The Ming Restoration
Globalism and Isolationism
The Ming Dynasty
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Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor

A "Tael" of SilverThe Ming founder designed a fiscal system for a frozen, unchanging agrarian economy — an economy far different from the commercialized market system existing at the time. Each man was to register his occupation with the authorities, who fully expected his descendants to perform the identical task in perpetuity. ... The dependence of the Ming on agrarian revenue marked an important reversal. Since the years after 755, inadequate land revenue had forced the central government to develop commercial taxes and monopolies. The success of the Ming in registering people and land allowed them to ignore all nonagrarian sources of revenue. Paper money, which the Chinese had been the first in the world to invent, and which the Mongols had printed in such large quantities that it lost its value, completely fell from use by 1450, leaving copper coins the main medium of exchange for small transactions and hunks of silver for large ones. (OE, 347)
 
Dynastic Cycle
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The Yellow River
 
The Grand Canal

Yu Tames the Flood
 
Grand Canal: Then and Now
 
The Ming founder planned to update the Yellow and the fish-scale registers [i.e. the land registers that were used for taxation], but as in the case of the equal-field registers, the government lacked the manpower to do so. Like the provincial quotas set in the years after the An Lushan rebellion, the amounts that individual districts paid in the 1390s became the basis of all subsequent exactions, regardless of changes in land ownership or productivity. The Ming succeeded in collecting twice what the Mongols had in land tax, which proved to be more than enough for the needs of the central government in the 1380s and 1390s. Yet, once inflation began, as it did in the fifteenth century, these land-tax revenues no longer sufficed. (OE, 350)
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Bipolar Masks
A Bipolar Emperor?
Hong Wu: Autocratic TendenciesFamous for his erratic treatment of officials, the Ming emperor oscillated between periods of relative lenience and excessive violence. ... After he had launched a massive purge of the bureaucracy, dismissing some ten thousand officials, he solicited criticism. When one official dared to explain that … many innocent officials had been unfairly dismissed, the emperor sentenced him to forced labor. ... In 1380, when the emperor fired his chancellor and dismantled the Grand Secretariat, thirty thousand people disappeared. In 1385, some ten thousand were sentenced to death in another corruption scandal over grain, and in 1393, fifteen thousand died when the emperor suppressed a challenge to his authority. (OE, 352)
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The Yongle Emperor
 
 
The Forbidden City
 
[T]he Ming founder had named a grandson to succeed him, but when the founder died in 1398, civil war broke out. The new emperor’s uncles did not accept his claim to rule, and in 1402, his senior uncle led an army who stormed the capital at Nanjing. The troops set the palace on fire, and the unfortunate grandson, then only twenty-one, probably burned to death. Rumors of his survival circulated in the years after his uncle succeeded to the throne, and the new emperor ordered periodic searches for his missing nephew. The new emperor chose Yongle as his reign title, meaning “Eternal Happiness.” (OE, 352)
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Zheng He on his Treasure Ship
 
Under the leadership of a Muslim eunuch named Zheng He (1371-1433), an imperial fleet of over three hundred ships traveled to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa one hundred years before Columbus’s and da Gama’s more famous voyages. Some of these treasure ships were 60 meters (200 feet) long, making them the largest wooden boats in the world. The full fleet carried over twenty-eight thousand men, who traveled in relative luxury, dining on fresh fish kept in separate compartments filled with water. Dwarfing those of the European explorers in size, these Chinese ships made a statement to the world about the power of the Ming dynasty. But it was a temporary, even vainglorious, statement, for the Chinese conquered no territory and retained no seaports. The voyages ended as quickly as they had begun, canceled on grounds of unnecessary expense soon after the death of the eunuch admiral in 1433. (OE, 354)

Song Dynasty Compass
The compass was invented in the early Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)
and then adopted for naval use in the Song dynasty
 
Zheng He Treasure Ship
Comparisons with Columbus
Whereas Columbus’s crew eked out the days on their diet of hardtack supplemented by bread baked with ocean water, Zheng He’s men traveled in style. Columbus traveled with 4 boats, Zheng He with 317. The Santa Maria was 24 meters (80 feet) long, with a capacity of 250 metric tons (280 English tons). The treasure ships were at least 60 meters (200 feet) long and carried 2,200 metric tons (2,500 English tons). ... All comparisons between the Chinese and the European ships make the same point: the Chinese ships exceeded the European ships, often by a factor of ten or more, in size, staff, and equipment. (OE, 357-9)
 
Map of Zheng He's Voyages
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The Ming fleet engaged in tribute trade, following the traditional pattern of giving gifts to foreign rulers and receiving gifts in return. The Chinese gave items of great prestige value, like suits of clothing, umbrellas, calendars, and books, but with little intrinsic value. They also gave out grants of paper money and copper coins to local peoples, who tended to buy back Chinese goods with the money and to trade valuable horses, copper, wood, animal hides, gold, and silver. Ming accounting practices make it impossible to estimate the balance of trade the Chinese had with these outlying peoples — or even the cost of the expeditions — but the terms seem to have favored the Chinese. (OE, 355)
 
Tribute System
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Zheng He's Tomb
The Chinese ships had every advantage over the Europeans but one: the Chinese lacked continuing government support. After the death of the Yongle emperor in 1424, the voyages were suspended, with the central government reluctantly allowing a seventh, and final, voyage in 1433. Zheng He died in the same year. The ostensible reason for the suspension was the excessive cost of the voyages, yet clearly civil officials seized this pretext to rein in the eunuchs who controlled the navy. (OE, 359)
 
Why were the "Confucian" officials so deeply opposed to these voyages?
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What were the long term consequences of ending these voyages?
 
Great Wall of China
"vs" (versus)
Map showing Portuguese and Spanish Trade Routes
 
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Map of the Grand Canal with a Japanese Pirate

Meanwhile, China's grain harvests and local mercantile transport remained safe on the rivers and canals, but the coasts could all too easily become vulnerable to predatory attacks by a different kind of wandering enemy. ... Throughout the Ming dynasty, the Chinese coast was subject to attacks by "Japanese pirates," fleeing unrest and deprivation on their native islands and turning to crime on a foreign shore.
Centripetal Force pulling inward to "Confucian" values
That, at least, was the official story. While there are many cases of Japanese fishermen and traders turning to illegal means to sustain themselves in troubled times, the readiness of the Chinese to write them all off as "Japanese pirates" served other purposes. It was helpful to blame China's new coastal problems on foreigners, and not on, say, Chinese fisher-folk driven to desperation by the same bad conditions. And it was certainly helpful for the Chinese, as the severed head of a "Japanese pirate" brought a higher reward from the authorities than that of a mere Chinese one. Japanese pirates hence got the blame for a number of incidents that smarter observers might have suspected to be signs of more local problems. In 1551, the Ming government tried to make the problem go away by decree, not merely outlawing foreign trade, but even forbidding fishing boats from leaving port. By 1554, the "pirate" problem transformed again, with coastal raiders establishing fortified bases on Chinese shores, from which they advanced as far inland as Nanjing. Such hosts, not dissimilar from Viking war-bands in medieval England, were multiracial coalitions, including genuine Japanese, alongside other, unspecified foreign adventurers, out-of-work mercenaries, and local Chinese toughs.
 
Map of Chinese trade in Southeast Asia
 
The pirate problem would only truly subside in the 1560s, although in one final irony, the Chinese then had to deal with a new bandit problem in the area, after local paramilitaries, recruited to fight the pirates, turned to crime after they were disbanded in lean times. The last of the pirates drifted south into Fujian, where many of them were dispelled by the simple expedient of allowing them to become legal traders once more. (BHC, 197-8)
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