Zhu Yuanzhang, Emperor Taizu, founded the Ming Dynasty, last of the imperial households from Han tribes in 1368. The capital was first in Jiankang (today's Nanjing), and later another emperor Chengzu moved the seat to Beijing, his own power base, in 1421.
At the decline of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), peasant rebellions were commonplace, and the Red Turbans came foremost amongst all. In 1352, Zhu Yuanzhang, a vagabond, joined Red Turbans leader Guo Ziyi. He distinguished himself in Guo's service, and further enhanced his position by marrying Guo's adopted daughter.
Upon Guo Ziyi's death, Zhu Yuanzhang took charge and in 1356 captured Jiqing (Nanjing) as one of his important military bases. Though Zhu Yuanzhang was relatively a smaller player among titans, he bided his time with Zhu Sheng's advice - 'Build high walls, store abundant food and delay ascending to the throne'.
After several years' effort, Zhu Yuanzhang was strong enough to defeat Chen Youliang of Jiangxi in 1363 and Zhang Shicheng of Suzhou in 1367. In August of 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang captured Dadu (Beijing), the capital of the Yuan Dynasty, and he proclaimed himself emperor in Yingtian (Nanjing). Thus the Ming Dynasty came on stage.
Powerful and prosperous period
Zhu Yuanzhang began his reign with popular policies by cutting taxes and fair government. He also repaid his political debts by awarding his supporters with lavish appointments to high places. However, before his death he had toppled most of his own appointees.
His spies were everywhere to help consolidating his power. He reorganized administration to have all functional heads reporting directly to him, the emperor.
Zhu Yuanzhang had brought civil service entrance examination standard to a new plateau with his more elaborate curriculum. He meticulously compiled his law code in 20 years. These efforts were a mixed blessing to society.
Zhu Li, uncle to the rightful new emperor Zhu Yunwen, wrestled the throne from his nephew in a four-year bloody civil war. He crowned himself emperor in 1402 as Chengzu. He had led successful northern expeditions against nomadic tribes, and in 1421 he then moved his capital to Beijing to further secure his kingdom.
Imperial power started to decline after two generations, and court eunuchs influenced major government policy decisions. In 1449 the Emperor Yingzong fell captive to Mongolian Waci warriors in an ill starred campaign under the advice of Wang Zhen, a court eunuch.
A new emperor, Jingtai, Emperor Yingzong, was put on the throne. People rallied around Jingtai to stop the Mongolian invaders. Yingzong was released from captivity, came back and regained his throne with the help of eunuchs in a palace coup. Thereafter the eunuchs became the uncontested power behind the throne.
Emperor Xianzong governed well briefly. He was succeeded by Xiaozong. Xiaozong truly understood the ropes of good government. He ruled well and China prospered during his reign.
The next three emperors: Wuzong, Shizong, and Muzong were mere figureheads. They were fully dependent on their ministers to steer the ship of state.
Zhu Yijun, the next emperor Shenzong, keen for reforms, appointed Zhang Juzheng as minister to bring about change.
In spite of the opposition from the nobles, Zhang Juzheng measured the farmland of the whole state, which increased the financial and tax income. He constructed the water conservancy of the Yellow River, and practiced 'One Lash Method' (a kind of tax policy) to reduce the burden of the peasants. He reduced the unnecessary government officials to save the state fiscal expenditures.
He constructed more than three thousand defending stations between the Shanhai Pass and the Juyong Pass to reinforce the northern border defense. Through his reform, Ming Dynasty came to another prosperous period since Emperor Yingzong.
After Emperor Shenzong, Ming Dynasty began to decline. In 1628, Emperor Sizong, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, came to the throne, when the Ming Dynasty was in civil disorder already. In 1631, Ming Dynasty armies were defeated by the armies of Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong in Sichuan and Henan Provinces. In 1644, Li Zicheng's army captured Beijing, and Emperor Sizong hanged himself in despair. Ming Dynasty ended.
In the rule of Emperor Chengzu, Zheng He, a great navigator in Chinese history, had ever sailed to the West seven times. He voyaged throughout South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Taiwan Persian Gulf and even reached the Eastern Bank of Africa. His travel promoted the communications between Ming Dynasty and the other countries in the world.
Culture and science
Culture was developed quickly in the Ming Dynasty. Three of the Four Famous Chinese Classical Works were produced at that time. They are Journey to the West, Outlaws of the Marsh and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
In science, many treasurable reference books were produced in the Ming Dynasty, among which the most well-known ones are Li Shizhen's Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu), Song Yingxing's Exploitation of the Works of Nature (Tiangong Kaiwu) and Xu Guanqi's Complete Treatise on Agriculture (Nongzheng Quanshu).
In addition, a group of scholars came forth then such as Liu Ji, Song Lian, Gaoqi, Tang Yin, Zhang Dai, and Yuan hongdao, and the noted composers Wang Pan, Feng Weimin, Chenze and Kanghai were all lived in the Ming Dynasty.