The Ming Dynasty was founded in 1368 and ended in 1644. It replaced the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty, and preceded the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty was the last dynasty that was ruled by Han Chinese, and was China's second to last dynasty.
Like the downfall of previous dynasties, the Yuan Dynasty suffered from economic problems, natural disasters, and famines. This naturally led to a discontented population, which in turn led to peasant rebellions. The Red Turbans were one rebel force which caused much havoc for the Yuan Dynasty. It was The Red Turban's peasant leader, Zhu Yuanzhang, who finally overthrew the Yuan Dynasty. Zhu declared the Ming Dynasty in 1368, set up his capital in Nanjing, and renamed himself Emperor Hongwu. However, the capital was moved to Beijing in 1403 under Emperor Yongle.
The Ming Dynasty was an era of international trade and the growth in importance of urban economic centres. Silver was to play a large role in Ming's economic strength, as well as its later economic problems. While huge quantities of silver entered China as a result of international trade with Europe and Japan, this influx shrank significantly in later Ming years, which damaged the economy. Added to this were natural disasters, epidemics, crop failures, tax increases, and famines - all of which contributed to the growing lack of central control of the Ming court. The Ming court simply did not have the means to relieve this unhealthy situation, which had disastrous consequences.
At this time, Manchu forces were growing in power in the North. The Manchus had gained control over much of Inner Mongolia in 1632. While the Ming court fought the Manchus in the north, they were also constantly trying to control peasant rebellions within their own borders. Finally, in 1644, Beijing fell to Li Zicheng's Chinese rebel army. In the same year, the Manchus invaded China, overthrew Li Zicheng, and captured Beijing. This began the Qing Dynasty - which was the last dynasty in China's history.
One of the most significant developments of the Ming was the increased maritime trade and tributary links. In the 15th century, Zheng He commanded a huge fleet of ships which traded with the likes of the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese. This stimulated the economy, and resulted in the mass importation of silver into China. This led to silver replacing paper banknotes and copper coins.
The Grand Canal and The Great Wall were restored during the Ming Dynasty, which improved communication and defense. The Ming also constructed a huge navy and a standing army of around 1 million soldiers.
China has traditionally been divided into a 4-fold class system. The categories of this system were (in descending order): Gentry, Farmers, Artisans, and Merchants. This system ranked the importance and social standing of different occupations. During the Ming Dynasty, these distinctions were blurred, and people were no longer necessarily born into one category. Most significantly, the influenced of the merchant class grew, and the gentry at times borrowed money from rich merchants to fund civil projects. This reflected the growing importance of city life, and a vibrant urban population - characteristics shared with the Song Dynasty's own economic and urban developments.
The arts flourished during the Ming era. Perhaps most importantly, classical novels such as "Water Margin" and "Journey to the West" were produced. These novels were written in a vernacular Chinese language, rather than Classical Chinese. Poetry, painting, music, and drama also developed in unique ways during the Ming Dynasty.
Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism continued to influence the court as well as the general public, and religions such as Christianity had a growing presence with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Europe.
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