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World History Volume 1, to 1500

17.2 From the Mamluks to Ming China

World History Volume 1, to 150017.2 From the Mamluks to Ming China

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the system of slavery that existed within the Islamic world
  • Explain the unique political and social organization of the Mamluk Sultanate
  • Describe Ming dynasty China in the fifteenth century and its responses to foreign influences

In the thirteenth century, a new state came into existence in Egypt and the Levant. Although it grew out of the existing Ayyubid Sultanate, the Mamluk Sultanate was unique among world societies in that it was administered and defended by educated, elite, formerly enslaved men. The Mamluk state grew so powerful that it was able to fend off the advances of the Mongols. At the opposite end of Asia, the Mongols also found themselves displaced by the Han Chinese of the Ming dynasty.

The Slave Soldier System

Many of the Islamic states formed in western Asia over the centuries relied upon a unique means of staffing their armies and administrations—the creation of a highly trained, foreign-born enslaved (or formerly enslaved) elite. Beginning in the ninth century in the Abbasid Caliphate, rulers purchased Turks from beyond the Oxus River in central Asia to serve as soldiers for the state. Enslaved adult men raised outside the state were loyal to their purchaser and not to the state itself, however, and thus they were more willing to revolt if they were not well treated. Briefly losing control of the state in the ninth century because of such uprisings was a lesson for Muslim rulers. Thereafter, they sought to enslave young boys who could be educated and trained within and by the state, ensuring they were more invested in the society they served as adults. Non-Muslim children were chosen because Islam forbade the enslaving of fellow Muslims.

Known as mamluks (from an Arabic word meaning “someone owned”), the boys were taken primarily from Turkic tribes in central Asia, as well as from the Caucasus and eastern Europe, and then converted to Islam and educated. Because they were freed upon completing their training, the rule against enslaving other Muslims was not violated. The largest part of their instruction consisted of training in riding, archery, and military tactics (Figure 17.19). Some were given a formal education in the bureaucracy, in a bid to develop smart and capable administrators for the state.

Two images are shown. The image at the right is a close up of the middle of the image at the left. The images are drawn in vibrant colors on a light brown background with water stains and ripped edges. The image on the left has scripted writing in black with red accents across the top, right side, and in eight rows in the bottom half. The image at the top is enlarged in the image on the right. In this image, a square is seen with a point facing up in the middle. The square has blue designs in the middle with a green border with leafy designs. Green squiggles are drawn in dark ink outside of the square on all sides. On each side of the square a figure is shown riding a horse and holding a long spear. Each rider has dark eyes, pale face, and white layered hat with a pink round object in the middle. They are all dressed in richly decorated long robes in red, blue, and green with designs all over. Their horses are bright colors of black, red, and green with gold and blue reins and bright saddles.
Figure 17.19 The Art of Horsemanship. This fourteenth-century illustration from the Manual of the Arts of Horsemanship by al-Aqsara’i depicts mounted competitors carrying spears in a game that required great physical skill. As part of their training, young mamluks were taught to ride at a gallop while aiming projectiles at a swinging target. (credit: modification of work “Manual on the Arts of Horsemanship by al-Aqsara’i” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

When the young men’s education was completed, they were set free in a special ceremony. They were then allowed to grow beards, marry, and establish their own households, into which they could introduce purchased mamluks of their own. They might, however, remain in the household of their former owner, the ruler to whom they were expected to remain loyal. In this way, the mamluks somewhat resembled the freed people of ancient Rome, who often retained ties to their former masters.

The relationship between mamluks and their masters was often conceived of as familial in nature, and mamluks often referred to one another as “brother” and to their master as “father.” When their training had ended, their “father” would find a place for them in the ruler’s service. Most mamluks found positions in the army, and from there they often went on to hold administrative positions. In the Ayyubid Sultanate, the mamluks eventually gained control over the government after deposing the sultan and proceeded to rule the state as the Mamluk Sultanate.

In Mamluk Egypt, having been an enslaved soldier was often the path to the greatest success and standing in society. Important positions were given to mamluks, such as provincial governor and commander of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. The sultan himself was a mamluk. Appointed mamluks were regarded as more entitled to positions of power and authority than were a man’s biological sons, and while Egyptian mamluks married and produced children, it was considered inappropriate if these offspring were awarded important roles in government when true mamluks were available. The mamluks were displeased when this happened, and it was they who usually determined who became the sultan.

While it might seem like a risk to entrust important governmental and military positions to men who had once been enslaved, the Ayyubids, who had broken away from the Abbasid state to found their own dynasty in the eleventh century, adopted the system because of its advantages. The mamluks were highly trained and well educated, and thus well prepared to occupy the offices given to them. A ruler could pick and choose the most able of them, whereas biology might leave a sultan with children entirely unsuited to occupy positions of authority. The fact that the mamluks were of non-Arab origin and had been taken from their homes in foreign lands as children also meant they were likely to remain loyal to the “father” who had been responsible for their training, and to whom they owed their position in society. While the offspring of the Arab nobility might act to advance the fortunes of their families in ways that did not suit the interests of the sultan, the sultan usually did not need to fear that his mamluks would favor the interests of far-distant, long-absent biological relatives over his own.

Enslaved men occupied a similar position in the Ottoman Empire. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the Ottomans purchased enslaved people or used prisoners of war to fill the ranks of their armies. With their invasion of the Balkans, however, the Ottoman sultans soon turned to gathering Christian children from the European lands they occupied, in order to counter the power of the Turkish nobles who controlled the army and the state’s administration.

In a system known as the devshirme (“gathering”), Ottoman agents recruited Christian boys as part of the tax imposed on their European subjects (Figure 17.20). Approximately every three to five years, agents of the sultan took boys, ideally aged between eight and ten, to serve the Ottoman state. They were taught to speak Turkish and brought to Istanbul where they were educated and made to convert to Islam. When they became adolescents, they were trained to become scribes, palace administrators, or soldiers. Those selected to serve in the palace at the end of their training often rose to occupy important positions, including Grand Vizier. In addition, many were awarded timars in exchange for their service and had the opportunity to become wealthy.

An image of a richly colored painting is shown. The image shows a figure in richly decorated red and green robes and a white turban sitting on an intricately decorated orange, green, black and white platform in the middle left of the image in a courtyard with a large green tree behind them. He is looking down at a white rectangle in his lap. Next to him sits another figure in yellow and blue robes with a very tall gold and white head dress, black beard, holding a black plate with gold circles on it. In the bottom left forefront of the image a tall figure holding a long, thin stick stands in long deep blue robes, red socks, black shoes, and a tall gold and white headdress on a deep green lawn. Six figures walk toward him dressed in red, dirty, worn robes with red scarves on their heads. Each carries a sack over their shoulder. A highly decorated wall is behind them with a large group of people in various colored robes standing looking at the group walking. Two figures at the front of the group speak with a man in red and black robes and a tall golden headdress standing at a doorway to the courtyard with the two seated figures. Another group of five figures stands behind the doorway in long robes and looks at the seated figures. Richly adorned brown and black buildings with colorful decor are seen in the background as well as trees, flowers, and a brown sky.
Figure 17.20 The Devshirme. In this Ottoman miniature painting from 1558, Christian parents look on as their sons are led away to be enslaved by the sultan. The children carry a few personal possessions in sacks over their shoulders as the seated Ottoman official registers them. (credit: “Janissary Recruitment in the Balkans” by Ali Amir Beg/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The majority of boys were trained as soldiers, some of whom became members of the elite infantry corps called the Janissaries (from the Turkish words yeni cheri, or “new soldier”). They accompanied the sultan into battle and served as his household guard. Like the mamluks, the Janissaries were expected to be loyal to their master, the Ottoman sultan. In fact, the sultans believed the Janissaries would prove more dependable than the noble vassals, because they were entirely dependent upon the sultans for their status and privileges, and because they had been cut off from the biological families to whom they might otherwise have owed their first loyalty. The risk of trusting in the Turkish nobility had become clear at the Battle of Ankara when Bayezid I’s Turkish vassals fled, abandoning him to the Mongols.

In Their Own Words

Memoirs of a Janissary

The account that follows is by a Serbian named Konstantin Mihailović. Born in 1430, he was taken as a child to be trained as a Janissary and recorded his experiences in a book, Memoirs of a Janissary, written between 1490 and 1501.

And from there the Emperor [the Ottoman Sultan] marched and surrounded a city which they call Novo Brdo, “Mountain of Silver and Gold,” and having attacked it, conquered it, but by means of an agreement: he promised to let them keep their possessions and also not to enslave their young women and boys . . . . Having arrived in the city the Turks ordered all the householders with their families, both males and females, to go out of the city through the small gate to a ditch, leaving their possessions in the houses. And so it happened that they went one after another, and the Emperor himself standing before the small gate sorted out the boys on one side and the females on the other, and the men along the ditch on one side and the women on the other side. All those among the men who were the most important and distinguished he ordered decapitated. The remainder he ordered released to the city. As for their possessions, nothing of theirs was harmed. The boys were 320 in number and the females 74. The females he distributed among the heathens, but he took the boys for himself into the Janissaries, and sent them beyond the sea to Anatolia, where their preserve is.

I was also taken in that city with my two brothers, and wherever the Turks to whom we were entrusted drove us in a band, and wherever we came to forests or mountains, there we always thought about killing the Turks and running away by ourselves among the mountains, but our youth did not permit us to do that; for I myself with nineteen others ran away from them in the night from a village called Samokovo. Then the whole region pursued us, and having caught and bound us, they beat us and tortured us and dragged us behind horses. It is a wonder that our soul remained in us. Then others vouched for us, and my two brothers, that we would not permit this anymore, and so they peacefully led us across the sea.

—Konstantin Mihailović, Memoirs of a Janissary

  • How does Mihailović feel about the Ottomans? Why does he feel this way?
  • How loyal a Janissary was he likely to have been? Why?
  • While the Janissaries were elite members of Ottoman society, they remained enslaved people. What sense does this excerpt and the rest of the chapter give you of the Janissary experience?

The Janissaries held high status in Ottoman society. Although many parents protested the taking of their children and sometimes rebelled against the system, others who hoped to provide their sons with a means of advancing in society reportedly bribed Ottoman officials to select them. Some Muslim parents, whose sons were not subject to the devshirme, supposedly even lied about their religion to secure a spot for them in the sultan’s service.

The sultans also kept other kinds of enslaved people. Christian women from foreign lands were purchased in slave markets, and others were given to the sultan as gifts or taken as prisoners of war. They were placed in the sultan’s harem, where they lived among his children and female relatives and served the ladies of the court as attendants. Women in the harem were ranked according to a strict hierarchy in which they could advance based on talent and length of service. The minority chosen to become sexual partners of the sultan were also elevated, especially if they bore him children. Some became the mothers of future sultans and were given the title “lady.” They might hold great power. While some of these women held great power, most remained servants, and after a few years of service, they were usually released from their duties and married to palace officials. Guarding the Ottoman harem were enslaved eunuchs, castrated men who were usually purchased in slave markets in Africa and whose perceived differences in sexuality led them to be assigned made them well suited to important roles such as managing the household of the ruler and other nobles. Despite their enslaved status, the control these men exerted over the harem gave them great power.

Although the mamluks and enslaved men and women who served the Ottoman sultan were considered among the elite of their societies and occupied relatively privileged positions, people other than sultans owned enslaved people who performed hard physical labor on farms or as domestic servants. They might be poorly fed and clothed and were neither paid nor educated. They also could not expect to gain their freedom. As property, they could be pawned or sold at their owner’s whim, and regardless of age, they might be sexually abused. The experiences of these people were far more typical and representative of the enslaved, including Africans enslaved in the Americas beginning in the sixteenth century, than were those of the mamluks, the Janissaries, or the women of the Ottoman harem.

The Mamluk Sultanate

The mamluks of Egypt reached the pinnacle of their unusually high status in 1250. In that year, they deposed the last Ayyubid sultan, then only a child, and took control of the state.

The Ayyubids, who ruled the Levant and Egypt beginning in the eleventh century, had established their dynasty by breaking away from the Abbasid Caliphate. In the early 1200s, as the members of the Ayyubid ruling family competed with one another for supremacy, they amassed large numbers of mamluk guards and soldiers, consisting mostly of Kipchak Turks from the steppes north of the Black Sea, to assist them. When rulers defeated brothers and uncles in their quest for power, they also took control of their mamluk forces. Soon the mamluk troops vastly outnumbered the members of the Ayyubid Arab ruling class.

In 1249, Sultan as-Salih Ayyub died. His son replaced him but was assassinated by mamluks in 1250. As-Salih’s widow, Shajur al-Durr, also ruled briefly, but she was soon deposed. The Ayyubid commander of the city of Aleppo in Syria initially challenged mamluk rule and took an army to Egypt to reclaim control of the state, prompting the mamluk commander Aybak, whom Shajur al-Durr had married to bolster her own claim to power, to place an Ayyubid royal child on the throne as a puppet ruler and his nominal “master.” Following his defeat of the Ayyubid forces, Aybak deposed the child sultan and took power in his own right, permanently ending Ayyubid rule in Egypt and formally establishing the Mamluk Sultanate. When Aybak was assassinated in 1257, his teenage son took the throne, but true power in Egypt was wielded by another mamluk commander, Saif ad-Din Qutuz.

The new Mamluk Sultanate soon found its power tested by the arrival of invading Mongol forces. In 1258, Hulagu Khan attacked and destroyed Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate. His troops then took the city of Damascus, which lay within the territory claimed by the Mamluk Sultanate. Hulagu demanded that Qutuz surrender Egypt, but the sultan refused. In 1260, the Mongol and Mamluk armies clashed at the Battle of Ain Jalut, in what is today modern-day Israel, and the Mamluks were triumphant. This halted the Mongol advance in western Asia and prevented them from invading North Africa.

Qutuz did not live to relish the Mamluk victory over the Mongols, however. Shortly after his triumph at Ain Jalut, he was assassinated, and a rival mamluk commander, Baybars, claimed the throne as sultan. Baybars established the Bahri dynasty, named for the location in Cairo of the mamluk barracks from which he had come. The rulers of the Bahri dynasty were mamluks of primarily Turkish origin. Unlike members of most dynasties, they were not generally descendants of the founder. Two of Baybars’ sons succeeded to the throne following his death, but they were quickly deposed by rival mamluk army factions. This was the case for most Mamluk sultans, who each ruled for an average of only seven years, and often much less.

Stability was a constant problem for the Mamluk Sultanate. Although it remained in control of Egypt and the Levant until it was defeated by the Ottomans in 1517, the sultans’ rule was never secure. Sultans were routinely deposed—and often murdered—by rival claimants to the throne. Provincial administrators often rebelled against the authority of Cairo as well. The problem lay in the origin of the mamluks themselves. Having undergone rigorous training and the experience of enslavement, and having risen through the ranks based solely on their abilities, the mamluks were scornful of those who had not had a similarly harsh upbringing and won their position based on merit. Thus, when sultans attempted to establish their biological sons as their heirs, the army often regarded them as unworthy and refused to follow them. Furthermore, while mamluk soldiers were loyal to their masters, they did not feel similar loyalty to other commanders. When a sultan died or was deposed, his mamluks were not inclined to obey the person who took his place. The succession to the throne of the Mamluk Sultanate thus always remained uncertain as the army continued to assert its right to choose (and depose) the ruler. Mamluk history was marked by repeated attempts by individual commanders to seize power, and by the army’s removal of “unworthy” rulers in favor of others.

Despite the fact that the line of succession always remained unclear, the Mamluk Sultanate was a force to be reckoned with, and its troops were successful at defeating their enemies. Beginning during the rule of Baybars, for example, the Mamluks gradually retook control of the Christian Crusader States in the Levant, either razing their fortresses or converting them to Mamluk garrisons. The final Christian stronghold, Acre, fell in 1291. The Mamluks also defeated the Christian Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia and stopped an attempted Mongol invasion of Syria in 1313 before establishing a peace treaty with the Ilkhanate Mongols in Persia in 1322 (Figure 17.21).

A map is shown with land highlighted beige with blue and gray lines crisscrossing the land throughout the map while water is highlighted blue. In the northwest of the map, the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea are labelled. In the northeast, the Van Golu (Lake Van), the Tigris R., the Euphrates R., and the Dead Sea are labelled. In the southern half of the map, the Dead Sea, the Nile R., the Red Sea, Lake Nasser, the Blue Nile R., the White Nile R., and the Bab el Mandeb are labelled. In the middle of the map, an “X” shaped area is highlighted pink and labelled “Mamluk Sultanate.” The cities of Jerusalem, Cairo, Medina and Mecca are labelled within this area from north to south.
Figure 17.21 The Mamluk Sultanate. This map shows the territory claimed by the Mamluk Sultanate at its greatest extent in 1317. The empire controlled access to the eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Nile as well as the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

During the first century of Mamluk rule, the time of the Bahri dynasty, the empire flourished. Following the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 and the execution of Caliph al-Musta’sim, members of the Abbasid family sought refuge in Egypt. In 1261, Baybars proclaimed al-Mustansir, the nephew of al-Musta’sim, the new caliph. In return, al-Mustansir recognized Baybars’s authority to rule over the lands once held by the Abbasids. Thus, while the Mamluk sultans never claimed the caliphate for themselves, they sought legitimacy for their rule through their role as protectors of the caliph.

Mamluk rulers were pious Muslims who protected pilgrims bound for the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. They built mosques and madrasas, and Cairo grew into an important center of religious scholarship. Unwilling to risk the displeasure of Muslim judges, the mamluks supported all four major schools of Islamic law. They also built hospitals, primary schools, and public fountains to provide the poor with clean drinking water. Their championing of Islam and their building of charitable institutions provided them with an important connection to their non-Turkish subjects, who might otherwise have resented their rule.

In the late fourteenth century, a new Mamluk dynasty came to power—the Burji, also named for the location of its mamluk barracks. The Burji sultans were mamluks of primarily Circassian and Georgian origin, unlike the Turks of the Bahri dynasty. The first Burji sultan, al-Zahir Barquq, assumed the throne in 1382. Almost immediately, plots emerged to remove him, one headed by the caliph who hoped to rule in his own right and another by Turkish tribes in Syria. Both attempts were defeated, but the peace did not last long. In 1399, 1434, and 1437, soldiers rioted in the streets of Cairo. Sometimes the riots began as conflicts between rival mamluk factions that spread to the streets and involved civilians. At other times, soldiers rioted when they had not been paid. In 1441, riots were sparked by food shortages and the perception that the grain trade, from which government officials profited, was inefficient and the prices unfair. Merchants’ stores were plundered by angry mobs. In the second half of the fifteenth century, mamluk-initiated chaos erupted nearly every year as soldiers fought in the streets and attacked the homes of the wealthy and government officials. Even religious scholars were not safe.

Unable to maintain order in their own capital, Mamluk rulers also had to confront rebellions in more far-flung parts of their domain. The Mamluks had difficulty establishing control over Syrian Arabs and the nomadic and seminomadic Bedouin tribes of Upper Egypt. Bedouin rebels were punished severely; men were impaled or burned alive, while women and children were enslaved. The heads of rebels were placed on the gates of Cairo as a warning against future revolts. Syrian Arabs were punished less harshly because their assistance was needed to repel attacks by Mongols and the Ottomans.

Although they remained an elite class in Egypt until 1811, the Mamluks found their sovereignty over the region threatened when they lost control of Syria to the Ottomans in 1516. The Ottoman sultan Selim I then conquered Cairo in 1517. Rather than depose the Mamluks, however, the Ottomans allowed them to rule their old domains on their conquerors’ behalf, though true power lay with the Ottomans in Istanbul.

Ming China and Its Neighbors

The ascendance of the Turks and the decline of Mongol rule in western Asia in the thirteenth century were soon followed by the decline of Mongol dominance in East Asia as well. By the second half of the thirteenth century, China found itself beset by problems. The Yuan dynasty emperor Kublai Khan waged a series of expensive campaigns against the kingdoms of Burma (now Myanmar), Annam, and Champa in Southeast Asia, and Java in the Indian Ocean. Two attempts to invade Japan failed, and revolts against Mongol rule erupted.

One of these revolts was the Ispah Rebellion, which began in Quanzhou. A major port city in southeastern China’s Fujian Province, Quanzhou was on the Maritime Silk Road, an ocean trading route that connected China to other trading ports in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, India, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and Egypt. Along this route, highly sought-after Chinese goods like porcelain and silk flowed westward to Europe, Africa, India, and western Asia.

Quanzhou had a population of more than two million, making it the largest port in China and likely in the world in the thirteenth century. Most of the population were foreign-born merchants from Arabia, Persia, India, Armenia, and other lands. The Muslims who lived in Quanzhou were among the many Arabs, Persians, and Turks from western and central Asia who had come to China to trade or to serve the Yuan government. Though they encouraged Muslims from elsewhere in Asia to settle in China, Yuan officials often discriminated against them, forbidding the butchering of animals according to Islamic law and interfering with Muslim marriage laws and efforts by the Muslim community to govern themselves. In 1357, Muslims in Quanzhou rose against the Mongols. The rebellion was not crushed until 1367.

Attempts to suppress such revolts, which continued after the death of Kublai, drained the treasury, as had Kublai’s unsuccessful military campaigns. His successors often mismanaged the treasury and sometimes held the throne for only brief periods of time. By the first half of the fourteenth century, natural disasters were compounding the difficulties China already faced. Droughts and floods led to food shortages and famines. Inflation and scarcity combined to raise the price of food beyond the reach of many peasants. Unusually cold weather worsened people’s suffering, and from the 1330s through the 1350s, epidemics swept through various parts of the country, killing millions. Bandits roamed the countryside, and the army made little effort to hunt down the numerous outlaws who preyed on the populace.

A number of religious sects arose foretelling the end of days. One of these was the White Lotus, a sect of Buddhism that announced the coming of a new Buddha and thus a new age (Figure 17.22). Seizing on the White Lotus prophecy, a secret peasant society named the Red Turbans called for the overthrow of Mongol rule and the return of the Song dynasty. Armed rebellion broke out in 1351. In 1352, a young wandering Buddhist monk named Zhu Yuanzhang joined the Red Turbans and married the daughter of one of its leaders. In 1356, his forces captured the southern Chinese city of Nanjing. After eliminating his rivals within the Red Turbans, in 1368 Zhu defeated the last Yuan emperor, who then abandoned China. Zhu destroyed the Yuan palace in the capital of Dadu (Beijing), proclaimed himself emperor with the name of Hongwu, meaning vast and martial, and dubbed his new dynasty the Ming (“bright”).

An image of a drawing is shown on a dark brown paper with ripped edges along the bottom. The black drawing shows five figures sitting around a rectangular table with a sixth figure standing in the right side of the image. The figures at the table wear long light colored robes with darker trim around the edges and dark slippers. Three on the left have hair in buns and two have facial hair, while the other two on the right side of the table wear dark hats and have long moustaches. The man standing has no facial hair and a dark hat. On the table there are three round objects and writing implements as well as scrolls of paper. The man standing holds a roll that is dark and decorated. Five Asian letterings are seen on the background.
Figure 17.22 The White Lotus Society. The White Lotus Society, a meeting of which is depicted in ink on this fifteenth-century paper handscroll, was originally established in China to spread the teachings of a novel sect of Buddhism that foresaw the coming of a new age. (credit: “White Lotus Society” by Unknown/John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

Hongwu began by enforcing his power and bolstering China’s security as the Ming dynasty’s first emperor (Figure 17.23). Although he tried to resolve social disparities by abolishing slavery and increasing taxes on the wealthy, the cost of his army put a significant strain on the Chinese economy. He was never able to fully bridge the gap between rich and poor, and his attempts to protect China from invasion and rebellion led to repressive domestic policies. Nevertheless, with the restoration of agricultural productivity and political stability, the early Ming era was a time of significant wealth and power for China.

An image of a painting is shown. In the image a man sits on a brown chair on an intricately detailed red, black, and white rug along a pale brown wall. The figure wears a black cap, has a black thin moustache and feathery beard. He wears a yellow, long shirt dress with a gold design on the front and on each of his shoulders. He wears a red and green belt and black shoes. A red collar is seen around his neck.
Figure 17.23 Zhu Yuanzhang. This hanging scroll silk painting of the fourteenth century is an official court portrait of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. It is about 8 feet high by about 5 feet wide. (credit: “Official court painting of the Hongwu Emperor” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Hongwu’s reign was marked by efforts to consolidate his own power, to protect himself from attack, and to reassert and expand Chinese influence. He eliminated the office of chief minister so that he might govern without interference, established a force of secret police, and ordered the execution of thousands of people who he believed disagreed with his polices. He also acted swiftly to stamp out rebellions. A revolt by the Miao ethnic group in Hunan Province in the southwest was crushed. The Kingdom of Dali, where Mongol forces had taken refuge in what is now Yunnan Province in the southeast, was defeated and the region incorporated into China. In 1387, Ming forces invaded Manchuria in the northeast, where Mongols loyal to the Yuan dynasty had also established a foothold. To protect the borders in underpopulated areas, Hongwu made military service in these regions hereditary. He forced the mass relocation of peasants from the south to augment the population in parts of central and northern China that had been hard hit by crop failures and epidemics.

Hongwu’s efforts to expand Chinese power continued under his successor, his son Zhu Di, known as the Yongle emperor. From 1406 to 1427, Chinese forces tried unsuccessfully to invade and subdue the kingdom of Vietnam, and to counter the continuing Mongol threat, the Great Wall of China was repaired and lengthened. In other ways, though, Zhu Di reversed his father’s policies. Hongwu had wanted to isolate China from dangerous foreign influences and so had forbidden nearly all maritime trade. The Yongle emperor strove instead to establish relations with foreign lands in order to make their rulers aware of China’s wealth and power. To this end, he dispatched Admiral Zheng He on seven naval expeditions between 1405 and 1433. Chinese fleets consisting of thousands of ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. Zheng He presented foreign rulers with gifts of porcelain, silk, and gold to impress upon them the splendor of the Ming dynasty, and he returned with tribute for the emperor in the form of ivory and exotic animals such as zebras and ostriches.

Zhu Di also established diplomatic relations with Shah Rukh, the son and heir of Timur, as well as with rulers in the Philippines and the Indian Ocean. China had no direct contact with the Ottoman state, however. When he ascended the throne, Hongwu sent an announcement to the Byzantine emperor, who he believed was still in power in Constantinople. After this, however, there was no correspondence or direct contact between the two states for at least a century.

The Yongle emperor moved the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing, in the center of which he began construction of the new Forbidden City, a walled compound consisting of palaces, temples, and gardens for use by the emperor and the members of his household. In 1420, he also ordered the building of an elaborate tomb north of Beijing, where other members of the dynasty also built final resting places for themselves (Figure 17.24). All these structures conveyed an image of China’s power, wealth, and magnificence.

An image of a large valley is shown in pale beige, gray, pink, and green colors. In the bottom left of the image five rectangle white and pale blue arches are shown leading to a stone bridge over a waterway that weaves all throughout the image. Next, the path leads to a pink colored archway with three openings and a gold roof. The path continues through another pink and gold single archway that then leads to a long path that goes to the right lined with animals on both sides. The path goes off into the background which is filled with tiered colorful buildings, tall white windowed towers, hills, trees, and roads. Behind the rows of animals are rounded stone structures surrounded by trees and other stone structures.
Figure 17.24 Ming Tombs. Ming dynasty emperors built thirteen tombs at the foot of the Jundu Mountains near Beijing, shown here in a nineteenth-century ink and watercolor image. The three red arches in the lower left mark the beginning of the Spirit Way, a four-mile road that runs through the valley. (credit: “Ming shi san ling tu” by Arthur W. Hummel/Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Public Domain)

Beyond the Book

The Forbidden City

The construction of the Forbidden City (Figure 17.25) in the center of Beijing began in the reign of the Yongle emperor. Within its walls were gardens, palaces, and temples. Guards at its gates carefully limited access to only the important people who lived and worked inside it. The main entrance was the Meridian Gate, which had five separate gateways. The central one was reserved for exclusive use by the emperor with only two exceptions: the empress could use the central gate on her wedding day, as could men who had successfully passed the imperial examinations for entering into state service as an administrator.

The Ming emperors held court in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. During the Ming dynasty, the emperor lived in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, while the empress lived nearby in the smaller Palace of Earthly Tranquility. To either side of these palaces were the six western palaces and the six eastern palaces where the emperor’s consorts lived.

A map titled “Forbidden City (Beijing) is shown on a yellow background. White labelled streets run horizontal and vertical throughout the image and a scale is located in the bottom left in “m” and “yards.” Three blue areas at the left top are visible, labelled Bei Hai,  Zhonghai, and Nanhai, from top to bottom. The top blue area is labelled Ben Hai Park and the Pavilion of Five Dragons and the Screen of Nine Dragons are located at the top and a green mass in the lower right is labelled Chonghuadao with a red and white block inside labelled White Dagoba. Southwest is located the Peking Library. A green rectangle is to the east labelled Jing Shan (Coal Hill) Park and below is a large white rectangle littered with red dots and squares labelled Palace Museum. Inside, the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Gate of Supreme Harmony are labelled as well as the Meridian Gate at the bottom. The letters A (Gate of Divine Might), B (Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility), C (Hall of Military Eminence), and D (Hall of Literary Glory) are located at the north, south, west, and east sides, respectively. South of the Palace Museum are green and white areas with streets crisscrossing and labels for the following: Sun Yat-sen Memorial Ha (cut off), Working People’s Palace of Culture, Duan Gate, Gate of Heavenly Peace, Zhongshan (Sun-Yat sen) Park, and Park of the People’s Culture. On the south end of the map these locations are labelled: Tian An Men Square, Great Hall of the People (Parliament), Monument to the People’s Heroes, Museum of the Chinese Revolution and Museum of Chinese History, Mao Zedong Mausoleum, and the Front Gate. Along the east side of the map, these locations are labelled, from north to south: People’s Market, National Art Gallery, Huaqiao Hotel, Shoudu Theatre, Dongfeng Market, Peking Hotel, Chinese Youth Art Theatre, and Xinqiao Hotel.
Figure 17.25 The Forbidden City. This map of central Beijing shows the location of the palace complex known as the Forbidden City, now a national museum. Note how the layout and names of important buildings and other structures within the compound compare to those of the surrounding area. (credit: modification of work “Map of Forbidden City, 1987” by Nathan Hughes Hamilton/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
  • Examine the layout of the Forbidden City and the names of its palaces, gates, and other structures. What does this compound tell you about the values of the Ming dynasty?
  • Can you think of any complexes that are similar to the Forbidden City? If so, what and where are they?

Despite their wealth and power, the Ming emperors could still find themselves helpless in the face of Mongol aggression. The Yongle emperor tried unsuccessfully to subdue the Oirats, the westernmost of the Mongol tribes, who lived in what is now western Mongolia and the Altai region of Siberia. In 1449, the Oirat leader Esen took the twenty-one-year-old Ming emperor Yingzong hostage after the Mongol army defeated a much larger Chinese military force at the Battle of Tumu Fortress. The Ming responded by demoting Yingzong to the rank of “retired emperor” and placed his younger half-brother on the throne instead.

Esen’s efforts to return Yingzong to Beijing—after conveniently marrying the captive emperor to his daughter—failed, and Mongol efforts to take Beijing by force were repulsed. Yingzong remained a prisoner of the Oirat until a member of his court ransomed him and returned him to Beijing, where he was placed under house arrest in a palace in the Forbidden City by his half-brother, who had no intention of giving up the throne. It was another seven years before Yingzong managed to unseat (and kill) his half-brother and reclaim his throne.

Yingzong was forced to confront Mongol forces again in 1461 when the Chinese general Cao Qin attempted a coup with the assistance of Mongol soldiers. The emperor was saved only when a timely downpour foiled efforts to burn the gates that blocked the rebels’ entry to the Forbidden City.

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