Summary Chapter 1

Chapter 1: The Late Ming

Spence has to do a difficult job getting us up to speed with the basics of Chinese history, and simultaneously setting the scene for a four-hundred year survey of the most recent Chinese history. There is debate among historians of China when exactly we should begin with “modern” China, or indeed, which definition of “modern” we should use. The choice for 1600 is admittedly subjective, and although some surveys begin in 1800, having the extra two centuries should help us see how devastating the events of the nineteenth and twentieth century were.

The Ming dynasty was founded in 1368, more than a century before the Europeans first sailed to the New World. In 1600, where the textbook begins the story, the Ming dynasty still appeared to be very powerful but as Spence points out (p. 3, Introduction to Part 1), the rulers already began to encounter serious problems in holding their empire together. This chapter provides an overview of the glory of the Ming, the structural problems, and the specific factrs that contributed to the fall of the Ming.

The Glory of the Ming

The Ming emperors ruled an empire of enormous size, one of the wealthiest empires the world had ever seen, and one of the most organized. The bureaucracy consisted of two major parts: one was centered around the emperor and the court in the capital Beijing (Peking), the other part was the local bureaucracy, with fifteen provinces, numerous prefectures and counties, at each level staffed with centrally appointed officials who had passed the civil service examinations.

bird's eye view of forbidden city
Bird’s eye view of the Forbidden City, Beijing. Note the big courtyards for official business, and the smaller buildings in the emperor’s private palace.

These examinations required years of intensive study of a set curriculum connected to the ideas of Confucius (551—479 B.C.E.). All education for men was geared towards passing these exams, because this was the only way to power, status, and wealth– as officials in the bureaucracy.

Women were not allowed to take these exams or serve as officials, but elite families would often educate their daughters. The hope was that this would make them attractive to the educated young men as marriage partners (with a shared interest in poetry, for instance), or that educated women would be able to participate in the moral education of the next generation, and run the household more effectively. Not everybody agreed that literacy for women was necessary to that end.

The Ming period was a cultural highlight in Chinese history in many ways. The printing industry flourished, and spread new novels, short-stories, poetry and other writings quickly in urban areas.1 Artisans created objects of the finest quality, and the scholarly arts of painting and calligraphy together with poetry, connected through the use of the brush, reached new levels of refinement during the Ming dynasty.2

Ivory medallion with depicting “Return from Spring Outing”, H. 1 1/4 in., Diam. 3 1/4 in.

Town and Farm

The Yangzi River and Huai River divided the empire between a northern and southern half, each with very different characteristics. The south had many rivers and lakes, and irrigation with paddy fields was the main way of growing rice, in addition to many other vegetables. The economy was very diverse, and relied heavily on fast and cheap water transport. Wheat and millet grew in the northern plains, where the Yellow River was a source of constant worry: it flooded regularly, and at times throughout history would alter its course completely to empty into the sea either north or south of the Shandong peninsula.

map with Shandong peninsula circled in red.
Shandong peninsula circled in red. The Yellow River emptied south of the peninsula in the Ming; it now empties into the Yellow Sea north of the peninsula.

Furthermore, the plains of the north allowed bandit armies and invading armies from northern nomadic peoples to move quickly through the land on horseback. In the south, such armies were hampered by the many rivers, canals, lakes and hills, although the southern part of the empire had its own problems with coastal piracy (illegal traders of Japanese and Chinese descent).

The social structure of China was complex, with status and landownership intimately connected. It was not a simple case of a class of “landowners” versus “land-renting peasants”. Despite a legal framework for landownership and sales, there remained many problems and many creative solutions for peasants who did not own enough land for self-subsistence. They could rent small amounts of additional land, or do other jobs during the slack season, or in cases of extreme duress, they were forced to sell their children or indentured them with rich families as servants. (An indentured servant sold his or her labor for a fixed number of years; it is different from becoming a slave because these contract stipulated an end date.) Urban areas also saw tensions, for instance when taxation and corruption meant that laborers went on strike and sometimes took violent actions (see Documentary Collection 1.1 and 1.2). With the great wealth of the upper classes also came the “wealth gap” with the poor, who could barely make ends meet, and the Ming emperors and their government would prove unable to deal with these issues.

Corruption and hardship

This is because it was not only among the lower classes of society that there were problems: the very center of power, the Forbidden City itself was not governed well. The Wanli emperor (1563-1620) had for many decades taken no interest in government, and given free reign to the eunuchs. When the emperor chose not to receive his ministers in official audiences, the eunuchs were the only people who could communicate directly between the emperor and the outside world, so they could control what information reached the emperor, and ask money in return for access to the emperor. When in the late sixteenth century the eunuchs also began to take sides in political disputes, being a high official became dangerous: the eunuchs controlled an elite group of the imperial guard, and used them to imprison or execute officials who opposed their policies, or who argued against the eunuchs’ power.

These problems at the highest level of government had repercussions in other fields: relations with the world outside the Ming empire, and the economy. The Mongols had been driven out of China to found the Ming dynasty in 1368, but they had to be kept in check with an army, a military defense structure (the Great Wall, which is only as strong as the garissons defending it), and regular payments. The Ming army was capable of defending its vassal Korea against the Japanese invasion in the final decade of sixteenth century, but the Portuguese and Spanish presence in the Indian Ocean created an entirely new problem: Ming China was becoming connected to the first truly global economic network, by being infused with silver from the New World. The result was that the influx of silver initially created massive economic growth, but the price of silver also went down, leading to inflation: prices in silver went up, as the value of silver went down.

Then the influx of silver halted. Japan ceased exports, and the British and Dutch interrupted the Spanish and Portuguese global trade network, and the value of silver increased dramatically. Peasants were the hardest hit: they sold their produce in copper, but had to pay their taxes in silver. To buy that silver, they now needed many more pieces of copper than just a few decades earlier. In addition, there were changes to the climate which led to failed harvest for successive years. In an agrarian-based state like the Ming, this eroded the income of the state, which now no longer could pay for its military. The central government was forced to economize at a time when it could ill afford to do so.

The Ming collapse

The Ming central government downsized its operations in areas that seemed less threatened by foreign pressure, for instance in the northwestern provinces. However, this created new problems: minor officials and employees relied on government income to survive, and when they no longer received this, they rose in rebellion. One of these was Li Zicheng. He became the leader of a group of bandits which roamed north central China’s Shaanxi province and even coordinated an attack on the Ming capital in Beijing with another rebel leader in the 1630s.

While the wealthy Yangzi River delta remained initially remote from these problems (see for instance Documentary Collection 1.3), in the early 1640s an epidemic broke out which killed in some places up to eighty or ninety percent of the population. Traditional Chinese medicine was unable to cope with this particular illness, which is now thought to be some form of plague. Many other parts of Ming China were also affected by this disease. In combination with the bad harvests, and marauding bandit armies, famine and disease drove more people into the arms of the bandits, and the Ming armies were unable to restore order inside the empire.

Not only the domestic rebel armies were a worry now but the Manchu had begun to invade and occupy parts of northeastern Ming territory, north of the Great Wall. Effective military action was hampered by tensions between military and civil officials about the best course of action, jealousy between military leaders, and worries about loyalty to the Ming emperor. As a result, no army officer was entirely trusted, or given sufficient resources to defend the throne. Meanwhile, Li Zicheng had successfully turned the people and many of the Ming troops against the Ming emperor, using propaganda (see for instance Documentary Collection 1.5) and violence. When his armies appeared in Beijing in 1644, the gates were opened (to avoid a massacre in retaliation for resisting his armies), and the last emperor of the Ming, Chongzhen, hanged himself.

  1. See for instance Journey to the West and The Plum in the Golden Vase
  2. Explore some of these objects in the virtual gallery of the Met Museum


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