The Ming Dynasty, was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644, following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The Ming, "one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history," was the last dynasty in China ruled by ethnic Hans. Although the Ming capital Beijing fell in 1644 to a rebellion led by Li Zicheng, which was itself soon replaced by the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, regimes loyal to the Ming throne (collectively called the Southern Ming) survived until 1662.
Ming rule saw the construction of a vast navy and a standing army of one million troops. Although private maritime trade and official tribute missions from China had taken place in previous dynasties, the tributary fleet under the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He in the 15th century far surpassed all others in size. There were enormous construction projects, including the restoration of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the first quarter of the 15th century. Estimates for the late-Ming population vary from 160 to 200 million. The Ming dynasty is often regarded as both a high point in Chinese civilization as well as a dynasty in which early signs of capitalism emerged.
Emperor Hongwu (r. 1368-1398) attempted to create a society of self-sufficient rural communities in a rigid, immobile system that would have no need to engage with the commercial life and trade of urban centers. His rebuilding of China's agricultural base and strengthening of communication routes through the militarized courier system had the unintended effect of creating a vast agricultural surplus that could be sold at burgeoning markets located along courier routes. Rural culture and commerce became influenced by urban trends. The upper echelons of society embodied in the scholarly gentry class were also affected by this new consumption-based culture. In a departure from tradition, merchant families began to produce examination candidates to become scholar-officials and adopted cultural traits and practices typical of the gentry. Parallel to this trend involving social class and commercial consumption were changes in social and political philosophy, bureaucracy and governmental institutions, and even arts and literature.
By the 16th century the Ming economy was stimulated by trade with the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. China became involved in a new global trade of goods, plants, animals, and food crops known as the Columbian Exchange. Trade with European powers and the Japanese brought in massive amounts of silver, which then replaced copper and paper banknotes as the common medium of exchange in China. During the last decades of the Ming the flow of silver into China was greatly diminished, thereby undermining state revenues and indeed the entire Ming economy. This damage to the economy was compounded by the effects on agriculture of the incipient Little Ice Age, natural calamities, crop failure, and sudden epidemics. The ensuing breakdown of authority and people's livelihoods allowed rebel leaders such as Li Zicheng to challenge Ming authority.
- The European Voyages of Exploration & The Ming Dynasty's Maritime History. The University of Calgary. Retrieved on 2008-06-27.
- Ebrey (2006), 271.
- For the lower population estimate, see (Fairbank & Goldman 2006:128), for the higher estimate see (Ebrey 1999:197).
- Li & Zheng (2001), 950.