The Ming dynasty arose following a series of natural disasters that had hit China during the early and middle 1300s, adding to the misery of a people under the harsh rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). In 1368 rebel armies—led by Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398)—overthrew the Yuan, and Zhu established a dynasty he named Da Ming (“Great Brightness”). The only emperor in China’s long history to have been born to a peasant family, Zhu had been orphaned early in life. From these humble beginnings rose a dynasty that was to be ruled by seventeen emperors over a period of 276 years (more than half a century longer than the United States has been an independent nation).
From Nanjing, the first Ming capital (see map above), Zhu Yuanzhang reigned as the Hongwu emperor for thirty years (1368–1398). His priorities — consolidating his power, building an imperial capital, and setting up a system of government — were shared by his fourth son, Zhu Di, who, following a power struggle of nearly four years, usurped the throne from his nephew and ruled as the Yongle emperor from 1403 to 1424. During the Yongle reign, the seat of the Ming dynasty was moved to Beijing (see map). This was a time of exploration, with imperial expeditions sent as far away as the east coast of Africa.
Court arts of these early reigns reflect the emperors’ desires to display the power and glory of their dynasty. Subsequent Ming emperors were not as strong, and by the end of the dynasty much of the power and glory of the imperial family had faded.
The Ming Capitals
When Ming troops overthrew the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty (1368), the establishment of a capital city with an appropriate imperial presence became a high priority. The first Ming emperor settled in Nanjing, on the lower reaches of the Yangzi River, an area that was China’s wealthiest and was home to many members of its educated elite. Nanjing (literally, “Southern Capital”) was the primary Ming capital until 1420, when the Yongle emperor (reigned 1403–1424) moved the capital to Beijing (“Northern Capital”). For the remainder of the dynasty Nanjing served as the secondary capital of the dynasty, with diminishing administrative significance. The construction of each of these capitals was an enormous undertaking, requiring the mobilization of massive labor forces and the amassing of great quantities of materials.
The city of Beijing changed considerably during the 224 years it served as the Ming capital. The emphasis during the early years was on creating an imperial capital that reflected the power and glory of the Ming court. By the 1500s this phase of building had been completed: Transportation systems and other infrastructures were in place, and the imperial compounds had come to include large numbers of warehouses, workshops, and places to house members of the court as well as support staff. By the end of the dynasty, Beijing’s inhabitants included an enormous population serving the needs of the imperial family and the official bureaucracy. Some estimates put the number of imperial family members supported by the state by the end of the dynasty as high as sixty thousand, and the total population of Beijing as high as one million.