Kubla Khan died in 1294 and was succeeded by his grandson Timur, who was able to hold together the empire until his death in 1307. After him, however, the Mongol dynasty, or rather the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, started declining. Rivalries between the princes led to civil war in 1328. The economy witnessed soaring levels of inflation. Northern China experienced a series of natural disasters which exacerbated the suffering of people. There were famines and growing unrest.
In these declining years of the Yuan dynasty, there were a series of floods which wreaked massive havoc on the Chinese people. But when hordes of peasants were forced to build embankments for the Yellow River, the appalling conditions associated with such a mammoth construction task gave rise to an outbreak of rebellions. Meanwhile, in the southern districts, excessive levels of taxation weighed heavy on the peasant populations and they were pushed to the point of rebellion too. The widespread agitations and chaos signified the ending of the ruling dynasty. There was also the fact that Mongols were foreigners, and the Chinese people were determined to bring an end to the Mongol domination. There were a number of native Han Chinese groups engaged in the revolt against the remnants of Yuan dynasty. Eventually, a group led by Zhu Yuanzhang would succeed.
Zhu Yuanzhang was born into a peasant family and as was a common tradition in those times was attached to a small temple as kid. But when the monastery could not afford to feed him, he was out on the streets with a begging bowl. In time, he joined a famous secret society, one of the many, called the White Lotus Society. Such secret societies were responsible for fomenting rebellion throughout much of Chinese history. Whenever open dissent was suppressed, secret societies would come into play. Zhu later denied that he was ever affiliated to the secret society, but he was an emperor by then, and naturally trying to suppress secret societies, including his own.
By 1355, Zhu emerged as a leader of one of the rebel groups. Soon he captured Nanjing which was made into a base to help him consolidate his power by setting up a full-scale administration while simultaneously managing to repel attacks by rival groups as well as the Mongols (Gascoigne, Gascoigne, 151). Finally, in 1368, he invaded and captured Beijing in the north and announced the beginning of the Ming — the Brilliant — dynasty. The emphasis of the new dynasty was to be a rejection of everything Mongol and foreign and a return to the glorious traditions of the China of past. The way power was seized from a bunch of foreign barbarians by a Chinese peasant was itself a reminder of the founding of the Han dynasty earlier on in the history of ancient China. In spite of the powerful presence and influence of Kubla Khan and other foreign monarchs, the years of Mongol occupation did not significantly affect the traditions and culture of China. By the late fourteenth century, the Chinese were back in charge of their land and their own destiny, led by the able Zhu Yuanzhang — the founder the Ming dynasty which would last almost till the middle of the 17th century, though their decline would start well before that. The Ming dynasty would bring 150 years of peace and prosperity to China.
On assuming power, Zhu Yuanzhang took the title of Hong wu (“very warlike”), and moved the capital from Beijing to the fortified city of Nanjing. Though Hong Wu ruled in an autocratic manner, he was quite successful in restoring order and prosperity to his country in the thirty years of his rule. He also ably safeguarded the country against further Mongol incursions. He is famous for his reorganization of the administration of China. He set up colleges for training of civil servants. It was mandatory for these mandarins (civil servants) to pass literature and philosophy examinations to secure their posts (Kingfisher Books, 180).
Hong Wu left his throne to a grandson, Jianwen, but he was overthrown four years later by his uncle Zhu Di, who became Emperor Yongle in 1403. Yogle is considered to be the true architect of modern Beijing and raised many of the great landmarks of the city such as the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, which was the magnificent imperial complex at the heart of Beijing in which only the emperor, his family and associates were allowed to enter (Harper 46). For over twenty years under the rule of Yongle, between 1403 to 1424, China reached new heights. Yongle shifted the capital to Beijing; roads, towns and canals were rebuilt. Learning and arts thrived. China stretched and reached outward by exporting goods and spreading its influence in other ways.
The Ming dynasty is today well-known for the production of fine porcelain and for the distant sea voyages undertaken by the Chinese during the early part of the Ming period. China sent ships to South and Southeast Asia and carried on trade with areas far away in African and Arabia. The most significant achievement of the Ming, however, was the agricultural revolution which resulted in dramatic increases in food production and population. The Ming administration also introduced mandatory service by citizens to the state and created a two-million-man standing army for defense and domestic control.
However, the Ming phase of decline began soon enough. In the late 1500s there was a succession of emperors who were wasteful and were disliked. There were attacks on the borders. Trade was on a decline, while corruption and banditry were on the rise. These were all again ripe conditions for rebellion. Further, in 1592, the Japanese invaded neighboring Korea, thereby instilling a deep sense of insecurity among the Chinese. People chose to become outlaws in the last decades of the Ming rule, and mounted collective defiance (Tong 76). Heavy taxation made the Ming rule still more unpopular all over the country, and rebellions duly ensued. There were many armed uprisings which posed a grave threat to the imperial government. The last Ming emperor, Chongzen, finally hanged himself as peasant rebels invaded Beijing
There was a great confusion and tumult in the Chinese society at the time, which was taken advantage of by the Manchu Cheiftain Dorgon, who led an army from Manchuria in the north. He occupied Beijing and established the Qing — the Pure — dynasty. Dorgon’s nephew Shunzi became the first Qing emperor in 1644. However sporadic resistance to the Manchus continued in China’s southern provinces, and it took three to four decades before all of China finally acquiesced to the Manchurian domination. The Qing dynasty would rule China till 1911.
Gascoigne, Bamber; Gascoigne, Christina. “The Dynasties of China: A History.” 2003.
New York : Carroll & Graf Publishers.
Harper, Damian. Beijing. 2005. Oakland, CA : Lonely Planet
Kingfisher Books. “The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia. “2004. Boston, MA : Kingfisher Publications
Tong, James W. “Disorder Under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty.”
- Palo Alto, CA : Stanford University Press