Zhu Yuanzhang—An Emperor Through the Ages

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The portrait of Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), Emperor Taizu of Ming (明太祖), collected by the National Museum of China. (Photo credit: Haifeng/Fotoe)

The Ming philosopher Li Zhi (李贄, 1527-1602) once praised Emperor Qinshihuang (255-210 BCE) as the “Emperor of All Ages” and held even greater admiration for Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-98), whom he hailed as the “Emperor Through the Ages”. What contributions did he make to earn him such high praise from the prideful scholar like Li?


The life of Zhu, who was born in an impoverished family of farmers, was a legendary journey from a monk to a soldier, and finally an emperor. He overthrew the brutal governance of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (元代), renovated the Han (漢) culture and established a dynasty that lasted for 276 years, the second-longest dynasty in Chinese history after the Tang dynasty (唐代). During his reign, Zhu strengthened the autocratic rule while abusing penalties and executing many respected statesmen. Mixing good and bad, his rule received both praises and blames. Xuan Ye (玄燁, Emperor Kangxi [康熙帝]) also thought highly of Zhu and wrote “The Great Ming was governed to a level of prosperity even greater than that of the Tang and Song (宋代)” in an inscription, which can still be found in Xiaoling Mausoleum (明孝陵) of Ming dynasty.


Born in Dongxiang (東鄉), Zhongli (鍾離) of Haozhou (濠州, present-day Fengyang County [鳳陽縣], Anhui Province [安徽省]), Zhu was the son of an impoverished farmer and grew up during great hardship. When he was only a teenager, his parents and brothers all died of illness. Left alone in the world, he became a novice monk in Wuhuang Temple (於皇寺, later renamed as Huangjue Temple [皇覺寺]) near Fengyang to support his living. In less than two months, however, the temple could not afford the food and living of all the monks, forcing him to live as a beggar monk on the street. He then joined Guo Zixing’s (郭子興) rebel force at 24.

In many of the anti-Yuan rebellious battles, Zhu had to fight against other rebel forces at the same time. He grew stronger and bolder from the battles, especially in those against Chen Youliang (陳友諒) and Zhang Shicheng (張士誠). In 1360, Chen proclaimed himself emperor and asked Zhang to attack Zhu’s army joined hands. Faced with this situation, Zhu took his military strategist Liu Ji’s (劉基, courtesy name Bowen [伯溫]) advice that it would be wiser to attack Chen, the most powerful enemy, before striking back at the relatively weak and timid Zhang. In the Battle of Lake Poyang (鄱陽湖之戰) in 1363, Zhu defeated Chen’s forces and captured Wuchang (武昌), as well as Chen Li (陳理), the son of Chen Youliang. In 1367, Pingjiang (平江, present-day Suzhou [蘇州]) was captured by Zhu’s troops, completely wiping out Zhang’s forces. Finally, in 1368, Zhu established the Ming dynasty.


As one of the meritorious statesmen who contributed to Zhu’s success, Liu was known for his excellent stratagems. He was trusted by Zhu in the early stage, but he suffered persecution in his late years as the emperor gradually got more suspicious. Eventually, he died in depression and anger. In addition to Liu, many other officials also suffered cruel torture, represented by the most well-known cases of Hu Weiyong (胡惟庸) and Lan Yu (藍玉). Hu facilitated Zhu at an early stage and earned his trust, which yet turned him into an overbearing person. After the establishment of the Ming dynasty, he served as the Senior Grand Councilor. Later, Zhu found that this position had given Hu too much power and hindering the autocracy. Therefore, to enhance imperial rule, he announced the abolishment of the position. Meanwhile, Hu was also accused of various crimes, such as attempting to usurp the throne, framing loyal officials, deceiving the emperor, rebelling and endangering political stability, being disloyal to the governance, and causing great harm to the national regime. According to statistics, numerous officials were involved in the case and more than 30,000 people were executed. Lan was one of Zhu’s right-hand men on the battlefield, but the military achievements made him too arrogant and proud, thus starting violating the law and regulations, threatening Zhu’s rule. In the end, he was charged for rebellion and executed. Around 20,000 people were killed in the Lan Yu Case, including his three clans and officials from the Huaixi (淮西) meritorious group.


The statues of Zhu and his officials exhibiting at the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum Museum, Nanjing (南京), Jiangsu Province (江蘇省). (Photo credit: Yang Xingbin/Fotoe)

After overthrowing the Yuan dynasty and establishing a multi-ethnic country, Zhu issued targeted policies to make his people “all under heaven as one family”. To cope with the imbalance in political and economic development in the vast border areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, he adopted policies to “change their minds with benefits” and “govern them while respecting their customs”. To handle the relations with foreign and neighbouring countries, he learned from the Yuan dynasty’s failure and decided not to undertake frequent overseas expeditions. Instead, he focused on ensuring domestic unification and establishing peaceful relations with the neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, he adopted a “good-neighbourliness and friendliness policy” to “share the fruits of peace” and dispatched envoys to spread his policies for a friendly suzerain-vassal relation. The long-term unification of the Ming dynasty, the stable political and economic development, and the social prosperity of the times were all results of Zhu’s political pursuit of “all under heaven as one family”.

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