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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The long perspective
Zhou and Qin
Intermediate times
     The Ming dynasty
     China's sea trade
     The Jesuits

To be completed

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The Ming dynasty: 1368-1644

Kublai Khan's grandson and successor, Timur, contrives to keep order in the empire for a few years after the great khan's death in 1294. But a series of disasters in the early 14th century unsettles the dynasty. A civil war between rival Mongol princes breaks out in 1328. There is widespread famine. Disastrous floods cause armies of peasants to be press-ganged into heavy work on the river defences. Rebel bands begin to wreak havoc, demanding the ejection of the foreigners and the restoration of a Chinese dynasty.

The leader of one such band is a Buddhist monk, of peasant origin, by the name of Zhu Yuanzhang. In 1356 Zhu succeeds in capturing a town which he renames Nanjing, 'southern capital'.


In 1368 Zhu marches to seize the northern capital, Beijing. The Mongols flee north to the steppes, and Zhu announces the start of a new dynasty with himself as emperor. Like the Mongols, with their choice of Ta Yüan, he gives his dynasty a glorious name - Ming, meaning 'brilliant'.

Zhu inaugurates a custom of a similar kind which survives to the end of the Chinese empire. He chooses a congenial name for his reign - in this case Hung Wu, 'vast military power'. Chinese emperors from this time onwards are known by the title of their reign. Zhu, the founder of the new dynasty, becomes the Hung Wu emperor - though the phrase is often now used as though Hung Wu were his own name.


The new emperor turns out to be a strict disciplinarian. His officials must invariably run when in his presence, and misdemeanors are punished with public canings. Officials in Ming China are treated like prefects at an old-fashioned boarding school; the button on a mandarin's cap changes through nine different colours as he rises in the strict hierarchy of the civil service. It makes for a well-behaved but unenterprising society.

One exception to the otherwise undynamic nature of the Ming dynasty is an expansion of China's maritime trade.


Chinese sea trade: 15th century

The greatest extent of Chinese trade is achieved in the early 15th century when Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, sails far and wide with a fleet of large junks. At various times between 1405 and 1433 he reaches the Persian Gulf, the coast of Africa (returning with a giraffe on board) and possibly even Australia.

Typical Chinese exports are now porcelain, lacquer, silks, items of gold and silver, and medicinal preparations. The junks return with herbs, spices, ivory, rhinoceros horn, rare varieties of wood, jewels, cotton and ingredients for making dyes.


The Jesuits in China: from1583

The China which first becomes known to the west, in full and accurate detail, is that of the Ming empire. In 1421 the third Ming emperor moves the capital north from Nanjing to Beijing, laying out the great palace and administrative complex known now as the Forbidden City. Here one of his successors is visited by the first European to make a systematic study of China and the Chinese.

He is Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary. He arrives in China in 1583 from the Portuguese trading post on Macao. It is his intention to seek an interview with the emperor, for whom he has brought presents from Europe. It takes eighteen years before Ricci succeeds in reaching the emperor. But during that time he has become a fascinated student of China.


Ricci learns the Chinese language, studies the Chinese classics and translates them into Latin. He even writes Chinese books himself so as to bring Christian truth to these very civilized infidels.

Of all the pagans in history, Ricci soon concludes, these are the wisest. He particularly admires the ancient philosopher K'ung Fu Tzu, and it is through Ricci that Europe first hears of the Chinese sage (under the name by which the Jesuit transliterates him into Latin, Confucius). Ricci, settling into the environment, wears the robes of a mandarin. He even attends a ritual in honour of Confucius in the Temple of Heaven in Nanjing, convincing himself that the occasion is one of reverence rather than worship.


Ricci's example establishes a strong and sympathetic Jesuit presence in China which lasts into the Qing dynasty, in the early 18th century. Reports of Jesuit flexibility, in the Ricci tradition, are ill-received in Rome - provoking the so-called rites controversy. But the Jesuits have provided the first reliable reports of this ancient civilization. Europe is greatly impressed.

Chinese rationalism chimes perfectly with the ideas of the Enlightenment. The Chinese style is imitated in the chinoiserie which becomes the fashion in European furniture and interior decoration. And the Chinese secret of porcelain is desperately sought by European potters, in a race won in 1709 in Meissen.


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