The Monk Who Ruled His Nation

In one of history’s most unlikely rises to power, a Chinese peasant brought down the Mongols and established the Ming Dynasty.

The story begins in the 14th century, when the future Hongwu emperor was born as Zhu Chongba, a poor peasant of Haozhou (about 100 miles [160 km] northwest of Nanjing, near China’s east coast). Orphaned at 16, he became a monk at the Huangjue monastery near Fengyang to avoid starvation—a common practice for the sons of poor peasants. As a wandering mendicant, he often begged for food at Hefei (some 100 miles west of Nanjing) and surrounding areas, where no constituted authority existed. Indeed, all of central and northern China was suffering from drought and famine, and more than seven million people starved, a situation that encouraged the popular rebellions that started from around 1325. Led by plebeian bandits, the rebels attacked the rich, distributing their wealth and goods among the people.

Following a stint as the mendicant beggar, the young wanderer took up with a band of marauders who had rebelled against the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty.

A natural military leader, Zhu Yuangzhang quickly rose through the ranks of the bandits, and by 1355 he had taken the reins of the whole rebel army. Ruthless and determined, the orphan general went on to wage a bloody war against both the Mongols and his Chinese rivals for power. In 1368—the same year his forces drove the Mongols out of China—Zhu declared himself emperor of the Ming Dynasty and took the name Hongwu. While he famously returned China to native rule, the Hongwu emperor’s 30-year reign was also marked by paranoia and extreme violence. In 1380, for example, he ordered the execution of 30,000 people after learning of a potential conspiracy to overthrow his government.

In his progress from a mendicant monastery to the imperial palace, the Hongwu emperor illustrates the chaos into which China had fallen under the preceding late Yuan dynasty. The Yuan rulers were alien Mongol conquerors who had nevertheless absorbed many Chinese features during their reign. Their administration was faltering by the Hongwu emperor’s time, and his achievement, first as rebel leader and then as emperor, was to focus national resentment against the foreign rulers and to resuscitate a more truly Chinese way of government. This he did so forcefully that his reign has been seen as a culmination of the despotic trends that had been in evidence since the Song dynasty (960–1279). He considered certain groups (for instance, maternal relatives; court eunuchs, who were often entrusted with power; and the military) as having been peculiarly prone to intrigue in the past, and vigorously stamped out such tendencies. He prohibited eunuchs, for instance, from participating in government, forbade the empress to meddle with court politics, and appointed civilian officials to control military affairs. Of lowly peasant origins, he always was aware of the popular misery that administrative corruption could engender, and he savagely punished malpractices.

Source Credits: History and Encyclopedia Britannica

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