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Life in China During the Ming Dynasty

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore how life changed for various groups of people during the Ming Dynasty in China. The period lasted from 1364-1644 and featured a period of peace and stability for the country.

Ming Dynasty

As a country, the United States is young. Not even 250 years old, the U.S. has been around a relatively short time, historically speaking. Other countries, like China, have been around in one form or another for a much longer time (and not just centuries; try millennia). Over the course of history, they've experienced ebbs and flows, good times and bad, sometimes within a span of time that's longer than the life of the United States!

In this lesson, you'll get a look at life in China in one particular period of Chinese history that is also longer than the entire history of the United States: the rule of the Ming Dynasty.

Background

The Ming Dynasty replaced the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 after nearly two decades of civil war and strife. It was founded by one of the leading rebel generals, Zhu Yuanzhang, who came from a peasant family. Zhu (as Emperor, he took the title 'Hongwu') expanded China's borders during his reign to the north, south and west. His relatively long reign also saw China experience a prolonged period of peace and stability. However, by the mid-15th century, the period of stability was over and Hongwu's successors had to deal with conflict on China's borders with Mongols, the Jurchen, the Japanese, and other East Asian groups.

While the Ming Dynasty was busy fighting off interlopers on its borders, its stability was further undermined by intrigue at court. When the Ming Emperor was particularly weak, courtesans could control virtually the entire country through maintaining a strong relationship with the Emperor. The Ming Dynasty fell in 1644 when a Manchu army pushed south to Beijing and overthrew a rebel general who had captured the capital city. Deciding to stay and rule rather than return north, they established the Qing Dynasty.

Life in Ming China

To break this all down and put it into a Chinese context for you, we're going to look at how life changed for three of the four basic classes of Chinese society. This Confucian-inspired social structure, which claimed society had four classes (scholars, farmers, merchants, and artisans), has been the theoretical basic framework for Chinese society for centuries. But as you'll see, these roles and definitions have changed considerably over Chinese history.

Scholars

Traditionally, the scholarly class in China served the imperial family of China and conducted the major business of government. The Chinese government relied on trained scholars both to advise the emperor and to keep the wheels of government turning. But during the Ming Dynasty this relationship changed in important ways that affected how government officials conducted their business.

First, the Ming Dynasty was far more autocratic than the previous Yuan Dynasty of China. Ming emperors exerted more direct control over the Chinese government, and its organization became more stratified, with all major decisions funneling down from above. For example, several top government positions were abolished by Hongwu and he assumed these titles and roles himself. The importance of government officials was further deteriorated by the extensive use of eunuchs (men who have been castrated). Ming emperors employed thousands of eunuchs, who often worked independently and sometimes at cross-purposes to the traditional bureaucratic officials.

Farmers

Farmers or other peasants made up the vast majority of the Chinese population in Ming China. Life for these people got notably better, in mostly due to Hongwu's background as a peasant farmer. Hongwu redistributed vast portions of land he seized from his political enemies or won through conquest and expansion to poor farmers and other peasants. Later, he decreed that stated that any peasant who began farming wasteland could keep the land tax-free, which significantly increased the total land being farmed during the Ming Dynasty.

Merchants

The life of merchants changed considerably under the Ming Dynasty. Traditionally, merchants were looked down upon in Chinese society, as they did not produce any goods or value of their own but merely bought and sold the goods produced by others. While foreign trade expanded during the Ming dynasty, this was mostly done as a result of conquest and through the state. Since Hongwu had a peasant background, he disliked merchants, and many of his successors followed suit.

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