1501 to 1700
Passing rule from father to son again produced incompetent leadership. It was in 1506 that Zhengde, fourteen-year-old son of Ming emperor Hongzhi, inherited power. Hongzhi had warned that his son Zhengde was too inclined toward a love of ease and pleasure. And Zhengde became a ruler interested in entertainments such as music, wrestling, magicians and acrobatics, interested also in riding, archery and hunting, and without much interest in the affairs of state.
The Portuguese first stepped onto Chinese territory in May 1513, at Guangzhou, and that year erected a stone marker and claimed the nearby island of Nei Lingding for the Portuguese king, Manuel I. The king sent a trade mission in 1517 and the Portuguese created a trade center at Nei Lingding. The Emperor Zhengde died in April 1521. The Ming court lost interest in new foreign contacts, and there were reports of misbehavior by the Portuguese. Interested in profit, the Portuguese are accused of having kidnapped Chinese children to sell at their base more than a couple thousands miles away in Malacca, in what today is Malaysia. The Chinese believed that the Portuguese roasted and ate the Chinese children they had kidnapped, and they blocked the Portuguese. China had a fleet of about fifty ships, and they defeated the Portuguese force. Only a few Portuguese managed to escape – back to Malacca. The Chinese resisted any attempt by the Portuguese to return, but following a Portuguese shipwreck in 1535, Portuguese traders were allowed to anchor ships in Macau's harbors and allowed to trade, but at first they were not allowed to stay onshore. In 1537 the Portuguese were able to establish a little colony at Macau to be administered by Chinese authorities.
The stone and brick of the Great Wall added during the Ming Dynasty – a barrier against the Manchu. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Emperor Zhengde had no sons, and rule passed to one of his adopted sons, Jiajing, who was fifteen. The Dowager Empress and a Grand Secretary ruled for a while, and Jiajing ruled to 1567. China remained reluctant to engage in overseas trade. The court had decided back in 1500 to execute anyone who had built a ship with more than two masts – more than two masts needed for long range ocean sailing. And in 1525 the court ordered coastal authorities to destroy oceangoing boats and put their owners in prison.
Under the Dowager Empress and the Grand Secretary the power of the eunuchs was curbed and wealth that eunuchs had accumulated was confiscated – 70 chests of gold and 2,200 chests of silver from one eunuch alone. The economy was restored. But eventually Emperor Jiajing came of age and the Grand Secretary died. Then the government faltered as Jiajing focused on Taoism and immortality. He spent money on Taoist temples, but his spiritualism did not make him a worthy ruler at least in the eyes of eighteen of his concubines. In 1542 they conspired to strangle him while he slept. They failed. All were executed except for the concubine who had warned the empress.
Emperor Jiajing did little to improve China as a military power. Frontier military colonies had only about forty percent of the number of men originally intended to guard against the Mongols and others. Interior regiments were no more than ten percent of their prescribed strength. The government was not giving military men adequate pay or rations. Death and desertions thinned the army, and many of those who were recruited into the military were unwilling to risk their lives in combat.
China's aristocracy was oriented more toward civil authority separated from military duty, unlike the rugged founding conqueror of China, Qin Shu Huangdi. And the lifestyle of the educated elite was separate too from manual labor – unlike, for example, the Roman Republic's rugged aristocratic soldier-farmer Marcus Porcius Cato.
Mongols in the north around Hohhot (in what today is Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China) had united under Altan Khan, a descendant of Genghis Kahn. With China's military capability reduced, in 1542 the Mongols burned homes, stole cattle and horses and, it is written, massacred more than 200,000 people. In 1550 the Mongols advanced to the gates of Beijing and looted and burned its suburbs.
Meanwhile, in the coastal regions from Ningbo southward to Guangzhou, farmers suffering hard times, excessive taxation and corruption joined gangs of coastal river bandits. Also, the ban on ocean-going boats selectively enforced by local authorities created law-breakers who switched between trade, smuggling, raiding expeditions and plundering rival merchants. During the 1540s the disparate groups of Chinese pirates and traders became more organized. They gathered on islands off of the coastline and colluded with the Japanese traders. In 1547 an effort was begun to eradicate what the Ming perceived to be the cause of the piracy: overseas trade. In February 1548 a large body of pirates raided the coastal counties of Ningbo and Taizhou, killing, burning, and looting without encountering effective resistance. Portuguese traders were joining in the growing commerce. A Ming force led by Zhu Wan, recently made governor-general of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, retaliated into 1549 with some success which became a threat to local persons with political influence who had a lucrative association with the illegals. Zhu Wan was dismissed from office. He committed suicide in January 1550 during impeachment proceedings, and his coastal defense fleet was dispersed.
It was a private army organized by Qi Jiguang that eventually defeated the coastal raiding – while Emperor Jiajing pursued his Taoism. Jiajing withdrew from governing for long periods, and his Taoist search for everlasting life through potions led to his death by poisoning in 1566. Jiajing's son, Longqing (1567-72), was also little interested in affairs of state. But he did expel Taoists from the court, and his minister, Zhang Juzheng, made peace with the Mongols. Altan Khan was appeased and made a prince, and he pledged his allegiance to the emperor.
Wanli became emperor at the age of ten. His reign was to last forty-seven years – the longest reign in China since the early Han dynasty seventeen centuries before. His reign began under the leadership of his mother and Minister Zhang Juzheng. They restored discipline and efficiency in government. Finances were stabilized, and attacks at China's border were repelled. But after Wanli came of age and Zhang Juzheng died, the recent history of Chinese emperors repeated itself. Wanli increasingly withdrew from state affairs. Government posts were left unfilled, and people languished in prison without trial because there were no judges to try them. Wanli allowed the eunuchs to acquire influence at court. The eunuchs took tax money intended for the state treasury for themselves. Wealth was not being saved, or sufficient grain stored for relief in hard times. When an area was devastated by earthquake, flooding or drought, Wanli would order relief, but little if any relief would materialize. And desperate people were turning again to banditry and rebellion.
High taxes continued to oppress all but the upper classes. Millions of middlemen were involved in tax collection, taking their cut before passing the collected wealth to the court. In some provinces half of the revenue went to support the local nobility. Some with surplus money were lending it out at usurious rates, and Wanli was spending great amounts of state money on palaces and other luxuries for his family. Wanli, meanwhile, had grown so fat that he could not stand.
China was doing well artistically, but there was little intellectual leadership advocating political and social reform. The intellectuals were supporting serenity through withdrawal or a return to traditional obedience and worthy authoritarian rule. Unlike the bourgeoisie in Europe, there was little interest among the Chinese in better ways of doing work through improved tools – while laborers were without the means to improve their tools.
China's gentry, traditionally Confucianist and into both farming and government service, had become more alienated from government and had been turning more to Buddhism and to patronizing Buddhist monasteries. This was encouraged by factional fighting among the Confucianists and by the risks that came with power in the hands of eunuchs. Confucian scholars disliked the decline in Confucianist standards. Confucianists were splitting into numerous factions. Numerous private Confucianist academies arose, while few if any Confucianists were finding fault with monarchy or authoritarianism itself. Confucianists continued to see salvation in adherence to proper ethical conduct rather than a change in institutions. And they continued to see commerce and the crafts as matters for inferior people.
The degree of withdrawal from state affairs by Wanli amounted to benign neglect for commerce and trade. China was producing ceramics, silk, and cotton cloth. A genuine money economy was developing, and China's growing cities had a few affluent merchants. China's agriculture was advancing – with some new crops such as maize, sweet potatoes and peanuts from the Americas. This contributed to China's rise in population – to over 100 million – double what it had been around 1368, when the Ming Dynasty began. But not much wealth was being invested in economic growth. Rather than wealth being invested in business growth, much of it was being used in safer lending at usurious rates. In addition to government using business as a source of wealth, and the Confucian view of commerce as dishonorable, wealthy Chinese – gentry and wealthy merchants – were spending a lot of money on consumption. Businessmen as well as the landed wealthy tended to see land as a better investment than business growth. Much of industry was handicraft in the hands of peasants, and when their productivity increased it would be siphoned off by landlords. Also, government sponsored handicraft guilds laid down rules that inhibited competition and growth. Industries were often forced to sell to the government at prices that were too low. Business growth was hampered also by common people unable to increase their consumption. And government continued to impose limitations on foreign trade, including forbidding Chinese merchants to go to sea.
The Ming Dynasty respected Korea's Joseon Dynasty. Both dynasties were founded on the overthrow of the Mongols. The Chinese saw in the Confucianism of the Koreans respect for China, and they respected Korea for the skills of its officials in the Chinese classics. The Ming honored Korean independence, and there had been no aggressive acts either way across the border they shared. In 1592, Japan invaded Korea near Pusan, and by July the Japanese were in Pyongyang. China intervened on the side of the Koreans, sending a force crossing the Yalu River into Korea on December 25.
In January the Chinese were battling the Japanese at what is called the Siege of Pyongyang. Combined Ming and Korean armies retook the Pyongyang castle. With an arsenal of 200 pieces of various types of artillery, including rocket arrows, breech-loading cannon and several large caliber "Great General" cannons, the Ming army drove the Japanese south, and the Japanese asked for a truce. China's Korean allies didn't want a truce with the Japanese, but China agreed to a truce. By January 1597 the truce had fallen apart, and the Japanese invaded Korea again. In 1598 a Ming navy decisively defeated Japan's navy, and this was followed by the Japanese abandoning their plan of expansion into Korea. The seven years of war left Korea devastated, and in China the war was followed by economic decline.
Instead of Chinese merchants going to Europe, European merchants came to them. In the middle of Wanli's reign, Dutch and English traders arrived off the coast of China. The Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, arrived in China at Macao in 1582. He adopted the name Li Mateo and made himself more amenable to the Chinese by adopting the dress of a Confucian scholar, and he made Christianity more palatable to the Chinese by linking it with Confucian thought. He settled in Nanjing, and having learned Chinese and the classical Chinese literature, and showing deference to China's system of authoritarian rule and privilege, Ricci was accepted by China's scholars and nobility.
In early 1601, Ricci received permission to go to Beijing, where he presented the court with a harpsichord, a map of the world and two clocks that chimed. He introduced himself to the court as Wanli's humble subject and as familiar with the "celestial sphere, geography, geometry, and calculations." Ricci aroused interest and awareness of technical advances in the West. Permission to function in China allowed Ricci to expand Christianity there, and, by 1610, China had more than 300 hundred Roman Catholic churches.
Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.