China During the Ming & Qing Dynasties (1368-1911)

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  • 0:01 The Ming
  • 1:30 Zheng He and Agriculture
  • 3:23 The Qing
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The last two dynasties in Chinese history were the Ming and the Qing. Although quite different, they faced many of the same issues, and often the Qing copied the Ming, even in their mistakes.

The Ming

As the Mongol Yuan Dynasty fell apart, numerous Chinese leaders declared their own independence, seeking to distance themselves from the Mongols and perhaps even revive China as their own. The man who would ultimately reunite China under a Chinese dynasty was known as the Hongwu Emperor, and he founded the Ming Dynasty.

By 1368, he had control of the country and immediately started to demonstrate that he was in charge. He was distrustful of the Eunuchs and worked to limit their power. He decreed that they should have no place in the administration of the country and also distanced himself from the Confucian intellectual class. Instead, he placed his faith in himself and his own immediate advisors.

While Hongwu was gifted and able to handle such responsibility, many of his successors were not. This helped to plant the seeds of the Ming's end even as the dynasty was getting underway. Other emperors would further the administration, but instead of listening to new ideas, would only want people who would, in effect, think along the same lines as the emperor. Needless to say, this largely crushed any innovation in thought, and soon the Imperial Examinations became a competition to see who could remember the most of what earlier examinees had said. Ultimately, this weakened China, leaving it open for invasion.

Zheng He and Agriculture

However, the Ming are most remembered by many outside of China for their explorations of the waters around them. The Chinese had a massive merchant fleet, including ships that traded as far away as the eastern coast of Africa. Throughout the early 1400s, China's greatest admiral, Zheng He, was sent to trade with other states around the region. He took a massive fleet of ships, many of which were capable of holding 500 men and many decks of cargo. They traveled throughout Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and even into the Persian Gulf. Zheng He was no doubt welcomed in the Islamic world due to his own status as a Muslim, which in itself points to the cosmopolitan nature of this Chinese maritime society. However, Zheng He's explorations were halted by an emperor who sought to establish his greatness along much more traditionally Chinese lines. Zheng He sought to export Chinese greatness abroad, but his emperor had a different idea.

The traditional indication of greatness with regards to a Chinese emperor has been the ability to feed the people. Given a country with both the geographic size and population of China, this was no easy feat. However, much of early Chinese achievement focused on this. The Grand Canal was built to ship rice to the northern cities, and the Great Wall was built to prevent barbarians from raiding fields, among other things. While China may have stopped its overseas exploration, it definitely succeeded in building more efficient agricultural processes. Hills were terraced to allow for more farmland, and seeds were crossed with other varieties to ensure that only the best crops were planted. As a result, China's population grew from 35 million at the start of the Ming Dynasty to more than 170 million at its end.

The Qing

The Ming would be the last native-born Chinese dynasty. However, I wouldn't tell that to the Qing, who considered themselves to be such restorers of Chinese culture that they referred to themselves as the 'Pure' Dynasty. Founded by Manchus from north of China in 1644, the Qing continued what they thought were the best practices of the Ming. In fact, for a time, the Qing had more international trade in East and Southeast Asia than the Europeans did, and this was even after the Europeans had been in the region for decades!

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