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Great Ming

Ming China at its greatest extent under the reign of the Yongle Emperor

Capital Nanjing
Language(s) Chinese
Religion BuddhismTaoism,ConfucianismChinese folk religion
Government Monarchy
 – 1368–1398 Hongwu Emperor
 – 1627–1644 Chongzhen Emperor
 – Established inNanjing January 23, 1368
 – Fall of Beijing to Li Zicheng June 6, 1644
 – End of the Southern Ming April, 1662
 – 1415[1] 6,500,000 km2(2,509,664 sq mi)
 – 1393 est. 65,000,000
 – 1403 est. 66,598,337¹
 – 1500 est. 125,000,000²
 – 1600 est. 160,000,000³
Currency Chinese cashChinese coinpaper currency (later abolished)
Remnants of the Ming Dynasty ruled southern China until 1662, a dynastic period which is known as the Southern Ming.
¹The numbers are based on estimates made by CJ Peers inLate Imperial Chinese Armies: 1520–1840
²According to A. G. Frank, ReOrient: global economy in the Asian Age, 1998, p. 109
³According to A. Maddison, The World Economy Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective Volume 2, 2007, p. 238

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 admiralZheng He in the 15th century far surpassed all others in size. There were enormous construction projects, including the restoration of the Grand Canal and the Great Walland the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the first quarter of the 15th century. Estimates for the late-Ming population vary from 160 to 200 million.

History of China

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3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors
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The Ming Dynasty, also Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling dynasty of Chinafrom 1368 to 1644, following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The Ming, “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”,was the last dynasty in China ruled by ethnic Han Chinese. Although the Ming capitalBeijing fell in 1644 to a rebellion led by Li Zicheng (who established the Shun Dynasty, soon replaced by the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty), regimes loyal to the Ming throne — collectively called the Southern Ming — survived until 1662.

Emperor Hongwu (ruled in 1368–98) 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-officialsand adopted cultural traits and practices typical of the gentry. Parallel to this trend involving social class and commercial consumption were changes in social and political philosophy, bureaucracy and governmental institutions, and even arts and literature.

By the 16th century the Ming economy was stimulated by trade with the Portuguese, theSpanish, and the 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 diminished greatly, undermining state revenues. This damage to the Ming 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.


Revolt and rebel rivalry

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cannon from theHuolongjing, compiled by Jiao Yuand Liu Ji before the latter’s death in 1375.

The Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) ruled before the establishment of the Ming Dynasty. Alongside institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, other explanations for the Yuan’s demise included overtaxing areas hard-hit by inflation, and massive flooding of theYellow River as a result of the abandonment of irrigation projects.Consequently, agriculture and the economy were in shambles and rebellion broke out among the hundreds of thousands of peasants called upon to work on repairing the dykes of the Yellow River.

A number of Han Chinese groups revolted, including the Red Turbansin 1351. The Red Turbans were affiliated with the White Lotus, aBuddhist 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 ofNanjing, which he would later establish as the capital of the Ming Dynasty.

With the Yuan Dynasty crumbling, competing rebel groups began fighting for control of the country and thus the right to establish a new dynasty. In 1363, Zhu Yuanzhang eliminated his arch rival and leader of the rebel Han faction Chen Youliang in the Battle of Lake Poyang, arguably the largest naval battle in history. Known for its ambitious use of fire ships, Zhu’s force of 200,000 Ming sailors were able to defeat a Han rebel force over triple their size, claimed to be 650,000-strong. The victory destroyed the last opposing rebel faction, leaving Zhu Yuanzhang in uncontested control of the bountiful Yangtze River Valley and cementing his power in the south. After the dynastic head of the Red Turbans suspiciously died in 1367 while a guest of Zhu, there was no one left who was remotely capable of contesting his march to the throne, and he made his imperial ambitions known by sending an army toward the Yuan capital Dadu (present-day Beijing) in 1368. The last Yuan emperor fled north to Shangdu and Zhu declared the founding of the Ming Dynasty after razing the Yuan palaces in Dadu to the ground; the city was renamed Beiping in the same year.Zhu Yuanzhang took Hongwu, or ‘Vastly Martial,’ as his reign title.

Reign of the Hongwu Emperor

Hongwu made an immediate effort to rebuild state infrastructure. He built a 48 km (30 mi) long wall around Nanjing, as well as new palaces and government halls. The History of Ming states that as early as 1364 Zhu Yuanzhang had begun drafting a new Confucian law code, theDa Ming Lü, 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).


Portrait of the Hongwu Emperor (ruled in 1368–98)

In 1380 Hongwu had the Chancellor Hu Weiyong (胡惟庸) executed upon suspicion of a conspiracy plot to overthrow him; after that Hongwu abolished the Chancellery and assumed this role as chief executive and emperor, a precedent mostly followed throughout the Ming period. With a growing suspicion of his ministers and subjects, Hongwu established the Jinyi Wei, 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. For details of the many Ming policies laid down by the Hongwu Emperor, seeHistory of the Ming Dynasty and Hongwu Emperor.

South-Western frontier


The old south gate of the ancient city ofDali, Yunnan

In Qinghai, the Salar Muslims voluntarily came under Ming rule, their clan leaders capitulating around 1370. Uyghur troops under Uyghur general Hala Bashi suppressed the Miao Rebellions of the 1370s and settled in Changde, Hunan. Hui Muslim troops also settled in Changde, Hunan after serving the Ming in campaigns against other aboriginal tribes. In 1381, the Ming Dynasty annexed the areas of the southwest that had once been part of the Kingdom of Dali following the successful effort by Hui Muslim Ming armies to defeat Yuan-loyalist Mongol and Hui Muslim troops holding out in Yunnan province. The Hui troops under General Mu Ying, who was appointed Governor of Yunnan, were resettled in the region as part of a colonization effort.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 Yunnanand 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 formerly more than half of the population were non-Han peoples. Resentment over such massive changes in population and the resulting government presence and policies sparked more Miao and Yao revolts in 1464 to 1466, which were crushed by an army of 30,000 Ming troops (including 1,000 Mongols) joining the 160,000 local Guangxi. After the scholar and philosopher Wang Yangming (1472–1529) suppressed another rebellion in the region, he advocated single, unitary administration of Chinese and indigenous ethnic groups in order to bring about sinification of the local peoples.

Relations with Tibet

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A 17th century Tibetan thangkaof Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra; the Ming Dynasty court gathered various tribute items which were native products of Tibet (such as thangkas), and in return granted gifts to Tibetan tribute-bearers.

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(ruled in 1521–67) persecuted Buddhism in favor of Daoism at court  and 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.

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 (ruled in 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.

Reign of the Yongle Emperor

Main article: Yongle Emperor
File:Anonymous-Ming Chengzu.jpg

Portrait of the Yongle Emperor(ruled in 1402–24)

Rise to power

The Hongwu Emperor specified his grandson Zhu Yunwen as his successor, and he assumed the throne as the Jianwen Emperor (1398–1402) after Hongwu’s death in 1398. The most powerful of Hongwu’s sons, Zhu Di, then the militarily mighty disagreed with this, and soon a political showdown erupted between him and his nephew Jianwen. After Jianwen arrested many of Zhu Di’s associates, Zhu Di plotted a rebellion, a rebellion that sparked a three-year civil war. Under the guise of rescuing the young Jianwen from corrupting officials, Zhu Di personally led forces in the revolt; the palace in Nanjing was burned to the ground, along with Jianwen himself, his wife, mother, and courtiers. Zhu Di assumed the throne as theYongle Emperor (1402–1424); his reign is universally viewed by scholars as a “second founding” of the Ming Dynasty since he reversed many of his father’s policies.

New capital and foreign engagement

Yongle demoted Nanjing to a secondary capital and in 1403 announced the new capital of China was to be at his power base in Beijing. Construction of a new city there lasted from 1407 to 1420, employing hundreds of thousands of workers daily. At the center was the political node of the Imperial City, and at the center of this was the Forbidden City, the palatial residence of the emperor and his family. By 1553, the Outer City was added to the south, which brought the overall size of Beijing to 4 by 4½ miles.

File:Noel 2005 Pékin tombeaux Ming voie des âmes.jpg

The Ming Dynasty Tombs located 50 km (31 mi) north of Beijing; the site was chosen by Yongle.

Yongle also used Zheng He’s treasure fleet to expand China’s tributary trade system farther afield than ever before, used woodblock printing to spread Chinese culture, and used the military(especially cavalry) to expand China’s borders north into Manchuria and south into Vietnam.

Treasure fleet

giraffe brought from theAjuuraan Empire in the Horn of Africa, during the 12th year of Yongle (1414); the Chinese associated the giraffe with the mythical Qilin.

Beginning in 1405, the Yongle Emperor entrusted his favored eunuch commander Zheng He (1371–1433) as the 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 toEast 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.

Tumu Crisis and the Ming Mongols

Main articles: Tumu Crisis and Rebellion of Cao Qin
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The Great Wall of China; although therammed earth walls of the ancient Warring States were combined into a unified wall under the Qin and Han dynasties, the vast majority of the brick and stone Great Wall as it is seen today is a product of the Ming Dynasty.

The Oirat Mongol leader Esen Tayisi launched an invasion into Ming China in July 1449. The chief eunuch Wang Zhenencouraged Emperor Zhengtong (ruled in 1435–49) to personally lead a force to face the Mongols after a recent Ming defeat; marching off with 50,000 troops, Zhengtong left the capital and put his half-brother Zhu Qiyu in charge of affairs as temporary regent. On September 8, Esen routed Zhengtong’s army, and Zhengtong was captured—an event known as the Tumu Crisis. 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(ruled in 1449–57); the Mongols were also repelled once Jingtai’s confidant and defense ministerYu Qian (1398–457) 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 (ruled in 1457–64).

Once Zhengtong regained the throne, his new reign as Tianshun proved to be 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. 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.

While the Yongle Emperor had staged five major offensives north of the Great Wall against the Mongols, the constant threat of Mongol incursions prompted the Ming authorities to fortify the Great Wall from the late 15th century to the 16th century; nevertheless, 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.

Decline and fall of the Ming Dynasty

Reign of the Wanli Emperor


Wanli Emperor (ruled in 1572–1620)

The financial drain of the Imjin War in Korea against the Japanese was one of the many problems—fiscal or other—facing Ming China during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (ruled in 1572–1620). In the beginning of his reign, Wanli surrounded himself with able advisors and made a conscientious effort to handle state affairs. His Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (in office from 1572 to 82) built up an effective network of alliances with senior officials. However, there was no one after him skilled enough to maintain the stability of these alliances; officials soon banded together in opposing political factions. Over time Wanli grew tired of court affairs and frequent political quarreling amongst his ministers, preferring to stay behind the walls of the Forbidden City and out of his officials’ sight. 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.

Role of eunuchs

File:Porcelain tea cups from the reign of the Tianqi Emperor.jpg

Tianqi era teacups, from the Nantoyōsō Collection in Japan; the Tianqi Emperor was heavily influenced and largely controlled by the eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627).

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 during Yongle’s reign 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 the Wanli Emperor 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 (ruled in 1620–1627) and had his political rivals tortured to death, mostly the vocal critics from the faction of theDonglin 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 belittling his political opponents.The instability at court came right as natural calamity, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invasion came to a peak. Although theChongzhen Emperor (ruled in 1627–44) 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.

Economic breakdown and disaster

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Spring morning in a Han palace, by Qiu Ying (1494–1552); excessive luxury and decadence were hallmarks of the late Ming period, spurred by the enormous statebullion of incoming silver and private transactions involving silver.

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. Philip IV of Spain (ruled in 1621–65) 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. 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. The deadliest earthquake of all time, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 that killed approximately 830,000 people, occurred during the Jiajing Emperor‘s reign.

Rise of the Manchu


Shanhaiguan along the Great Wall, the gate where the Manchus were repeatedly repelled before being finally let through by Wu Sangui in 1644.

Jurchen tribal leader named Nurhaci (ruled in 1616–26), starting with just a small tribe, rapidly gained control over all the Manchurian tribes. During the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598), 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 of Ming authority north of their border, he united all of the adjacent northern tribes and consolidated power in the region surrounding his homeland as the Jurchen-led Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) had done previously. 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 effectively a declaration of war, as the Ming were not about to pay money to a former tributary.

By 1636, the Nurhaci’s son Huang Taiji renamed his dynasty from the “Later Jin” to “Great Qing” atShenyang, which had fallen to Qing forces in 1621 and was made their capital in 1625. Huang Taiji also adopted the Chinese imperial title huangdi, took the reign 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.

Rebellion, invasion, collapse

A peasant soldier named Li Zicheng (1606–45) mutinied with his fellow soldiers in western Shaanxi in the early 1630s after the Ming government failed to ship much-needed supplies there. In 1634 he was captured by a Ming general and released only on the terms that he return to service. The agreement soon broke down when a local magistrate had thirty-six of his fellow rebels executed; Li’s troops retaliated by killing the officials and continued to lead a rebellion based in Rongyang, central Henan province by 1635. By the 1640s, an ex-soldier and rival to Li—Zhang Xianzhong (1606–47) —had created a firm rebel base in ChengduSichuan, while Li’s center of power was in Hubei with extended influence over Shaanxi and Henan.[70]

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. On May 26, 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng when the city 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 hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden 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 (1612–50) 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’anby 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.

Scattered Ming remnants held out after 1644, including that of Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) on Taiwan (Formosa). 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.


Province, prefecture, subprefecture, county


Processional figurines from the Shanghaitomb of Pan Yongzheng, a Ming Dynasty official who lived during the 16th century

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 路).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. Copied on the Yuan model, the Ming provincial bureaucracy contained three commissions: one civil, one military, and one for surveillance. Below the level of the province (sheng 省) were prefectures (fu 府) operating under a prefect (zhifu 知府), followed by subprefectures (zhou 州) under a subprefect. The lowest unit was the county (xian 縣), overseen by a magistrate. Besides the provinces, there were also two large areas that belonged to no province, but were metropolitan areas (jing 亰) attached to Nanjing and Beijing.

Institutions and bureaus

Institutional trends


The Forbidden City, the official imperial household of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 until 1924, when the Republic of China evicted Puyi from the Inner Court.

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 (202 BCE – 220 CE), 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 reined in the power and influence of the military by the civil establishment.

Grand Secretariat and Six Ministries

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A portrait of the official Jiang Shunfu (1453–1504), now in theNanjing Museum. The decoration of two cranes on his chest is a “rank badge” that indicates he was a civil official of the first rank.

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 underYongle‘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 (ruled in 1424–5). 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.

Bureaus and offices for the imperial household

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Ming coinage, 14–17th century

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.

Jar, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period (1426–1435)


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.




Candidates who had taken the civil service examinations would crowd around the wall where the results were posted; detail from a handscroll in ink and color on silk, by Qiu Ying (1494–1552).

After the reign of Hongwu—who from 1373 to 84 staffed his bureaus with officials gathered through recommendations only—the scholar-officials who populated the many ranks of bureaucracy were recruited through a rigorous examination system that was first established by the Sui Dynasty (581–618).Theoretically the system of exams allowed anyone to join the ranks of imperial officials (although frowned upon for merchants to join); in reality the time and funding needed to support the study in preparation for the exam generally limited participants to those already coming from the landholding class. However, the government did exact provincial quotas while drafting officials. This was an effort to curb monopolization of power by landholding gentry who came from the most prosperous regions, where education was the most advanced. The expansion of the printing industry since Song times enhanced the spread of knowledge and number of potential exam candidates throughout the provinces. For young schoolchildren there were printed multiplication tables and primers for elementary vocabulary; for adult examination candidates there were mass-produced, inexpensive volumes of Confucian classics and successful examination answers.

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.[103][104] 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.

Lesser functionaries

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The Xuande Emperor playing chuiwanwith his eunuchs, a game similar to golf, by an anonymous court painter of the Xuande period (1425–35).

Scholar-officials who entered civil service through examinations acted as executive officials to a much larger body of non-ranked personnel called lesser functionaries. They outnumbered officials by four to one; Charles Hucker estimates that they were perhaps as many as 100,000 throughout the empire. These lesser functionaries performed clerical and technical tasks for government agencies. Yet they should not be confused with lowly lictors, runners, and bearers; lesser functionaries were given periodic merit evaluations like officials and after nine years of service might be accepted into a low civil service rank. The one great advantage of the lesser functionaries over officials was that officials were periodically rotated and assigned to different regional posts and had to rely on the good service and cooperation of the local lesser functionaries.

Eunuchs, princes, and generals

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Detail of The Emperor’s Approach showing the Wanli Emperor‘s royal carriage being pulled by elephants and escorted by cavalry (full panoramic painting here)

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.

Society and culture

Literature and arts

Further information: Ming Dynasty painting

A Ming Dynasty red lacquer box with intricate carving of people in the countryside, surrounded by a floral border design.

As in earlier dynasties, the Ming Dynasty saw a flourishing in the arts, whether it was painting,poetrymusicliterature, 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.

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Lofty Mount Lu, by Shen Zhou, 1467.

There was a great amount of literary achievement in the Ming Dynasty. Xu Xiake (1587–1641), atravel literature author, 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 usingwoodblock 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 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.

Dragon Pine, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), ca. 1400
Wu Boli (Chinese, active late 14th–early 15th century)
Hanging scroll; ink on paper

Image 48 x 13 1/4 in. (121.9 x 33.7 cm), Overall with mounting 100 x 18 5/8 in. (254 x 47.3 cm), Overall with knobs 100 x 21 in. (254 x 53.3 cm)
Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1984 (1984.475.3)


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, theWater Margin and Journey to the West were products of the Ming Dynasty. To complement the work of 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.

Sutra box, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403–1424)
Red lacquer with qiangjin (incised and gilt decoration)

5 1/2 x 15 x 5 in. (14 x 40.6 x 12.7 cm)
Purchase, Sir Joseph Hotung and The Vincent Astor Foundation Gifts, 2001 (2001.584a-c)http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2001.584a-c

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.

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Painting of flowers, a butterfly, and rock sculpture by Chen Hongshou (1598–1652); small leaf album paintings like this one firstbecame popular in the Song Dynasty.

There were many famous visual artists in the Ming period, including Ni ZanShen ZhouTang Yin,Wen ZhengmingQiu YingDong 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 prices 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.

Bodhisattva Manjushri as Tikshna-Manjushri (Minjie Wenshu Pusa), Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Yongle period (1403–24)
Gilt brass, lost-wax cast

H. 7 1/2 in. (19.1 cm)
Purchase, Rogers Fund, 2001 (2001.59)

In this sculpture, Manjushri holds a sword in his primary right hand, and a volume of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, which rests on a small lotus, in his left. Remnants of a bow and arrow can be seen in his secondary hands, and the combination of the four implements identify the sculpture as a Tikshna-Manjushri, a manifestation that refers to the bodhisattva’s quick wits and further elucidates his position as an embodiment of spiritual wisdom.

The inscription at the front of the lotus pedestal indicates that it was cast during the reign of the Yongle emperor, who is known to have followed later Esoteric or Tibetan Buddhist practices and to have sponsored the production of numerous sculptures in a style derived from India and the Himalayas. The soft folds of the clothing are typical of works produced in imperial workshops, as are the delicacy of the details and the rich pink tones of the gilding.


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 Fujianprovince. The Dehua porcelain factories catered to European tastes by creating Chinese export porcelain by the 16th century. In The Ceramic Trade in Asia, Chuimei Ho estimates that about 16% of late Ming era Chinese ceramic exports were sent to Europe while the rest were destined for Japan and South East Asia.


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Chinese glazed stonewarestatue of a Daoist deity, from the Ming Dynasty, 16th century.

The dominant religious beliefs during the Ming dynasty were the traditional mixtures of ancestor worship,Daoism and Buddhism. The Chinese believed in a host of deities in what may be termed Chinese folk religion.

The late Ming period saw the first arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Europe such as Matteo Ricci andNicolas Trigault. There were also other denominations including the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Ricci worked with the Chinese mathematician, astronomer, and agronomist Xu Guangqi to translate theGreek 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 1616–22, 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 ChinaIslam in China had existed since the early 7th century during the Tang Dynastyduring the Ming Dynasty there were several prominent figures—including Zheng He—who was Muslim. The Hongwu Emperor also employed Muslim commanders in his army, such as Chang Yuqun, Lan Yu, Ding Dexing, and Mu Ying.



Wang Yangming (1472–1529), considered the most influential Confucian thinker since Zhu Xi.

Wang Yangming’s Confucianism

During the Ming Dynasty, the doctrines of the Song Dynasty scholar-official Zhu Xi (1130–1200) and Neo-Confucianism were embraced by the court and the Chinese literati at large. However, total conformity to a single mode of thought was never a reality in the intellectual sphere of society. There were some in the Ming who—like Su Shi (1037–1101) of the Song—were rebels at heart and were not abashed to criticize the mainstream dogmatic modes of thought. Leading a new strand of Confucian teaching and philosophy was the scholar-official Wang Yangming (1472–1529), whose critics said that his teachings were contaminated by Chan Buddhism.

In analyzing Zhu Xi’s concept of “the extension of knowledge” (i.e. gaining understanding through careful and rational investigation of things and events; Chinese: 理學, or 格物致知), 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 sagesConfucius 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 reaction

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A Ming Dynasty print drawing ofConfucius on his way to the Zhou Dynastycapital of Luoyang.

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 何心隱 challenged the elevation and emphasis of the family in Chinese society.His contemporary Li Zhi 李贄 (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.

Urban and rural life

Wang Gen was able to give philosophical lectures to many commoners from different regions because—following the trend already apparent in the Song Dynasty—communities in Ming society were becoming less isolated as the distance between market towns was shrinking. Schools, descent groups, religious associations, and other local voluntary organizations were increasing in number and allowing more contact between educated men and local villagers. Jonathan Spence writes that the distinction between what was town and country was blurred in Ming China, since suburban areas with farms were located just outside and in some cases within the walls of a city. Not only was the blurring of town and country evident, but also of socioeconomic class in the traditional four occupations (Chinese: 士農工商), since artisans sometimes worked on farms in peak periods and farmers often traveled into the city to find work during times of dearth.

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Emperor Minghuang’s Journey to Sichuan, a Ming Dynasty painting after Qiu Ying (1494–552).

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 sodomybeing 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.

Science and technology

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The puddling process of smelting iron oreto make pig iron and then wrought iron, with the right illustration displaying men working ablast furnace, from the Tiangong Kaiwuencyclopedia, 1637.

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 thetelescope, the Yuanjingshuo (Far Seeing Optic Glass); in 1634 the last Ming emperor Chongzhenacquired 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 (1612–59) in 1627, Adam Schall von Bell’s treatise in 1640, and finally Joseph EdkinsAlex 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 (1031–95) and Guo Shoujing (1231–316) 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.


Map of the known world by Zheng He:India at the top, Ceylon at the upper right andEast Africa along the bottom.

The Chinese calendar was in need of reform since it inadequately measured the solar year at 365 ¼ 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 (1536–611), submitted a proposal to fix the calendar in 1595, but the ultra-conservative astronomical commission rejected it. 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 calendar improvement was rejected 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 (Chinese: 崇禎暦書) in 1629 according to Western standards.


A 24 point compass chart employed by Zheng He during his explorations.

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 (1020–101)—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 clocksincense clocks, and “other instruments… with wheels rotated by sand as if by water” (Chinese: 沙漏). Chinese records— namely the Yuan Shi (Chinese: 元史)—describe the ‘five-wheeled sand clock’, a mechanism pioneered by Zhan Xiyuan (fl. 1360–80) which featured the scoop wheel of Su Song’s earlierastronomical 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. 1530–58) 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.


Portrait of Matteo Ricci by Yu Wenhui, Latinized as Emmanuel Pereira, dated the year of Ricci’s death, 1610

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 (1512–94) featured them in his atlas, John Milton (1608–74) in one of his famous poems, and Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest (1739–801) in the writings of his travel diary in China.

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Bodhisattva Manjusri in Blanc-de-Chine, by He Chaozong, 17th century; Song Yingxing devoted an entire section of his book to the ceramics industry in the making of porcelain items like this.

The encyclopedist Song Yingxing (1587–1666) documented a wide array of technologies, metallurgic and industrial processes in his Tiangong Kaiwu (Chinese: 天工開物) 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 cannonballsland 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 rocketspropelled 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 (1518–93)— 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 (ruled 1567–72), 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.


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Appreciating Plums, byChen Hongshou (1598–652) showing a lady holding an oval fan while enjoying the beauty of the plum.

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. Some part of the gender imbalance may be attributed to the practice of femaleinfanticide. The practice is well documented in China, going back over two thousand years, and it was described as “rampant” and “practiced by almost every family” by contemporary authors. However, the dramatically skewed sex ratios, which many counties reported exceeding 2:1 by 1586, can’t likely be explained by infanticide alone.

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The Xuande Emperor, (ruled in 1425–35); he stated in 1428 that his populace was dwindling due to palace construction and military adventures, but in fact the population was rising under him, a fact noted by Zhou Chen— Governor of South Zhili —in his 1432 report to the throne about widespread itinerant commerce.

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.[195] 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 hisStudies 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 (ruled in 1487-505) 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 (ruled in 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 (ruled in 1521–67) 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 gazetteer 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.

See also


Gallery : http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1988.154.1


Rank badge, Ming dynasty, early 15th century
Embroidery: colored silk floss, wrapped gold thread, and flat gold on silk gauze

14 1/2 x 14 1/4 in. (36.8 x 36.2 cm)
Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, in Honor of Myron S. Falk Jr., 1988 (1988.154.1)

The use of square badges, sewn on the front and back of ceremonial robes of civil and military officers, was instituted by imperial decree in 1391 during the reign of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. The badges were designed to indicate the ranks of the officials, with different species of birds corresponding to the nine civil ranks and animals denoting the military ranks. The woven or embroidered badges were usually of the finest workmanship, and metal (gold and silver) threads were often used. The image of the lion signifies the highest rank in the military.

The use of square patches on ceremonial robes for officials originated in the preceding Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1271–1368) or the earlier Liao and Chin dynasties, but it is likely that the designs on the patches were appropriate to the occasion of the ceremony rather than to the rank of the wearer. In the Ming dynasty, the regulations governing the use of rank badges were not strictly enforced, and many officials began to sport badges above their given ranks soon after the use of such badges was instituted. This was especially the case with military officers outside court circles.

The dating of the badge can be inferred from the technical characteristics, relatively large size, and design. The composition, with the lion occupying a major part of the pictorial space, and the detailed treatment of the lion’s large head are stylistically typical of the early part of the Ming period. In later versions of this motif, the lions are smaller in relation to the square. The square itself is also smaller.

Sutra box, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403–1424)
Red lacquer with qiangjin (incised and gilt decoration)

5 1/2 x 15 x 5 in. (14 x 40.6 x 12.7 cm)
Purchase, Sir Joseph Hotung and The Vincent Astor Foundation Gifts, 2001 (2001.584a-c)

A vigorous, sinewy dragon with flowing mane and beard, tufts of hair at the joints, a prominent snout and horns, and long whiskers is often found on works in porcelain, lacquer, and other material produced during the reign of the Yongle emperor. Although carved red lacquers in some number are known from this period, examples decorated in the elegant qiangjin, or “incised-and-gilt,” technique are rare. The mounts are of iron with gold damascene decoration, and the original lock and key are cast in bronze with engraved decoration and gilded.

Fine lacquerware such as this box was made for the imperial household and for diplomatic gifts.

Dish with scalloped rim, Ming dynasty, early 15th century

Diam. 6 in. (15.2 cm)
Purchase, Florence and Herbert Irving Gift, 1993 (1993.338)

Cloisonné is the technique of creating designs on metal vessels with colored-glass paste placed within enclosures made of copper or bronze wires, which have been bent or hammered into the desired pattern. Known as cloisons (French for “partitions”), the enclosures are generally either pasted or soldered onto the metal body. The glass paste, or enamel, is colored with metallic oxide and painted into the contained areas of the design. The vessel is usually fired at relatively low temperature, about 800ºC. Enamels commonly shrink during firing, and the process is repeated several times to fill in the designs. Once this process is completed, the surface of the vessel is rubbed until the edges of the cloisons are visible. They are then gilded, as on this dish, which also has gilding on its scalloped edges, in the interior, and on the base.

Lively scrolling lotuses and acanthus leaves are set against a turquoise blue background on the interior (and parts of the exterior) of the dish. In Chinese examples dating to the fifteenth century, this background color is often combined with shades of red, yellow, cobalt blue, white, and dark green, which were not mixed but placed individually within each cloison. Although cloisonné was known in China in the fourteenth century, fifteenth-century pieces such as this are the earliest preserved.


Traveling box, Ming dynasty, early 15th century
Leather, wood, iron, gold, and pigments

21 x 15 x 21 1/2 in. (53.3 x 38.1 x 31.8 cm)
Purchase, Rogers and Fletcher Funds, and Henry G. Keasbey Bequest, 1999 (1999.61)

This traveling box for a packsaddle belongs to a class of objects that originated in the fourteenth century when China was under Mongol rule and Tibetan monks enjoyed great privileges at the imperial court. Luxury gifts for Tibetan monks and monasteries made in imperial workshops combined fine craftsmanship with forms and/or patterns that show distinct Tibetan influence.

Imperial patronage of Tibetan temples and lamas persisted after the expulsion of the Mongol rulers from China, especially during the Yongle reign (1403–24), to which this traveling box can be dated on stylistic and technical grounds. Constructed of wood with a leather covering, it is decorated in oil-based paints with lotus scrolls issuing from a ribboned vase—a common motif in Sino-Tibetan art. The same lotus scroll appears in the gold damascened design on the iron fittings. The colors of the pigments approximate those commonly seen on lacquer painting. The use of oil instead of lacquer was probably determined by the box’s function as luggage—using lacquer would have required priming the surface with gesso, which would crack with handling. The technique of gold or silver damascene on iron objects was introduced into China sometime in the thirteenth century during the period of Mongol rule, but its popularity did not last beyond the fifteenth century.

Jar, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period (1426–1435)
Porcelain painted in underglaze blue

H. 19 in. (48.3 cm)
Gift of Robert E. Tod, 1937 (37.191.1)

The porcelains of the Ming dynasty have attained such recognition in the West that “Ming” has become almost generic for anything ceramic fabricated in China before the twentieth century. While, unhappily, many of the pieces called Ming have no possible claim to that attribution, the porcelains that were produced during the period are among the most beautiful and exciting to emerge from China’s kilns. Because the kilns at Jingdezhen and the surrounding area of Jiangxi Province became paramount during the Ming era, overshadowing all other manufacturing centers, our attention focuses primarily on wares from these kilns from this time onward.

In many respects, the blue and white porcelains of the early fifteenth century exemplify these wares at their apogee. They combine the freedom and energy of a newly ripened art form with the sophistication of concept and mastery of execution that come with maturity. The highest traditions of early Ming-dynasty brushwork are represented in the bristling dragon on this marvelous jar. His dorsal fins are like the teeth of a buzz saw, his claws have a strong bone structure, and he moves around the jar with total power yet consummate grace. Flanked by the heads of fearsome monsters is an inscription with the reign title of the incumbent emperor, Xuande. Reign marks became popular during the Xuande era (1426–35) and were used continuously after that time.

Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, Ming dynasty, ca. 1437
After Xie Huan (Chinese, ca. 1370–ca. 1450)
Handscroll; ink and color on silk

14 3/8 x 94 3/4 in. (36.7 x 240.7 cm)
Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1989 (1989.141.3)

This painting documents a historical gathering of nine scholar-officials enjoying cultural pursuits while savoring spring weather in the Apricot Garden in Beijing in 1437. The host, Yang Rong (1371–1440), seated in front of an ornamental rock, has thoughtfully provided scholarly amusements, such as antiques, paintings, brushes and ink, and games, for his illustrious guests.

These portraits of prestigious court officials depict them secure in their positions and in complete harmony with their surroundings. The meticulous attention to each individual’s facial features as well as the varied, descriptive brushwork in the rocks and trees in the surrounding garden are typical of early Ming court taste.

Mounted after the painting are poems composed by all of the participants to commemorate this gathering, beginning with a preface inscribed in a dignified clerical script by Yang Shiqi (1365–1444), the oldest member in attendance and, as chief advisor to the emperor, the highest-ranking government official of his day. An inscription by Weng Tonghe (1830–1904) on the brocade mounting preceding the painting identifies all the participants. Based on a composition by the noted court painter Xie Huan, the painting is most likely a contemporary copy made for one of the other participants at the gathering.


Bamboo in Wind, Ming dynasty, ca. 1460
Xia Chang (Chinese, 1388–1470)
Hanging scroll; ink on paper

80 1/4 x 23 1/2 in. (203.8 x 59.7 cm)
Inscribed by the artist (lower right): “Done by the Free and Easy Retired Scholar [Zizai jushi]; by Qian Bo (active mid-15th century; upper right), dated 1460; by Liu Jue (1410–1472; upper left), dated 1470
Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1989 (1989.235.1)

Bamboo, which bends without breaking, was a symbol of integrity and strength. It was also a favorite subject of Ming and Qing scholar-painters. Xia Chang, a native of the Suzhou region, enjoyed a successful official career that led to his appointment, in 1457, as minister of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices. He expanded Wang Fu’s (1362–1416) style of bamboo painting to become the leading bamboo painter of his time, famous at home and as far away as Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia.

Applying calligraphy techniques to painting according to the precepts established by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), Xia Chang executed his bamboo stalks in the archaic seal-script style, and his bamboo twigs in the “grass,” or cursive-script, style. Xia Chang’s calligraphic mode of bamboo painting was followed by many later Ming and Qing painters.

Welcoming Spring, Ming dynasty, 15th century
Embroidery on silk gauze

84 x 25 in. (213.3 x 63.5 cm)
Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1981 (1981.410)

In this remarkably complex and detailed embroidered panel, one boy rounds up sheep and goats while another leads a sheep caparisoned for riding, in a landscape with rocks, stream, and sky. The titleWelcoming Spring derives from the symbolism of the sheep and goats—yang, a homonym for yang (the spirit of breath of light and life), which returns at the end of winter and beginning of spring. A panel of virtually identical size, workmanship, and subject matter in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, expresses the connection with the beginning of spring by showing the breath rising from the mouth of a goat, while all around plum trees blossom.

Technically, the panel is a study in contrast between the matte surface of the fine counted-stitch embroidery of the background and the dynamic longer stitches confined mostly to the boys, animals, and rocks. Their bold cleancut outlines were achieved by couching a silk cord around the edges or by working the stitches over a strand of wrapped horsehair that had been couched into place.


Two Hawks in a Thicket, Ming dynasty, 15th century
Lin Liang (Chinese, ca. 1416–ca. 1480)
Hanging scroll; ink and pale color on silk

58 9/16 x 33 1/16 in. (149 x 84 cm)
Gift of Bei Shan Tang Foundation, 1993 (1993.385)

One of the leading court painters of bird-and-flower painting, the Cantonese artist Lin Liang specialized in bold, expressive, monochrome depictions of birds in the wild.

Never before had there been such hawks as those painted by Lin Liang. Standing like monuments to strength and courage on the highest frozen peaks, swept by bitter winds, living in worlds that lesser creatures could not inhabit, Lin’s great birds are embodiments of heroism. In contrast to his usual image of hawks silhouetted against the sky and surveying their surroundings from a high perch, however, the noble birds seen in this painting appear withdrawn and reclusive, depicted as if lost in a dense forest of old trees and thick bamboo where no one could possibly reach them, inviolable and inaccessible.

Cup, Ming dynasty, Chenghua mark and period (1465–1487)
Porcelain painted in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels

D. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm)
Purchase, Mrs. Richard E. Linburn Gift, 1987 (1987.85)

It is possible that the patronage of the emperor’s favorite, Wan Gufei, was responsible for the promotion of several decorative techniques at the Jingdezhen kilns. Premier among these is the fabled Chenghua doucai (“contrasting colors” or “contending colors”), which is a combination of two ornamental processes. Indoucai decoration, designs were completely outlined in cobalt blue on the unfired vessel, and a few areas of blue wash were painted in as well. After glazing and the usual high-temperature firing, the outlines were filled in with overglaze red, green, yellow, and aubergine enamels that were then fired at low temperatures.Doucai-style enameling was usually reserved for intimate objects of exquisite refinement, and the rare examples of Chenghua date are some of the most highly treasured of all Ming-dynasty porcelains.

Dish, Ming dynasty, Hongzhi mark and period (1488–1505)
Porcelain painted in underglaze blue with yellow, overglaze enamels

Diam. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1919 (19.28.10)

The technique of adding yellow enamel to previously glazed and fired porcelains and then firing the enamel at a low temperature was probably developed in China during the Xuande period (1426–35). On this dish, which dates to the end of the fifteenth century, the yellow enamel has been used to silhouette the underlying blue-painted motif, creating the effect of blue decoration on a yellow ground. The dish belongs to a series of rather heavily potted dishes with this five-petalled flower as the principal design that originated in the Xuande period and continued to be produced until at least the Jiajing reign (1522–66). It is generally assumed that the Xuande pieces formed part of an original service, and the dishes from subsequent reigns were manufactured as replacements for those that had been broken in daily use.


Pipa, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), late 15th–early 16th century
Wood, ivory, bone, silk

L. 37 in. (94 cm), W. 9 15/16 in. (25.3 cm), D. 1 1/8 in. (2.9 cm)
Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950 (50.145.74)

The pear-shaped lute slowly migrated from Central Asia into China during the Han and Sui dynasties (1st–7th century). It eventually became the pipa; the term describes the original playing motion of the plectrum held in the performer’s right hand: p’i, “to play forward” (toward the left), and p’a, “to play backward” (toward the right). Until the mid-tenth century, the pipa was held horizontally (guitar style), and its twisted silk strings were plucked with a large triangular plectrum. Toward the end of the Tang dynasty, musicians began using their fingernails to execute the exuberant and programmatic repertory that was gaining popularity and that became the national style. To facilitate the use of the fingers, the instrument began to be held in a more upright position. In addition to its use in the opera and in storytelling ensembles, the pipa has a solo repertory of highly programmatic, virtuosic music.

The spectacular back and sides of this unique Ming-dynasty instrument feature more than 110 hexagonal ivory plaques, with thinner bone plaques on the neck. Each plaque is carved with Daoist, Confucian, or Buddhist figures and symbols signifying prosperity, happiness, and good luck. These include images of various gods and immortals, such as Shou Lao, the Daoist god of longevity, who is shown with a more prominent forehead on the single plaque at the very top. When the instrument is played, this expert workmanship remains unseen by the listener, as the back faces the player. The front is relatively plain but shows signs of use. The ivory string holder bears a scene featuring four figures and a bridge; an archaic cursive inscription; and, at the lip, a bat motif with leafy tendrils. Above the lower frets, two small insets depict a spider and a bird, and just before the rounded upper frets, a trapezoidal plaque portrays two men, one with a fish. The finial repeats the bat (good luck) motif.


Jar, Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period (1522–1566)
Porcelain painted in underglaze blue and overglaze polychrome enamels

H. 9 1/8 in. (23.2 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1917 (17.127.2)

The ascendancy of polychrome enamel decoration over other ornamental techniques seen in porcelains of the Jiajing period could represent an attempt to compensate for the low quality of potting by making an ambitious display of color. Ceramic painters were adept and imaginative with their palette of enamels and sought to achieve a maximum number of effects.

An important innovation of the Jiajing period, the so-called wucai (“five-color”) decoration, was one of the last major additions to the lexicon of ornamental techniques developed during the Ming dynasty, Despite its name, the number of colors in wucai decoration is not strictly limited to five. Wucai, likedoucai, is a combination of underglaze blue and overglaze polychrome enamels. However, where the soft underglaze blue of doucai was primarily used for dainty outline that laid the groundwork for elegant little washes of pale enamel colors, the dark blue of wucai was applied in bold washes to complement vigorous splashes of strong overglaze colors, and outlining was mostly done in overglaze red, brown, or black.

Fish in water weeds are a popular Jiajing wucai motif. The fish form a rebus: the Chinese word yu(“fish”) is pronounced much like yu (“abundant”), and the pun symbolizes the wish for wealth.

Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician, Ming dynasty, dated 1551
Wen Zhengming (Chinese, 1470–1559)
Album of eight paintings with facing pages of calligraphy; ink on paper

10 7/16 x 10 3/4 in. (26.6 x 27.3 cm)
Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1979 (1979.458.1)

The Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician (Zhuozheng Yuan) was established on the site of an ancient temple in Suzhou by the censor Wan Xianchen (active ca. 1500–1535) during the Jiajing reign (1522–66). In 1527, after an unhappy stay in Beijing, Wen Zhengming returned to Suzhou, where he was given a studio in the garden. In an album dated 1535, Wen depicted thirty-one views of the site, each accompanied by a poem and a descriptive note. Sixteen years later, at the age of eighty-one, the artist painted this second album representing eight views. The garden still exists in Suzhou today, but centuries of renovation make it difficult to identify the scenes that Wen painted.

In these works, Wen achieved the ideal integration of the three separate arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting (“the three perfections”). With characteristic restraint, he chose to use only ink in the paintings, but, aided by the poems, the quiet and exquisite images easily transport us to that magical, autumnal moment in the garden.


Wardrobe, Ming dynasty, 16th century
Wood (Huanghuali/Dalbergia odoriferal)

103 3/4 x 56 x 24 3/4 in. (263.5 x 142.2 x 62.9 cm)
Purchase, The Vincent Astor Foundation Gift, 1976 (1976.193.8)

The closet as we know it did not exist in China. Instead, capacious wardrobes like this one were used for storage: the lower compartments held bedding and clothing, the upper one hats. The beautifully grained wood, simplicity in form, fine craftsmanship, and superb joinery without the use of nails or glue are typical of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Chinese furniture.

Portrait of the Artist’s Great Grand Uncle Yizhai at the Age of Eighty-Five, Ming dynasty, dated xiyou (1561 or 1621)
Zude (Chinese, surname unknown; active 16th or early 17th century)
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk

61 3/4 x 37 7/8 in. (156.8 x 96.2 cm)
Inscribed by the artist
Seymour Fund, 1959 (59.49.1)

Portraits of monarchs for use in the state cult of ancestor worship have a long tradition in China, but the rise of private portraiture as a significant artistic genre occurred only during the latter half of the sixteenth century as a result of increased economic prosperity and a growing spirit of individualism.

This image epitomizes the late Ming genre of formal portraiture in which the sitter is depicted frontally, with a realistically described face set atop a body that is largely concealed beneath the stylized folds of an engulfing robe. According to the inscription, the painting depicts the artist’s relative Yizhai on the occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday. Unlike an “ancestor portrait,” which was typically commissioned after a person’s death and was therefore highly schematic, this portrait was painted from life. Nonetheless, the mode of representation is basically linear, with little use of shading to model facial features—a Western technique that was first introduced into China in the sixteenth century and did not become widespread until the mid-seventeenth century. Yizhai is depicted in an informal hat and robe, an indication that he either never held official rank or that he had adopted the costume of a gentleman living in retirement.

The Sixteen Luohans, Ming dynasty, dated 1591
Wu Bin (Chinese, active ca. 1583–1626)
Handscroll; ink and color on paper

12 5/8 x 163 1/8 in. (32 x 414.3 cm)
Inscribed by the artist
Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1986 (1986.266.4)

By 1600, Wu Bin, who began painting in his native Fujian Province, had moved to the southern capital Nanjing, where he served as a court-appointed painter specializing in landscapes and Buddhist subjects. A lifelong devotee of Buddhism, in Nanjing, Wu entered an order of untonsured monks affiliated with the Chan Buddhist Qixia Temple.

In Chinese popular imagination, mendicant monks, conjurors, and mysterious hermits were often thought to be disguised “living Luohans,” or Buddhist holy men capable of magic and miracles. When government corruption and ineptitude imperiled social order, as it did in late Ming times, such superstitious messianic beliefs became more widespread.

Reveling in eccentricity, Wu’s art represents a fin-de-siècle rebellion in painting style. In The Sixteen Luohans, one of Wu Bin’s earliest extant works, the artist has already begun to invent an eccentric archaism in figure painting that was to influence late Ming figure painters, most notably Chen Hongshou (1598–1652), as well as woodblock artists. The theatrical nature of the Luohan figures suggests that the artist may have been inspired by popular religious dramas or festival processions.

Medallion with Return from a Spring Outing, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), late 16th–early 17th century

Diam. 3 3/8 in. (8.6 cm)
Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 1993 (1993.176)

Ivory carving, which, like jade, was found in some of China’s earliest cultures, flourished during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1644–1911) due to an increased supply of the material and to widespread patronage of the decorative arts. Although its function remains unclear, this medallion is one of the relatively few examples of ivory carving that can be dated with any certainty to the Ming period.

The richly carved scene of a scholar gentleman riding in a moonlight landscape shows parallels to similar painted scenes, which helps date this medallion to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Four young attendants carrying supplies accompany the traveling scholar, while a fifth hastens to open the gateway to a family compound. Such scenes, often found in the work of court and professional painters, are understood to represent a return from a spring outing filled with wine and poetry. The blending of various flowers (lotus and peony) and auspicious emblems (jade chime and pen) on the back of the medallion also point to a date in the late Ming period.



Rag-dung, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), early 17th century
Copper, cloisonné, brass

L. 74 in. (188 cm); (1989.33) L. 76 9/16 in. (194.5 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1989 (1989.33)
Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert P. Freedman, by exchange, 1988 (1988.349)

Although Confucianism remained the basis for the structure of government in China, it was Buddhism, introduced in the first century B.C., that flourished from the Han to the Tang dynasties (206 B.C.–906 A.D.). Among the instruments associated with Buddhism were the rag-dung, long trumpets played for morning and evening calls to prayer, preludes, and processions. It was unusual for musical instruments to be enameled; cloisonné was usually reserved for containers like boxes or vases. These Tibetan-style long trumpets were among the many instruments made in China and sent as gifts to impress officials of bordering nations. Such gifts of musical instruments and the musicians who played them were not uncommon in East Asia. This political musical custom promoted the dissemination of musical ideas.Rag-dung, like many Asian trumpets, collapse for storage.


Incense holder, late 16th–early 17th century
Zhu Sansong (Chinese, active ca. 1573–1619)

H. 7 in. (17.8 cm)
Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 1995 (1995.271)

Made for holding stick incense, this bamboo vessel has openwork carving to facilitate the release of the fragrant smoke. The openwork relief depicts “Laughter at Tiger Creek,” the legendary story of the meeting of the famous Buddhist monk Huiyuan (334–416) with the poet Tao Qian (365–427) and the Daoist priest Lu Xiujing (407–477) on Mount Lu, Jiangxi Province, where Huiyuan’s monastery, the Donglin Si, was situated. Huiyuan is shown talking to Tao Qian under a tree; Lu Xiujing stands on a bridge on the other side of the vessel. Several layers of perforated fantastic rocks and a pine with a scaly trunk and twisting branches constitute the shallow, compact backdrop. The carver’s signature appears in intaglio on a foreground rock.

Zhu Sansong descended from a family of bamboo carvers in Jiading, Jiangsu Province. His works and those of his father, Zhu Ying (1520–1587), are characterized by crowded compositions of figures in nature, spatial compression, and a keen interest in the characters’ interactions through expression and posture. Compared with his father’s output, Sansong’s style is more developed in its use of high relief. The Zhu family founded the Jiading school of bamboo carving, and their followers flourished until the eighteenth century.


Shaded Dwellings among Streams and Mountains
Dong Qichang (Chinese, 1555–1636)
Hanging scroll; ink on paper

Image: 62 3/8 x 28 3/8 in. (158.4 x 72.1 cm)
Inscribed by the artist
Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1979 (1979.75.2)

Dong Qichang, the foremost landscape painter and theorist of the early seventeenth century, pursued artistic reform. Reacting against what he perceived as the decadent, perverse trends of contemporary landscape painting, Dong, following in the literati tradition, sought a creative reconstruction of the past through the critical study of ancient styles. In an attempt to restore simplicity and vitality to painting, Dong advocated a spiritual correspondence with the art of the old masters rather than a literal imitation of them and underscored the importance of self-expression. Approaching painting as though it were calligraphy, Dong alternated positive and negative patterns in his landscapes, which resulted in a radical new kinesthetic style.

Shaded Dwellings among Streams and Mountains, based on a work by the early master Dong Yuan (active 930s–60s), is a complex calligraphic study of rock and tree forms conceived as an integration of abstract, cubic, and dynamically expressive masses that embody and are unified by the kinetic energy of the artist’s physical movements.


Landscapes, dated 1630
Dong Qichang (Chinese, 1555–1636)
Album of eight paintings; ink on paper

9 5/8 x 6 5/16 in. (24.4 x 16 cm)
Four paintings and two facing pages inscribed by the artist
Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1986 (1986.266.5)

This album demonstrates Dong Qichang’s interpretation of the entire spectrum of Song and Yuan styles using a set of contrasting brushstroke methods, which could also be used for depicting actual landscapes. The great theorist and painter took as his point of departure the works of the Yuan master Ni Zan (1306–1374), whose paintings were regarded as calligraphic abstractions of earlier Song styles. In the first two leaves, Dong contrasts—in what he regards as the early and late styles of Ni Zan’s art—an “earthen” landscape (round, parallel, “hemp-fiber” brushstrokes) with a “rocky” one (angular, oblique, “folded-ribbon” brushstrokes). In successive leaves, Dong juxtaposes various “earthen” and “rocky” themes in order to evoke different paradigmatic styles of the Northern Song period.


Figure of Bodhidharma, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 17th century
Porcelain (Dehua ware)

H. 11 3/4 in. (29.8 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Winthrop W. Aldrich, Mrs. Arnold Whitridge, and Mrs. Sheldon Whitehouse, 1963 (63.176)

Kiln complexes in the vicinity of the town of Dehua in Fujian Province, are the source of a special type of porcelain known in the West as blanc de chine. These wares have an extremely fine-grained vitreous white body, embraced by a thick satiny glaze ranging in tone from milky white to warm ivory to a faint rosy hue. There is a wide variety of blanc de chine vessels, including numerous objects for the writing table, but perhaps the most glamorous of these wares are the figures frequently representing Buddhist or Daoist deities. These ceramic sculptures vary considerably in quality, but at their best they exhibit a brilliance of modeling that raises them to the rank of true masterpieces. There is perhaps no better example than this superb figure of Bodhidharma, the Indian patriarch said to be the founder of Chan (Zen) Buddhism in China. His serene expression and the fluid draping of his robes celebrates the skill of the master craftsmen.

Planting Chrysanthemums, Ming dynasty
Lu Zhi (Chinese, 1496–1576)
Hanging scroll; ink and pale color on paper

42 x 10 3/4 in. (106.7 x 27.3 cm)
Inscribed by the artist (right) and by the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95; center), dated 1777
Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1986 (1986.266.3)

Planting Chrysanthemums was presented by Lu Zhi to his friend Tao in exchange for some rare cuttings. To express his ideal of reclusion, Lu here combines poetry with painting. His poem reads:

I hear you have opened up a “Dao path” near the ocean,
Where clouds of leaves and frost-covered flowers vie in wondrous splendor.
I too have built a new residence at Zhixing Mountain,
May I share some of your autumn colors on my eastern hedge.

The first two lines of Lu’s verse allude to “Peach Blossom Spring,” a famous poem by his friend’s namesake Tao Qian (365–427) in which a fisherman stumbles upon a hidden utopia. In the last two lines, Lu Zhi suggests that he has planned his own utopian retreat, and refers to the growing of chrysanthemums, a passion he shared with Tao Qian.

Lu Zhi was the son of a Suzhou schoolteacher and a pupil of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559). After his father’s death, Lu supported his family by selling his paintings. About 1557, Lu retired to the mountains west of Suzhou, where he led a reclusive life cultivating rare flowers, writing poetry, and painting. Awash in mist and soft colors, the crystalline mountains in Lu’s painting evoke perfectly the dreamlike Peach Blossom Land of the immortals.

Portrait of an Old Lady
Zude (Chinese, surname unknown; active 16th or early 17th century)
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk

61 3/4 x 37 7/8 in. (156.8 x 96.2 cm)
Seymour Fund, 1959 (59.49.2)

This image of an elegant elderly lady shows how the Chinese portrait painter conveyed a sense of status through the figure’s accoutrements. The lady’s wealth is suggested by her jewelry—gold and pearl earrings and an ornate headdress fashioned out of gold and kingfisher feathers—and the sumptuous blue brocade cloth draped over the back of her chair. Her family status is further underscored by the official belt inset with elaborately worked plaques and a large rank badge with Manchurian cranes—the insignia of a civil official of the highest rank. Since women were not eligible to hold government office, these marks of rank were probably inherited from her father.

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