Ming Military Expansion and Political Reforms

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Ming Military Expansion and Political Reforms


Early Ming Army. The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, maintained much of the Mongol military structure, under which the Ming army was commanded by a hereditary officer class. The early Ming armed forces mainly derived from Hongwu’s followers and the bands who surrendered to him during the military campaigns when Hongwu promised that their units would be kept unbroken and their leaders’ commands would be made hereditary. At that time, Hongwu’s army officials were also rewarded with noble titles and ranked higher than other military and civil officials.

Military Colony System. The founding father of the Ming tried to transform the Ming army into a kind of autonomous organization, whose members and income were to be provided by their families with a special statute—the armed families, who settled on the lands of military colonies. For each ten soldiers, three were to be assigned to military tasks and seven to agricultural work on the lands of military colonies. Their families had to support the army. The greatest concentration of military colonies was located in the capital area, on the northern frontier, and in Southwest China. Therefore, a living, autonomous organism spread all over the Ming empire, and the armies acquired in time a sort of regional specialization.

Offensives. The Turkic conqueror Tamerlane posed the most significant threat to Ming power. After occupying a vast Central Asian empire, Tamerlane began to invade China in 1404, but he died en route the next year. Mean-while the Urianghad and Jurchen tribes on the Northeastern frontier were disunited, and they were forced to recognize Chinese rule. In the West, the Tatar and Oirat tribes in Mongolia still presented a danger to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Emperor Yongle launched five expeditions in person against them between 1410 and 1424, winning great victories. Because of these successful military campaigns, the Ming government occupied Manchuria up to the mouth of the Amur River and then appointed a governor-general there. In the South, Yongle’s armies put down the tribal resistance and then moved against Annam, which was an independent state in Tang times, sending tributes to the imperial emperors annually. A powerful Ming army of 200,000 men invaded Dai Viet in North Vietnam in 1406 and overthrew the Kingdom of the Tran. The Ming annexation of the Red River basin and central Vietnam was not without resistance. An independence movement began in 1418 and finally drove out the Chinese in 1427.

Transfer of the Capital. Yongle made a significant decision to transfer the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. The main reason for the move was to permit closer control over the military forces in the North. Another reason for this decision was the strategic importance of the Beijing area for the control both of eastern Mongolia and of the northeastern territories. The transfer of the capital seemed to reflect Yongle’s desire to expand the Chinese empire toward the steppe zone and Manchuria. It was his ambition to reassume in Asia the dominant position held by the Yuan empire between the end of the thirteenth century and the middle of the fourteenth century. The construction of the new capital began in 1406 and involved the obtaining of large quantities of timber and bricks and the deployment of many thousands of laborers

and artisans. The city walls and the major palace buildings were not completed until 1417.

Hai Rui’s Reforms. Inequality in taxation, which not only reduced the government’s revenue but also hurt small peasants, encouraged the reformers to introduce a new tax system. Hai Rui was one of these reformers who had a reputation for uprightness, courage, and concern for the ordi-nary people. As a magistrate he reexamined the land in order to make taxes more equitable. He hated corruption and tried to wipe it out effectively while leading a life of exemplary frugality. After submitting a scathing memorial that accused the emperor of neglecting his duty and spending too much time in religious ceremonies, he was sent to prison, tortured, and condemned to death by strangulation. Saved by the emperor, he was released from prison and returned to his office but was forced to resign later when he offended powerful landlords again by ordering them to return lands they occupied illegally. After his death in 1587 the people idealized him as the perfect official.

Zhang Juzheng. A Confucian legalist, Zhang Juzheng was a different kind of reformer. He believed that strong and strict government was ultimately for the people’s benefit, and efficiency and control were the hallmarks of his policy. He started a project to repair the Grand Canal, reformed the courier system, designed rules to strengthen central control over local officers, and decreased the number of officials. Moreover, he made an effort to reduce eunuch influence in the six ministries, to prohibit censors from abusing their authority, and to reform the provincial schools.

Examination Reform. One of Zhang Juzheng’s major achievements was the reform of examination. Zhang was unhappy when the emperor Taizu favored an essay form composed of eight rigidly stipulated sections, known as the “eight-legged essay.” Evaluation of papers on the basis of form rather than content was becoming a new trend in the civil service examination. This situation helped the exami-nation readers to grade papers more easily but threatened to turn the examinations into mechanical exercises. Serving as an examiner in 1571, Zhang required the questions to emphasize current problems and the answers to be graded on content. To carry out his examination reform, he went too far, closing private academies in 1579, although the decree banning academies did little permanent damage to these schools.

Financial Reform. To maintain healthy government finances, Zhang directed an all-China land survey and introduced the “single whip method of taxation,” which was previously tried in some provinces, providing for the consolidation of tax obligations into a single annual bill. This new taxation replaced the Two Tax System that had been in place since the Tang dynasty (618-907). Implementation of the new taxes remained incomplete, however. His other important financial reform was the use of silver as the value base for tax assessment, and thereafter the silver tael (ounce) remained the standard monetary unit until the twentieth century. Because of these successful fiscal reforms, the sound economy at the time enabled the Ming government to maintain heavy military expenditures, resist Mongol invasions between 1550 and 1570, and sustain military preparedness. The government’s fiscal health at that time also indicated the economic strength of Ming.


Albert Chan, The Glory and Fall of the Ming Dynasty (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).

John W. Dardess, Confucianism and Autocracy: Professional Elites in the Founding of the Ming Dynasty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

Edward Dreyer, Early Ming China: A Political History, 1355-1435 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1982).

Edward Farmer, Early Ming Government: The Evolution of Dual Capitals (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976).