Establishment of the Ming Dynasty

The establishment of the Ming Dynasty by Zhu Yuanzhang marked the restoration of Han Chinese rule in China and the beginning of a new era, in which Chinese civilization experienced further developments.

Summary of Event

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang amid intensive military conflicts: Han Chinese uprisings against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and warfare among Chinese power contenders. [kw]Establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368)
[kw]Ming Dynasty, Establishment of the (1368)
Ming Dynasty
China;1368: Establishment of the Ming Dynasty[2890]
Government and politics;1368: Establishment of the Ming Dynasty[2890]
Zhu Yuanzhang

Zhu Yuanzhang Zhu Yuanzhang was born into a family of poor tenant farmers in the district of Haozhou (modern Fengyang county) in the Huai River plain of modern-day Anhui Province. His earliest years were ones of great hardship. In his childhood, he tended sheep for others, often suffering from hunger. Orphaned at the age of sixteen, Zhu became a Buddhist monk and wandered through the Huai region, begging for his existence. These experiences proved useful for Zhu’s later rise to power—they acquainted Zhu with local socioeconomic and geographical conditions. They also were to shape many of Zhu’s policies after he became emperor.

A fortuitous turning point in Zhu’s life came in 1352, when he joined the insurgent forces under Guo Zixing Guo Zixing (Kuo Tzu-hsing), then stationed in the Haozhou area. Guo’s forces belonged to the Red Turban Rebellion (1351-1356) Red Turban Rebellion (1351-1356) , an anti-Mongol movement that consisted of various independent armed rebellious forces. Participants in this movement believed that the Maitreya Buddha would be coming to save the unfortunate and destroy evil forces, especially the Mongols. The movement started in Jiangsi and Hunan Provinces in the 1330’s and quickly spread throughout half of China within a dozen years. Guo Zixing was one of the many independent Red Turban leaders.

Under Guo Zixing’s command, Zhu Yuanzhang fought bravely and demonstrated remarkable ability to use military tactics. Because of this, he quickly gained the admiration of his fellow soldiers and became Guo’s favored follower and trusted aide as well as a member of Guo’s household (by marrying Guo’s adopted daughter). While remaining loyal to Guo, Zhu managed to build his own military contingent, whose leaders were mostly Zhu’s former friends and childhood companions and included his future chief of staff, Xu Da (Hsü Ta). This group of military leaders formed the core of his personal following for the next twenty years.

Shortly after Guo Zixing died in 1355, Zhu Yuanzhang took command of Guo’s forces. In 1356, Zhu’s army crossed the Yangtze River and captured the city of Nanjing. Zhu began building a regional state with Nanjing as its capital. His reputation drew many important military leaders to him, and his force grew rapidly. Zhu became one of several regional leaders competing for mastery of the whole realm. From 1356 to 1367, Zhu defeated his rivals one by one in the middle and lower Yangtze region and firmly established his control there. In January, 1368, Zhu proclaimed the founding of a new dynasty, the Ming (“bright”), and took the title of emperor, ruling as Hongwu (Hung-wu; literally, the “great martial emperor”). Meanwhile, Zhu launched military expeditions against his remaining enemies to the south, west, and especially the Mongols to the north. The Mongol rulers and their forces were driven out of Dadu (Beijing) and fled further to the north, the Gebi Desert. By the end of the 1380’, the whole country was brought under the control of Zhu’s Ming Dynasty.

Zhu Yuanzhang was the only founder of an imperial Chinese dynasty who came from a household of destitute farmers—the bottom layer of Chinese society. Zhu’s success in gaining the throne is generally attributed to his military leadership, his efforts to help ordinary people, and his search for talented people to run his government.

Zhu built and maintained an effective and loyal military leadership. He attempted to impose discipline on his troops and took care to minimize harm to the civilian population, particularly forbidding his soldiers to bully women and to engage in looting. This ensured that his troops behaved better than other insurgent forces and helped win the goodwill of conquered populations. Zhu paid considerable attention to rehabilitating the lives of ordinary people in the farming villages, granting tax remissions to war-ravaged regions and helping resettle displaced people. In so doing, he strove to create the image of a compassionate future ruler. Zhu also proved open-minded and eager in searching for and recruiting talented personnel, including eminent scholars. At the capture of each administrative town, local literati, either officials in the service of the enemy or in private life, were interviewed and often appointed to office. Because of this policy, many scholars presented themselves to Zhu, serving as Zhu’s advisers, literary tutors, officials, and strategists and playing a critical role in formulating many of Zhu’s wartime policies and in transforming Zhu from an insurgent peasant leader to the ruler of an empire.

As emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang is traditionally believed to have been both a ruthless autocrat and a compassionate sovereign. Both reputations have fact behind them. Zhu was autocratic, more so than any of the previous Chinese rulers, as evidenced by Zhu’s abolishment of the post of prime minister and his recourse to a reign of terror. Zhu was extremely concerned with the consolidation and perpetuation of the rule of his dynasty. This concern led him to suspect all his veteran and high-ranking officials and regard them as potential usurpers of imperial power. He particularly distrusted the prime minister, the head of civil administration with strong executive power. Therefore, Zhu abolished the office of prime minister in 1380 and warned that it should never be restored by his successors. Zhu acted as his own prime minister, making the six ministries directly responsible to him and thus gathering all important executive powers in his own hands. (In previous dynasties, the sovereign and the prime minister shared power.) The emperor became a true autocrat, omnipotent and unchecked. However, the emperor alone was unable to handle all state affairs. Increasingly, he turned to the inner court for help. The inner court, distinct from the outer court (the civil administration), was composed of the emperor’s personal secretaries (mostly scholars). During the reigns of Zhu’s descendants, the inner court expanded to include eunuchs, who became omnipresent and powerful and four of whom actually became dictators and controlled the court politics.

Zhu’s reign was also marked by the systematic use of terror, primarily targeting bureaucrats, especially those in high posts. Zhu’s terrorist techniques included tight surveillance and various brutal punishments—such as beating, torture, amputation, and execution—that were often random and massive. Some officials were subjected to severe punishments for their misconduct, especially for corruption. Many others, however, were punished only for alleged or suspected offenses and even for no legitimate reasons. As Zhu got older, he became ever more obsessed with the execution of senior officials, particularly meritorious and prestigious military generals and their family members. One case of execution could lead to the decimation of one or several whole clans and the deaths of hundreds and even thousands of innocent people. Zhu’s reign of terror was a well-conceived political strategy designed to intimidate his officials into total submission and to remove potential challengers not only to himself but also to his young and weak successor.

This image of Zhu Yuanzhang as a cruel autocrat contrasts sharply with his other image, that of a compassionate ruler who cared about the common people, farmers in particular. Partly because of his poor peasant background and his childhood experiences, Zhu seems to have had genuine sympathy for the plight of the peasants. In his numerous pronouncements, he often mentioned how difficult a peasant’s life could be and urged local officials not to bully the people but to make efforts to improve the people’s livelihood. He even allowed local people to punish corrupt local officials by taking them to the capital. The emperor was concerned with the building and repairing of irrigation systems. When natural disasters occurred, he ordered the opening of public granaries to the people in disaster-stricken areas and the reduction or remission of their taxes.

Scholar Edward L. Farmer has presented yet another image of Zhu Yuanzhang, viewing him as a “shrewd and far-sighted legislator.” Zhu legislated for all sectors of the society—the imperial family, the eunuchs, officials, nobles, and commoners. In so doing, Zhu proved careful, energetic, persistent, and creative.


The rise of the Ming Dynasty ended nearly a century of alien (Mongol) control over China and resorted Han Chinese rule. For this reason, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, has been hailed as a national hero by many Chinese, including Sun Yat-sen, the father of the 1911 Revolution. Zhu’s anti-Mongol activities inspired nationalist movements in later generations. The fact that Zhu rose to imperial power from a poor farmer’s household encouraged later peasant revolutionaries such as Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), the history-conscious leader of the Communist revolution

As an effective and diligent monarch, Zhu gave a new shape to the structure of Chinese central government that would last through all of Ming and Qing times until the revolution of 1911. The legacy of his autocratic rule could even be seen in modern times, in the authoritarian style of rule of rulers such as Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) and Mao.

Further Reading

  • Brook, Timothy. The Confusion of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California, 1998. An account of the impact of commercialization on social and cultural life during the Ming dynasty.
  • Cass, Victoria Baldwin. Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies, and Geishas of the Ming. Lanham, Md.: Rowan & Littlefield, 1999. Contains valuable information about official attitudes toward women and women’s issues in Ming times.
  • Chan, Hok-Lam. China and the Mongols: History and Legend under the Yuan and Ming. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1999. Contains a chapter examining the official records on the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang.
  • Farmer, Edward L. Zhu Yuanzhang and Early Ming Legislation. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1995. An analysis of Zhu Yuanzhang’s legislative activities.
  • Hucker, Charles O. The Traditional Chinese State in Ming Times. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1961. An examination of the Ming political system.
  • Mote, Frederick W., and Denis Twitchett, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644. Vol. 7 in The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. An account of the political history of the Ming Dynasty, including chapters on Zhu’s founding of the dynasty.
  • Taylor, Romeyn. Basic Annals of Ming T’ai Tsu. San Fransico, 1975. English translations of some primary materials about the founding of the Ming Dynasty.
  • Wu, Han. Biography of Zhu Yuanzhang. Beijing: Chinese Press, 1949. Still the most authoritative account of Zhu Yunzhang’s life and career.