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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: December 2011

8 - The Ming Dynasty


Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–98), the man who founded the Ming Dynasty, began his life in abject poverty and spent much of his youth as a Buddhist disciple. He began his rise to power as a rebel leader, joining a Buddhist-inspired group known as the Red Turbans. He eventually gained control over a part of this group and built a military and political force able to conquer China as the Yuan Dynasty broke down. This connection to Buddhism did nothing to mitigate the violence necessary to defeat the other contenders for power in the fourteenth century, and Zhu would prove to be one of the most violent, paranoid, and murderous rulers in Chinese history. He did not learn his martial arts in the temple to which he was apprenticed (he did learn to read and write there) but in the chaotic and highly militarized world of mid-fourteenth-century China. As Yuan authority crumbled, groups rose all over China fighting for local power, with some going on to struggle for regional and eventually empire-wide control.

These struggles also took place within military and political groups, as individual warriors and advisors sought to improve their own fortunes at the expense of their putative comrades. The challenge was to reach the top of a winning group without undermining its success through infighting. Successful warriors were highly valued in this environment; those who could also lead and possessed organizational and strategic ability could aspire to reach the highest ranks of power. Zhu Yuanzhang, like all founding emperors, was a successful warrior and general, and he attracted and surrounded himself with other successful warriors and generals. At the same time, he needed bureaucrats and advisors who were neither fighters nor generals to build and run the institutional structures of his government. He sought to fix permanently the correct balance between the martial and civil in his dynasty, at least as he conceived it.