Ming rule saw the construction of a vast navy and a standing army of one million troops. Although private maritime trade and official tribute missions from China had taken place in previous dynasties, the tributary fleet under the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He in the 15th century surpassed all others in sheer size. There were enormous projects of construction, including the restoration of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the first quarter of the 15th century. Estimates for the population in the late Ming era vary from 160 to 200 million. The University of Calgary states that "the Ming created one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history.
Emperor Hongwu (r. 1368–1398) attempted to create a society of self-sufficient rural communities in a rigid, immobile system that would have no need to engage with the commercial life and trade of urban centers. His rebuilding of China's agricultural base and strengthening of communication routes through the militarized courier system had the unintended effect of creating a vast agricultural surplus that could be sold at burgeoning markets located along courier routes. Rural culture and commerce became influenced by urban trends. The upper echelons of society embodied in the scholarly gentry class were also affected by this new consumption-based culture. In a departure from tradition, merchant families began to produce examination candidates to become scholar-officials and adopted cultural traits and practices typical of the gentry class. Parallel to this trend involving social class and commercial consumption were changes in social and political philosophy, bureaucracy and governmental institution, and even arts and literature.
By the 16th century the Ming economy was stimulated by maritime trade with the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. China became involved in a new global trade of goods, plants, animals, and food crops known as the Columbian Exchange. Trade with European powers and the Japanese brought in massive amounts of silver, which then replaced copper and paper banknotes as the common medium of exchange in China. During the last decades of the Ming the flow of silver into China was greatly diminished, thereby undermining state revenues and indeed the entire Ming economy. This damage to the economy was compounded by the effects on agriculture of the incipient Little Ice Age, natural calamities, crop failure, and sudden epidemics. The ensuing breakdown of authority and people's livelihoods allowed rebel leaders such as Li Zicheng to challenge Ming authority.
A number of Han Chinese groups revolted, including the Red Turbans (红巾军) in 1351. The Red Turbans were affiliated with the White Lotus, a Buddhist secret society. Zhu Yuanzhang was a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk who joined the Red Turbans in 1352, but soon gained a reputation after marrying the foster daughter of a rebel commander. In 1356 Zhu's rebel force captured the city of Nanjing, which he would later establish as the capital of the Ming Dynasty.
Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) cemented his power in the south by eliminating his arch rival and rebel leader Chen Youliang (陈友谅) in the Battle of Lake Poyang (鄱阳湖水战) in 1363. After the dynastic head of the Red Turbans suspiciously died in 1367 while hosted as a guest of Zhu, the latter made his imperial ambitions known by sending an army toward the Yuan capital in 1368. The last Yuan emperor fled north to Shangdu and Zhu declared the founding of the Ming Dynasty after razing the Yuan palaces of Khanbaliq (Beijing) to the ground.
Instead of the traditional way of naming a dynasty after the first ruler's home district, Zhu's choice of 'Ming' or 'Brilliant' for his dynasty followed a Mongol precedent of an uplifting title. Zhu Yuanzhang also took Hongwu, or 'Vastly Martial' as his reign title. Although the White Lotus had fomented his rise to power, Hongwu later denied that he had ever been a member of their organization and suppressed the religious movement after he became emperor.
Hongwu immediately set to rebuilding state infrastructure. He built a 48 km (30 mile) long wall around Nanjing, as well as new palaces and government halls. The Mingshi 明史 states that as early as 1364 Zhu Yuanzhang had begun drafting a new Confucian law code known as the Daming Lu, which was completed by 1397 and repeated certain clauses found in the old Tang Code of 653. Hongwu organized a military system known as the weisuo, which was similar to the fubing system of the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The goal was to have soldiers become self-reliant farmers in order to sustain themselves while not fighting or training. The system of the self-sufficient agricultural soldier, however, was largely a farce; infrequent rations and awards were not enough to sustain the troops, and many deserted their ranks if they weren't located in the heavily-supplied frontier.
Although a Confucian, Hongwu had a deep distrust for the scholar-officials of the gentry class and was not afraid to have them beaten in court for offenses. He halted the civil service examinations in 1373 after complaining that the 120 scholar-officials who obtained a jinshi degree were incompetent ministers. After the examinations were reinstated in 1384, he had the chief examiner executed after it was discovered that he allowed only candidates from the south to be granted jinshi degrees.
In 1380 Hongwu had the Chancellor Hu Weiyong (左丞相 胡惟庸) executed upon suspicion of a conspiracy plot to overthrow him; after that Hongwu abolished the Chinese Chancellery and assumed this role as chief executive and emperor. With a growing suspicion of his ministers and subjects, Hongwu established the Jinyi Wei (锦衣卫), a network of secret police drawn from his own palace guard. They were partly responsible for the loss of 100,000 lives in several purges over three decades of his rule.
In 1381, the Ming Dynasty annexed the areas of the southwest that had once been part of the Kingdom of Dali. By the end of the 14th century, some 200,000 military colonists settled some 2,000,000 mu (350,000 acres) of land in what is now Yunnan and Guizhou. Roughly half a million more Chinese settlers came in later periods; these migrations caused a major shift in the ethnic make-up of the region, since more than half of the roughly 3,000,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty were non-Han peoples. In this region, the Ming government adopted a policy of dual administration. Areas with majority ethnic Chinese were governed according to Ming laws and policies; areas where native tribal groups dominated had their own set of laws while tribal chiefs promised to maintain order and send tribute to the Ming court in return for needed goods. From 1464 to 1466 the Miao and Yao people revolted against what they saw as oppressive government rule; in response, the Ming government sent an army of 30,000 troops (including 1,000 Mongols) to join the 160,000 local troops of Guangxi and crushed the rebellion. After the scholar and philosopher Wang Yangming (1472–1529) suppressed another rebellion in the region, he advocated joint administration of Chinese and local ethnic groups in order to bring about sinification in the local peoples' culture.
Scholarship outside China generally regards Tibet as having been independent during the Ming Dynasty, whereas historians in China today take an opposing point of view. The Mingshi— the official history of the Ming Dynasty compiled later by the Qing Dynasty in 1739—states that the Ming established itinerant commanderies overseeing Tibetan administration while also renewing titles of ex-Yuan Dynasty officials from Tibet and conferring new princely titles on leaders of Tibet's Buddhist sects. However, Turrell V. Wylie states that censorship in the Mingshi in favor of bolstering the Ming emperor's prestige and reputation at all costs obfuscates the nuanced history of Sino-Tibetan relations during the Ming era. Modern scholars still debate on whether or not the Ming Dynasty really had sovereignty over Tibet at all, as some believe it was a relationship of loose suzerainty which was largely cut off when the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521–1567) persecuted Buddhism in favor of Daoism at court. Helmut Hoffman states that the Ming upheld the facade of rule over Tibet through periodic missions of "tribute emissaries" to the Ming court and by granting nominal titles to ruling lamas, but did not actually interfere in Tibetan governance. Wang Jiawei and Nyima Gyaincain disagree, stating that Ming China had sovereignty over Tibetans who did not inherit Ming titles, but were forced to travel to Beijing to renew them. Melvyn C. Goldstein writes that the Ming had no real administrative authority over Tibet since the various titles given to Tibetan leaders already in power did not confer authority as earlier Mongol Yuan titles had; according to him, "the Ming emperors merely recognized political reality." Some scholars argue that the significant religious nature of the relationship of the Ming court with Tibetan lamas is underrepresented in modern scholarship. Others underscore the commercial aspect of the relationship, noting the Ming Dynasty's insufficient amount of horses and the need to maintain the tea-horse trade with Tibet. Scholars also debate on how much power and influence—if any—the Ming Dynasty court had over the de facto successive ruling families of Tibet, the Phagmodru (1354–1436), Rinbung (1436–1565), and Tsangpa (1565–1642).
The Ming initiated sporadic armed intervention in Tibet during the 14th century, while at times the Tibetans also used successful armed resistance against Ming forays. Patricia Ebrey, Thomas Laird, Wang Jiawei, and Nyima Gyaincain all point out that the Ming Dynasty did not garrison permanent troops in Tibet, unlike the former Mongol Yuan Dynasty. The Wanli Emperor (r. 1572–1620) made attempts to reestablish Sino-Tibetan relations in the wake of a Mongol-Tibetan alliance initiated in 1578, the latter of which affected the foreign policy of the subsequent Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) of China in their support for the Dalai Lama of the Yellow Hat sect. By the late 16th century, the Mongols proved to be successful armed protectors of the Yellow Hat Dalai Lama after their increasing presence in the Amdo region, culminating in Güshi Khan's (1582–1655) conquest of Tibet in 1642.
According to historian Timothy Brook, the Hongwu Emperor attempted to immobilize society by creating rigid, state-regulated boundaries between villages and larger townships, discouraging trade and travel in society not permitted by the government. Hongwu attempted to instill austere values by imposing uniform dress codes, standard methods of speech, and standard style of writing classical prose that did not flaunt the skills of the highly educated. His suspicion for the educated elite matched his disdain for the commercial elites, imposing inordinately high taxes upon the hotbed of powerful merchant families in the region of Suzhou in Jiangsu. He also forcibly moved thousands of wealthy families from the southeast and resettled them around Nanjing in the Jiangnan region, forbidding them to move once they were settled. To keep track of the merchants' activities, Hongwu forced them to register all of their goods once a month. One of his main goals as ruler was to permanently curb the influence of merchants and landlords, yet several of his policies would eventually encourage them to amass more wealth.
Hongwu's oppressive system of massive relocation and the desire to escape his harsh taxes encouraged many to become itinerant retailers, peddlers, or migrant workers finding tenant landowners who would rent them space to farm and labor on. By the mid Ming era, emperors had abandoned Hongwu's relocation scheme and instead trusted local officials to document migrant workers in order to bring in more revenue. An elite of wealthy landlords and merchants reigning over land tenants, wage laborers, domestic servants, and migrant workers was hardly the vision of Hongwu's: strict adherence to the hierarchic status system of the four occupations.
Hongwu revived the agricultural sector to create self-sufficient communities that would not rely on commerce, which he assumed would remain only in urban areas. Yet the surplus created from this revival encouraged rural farmers to make profits by first selling their goods at thoroughfares; by the mid Ming era they began selling their goods in regional urban markets. As the countryside and urban areas became more connected through commerce, households in rural areas began taking on traditionally urban specializations, such as production of silk and cotton textiles. By the late Ming there was a growing concern amongst conservative Confucians that the metaphorical delicate fabric holding together the communal social order was being undermined by country rustics accepting every manner of urban life and decadence.
The rural farmer was not the only social group affected by growing commercialization of Chinese society; it also heavily influenced the landholding gentry that traditionally produced scholar-officials for civil service. The scholar-officials were traditionally held as frugal individuals who deterred themselves from arrogance in the wealth garnered from a prestigious career; they were known even to walk from their country homes into the city where they were employed. By the time of the Zhengde Emperor (1505–1521), officials chose to be hauled around in luxurious sedan chairs and began purchasing lavish homes in affluent urban neighborhoods instead of living in the countryside. By the late Ming era, gaining wealth became the prime indicator of social prestige, even more so than gaining a scholarly degree.
In the first half of the Ming era, scholar-officials would rarely mention the contribution of merchants in society while writing their local gazetteer; officials were certainly capable of funding their own public works projects, a symbol of their virtuous political leadership. However, by the second half of the Ming era it became common for officials to solicit money from merchants in order to fund their various projects, such as building bridges or establishing new schools of Confucian learning for the betterment of the gentry. From that point on the gazetteers began mentioning merchants and often in high esteem, since the wealth produced by their economic activity produced resources for the state as well as increased production of books needed for the education of the gentry. Merchants began taking on the highly-cultured, connoisseur's attitude and cultivated traits of the gentry class, blurring the lines between merchant and gentry and paving the way for merchant families to produce scholar-officials. The roots of this social transformation and class indistinction could be found in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), but it became much more pronounced in the Ming. Writings of family instructions for lineage groups in the late Ming period display the fact that one no longer inherited his position in the categorization of the four occupations (in descending order): gentry, farmers, artisans, and merchants.
The scholar-officials' dependence upon the economic activities of the merchants became more than a trend when it was semi-institutionalized by the state in the mid Ming era. Qiu Jun (1420–1495), a scholar-official from Hainan, argued that the state should only mitigate market affairs during times of pending crisis and that merchants were the best gauge in determining the strength of a nation's riches in resources. The government followed this guideline by the mid Ming era when it allowed merchants to take over the state monopoly of salt production. This was a gradual process where the state supplied northern frontier armies with enough grain by granting merchants licenses to trade in salt in return for their shipping services. The state realized that merchants could buy salt licenses with silver and in turn boost state revenues to the point where buying grain was not an issue. The governments of both Hongwu and Zhengtong (r. 1435–1449) attempted to cut the flow of silver into the economy in favor of paper currency, yet mining the precious metal simply became a lucrative illegal pursuit practiced by many. Hongwu was unaware of economic inflation even as he continued to hand out multitudes of banknotes as awards; by 1425, paper currency was worth only 0.025% to 0.014% its original value in the 14th century. The value of standard copper coinage dropped significantly as well due to counterfeit minting; by the 16th century, new maritime trade contacts with Europe provided massive amounts of imported silver, which increasingly became the common medium of exchange. As far back as 1436, the southern grain tax had been partially commuted to payments in silver. In 1581 the Single Whip Reform installed by Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (1525–1582) finally assessed taxes on the amount of land paid entirely in silver.
After laying dormant and dilapidated for decades, the Grand Canal was restored under Yongle from 1411–1415. The impetus for restoring the canal was to solve the perennial problem of shipping grain north to Beijing. Shipping the annual 4,000,000 shi (one shi is equal to 107 liters) was made difficult with an inefficient system of shipping grain through the East China Sea or by several different inland canals that necessitated the transferring of grain onto several different barge types in the process, including shallow and deep water barges. Yongle commissioned some 165,000 workers to dredge the canal bed in western Shandong and built a series of fifteen canal locks. The reopening of the Grand Canal had implications for Nanjing as well, as it was surpassed by the well-positioned city of Suzhou as the paramount commercial center of China.
Although Yongle ordered episodes of bloody purges like his father—including the execution of Fang Xiaoru who refused to draft the proclamation of his succession—Yongle had a different attitude about the scholar-officials. He had a selection of texts compiled from the Cheng-Zhu school of Confucianism—or Neo-Confucianism—in order to assist those who studied for the civil service examinations. Yongle commissioned two thousand scholars to create a 50-million word (22,938-chapter) long encyclopedia—the Yongle Encyclopedia—from seven thousand books. This surpassed all previous encyclopedias in scope and size, including the 11th century compilation of the Four Great Books of Song. Yet the scholar-officials weren't the only political group that Yongle had to cooperate with and appease. Historian Michael Chang points out that Yongle was an "emperor on horseback" who often traversed between two capitals like in the Mongol Yuan tradition and constantly led expeditions into Mongolia. This was opposed by the Confucian establishment while it served to bolster the importance of eunuchs and military officers whose power depended upon the emperor's favor.
Beginning in 1405, the Yongle Emperor entrusted his favored eunuch commander Zheng He (1371–1433) as the naval admiral for a gigantic new fleet of ships designated for international tributary missions. The Chinese had sent diplomatic missions over land and west since the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) and had been engaged in private overseas trade leading all the way to East Africa for centuries—culminating in the Song and Yuan dynasties—but no government-sponsored tributary mission of this grandeur and size had ever been assembled before. To service seven different tributary missions abroad, the Nanjing shipyards constructed two thousand vessels from 1403 to 1419, which included the large treasure ships that measured 112 m (370 ft) to 134 m (440 ft) in length and 45 m (150 ft) to 54 m (180 ft) in width. The first voyage from 1405 to 1407 contained 317 vessels with a staff of 70 eunuchs, 180 medical personnel, 5 astrologers, and 300 military officers commanding a total estimated force of 26,800 men.
The enormous tributary missions were discontinued after the death of Zheng He, yet his death was only one of many culminating factors which brought the missions to an end. Yongle had conquered Vietnam in 1407, but Ming troops were pushed out in 1428 with significant costs to the Ming treasury; in 1431 the new Lê Dynasty of Vietnam was recognized as an independent tribute state. There was also the threat and revival of Mongol power on the northern steppe which drew court attention away from other matters; to face this threat, a massive amount of funds were used to build the Great Wall after 1474. Yongle's moving of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing was largely in response to the court's need of keeping a closer eye on the Mongol threat in the north. Scholar-officials also associated the lavish expense of the fleets with eunuch power at court, and so halted funding for these ventures as a means to curtail further eunuch influence.
The Mongols held the Zhengtong Emperor for ransom. However, this scheme was foiled once Zhengtong's younger brother assumed the throne as the Jingtai Emperor (r. 1449–1457); the Mongols were also repelled once Jingtai's confidant and defense minister Yu Qian (1398–1457) gained control of the Ming armed forces. Holding Zhengtong in captivity was a useless bargaining chip for the Mongols as long as another sat on his throne, so they released him back into Ming China. Zhengtong was placed under house arrest in the palace until the coup against Jingtai in 1457 known as the "Wresting the Gate Incident". Zhengtong retook the throne as the Tianshun Emperor (r. 1457–1464).
Tianshun's reign was a troubled one and Mongol forces within the Ming military structure continued to be problematic. On August 7, 1461, the Chinese general Cao Qin and his Ming troops of Mongol descent staged a coup against Tianshun out of fear of being next on his purge-list of those who aided Jingtai's succession. Mongols serving the Ming military also became increasingly circumspect as the Chinese began to heavily distrust their Mongol subjects after the Tumu Crisis. Cao's rebel force managed to set fire to the western and eastern gates of the Imperial City (doused by rain during the battle) and killed several leading ministers before his forces were finally cornered and he was forced to commit suicide.
The Mongol threat to China was at its greatest level in the 15th century, although periodic raiding continued throughout the dynasty. Like in the Tumu Crisis, the Mongol leader Altan Khan (1507–1582) invaded China and raided as far as the outskirts of Beijing. Interestingly enough, the Ming employed troops of Mongol descent to fight back Altan Khan's invasion, as well as Mongol military officers against Cao Qin's abortive coup. The Mongol incursions prompted the Ming authorities to construct the Great Wall from the late 15th century to the 16th century; John Fairbank notes that "it proved to be a futile military gesture but vividly expressed China's siege mentality." Yet the Great Wall was not meant to be a purely defensive fortification; its towers functioned rather as a series of lit beacons and signalling stations to allow rapid warning to friendly units of advancing enemy troops.
In 1479, the vice president of the Ministry of War burned the court records documenting Zheng He's voyages; it was one of many events signalling China's shift to an inward foreign policy. Shipbuilding laws were implemented that restricted vessels to a small size; the concurrent decline of the Ming navy allowed the growth of piracy along China's coasts. Japanese pirates—or wokou—began staging raids on Chinese ships and coastal communities, although much of the piracy was carried out by native Chinese.
Instead of mounting a counterattack, Ming authorities chose to shut down coastal facilities and starve the pirates out; all foreign trade was to be conducted by the state under the guise of formal tribute missions. These policies were known as the hai jin laws, which enacted a strict ban on private maritime activity until the laws' formal abolishment in 1567. In this period government-managed overseas trade with Japan was carried out exclusively at the seaport of Ningbo, trade with the Philippines exclusively at Fuzhou, and trade with Indonesia exclusively at Guangzhou. Even then the Japanese were only allowed into port once every ten years and were allowed to bring a maximum of three hundred men on two ships; these laws encouraged many Chinese merchants to engage in widespread illegal trade and smuggling.
The low point in relations between Ming China and Japan occurred during the rule of the great Japanese warlord Hideyoshi, who in 1592 announced he was going to conquer China. In two campaigns that are known collectively as the Imjin War, the Japanese fought with the Korean and Ming armies. Both sides won victories in the war but with Hideyoshi's death in 1598, the Japanese gave up their last Korean bases and returned to Japan. Despite this and the great leadership of Koreans such as the admiral Yi Sun-sin, the Ming generals took credit for the victory. However, the victory came at an enormous cost to the Ming government's treasury: some 26,000,000 ounces of silver.
Although Jorge Álvares was the first to land on Lintin Island in the Pearl River Delta in May of 1513, it was Rafael Perestrello—a cousin of the famed Christopher Columbus—who became the first European explorer to land on the southern coast of mainland China and trade in Guangzhou in 1516, commanding a Portuguese vessel with a crew from a Malaysian junk that had sailed from Malacca. The Portuguese sent a large subsequent expedition in 1517 to enter port at Guangzhou and open formal trade relations with Chinese authorities. During this expedition the Portuguese attempted to send an inland delegation in the name of Manuel I of Portugal to the court of the Ming emperor Zhengde; instead the diplomatic mission languished in a Chinese jail and died there. After the death of Zhengde in April 1521, the conservative faction at court that was against expanding commercial relations ordered that the Portuguese conquest of Malacca—a loyal vassal to the Ming—was grounds enough to reject the Portuguese embassy. Simão de Andrade, brother to ambassador Fernão Pires de Andrade, had also stirred Chinese speculation that the Portuguese were kidnapping Chinese children to eat them; Simão had purchased kidnapped children as slaves who were later found in Diu, India. In 1521, Ming Dynasty naval forces fought and repulsed Portuguese ships at Tuen Mun, where some of the first breech-loading culverins were introduced to China. Despite initial hostilities, by 1549 the Portuguese were sending annual trade missions to Shangchuan Island. In 1557 the Portuguese managed to convince the Ming court to agree on a legal port treaty that would establish Macau as an official Portuguese trade colony on the coasts of the South China Sea. The Portuguese friar Gaspar da Cruz (c. 1520 – February 5, 1570) traveled to Guangzhou in 1556 and wrote the first complete book on China and the Ming Dynasty that was published in Europe (fifteen days after his death); it included information on its geography, provinces, royalty, official class, bureaucracy, shipping, architecture, farming, craftsmanship, merchant affairs, clothing, religious and social customs, music and instruments, writing, education, and justice.
From China the major exports were silk and porcelain. The Dutch East India Company alone handled the trade of 6 million porcelain items from China to Europe between the years 1602 to 1682. Antonio de Morga (1559–1636), a Spanish official in Manila, listed an extensive inventory of goods that were traded by Ming China at the turn of the 17th century, noting there were "rarities which, did I refer to them all, I would never finish, nor have sufficient paper for it". After noting the variety of silk goods traded to Europeans, Ebrey writes of the considerable size of commercial transactions:
After the Chinese had banned direct trade by Chinese merchants with Japan, the Portuguese filled this commercial vacuum as intermediaries between China and Japan. The Portuguese bought Chinese silk and sold it to the Japanese in return for Japanese-mined silver; since silver was more highly valued in China, the Portuguese could then use Japanese silver to buy even larger stocks of Chinese silk. However, by 1573—after the Spanish established a trading base in Manila—the Portuguese intermediary trade was trumped by the prime source of incoming silver to China from the Spanish Americas.
Although the bulk of imports to China were silver, the Chinese also purchased New World crops from the Spanish Empire. This included sweet potatoes, maize, and peanuts, foods that could be cultivated in lands where traditional Chinese staple crops—wheat, millet, and rice—couldn't grow, hence facilitating a rise in the population of China. In the Song Dynasty (960–1279), rice had become the major staple crop of the poor; after sweet potatoes were introduced to China around 1560, it gradually became the traditional food of the lower classes.
Officials aggravated Wanli about which of his sons should succeed to the throne; he also grew equally disgusted with senior advisors constantly bickering about how to manage the state. There were rising factions at court and across the intellectual sphere of China stemming from the philosophical debate for or against the teaching of Wang Yangming (1472–1529), the latter of whom rejected some of the orthodox views of Neo-Confucianism. Annoyed by all of this, Wanli began neglecting his duties, remaining absent from court audiences to discuss politics, lost interest in studying the Confucian Classics, refused to read petitions and other state papers, and stopped filling the recurrent vacancies of vital upper level administrative posts. Scholar-officials lost prominence in administration as eunuchs became intermediaries between the aloof emperor and his officials; any senior official who wanted to discuss state matters had to persuade powerful eunuchs with a bribe simply to have his demands or message relayed to the emperor.
It was said that Hongwu forbade eunuchs to learn how to read or engage in politics. Whether or not these restrictions were carried out with absolute success in his reign, eunuchs in the Yongle reign period and after managed huge imperial workshops, commanded armies, and participated in matters of appointment and promotion of officials. The eunuchs developed their own bureaucracy that was organized parallel to but was not subject to the civil service bureaucracy. Although there were several dictatorial eunuchs throughout the Ming, such as Wang Zhen, Wang Zhi, and Liu Jin, excessive tyrannical eunuch power did not become evident until the 1590s when Wanli increased their rights over the civil bureaucracy and granted them power to collect provincial taxes.
The eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) dominated the court of the Tianqi Emperor (r. 1620–1627) and had his political rivals tortured to death, mostly the vocal critics from the faction of the "Donglin Society". He ordered temples built in his honor throughout the Ming Empire, and built personal palaces created with funds allocated for building the previous emperor's tombs. His friends and family gained important positions without qualifications. Wei also published a historical work lambasting and belitting his political opponents. The instability at court came right as natural calamity, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invasion came to a peak. Although the Chongzhen Emperor (r. 1627–1644) had Wei dismissed from court—which led to Wei's suicide shortly after—the problem with court eunuchs persisted until the dynasty's collapse less than two decades later.
During the last years of Wanli's reign and those of his two successors, an economic crisis developed that was centered around a sudden widespread lack of the empire's chief medium of exchange: silver. The Protestant powers of the Dutch Republic and the Kingdom of England staged frequent raids and acts of piracy against the Catholic-based empires of Spain and Portugal in order to weaken their global economic power. Meanwhile, Philip IV of Spain (r. 1621–1665) began cracking down on illegal smuggling of silver from Mexico and Peru across the Pacific towards China, in favor of shipping American-mined silver directly from Spain to Manila. In 1639, the new Tokugawa regime of Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with European powers, causing a halt of yet another source of silver coming into China. However, the greatest stunt to the flow of silver came from the Americas, while Japanese silver still came into China in limited amounts. Some scholars even assert that the price of silver rose in the 17th century due to a falling demand for goods, not declining silver stocks.
These events occurring at roughly the same time caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver and made paying taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. People began hoarding precious silver as there was progressively less of it, forcing the ratio of the value of copper to silver into a steep decline. In the 1630s, a string of one thousand copper coins was worth an ounce of silver; by 1640 this was reduced to the value of half an ounce; by 1643 it was worth roughly one-third of an ounce. For peasants this was an economic disaster, since they paid taxes in silver while conducting local trade and selling their crops with copper coins.
In this early half of the 17th century, famines became common in northern China because of unusual dry and cold weather that shortened the growing season; these were effects of a larger ecological event now known as the Little Ice Age. Famine, alongside tax increases, widespread military desertions, a declining relief system, and natural disasters such as flooding and inability of the government to properly manage irrigation and flood-control projects caused widespread loss of life and normal civility. The central government was starved of resources and could do very little to mitigate the effects of these calamities. Making matters worse, a widespread epidemic spread across China from Zhejiang to Henan, killing a large but unknown number of people.
A remarkable tribal leader named Nurhaci (r. 1616–1626), starting with just a small tribe, rapidly gained control over all the Manchurian tribes. During the Imjin War he offered to lead his tribes in support of the Ming and Joseon army. This offer was declined, but he was granted honorific Ming titles for his gesture. Recognizing the weakness in the Ming authority north of their border, he took control over all of the other unrelated tribes surrounding his homeland. In 1610 he broke relations with the Ming court; in 1618 he demanded the Ming pay tribute to him to redress the seven grievances which he documented and sent to the Ming court. This was, in a very real sense, a declaration of war as the Ming were not about to pay money to the Manchu.
Under the brilliant commander Yuan Chonghuan (1584–1630), the Ming were able to repeatedly fight off the Manchus, notably in 1626 at the Battle of Ningyuan (In which Nurhaci was mortally wounded) and in 1628. Under Yuan's command the Ming had securely fortified the Shanhai pass, thus blocking the Manchus from crossing the pass to attack the Liaodong Peninsula. Using European firearms acquired from his cook, he was able to stave off Nurhaci's advances along the Liao River. Although he was named field marshal of all the northeastern forces in 1628, he was executed in 1630 on trumped-up charges of colluding with the Manchus as they staged their raids. Succeeding generals proved unable to eliminate the Manchu threat.
Unable to attack the heart of Ming directly, the Manchu instead bided their time, developing their own artillery and gathering allies. They were able to enlist Ming government officials and generals as their strategic advisors. A large part of the Ming Army deserted to the Manchu banner. In 1632, they had conquered much of Inner Mongolia, resulting in a large scale recruitment of Mongol troops under the Manchu banner and the securing of an additional route into the Ming heartland.
By 1636, the Manchu ruler Huang Taiji renamed his dynasty from the "Latter Jin" to "Qing" at Shenyang, which had fallen to the Manchu in 1621 and was made their capital in 1625. Huang Taiji also adopted the Chinese imperial title huangdi instead of khan, took the Imperial title Chongde ("Revering Virtue"), and changed the ethnic name of his people from Jurchen to Manchu. In 1638 the Manchu defeated and conquered Ming China's traditional ally Joseon with an army of 100,000 troops. Shortly after the Koreans renounced their long-held loyalty to the Ming Dynasty.
In 1640, masses of Chinese peasants who were starving, unable to pay their taxes, and no longer in fear of the frequently defeated Chinese army, began to form into huge bands of rebels. The Chinese military, caught between fruitless efforts to defeat the Manchu raiders from the north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces, essentially fell apart. Unpaid and unfed, the army was defeated by Li Zicheng—now self-styled as the Prince of Shun—and deserted the capital without much of a fight. Li's forces were allowed into the city when the gates were treacherously opened from within. On May 26, 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng; during the turmoil, the last Ming emperor hung himself on a tree in the imperial garden right outside the Forbidden City.
Seizing opportunity, the Manchus crossed the Great Wall after the Ming border general Wu Sangui (1612–1678) opened the gates at Shanhai Pass. This occurred shortly after he learned about the fate of the capital and an army of Li Zicheng marching towards him; weighing his options of alliance, he decided to side with the Manchus. The Manchu army under the Manchu Prince Dorgon (1612–1650) and Wu Sangui approached Beijing after the army sent by Li was destroyed at Shanhaiguan; the Prince of Shun's army fled the capital on the fourth of June. On June 6 the Manchus and Wu entered the capital and proclaimed the young Shunzhi Emperor ruler of China. After being forced out of Xi'an by the Manchus, chased along the Han River to Wuchang, and finally along the northern border of Jiangxi province, Li Zicheng died there in the summer of 1645, thus ending the Shun Dynasty. One report says his death was a suicide; another states that he was beaten to death by peasants after he was caught stealing their food. Zhang Xianzhong was killed in January of 1647 by Manchu troops after he fled Chengdu and employed scorched earth policy.
Scattered Ming remnants still existed after 1644, including those of Koxinga. Despite the loss of Beijing and the death of the emperor, Ming power was by no means totally destroyed. Nanjing, Fujian, Guangdong, Shanxi, and Yunnan were all strongholds of Ming resistance. However, there were several pretenders for the Ming throne, and their forces were divided. Each bastion of resistance was individually defeated by the Qing until 1662, when the last real hopes of a Ming revival died with the Yongli emperor, Zhu Youlang. Despite the Ming defeat, smaller loyalist movements continued until the proclamation of the Republic of China.
The Ming emperors took over the provincial administration system of the Yuan Dynasty, and the thirteen Ming provinces are the precursors of the modern provinces. Throughout the Song Dynasty, the largest political division was the circuit (lu). However, after the Jurchen invasion in 1127, the Song court established four semi-autonomous regional command systems based on territorial and military units, with a detached service secretariat that would become the provincial administrations of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. At the provincial level, the Yuan central government structure was copied by the Ming; the bureaucracy contained three provincial commissions: one civil, one military, and one for surveillance. Below the level of the province (sheng) were prefectures (fu) operating under a prefect, followed by subprefectures (zhou) under a subprefect. Finally, the lowest unit was the county (xian) overseen by a magistrate. Besides the provinces, there were also two large areas that belonged to no province, but were metropolitan areas (jing) attached to Nanjing and Beijing.
Departing from the main central administrative system generally known as the Three Departments and Six Ministries system, which was instituted by various dynasties since late Han, the Ming administration had only one Department, the Secretariat, that controlled the Six Ministries. Following the execution of the Chancellor Hu Weiyong in 1380, emperor Hongwu abolished the Secretariat, the Censorate, and the Chief Military Commission and personally took charge of the Six Ministries and the regional Five Military Commissions. Thus a whole level of administration was cut out and only partially rebuilt by subsequent rulers. The Grand Secretariat, at the beginning a secretarial institution that assisted the emperor with administrative paperwork, was instituted, but without employing grand counselors, or chancellors. The ministries, headed by a minister and run by directors remained under direct control of the emperor until the end of the Ming.
The Hongwu Emperor sent his heir apparent to Shaanxi in 1391 to "tour and soothe" (xunfu) the region; in 1421 the Yongle Emperor commissioned 26 officials to travel the empire and uphold similar investigatory and patrimonial duties. By 1430 these xunfu assignments became institutionalized. Hence, the Censorate was reinstalled and first staffed with investigating censors, later with censors-in-chief. By 1453, the "grand coordinators"—or "touring pacifiers" as Michael Chang notes—were granted the title vice censor-in-chief or assistant censor-in-chief and were allowed direct access to the emperor. As in prior dynasties, the provincial administrations were monitored by a travelling inspector from the Censorate. Censors had the power to impeach officials on an irregular basis, unlike the senior officials who were to do so only in triennial evaluations of junior officials.
Although decentralization of state power within the provinces occurred in the early Ming, the trend of central government officials delegated to the provinces as virtual provincial governors began in the 1420s. By the late Ming Dynasty, there were central government officials delegated to two or more provinces as supreme commanders and viceroys, a system which reigned in the power and influence of the military by the civil establishment.
Governmental institutions in China conformed to a similar pattern for some two thousand years, but each dynasty installed special offices and bureaus, reflecting its own particular interests. The Ming administration had the Grand Secretaries assisting the emperor, with paperwork handled by them under Yongle's reign and finally appointed as top officials of agencies and Grand Preceptor, a top-ranking, non-functional civil service post, under the Hongxi Emperor (r. 1424–1425). The Grand Secretariat drew its members from the Hanlin Academy and were considered part of the imperial authority, not the ministerial one (hence being at odds with both the emperor and ministers at times). The Secretariat was a coordinating agency, whereas the Six Ministries—which were Personnel, Revenue, Rites, War, Justice, and Public Works—were direct administrative organs of the state. The Ministry of Personnel was in charge of appointments, merit ratings, promotions, and demotions of officials, as well as granting of honorific titles. The Ministry of Revenue was in charge of gathering census data, collecting taxes, and handling state revenues, while there were two offices of currency that were subordinate to it. The Ministry of Rites was in charge of state ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices; it also oversaw registers for Buddhist and Daoist priesthoods and even the reception of envoys from tributary states. The Ministry of War was in charge of the appointments, promotions, and demotions of military officers, the maintenance of military installations, equipment, and weapons, as well as the courier system. The Ministry of Justice was in charge of judicial and penal processes, but had no supervisory role over the Censorate or the Grand Court of Revision. The Ministry of Works was in charge of government construction projects, hiring of artisans and laborers for temporary service, manufacturing government equipment, the maintenance of roads and canals, standardization of weights and measures, and the gathering of resources from the countryside.
The imperial household was staffed almost entirely by eunuchs and ladies with their own bureaus. Female servants were organized into the Bureau of Palace Attendance, Bureau of Ceremonies, Bureau of Apparel, Bureau of Foodstuffs, Bureau of the Bedchamber, Bureau of Handicrafts, and Office of Staff Surveillance. Starting in the 1420s, eunuchs began taking over these ladies' positions until only the Bureau of Apparel with its four subsidiary offices remained. Hongwu had his eunuchs organized into the Directorate of Palace Attendants, but as eunuch power at court increased, so did their administrative offices, with eventual twelve directorates, four offices, and eight bureaus. The dynasty had a vast imperial household, staffed with thousands of eunuchs, who were headed by the Directorate of Palace Attendants. The eunuchs were divided into different directorates in charge of staff surveillance, ceremonial rites, food, utensils, documents, stables, seals, apparel, and so on. The offices were in charge of providing fuel, music, paper, and baths. The bureaus were in charge of weapons, silverwork, laundering, headgear, bronzework, textile manufacture, wineries, and gardens. At times, the most influential eunuch in the Directorate of Ceremonial acted as a de facto dictator over the state.
Although the imperial household was staffed mostly by eunuchs and palace ladies, there was a civil service office called the Seal Office, which cooperated with eunuch agencies in maintaining imperial seals, tallies, and stamps. There were also civil service offices to oversee the affairs of imperial princes.
As in earlier periods, the focus of the examination was classical Confucian texts, while the bulk of test material centered on the Four Books outlined by Zhu Xi in the 12th century. Ming era examinations were perhaps more difficult to pass since the 1487 requirement of completing the "eight-legged essay", a departure from basing essays off progressing literary trends. The exams increased in difficulty as the student progressed from the local level, and appropriate titles were accordingly awarded successful applicants. Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, each grade divided into two degrees, with ranging salaries (nominally paid in piculs of rice) according to their rank. While provincial graduates who were appointed to office were immediately assigned to low-ranking posts like the county graduates, those who passed the palace examination were awarded a jinshi ('presented scholar') degree and assured a high-level position. In 276 years of Ming rule and ninety palace examinations, the number of doctoral degrees granted by passing the palace examinations was 24,874. Ebrey states that "there were only two to four thousand of these jinshi at any given time, on the order of one out of 10,000 adult males." This was in comparison to the 100,000 shengyuan ('government students'), the lowest tier of graduates, by the 16th century.
The maximum tenure in office was nine years, but every three years officials were graded on their performance by senior officials. If they were graded as superior then they were promoted, if graded adequate then they retained their ranks, and if graded inadequate they were demoted one rank. In extreme cases, officials would be dismissed or punished. Only capital officials of grade 4 and above were exempt from the scrutiny of recorded evaluation, although they were expected to confess any of their faults. There were over 4,000 school instructors in county and prefectural schools who were subject to evaluations every nine years. The Chief Instructor on the prefectural level was classified as equal to a second-grade county graduate. The Supervisorate of Imperial Instruction oversaw the education of the heir apparent to the throne; this office was headed by a Grand Supervisor of Instruction, who was ranked as first class of grade three.
Eunuchs during the Ming Dynasty gained unprecedented power over state affairs. One of the most effective means of control was the secret service stationed in what was called the Eastern Depot at the beginning of the dynasty, later the Western Depot. This secret service was overseen by the Directorate of Ceremonial, hence this state organ's often totalitarian affiliation. Eunuchs had ranks that were equivalent to civil service ranks, only theirs had four grades instead of nine.
Princes and descendants of the first Ming emperor were given nominal military commands and large land estates without title. These estates were not feudatories, the princes did not serve any administrative function, and it was only during the reign of the first two emperors that they partook in military affairs. By contrast, princes in the Han and Jin Dynasties had been installed as local kings. Although princes served no organ of state administration, princes, consorts of imperial princesses, and ennobled relatives did staff the Imperial Clan Court, which took care of the imperial genealogy.
Like scholar-officials, military generals were ranked in a hierarchic grading system and were given merit evaluations every five years (as opposed to three years for officials). However, military officers had less prestige than officials. This was due to their hereditary service (instead of solely merit-based) and Confucian values that dictated those who chose the profession of violence (wu) over the cultured pursuits of knowledge (wen). Although seen as less prestigious, military officers were not excluded from taking civil service examinations and after 1478 the military even held their own examinations to test military skills. In addition to taking over the established bureaucratic structure from the Yuan period, the Ming emperors established the new post of the travelling military inspector. In the early half of the dynasty, men of noble lineage dominated the higher ranks of military office; this trend was reversed during the latter half of the dynasty as men from more humble origins eventually displaced them.
As in earlier dynasties, the Ming Dynasty saw a flourishing in the arts, whether it was painting, poetry, music, literature, or dramatic theater. Carved designs in lacquerwares and designs glazed onto porcelain wares displayed intricate scenes similar in complexity to those in painting. These items could be found in the homes of the wealthy, alongside embroidered silks and wares in jade, ivory, and cloisonné. The houses of the rich were also furnished with rosewood furniture and feathery latticework. The writing materials in a scholar's private study, including elaborately carved brush holders made of stone or wood, were all designed and arranged ritually to give an aesthetic appeal.
Connoisseurship in the late Ming period centered around these items of refined artistic taste, which provided work for art dealers and even underground scammers who made phony imitations of originals and false attributions to works of art. This was noted even by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci while staying in Nanjing, writing that Chinese scam artists were ingenious when it came to making forgeries of artwork and made huge profits. However, there were guides to help the wary new connoisseur; in Liu Tong's (d. 1637) book printed in 1635, he told his readers various ways to spot a fake and authentic pieces of art. He revealed that a Xuande era (1426–1435) bronzework could be authenticated if one knew how to judge its sheen; porcelain wares from the Yongle era (1402–1424) could be judged authentic by their thickness.
There was a great amount of literary achievement in the Ming Dynasty. The travel literature author Xu Xiake (1587–1641) published his Travel Diaries in 404,000 written characters, with information on everything from local geography to mineralogy. The first reference to the publishing of private newspapers in Beijing was in 1582; by 1638 the Beijing Gazette switched from using woodblock print to movable type printing. The new literary field of the moral guide to business ethics was developed by the late Ming period, for the readership of the merchant class. Although short story fiction was popular as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618–907), and the work of contemporaneous authors such as Xu Guangqi, Xu Xiake, and Song Yingxing were often technical and encyclopedic, the Ming era witnessed the development of the fictional novel. While the gentry elite were educated enough to fully comprehend the language of Classical Chinese, those with rudimentary education—such as women in educated families, merchants, and shop clerks—became a large, potential audience for literature and performing arts that employed Vernacular Chinese. The Jin Ping Mei—published in 1610—is considered by some to be the fifth great novel of pre-modern China, in reference to the Four Great Classical Novels. Two of these novels, the Water Margin and Journey to the West were products of the Ming Dynasty. To complement the work of fictional novels, the theater scripts of playwrights were equally imaginative. One of the most famous plays in Chinese history, The Peony Pavilion, was written by the Ming playwright Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), with its first performance at the Pavilion of Prince Teng in 1598.
In contrast to Xu Xiake, who focused on technical aspects in his travel literature, the Chinese poet and official Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610) used travel literature to express his desires for individualism as well as autonomy from and frustration with Confucian court politics. Yuan desired to free himself from the ethical compromises which were inseparable from the career of a scholar-official. This anti-official sentiment in Yuan's travel literature and poetry was actually following in the tradition of the Song Dynasty poet and official Su Shi (1037–1101). Yuan Hongdao and his two brothers—Yuan Zongdao (1560–1600) and Yuan Zhongdao (1570–1623)—were the founders of the Gong'an School of letters. This highly individualistic school of poetry and prose was criticized by the Confucian establishment for its association with intense sensual lyricism, which was also apparent in Ming vernacular novels such as the Jin Ping Mei. Yet even gentry and scholar-officials were affected by the new popular romantic literature, seeking courtesans as soulmates to reenact the heroic love stories which arranged marriages often could not provide or accommodate.
There were many famous visual artists in the Ming period, including Ni Zan, Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming, Qiu Ying, Dong Qichang, and many others. They drew upon the techniques, styles, and complexity in painting achieved by their Song and Yuan predecessors, but added some new techniques and styles. Well-known Ming artists could make a living simply by painting, due to the high costs they demanded for their artworks and the great demand by the highly cultured community to collect precious works of art. The artist Qiu Ying was once paid 2.8 kg (100 oz) of silver to paint a long handscroll for the occasion of an eightieth birthday celebration for the mother of a wealthy patron. Renowned artists often gathered an entourage of followers, some who were amateurs who painted while pursuing an official career and others who were full-time painters.
Beyond painters, some potters also became renowned for their artwork, such as He Chaozong in the early 17th century for his style of white porcelain sculpture. The major production centers for porcelain items in the Ming Dynasty were Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and Dehua in Fujian province. The Dehua porcelain factories catored to European tastes by creating Chinese export porcelain by the 16th century. In The Ceramic Trade in Asia, Chuimei Ho estimates that only 16% of Chinese ceramic exports in the late Ming were sent to Europe while the rest were destined for Japan and South East Asia.
For thousands of years the beliefs in ancestor worship and practices of the ancestral cult were key features of Chinese civilization. The Chinese believed in a host of deities in what is termed as Chinese folk religion. Other religious denominations in the Ming included the ancient native ideology of Daoism (Taoism) and foreign originated Buddhism, although distinct Chinese Buddhism had long since developed.
Christianity had existed in China since at least the Tang Dynasty (618–907), yet the late Ming period saw the first arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Europe such as Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault. There were also other denominations including the Dominicans and Franciscans.
Ricci worked with the Chinese mathematician, astronomer, and agronomist Xu Guangqi to translate the Greek mathematical work Euclid's Elements into Chinese for the first time in 1607. The Chinese were impressed with European knowledge in astronomy, calendrical science, mathematics, hydraulics, and geography. Most European monks presented themselves more as educated elites than religious figures, in an effort to gain trust and admiration from the Chinese. However, most Chinese were suspicious and even outright critical of Christianity due to Chinese beliefs and practices that did not coincide with the Christian faith. The highpoint of this contention was the Nanjing Religious Incident of 1616–1622, a temporary triumph of the Confucian traditionalists when Western missionaries and science were rejected in favor of the belief that Western science derived from a superior Chinese model; this was soon rejected in favor of once again staffing the Imperial Astronomical Board with Western missionaries learned in science.
Besides Christianity, the Kaifeng Jews had a long history in China; Ricci discovered this when he was contacted by one of them in Beijing and learned of their history in China. Islam in China had existed since the early 7th century during the Tang Dynasty; during the Ming Dynasty there were several prominent figures—including Zheng He—who were Muslim. The Hongwu Emperor also employed Muslim commanders in his army, such as Chang Yuqun, Lan Yu, Ding Dexing, and Mu Ying.
In analyzing Zhu Xi's concept of "the extension of knowledge" (i.e. gaining understanding through careful and rational investigation of things and events), Wang realized that universal principles were concepts espoused in the minds of all. Breaking from the mold, Wang said that anyone, no matter what socioeconomic status or background, could become as wise as the ancient sages Confucius and Mencius, and that the writings of the latter two were not the source of truth, but merely guides that could have flaws if carefully examined. In Wang's mind, a peasant who had many experiences and drew natural truths from these was more wise than an official who had carefully studied the Classics but had not experienced the real world in order to observe what was true.
Conservative Confucian officials were wary of Wang's philosophical interpretation of the Confucian classics, the increasing number of his disciples while still in office, and his overall socially-rebellious message. To curb his political influence he was often sent out to deal with military affairs and rebellions far away from the capital. Yet his ideas penetrated mainstream Chinese thought, and spurred new interest in Daoism and Buddhism. Furthermore, people began to question the validity of the social hierarchy and the idea that the scholar was above the farmer. Wang Yangming's disciple and salt-mine worker Wang Gen gave lectures to commoners about pursuing education to improve their lives, while his follower He Xinyin challenged the elevation and emphasis of the family in Chinese society. He's contemporary Li Zhi (1527–1602) even taught that women were the intellectual equals of men and should be given a better education; both Li and He eventually died in prison, jailed on charges of spreading "dangerous ideas". Yet these "dangerous ideas" of educating women had long been embraced with mothers giving their children primary education, as well as courtesans who were as literate and similarly trained in calligraphy, painting, and poetry as their male hosts.
In opposition to the liberal views of Wang Yangming were the conservative officials in the censorate—a governmental institution with the right and responsibility to speak out against malfeasance and abuse of power—and the senior officials of the Donglin Academy, which was reestablished in 1604. These conservatives wanted a revival of orthodox Confucian ethics. Conservatives such as Gu Xiancheng (1550–1612) argued against Wang Yangming's idea of innate moral knowledge, stating that this was simply a legitimization for unscrupulous behavior such as greedy pursuits and personal gain. These two strands of Confucian thought created factionalism amongst ministers of state, who—like the old days of Wang Anshi and Sima Guang in the Song Dynasty—used any opportunity to impeach members of the other faction from court.
A variety of occupations could be chosen or inherited from a father's line of work. This would include—but was not limited to—coffinmakers, ironworkers and blacksmiths, tailors, cooks and noodle-makers, retail merchants, tavern, teahouse, or winehouse managers, shoemakers, seal cutters, pawnshop owners, brothel heads, and merchant bankers engaging in a proto-banking system involving notes of exchange. Virtually every town had a brothel where female and male prostitutes could be had. Male catamites fetched a higher price than female concubines since pederasty with a teenage boy was seen as a mark of elite status, regardless of sodomy being repugnant to sexual norms. Public bathing became much more common than in earlier periods. Urban shops and retailers sold a variety of goods such as special paper money to burn at ancestral sacrifices, specialized luxury goods, headgear, fine cloth, teas, and others. Smaller communities and townships too poor or scattered to support shops and artisans obtained their goods from periodic market fairs and traveling peddlers. A small township also provided a place for simple schooling, news and gossip, matchmaking, religious festivals, traveling theater groups, tax collection, and bases of famine relief distribution.
Farming villagers in the north spent their days harvesting crops like wheat and millet, while farmers south of the Huai River engaged in intensive rice cultivation and had lakes and ponds where ducks and fish could be raised. The cultivation of mulberry trees for silkworms and tea bushes could be found mostly south of the Yangzi River; even further south of this sugarcane and citrus were grown as basic crops. Some people in the mountainous southwest made a living by selling lumber from hard bamboo. Besides cutting down trees to sell wood, the poor also made a living by turning wood into charcoal, burning oyster shells to make lime, fired pots, and wove mats and baskets. In the north traveling by horse and carriage was most common, while in the south the myriad of rivers, canals, and lakes provided cheap and easy water transport. Although the south had the characteristic of the wealthy landlord and tenant farmers, there were on average many more owner-cultivators north of the Huai River due to harsher climate, living not far above subsistence level.
Compared to the flourishing of science and technology in the Song Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty perhaps saw fewer advancements in science and technology compared to the pace of discovery in the Western world. In fact, key advances in Chinese science in the late Ming were spurred by contact with Europe. In 1626 Johann Adam Schall von Bell wrote the first Chinese treatise on the telescope, the Yuanjingshuo (Far Seeing Optic Glass); in 1634 the last Ming emperor Chongzhen acquired the telescope of the late Johann Schreck (1576–1630). The heliocentric model of the solar system was rejected by the Catholic missionaries in China, but Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei's ideas slowly trickled into China starting with the Polish Jesuit Michael Boym (1612–1659) in 1627, Adam Schall von Bell's treatise in 1640, and finally Joseph Edkins, Alex Wylie, and John Fryer in the 19th century. Catholic Jesuits in China would promote Copernican theory at court, yet at the same time embrace the Ptolemaic system in their writing; it was not until 1865 that Catholic missionaries in China sponsored the heliocentric model as their Protestant peers did. Although Shen Kuo (1031–1095) and Guo Shoujing (1231–1316) had laid the basis for trigonometry in China, another important work in Chinese trigonometry would not be published again until 1607 with the efforts of Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci. Ironically, some inventions which had their origins in ancient China were reintroduced to China from Europe during the late Ming; for example, the field mill.
The Chinese calendar was in need of reform since it inadequately measured the solar year at 365¼ days, giving an error of 10 min and 14 sec a year or roughly a full day every 128 years. Although the Ming had adopted Guo Shoujing's Shoushi calendar of 1281, which was just as accurate as the Gregorian Calendar, the Ming Directorate of Astronomy failed to periodically readjust it; this was perhaps due to their lack of expertise since their offices had become hereditary in the Ming and the Statutes of the Ming prohibited private involvement in astronomy. A sixth-generation descendant of Emperor Hongxi, the "Prince" Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611), submitted a proposal to fix the calendar in 1595, but the ultra-conservative astronomical commission rejected it. It should be noted that this was the same Zhu Zaiyu who discovered the system of tuning known as equal temperament, a discovery made simultaneously by Simon Stevin (1548–1620) in Europe. In addition to publishing his works on music, he was able to publish his findings on the calendar in 1597. A year earlier, the memorial of Xing Yunlu suggesting a calendrical improvement was shot down by the Supervisor of the Astronomical Bureau due to the law banning private practice of astronomy; Xing would later serve with Xu Guangqi in reforming the calendar in 1629 according to Western standards.
When the Ming founder Hongwu came upon the mechanical devices housed in the Yuan Dynasty's palace at Khanbaliq—such as fountains with balls dancing on their jets, self-operating tiger automata, dragon-headed devices that spouted mists of perfume, and mechanical clocks in the tradition of Yi Xing (683–727) and Su Song (1020–1101)—he associated all of them with the decadence of Mongol rule and had them destroyed. This was described in full length by the Divisional Director of the Ministry of Works, Xiao Xun, who also carefully preserved details on the architecture and layout of the Yuan Dynasty palace. Later, European Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault would briefly mention indigenous Chinese clockworks that featured drive wheels. However, both Ricci and Trigault were quick to point out that 16th century European clockworks were far more advanced than the common time keeping devices in China, which they listed as water clocks, incense clocks, and "other instruments...with wheels rotated by sand as if by water." Chinese records—namely the Yuan Shi—describe the 'five-wheeled sand clock', a mechanism pioneered by Zhan Xiyuan (fl. 1360–1380) which featured the scoop wheel of Su Song's earlier astronomical clock and a stationary dial face over which a pointer circulated, similar to European models of the time. This sand-driven wheel clock was improved upon by Zhou Shuxue (fl. 1530–1558) who added a fourth large gear wheel, changed gear ratios, and widened the orifice for collecting sand grains since he criticized the earlier model for clogging up too often.
The Chinese were intrigued with European technology, but so were visiting Europeans of Chinese technology. In 1584, Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) featured in his atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum the peculiar Chinese innovation of mounting masts and sails onto carriages, just like Chinese ships. Gonzales de Mendoza also mentioned this a year later—noting even the designs of them on Chinese silken robes—while Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594) featured them in his atlas, John Milton (1608–1674) in one of his famous poems, and Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest (1739–1801) in the writings of his travel diary in China.
The encyclopedist Song Yingxing (1587–1666) documented a wide array of technologies, metallurgic and industrial processes in his Tiangong Kaiwu encyclopedia of 1637. This includes mechanical and hydraulic powered devices for agriculture and irrigation, nautical technology such as vessel types and snorkeling gear for pearl divers, the annual processes of sericulture and weaving with the loom, metallurgic processes such as the crucible technique and quenching, manufacturing processes such as for roasting iron pyrite in converting sulphide to oxide in sulfur used in gunpowder compositions—illustrating how ore was piled up with coal briquettes in an earthen furnace with a still-head that sent over sulfur as vapor that would solidify and crystallize—and the use of gunpowder weapons such as a naval mine ignited by use of a rip-cord and steel flint wheel.
Focusing on agriculture in his Nongzheng Quanshu, the agronomist Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) took an interest in irrigation, fertilizers, famine relief, economic and textile crops, and empirical observation of the elements that gave insight into early understandings of chemistry.
There were many advances and new designs in gunpowder weapons during the beginning of the dynasty, but by the mid to late Ming the Chinese began to frequently employ European-style artillery and firearms. The Huolongjing, compiled by Jiao Yu and Liu Ji sometime before the latter's death on May 16, 1375 (with a preface added by Jiao in 1412), featured many types of cutting-edge gunpowder weaponry for the time. This includes hollow, gunpowder-filled exploding cannonballs, land mines that used a complex trigger mechanism of falling weights, pins, and a steel wheellock to ignite the train of fuses, naval mines, fin-mounted winged rockets for aerodynamic control, multistage rockets propelled by booster rockets before igniting a swarm of smaller rockets issuing forth from the end of the missile (shaped like a dragon's head), and hand cannons that had up to ten barrels.
Li Shizhen (1518–1593)—one of the most renowned pharmacologists and physicians in Chinese history—belonged to the late Ming period. In 1587, he completed the first draft of his Bencao Gangmu, which detailed the usage of over 1,800 medicinal drugs. Although it purportedly was invented by a Daoist hermit from Mount Emei in the late 10th century, the process of inoculation for smallpox patients was in widespread use in China by the reign of the Longqing Emperor (r. 1567–1572), long before it was applied anywhere else. In regards to oral hygiene, the ancient Egyptians had a primitive toothbrush of a twig frayed at the end, but the Chinese were the first to invent the modern bristle toothbrush in 1498, although it used stiff pig hair.
Sinologist historians still debate the actual population figures for each era in the Ming Dynasty. The historian Timothy Brook notes that the Ming government census figures are dubious since fiscal obligations prompted many families to underreport the number of people in their households and many county officials to underreport the number of households in their jurisdiction. Children were often underreported, especially female children, as shown by skewed population statistics throughout the Ming. Even adult women were underreported; for example, the Daming Prefecture in North Zhili reported a population of 378,167 males and 226,982 females in 1502. The government attempted to revise the census figures using estimates of the expected average number of people in each household, but this did not solve the widespread problem of tax registration.
The number of people counted in the census of 1381 was 59,873,305; however, this number dropped significantly when the government found that some 3 million people were missing from the tax census of 1391. Even though underreporting figures was made a capital crime in 1381, the need for survival pushed many to abandon the tax registration and wander from their region, where Hongwu had attempted to impose rigid immobility on the populace. The government tried to mitigate this by creating their own conservative estimate of 60,545,812 people in 1393. In his Studies on the Population of China, Ho Ping-ti suggests revising the 1393 census to 65 million people, noting that large areas of North China and frontier areas were not counted in that census. Brook states that the population figures gathered in the official censuses after 1393 ranged between 51 and 62 million, while the population was in fact increasing. Even the Hongzhi Emperor (r. 1487–1505) remarked that the daily increase in subjects coincided with the daily dwindling amount of registered civilians and soldiers. William Atwell states that around 1400 the population of China was perhaps 90 million people, citing Heijdra and Mote.
Historians are now turning to local gazetteers of Ming China for clues that would show consistent growth in population. Using the gazetteers, Brook estimates that the overall population under the Chenghua Emperor (r. 1464–1487) was roughly 75 million, despite mid-Ming census figures hovering around 62 million. While prefectures across the empire in the mid-Ming period were reporting either a drop in or stagnant population size, local gazetteers reported massive amounts of incoming vagrant workers with not enough good cultivated land for them to till, so that many would become drifters, conmen, or wood-cutters that contributed to deforestation. The Hongzhi and Zhengde emperors lessened the penalties against those who had fled their home region, while the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521–1567) finally had officials register migrants wherever they had moved or fled in order to bring in more revenues.
Even with Jiajing's reforms to document migrant workers and merchants, by the late Ming era the government census still did not accurately reflect the enormous growth in population. Gazetteers across the empire noted this and made their own estimations of the overall population in the Ming, some guessing that the population had doubled, tripled, or even grown fivefold since 1368. Fairbank estimates that the population was perhaps 160 million in the late Ming Dynasty, while Brook estimates 175 million, and Ebrey states perhaps as large as 200 million. However, a great epidemic that entered China through the northwest in 1641 ravaged the densely populated areas along the Grand Canal; a gazatteer in northern Zhejiang noted more than half the population fell ill that year and that 90% of the local populace in one area was dead by 1642.