The Mongol Rule
The Mongols in China were ruling with a great variety of administrators, military personnel and hangers on -- Turks, Arabs, a few Europeans, Jurchen and Persians. The Mongols were following their tradition of supporting a variety of faiths -- not only Buddhism but Islam, Taoism and the Christianity that was practiced by some of the Mongols in China. And under Mongol rule Confucian influence at the royal court declined.
China's Mongol emperor, Kubilai Khan, died in 1294 at the age of seventy-nine. His grandson, Temur Oljeitu, succeeded him, made peace with Japan and maintained reasonable prosperity. Temur Oljeitu was a conscientious and energetic emperor, but the emperors who followed him after his early death in 1307 were of lesser quality than he or Kubilai Khan. In the twenty-six years between 1307 and 1333 seven emperors ruled.
Temur Oljeitu's nephew, Khaishan ruled from 1308. He appointed people without talent to positions of government, including Buddhist and Taoist clergy, and he spent money lavishly on palaces and temples and tripled the supply of paper money. Following his death in 1311 his brother, Ayrubarwada, took power at age twenty-six. However competent Ayrubarwada was as a ruler, opposition rose against him at court by those who saw him as too sympathetic with the Chinese. He died in 1320, and his eldest son, Shidebala, succeeded him, at the age of eighteen. Shidebala initiated anti-corruption reforms, sided with Tibetan Buddhists against Muslims and was assassinated in 1323. He was succeeded by Yesun Temur, who was most oriented toward Mongol traditions. His supporters had been involved in the assassination of Shidebala, and he distanced himself from them and returned to the Mongol tradition of treating religions impartially. Yesun Temur died in 1328 and the youngest son of Khaishan, Tugh Temur, 24-years-old, ruled for a month before he abdicated in favor of an elder brother, Khoshila, and returned to power within a year after Koshila's death -- possibly a murder. Tugh Temur was skilled in Chinese. He was a painter, supported education, lived modestly and dismissed over 10,000 from the imperial staff. Tugh Temur died in 1332.
Following Tugh Temur as emperor in 1333 was the thirteen-year-old, Toghun Temur, reputed to be the son of Koshila. From the beginning of his reign Toghan Temur's ministers ran state affairs. His first minister was concerned with what he saw Mongol weakness in China. He re-imposed segregation between the Mongols and Chinese, decreed that Chinese were not to learn Mongolian, from the Chinese confiscated weapons and iron tools, outlawed Chinese opera and storytelling and considered exterminating Chinese people.
Rebellion and the Ming
Chinese opposition to Mongol rule increased. The Mongols were different from the Chinese not only in speech but in dress and other habits, and the Chinese looked upon the Mongols as barbarians. They disliked Mongol table manners, and they thought the Mongols smelled.
Mongols culture excluded frequent bathing -- the result of their living with a scarcity of water. They saw lake water as holy and washing clothes in it as pollution.
The Mongol military machine had declined. Common Mongol troops had been put to work farming to support themselves -- using slaves. Across decades of peace, the ability at warfare of the Mongol warriors had deteriorated. Some of these Mongol warriors had also failed as farmers and had lost their farms. Some had become vagrants -- while Mongol army officers remained as a salaried aristocracy segregated from the common Mongol soldier.
Plague had broken out among Mongols in the Crimea in 1347, and plague ravaged Mongols in China. Floods disrupted the country. Mongol military garrisons continued to rule at strategic points in China, but the Mongols were greatly outnumbered and were not prepared to contend with a great rebellion.
Mongol military commanders began running the government, and Toghun Temur passed into semi-retirement. He is reported to have taken pleasure only in boy catamites and in prayer with Buddhist monks from Tibet. Toghun Temur's debauchery and his devotion to Tibetan Buddhism added to Confucianist grievances. And opposition to Toghun Temur arose also among Buddhists. A secret Buddhist sect, the White Lotus, began organizing for revolution and prophesied the coming of a Buddhist messiah.
Described by René Grousset in The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire, University of California press, 1964, p. 258, 1964.
Mongol rule in China was about 76 years-old when, in 1352, a rebellion took shape around Guangzhou. A Buddhist monk and former boy beggar, Zhu Yuanzhang, threw off his vestments, joined the rebellion, and his exceptional intelligence took him to the head of a rebel army. By 1355 the rebellion had spread through much of China, accompanied by anarchy. Zhu Yuanzhang won people to his side by forbidding his soldiers to pillage. In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang captured Nanjing and made it his capital, and there he won the help of Confucian scholars who issued pronouncements for him and performed rituals in his claim of the Mandate of Heaven. And he defeated other rebel armies.
Meanwhile the Mongols were fighting among themselves, inhibiting their ability to quell the rebellion. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang extended his rule to Guangzhou - the same year that the Mongol ruler, Toghan Temur, fled to Karakorum. Zhu Yuanzhang and his army entered the former Mongol capital, Beijing, and in 1371 his army moved through Sichuan. By 1387 - after more than thirty years of war -- Zhu Yuanzhang had liberated all of China. And as China's emperor he had taken the title Hong-wu and founded a new dynasty -- the Ming
Withdrawal as a Great Power
The first concern of China's new emperor in 1370 was military strength and preventing Mongol resurgence. The emperor, Hong-wu, established garrisons at strategic points and created an hereditary military caste of soldiers who would sustain themselves by farming and be ever ready for war. And Hong-wu made his commanders a new military nobility.
Troops were forbidden to abuse civilians. Hong-wu's regime executed many who violated his laws and were suspected of treason. He banned secret societies. And he worked toward economic recovery. Farms had been devastated and he settled a huge number of peasants on what had been wasteland and gave them tax exemptions. Between 1371 and 1379 the land under cultivation tripled, as did revenues. The government sponsored tree planting and reforestation. Neglected dikes and canals were repaired and thousands of reservoirs were rebuilt or restored.
Hong-wu died in 1398, at the age of seventy. And, as usual, the man who had managed to rise to power and found a dynasty was followed by sons less able than he. Hong-wu's death was followed by four years of civil war and the disappearance of his son and heir, Jianwen. Jianwen had been indecisive and scholarly and no match for his uncle, who in 1403 became the emperor, Zhi Di -- also known as the Emperor of Yongle (Perpetual Happiness), said to have been born of a Korean concubine. Emperor Yongle ruled to 1424, using eunuchs as spies and appointing them to high positions in government.
One of Emperor Yongle's eunuchs, Zheng He, was a Muslim whose father had made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Zheng He knew the world a little more than others, and he led a group of can-do eunuchs that performed special tasks for the emperor. Emperor Yongle ordered Zheng to make naval expeditions.
From the Mongols, the Ming rulers had inherited extensive maritime contacts and technology. During Mongol rule, large Chinese cargo ships plied the oceans around China, including a regular run of grain from the south, along the coast, to the north. And Chinese ships traded through southeast Asia to the island of Lanka (Sri Lanka) and to India.
The Ming dynasty did not maintain this trade, Zheng He's expedition, beginning in 1405, being made not for the sake of trade but for geographical exploration and diplomacy -- an expedition with sixty-three ships and 27,000 men. Six more expeditions led by Zheng followed, the last one in 1433 under the emperor Xuan-de. The expeditions reached Surabaya at the island of Java, and they reached India and then Mogadishu on the coast of Africa, Hormuz at the Persian Gulf, and up the Red Sea to Jeddah. Gifts were exchanged, and rare spices, plants and animals, including a giraffe, were brought back to China.
China had the world's greatest navy, with an estimated 317 ships -- constructed at Nanjing. These ships were made with special woods and waterproofing techniques and an adjustable centerboard keel. Some of the ships were 440 feet long and 180 feet wide, ships with four to nine masts that were as high as ninety feet, with silk sails and with crews as large as five hundred. But in China interest in a great navy and merchant shipping was overshadowed by concern about military defenses on land. Attempts to control Annam failed and were expensive. In mid-century the Mongols were making border raids and appeared to the Chinese as an even greater threat. Also, with independence from Mongol rule, Confucian influence had increased at court. Confucian scholars were filling the ranks of senior officialdom and remained hostile to commerce and foreign contacts. The Confucianists had little or no interest in seeing China develop into a great maritime trading power.
In the wake of Mongol rule, China's leaders were eager to restore things Chinese, and that included shipping on China's canals -- which had gone into disrepair under the Mongols. They saw internal trade as enough. The government ended its sponsorship of naval expeditions, and, in the spirit of isolationism, the government forbid multi-masted ships sailing out of port. The development of world maritime trade was left to Europeans, who were beginning to extend their voyages.