By the mid 14th century the most formidable military power the world had seen had reduced itself to something that could be defeated. Zhu Yuanzhang, a Han Chinese peasant and former Buddhist monk was the man who would do it. After a series of crushing military victories over the country's Mongol overlords he founded The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and took Hongwu as his reign title. In order to stabilize China he had about 10,000 scholars and their families put to death in two purges of his administration.
By this time the capital of China was Nanjing, in the south of China, close to where Shanghai is today.
The third emperor of the Ming dynasty was Yongle (1403-24). In 1402 he began building a new seat of power in Beijing on the site of the old Yuan capital.
Employing on the average 300 ships and 20,000 men, seven expeditions in all took place between 1405 and 1433, to countries as far afield as Arabia and Mozambique. They were led by the eunuch admiral, Zhenghe, a Muslim from Yunnan who became a trusted officer in Emperor Yongle's court and an influential diplomat. The Chinese knew about Europe from Arab traders but had no desire to go to the lands in the far west "offering only wool and wine".
During this brief perod many rulers of the lands which the expeditions visited came with tribute to the Ming court. Foreign goods, medicines and geographical knowledge flowed into China.
Shortly after the last voyage of the imperial fleet the Chinese emperor forbade overseas travels and stopped all building and repair of oceangoing junks. Disobedient merchants and sailors were killed. The greatest navy of the world willed itself into extiction and Japanese pirates ravaged the coast of China. The world leader in science and technology was soon left behind. The Ming had reached the zenith of their power and went back to the revival of a strict agrarian-centered society.
In 1416 the north-south Grand Canal had been repaired to ensure that safe grain shippment from the south to the northern capital could be done by canal, instead of by sea, which in a way did away with the need for navy ships to protect grain shipments against raids by pirates.
The construction of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) was basically completed near the end of 1420, the eighteenth year of Emperor Yongles's reign.
Beijing (North city) was then designated the "first capital," and Nanjing (South city) the second. In 1421 the Ming Dynasty officially moved its capital to Beijing. Because of this, the court also became more vulnerably to the Mongols incursions along the northern borders.
In making this decision the Emperor is believed to have been guided by the Neo-Confucian bureaucracy, who enjoyed an influence at court they never had under Yongle. Zhenghe's expeditions was called "signs of fiscal madness" while other advisors, steeped in Confucian ethics, argued that merchants accompanying Zhenghe were "parasites'' who wanted to make money out of others and use sea trade as a way to avoid taxes imposed by the towns. Because there was no military threat from the sea, it was foolish to spend so much money on a fleet, just to benefit Muslim merchants.
The stopping of the Ming maritime expeditions reflected a return to the isolationist tendencies of old and the growing power of the conservative Confucian scholars, who had long been envious of the power of the eunuchs.
The latter part of ther Ming dynasty was frought with problems. It is known that the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) and the Palace of Earthly Repose (Kunning gong) in the Forbidden City were burned down in 1596-7, and that they were subsequently reconstructed and refurnished.
Quality control at Jingdezhen decreased during the later 16th century, after supervision had been delegated from capital to provincial level. Huge orders for complex items came from the court, which the imperial factory was often unable to satisfy. For example, in 1591 239,000 porcelain vessels were ordered, but the kilns weren't able to complete them for many years. By 1606 it was said that over 10,000 daily workers were needed, overburdening the system with semi-skilled labour.
In 1607 an official from the Ministry of Works inspected the dispatch of the first 159,000 items, while the remaining 80,000 were divided into eight shipments. After the seventh shipment officials gave up, leaving behind some 10,000 pieces.
The best pocelain pieces of this period was probably made in the first half century of the Wanli reign. Famine and hardship in Jiangxi province made many skilled potters stop work and switch to other professions causing the Imperial factory to actually close down in 1609.
The stability of the Ming Dynasty, which was without major disruptions of the population (then around 100 million), economy, arts, society, or politics, promoted a belief among the Chinese that they had achieved the most satisfactory civilization on earth and that nothing foreign was needed or welcome.
The western discovery of the maritime route by Vasco de Gama provided a new direct link between Europe and Asia. The Portuguese pioneered the importation of porcelain from China to Europe. In the early 15th century the Portuguese navigators rounded the coast of Africa in search of gold, slaves and spices. They arrived in Malabar in India (1498), Malacca (1511) and the Moluccas (1512).
Long wars with the Mongols, incursions by the Japanese into Korea, and harassment of Chinese coastal cities by the Japanese in the sixteenth century weakened Ming rule. A famine in Shaanxi Province and governmental neglect sparked a huge peasant rebellion that brought the Ming to a close. In 1644 the Manchus took Beijing from the north and became masters of north China, establishing the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911).