chinese society following the era of Mongol rule. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Hucker, C. O. (1978). The Ming dynasty: Its origins and evolving institutions. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies.

Mazur, M. (1997). The four Zhu Yuanzhangs: A succession of biographies of the Ming founder. Ming Studies, 38, 63–85.

Mote, F. W., & Twitchett, D. (Eds.). (1988). The Cambridge history of China: Vol. 7. The Ming dynasty, 1368-1644. Part I. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Source: Ropp, Paul. (2009). ZHU Yuanzhang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2654–2655. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

ZHU Yuanzhang (Zh? Yuánzh?ng ???)|Zh? Yuánzh?ng ??? (ZHU Yuanzhang)

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