Publication of the Laws of Great Ming

Hongwu, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, published the Great Ming Code, a set of laws designed to help the emperor centralize power within the dynasty and create an authoritarian government that would control people’s everyday lives.

Summary of Event

The publication of the Great Ming Code in 1397 was the culmination of the work of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu (born Zhu Yuanzhang Zhu Yuanzhang , or Chu Yüan-chang), and a variety of legal advisers who were ordered to transform the Chinese code into a more modern one fit for a new dynasty and empire. The story of the Great Ming Code can be found in the history of its development. [kw]Publication of the Laws of Great Ming (1397)
[kw]Laws of Great Ming, Publication of the (1397)
Great Ming Code
China;1397: Publication of the Laws of Great Ming[3040]
Laws, acts, and legal history;1397: Publication of the Laws of Great Ming[3040]

The latter half of the fourteenth century saw a dramatic change in Chinese politics. Since 1260, when Kublai Khan Kublai Khan defeated the Chinese, the Mongols had ruled China. The Yuan Dynasty Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) was a Mongol dynasty, although it ostensibly was a continuation of the Chinese dynasty system. By 1360, however, the Mongol hold over the country had begun to weaken, and regional leaders in China began to challenge the Mongols’s power. One of the those challenges came from a Buddhist monk, Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yüan-chang), who was able to rally Chinese support around a military insurgency against the Yuan Dynasty. By 1368, Zhu had led the Chinese people to sweep the Mongols from much of China.

Zhu, who would reign as Hongwu, began to create a governmental system that would become the Ming Dynasty. He reworked the Chinese legal and political systems while acquiring a reputation as a brutal leader who would allow no one to slow his reforms. His Great Ming Code became the basis for the Chinese imperial legal system and was used for the next five centuries.

The century-long Mongol conquest and occupation had caused Chinese law to dwindle in importance as the Mongol political leadership placed priority on fulfilling its own needs. The basis of Chinese law before the thirteenth century had been the code drawn up during the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907). After gaining power, Hongwu immediately sought to revive the Tang code. He commissioned between twenty and one hundred legal scholars to search through the Tang code and rewrite it by removing out-of-date portions and composing new ones. The first revision of the Tang code was presented to Hongwu in 1373. The code had been reduced to 285 articles and 145 statutes and was presented for the emperor’s approval. The final publication of the Great Ming Code was made in 1397, at which time, the emperor approved it.

Known as the Daming (Ta-ming), the code was divided into seven sections, some adapted from the Tang code, and others added to it. The first section was general, outlining the principles to be used throughout the code. These principles included the method of interpretation of the code and the process by which it would be used in court cases. The second section was civil and applied to the different parts of the government. It included the powers of each ministry and the authority and restrictions placed on government officials. Judicial power was also covered under the civil section, and restrictions were placed on judges when using the code.

The third section, the fiscal codes, focused on land taxes, the main source of revenue for the Chinese government. The fiscal section also established the government’s authority to take a census. The fourth section, involving rituals, set out the social and religious requirements that people would have to perform to satisfy their ritual duties and outlined the requirements for marriage. The fifth part of the code dealt with the military. This section was specific in that it outlined how the palace stables were to be kept, the duties of imperial couriers, and the security that was to be provided for the palace. The sixth portion of the code involved public works. One of the areas regulated was the construction of dikes along the many rivers of China, a critical action because much of the population lived along the rivers and uncontrolled seasonal flooding could wipe out much of Chinese civilization. This portion also listed the method of constructing and inspecting public buildings. The seventh portion, the criminal code, identified crimes and the punishments associated with them.

For a country populated by tens of millions, the Daming was surprisingly short, leaving broad interpretive powers to judges and the emperor. Courts and their judges had the power of interpretation, known as the Dagao. Cases decided by judges were used as guides for future disputes, not unlike the procedure in a common law system. The emperor also retained the power to issue edicts that would amend the Daming: He could replace the old law, lu, found in the code, with new law, li. This became an important tool as Hongwu found his attempts to centralize power were restricted by portions of the code. Under the Daming, all government officials were prohibited from abusing their official positions or from administering the horrific punishments that had been part of previous dynasties and the Mongol occupation. However, as Hongwu began to consolidate power, he was forced to issue new li so that he could remove high officials who displeased him.

The code also included a reworking of the political system begun by Hongwu with a series of purges. The emperor emptied his ministries of many officials and combined them into three major centers of power. The three ministries—military, finance, and public works—controlled the lives of most Chinese and held them within a rigidly defined status in society. The military ministry forced its members and families to live along the frontiers where the greatest military threat existed. All members of the military had fathers in the military, and their children would be required to serve. The finance ministry workers were all located within the large cities so that they could carry out most government duties. The children of the men who worked for the ministry would be expected to work for the ministry as well. The public works committee controlled the countryside and the largest portion of the Chinese community, the peasants who worked the farms.

The final publication of the Great Ming Code also included various edicts handed down by Hongwu during his reign. These included regulations regarding mourning and funerals. The emperor regulated the rituals, both political and religious, to be performed by the citizens. There were regulations concerning the nobility, education, and university training. The code exhorted the Chinese to follow the Confucian ideals of education and of staying within one’s proper social grouping.

Hongwu’s death in 1398 is seen as the beginning the Ming Dynasty succession. With the Great Ming Code, he had provided his successors with the tools for maintaining the dynasty and protecting Chinese civilization for centuries to come.


The development of the Great Ming Code created the conditions for the establishment of an authoritarian system of government in China. The code became the method by which Hongwu and his successors were able to control the Chinese people and form an empire in which the everyday lives of the people were dictated by the central government. The code, with its additions and edicts provided by the emperor, detailed everything from proper mourning at funerals to marriage rituals and the careers that people would choose. The code further strengthened the rule of the emperor, as Hongwu used it to mandate where his citizens would live and how they would work. The Great Ming Code became the legal basis for the Chinese empire into the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Brook, Timothy. The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. This works examines how Ming law was used to restrict both the commercial and cultural activities of the Chinese people throughout the entire dynasty.
  • Chan, Albert. The Glory and Fall of the Ming Dynasty. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. Focuses specifically on the political side of the Ming Dynasty, its emperors and governing system and how that eventually led to its disintegration.
  • Johnson, Wallace. The Tang Code. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. A detailed analysis of the early law code of the Chinese empire and how the legal process in this code was used by later dynasties, including the Ming.
  • Mote, F. W. Imperial China 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. A wide-ranging book that deals with the several dynasties that ruled China from the medieval period into the modern era.