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What in the World Was Going On? <small>Continued</small> - History...a Flowchart
History. What in the World Was Going On? Continued
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Continuing my look at events of the 15th century, which began in the column about Japan by BamBamsGirl, this column focuses on Ming China.

What in the World Was Happening…?
*Note: do not cite this article as a primary source.

… in China in the 15th Century?
Part 1: The Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty was established in 1368 and lasted until 1644. In 1400, Jianwen, the second of the Ming emperors held the throne. In 1499, the throne was held by the tenth emperor, Hongzhi.

In common with other Asian emperors, the Ming took chose an “era name” to identify their reign. The era name served as a slogan or motto for the reign. It often reflected the political landscape of the era, or the hopes of the ruler, and generally had a literary meaning as well. The emperors are known by their era names rather than by their personal names. For instance, Zhu Di is known as the Yongle Emperor, a name that means “Perpetual Happiness”.

Jianwen Emperor, whose personal name was Zhu Yunwen was the grandson of Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. Jianwen was born in 1377 and was 21 when he took the throne. He ruled from 1398 to 1402. His name means “Establishment of civil virtue”.

The next ruler was the Yongle Emperor. Yongle, whose personal name was Zhu Di, was the fourth son on the Hongwu Emperor and uncle of Jianwen. He was born in 1360 and was 42 when he became emperor. He ruled from 1402 till 1424.

Hongxi Emperor, the son of Yongle, took the throne in 1424 at age 46 and ruled for 264 days, until his death of a probable heart attack. He was born in 1378 and his personal name was Zhu Gaozhi. His era name means “Vastly bright”. Hongxi was followed by his son.

Zhu Zhanji was 26 when he took the throne as Xuande Emperor in 1425 and ruled until 1435. He was born in 1398 and died in 1435. His era name means “Proclamation of virtue.”

Xuande was followed by his son Zhu Qizhen. This emperor used two different era names. He ruled as the Zhengtong Emperor from 1435 to 1449, and as the Tianshun Emperor from 1457 to 1464. Zhengtong means “Right governance” and Tianshun means “Obedient to Heaven”. The emperor was born in 1427 and was only eight years old when he succeeded his father and 22 when he was captured by the Mongols

Between his two reigns, the throne was held by his brother, Zhu Qiyi, who ruled as the Jingtai Emperor from 1449 to 1457. He took the throne during the Tumu Crisis, in which the Zhengtong Emperor was captured by the Mongol leader. His era name means “Exalted view.” Jingtai was born in 1428 and was 21 years old when he took the throne.

Zhu Qizhen, the former Zhengtong Emperor, retook the throne following his brother’s death in 1457, and ruled as the Tianshun Emperor. He was thirty when he retook the throne and 37 when he died in 1464. He was followed by his son, Zhu Jianshen.

From 1464 to 1487, Zhu Jianshen ruled as the Chenghua Emperor. The era name means “Accomplished change.” Chenghua was born in 1447 and was 17 when he succeeded his father. He was 40 when he died.

Chenghua’s son Zhu Youtang held the throne from 1487 to 1505. He ruled as the Hongzhi Emperor. The era name means “Great governement”. Hongzhi was born in 1470 and was 27 when he became emperor and 35 when he died.

All the Ming Emperors were members of the House of Zhu.

This is Part 1 of a multi-part column. In Part 2, I will look more closely at some of the Ming emperors.

Part 2: Some Ming Emperors

The Yongle Emperor

Zhu Di was the fourth son of his father, the Hongwu Emperor. He was named Prince of Yan, the region around Beijing. When he moved there, the city had been devastated by famine and disease and was under threat of invasion by Mongols from the north. Zhu Di was successful against the Mongols and impressed his father with his energy and leadership.

When Hongwu died in 1398, his grandson Zhu Yunwen was crowned as the Jianwen Emperor. Jianwen and Zhu Di quickly became locked in a deadly political struggle. Zhu Di marched to Nanjing, the capital. In the widespread panic caused by the sudden arrival of his army, the emperor’s palace caught fire. Jianwen and his wife disappeared, most likely falling victim to the fire. Rumors persisted that Jianwen survived and became a Buddhist monk.

Zhu Di was crowned as the Yongle Emperor and spent the rest of the year brutally purging China of Jianwen’s supporters and pacifying the nation. He created an elaborate system of censors to remove corrupt officials from office that spread such rumors. Yongle dispatched some of his most trusted officers to expose or destroy secret societies, Jianwen loyalists, and even bandits. He stopped the warring between the various Chinese tribes and reorganized the provinces to best provide peace within China.

Yongle treated Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism equally (though he favored Confucianism). Strict Confucianists considered him hypocritical, but his even handed approach helped him win the support of the people and unify China. He used Buddhism and Buddhist festivals to overcome some of the backwardness of the Chinese frontier and to help calm civil unrest.

Yongle followed traditional rituals closely and remained superstitious.

Yongle sought the best scholars to join his staff. He respected and worked hard to preserve Chinese culture and cleanse Chinese society of foreign cultural influences. He commissioned his Grand Secretary, Xie Jin, to write a compilation of every subject and every known book of the Chinese, with the goal of preserving Chinese culture and literature. Called the Yongle Encyclopedia, it was one of the earliest general encyclopedias, and the largest, incorporating 8,000 texts in 22,937 volumes.

Yongle laid out a long and extensive plan to strengthen and stabilize the economy by reclaiming land and maximizing textile and agricultural production.

During his reign, the Grand Canal was almost completely rebuilt and was eventually moving imported goods from all over the world. He sent out Admiral Zheng He with an immense fleet of ships to collect tribute from southeast Asia and eastern Africa.

Yongle moved the capital from Nanking to Beijing, the center of his power base, where he could keep an eye on the Mongols to the north. At the center of Beijing, he built the Imperial City. In the heart of the Imperial City was the Forbidden City, where the Emperor and his family resided.

The Xuande Emperor:

Born Zhu Zhanji, Xuande Emperor was the son of emperor Hongxi. The Xuande Emperor ruled over a remarkably peaceful time with no significant external or internal problems. Later historians have considered his reign to be the Ming dynasty's golden age.

An important ministry or government department was the Censorate. Two years Within five years of becoming emperor, Xuande dismissed 43 members of the censorate in Beijing and Nanjing for incompetence. Some censors were demoted, imprisoned, and banished, but none were executed. Replacements were put on probation as the censorate investigated the entire Ming administration, including the military.

The hereditary military was inefficient and had poor morale. The emperor reformed the rules governing military conscription and the treatment of deserters.

Huge inequities in tax burdens had caused many farmers to abandon their farms. Xuande ordered tax reductions on all imperial lands. He sent out “touring pacifiers” to coordinate provincial administration. They attempted to eliminate the irregularities and corruption of the revenue collectors. Xuande ordered retrials that allowed thousands of innocent people to be released from prison.

Xuande recognized the independence of Annam (part of modern-day Viet Nam). Relations with Korea were generally good. Before 1434, he generally let the eastern and western tribes of Mongols fight among themselves. Xuande received horses from Arughtai, the leader of the eastern Mongols. Arughtai was defeated by the Oirat Mongols in 1431 and killed in 1434. The Ming court then maintained friendly relations with the Oirats under Toghon. Xuande sent Admiral Zheng He on a voyage in 1434.

Xuande was interested in art, poetry and literature. The Xuande Emperor was known as an accomplished painter, particularly skilled at painting animals. Some of his art work is preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and in foreign collections, such as the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, a division of the Harvard Art Museum

Zhengtong Emperor,
his brother the Jingtai Emperor,
and Tianshun Emperor:

The son of the Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji and his Empress Sun, Zhu Qizhen came to the throne as the Zhengtong Emperor. Zhengtong was eight years old, the first child emperor of the dynasty. He was easily influenced by others, especially his eunuch, Wang Zhen.

In 1449, when he was 22 years old, Zhengtong personally directed the Battle of Tumu Fortress, and was captured by the Mongols under Esen Taishi. Wang Zhen had refused to send the emperor to safety. According to some accounts, Wang was killed by his own officers. The loss of an army of 500,000 men to a much smaller force is regarded as the greatest military debacle of the dynasty.

Mongol armies came within 80 km (50 mi) of the capital Beijing. Yu Qian, as the de facto defense minister took control of the troops and repelled the Mongol invasion. Yu refused to pay ransom for Zhengtong, saying that the country was more important than an emperor’s life.

Zhengtong’s capture “shook the Ming dynasty to its core” and almost caused it to collapse. To calm the situation, his brother Zhu Qiyu was installed as the Jingtai Emperor. Jingtai ruled for eight years, aided by Yu Qian. He repaired the Grand Canal and the system of dykes along the Yellow River. The economy prospered under his adminstration. Jingtai Emperor had two wives, Empress Xiao Yuan Jing and Empress Shu Xiao. He had one son, Zhu Juanje, who predeceased him, and two daughters.

The Zhengtong Emperor was released a year later, but when he returned to China, he was placed under house arrest in the Forbidden City. All outside contacts were severely limited.

In 1457 Jingtai Emperor became ill; even when his death was imminent, he refused to name an heir. That gave the Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen an opportunity to regain the throne. He overthrew Jingtai, demoted him to King of the State of Cheng, and placed him under house arrest Jingtai died a month later, at age 29. Zhengtong took a new era name, Tianshun, “Obedient to Heaven”. It has never been discovered why he changed his name. He was the only Ming emperor to rule under more than one era name.

After he resumed his place, Tianshun Emperor had Yu Qian executed as a traitor. General Shi Heng, who had aided Jingtai’s succession, starved to death in prison in 1459 and his son Shi Biao was executed in 1460. Thousands of officers in the Chinese army who had been promoted by Jingtai were demoted by Tianshun. Others who had supported Jingtai feared that they would be next, and in 1461, Cao Qin led them in a day-long uprising. The Minister of Works and the Commander of the Imperial Guard were killed, and rebels set fire to the gates of the Forbidden City. Three of Cao’s brothers were killed, and Cao himself fled to his home where he committed suicide by jumping down a well.

“If his reign was not remarkable for political or military vigor, some useful reforms appear to have been instituted”, such as the forming of state farms on waste or confiscated lands, the establishment of military schools for teaching archery and horsemanship, and the completion of “some useful and elaborate educational works”.

Tianshun Emperor was 37 years old when he died. He had two wives, Empress Xiao Zhuang Rui and Empress Xiao Su. He had nine sones and eight daughters. His son Zhu Jianshen became the Chenghua Emperor.

Hongzhi Emperor:

Hongzhi Emperor was born Zhu Youtang, son of the Chenghua Emperor. His reign is called the Hongzhi Silver Age. He was a wise and peace-loving ruler. He took only one empress and had no concubine.

His monogamy may be related to his early childhood, when Lady Wan and her associates were killing any children born to Chenghua. Lady Wan was an imperial concubine more than twice the age of Chenghua, who had been a sort of mother figure to Chenghua but quickly became his favorite consort after he became emperor. Lady Wan had a son with Chenghua but the baby died soon after. She still held power over the imperial harem, and prevented the young emperor from having any other offspring. She and her eunuchs would either induce abortion or administer poison to mother and child.

Youtang was hidden away for his safety, and was only reunited with his father at the age of five, when he was made crown prince. He was described as a brilliant child, and received the best education available at that time. He was immersed in Confucian studies, at which he excelled.

In 1487, when he was seventeen, Zhu Youtang succeeded his father. He took the era name Hongzhi. His administration was modeled on Confucian ideology. He closely supervised affairs of state, reduced government spending and lowered taxes. Hongzhi encouraged transparency in government, even acknowledging criticisms directed at the emperor himself. Palace intrigues were much less common than in the past, and there was an uncommon atmosphere of cooperation within his government.

Choe Bu, an official of Korea, saw passing ferry ships holding officials from the Ministries of War, Punishment, and Personnel. He was told that the new emperor was ridding his government of corrupt and I ncompetent officials, and that this was a final gesture of goodwill by the emperor by providing them with a comfortable passage back home.


Brook, Timothy. (1998). The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cambridge History of China, Volume 7, The Ming Dynasty", edited by Twitchett and Mote, 1988.

Frederick W. Mote. "The T'u-Mu Incident of 1449." In Chinese Ways in Warfare, edited by Edward L. Dreyer, Frank Algerton Kierman and John King Fairbank. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

China, by Demetrius Charles Boulger, 1902. Project Gutenberg.

Part 3: The Treasure Ships of Zheng He

Under the Yongle Emperor, China became “an unrivaled naval power”. The expeditions of his “treasure fleet” gave China “a vast web of trading links, from Taiwan to the Persian Gulf” and made it a diplomatic force. The treasure fleet made seven voyages, under the command of Admiral Zheng He, between 1405 and 1433, the last when Xuande Emperor had succeeded to the throne. Under Xuande and his successors, China turned away from trade and foreign influences, though it continued to receive tribute and ambassadors from other nations.

Zheng He was a Chinese Muslim eunuch who became a diplomat, trader, scholar and “Admiral of the Western Ocean”. He oversaw the construction of the ships and then commanded the fleet. They were ordered by the Ming Emperor to sail to “the countries beyond the horizon” and “all the way to the end of the earth.

An unprecedented massing of naval power, the fleet had the most advanced nautical technology and was the biggest maritime fleet in the world in the 15th century. It was “spectacular”, “an unprecedented massing of naval power”. There were 27,870 men including sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, medical men, and meteorologists on 317 ships.

Sixty-two vessels were treasure ships, “escorted by dozens of supply ships, water tankers, transports for cavalry horses, and patrol boats.” The largest ships had nine masts and four decks, and were capable of accommodating 500 to 1000 passengers as well as large amounts of cargo. They were about 400 feet long and 180 feet wide.

The ships carried silk and cotton goods, porclain, gold and silverware, copper utensils and iron implements. These were traded for spices, ivory, medicines, rare woods and pearls.

The fleet sailed along China’s coast to Champa, close to Vietnam, and after crossing the South China Sea, visited Java, Sumatra, and reached Sri Lank by passing through the Strait of Malacca. On the way back, it sailed along the west coast of India and returne d home in 1407. Envoys from Clicut in India and several countries in Asia and the Middle East also boarded the ship to pay visits to China.

Zheng He’s second and third voyages taken shortly after followed roughly the same route.

In the fall of 1413, Zheng He set out with 30,000 men to Arabia on his fourth and most ambitious voyage. From Hormuz he coasted around the Arabian boot to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. The arrival of the fleet caused a sensation in the region and 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng He’s ships with gifts for Emperor Yong Le.

In 1417, after two years in Nanjing and touring other cities, the foreign envoys were escorted home by Zheng He. On this trip, he sailed down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa, and Zanzibar, and may have reached Mozambique. The sixth voyage in 1421 also went to the African coast.

On one voyage, Zheng He put down an uprising in Sumatra and brought the rebel chief back to Nanjing for confinement; the Emperor had the man executed. On another, the fleet landed in Sri Lanka and captured the Sinhalese King – punishment, according to one version of events, for his refusal to hand over to the Chinese a sacred tooth of the Buddha. He and his family were taken to China and imprisoned. Impressed by such power, rulers throughout the region sought peace by offering gifts as tribute, which amounted, in China’s eyes, to acknowledgement that the Emperor was the supreme leader of the universe.

Emperor Yongle died in 1424 shortly after Zheng He’s return. In 1430, the admiral was sent on a final seventh voyage. The 60-year-old Zheng He revisited the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Africa and died on his way back in 1433 in India.


Tribute and Trade

Countries wishing to trade with China were required to submit to a suzerain-vassal relationship with the Chinese sovereign. Missions were allowed to come to China to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor. In return, tributary missions were presented with gifts. Special licences were issued to merchants accompanying these missions to carry out trade. Trade was also permitted in trade zones at land frontiers and specified ports. This sinocentric trade zone was based on the use of silver as a currency with prices set by reference to Chinese prices.

Korea sent tribute every year. Although the Joseon Dynasty considered 1392 as the foundation of the Joseon kingdom, Imperial China did not immediately acknowledge the new government on the Korean peninsula. In 1401, the Ming court recognized Joseon as a tributary state in its sino-centric schema of foreign relations. In 1403, the Yongle emperor conveyed a patent and a gold seal to Taejong of Joseon, thus confirming his status and that of his dynasty. Despite the label "tributary state", China did not interfere in Joseon domestic affairs and diplomacy. Between 1392 and 1450, the Joseon court sent 351 missions to China.

Korea had a close, equal, and profitable relationship with China before the Mongol invasions of Korea in the thirteenth century. Korea’s Goryeo dynasty had to sue for peace and became a tributary to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty that ruled China. When the Yuan weakened, Goryeo Korea retook lost territitories and regained its sovereignty. However, during the Joseon period, Korea voluntarily accepted the supremacy of Ming China and sent annual tribute.

Japan’s involvement with China was ambivalent. For example, the problem of pirates has been mentioned elsewhere (see BamBamsGirl on the 15th century in Japan). At least three time, Japanese ambassador Kenchu Keimitsu was sent to China with tribute and to return or repatriate captured Chinese pirates, in 1405 (on orders of the Ming emperor), in 1407, and again in 1408 or 1409.

Diplomatic and economic interactions between the two nations required that the Japanese have “tallies” or certificates issued by the Ming. The tally trade, as it was called, between the two countries began when the shogun Yoshimitsu restarted the lapsed tributes to China. In his formal letter to the Chinese emperor, he described himself as “Your subject, the King of Japan”, while also a subject of the Japanese emperor. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s diplomatic letter was accompanied by a gift of 1000 ounces of gold and various other objects. The first 100 tallies were conveyed to Japan in 1404. Thereafter, there was a frequent, though irregular, exchange of ambassadors and diplomatic missions.

During Zheng He’s expeditions, the countries he visited paid tribute to the Chinese emperor. Although the Chinese considered these tributes as recognition of the supremacy of the Chinese emperor, that did not always mean that China had any form of political leverage over those paying tribute. Dozens of nations or city-states provided tribute once, when Zheng He contacted them, and dozens more sent tribute only a few times.

Many countries sent tribute missions irregularly. The Wala, who were Oirat Mongols, sent tribute annually though with interruptions after 1458. Hami, which is now the Hami Prefecture in northwestern China on the border with Tibet, began sending tribute in 1404, then sent it annually from 1465 to 1475, and then every five years. Siam, Champa, and Java sent tribute every three years.

Much of the tribute consisted of native products, e.g. elephants from Siam, or eunuchs and virgin girls, aged 13 to 25, from Korea, Annam, or the Ryukyu Islands. Young Korean virgin girls, and eunuchs were demanded as tribute by the Ming Emperor for the imperial harem. The Ryuku Islands are the group of islands that include Okinawa. Annam was part of what is now Vietnam.
The 1471 Vietnamese invasion of Champa and Ming Turpan Border Wars were either started by or marked by disruptions in the tribute system. I will be writing about these countries in separate papers.

Because any country that wanted to have any form of relations with China, political or economic, had to pay tribute, some tribute missions were set up by groups of traders who wanted to do business with the Chinese. Because the Chinese exchanged gifts with the members of the tribute missions, it was indeed a way of conducting trade, and seems to have been considered as such by some of the members of these missions. And because of the value of some of the items given to the members of the tribute missions, some chroniclers for other nations recorded that China paid tribute to them, not the other way around.

The Sinocentric tribute and trade system provided Northeast and Southeast Asia with a political and economic framework for international trade.

Also see the following by BamBamsGirl. -Editor
  • What in the World Was Going On?
  • The 15th Century and the ''Other'' British Isles