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The victorious rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang renamed himself Emperor Hongwu (“Overwhelming Military Force”) as soon as he had toppled the Yuan dynasty. He set up his new capital in the city of Nanjing, and chose the name of Ming for his own dynasty; it means simply “Bright,” a description of the future he promised China. As the first emperor of ethnic Han Chinese ancestry to rule all of Inner China in almost two and a half centuries, he took it as his mission to restore his land’s Confucian order along with its traditional conception of itself as the Middle Kingdom at the center of the world.

Ming China. This map shows the stable core of the empire, but the emperors of its first century and a half were often able to extend their effective borders well out onto the steppes to the north. The later emperors, on the other hand, preferred to hunker down behind their Great Wall.  (Michal Klajban)

As should be clear by now, this was typical of Chinese history; revolutions in imperial China were different from those of other lands. The rebellions that spawned a new Chinese dynasty every handful of centuries were reactionary rather than radical, backward- rather than forward-looking. These civil wars were not fought over the appropriate ideology for China’s government; it was widely agreed from the Han dynasty onward that China should be governed according to the precepts of Confucius. They were rather fought over the question of how faithfully and honestly those precepts were being implemented. Each would-be successor dynasty aimed to restore a social harmony which it claimed that its predecessor, mired in sclerotic corruption, had allowed to slip away. Especially when viewed from a removal of centuries or millennia, all of this can make the various dynasties of China difficult to keep separate. The differences between them were real, but they were also subtle in a way that resists the broad brush we so often like to apply to wide-angle historiography.

When we do look for distinctions to separate the Ming dynasty from what came before, we can see that it was somewhat heavy-handed even by imperial Chinese standards; some historians have gone so far as to call it China’s first truly despotic government since the Qin dynasty. The long hand of the emperor extended itself deeper into daily life at the village level than ever before, and retribution came swift and harsh to those who went against his edicts in word or deed. The reasons for this are, as usual, up for debate; perhaps the calcifying of Confucianism from philosophy to religion had a similar effect on tolerance and nuance in other areas of Chinese life. What is clear, however, is that the Ming monarchs right from the time of Emperor Hongwu brooked no defiance. The memoir and book of advice for his successors which the latter left behind after his death in 1398 smacks as much of the supposedly discredited philosophy of Legalism as it does the Confucianism of ancient times. Certainly it betrays little of the venerable sage’s faith in the innate goodness of individuals, relying instead on the threat of corporal punishment to motivate proper behavior.

Occasionally unjust matters come to my attention. After I discover the truth, I capture and imprison the corrupt, villainous, and oppressive officers involved. I punish them with the death penalty or forced labor or have them flogged with bamboo sticks in order to make manifest the consequences of good or evil actions.

Those who have died from their punishments are mute. However, those who survive confuse the truth by speaking falsely. Lying to their friends and neighbors, they all say they are innocent. They complain, “The court’s punishments are savage and cruel.” This kind of slander is all too common. Yet I had clearly warned my officials from the beginning not to do anything wrong. Too often they have not followed my words, thereby bringing disaster upon themselves.

When a criminal commits a crime or when a good person mistakenly violates the law, he is going to be punished. Among these guilty ones there will always be some who are so afraid of being flogged or of dying that they will try to bribe the law-enforcement officials with gold and silk. The guilty persons, afraid of death, use money to buy their lives. The officials, not afraid of death, accept the money, thereby putting their lives in danger of the law. Yet later, when they are about to be punished or are on their way to the execution ground, they begin to tremble in fear. They look up to Heaven and they gaze down at the earth. They open their eyes wide, seeking for help in every direction. Alas, by then it is too late for them to repent their actions. It is more than too late, for they now are no longer able to preserve their lives. “I begin to feel remorse, but it is too late.”

Evil persons, take heed. Discontinue your evil practices and you will perpetuate your good fortune and prosperity. Otherwise you will be exterminated and your family will be broken. Be cautious! Be cautious!

Emperor Hongwu carried out a series of bloody purges to root out those he deemed to be sympathizers and/or collaborators with the previous dynasty of foreign interlopers. A true blue xenophobe, he executed as many as 40,000 Yuan government officials by some estimates. (“Heaven shall appoint one from the Middle Kingdom to gratify the Chinese people. How could barbarians be their rulers?”) One never knew whether an imperial summons was the best or the worst of news; those who were called to the capital got in the habit of writing out their wills and saying final farewells to their families, just in case.

But the best remembered Ming emperor is not the first but the third. Emperor Yongle (“Perpetual Happiness”) ruled from 1402 to 1424, the period generally considered to represent his dynasty’s peak. Continuing and even doubling down on the harsh policies of Hongwu, Yongle elevated the position of emperor to as close to that of a literal god on earth as it would ever come. One year into his reign, he moved his capital from Nanjing back to the old Yuan capital of Dadu. But in place of its Mongolian name, he gave the city a Chinese one: Beijing. From here, he would be able to make his august presence palpable to the steppe peoples who continued as ever to harass his citizens from time to time, and project his power effortlessly well beyond Inner China’s borders whenever he judged it necessary.

Yet his most enduring contribution to his posterity was Beijing itself. The Chinese capital has been firmly fixed at this northeasterly extreme of Inner China ever since, excepting only a brief couple of decades in the first half of the twentieth century. When people around the world think of China in a visual sense today, it is the architecture of Ming Beijing which tends to leap first into their minds, even though it is not terribly old by the standards of Chinese history. For the fact is that there is surprisingly little left to serve as architectural evidence of the earlier, equally glorious ages of China’s past, thanks to its builders’ traditional preference for wood , clay, and porous brick over stone. Thus the sort of monumental wonders we are familiar with from other ancient cultures, from the Pyramids of Giza to the Colosseum and great early churches of Rome, have not come down to us from China’s antiquity. (The most notable exception is the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, which was preserved by virtue of being buried upon the death of the emperor in question.) It is only when we reach the Ming dynasty that we can begin to see China’s history standing proudly before our eyes, as it were. Although Chinese architects continued to prefer more perishable materials over stone in many cases even during this era, the stability of a permanent capital that hasn’t been comprehensively razed or burnt since 1403 has allowed some of the finest architectural creations of the Ming to be preserved.

They lie principally within the Forbidden City which Emperor Yongle ordered built at the exact center of his capital. It was so named because to pass inside its walls without express permission from the throne was a crime punishable by instant death. Chinese emperors would rule from their city within a city for almost 500 years, utterly isolated — not for the better, many historians would say — from the life of the land outside its walls. The Forbidden City became almost like a nation unto itself, akin to the Vatican.

One of the many extraordinary views inside the Forbidden City. (Carlos Adampol Galindo)

Its soaring gates and towers, sculpted gardens, statues and thrones and palaces can hardly fail to awe the first-time visitor. Yet not all continue to admire it unreservedly after a longer acquaintance. Rather than a place of beauty, Julia Lovell among others sees the Forbidden City as an aesthetically clumsy manifestation of the heavy-handed regime which brought it into existence.

While the calling cards of earlier Chinese architecture were still very much present in the high Ming style — the curved roof, the overhanging eaves — Ming architecture became a distorting mirror of the past, replacing Chinese builders’ earlier concern for harmony of proportion with a worship of overblown scale: sacrificing the height of walls to length and exaggeratedly deepening roofs. In the Forbidden City, the results were overbearing: huge, heavy, tiled roofs slipped, like oversized hats, over foreshortened walls, all seemingly groaning under the weight of their own self-importance. The gaudy imperial colour scheme — its huge expanses of white marble, golden-yellow roof tiles, deep red walls, blue, green, and gold mosaic — adds an extra overemphasis to the outlines of the entire ensemble. There is nothing subtle about the appeal of the Forbidden City: it impresses through the size of the imperial conceit, through its succession of enormous, white-stone courtyards, its string of raised audience halls, its marble bridges and stairs, all set with rigid symmetry within a rectangle 1.1 kilometres [.7 miles] on its longer edge. Its proportions dwarf visitors, compelling a slow progression through the complex, forcing them to submit to an oppressive imperial vision of time and space. Never intrinsically beautiful, the Forbidden City impresses mainly with its authoritarian pomposity, with its aesthetic of thuggish grandiloquence.

Such misgivings aside — misgivings which, it should be noted, could be equally applied to the Pyramids of Giza and a large number of history’s other famous architectural leavings — the Forbidden City is an apt representation of the early Ming dynasty, which was unquestionably another of the high points of Chinese civilization, a time of immense prosperity and international influence. The early Ming emperors were the most outward-facing native Chinese monarchs since the early Tang in terms of their willingness to countenance military adventures far beyond the borders of Inner China, if not so much in terms of their receptivity to the foreign cultures they encountered there. Emperor Yongle personally led campaigns on the steppes that destroyed the myth of the Mongols’ military invincibility once and for all and expanded the Chinese empire to its largest extent since the glory days of the Tang. And yet his most famous foreign adventures of all involved sea rather than land routes.

China has seldom been associated with sea power in the minds of the rest of the world. And there is a reason for this: occupying as it does a substantial portion of the largest contiguous land mass on our planet, it has looked more often to the vast swaths of territory to its north and west more than it has to the sea to its south and east. Still, boats and barges have been a way of life for the people of waterlogged Southern Inner China in particular since prehistory, and imperial China as a whole was never without some shipbuilding competency. The Qin and Han emperors sent explorers well out into the Pacific and Indian Oceans, chasing rumors of an elixir of eternal life; such expeditions may have reached as far as the eastern shore of Africa. Texts from the heyday of the Tang period contain detailed descriptions of the peoples of Africa, suggesting not only that the Tang Chinese reached the continent but that they engaged in at least a modicum of trade there, in goods and, quite possibly, slaves. The Song emperors invested even more heavily in their merchant navy, which sailed the width and breadth of the Indian Ocean, aided enormously no doubt by that fourth of the Four Great Inventions, the compass. Indeed, the Song spirit of invention is nowhere more in evidence than in the ocean-going junks of the period, which could carry up to 300 tons of cargo and 600 passengers, and sported such modern amenities as lifeboats and three separate watertight holds, the breaching of any one of which the ship could withstand. The largest of the Song ships were built in dry docks, another Chinese invention that wouldn’t reach Europe for centuries.

The armed Song navy was quite simply the most sophisticated in the world during this period. The warships known as “flying tigers” were essentially paddle-wheel steamers without the steam, being driven instead by manpower through a set of sophisticated chains, gears, and pulleys. They were the first ships in the world to take advantage of the third Great Invention of gunpowder, which they used in bombs that they hurled from catapults into the midst of the enemy. In 1274, during the Yuan period, Kublai Khan gathered these flying tigers and many other ships together into a colossal fleet — by far the largest ever assembled in Chinese history — and sent it to invade Japan. Unfortunately for the Chinese, it fell victim to a fearsome typhoon. Incredibly, a second invasion fleet met the same fate seven years later. This caused the Japanese to conclude that their islands enjoyed special protection from the gods, in the form of a “divine wind,” or kamikaze. The episode became one of the most important building blocks of a Japanese identity that did not see itself as automatically subservient to the Chinese, laying the groundwork for Japan to dare to challenge China directly more than 600 years later for the status of the principal power in East Asia. In the meantime, China gave up on launching amphibious invasions and returned to using its ships primarily for trade.

The most famous Chinese seaman in history grew up within a Muslim enclave in Yunnan province in the extreme southwest of Inner China, the very last part of the Middle Kingdom to be reclaimed by Emperor Hongwu. Legend has it that the Ming general charged with that task came across the ten-year-old Zheng He standing on the roadside, and was so impressed with his bearing that he took him with him. The boy was castrated three years later, and enlisted into the service of the imperial court. Most eunuchs who had been castrated at such an early age grew up rather effeminate, with high-pitched voices and small frames. But Zheng He was an exception. He grew up tall and muscular, with an imposing voice and bearing and a head for military strategy. He was so impressive that, alone among his class, he was allowed to command troops in the field; this he did with distinction.

After Emperor Yongle took the throne, he opted to build a mammoth fleet to send out into the world, to trade and to advertise the presence of a reinvigorated China to all and sundry. At its heart were a handful of “dragon ships,” so named for the brightly colored dragon heads carved into their prows. At 500 feet (150 meters) in length by some accounts, these were some of the largest wooden sailing ships ever built, eight or nine times the size of the ones which Christopher Columbus took to the New World. According to a Chinese text, they “moved through the water with great stability and made the passengers feel as if they were on dry land.” The dragon ships were surrounded by some 300 attending vessels of all stripes. Emperor Yongle elected to appoint Zheng He, now 35 years old and a grizzled veteran of many land campaigns, as the admiral in charge of the fleet; never before had a eunuch been entrusted with such an awesome responsibility. The fleet sailed from Nanjing for the first time in the fall of 1405.

Over the course of three separate expeditions spanning the next six years, Zheng He visited modern Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, to fill his holds with precious commodities such as rhinoceros horn — widely believed to have potent curative properties by Chinese doctors — and to show the imperial flag to anyone who might doubt the strength of the Son of Heaven. Painted in impossibly bright colors, beautifully carved to look like all manner of fierce creatures, his fleet must have been as awe-inspiring a sight as has ever taken to the sea; Michael Schuman calls it “arguably the most ostentatious display of China’s superpower status in the history of the world.” Zheng He had occasion to demonstrate his fleet’s military potency on a number of occasions, rooting out pirate nests and forcibly initiating trade relations with recalcitrant kingdoms from behind the barrels of his cannons. Small wonder that most of the lands he visited rushed to send delegations to Beijing to pay tribute to the regime there immediately after his departure. With might like this at the emperor’s beck and call, it was obviously best to stay on his good side.

But Zheng He and his emperor were just getting started. For the treasure fleet’s fourth expedition, they planned something even more ambitious: to sail all the way to the Muslim lands of Arabia. The fleet reached Hormuz for the first time in 1414, where it exchanged the porcelain, silk, and tea in its holds for sapphires, rubies, topaz, pearls, coral, amber, wool, and woven carpets — even lions and leopards for the Forbidden City’s menagerie, along with the finest Arabian stallions for its stable. On his next voyage, the tireless Zheng He returned to Arabia, then went on to Africa, where he traded with the Swahilis, returning to China with giraffes among other exotica. He visited Arabia and Africa twice more in later years. With countless smaller merchantmen plying the trade routes Zheng He established, charted, and protected, China now stood as not just the biggest economy in the world but the greatest seaborne mercantile nation by far.

Emperor Yongle died in 1424, followed by Zheng He in 1433, on his way back to China from his seventh and last expedition. The text of a tablet he left behind before embarking on his final voyage makes for a fitting memorial, both to the man and to the timeless allure of the sea.

We have traversed more than 30,000 miles [50,000 kilometers] of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly as] a star, traversing these savage waves as if we were traveling a public thoroughfare…

But then it all came crashing to a halt. The emperors who followed Yongle never paid for another expedition of such a size after Zheng He’s death. Instead they gradually but quite deliberately strangled their empire’s seagoing commerce. By 1500, the building of ships with three or more masts had been outlawed by imperial edict; by 1550, even two-masted ships had become illegal. These perverse, seemingly inexplicable decisions are seen by many scholars today as one of the turning points of global history. Said scholars argue compellingly that this was the moment when China began to squander the huge economic and technological lead it had enjoyed over Europe for the best part of a millennium.

Barely 70 years after Zheng He departed East Africa for the last time, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope with four battered Portuguese caravels. When he made landfall farther up the coast, the natives who rowed out to greet his tiny fleet found it to be a rather underwhelming sight in comparison with the stories of the splendid dragon ships of yore that they still passed down from generation to generation around their campfires. Da Gama himself puzzled over their tales of other “white faces,” and wondered why these Africans were so much less impressed with the beads and other cheap trinkets he offered them than those on the other side of the continent had been. He had no way of knowing how close he and his fellow Europeans had come to having their thunder well and truly stolen.

As it was, though, the European Age of Exploration soon gave way to that of colonization and exploitation, the economic engine which would catapult Europe from a relative backwater of the civilized world to its  epicenter. It seems that it could so easily have been China that put the global economy in a stranglehold instead. Why wasn’t it?

That is a complex, multifaceted question. The decision to turn away from the sea undoubtedly had much to do with the factionalism of the imperial court, the perpetual jockeying for influence between the eunuchs and the Confucian scholar officials. With Zheng He being one of their own, elevated to a crazily rarefied station, the eunuchs could hardly have failed to be on the side of an outward-facing, mercantilist foreign policy, while the Confucianists, for their part, could add pettier resentments to their philosophical aversion to foreign adventurism of all types.

Emperor Yongle and his bold admiral may have scored some temporary triumphs, but in the long run the currents of Chinese history were on the side of the Confucianists. For whatever reason, China’s natural tendency has always been to look inward rather than outward. Breaking that pattern is not impossible, but has generally required an unusually strong-willed leader, the sort who by definition doesn’t come along all that frequently. In the absence of such a figure after the death of Emperor Yongle, China merely reverted to the mean. Even had the treasure ships continued to sail, of course, there is no guarantee that China would have become a colonial power like the nations of Europe, with the economic and political advantage founded on rank injustice which that came to entail. China’s ambitions in the world perhaps never would have extended that far under any circumstances — and this is perhaps more to its credit than its shame.

Be that as it may, the same intensely traditionalist, intensely nativist impulse that led Ming China to reject the permanent overseas trading empire it might have had also put a damper on the spirit of invention that had marked the Song dynasty. The Ming Neoconfucianists’ belief that their great sage had already answered all of the questions that were worth asking did nothing to encourage further technological advancement. China’s textile industry, for example, came shockingly close to inventing the spinning jenny and the flying shuttle 300 years before they came to Europe, only to lose its nerve at the crucial moment.

By way of compensation, the Ming era was as artistically vibrant as any period in Chinese history. This was the time when a new, albeit not entirely respectable, literary form came into its own: the colloquial prose novel. We have already met one of the earliest Ming novels, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, in an earlier chapter. Being based on extensive research into the distant past on the part of its author, it is arguably the first recognizable historical novel to be found anywhere in world literature, coming almost half a millennium before Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the West’s best claim to that literary innovation.

As we ought to have come to expect by now, the Chinese themselves have compiled a canonical list of Six Classic Novels, which includes Romance of the Three Kingdoms as its oldest entry. No fewer than three more of them stem from the Ming dynasty as well, all providing a relief valve for the “roguish” side of the Chinese psyche, as Lin Yutang liked to put it. There are The Water Margin by Shi Nai’an, a rollicking story of a group of good-hearted outlaws, sort of China’s equivalent to the tales of Robin Hood; Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, an irreverent and very funny fable about a Buddhist monk who travels from China to India; and The Plum in the Golden Vase by an anonymous author, a novel of manners and deliciously viperous upper-class intrigue that reads like a cross between Danielle Steel and Marcel Proust.

Unlike Chinese poetry, which tends toward elegant concision, Chinese novels are expansive, baggy creations that often meander over more than 1000 pages. “Chinese novels are always read in bed,” wrote Lin Yutang categorically, then elaborated thusly:

In looseness of plot, the Chinese novel is like the novels of D.H. Lawrence, and in length like the Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The similarity between Chinese and Russian novels is quite apparent. Both have an extremely realistic technique, both revel in details, both content themselves with telling the story without the subjectivity characteristic of the novels of Western Europe. Fine psychological portrayal there is, but there is very little room for the author to expound over his psychological knowledge. The story is told primarily as a story…

On the whole, the tempo of the Chinese novel reflects very well the tempo of Chinese life. It is enormous, big and variegated and is never in a hurry. The novel is avowedly created to kill time, and when there is plenty of time to kill and the reader is in no hurry to catch a train, there is no reason why he must hurry to the end. A Chinese novel should be read slowly and with good temper. When there are flowers on the way, who is going to forbid the traveler from stopping to cull them?

The Confucian intelligentsia of Ming China loathed this frivolous new literature. And yet the masses of the middle classes devoured the novels enthusiastically. They became the page-turning populist fiction of their day, a phenomenon made possible by the spread of printing. To try to summarize any of their sprawling plots here would be hopeless. So, I’ll just say that all of the novels I’ve just mentioned are well worth your time, in the bedroom or out of it.

Then, too, I will note that the novels, although all ostensibly set in earlier times, provide an ironic portrait of the general arc of the Ming dynasty when read in the order of their publication. Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin burst with the exuberance of the resurgent China of the early Ming, while Journey to the West satirizes the pretensions of the overweening imperial bureaucracy of the mid-period Ming. Finally, The Plum in the Golden Vase is a portrait of late Ming social corruption that is either written by one mired so deep in it himself that he can’t see his way out or by an outraged Confucian traditionalist determined to hold an unsparing mirror up to the vices of the culture around him; scholars have long been divided on this point.

All of which is to say that Ming China followed the same pattern we’ve seen again and again by now, descending gradually from vigorous dynamism into exhausted dissipation. The dynasty was still in its Journey to the West stage — that is to say, treading the hazily delineated borderlands between dynamism and dissipation — when the first European seafarers arrived. Their homelands were now posed to become a truly significant factor in Chinese history at long last. “It was one of those rare moments in time when two narratives of world history that had been meandering along quite separately — the Chinese and the West’s — suddenly came crashing into each other,” writes Michael Schuman. “They quickly became entangled, and would never again be unwound.”

The tangling began in 1517, when half a dozen or so Portuguese ships sailed up the Pearl River to the Southern Inner Chinese city of Guangzhou. The imperial government had advance word of their coming from elsewhere in Asia; the Portuguese had already set up colonies in India and conquered part of Malaysia. Understandably leery of these uncouth foreigners with a predilection for violence, the Ming emperors first tried to ban them from China outright. After that led only to rampant smuggling and piracy, they grudgingly allowed the Portuguese to establish a trading enclave at a place called Macau, south of Guangzhou on the undesirable swampland of the Pearl River Delta. There the new arrivals built factories to refine poppy seeds from India into opium, a drug which had been known to the Chinese since at least the Tang dynasty. Now, the Portuguese intended to ship it back to Europe, a plan which would succeed very profitably indeed.

But if the Ming emperors had thought they could confine the barbarians arriving by sea to Macau and forget about them, they were sadly mistaken. Other Europeans soon made their presence known uncomfortably close to China. Spain established colonies in the Philippines and on the island of Taiwan, previously home only to a handful of sleepy fishing villages. The Protestant Dutch were also sniffing around, and frequently skirmishing with their Catholic arch-enemies the Portuguese and Spanish.

The Ming emperors couldn’t understand for the life of them why these barbarians were so ready to kill one another over what struck them as minute variations in the details of their intensely peculiar religious faith. Nor did they have any sense of what an existential threat these foreigners would eventually pose to the very foundations of Chinese society. That realization still lay well in the future — in fact, it would be vouchsafed another dynasty entirely. For now, the Europeans were mostly content to hang around the periphery of China; there were easier pickings elsewhere when it came to establishing full-blown colonies.

The overriding foreign-policy concern of the later Ming emperors was thus not the new one of seaborne Europeans and their maritime Silk Road but one older than imperial China itself: the eternal problem of the steppe peoples. With the time of empire-building on the steppes consigned to the history books for the time being, the territorial integrity of Inner China became a major concern once again. The later Ming emperors rued the chutzpah of Emperor Yongle in moving his capital so far out on one limb of his empire; what he had seen as a means of power projection during a time of expansion now left them horribly exposed during one of retrenchment. And yet to move the capital to some more defensible spot would be to acknowledge their dynasty’s decline in the most humiliating way imaginable. So, it remained where it was.

The Ming emperors were likewise too proud to countenance paying their alleged inferiors tribute in order to keep them from attacking. They opted instead for a less demeaning if equally venerable solution. Beginning in the middle of the sixteenth century, China embarked on its most lavish wall-building project ever, a line of defense covering the entirety of its northern frontier — a stretch of 5000 miles (8000 kilometers), from the coastline northeast of Beijing all the way to Inner China’s extreme northwestern tip.

It would be a mistake to picture even this ultimate incarnation of the Great Wall as a single contiguous structure. As ever, the builders let the natural landscape do their work for them whenever possible, and varied their construction techniques to suit the terrain and the material affordances they encountered. That said, this latest Great Wall surely was imperial China’s most concerted attempt ever to create a truly all-encompassing border defense. The generals tried to correct the Achilles heel of earlier frontier walls — the impossibility of garrisoning them with enough soldiers to adequately defend each and every stretch of wall — by employing a sophisticated early-warning system. The small parties of advance guards who were spaced along the wall communicated with their peers and with larger regional defense forces via signal fires, cannon salvos, and possibly fireworks. Messages could be transmitted up and down the wall’s length and deep into the interior with lightning speed by this method, so that reinforcements could be brought up to any section that was threatened, hopefully before it could be breached. The codes that were employed grew quite complex: one signal fire and one cannon salvo meant a section of wall was being attacked by a small group of less than 100 raiders; two fires and two salvos meant less than 1000; etc., etc., up to five fires and five salvos for a full-on invasion force of more than 10,000 barbarians.

In place of the rather crude tamped-earth constructions of yore, the Ming emperors preferred to build their wall out of stone and brick, with watchtowers that were little fortified castles in themselves all down its length. Where it ran close to populated areas, the wall was for the first time designed for aesthetics as well as practical defense; it became an advertisement of the emperors’ real or alleged might, meant to intimidate outsiders to the same degree that it caused the hearts of those lucky enough to be ensconced inside to swell with patriotic pride. As the Ming emperors grew to feel ever more threatened, they lavished more and more manpower and money upon the wall that they believed could keep their Middle Kingdom perfect and inviolate in a hostile world. Naturally, the section of Great Wall closest to them — the one running just north of Beijing — received the most attention of all, in terms of both aesthetics and practical reinforcement.

But it availed them nothing in the end. It is one of the more piquant ironies of history that the Great Wall, that symbol of redoubtable Chinese endurance in the eyes of all the world today, was in fact one of the most important proximate causes of the downfall of the last dynasty of Han Chinese emperors. For the resources which the Ming emperors lavished upon the Great Wall that they believed would protect them came first at the expense of any more proactive policy of engagement with the outside world; then, in time, the sheer expense of building an ever higher and stronger Great Wall quite literally bankrupted their empire. The Ming dynasty would fall not despite the Great Wall it built but because of it.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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8 Comments for "Chapter 12: The Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644)"

  • morg

    typos:
    * “many historian[s] would say”
    * Vasco da Gama not de

    also the appellation “dark continent” for Africa has not aged all that well since the Victorian era & imo is better left with it.

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Good point. Thanks!

      Reply
  • Leo Vellés

    “The most famous Chinese seaman in history grew up a within a Muslim enclave…”.
    The “a” between “up” and “within” should not be there.
    This historia of China is super interesting. Looking forward for the next chapters.

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks!

      Reply
  • Peter Olausson

    One error I won’t blame on you: Contrary to very widespread belief, rhinoceros horn isn’t considered an aphrodisiac and fertility booster in traditional Chinese medicine. It has indeed been used for a long time for many ailments, but lack of sexual energy haven’t been one of them. Ironically, the western myth has spread into China in recent years, creating a demand for rhinoceros horns for that reason.

    Thanks for two long-running projects eminently executed! I guess the development of telecommunications and Chinese history will be intertwined in my brain for the rest of my life …

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      You and me both. 😉 Thanks!

      Reply
  • Will Moczarski

    The dragons ships
    -> The dragon ships

    satires
    -> satirizes

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks!

      Reply

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