Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
The Yuan Empire came apart at the seams in the early fourteenth century as regional autonomy and separatism rendered the central government at Tatu (later ‘Beijing’) increasingly cash-strapped and powerless. Despite several campaigns and measures to reverse this, including forming numerous coalitions with warlords still semi-loyal to the Yuan to take down non-loyal warlords, the area controlled by the central government (little more than the area around Tatu and Mongolia proper) was too weak and the warlords too selfish and fickle for the House of Ghenghis Khan to do anything but inexorably lose control over the country. This process started with the southernmost warlords along the Pearl River (Guangxi, Guangdong), whose geographical isolation (and therefore protection) led to them being the first to declare the restoration of the Song Empire/independence. For all intents and purposes, the Yuan Empire ceased to exist split into at least nine different countries.
The mid-Yangzi was one of the most hotly-contested regions in all of China, as it was relatively populous and thus wealthy, and one of the hardest to hold because it was vulnerable to attacks from the lower and upper Yangzi and from the north China plain. The kingdoms which had originally held these lands basically tore themselves apart through the strain of fighting, allowing several highly unorthodox figures to rise to the top of society. Among these was Zhu Yuanzhang, an illiterate peasant and brilliant commander who soon became a warlord in his own right. Through good strategic choices including the forging of two key alliances (most notably the warlord Zhang Shicheng of Fujian and the lower Yangzi), and excellent understanding of the operational and tactical levels of warfare, Zhu eventually conquered the entire Yangzi despite starting from virtually nothing and both his major allies (based in the upper- and lower-Yangzi, respectively) turning on him once they’d divided up the entire Yangzi between the three of them. After he secured the entire Yangzi Zhu spent several years building up his powerbase before declaring the foundation of The Ming Dynasty of the Chinese Empire and crowning himself the Hongwu (’eminently martial’) Emperor. He then conquered the entire north China plain, and after that the Pearl River region.
Zhu Yuanzhang was many things: born a poor peasant, he would emerge as one of China’s foremost warlords. With brutal cunning, he managed to get the upper hand over his rivals, seizing the throne, and with increasing age ended up becoming more and more paranoid and murderous. That’s at least Rags to Royalty, Magnificent Bastard (although very much indebted to good advisers) and Despotism Justifies the Means all rolled into one. The Ming is the first Chinese Empire we have anything more than very basic documentation for, with about 10,000 government documents remaining from the period – not enough for a detailed picture of government activity, but enough for a reasonably accurate outline. The minor cultural stuff (plays, songs, opera, etc) wasn’t so lucky and a lot was destroyed during the PRC’s Cultural Revolution, leading to an ongoing hunt through overseas archives and collections for surviving copies.
Internationally the Ming were best-known for being a gigantanormous Space-Filling Empire which ruled over about a third of the entire world’s population and was ridiculously rich and cultured by the standards of the day. These days they are certainly most famous for the porcelain which they exported in such prodiguous amounts (see: Priceless Ming Vase) and building most of the current Great Wall. Also sent the eunuch admiral Zheng He, a Yunnanese Muslim descended from semuren servants of the Yuan Dynasty, to explore the western seas as far as Sultanate of Zanzibar in modern-day Tanzania. He did so with a fleet larger than all the world’s navies of the time combined – which was then mothballed because it was a huge money-sink and the whole project had only brought in minimal returns in the form of slightly increased trade. No amount of cultural posturing or diplomacy could change the fundamental nature of Chinese trade with the outside world, which was always going to be very limited – spices grew domestically or just a thousand kilometres to the south, furs were brought in overland from Siberia, and both cheap and high-quality/luxury manufactured goods were all produced domestically (the impoverished and geographically disadvantaged Europeans, on the other hand, had to traverse many [tens of] thousands of kilometres of open ocean to buy all of these things).
Domestically the Ming were known for a fair bit more than all that, of course. Economically the stability of their rule and lightness of their taxes allowed a lot of Smithian/pre-modern commercialisation and growth, which taken together with the tripling of the population (c.80 to c.250 million) gave the Ming more than twice the wealth of the Song (peak Song population was c.120 million)note . Politically they were more famous for retaining the anti-aristocratic policies of the Yuan and the Civil Service system (including examinations) of the Song, which ensured that a centralised state (with only minimal recourse to nobles and aristocrats) in which the monarchy and its civil service played the most important roles would be around to stay. They also oversaw a huge flowering of culture, which was helped in large part by their unprecedented wealth and the expansion in literacy (with up to 10% of men and 1% of women — yes, women — being literate) and printing (to the point that there were literally books and pamphlets on every subjectnote , something that had never happened before). Prose was still not really regarded as a ‘proper’ artistic field in the Ming, but some pretty awesome novels were produced including Journey to the West and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The Ming were contacted by the Portuguese and the Castilians when they first established trade posts across the East Indies in the 16th century, and later the Dutch when they seceded from the Habsburg Duchy of Burgundy (the modern-day Low Countries) and seized many Portuguese overseas possessions. Having run up a huge balance-of-trade deficit when buying Chinese luxury goods with hard currency, the Portuguese assented to a political union with Castile in 1580 so they could have tax-free access to Castilian silver imports (shipped over from modern-day Columbia and Mexico in what was then Castilian America). European ceramics- and clothes-making techniques were relatively crude because the region was so underpopulated and poor (much like northern China, Europe as a whole was too dry and cold for rice cultivation), meaning that Chinese goods were of incomparably higher quality than anything the region could produce domestically. Even Indian producers could not compete with Chinese ones at the higher end of the market, and so much silver flowed into China that late Ming suffered from a severe inflationary pressure. The influx of silver from The Americas more than doubled the amount of silver in Europe in the 16th century and more than quadrupled it in the 17th, and silver coins minted in Castilian America became a de facto standard currency of the Ming Empire (as in Europe). From the Portuguese outposts also came a new wave of Christian missionaries to China, especially the Jesuits, who laid the foundation of modern Christianity in China and would contribute significantly to the court life of the later Qing Empire.
The war to defend Korea against Japan (late 16th century) involved large land and sea battles and sieges on a scale which exceeded that of the greatest (Ottoman-Habsburg wars, Thirty Years’ War) in contemporary Europe, chewing through huge numbers of recruits and resulting in critical shortages of trained archers and suitable bow-wood. Accordingly the Ming resorted to manufacturing and issuing firearms, which were still more expensive than bows but required far less training (weeks, versus years), to arm many of their troops. The naval battles and sieges also encouraged the manufacture and use of large artillery pieces. However, all previous and later military actions were on a vastly smaller scale and chiefly against steppe-nomads – in which bow-armed horse cavalry played the most important role, and siege cannon and muskets were an expensive liability. Accordingly, the Ming employed the Jesuits to buy up all the very latest European gunsmith manuals and bring select Ming gunsmiths up to speed on the latest, most efficient weapons designs (as tested on Europe’s myriad battlefields) and test-firing procedures, which the Ming gunsmiths would otherwise have had to figure out for themselves. Given that by the 1620s gunpowder weapons were more than twice as expensive in the Ming than they were in western Europe (due to high long-term demand for them in war-torn western Europe, which eventually pushed per-unit prices down), design trial-and-error was a pretty expensive proposition. There were also no wars in which they could determine the battlefield-efficiency of such indigenous prototypes either.
Towards the end of the dynasty, the flourishing of culture was not mirrored politically; later imperial courts were plagued by corruption and the overbearing influences of eunuchs. Natural disasters, costly endeavours such as the intervention in Korea (the Imjin War) would strain imperial coffers. Ironically, it was not the Manchus who first brought an end to the dynasty: a peasant rebellion led by Li Zicheng marched into Beijing; during those tumultuous and tragic events, the last official Ming emperor would commit suicide. Elsewhere, such as in Sichuan, warlords and other peasant leaders would take power, among them Zhang Xianzhong.
The last remnants (supposedly) loyal to the Ming dynasty, led by Zheng Chenggong, a some time pirate also known as Koxinga to Westerners, established a de facto independent state on the island of Taiwan in 1661 after driving out the Dutch who had established an outpost there. This state, called the Kingdom of Tungning, lasted until 1683, when the Qing troops under Admiral Shi Lang, who had formerly served under Zheng but defected to the Manchus, conquered the island.