china’s emperor hongwu -- 5/16/23

Today's selection -- from The Shortest History of China by Linda Jaivin. The great Hongwu emperor (r. 1368-1399), founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, ruled a territory as large as continental Europe:
"The Hongwu emperor, as Zhu Yuanzhang titled himself, distrusted scholar-officials no less than Khublai Khan, but in his case it was because they were more educated than him, typically from a higher social class and opinionated. He did not welcome zhengyou, 'friends with arguments,' in his court. He would observe Confucian rituals while barring the publication of inconvenient Confucian texts, such as those of Mencius that sanctioned killing tyrants. Paranoid about challenges to his authority and sensitive to insult, he had tens of thousands of scholar-officials and generals, including former allies, executed on charges ranging from corruption to treason.

"Hongwu's antagonism toward scholar-officials prompted him, some twelve years into his reign, to abolish the position of prime minister, concentrating both civil and military power in his own hands. Although the Ming would last almost three hundred years, Hongwu's decision to place the emperor at the center of decision-making ultimately condemned the dynasty to incompetent government and endemic corruption
"After he drove the Mongols all the way to Siberia, Hong­wu's realm was as large as continental Europe. He established the capital in southern Nanjing. Inspired by the Tang's division of the land into administrative units, Hongwu redivided the country into fifteen provinces. The boundaries of most prov­inces today date back to the Ming.

A Seated Portrait of Ming Emperor Taizu, c. 1377

"Hongwu raised armies of corvee laborers to restore roads, canals, and dikes, and repair or build nearly forty-one thousand reservoirs. His mother had died of starvation; preventing fam­ine was a guiding concern for him as emperor. He rewarded those who moved to depopulated areas with arable land, order­ing them to plant fruit trees, including mulberry (to feed silk­worms). A billion trees were planted in his reign, fifty million of them near Nanjing. Some were earmarked for shipbuilding, for the Ming had grand maritime ambitions. The dynasty, which in 1393 ruled over a population of just over seventy million, began to enjoy peace and prosperity.

"Hongwu's legal code mandated harsh punishments for corrupt officials. High-level offenders were to be flayed after execution, their skins put on public display. Mindful of the cri­sis prompted by the nepotism of the Tang consort Yang Guifei, Hongwu barred all relatives of empresses and consorts from official positions. He also sought to constrain extravagance among palace functionaries, limiting official banquets to four dishes and one soup (a formula that modern leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, would invoke in their own cam­paigns against official profligacy).

"Hongwu was wary of eunuchs, mindful that there was little reward for their grievous personal sacrifice apart from self-enrichment. To lessen their chances of meddling in state affairs, he banned them from receiving an education and ordered any who interfered in politics be put to death. They were to guard the harem and to 'clean and sweep.' Yet because they also staffed the imperial bodyguard and the secret police, eunuchs enjoyed personal access to the emperor, giving them ample opportunities for blackmail and influence-peddling. For all Hongwu's efforts to control them, eunuchs would play a large role in the eventual downfall of his dynasty.

"Hongwu's dozens of wives and concubines gave birth to twenty-six sons (twenty-four survived infancy) and sixteen daughters. He sent his sons to govern different parts of the empire, discarding the system of independent administrators established in the Tang. In 1370, he dispatched his fourth son, ten-year-old Zhu Di, to the ruins of Khanbalik, in the charge of a trusted general whose mission was to rebuild the old Yuan capital into a garrison city for defense against Mongol incur­sions. Zhu Di was intelligent and ambitious, resembling his father in vigor and temperament. After his eldest brother died, he expected to be named his father's successor. When Hongwu died in 1398, Zhu Di was thirty-eight and ready to rule." 

"Zhu Di was infuriated to learn that Hongwu bequeathed the throne instead to his eldest brother's bookish twenty-one­-year-old son. As the Jianwen emperor (r. 1398-1402), the young ruler was determined to restore regional governance to the realm of civil service. He demanded that his uncles relinquish power, imprisoning those who refused. He hadn't been on the throne a full year when Zhu Di galloped south at the head of an army fifty thousand strong. Three years later, in 1402, Zhu Di burnt his nephew's palace to the ground. Jianwen's body was never found. ..."



Linda Jaivin


The Shortest History of China


The Experiment, LLC


Copyright 2021 by Linda Jaivin


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