Term Paper: Ming Rulers

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Ming Rulers

An Examination of the Accomplishments and Failures of the Ming Rulers

The Ming dynasty endured from 1368 to 1644, and provided an interval of domestic rule between periods of Mongol and Manchu dominance ("Ming Dynasty" 1). During this period in Chinese history, the Ming rulers introduced a number of administrative innovations, taxation schemes and divisions of society that resulted in some significant accomplishments, as well as some ultimate failures. This paper provides a review of the relevant literature to identify the major accomplishments and failures of the Ming rulers from approximately 1470 to approximately 1644; a summary of the research and salient findings will be provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview. One of the more interesting aspects of the administration of the Ming rulers was the various methods they used to help stay in power. For example, during the early period of the dynasty, a concentration of power in Ming autocracy was further reinforced by the development and use of organizational alternatives to the well-entrenched channels of scholar-official power, such as the use of eunuchs (Lupher 23). In fact, eunuchs played an important part of the power arrangements of the Ming dynasty from its beginnings: "As irregular channels through which the emperor could exercise his power, eunuchs functioned as an informal, yet systematic check on the power of orthodox scholar-officialdom" (Lupher 23). The early Ming rulers also depended on their "Embroidered Uniform Guard," which was a private army and secret police consisting of tens of thousands of operators; this police force maintained its own system of jails and torture chambers, and focused the majority of its surveillance and terror activities on the scholar-official establishment (Lupher 23). In this environment of mutual suspicion, back-stabbing and turf battles, it is surprising that the Ming rulers had any time left to accomplish anything, but the research shows that their efforts did not go unrewarded; these accomplishments are discussed further below.

Accomplishments of Ming Rules. The accomplishments of the Ming rulers can be divided into three categories: 1) geographic extensions of the dynasty; 2) the introduction of numerous administrative innovations; and 3) developed a progressive system of taxation and relatively equitable division of social responsibilities. For example, in terms of geographic expansion, the Ming rulers managed to extend the Chinese empire into Korea, Mongolia, and Turkistan on the north and into Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) on the south, thereby exercising more far-flung influence in East Asia than any other native rulers of China ("Ming Dynasty" 2). In terms of administrative reforms, the Ming rulers were ahead of their time. In fact, by 1502, fully one-seventh of all registered land in China was state owned, as were the richest revenue sources in the Jiangnan region; in response, the early power drives of the Ming state were most directly concentrated on the educated class and Chinese gentry (Lupher 24). These early Ming rulers used a number of methods to help control and restructure the economy and society on a mass level which are discussed further below.

According to Lupher, during a period in history where most European countries were mired in depths of the Dark Ages, the Ming rulers used census data to divide the entire population in the countryside into three occupational categories: 1) ordinary civilians, 2) soldiers, and 3) artisans; in this regard, "the form of each household's obligatory service to the state was determined by its permanent census category" (Taylor 37). In addition, these early Ming rulers introduced new forms of local government that were designed to improve the ability of the state to collect tax revenues and service obligations; to this end, the populace was organized into "tithings" of 110 families. The 10 wealthiest families among these tithings were then tasked with supervising the others in labor that was exacted in place of taxes by Ming authorities; likewise, local officials were made "grain captains" who were responsible for the collection and delivery of the land tax (Lupher 23). All of this organization paid off for the Ming rulers, particularly during the latter part of their dynasty. Merchant wealth created gainful employment in the service sector, and cultural events were heavily supported. During the latter part of the Ming dynasty, Tong notes, "The diffusion of Huizhou drama in Anhui, Shandong, Shanxi, Huguang, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Fujian from 1560 to 1610 was no doubt related to the geographical spread and financial support of Huizhou merchants" (168). There were also a number of roadway construction projects undertaken, as well as numerous temples, bridge and waterworks. The merchant class was also sufficiently endowed to establish free clinics, distribute grain, clothes, and coffins, rebuild houses that had been destroyed by fire, endowed land to pay for funerals and weddings of the poor, they also built schools and sponsored lectureships by prominent scholars (Tong 168). They were also responsible for the construction of a walled cemetery near Beijing that provided burials for six to seven thousand indigent, and established corporate philanthropic institutions that employed lifeguards and purchased lifeboats to rescue vessels in distress on the Yangzi. According to Tong, "Although varying by time and place, the level of these contributions could be phenomenal. Song Yingxing observed that merchants in Guangling county (Nanzhili) spent 3 million silver taels on local philanthropic and construction projects in an average year in the late Ming" (168). In the final analysis, it was tradition, government policies, and commercial prosperity that helped the Ming rulers stay in power.

Failures of Ming Rules. The failures of the Ming rules are, in large part, directly related to their accomplishments in terms of introducing administrative efficiencies. During the 1570s, the Ming rulers repeatedly attempted to impose constraints on the intrusion of silver into and out of the coastal centers of merchant power; however, silver's penetration was inextricable, and local governments in maritime regions began stipulating that their taxes must be paid in silver (Flynn & Giraldez 208). Over time, the Ming rulers simply gave up their resistance to silver in the face of such trends and implemented the Single-Whip tax system during this period (Flynn & Giraldez 208). According to these authors, the Single-Whip system specified two things:

1. The existing convoluted national levies were consolidated into a single tax; and, 2. All tax payments were to be made in the form of silver (Flynn & Giraldez 208).

By the 17th century, China possessed as much as 25% of the earth's population and had urban centers with up to one million citizens; these urban centers were five to seven times greater than the largest cities in western Europe; not surprisingly, then, the "silverization" of China would have profound implications for global commerce. In this regard, Flynn & Giraldez note that, "China's tributary system also converted to silver, so we are talking about far more than one-quarter of the globe's population. Conversion of the world's largest economic entity to silver caused the metal's value to skyrocket in China relative to the rest of the world" (208).

In addition, during the early Ming dynasty, the elite members of society were subjected to more direct economic controls than in past years, a process that ultimately led to a significant upheaval of the traditional scholar-official power structure in Ming society. According to Lupher (1996), "In the first decades of the Ming period, a substantial proportion of land was state owned, much of it confiscated from local notables in the Jiangnan region, China's wealthiest and most culturally advanced area at this time" (23). As a result, potentially powerful political opponents were deprived of their economic base, and a number of Jiangnan scholar-official families were forced to move to Nanking, the initial Ming capital (Lupher 23).

Finally, Chung (1995) reports that during the early 17th century, the Ming rulers were "the guardians of orthodox Confucian… [END OF PREVIEW]

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