Chu Yuan-chang

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Chu Yuan-chang

In the latter fourteenth century when Chu Yuan-chang (1328-1398) declared himself emperor of China, the Ming dynasty was born. It spanned almost three centuries and proved to be one of the most successful governments in China's history.

Chu Yuan-chang was born on October 21, 1328 in Hao-chou China, in the province of Anhui, about 100 miles northwest of Naking near China's east coast. At 16 he was orphaned and followed the path often taken by the sons of peasant families, he became a Buddhist monk. Chu began his monastic life at the Huang-chueh monastery near Feng-yang. To avoid starvation during his subsequent wanderings, he frequently begged for food in the area surrounding Ho-fei. This was an area where little or no authority existed, providing a certain safety for Chu and others in the same predicament.

Northern and central China was experiencing a difficult time, suffering from extended periods of drought and famine. Rebellions led by bandits had begun as early as 1325. By 1352, times had not improved. At the age of 24, Chu left the monastery and joined a band of rebels led by Kuo Tzu-hsing (Guo Zixing). Upon Kuo's death in 1355, Chu became their leader. His group stole from the wealthy and distributed their ill-gotten gains among the common people.

Conquoring the Yuan Dynasty

During the period from 1271 to 1368, China was ruled by the Mongol dynasty. In 1271, Kublai Khan swept down from northern China and, after numerous struggles, finally defeated the Sung dynasty in 1279. Kahn had taken the Chinese name Yuan and thus the Yuan dynasty was born. The Mongols discriminated against the Chinese and Khan stationed Mongol troops throughout the country to prevent rebellion. Kahn was succeeded by nine rulers who were more Chinese than Mongol. Gradually they lost influence over other Mongol lands as well as within China itself. The situation was ripe for takeover. In 1356 with the leadership in the Yuan dynasty flagging, Chu and his band of rebels took over Nanjing (Nanking).

Chu was considered to be a brilliant military leader and in 1356 he took Nanking. By 1364 he had conquered the provinces of Hupeh, Hunan, Kiam and proclaimed himself Prince of Wu. By 1368 Chu had consolidated control of the Yangtze Valley, seized the Yuan capital of Khanbligh (Beijing) and proclaimed himself emperor. He first established the Ming dynasty at the city of Nanjing (Nanking) where Chu took the reigning name of Hongwu (HungWu).

Leading an army of 250,000 men, he drove the Yuan emperor Shun Di along with the Mongol leaders out of Beijing. He pursued the armies of the Yuan dynasty into Mongolia and won a final victory in 1388 at the Battle of Puir Nor. He took over 70,000 Mongol prisoners and destroyed Karakorum, the seat of the Mongol empire.

The Ming Dynasty

Once the Mongol leaders were driven from China, Chu began to centralize power in his own hands, establishing despotic rule. He killed any of his own generals if he suspected them of plotting against him and he eliminated rival rebel leaders in order to solidify his rule. Chu ensured his power base by introducing reform throughout his government including military, educational and administrative areas. Administrative control was delegated to the ministers of six boards—each being responsible directly to him. He established schools and extended his rule as far as southern Manchuria. Chu gained power as a feudal lord over Korea and Annam. He eliminated the office of prime minister and issued new legal codes. Chu directed farmers to grow cotton. As a result, the spinning and weaving of cotton became the single most important subsidiary occupation of the peasants.

With the continued growth of the Ming dynasty came improved administrative systems and public works and the development of foreign trade. Social divisions had little meaning when applied to scholars, farmers, artists and merchants. Social division did, however, exist between the learned and the uneducated masses.

The Ming dynasty was known as a time of prosperity. Population growth increased from an early estimate of 60 million to nearly 150 million. One of the most widely recognized contributions was its manufacture of high quality, easily recognizable porcelain. It is believed that the Dutch delftware was inspired by the traditional blue-and-white Ming porcelain.

Strong Organizational Skills

As brilliant a military leader as he proved to be, Chu also excelled in organizational skills. His administrators painstakingly documented the size of each small farm, large estate and everything in between. These lists were used to enforce proper taxation. He set up collective units within population sections. Each unit was charged with providing a variety of services. Tasks were rotated. Their functions included secretarial work, penal activities, and delivering supplies throughout the empire. In many ways, Chu's reign represented a collection of small communities rather than one large nation.

Chu's military was self supporting and primarily a defensive unit. The military hierarchy had less prestige than the civilian bureaucracy and frequently found itself at odds with civil officials. The bureaucracy of the early Ming dynasty was self-governing with more than 20,000 positions at various levels of authority. The bureaucracy policed itself and managed its own personnel.

A Legacy of Peace

In retrospect, the legacy of Chu's reign was one of peace and prosperity. The age of great military conquests in this area had passed and the European nations had yet to make their way across either land or sea. Trade flourished. The arts, medicine and political structure reached their peak.

Chu was known by many names—his reigning name Hangwo (HungWu), his born name, Chu Yuan-chang or Zhu-Yuanzhang, his temple name, T'ai Tsu and his posthumous name, Kao-ti. Although his name may not be familiar to many, contributions of the Ming dynasty will not be forgotten. Chu died on June 24, 1398.


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Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, 1993.

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Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1995.


"Hung-wu" Encyclopedia Britannica.,00.html, (November 20, 2000).

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Think Quest Team 16325, "Empires Past: China: Ming dynasty"31 August 1998.

"Zhu Yuanzhang", Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000., (November 27, 2000) □


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Hung-wu (1328-1398) was the founder of the Ming dynasty of China. He provided the basis for much of China's subsequent development and expansion.

Born into a poor peasant family in modern Anhwei Province, Chu Yüan-chang, as Hung-wu was originally named, had no schooling and was orphaned at the age of 16. He entered a monastery for subsistence, became a mendicant monk in the Huai River valley, and participated in the popular uprisings organized by the White Lotus—Maitreya secret societies against the Mongol rule.

Rise to Power

In April 1352 Chu joined the local leader Kuo Tzuhsing and soon gained his confidence. By marrying Kuo's foster daughter, Chu succeeded to the command after Kuo's death in 1355 and set out to contest power with his rivals. Chu differed from other rebels in restraining his men from killing and plunder and in his effort to recruit educated people to his service.

After some initial success Chu led his forces across the Yangtze, capturing Nanking (1356) and defeating his leading opponent, Ch'en Yu-liang (1363); he proclaimed himself the prince of Wu in 1364. He continued campaigning to eliminate his adversaries, first Chang Shihch'eng, then Fang Kuo-chen in 1364-1367, while his general captured Peking in 1368. On Jan. 23, 1368, Chu, not yet 40, ascended the throne of Ming (Brilliance), adopted the reign title Hung-wu (Grand Military Achievement), and made his capital in Nanking.

Emperor of China

Hung-wu directed his lieutenants to complete the unification of China. In 1368-1369 his general Hsü Ta campaigned against the Mongols in Shansi and Shensi. Szechwan was captured in 1371, and Ming forces moved into Manchuria. Yünnan became a Chinese province in 1381. Ming forces went as far as Karakorum and Hami (in Dzungaria). In the east, Korea and Japan both acknowledged Chinese suzerainty, while traditional vassals in Southeast Asia such as Annam and Champa also submitted.

On the other hand, Hung-wu devoted himself to restructuring the political and military institutions by synthesizing the traditional system with Mongol precedent. The Emperor took personal supervision over the six ministries: personnel, revenue, rites, war, justice, and works. The branch central secretariat, which once exercised overall power in a province, was changed to a system of administrative commissioners. The central military commission created in 1361 was fragmented into five military commissions in 1380. National defense fell on "military families," who alternated between military duties and cultivating their fields for subsistence. The system of civil service was revived, and traditional institutions such as the Censorate, Hanlin Academy, and the National University were restored. In 1382 the Emperor organized a secret service known as the "Embroidered-uniform Guard" with unlimited police and judicial authority over every individual in the state.

In social and economic spheres the Emperor devised various measures for control over the population and the inflow of revenue. Foremost of these was a scheme of population registration known as the li-chia system. Every 10 households formed a chia with one man as chief; 10 chia made a li, which, together with 10 chia chiefs, made a total of 110 households headed by a li leader. This served as a basis for labor services as well as a security check.

In addition the Emperor revived the Yüan system of population classification, under which people were grouped under three heads, military, civil, and crafts, and were forbidden to shift from one class to another. The Emperor was known for his benevolent treatment of the peasants. He established a special agricultural bureau to assist farmers and reduced or suspended their tax payment in times of distress. However, he treated the rich differently. The head of a wealthy family was usually chosen as "tax captain" for the collection and delivery of the allotted quota of revenue to the government. For effective collection of taxes, population and land registers were compiled and kept up to date.

Assessment of His Reign

Hung-wu's reign, despite its achievement, was marred by excessive violence against officials and scholars whom the Emperor regarded as dangerous to his throne. The terror was a product of the Emperor's uneasiness over the arrogance of the intellectuals who secretly despised his humble origin. While it was common for officials to suffer harsh treatment, the Emperor inaugurated three successive purges against his former comrades which took a heavy toll of lives.

The most notorious was the case of Hu Wei-yung, the prime minister who was executed on the charge of sedition in 1380. The second and third purges, in 1385 and 1393, were designed to eliminate military officials whom the Emperor considered too powerful to be acquiesced to. Altogether, several tens of thousands of innocent people were put to death on trumped-up charges.

Hung-wu died in June 1398 and received the posthumous temple name T'ai-tzu (Grand Progenitor). Hungwu was a controversial figure in history. Condemned as a ruthless dictator and cruel tyrant for the notorious means to achieve his ends, he was also praised as a vigorous ruler for founding a new dynasty out of ruins and for laying the foundation of the Chinese systems and achievements of the subsequent centuries. Hung-wu was quick to learn from his tutors and became quite conversant with the literary tradition. About 20 titles of works attributed to his authorship are still extant today.

Further Reading

There is no book-length biography of Hung-wu in English, although several substantial contributions have lately appeared in Sinological journals. A brief but out-of-date biographical notice is included in H. A. Giles, A Chinese Biographical Dictionary (1898). A succinct résumé of Hung-wu's rise to power is in F. W. Mote, The Poet Kao Ch'i, 1336-1374 (1962). For details on the government institutions founded by Hungwu see Charles O. Hucker, The Traditional Chinese State in Ming Times, 1368-1644 (1961) and Chinese Government in Ming Times (1969). Recommended for background are C. P. Fitzgerald, China: A Short Cultural History (1935); L. Carrington Goodrich, A Short History of the Chinese People (1943); and Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, East Asia: The Great Tradition (1958). □