The Economy under the Ming Dynasty

Learning Objective

  • Explain why the Ming dynasty supported the agricultural classes

Key Points

  • The economy of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) of China was the largest in the world during that period, but suffered many inflations and contractions of currency.
  • Because of hyperinflation of paper currency, the government returned to using silver as currency, which saw a major boom but later crashed, giving rise to widespread smuggling.
  • Both because of his upbringing as a poor peasant and in order to recover from the rule of the Mongols and the wars that followed, the Hongwu Emperor enacted pro-agricultural policies.
  • The Ming saw the rise of large commercial plantations, cash crops, and expanded markets.
  • Hongwu Emperor initiated extensive land reform, including the distribution of land to peasants.



The quality of being self-sufficient, especially in economic or political systems.


Gold bars, silver bars, and other bars or ingots of precious metal used as currency.


The economy of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) of China was the largest in the world during that period. It is regarded as one of China’s three golden ages (the other two being the Han and Song periods). The period was marked by the increasing political influence of the merchants, the gradual weakening of imperial rule, and technological advances.

Currency during the Ming Dynasty

The early Ming dynasty attempted to use paper currency, with outflows of bullion limited by its ban on private foreign commerce. Like its forebears, paper currency experienced massive counterfeiting and hyperinflation. In 1425, Ming notes were trading at about 0.014% of their original value under the Hongwu Emperor. The notes remained in circulation as late as 1573, but their printing ceased in 1450. Minor coins were minted in base metals, but trade mostly occurred using silver ingots. As their purity and exact weight varied, they were treated as bullion and measured in tael. These privately made “sycee” first came into use in Guangdong, spreading to the lower Yangtze sometime before 1423, the year sycee became acceptable for payment of tax obligations.

In the mid-15th century, the paucity of circulating silver caused a monetary contraction and an extensive reversion to barter. The problem was met through smuggled, then legal, importation of Japanese silver, mostly through the Portuguese and Dutch, and Spanish silver from Potosí carried on the Manila galleons. Silver was required to pay provincial taxes in 1465, the salt tax in 1475, and corvée exemptions in 1485. By the late Ming, the amount of silver being used was extraordinary; at a time when English traders considered tens of thousands of pounds an exceptional fortune, the Zheng clan of merchants regularly engaged in transactions valued at millions of taels. However, a second silver contraction occurred in the mid-17th century when King Philip IV of Spain began enforcing laws limiting direct trade between Spanish South America and China at about the same time the new Tokugawa shogunate in Japan restricted most of its foreign exports, cutting off Dutch and Portuguese access to its silver. The dramatic spike in silver’s value in China made payment of taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. The government even resumed use of paper currency amid Li Zicheng’s rebellion.


Spring Morning in a Han Palace by Qiu Ying (1494–1552). Excessive luxury and decadence marked the late Ming period, spurred by the enormous state bullion of incoming silver and by private transactions involving silver.

Agriculture during the Ming Dynasty

In order to recover from the rule of the Mongols and the wars that followed, the Hongwu Emperor enacted pro-agricultural policies. The state invested extensively in agricultural canals and reduced taxes on agriculture to 3.3% of the output, and later to 1.5%. Ming farmers also introduced many innovations such as water-powered plows, and new agricultural methods such as crop rotation. This led to a massive agricultural surplus that became the basis of a market economy.

The Ming saw the rise of commercial plantations that produced crops suitable to their regions. Tea, fruit, paint, and other goods were produced on a massive scale by these agricultural plantations. Regional patterns of production established during this period continued into the Qing dynasty. The Columbian exchange brought crops such as corn. Still, large numbers of peasants abandoned the land to become artisans. The population of the Ming boomed; estimates for the population of the Ming range from 160 to 200 million.

Agriculture during the Ming changed significantly. Firstly, gigantic areas devoted to cash crops sprung up, and there was demand for the crops in the new market economy. Secondly, agricultural tools and carts, some water powered, help to create a large agricultural surplus that formed the basis of the rural economy. Besides rice, other crops were grown on a large scale.

Although images of autarkic farmers who had no connection to the rest of China may have some merit for the earlier Han and Tang dynasties, this was certainly not the case for the Ming dynasty. During the Ming dynasty, the increase in population and the decrease in quality land made it necessary for farmers to make a living off cash crops. Markets for these crops appeared in the rural countryside, where goods were exchanged and bartered.

A second type of market that developed in China was the urban-rural type, in which rural goods were sold to urban dwellers. This was common when landlords decided to reside in the cities and use income from rural land holdings to facilitate exchange in those urban areas. Professional merchants used this type of market to buy rural goods in large quantities.

The third type of market was the “national market,” which was developed during the Song dynasty but particularly enhanced during the Ming. This market involved not only the exchanges described above, but also products produced directly for the market. Unlike earlier dynasties, many Ming peasants were no longer generating only products they needed; many of them produced goods for the market, which they then sold at a profit.

Land Reform

As the Hongwu Emperor came from a peasant family, he was aware of how peasants used to suffer under the oppression of the scholar-bureaucrats and the wealthy. Many of the latter, relying on their connections with government officials, encroached unscrupulously on peasants’ lands and bribed the officials to transfer the burden of taxation to the poor. To prevent such abuse, the Hongwu Emperor instituted two systems: Yellow Records and Fish Scale Records. These systems served both to secure the government’s income from land taxes and to affirm that peasants would not lose their lands.

However, the reforms did not eliminate the threat of the bureaucrats to peasants. Instead, the expansion of the bureaucrats and their growing prestige translated into more wealth and tax exemption for those in government service. The bureaucrats gained new privileges and some became illegal money-lenders and managers of gambling rings. Using their power, the bureaucrats expanded their estates at the expense of peasants’ land through outright purchase of those lands and foreclosure on their mortgages whenever they wanted the lands. The peasants often became either tenants or workers, or sought employment elsewhere.

Since the beginning of the Ming dynasty in 1357, great care was taken by the Hongwu Emperor to distribute land to peasants. One way was through forced migration to less dense areas; some people were tied to a pagoda tree in Hongdong and moved. Public works projects, such as the construction of irrigation systems and dikes, were undertaken in an attempt to help farmers. In addition, the Hongwu Emperor also reduced the demands for forced labour on the peasantry. In 1370, the Hongwu Emperor ordered that some lands in Hunan and Anhui should be given to young farmers who had reached adulthood. The order was intended to prevent landlords from seizing the land, as it also decreed that the titles to the lands were not transferable. During the middle part of his reign, the Hongwu Emperor passed an edict stating that those who brought fallow land under cultivation could keep it as their property without being taxed.