Ming Dynasty History | Chinese Antiques

Founding of the Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty was founded by General Zhu Yuanzhang, a Budhist orphan from Nanjing. He pushed the Yuan court back into Inner Mongolia and victoriously declared himself emperor with the title Hongwu ('vast military accomplishment').

Ruling, Society & Culture of the Ming Dynasty

First Ming Emperor Hongwu fathered 36 sons and 16 daughters.

Emperor Xuande was regarded by later Ming scholars as a golden age of good government and patronage of the arts. He was a talented artist and poet with artists at court. Notable advances were made in the porcelains produced at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. 

Although the city of Beijing has been rebuilt in part many times since 1421, the Ming design has been maintained.

The wealthy of Ming China delighted in beauty –silk gauzes, translucent porcelains, ornate lacquerwork, filigree – while famine periodically reduced subsistence farmers to eating earth and each other.

Ming princes fought with Japanese blades, wore Mongolian-style helmets, sported hat-top ornaments studded with Sri Lankan and Indian gems, and were buried with ingots of African gold.

Ming China was wealthy in knowledge and learning whose economy was at the heart of the global luxuries trade, thriving on the New World silver proffered by Europeans in love with its blue and white porcelain and embroidered silks.

Ming empire was geographically diverse as its borders enclosed subtropical forests and freezing mountains, paddy fields and desert that took months to traverse from north to south. 

The million-strong Ming army was a ubiquitous presence throughout China, providing labour for building and transportation projects, as well as supervising trade over land and maritime borders.

Blue and white porcelain was not a Ming invention, but during the Yongle emperor’s reign new refined clay recipes made it possible for vessels to become thinner, and new glazes produced a much purer translucent white and a glossier finish. A far greater range of shapes was introduced, including a number inspired by bottles, flasks, jugs, candleholders and pen boxes from the Islamic world.

One order given to the imperial kilns for 443,500 porcelain pieces with dragon and phoenix designs was placed in 1433.

The best Ming sculptures are small ornamental carvings of jade, ivory, wood, and porcelain.

Although a high level of workmanship is manifest in Ming decorative arts such as cloisonné, enamelware, bronzework, lacquerwork, and furniture, the major achievements in art were in painting and pottery.

There were 16 Ming emperors.

There were two main traditions in painting - “literati painting” (wenrenhua) of the Wu school and “professional academics” (huayuanpai) associated with the Zhe school.

Key Events During the Ming Dynasty

1368: Ming Dynasty begins and lasts for 276 years.

1380: Ming founder, Hongwu, executes his prime minister. For its next 264 years, the dynasty functions without an official head of government.

1399: Emperor Hongwu’s rule ends.

1403: Emperor Yongle (the third Ming Emperor) orders the transfer of the capital from Nanjing, in the southeast, to Beijing in the north. 

1405: Chinese explorer Zheng begins his first journey to India and Africa. He establishes trade relationships and bring back news of the outside world. His armadas consist of 250 ships, 60 metres long, at the time the largest ever built – carrying porcelain, lacquer, silks escorted by 27,000 armed men.

1405: Construction on the Forbidden City begins involving more than 200,000 labourers. 

1405-08 Yongle commissions a team of 2,169 scholars to compile a vast anthology of orthodox literary texts. 

1414 Yongle legislates for the school curriculum in deep rural south China.

1421: Yongle inaugurates his new capital Beijing in front of an international audience from Asia and the coasts of the Indian Ocean whom are banqueted, accommodated and loaded with gifts. 

1424: Yongle’s reign ends.

1426: The short reign of the Xuande emperor begins. 

1517: First Portuguese traders arrive in the country.

1644: Ming Dynasty falls to peasant rebels. The last Ming emperor enters the Pavilion of Imperial Longevity, north of the Forbidden City and hangs himself with his sash.