Absolutist Trend. The political structure of the Song dynasty (960-1279) was based on the coexistence of independent departments and a system of checks and balances. Political decisions were the topic of discussions in which conflicting opinions could be freely expressed. An absolutist trend, however, began to appear in Song times and
advanced further under the Mongols. By the early Ming era (1368-1644) all power had become concentrated in the hands of the emperor. The unchecked growth of imperial power in the late fourteenth century was regarded as the political character of Ming times. The reason for this trend was that the Ming empire was established by a peasant who felt an instinctive mistrust of scholars, which forced him to control directly the government and the civil service.
Authoritarianism. In 1380 Emperor Hongwu cancelled the post of grand secretariat and assumed direct control of the six ministries (public administration, finance, rites, armies, justice, and public works). He also created a General Direction of the Five Armies so that he could better control the military. The tendency to centralization and authoritarianism continued into the late Ming era.
Great Purges. Fearing that he would lose power, Emperor Hongwu began to persecute those who had helped him to gain the imperial throne. He accused his old friend and loyal follower, Hu Weiyong, of planning a revolt and communicating with the Mongols and Japanese. A great trial began in 1380 with more than fifteen thousand people involved in the case. Hu was found guilty and put to death. After Hu’s execution, Hongwu concentrated more authority in his own hands. Another purge took place in 1385 when several officials were accused of committing crimes of high treason. By that time Hongwu had become so sensitive that he even regarded certain written characters as criticism of his person and his origins, and many intellectuals were persecuted.
Court Eunuchs. Another characteristic of Ming absolutism was the political power of court eunuchs. Most of the eunuchs were lower-class northerners and were entirely dependent on imperial favor. Castrated males, eunuchs were trusted by the emperors. They commanded the palace guard, checked the tributes presented by the provinces and foreign countries, served in the court as the emperor’s personal secretaries, traveled to tributary states as the emperor’s personal envoys, and managed the imperial workshops. Enriched by their supervision of trade and foreign relations, they were thus at the source of military power and commercial wealth. Having exceptional access to the emperor, they could exert great influence on emperors who distrusted the legitimate representatives of the imperial government in the provinces. The autocratic tendencies of the Ming regime made the rise of powerful and devoted servants inevitable.
Eunuch Dictators. The importance of eunuchs resulted in some of them becoming dictators. They controlled the whole administration and appointed and promoted officials in the central government and in the provinces. Becoming the center of power, they began to abuse their authority. Liu Jin, chief of imperial staff, was an example of eunuch misuse of power. Coming to the throne as a minor in 1506, Liu Jin was blatantly corrupt and oppressive. His excesses created many enemies who accused him of plotting to kill the emperor, for which crime he was put to death. The last and most infamous eunuch dictator was Wei Zhongxian, who rose to power during the period of the Tianqi emperor (1621-1627). Trusted by the emperor, he abused his power by using spies and secret police to instigate a reign of terror.
Surveillance System. A surveillance system supported the absolutist framework. Emperor Hongwu maintained an elaborate secret operation by using spies and security guards who carried out the major purges of his reign. In 1382 he formed the Brocaded Guards, a sort of political police that watched the activities of high officials. Later, Emperor Yungle created the Men of the Eastern Esplanade, which succeeded the Brocaded Guards and were under the control of the eunuchs. Created in the years 1465-1487, the Red Horsemen of the Western Esplanade, acting as secret envoys and spies on behalf of the eunuchs, took advantage of their unlimited and secret powers to blackmail and intimidate the populace.
Julia Ching and Willard G. Oxtoby, eds., Discovering China: European Interpretations in the Enlightenment (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1992).