Mongol rule in China was brought to an end after civil war among Mongol princes and increasing conversion to the sedentary Chinese way of life robbed the Mongol military machine of much of its effectiveness. Repeated natural disasters were followed by a massive peasant rebellion that the alien rulers could not quell. The Mandate of Heaven now shifted to one of the peasant leaders, who established the >Ming dynasty (1368–1644) at Nanjing (Nanking) in the south. This man, the Hongwu (Hung-wu) emperor (r. 1368–98), placed the Chinese throne on an unprecedented despotic basis.

Ming despotism continued unabated during the reign of the third ruler, the vigorous Yongle (Yung-lo) emperor (r. 1403–24), who moved the capital northward to a rebuilt Beijing and launched large-scale maritime expeditions as far as the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa (see Zheng He). Agricultural productivity increased with the introduction of New World crops, and population rose by the end of the dynasty to somewhere around 160 million to 260 million. Many of the great Chinese novels, each the product of centuries of work, achieved final form during this period, although the famous Dream of the Red Chamber was written in the succeeding early Qing period.

But the political and intellectual vigor of the Yongle reign did not continue. Chinese attention turned inward, reducing overseas trade and contacts. Even in the realm of philosophy, China turned from the systematic investigation of things to a greater reliance on introspection and intuition, thus hindering many scientific advances and the development of new technologies. A decline in imperial leadership and a debilitating court factionalism between Confucian scholar-officials and eunuchs led to administrative paralysis. Continued defense problems with the Mongols and marauding pirates along the southeastern coast led the state to the brink of bankruptcy. Natural disasters in the early 17th century gave rise to peasant rebellion, signaling the end of the dynasty.


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