Monday, 3 October 2011

Chinese History - Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

          The founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (reign motto Hongwu 洪武 "Inundating Martiality"), was a poor man when he joined the Red Turban (Hongjin 紅巾) rebellion in the lower Yangtse region. Similar to the founder of the Han Dynasty, he was very suspicious of the educated courtiers around him and exerted an extremely authoritarian regime ("the tyrant of Nanjing"). This harsh governmental style was partly due to the influence of governmental institutions of the previous Mongol period that were marked by a strong centralization. Zhu Yuanzhang, full of mistrust, took over the whole responsibility of the imperial administration by abolishing crucial ministries and secretaries. To control the highest officials at the court, he installed the so-called Brocade Guards (Jinyiwei 錦衣衛), a kind of secret service staffed with the only kind of people he trusted, namely the eunuchs.

           During the whole course of Ming Dynasty, there was always prevalent a deep mistrust between the scholarship elite, that occupied the governmental posts in the capital(s) and in the prefectures, and the central government, that was often deeply influenced by some high ranking eunuchs. The authoritarian and centralized politics of the Ming government lead to a status of immovability and orthodoxy.

        The second emperor of Ming was overthrown by his own uncle, who adopted the reign title Yongle 永樂 "Everlasting Joy", and shifted the capital from Nanjing (Yingtianfu 應天府) to Beijing (Jingshi 京師, Shuntianfu 順天府). The Yongle Emperor's reign was the most flourishing time of the Ming Dynasty.

        The Ming Dynasty is famous for the influence of the eunuchs on political affairs. Basically trusted with tasks of imperial household affairs, many eunuchs were able to climb up the social ladder and to occupy posts at the court that made them able to influence the ruler and his decisions. The great part of the eunuchs came from poor families of north China, while the scholar-officials that traditionally occupied governmental posts, came from gentry clans in southern China. The problem of the intermingling of the eunuchs into state affairs was not new: The last Han emperor had to get rid of the eunuchs with the help of a military dictator, and the Song Dynasty scholar Ouyang Xiu wrote an essay about the influence of eunuchs during the Five Dynasties.

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