One of the most extraordinary historical monuments in the Yangtze River Delta is the Xiaoling Mausoleum, the tomb of the first Ming Emperor, Emperor Hongwu. The founder of the Ming Dynasty and ruler of China for almost three decades, Emperor Hongwu was one of the most important figures in the history of the nation. HIs extraordinary tomb complex will be described in detail in a later post, but first I will introduce the man who commissioned it- Zhu Yuanzhang, the first commoner to rise to the office of Chinese emperor in 1500 years.
Zhu Yuanzhang was born in Anhui province in 1328. His early life was full of hardships- locusts, droughts, and marauding bandits were all threats during the era. China was being disastrously misruled by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the kingdom was in chaos. Zhu’s own parents were killed in an epidemic when he was sixteen, and he became a wandering beggar-monk, gaining a basic education in Buddhism and eking out a precarious existence in rife-torn Anhui and Zhejiang. Legend places him on the slopes of beautiful Da’ming Mountain during this period, meditating on the sad fate of the Han Chinese under Mongol rule and speculating on various plans for driving the oppressor out of China.
At the age of 24 he drifted out of the monkhood, joining a band of anti-Mongol rebels known by the colourful moniker of the Red Turbans. Zhu revealed an unexpected genius for military operations, a talent which would enable him to outsmart both rival rebel leaders and Yuan commanders. By 1364 he controlled a sizeable fiefdom in the Yangtze River valley, with his capital established at Nanjing. By four years later he had defeated most of the Yuan Dynasty armies in Northern China and he had ascended the throne as the first Han Chinese Emperor in over 150 years. Upon his coronation, he adopted the name of Emperor Hongwu, meaning “Vastly Martial”.
Surrounded by Confucian scholars, Hongwu was persuaded to re-establish Confucianism as the dominant philosophy of the state. In an attempt to purge the nation of the legacy of the Mongols, he banned Mongol names and dress, encouraging a return to the culture and norms of China under the Tang. Traditional norms such as filial piety were encouraged and he promoted basic literacy among the population; community schools for commoners were created for the first time. In addition, a vast hierarchy of administrators and officials was created as he gradually restored order and control to China. Yet if these were impressive achievements, Emperor Hongwu became increasingly tyrannical in his attitude towards dissent.
He is remembered not only as the founder of the Ming Dynasty and the restorer of Han Chinese government but also a cruel and capricious tyrant. His purges claimed tens of thousands of victims, ranging from commoners all the way to the upper echelons of the imperial court. One prominent victim of Hongwu’s purges was Hu Weiyong, the prime minister of China. Despite his many years of loyal service, the powerful prime minister eventually earned the suspicion of the emperor and himself, his family and his supporters were all ruthlessly tortured and executed. In a sign of an increasingly autocratic and despotic style, he eventually made away with the office of prime minister altogether, concentrating ever more power in his own hands. When he died in 1398, he had reunited China but bequeathed a frightened, distrustful court to his successors.