Hongwu Emperor

10:00, April 01, 2010      

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The Hongwu Emperor (Chinese: 洪武帝,October 21, 1328 – June 24, 1398), known variably by his given name Zhu Yuanzhang (Chinese: 朱元璋) and by the temple name Taizu of the Ming (Chinese: 明太祖) was the founder and first emperor (1368–98) of the Ming Dynasty of China. His era name, Hongwu, means "great military power".

In the middle of the 1300s, with famine, plagues and peasant revolts sweeping across China, Zhu became a leader of an army that conquered China, ending the Yuan Dynasty and forcing the Mongols to retreat to the Mongolian steppes. With his seizure of the Yuan capital Dadu (present-day Beijing), he claimed the Mandate of Heaven and established the Ming Dynasty in the year 1368.

Early life

Zhu Yuanzhang was born in 1328 in a village in Zhongli (鍾離, modern day Fengyang, Anhui) as the youngest of four sons. His family were poor peasants and he grew up under conditions of great hardship. Because his family did not have enough food, several of his siblings were "given away" by his parents. When he was 16 the Yellow River broke its banks and flooded the lands where his family was living. This was quickly followed by the plague in which his father, Zhu Shizhen (朱世珍, original name Zhu Wusi 朱五四) died, followed shortly by his mother Chen Erniang and all but one brother. Destitute, he accepted a suggestion that he take up a pledge his father had made and became a novice monk at a local Buddhist monastery, the Huangjue Temple. Zhu did not remain in the monastery for long, as the monastery ran out of money and he was forced to leave it.

The next few years were hard. He travelled, begged for food, and saw at first-hand the troubles of the people. After some three years he returned to the monastery and stayed there until he was about 24 years old. He learned to read and write during his time with the Buddhist monks. In later years, while he remained sympathetic to Buddhism, he himself did not become a Buddhist. In trying to destroy a local rebellion, the Mongol army burned down Zhu's monastery. In 1352 Zhu joined one of the many groups of local rebels who were appearing throughout China. Zhu's natural abilities (leadership, determination, skill as a warrior, and a brilliant mind) allowed him to rise rapidly to a position of command in the group. Zhu's local rebels soon joined with the Red Turban Movement, a millenarian sect related to the White Lotus Society, and a sect combining cultural and religious traditions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and other religions. By portraying himself as a defender of Confucianism and neo-Confucianism, Zhu emerged as a national leader against the collapsing Yuan Dynasty.

Exiling the Mongols and restoring Hua

In 1356, Zhu's army conquered one of the major cities in China: Nanjing. This became his base of operations and was the official capital of the Ming empire throughout his lifetime. Zhu's government in Nanjing and the surrounding territory quickly became famous for its good governance and the city attracted vast numbers of people fleeing from other, more lawless regions. It is estimated the city population grew 10 times over the next 10 years. The Mongol government, nearly paralyzed by internal factions fighting for control, made little effort to retake the Yangtze river valley and by 1358, nearly the whole of central and southern China was in the hands of different rebel groups. The Red Turbans themselves broke up, Zhu became the leader of a smaller faction (called the Ming around 1360), while the larger faction, under Chen Youliang, controlled the center of the Yangtze river valley.

Zhu was able to attract many talented followers. One such follower was Zhu Sheng(朱升), who is credited with giving this advice to Zhu: "Build high walls, stock up rations, and don't be too quick to call yourself a king." Another follower was Jiao Yu, an artillery officer who later compiled a military treatise outlining the various gunpowder weapons. Yet another was Liu Ji, a key advisor who, in later years, edited the military-technology treatise titled Huolongjing.

Starting in 1360, Zhu and Chen Youliang fought a protracted war for supremacy over the Red Turban territory. The pivotal moment in the war was the enormous Battle of Lake Poyang (1363), one of the largest naval battles in world history. The battle lasted three days and at the end of the third day, the larger navy of Chen Youliang broke away and retreated. Chen Youliang died a month later in battle, leaving Zhu the single strongest leader in China. He was 35 years old. Zhu did not fight in battle again, from this point on his generals fought campaigns which he directed from his palace in Nanjing.

In 1367 Zhu's forces defeated the other major warlord, Zhang Shicheng, whose Wu Kingdom was centered in Suzhou, and had previously included most of the Yangtze Delta, including the old Song Dynasty capital of Hangzhou. This conquest gave Zhu's Ming government authority over the entire length of the Yangtze and much of the territory both north and south of the river. The other major warlords submitted to Zhu, and on the Chinese New Year of 1368 (January 20, 1368) Zhu proclaimed himself the Ming emperor in Nanjing and adopted "Hongwu" as the title of his reign. He used the motto 'Exiling the Mongols and Restoring Hua (華)'.

During 1368, Zhu fulfilled his motto's promise, as his armies headed north to take on the Mongols. The Mongols, somewhat curiously, gave up Beijing (September 1368) and the rest of northern China without much of a fight and fled north into their homeland in what is now Outer Mongolia. The last loyal Yuan province of Yunan was captured in 1380 and China was unified again under the Ming.


Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself emperor in 1368. The capital remained at Nanjing, and "Hongwu" was adopted as the title of his reign.

Under Hongwu, the Mongol bureaucrats who had dominated the government for nearly a century under the Yuan Dynasty were replaced by Han Chinese. Hongwu revamped the traditional Confucian examination system, which selected state bureaucrats or civil servants on the basis of merit and knowledge of literature and philosophy, mostly the Classics. Candidates for posts in the civil service, or in the officer corps of the 80,000-man army, once again had to pass the traditional competitive examinations, as required by the Classics. The Confucian scholar gentry, marginalized under the Yuan for nearly a century, once again assumed their predominant role in the Chinese state.

The rejection of things associated with the Mongols also continued into other areas. These included Mongol dress, which was discarded, and Mongol names, which stopped being used. Indeed, attacks on Mongol-associated items and places also included the attack of palaces and administrative buildings used by the Yuan rulers.

Land reform and peasantry

Having come from a peasant family, Hongwu knew only too well how much the farmers suffered from the gentry and the wealthy. Many of the latter, relying on their influence with the magistrates, not only encroached unscrupulously on the land of farmers, but also contrived through bribing lower officials to transfer the burden of taxation to the small farmers. To prevent such abuses, Hongwu instituted two very important systems: "Yellow Records" and "Fish Scale Records". These systems served to guarantee both the government's income from land taxes and the people's enjoyment of their property.

However, while the reforms were well-meaning, they did not eliminate the threat of the scholar-gentry to peasants. Rather, the expansion of the scholar-gentry and their growing prestige translated into more wealth and tax exemption for those related to government bureaucrats. The gentry gained new privileges, often allowing them to show off their wealth. They often were money-lenders and managers of gambling rings. Using their power, the scholar-gentry often expanded their estates at the expense of small farmers who were absorbed into the estates, both through outright purchase of peasants' land, and foreclosure on their mortgages during times of want. These peasants often became either tenants and workers, or left and searched for employment elsewhere.

From the beginning of his government in 1357, great care was taken by Hongwu to distribute land to small farmers. One way was through forced migration to less dense areas. Some of these people were grouped in a Styphnolobium japonicum in Hongdong (洪洞大槐樹), then tied and moved. It seems to have been his policy to favor the poor and try to help them to support themselves and their families. Public works projects, such as the construction of irrigation systems and dikes, were undertaken, in an attempt to help poor farmers. Additionally, demands on the peasantry for forced labor were reduced by Hongwu. In 1370, an order was given that some land in Hunan and Anhui should be distributed to young farmers who had reached manhood. This order was made in part to preclude the absorption of this land by unscrupulous landlords, and, as part of this decree, it was announced that the title to the land would not be transferable. During the middle part of his reign, an edict was published to the effect that those who brought fallow land under cultivation could keep it as their property without it ever being taxed. The people responded enthusiastically to this policy, and in 1393 cultivated land rose to 8,804,623 ching and 68 mou, a greater achievement than any other Chinese dynasty.

He also forced migration to less dense areas. Some of these people were grouped in a Styphnolobium japonicum in Hongdong (洪洞大槐樹), then tied and moved.


Hongwu realized that the Mongols still posed a real threat to China. He decided that the orthodox Confucian view of the military as an inferior class to the scholar bureaucracy should be re-assessed, as maintaining a strong military was essential. Hongwu kept a powerful army organized on the military system known as Wei-so, which was similar to the Fu-ping system of the Tang Dynasty. While initially the Ming army was very effective, it rapidly lost its capacity for offensive operations after the death of the Yongle Emperor and it suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Mongols in 1449 at the Battle of Tumu Fort.

Military training was conducted within the soldiers' own military districts. In time of war, troops were mobilized from all over the empire on the orders of a Board of War, and commanders were chosen to lead them. As soon as the war was over, all of the troops returned to their respective districts and the commanders lost their military commands. This system largely avoided troubles of the kind which destroyed the Tang; namely military commanders who had large numbers of soldiers directly under their personal control. However, the downside was the Ming military, for large campaigns, was always placed under the control of a civilian official from the capital.

Consolidating control

Hongwu gained a reputation for killing many people. He used many tortures, especially flaying and slow slicing. He expected everyone to obey his rule. One of his generals, Chang Yuchun, carried out massacres in some places, in Shangdong and Hunan to avenge resistance against his army. As time went on, Hongwu increasingly feared rebellions and coups. He even made it a capital offence for any of his advisors to criticise him. A story goes that a Confucian scholar who was fed up with Hongwu's policies decided to go to the capital and berate the emperor. When he gained an audience with the emperor, he brought his own coffin along with him. After delivering his speech he climbed into the coffin, expecting the emperor to execute him. Instead, the Emperor was so impressed by his bravery that he spared his life. He was also said to have ordered the massacre of several thousand people living in Nanjing after having heard one talked about him without respect. In 1380 after much killing, a thunderbolt hit his palace and he stopped the massacres for some time afraid the supreme god would punish him.

Hongwu also noted the destructive role of court eunuchs under the previous dynasties. He drastically reduced their numbers, forbidding them to handle documents, insisting that they remained illiterate, and executing those who commented on state affairs. Hongwu had a strong aversion to the imperial eunuchs, epitomized by a tablet in his palace stipulating: "Eunuchs must have nothing to do with the administration." However, this aversion to eunuchs being in the employ of an emperor was not popular with Hongwu's successors, and eunuchs soon returned to the emperors' courts after Hongwu. In addition to Hongwu's aversion to eunuchs, he never consented to any of his imperial relatives becoming court officials. This policy was fairly well-maintained by later emperors, and no serious trouble was caused by the empresses or their relatives.

Hongwu attempted, and largely succeeded in, the consolidation of control over all aspects of government, so that no other group could gain enough power to overthrow him. He also buttressed the country's defenses against the Mongols. As emperor, Hongwu increasingly concentrated power in his own hands. He abolished the prime minister's post, which had been head of the main central administrative body under past dynasties, by suppressing a plot for which he had blamed his chief minister. Many argue that the Hongwu emperor, because of his wish to concentrate absolute authority in his own hands, removed the only insurance against incompetent emperors. However Hongwu's actions were not entirely one-sided since he did create a new post, called "Grand Secretary", to take the place of the abolished prime minister. Ray Huang argued that Grand-Secretaries, outwardly powerless, could exercise considerable positive influence from behind the throne. Because of their prestige and the public trust which they enjoyed, they could act as intermediaries between the emperor and the ministerial officials, and thus provide a stabilising force in the court. He executed his tens of thousand officials and their relatives over sedition, treason, corruption or other charges.

One of the reasons why the emperor eliminated the offices of grand councilor, particularly the prime minister, was due to Hu Wei-young's attempt to usurp the throne. Hu was the Senior grand councilor and a very close friend of the emperor. He was later executed. His actions greatly shocked the emperor and led the emperor to greatly distrust his high officials. To that end, he completely eliminated all the prime ministers and established four advisors or the Grand-Secretaries to work closely with, who were intellectually able, though low ranking. Eliminating the office of the prime minister was the very step that increased the emperor's autocracy in the government.

Legal code

The legal code drawn up in the time of the Hongwu emperor was considered one of the great achievements of the era. The History of Ming mentions that as early as 1364 the monarchy had started to draft a code of laws. This code was known as Da Ming lü (大明律), or Code of the Great Ming. The emperor devoted great personal care to the whole project, and in his instruction to the ministers told them that the code of laws should be comprehensive and intelligible, so as not to leave any loophole for lower officials to misinterpret the law through twisting its language. The Ming code laid much emphasis on family relations. The code was a great improvement on the code of the earlier Tang dynasty in regards to the treatment of slaves. Under the Tang code, slaves were treated as a species of domestic animal; if they were killed by a free citizen the law imposed no sanction on the killer. Under the Ming dynasty, however, the law protected both slaves and free citizens.


Backed by the Confucian scholar-gentry, Hongwu accepted the Confucian viewpoint that merchants were solely parasitic. Hongwu felt that agriculture should be the country's source of wealth and that trade was ignoble. Perhaps this view was the result of his having been a peasant himself. As a result, the Ming economic system emphasized agriculture, unlike the economic system of the Song Dynasty, which had preceded the Mongols and had relied on traders and merchant for revenues. Also as a result of this aversion to trade, Hongwu supported the creation of self-supporting agricultural communities.

However, Hongwu's prejudice against the merchants did not diminish the numbers of traders. On the contrary, commerce increased significantly under Hongwu due to the growth of industry throughout the empire. This growth in trade was due in part to poor soil conditions and the overpopulation of certain areas, which forced many people to leave their homes and seek their fortunes in trade. A book entitled Tu Pien Hsin Shu,[citation needed] written during the Ming dynasty, gives a detailed description about the activities of merchants at that time.

Growth of the Ming Dynasty and Death

Although Hongwu's rule saw the introduction of paper currency, its development was stifled from the beginning. Not understanding inflation, Hongwu gave out so much paper money as rewards that by 1425 the state was forced to reintroduce copper coins because the paper currency had sunk to only 1/70 of its original value.

During Hongwu's reign, the early Ming Dynasty was characterised by rapid and dramatic population growth, largely due to the increased food supply from Hongwu's agricultural reforms. By the end of the dynasty, the population had risen by perhaps as much as 50%. This was stimulated by major improvements in agricultural technology, promoted by the pro-agrarian state which came to power in the midst of a pro-Confucian peasant's rebellion. Under his tutelage, living standards greatly improved.

Hongwu died after a reign of 30 years in 1398 at the age of 69. He killed doctors after his general Xu Da and Li Wenzhong (李文忠). After his death, his doctors were penalized. Hongzhi Emperor and Jiajing Emperor's doctors were executed. None of his reigning descendants lived as long as he did. He was buried at Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum on the Purple Mountain, east of Nanjing.

Source: wikipedia


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