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Zhu Yuanzhang rose from a life of suffering and adversity to become one of the most powerful and autocratic emperors in Chinese history. His thirty-year reign as founder of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was characterized by two radical policies: the most far-reaching, innovative agrarian reforms prior to those of Mao Zedong in the mid-twentieth century; and a despotic control of government characterized by bloodthirsty and terrifying purges.
Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming (Bright or Radiant) dynasty (1368–1644), reigned from 1368 to 1398 with the reign title Hongwu (Vast Military Power); his posthumous abbreviated title is Taizu (Grand Progenitor).
Zhu Yuanzhang was the third son of an impoverished peasant family living in Haozhou County along the Huai River in present-day Anhui Province. When he was a teenager, a combination of drought and plague carried off his parents and oldest brother, leaving him destitute. Neighbors helped him find refuge at a Buddhist temple, where he became a monk. But after a few weeks the temple ran out of food and he was forced to leave and go begging in the countryside.
For three years the famished and unprepossessing youth roamed around east central China observing the effects of famine and dynastic breakdown on farming people. During that time he became associated with the subversive Red Turban movement, whose goal was the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). He then returned to his temple and worked on improving his reading and writing skills. In 1352, when government forces burned down the temple, he joined a Red Turban rebel unit. Rising rapidly through the ranks, he assembled a fighting force and branched out on his own. He developed a base in the lower Yangzi (Chang) River region and in 1356 captured the strategic city now called Nanjing.
During this period of civil war Zhu built up his armed forces, attracted scholars to his side, and established himself as an imperial contender. Thanks to growing popular support and outstanding military aides he was able to defeat all other claimants and become the only supreme ruler in Chinese history to rise to power from a destitute background. In 1368 he declared himself emperor. Before the year was out his forces had driven the Mongol rulers out of their capital (present-day Beijing) and sent them fleeing back to Mongolia.
Emperor Zhu established a harsh but powerful autocracy. He had risen to the top through military power and iron discipline. He recognized the need to rely on the educated elite to install a civilian regime. But as a once destitute peasant he maintained a seething distrust of such people, and as a contender for power he was suspicious of opposition and ready to suppress it at all costs. His thirty-year reign was characterized by two radical policies: first, the most far-reaching and innovative agrarian reforms prior to those instituted by Mao Zedong in the mid-twentieth century, and second, a despotic control of government characterized by bloodthirsty and terrifying purges.
As an agrarian reformer, the new emperor was driven by the desire to restore peace and production to the rural people. More than any other ruler before his time, Zhu identified with peasants and sought to ameliorate their lives. Throughout the north China plain he moved hundreds of thousands of people, many of them stranded by the civil war, back onto abandoned land. In 1374 alone 140,000 households from eastern China were resettled in the emperor’s native region. Then he initiated intensive surveys of the tax and landholding systems in this prime agricultural region. The tax information was recorded in yellow-bound registers and the landholding information in “fish scale” registers, so named because of the contours of the land charts. These registers, copies of which were maintained in central and local government offices, constituted the most thorough land survey in China prior to modern times. Although comparable to the Domesday survey carried out across England in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror, they were far larger in scope and consequence.
In addition the emperor installed a method of rural fiscal government, known as the li-jia system. Under this system, households were organized into groups of 110, representing a li (administrative neighborhood). The ten wealthiest families were appointed to serve annually as leaders of the li. The remaining families were divided into ten jia (units of ten families). Each of these jia families also served annually as head of their jia. Small family units were included as add-ons. Later in his reign the emperor introduced an overlapping system of neighborhood elders (li-lao) to handle local disputes and offenses and punish mischief-makers.
The main aim of all this rural surveying and organization was to equalize the land and labor tax burden and get registration and collection of taxes out of the hands of rapacious bureaucrats and into those of producers. The neighborhood elder system was intended to prevent local officials from exploiting crime as a source of income and patronage. Elders were required to uphold social values (such as respecting and honoring one’s parents), and to promote agricultural work and water conservation. If they had complaints, they were authorized to visit Nanjing and report them in person. An important piece of this agrarian policy was the establishment of agricultural colonies to support the emperor’s military forces, thus ensuring that the latter would not be dependent on the rural fiscal system. Throughout his reign the emperor continued to refi ne these initiatives.
Emperor Zhu’s harsh policies toward officials and educated people grew out of his experience of oppression and hardship as a youth. As ruler of all under heaven he deplored waste and hated ostentation. When a serious drought struck eastern China shortly after his accession, he clothed himself in white mourning dress and straw shoes and prayed for several days out in the open until the rains came. These austere attitudes carried into the organization of the bureaucracy. He reduced the complement of local officials, subjected them to intense scrutiny and cast doubt on their integrity. But it was the central government officials who suffered most from the emperor’s aspersions. Several purges were carried out in which thousands of officials and their families suspected of corruption or treachery were rounded up and put to death. A famous poet, whose words were construed as criticism, was sliced in half. In numerous ways underperforming and unlucky officials were derided, humiliated, and on occasion publicly flogged. Only the Empress Ma, a woman of great strength and magnanimity, was capable of restraining the emperor’s anger. After she died in 1382, he lived on alone and embittered.
A unique aspect of Emperor Zhu’s rule was the establishment of his administrative capital in Nanjing, itself an ancient capital during early periods of disunity. He built the city into a formidable fortress surrounding the imperial quarters, with everything positioned to take advantage of the location’s geomantic and strategic features. Nanjing gave access to the crucial eastern China region on which the regime depended for its fiscal resources. It also enabled the emperor to control wealthy localities that had supported other contenders. After Emperor Zhu died, the usurping Emperor Chengzu (Zhu’s fourth and oldest surviving son) moved the main capital to his base in north China, henceforth named Beijing (Northern Capital; Nanjing, in contrast, means Southern Capital). Nanjing remained an important administrative center and would again serve as a capital during the massive anti-Manchu Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) and in the Nationalist era (1928–1949).
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- Farmer, E. L. (1995). Zhu Yuanzhang and early Ming legislation: The reordering of Chinese society following the era of Mongol rule. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.
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- Watt, J. R. (1984). The agrarian policies of Chu Yuan-chang. The American Asian Review, 2(4), 70–122.
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