(CHINA from MONGOL RULE to the MING – continued)
The Grand Canal today at Suzhou
The first concern of China's new Ming emperor in 1370 was military strength and preventing Mongol resurgence. The emperor, Hong-wu, established garrisons at strategic points and created a hereditary military caste of soldiers who would sustain themselves by farming and be ever-ready for war. Troops were forbidden to abuse civilians. Hong-wu made his commanders a new military nobility. Hong-wu's standing army exceeded one million in number, and his navy's dockyards in Nanjing were the largest in the world.
Farms had been devastated and he settled a huge number of peasants on what had been wasteland and gave them tax exemptions. Hong-wu attempted to create a society of self-sufficient rural communities. Between 1371 and 1379 the land under cultivation tripled, as did revenues. The government sponsored tree planting and reforestation. Neglected dikes and canals were repaired and thousands of reservoirs were rebuilt or restored. During his reign, China had a dramatic population growth, explained as due to an increased food supply and Hong-wu's agricultural reforms.
Hong-wu was tough on opponents. His regime executed anyone who violated his laws or were suspected of treason. He banned secret societies. He increasingly feared rebellions and coups, and he made it a capital offence for any of his advisors to criticize him. He became infamous for killing many people during his purges. His regime has been described as using many tortures, including flaying and slow slicing. In 1380, according to Wikipedia, a lightning bolt struck his palace and he stopped the massacres "for some time" while afraid of punishment by "divine forces."
Hong-wu considered the destructive role of court eunuchs under previous dynasties, and he reduced their numbers, forbade them to handle documents, insisted they remain illiterate and executed any who commented on state affairs.
Hong-wu died in 1398, at the age of seventy, and his death was followed by four years of civil war and the disappearance of his son and heir, Jianwen. Jianwen had been indecisive and scholarly and no match for his uncle, the Prince of Yan, who in 1402 became Emperor Yongle (meaning Perpetual Happiness) and made Yan his capital and renamed it Beijing.
In Beijing, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, originally built in 1420. It began as residence for the emperor, its name associated with the favor and authority of Heaven and with justice and stability. After more than two centuries of stability it was to be occasionally destroyed and rebuilt.
In the wake of Mongol rule, China's leaders were eager to restore things Chinese, and that included shipping on China's canals – which had fallen into disrepair under the Mongols. According to Wikipedia, between 1411 and 1415 a total of 165,000 laborers dredged the canal bed in Shandong Province, and they built new channels, embankments, and canal locks.
One of Emperor Yongle's eunuchs, Zheng He, was a Muslim whose father had made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Zheng He knew the world a little more than others, and he led a group of can-do eunuchs that performed special tasks for the emperor, and Emperor Yongle ordered Zheng to make naval expeditions.
From the Mongols the Ming rulers had inherited extensive maritime contacts and technology. During Mongol rule, large Chinese cargo ships had plied the oceans around China, including a regular run of grain from the south along the coast to the north. And Chinese ships had traded through southeast Asia to the island of Lanka (Sri Lanka) and to India. But the Ming dynasty did not maintain this trade. Zheng He's expedition, beginning in 1405, was made for the sake of geographical exploration and diplomacy – an expedition with sixty-three ships and 27,000 men. Six more expeditions led by Zheng followed, continuing after the death of Emperor Yongle in 1424. The last expedition was in 1433 under Emperor Xuande, grandson of Emperor Yongle. The expeditions reached Surabaya at the island of Java, and they reached India and then Mogadishu on the coast of Africa, Hormuz at the Persian Gulf, and up the Red Sea to Jeddah. Gifts were exchanged, and rare spices, plants and animals, including a giraffe, were brought back to China.
China had the world's greatest navy, with an estimated 317 ships – constructed at Nanjing. These ships were made with special woods and waterproofing techniques, and they had an adjustable centerboard keel. Some of the ships were 440 feet long and 180 feet wide, ships with four to nine masts that were as high as ninety feet, with silk sails and with crews that numbered as many as five hundred.
But in China interest in a great navy and merchant shipping was overshadowed by concern about military defenses on land. Attempts to control Annam failed and were expensive. In the mid-1400s the Mongols were making border raids and appeared to the Chinese as a greater threat. Also, Confucian influence had increased at court. Confucian scholars were filling the ranks of senior officialdom and remained hostile to commerce and foreign contacts. The Confucianists had little or no interest in seeing China develop into a great maritime trading power. The Confucianists saw internal trade as enough. The government ended its sponsorship of naval expeditions, and, in the spirit of isolationism, the government forbade multi-masted ships sailing out of port. The development of world maritime trade was left to Europeans, who were now beginning to extend their voyages.
Meanwhile, Confucian ideology was inhibiting commercial enterprise.
The Rise and Splendor of the Chinese Empire, by René Grousset, 1968
China: a New History, by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, 1998
The Ageless Chinese by Dun J. Li, 1978
Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.