Ming Dynasty

Ming dynasty map
Ming dynasty map

The Ming dynasty, which spanned 1368–1644, can be divided into two segments. The first part, between 1368 and c. 1450, was a period of great achievement, growth, stability, and prosperity; the latter part, from c. 1450 to 1644, was characterized by weak and unstable rulers, corruption, and abuse of power that culminated in rebellions and overthrow.

The Ming dynasty has an important place in Chinese history because of its longevity and rule over unified China, and because it was the last Chinese imperial dynasty not founded and ruled by peoples of nomadic origin.

Ming Taizu (T’ai-Tsu)

China was in ruins by the mid-1300s under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). It suffered from a collapsing economy, wrecked by financial mismanagement, runaway inflation, natural disasters, famine, and plague. Numerous rebel movements rose to topple the Yuan dynasty, among them one led by an impoverished peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yuan-chang).

Zhu focused on consolidating his power in the Yangzi (Yangtze) River valley in southern China, establishing his capital in Nanjing (Nanking), a city rich with historic significance, from which he invaded the north, sending the last Yuan emperor in flight to Mongolia in 1368.

It was the second time in Chinese history that a commoner had ascended the throne (the first was Liu Bang, who founded the Han dynasty in 202 b.c.e.). He chose the dynastic name Ming, which means “brilliant.”

He reigned for 30 years (1368–98), chose for himself the reign title Hongwu (Hung-wu), which means “bounteous warrior,” and is also known by his posthumous title Taizu, which means “Grand Progenitor.” He and his immediate successors worked to restore Chinese prosperity and prestige after the humiliation and exploitation of Mongol rule.

Ming Taizu (T’ai-Tsu)
Ming Taizu (T’ai-Tsu)

Emperor Hongwu’s policies put his stamp on the dynasty. He restored the economy by freeing people enslaved by Mongols and resettling them on ravaged lands, especially in northern China. He gave tax breaks to the peasants, repaired irrigation works, rebuilt granaries, and adopted a tax policy that favored the poor.

He gave much authority to localities for maintaining law and order by organizing them into the baojia (paochia) system: 10 families formed a jia under a leader and were responsible for each other, and 10 jia formed a bao in which 100 families were responsible for each other. This system of local organization persisted in China into modern times.

Confucian Education

Confucian Education
Confucian Education

Hongwu ordered the founding of schools throughout the empire, based the curriculum on Confucian teachings, and reinstated the examination system to recruit officials. His son the emperor Yongle (Yung-lo) followed up on this by ordering the foremost scholars to compile an official version of the Confucian classics and commentaries to guide students in their studies.

In 1415 The Great Compendium of the Five Classics and the Four Books was published, followed by the publication of The Great Compendium of the Philosophy of Human Nature in 1417.

These works reflected the officially accepted Neo-Confucian philosophy as interpreted by the Song philosopher Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) and became textbooks in schools in China, Korea, and Japan. Another major contribution to learning was the Yongle Dadian (Yung-lo ta-tien) or Great Literary Repository of the Yongle Reign.

It contained 22,277 volumes, whose index alone ran to 60 volumes. Too large to be printed, it was preserved in manuscript sets in imperial libraries. Such great government-sponsored works reflected and resulted in huge national interest in learning, which made the Ming a great period in human history. Economic prosperity permitted wider and growing literacy, from which the printing industry also benefited.

Defense Against the Mongols

Emperor Hongwu established a highly centralized administrative system that combined features from the previous Tang (T’ang) dynasty, Song dynasty, as well as the Yuan dynasty. But he abolished the position of chief minister, so that the autocratic ruler held all the reins of power.

Recognizing that abuse of power by eunuchs contributed to the decline and fall of earlier dynasties, he forbade eunuchs to interfere in government. He established a million-man professional standing army that was hereditary.

He gave governmen towned land to each garrison, requiring the soldiers to till the land in their spare time so that they would not be a burden on the treasury. This did not work in practice and the treasury had to allocate funds to the army regularly.

The army units were rotated in guarding the capital region, the Great Wall, and at strategic locations throughout the empire and were trained by special tactical officers. The division of authority between garrison commanders and tactical commanders prevented the development of warlordism and precluded revolts by the army during the dynasty.

Reflecting the deep resentment most Chinese felt toward Mongols, he forbade Mongol dress and customs among Chinese and ordered those Mongols remaining in China to adopt Chinese names and to become assimilated.

Emperor Hongwu, his sons, and generals led campaigns that drove remnant Mongols to the Lake Baikal region in present-day Russia. They also regained all Chinese lands including modern Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan, Sichuan (Szechwan), and Xinjiang (Sinkiang) and accepted the vassalage of Korea, Vietnam, and Central Asian states.

Emperor Yongle (Yung-Lo)

Emperor Yongle (Yung-Lo)
Emperor Yongle (Yung-Lo)

Hongwu left the throne to his young grandson, who was, however, ousted by his uncle the prince of Yan (Yen), fourth son of Hongwu. After a civil war that lasted between 1399 and 1402 and ended with the burning of the palace in Nanjing it was presumed that the young emperor and his family had died.

The victorious prince of Yan became the emperor Yongle (Yung-lo), r. 1402–24. Yongle is also known by his posthumous title Chengzu (Ch’eng-tsu), “successful progenitor,” and is sometimes called the second founder of the Ming dynasty.

He moved the national capital to Beijing (Peking) in 1421, after rebuilding it from the ruined Yuan capital Dadu (Ta-tu); the palaces, temples, and city walls of that city date to his reign. He had repaired the silted up Grand Canal to connect to Beijing to bring supplies from the south to the capital.

A seasoned general, he personally led five campaigns into Mongolia to prevent the resurgence of Mongol power. Another Ming army intervened in Vietnam in 1404, annexing that area to the Ming Empire. However Vietnam regained its autonomy after 20 years and became a Ming vassal state.

Troubled by Japanese pirates he intimidated the shogun of Japan into accepting vassalage for the first time in history. Yongle was also famous for authorizing huge armadas to show the flag, promote trade, and enroll vassal states across Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, to as far as the northeastern coast of Africa.

The eunuch admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) commanded seven expeditions (the last one set out after Yongle had died). In appointing Zheng He and other eunuchs to high positions Yongle violated his father’s strong injunction.

Although he kept them under firm control, later weak Ming rulers would rely on them for advice, undermining the bureaucracy and resulting in corruption and abuse of power, with disastrous effects.

For example, in 1449 a weakling emperor appointed his favorite eunuch commanding officer, and together they went to war against a Mongol chief, only to suffer defeat and capture, throwing the government into chaos in the process.

China Recovers

Government policies that favored land reclamation and economic activities resulted in growing prosperity, and the gradual repopulation of northern China and migration to the south and southwest, driving aboriginal peoples to remote mountainous regions.

Production of silk was encouraged and became widespread in areas south of the Yangzi River. Women and girls were in charge of growing mulberry trees and tending silkworms and also worked in silk weaving factories, bringing additional income to farm families.

The cultivation of cotton and manufacture of cotton cloths also expanded during the Ming, providing clothes for ordinary people. Crafts also flourished, with metal, lacquer, and paper industries leading the way. True porcelains were first made in China during the Song dynasty, hence the name china.

Its manufacture continued to advance during the Yuan, but it was under the Ming that Chinese porcelain manufacture reached its apogee. Under state encouragement, Jingdezhen (Ching-te-chen), the porcelain manufacturing center, had 3,000 government and privately owned factories.

Four emperors followed Yongle up to 1450. They and most subsequent Ming rulers were mediocre; many were also eccentric. They abandoned the militant foreign policy of the dynastic founders and resorted to defensive tactics, mainly reflected in rebuilding the Great Wall into the formidable monument that survives to the present. Although later Ming lost its earlier dynamism, the institutions and policies set by the dynastic founders worked to continue its survival until 1644.

Mixtec and Zapotec


The Zapotec and Mixtec were groups of Mesoamerican people who inhabited land at different times in the valley of Oaxaca in Mexico. This area lay south of today’s Mexico City on the west coast of the country and was rich in natural and cultural resources.

Monte Albán was one of the first cities in the New World. Now a ruin, it once served as a magnificent ceremonial site with ball courts, plazas, tunnels, tombs, and buildings. Archaeologists have evidence that these people knew about irrigation because there are terraces to allow spring water to flow down and maintain their crops.

As other Mesoamerican groups they practiced ritual human sacrifice. The ceremonies were complex, using obsidian knives to cut out the beating heart of the victim from on top of a pyramid.

Tombs have been excavated where the remains of kings and priests were buried with ornate grave goods, some with precious metals. Monte Albán was ideal as a ceremonial center because it was near the juncture where three arms of the Oaxaca Valley met.

The time periods of these cultures are defined in terms of Mesoamerican chronology. The Formative is divided into three groups: Early, Middle, and Late (300 b.c.e.–150 c.e.) and the Classic into four: Early (150–650 c.e.), Late Classic (650–900 c.e.), Early Postclassic (900–1200 c.e.), and Late Postclassic (1200–1521 c.e.). The Zapotec and Mixtec occupied Mexico’s valley of Oaxaca from the Late Formative to the Late Postclassic period.

The Zapotec

Early Zapotecs lived during the Middle Formative period (Preclassic period) 500–400 b.c.e. One of the first pieces of archaeological evidence found was a gruesome message in the form of carvings on stelae (stone monuments).

It was a bas-relief (raised carving) of a dead man, stripped of all clothing with blood coming out of his chest and some scrolls with glyphs (decorative writing) between his legs. He probably represented an enemy who had been sacrificed.

The style of art, known as Danzantes, or dancers, is unique to the Zapotec culture, and typical for that time period. The style differs from other Mesoamerican art because the human figures are curved, not angular, without clothing, body decoration, or jewelry.


They are shown in active rather than in posed-type positions that were characteristic of rulers from other time periods. These dire figures are captives, in agony because they have been ritually tortured and are being sacrificed.

Their eyes are closed, their tongues are protruding, and their hands and feet are limp. It is thought that they represent high-level individuals who were killed by other rulers because they are depicted as old, with beards and without teeth.

The glyphs, combination of phonetic symbols, numbers, and ideographic elements, were the first in Mexico. The Zapotec had a calendar based on a 260-day year and a 52-year cycle. Their pottery included spouts or hollow three-legged bowls fashioned from fine gray clay. It is estimated that this early Monte Albán I culture supported a population of about 10,000 to 20,000.

From about 200 b.c.e. to 250 c.e. (Early Classic period), the Zapotecs lived in relative harmony and comfort. A few new buildings were constructed. One of them might have been an observatory because it was oriented in the direction of a bright star known as Capella.

Another building (referred to as building J) has many narrow dark hallways that connect at a common apex. On the outside, there are more typical glyphs with elaborate headdresses, but they have closed eyes.

It is believed that these heads and symbols represent both date notations and records of victory over neighboring enemies when a particular town was attacked and conquered. Older cultures often documented wars in this way.

Although contact with the Maya was evident in elements from Mayan art incorporated in their pottery, in the Classic period, there was more influence from Teotihuacán, the gigantic complex northeast of Oaxaca. The Zapotec continued to build terraces and maintained their Zapotec language, which remained dominant.

They had a lively pantheon: the rain god, Cocijo; the maize (corn) god, Pitao Cozobi; a feathered serpent; a bat god; a fire god; and a water goddess. The Zapotec thrived in Monte Albán until about 700 b.c.e., at which time they abandoned the site, probably because of new invaders from the northwest.

The Zapotec moved 25 miles southwest of Oaxaca to an area called Mitla, from the Nahuatl word Mictlan, which means Place of the Dead. However, they called it Lyobaa, Place of Rest. They built five palatial buildings, guarded by a fort on a strategic hill.

These buildings still stand; unfortunately after European contact, the church destroyed and replaced indigenous religious structures. A colonial period church was built right on top of one of these structures.

The Mixtec

Mixtec ruin
Mixtec ruin

Mixtec comes from an Aztec word that means Place of the Clouds, but the people, the Mixe, used the word Ayuk to describe themselves. It meant “word” or “language,” a word related to ha”yyu:k, “people of the mountains.”

They are best known for their elegant books called codices in which they drew figures that resembled cartoons. These deerskin books unfolded to form a long strip, which could be read phonetically. Eight Mixtec codices have survived from before the conquest.

Around 850, during the Early Classic period, the Mixtecs lived in hilltop settlements of northwestern Oaxaca. During the Postclassic, around 1000, they moved into adjacent areas and then down to the valley of Oaxaca because they felt that Monte Albán was safe from invaders.

The Mixtec’s best-known cities were Tilantongo and Teozacualco. They had superb artistic skills in carving, metalworking, painting, and silversmithing. There is a life-sized skull fashioned from a huge piece of quartz, which is Mixtec in origin, on display in the Inah Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

The huge centers built by the Mixtec were primarily residential. Everyday activities took place on the valley floor but the hilltops were reserved for ceremonial sites. By the Postclassic period, most of the prior Zapotec territory was under their control. Their success is attributed to the way in which they organized social groups and interacted with others.

The heredity ruling class (caciques) were the highest; next were a hereditary noble (tay toho), a working class (macehuales), and in certain areas, a servant-tenant class (terrazgueros) that could be compared to the European feudal serf in status.

As in any hierarchy the upper strata had privilege and power, hence more than one wife and control of natural resources, although gender did not play a strong part in social structure. Bilateral kinship lines determined lineage, which was more important to the Mixtec. Macehuale women as well as men could own land.

Their language had unique symbols representing sounds as compared to other written languages that used glyphs and rebuses to communicate. The names of animals figured prominently in titles of their rulers such as Eight Deer, Three Alligator, Four Tiger, or Jaguar Claw because of their symbolic significance.

Births, deaths, marriages, and land conquests are documented. Rank, occupation, and social status were defined by special ornamentation. The best known and powerful ruler, Eight Deer, had five wives, and his life is elaborately documented in the Codex Nuttal.

By 1350 c.e. the Mixtec had intermarried and taken control of the Zapotec sites. At the time of the conquest, great wealth and high culture abounded. Tombs attested to kings with their courts buried with gold, silver, turquoise, amber, coral, pearls, and carved jaguar bones. Unconquerable by their neighbors, they survived until the Europeans arrived.


Mon kingdom

The Mon may have been the first human inhabitants of Myanmar, better known as Burma. The Mon are also known as the Taliang people. They migrated, perhaps pursued by enemies, to South Burma, where they lived near the Salween River, which empties into the Bay of Bengal, not far east of the border with Thailand. Their population spread into Thailand as well.

In 573 two Mon brothers named Prince Samala and Prince Wamala created the kingdom of Hongsavatoi, which is located near the modern city of Pegu. The Mon realm enjoyed independence for several centuries. However by the middle of the 11th century, the Mon peoples came under the influence of those we now call Burmese, who had formed the kingdom of Pagan.

A Buddhist monk of the Mon people converted the first king of Pagan, Anawratha (r. 1044–77), to Theravada Buddhism. This religion was common in Southeast Asia, so the Pagan takeover may have been less of a conquest, and more assimilation.

Both the Mon and the Burmese were under the strong influence of India and used Indian Sanskrit in some of their writings. The Pagan kingdom refused to pay tribute to the conquering Mongols, believing their distance from Mongol-controlled China would provide protection. In 1287 Kubilai Khan, the founder of China’s Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), sent an army south, which virtually destroyed Pagan in revenge.

At this time the Mon, with the reduction of Pagan, came under the rule of an adventurer from the Thai people, who established the Mon kingdom of Râmaññadesa, which was formed from the three provinces of Bassein, Pegu, and Martaban; the city of Pegu became the new kingdom’s first capital.

The Râmaññadesa kingdom was brutally attacked in 1540 by the Burmese from Taungu, who went on to virtually unite all of modern Burma. With this invasion, Mon political independence was extinguished, but their cultural and nationalist identity remained strong, as it has until today.

In the 18th century the Mon temporarily threw off Burmese rule, only to invite a brutal repression in return. At the same time as Robert Clive was expanding British rule in India, the Burmese ruler U Aungzeya began a genocidal invasion of the Mon heartland.

Mon costumes
Mon costumes

As Dr. George Aaron Broadwell writes, the invasion “devastated the Mon kingdom, killing tens of thousands of Mon, including learned Mon priests, pregnant women, and children. Over 3,000 priests were massacred by the victorious Burmans in the capital city alone....

The surviving priests fled to Thailand, and Burman priests took over the monasteries. Most of the Mon literature, written on palm leaves, was destroyed by the Burmans. Use of the Mon language was forbidden, and Burman became the medium of instruction.

Mon people were persecuted, oppressed, and enslaved, and countless people were burned in holocausts, like the Jews before the Nazis. Mon properties and possessions were looted and burned throughout Burma. Mons fled further south into Burma’s Tenasserim Division and east into Thailand.”

Afterward the Mon remained firmly under Burmese control. The Alompra Burmese dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries continued U Aungzeya’s policy with a policy of forcibly eradicating the Mon language and culture, attempting a compulsory assimilation into the Burmese majority. The Mon managed to preserve their culture, and records of the kingdom of Râmaññadesa were written and preserved in the Mon language.

The Burmese came under British rule in the 19th century, after the First Burma War (1824–26), Second Burma War (1852–53), and the Third Burma War (1885–87). The British ruled Burma, with a hiatus during World War II, until independence in 1948. After independence the Burmese continued their oppression of the Karen, Shan, and Mon peoples.

For her opposition to Burmese military rule, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Prize in peace in 1991. Mon people exiled from their native land have continued to battle for international recognition of their culture, language, and freedom.

Mongke Khan - Mongol Leader

Mongke Khan

Mongke Khan was the eldest son of Tului Khan (fourth son of Genghis Khan) and Sorghaghtani Beki and fourth khaghan or grand khan of the Mongol empire. He was a famous warrior and commander and was also noted for his devotion to the Mongol way of life. He had served on the campaign in eastern Europe under his cousin Batu Khan’s leadership and gained the latter’s goodwill.

The good relations between Batu’s (leader of the Golden Horde) and Tului’s families were reinforced when Ogotai Khan’s son and successor Guyuk Khaghan (r. 1246–48) planned to ambush Batu, and Mongke’s mother secretly warned Batu of the plot, even though nothing came of it because Guyuk soon died.

In the struggle among the grandsons of Genghis Khan to be his successor, Batu successfully sabotaged regent Oghul Khaimish’s (Guyuk’s widow) attempt to have the Mongol council elect one of her sons the next khaghan.

Batu was not interested in being khaghan, but as the descendant of the eldest son of Genghis, he wanted the role of kingmaker and was successful in having Mongke elected the fourth khaghan in 1251.

Mongke immediately consolidated his position by ruthlessly purging and killing his cousins and other relatives from the Ogotai and Chagatai (Genghis’s second son) branches of the family and their supporters.

Anticipating his election, Mongke established a shadow government. Thus he was able to move quickly to fulfill his grandfather’s mandate to conquer the world. Ruling from Karakorum in Mongolia when not on the move, Mongke relied on Mongols in top positions in his government, assisted by people from the conquered ethnic groups.

He made important reforms needed to mobilize resources and manpower by unifying the tax collection system, stopping many abuses, and rebuilding the economies in some already conquered lands. Starting in 1252 he began a census of the peoples and resources of his lands from China to Iraq to assess taxes, control resources, and identify skilled craftsmen.

Mongol Empire during the reign of Mongke Khan
Mongol Empire during the reign of Mongke Khan

In 1252 Mongke began a three-pronged campaign. One brother, Hulagu Khan, commanded an army that headed west, successfully targeting Kashmir, the Assassins in the Caucasus, Iran, and the Abbasid Caliphate, and taking Baghdad in 1258.

A relative from the Golden Horde headed for Korea, subduing it in 1259. Another brother, Kubilai Khan, set out to conquer the Nanchao or Dali (T’a-li) kingdom located in modern Yunnan Province in southwestern China, securing its surrender in 1253.

His youngest brother, Arik Boke, remained in Mongolia. In 1256 Mongke announced his goal of conquering the Southern Song (Sung) in which he would take personal command with a threepronged attack from the north, west, and south.

In the midst of the campaign, Mongke died in August 1256, of either wounds or dysentery. Mongke’s death gave the Southern Song a 20-year reprieve because Kubilai immediately halted the campaign to secure his succession as khaghan.

The ensuing civil war between Kubilai and his brother Arik Boke involved his other brother, Hulagu, and various cousins. The Mongol empire reached its apogee under Mongke and would never recover from the succession crisis.