Hongwu Emperor

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  • Died: 1398
  • Reign: 1368-1398
  • Other Names: 明太祖 (Míng Tàizǔ), 元璋 (Zhū Yuánzhāng)
  • Chinese/Japanese: 洪武帝 (Hóngwǔ-dì / Koubu-tei)

Zhu Yuanzhang was the first emperor of China's Ming Dynasty, and the first dynastic founder to come from a genuinely humble, peasant, birth. Having led a successful rebellion to overthrow the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in 1368, he named himself the Hongwu Emperor, marking the beginning of a new dynasty, and came to be known as well as "Ming Taizu," or "Great Ancestor/Founder of Ming."

Hongwu is known for his autocratic style of rule, centralizing power in the hands of the emperor even further than it had been previously, by eliminating several of the top ministerial positions; his paranoia against others gaining power extended to the establishment of a powerful spy network, which was used to keep officials in line. Hongwu was extremely hard-working, looking over thousands of memorials a week, but this put an exceptional burden on his successors. He also created an overarching legal framework known as the Great Ming Code, which was meant to transform and regulate society in a new, Ming, form; it had some considerable lasting impacts, but Hongwu also frequently contradicted or undermined the Code through his judgements on individual matters.[1]

This Code, and Hongwu's policy decisions otherwise, were heavily motivated, however, by a desire to restore the greatness of China after nearly a hundred years of Mongol rule. He restored the civil service examination system, and the National Academy, and oversaw the establishment of a great number of schools across the empire.[1]

Early Life

Zhu was born into a poor peasant family, and was the only one of his siblings (six in total) to not be adopted out of the family, or married into another family, at a young age. His family was officially classed as "gold panners" under the Yuan system which required people to continue the occupations of their fathers; this despite the fact that there were no gold mines in that local area.

When he was sixteen, Zhu lost his entire family - with the exception of one brother - to the Black Death, and had to scrape and beg to survive for a time. He had been promised to a monastery when he was a child, and in 1345-1352 joined that monastery, becoming an itinerant monk & beggar. It was during that time that he was first exposed to the philosophy of the bandit/rebel group known as the Red Turbans. He joined the Red Turbans at the age of 24,[2] and married a daughter of one of the rebel leaders. She would later come to be known as Empress Ma. He later took a number of other consorts, including Korean and Mongol women; between the Empress and his other consorts, the Hongwu Emperor would have 26 sons and 16 daughters.[3]

In 1355, his father-in-law died, and Zhu succeeded him as head of the Red Turbans, and began launching raids and attacks against the Mongol establishment. By 1368, he had taken Beijing, toppled the Yuan Dynasty, and set himself up as emperor of a new dynasty, which he declared the Ming Dynasty, making Nanjing his capital.


The Hongwu Emperor is known as an autocrat, who liked to exercise direct control over government policy. He abolished the Grand Secretariat which had overseen government administration in the preceding periods, and instead addressed hundreds of matters each day himself. In one eight-day period, the emperor is said to have reviewed more than 1,600 petitions dealing with nearly 3,400 separate matters.[4] This elimination of the Grand Secretariat would have consequences, however, as future emperors were not as active in processing memorials to the throne, and serious bottlenecks developed.[5]

Perhaps because of his peasant origins, the Hongwu Emperor adhered to a conservative Confucian notion of the importance of agriculture as the foundation of the State and of the economy, disparaging the merchant class. In a reversal from earlier policies, he returned the taxation system to one based on agricultural production, reducing or eliminating commercial taxes, and, at times (in 1370 and 1398), banning private overseas voyages entirely. In accordance with these conservative attitudes, the Hongwu Emperor also had tax rates frozen at a given rate, based on land surveys from the beginning of his reign. The country's agricultural production was prosperous enough to support the population, and the State, for a time, but the State's financial needs grew over the course of the Ming period, along with agricultural and commercial production, which the frozen tax rates failed to capture.

Meanwhile, the emperor attempted to exercise control over the economy by issuing paper money which was not allowed to be exchanged for silver or copper; in fact, private commercial use of silver and copper currency was prohibited, and taxes were obligated to be paid in coin, as part of efforts to remove precious metals from circulation. The Court also claimed a monopoly on the mining of these metals, and forbade private sea trading as part of its efforts to restrict private possession of cash (though, of course, private merchant journeys continued). Eventually, the market would reverse this, and by 1450, coin was so widely available that the people shifted from paper money to an all-cash (metal currency) economy.

The Hongwu Emperor sought to restore, or at least evoke, the glories of the great Chinese dynasties of the past, in particular the Tang Dynasty, and so had many aspects of court protocol, including court costume, patterned after that of the Tang. Even so, many aspects of Ming Dynasty court protocol, and especially governance policies and administrative structures, can be traced more directly to a continuation and/or modification of Yuan Dynasty systems, rather than any more dramatic break from the immediate past or more complete restoration of the more distant past. One example of this is seen in the Chinese imperial examinations, put back into place in 1384, but based on the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi and of the Yuan Dynasty examinations, rather than the classical Confucian forms of the Tang dynasty exams.

The Hongwu Emperor initially based the structure of the Ming government on that of the Yuan Dynasty, with a chancellor or prime minister overseeing a government divided into Six Boards. However, concerned that the chancellor, or chengxiang (potentially) wielded too much power, he abolished that position in 1380, along with the chief agency of administration zhongshu sheng. This was intended to protect the Imperial government from having any one man gain too much power; however, the elimination of these positions placed a great burden of daily administrative work on the emperor himself, and resulted in palace eunuchs and officials taking on executive powers.[6] The organization of regional administration - including titles/posts and geographic administrative borders - was left largely intact as it existed under the Yuan.

One major program initiated by the Hongwu Emperor was the restoration of a system of family registers, known as Yellow Registers, inspired by Tang precedent. As under the Yuan, people were expected to perform much the same professions/occupations as their fathers; this, as well as numerous other data about each family was recorded in a system of registers, providing the government with a better knowledge about the population than had existed since the fall of the Tang. This, in turn, allowed for more accurate and thorough taxation, etc. Taxes were collected twice a year - in winter, and in summer - as under the Tang following the An Lushan Rebellion; though the government planned to perform periodical land surveys & population censuses, in order to update the tax obligations, the Ming, like the Tang before them, found they lacked the manpower to do so effectively.

Families were grouped into groups of ten, and groups of one hundred, with the wealthiest families held responsible for ensuring that the other families in their group live up to their occupational and tax obligations. Wealthy families managed, however, to evade these obligations fairly effectively, protecting themselves (and the families under them) from having to pay the full amount of tax to the government; this, of course, harmed government revenues. In addition, though under this occupation obligation, in practice, many families are known to have paid others to do those tasks for them (e.g. farming, or fighting), freeing up the family to pursue some other occupation (e.g. fighting, or farming).

Beginning in 1387, the emperor's government implemented a system of land registration called "fish-scale registers," under which individuals were responsible for the equivalent of one sixth-of-an-acre (mu, 畝) of production for each sixth-of-an-acre they owned, regardless of how much land they actually cultivated. The land surveys associated with implementing this system were successfully completed by 1393.

His reign also saw the establishment of bureaucracies to oversee the manufacture of certain products, including silk, porcelain, and cotton, and the establishment of systems within which villages, or groups of villages, were responsible for irrigation projects and reforestation aimed at preventing flooding. Over a period of only eight years, the amount of land being reclaimed for agricultural use was tripled, and perhaps as many as one billion trees were planted. Meanwhile, over 40,000 reservoirs were built or repaired.[4] Despite the extensive systems put into place by the Hongwu Emperor, and the startling size of Chinese bureaucracy - not just in overseeing the production of certain materials, but, in terms of a complex administration more broadly speaking - the government of 10-15,000 officials still found it difficult to properly manage a population of some 200 million people.[7]

In addition to his many great acts, the Hongwu Emperor is also known for extensive purges, in which thousands of people would be killed, or "disappear." In 1376, he dismissed 10,000 officials from government service for engaging in a traditional paperwork practice with which he disapproved; in 1380, when he eliminated the position of the chancellor and dismantled the Grand Secretariat, 30,000 people vanished. A scandal over grain led to 10,000 or so being sentenced to death in 1385, and 15,000 were killed in 1393, accused of involvement in challenges to imperial authority.

Death & Legacy

Hongwu died in 1398. This was followed by violent succession disputes. The Crown Prince had died in 1392, and Hongwu had named his teenage grandson to be his successor. The grandson took the throne as the Jianwen Emperor, but only a few years later was attacked by his uncle Zhu Di (a son of Hongwu), who set fire to the palace, and took the throne himself as the Yongle Emperor. Rumors circulated of Jianwen's possibly having survived the fire, and from time to time Yongle sent missions to find and kill him.

Preceded by
Emperor Huizong of Yuan
Emperor of Ming
Succeeded by
Jianwen Emperor


  • Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization, Second Edition, New York: The Free Press (1993), 205-207.
  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 371-376.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 244.
  2. Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 430.
  3. Elman, et al, 431.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Elman, et al, 432.
  5. Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 105-106.
  6. Wing Sit-Chan, Joseph Adler (eds.), Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 2: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century, Columbia University Press (2013), 12n27.
  7. Elman, et al, 435.