An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Taizu 明太祖, the Hongwu Emperor 洪武

May 7, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Emperor Ming Taizu 明太祖 (1328-1398, r. 1368-1398), personal name Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, known as the Hongwu Emperor 洪武, was the founder of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). His infant name was Chongba 重八, another early name was Xingzong 興宗, and he only chose the name Yuanzhang when he joined a group of rebels against the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) of the Mongols. His courtesy name was Zhu Guorui 朱國瑞. He hailed from Zhongli 鍾離 in the prefecture of Haozhou 濠州 (modern Fengyang 鳳陽, Anhui) from a peasant family. All his kin died in 1344, a year in which his home region was afflicted by draught, locusts and pestilence. After wandering around in the region of northern Jiangsu and Anhui, and influenced by the anti-Yuan propaganda of the peasant rebel leader Peng Yingyu 彭瑩玉, he entered Huangjue Monastery 皇覺寺 as a novice, but in 1352, in the age of 12 sui, joined Guo Zixing 郭子興, who was a member of the anti-government Red Turban armies 紅巾軍. Zhu Yuanzhang proved to be an excellent soldier and was entrusted with the assail of the prefectures of Chuzhou 滁州 and Hezhou 和州.
At the time when the highest leader of the Red Turban movement, Han Lin'er 韓林兒, made himself "lesser bright king" (xiaoming wang 小明王) and emperor of a Song dynasty 宋, promulgating the reign motto Longfeng 龍風 "Dragon and Phoenix", Zhu was appointed Levt Vice Marshal (zuo fu yuanshuai 左副元帥). In 1356 he conquered Jiqing 集慶 (modern Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu), gave this city the name Yingtian 應天 and adopted the title of Duke of Wu 吳國公. Zhu attracted educated scholars like Feng Guoyong 馮國用, Feng Guosheng 馮國勝, Li Shanchang 李善長, Qin Conglong 秦從龍, Song Lian 宋濂 or Liu Ji 劉基 as advisors. He joined the rebels Zhang Shicheng 張士誠, Xu Shouhui 徐壽輝 and Han Lin'er who created a large block against the Yuan dynasty. Only from the south, the territory of Zhu Yuanzhang could be attacked by Yuan troops. He therefore ordered Zhu Sheng 朱升 to strengthen the city walls of Yingtian and to stockpile grain, with the intention to proclaim himself king. Han Lin'er bestowed on him the title "unequaled in honour" (yitong sansi 儀同三司) and appointed him Left Counsellor of the Branch Secretariat (xing zhongshusheng zuo chengxiang 行中書省左丞相) of Jiangnan 江南. When he was prepared for military challenge he detained Han Lin'er in Chuzhou, and defeated Chen Youliang 陳友諒, who had proclaimed a Han dynasty 漢, near Lake Boyang 鄱陽湖. In 1365 Zhu Yuanzhang made himself king of Wu. Two years later he proclaimed his "equity XXX" (pingzhou bang 平周榜), in which he condemned the Red Turban movement. He liberated Han Lin'er who was besieged in Anfeng 安豐 and settled him down in Chuzhou. The former rebel leader formally appointed Zhu Yuanzhang Right Counsellor of the Imperial Secretariat (zhongshu you chengxiang 中書右丞相).
The year 1367 was the first of his own calendar of the kingdom of Wu. He then defeated other competitors for power, first Zhang Shicheng 張士誠, and then forced Fang Guozhen 方國珍 and Chen Youding 陳友定 to surrender. He had then Han Lin'er brought from Chuzhou to Yingtian, but he ordered to drown his former boss in the Yangtze. The way to northern China was open.
At the end of the year 1367 he adopted the title of emperor of the empire of Ming, and chose the reign motto Hongwu 洪武 "Inundating Martiality", to begin in the following year. In summer 1368 Emperor Shun 元順帝 (Toghan Temür 妥歡貼睦爾, r. 1333-1370) of the Yuan dynasty decided to withdraw to the northern capital Shangdu 上都 (near modern Dolon Nor 多倫淖爾, Inner Mongolia). A month later Zhu Yuanzhang conquered the capital of the Yuan, Dadu 大都 (modern Beijing). The Yuan dynasty was ended, but it took another fourteen years to conquer the rest of China. In 1382 Basalawarmi 把匝剌瓦爾密, Prince of Liang 梁王 and ruling over Yunnan, the last Mongol prince on Chinese territory, commited suicide.
The reign of Zhu Yuanzhang is characterized by an aggravation of the penal law (in the code Da-Ming lü 大明律 and the code Dagao 大誥) and a strict control of the officialdom that often resulted in bloody purges with a total number of probably 30,000 victims because of the custom of kin liability (zhulian 株連). Full of distrust against the educated Confucians Zhu Yuanzhang created the Brocade Guard (jinyiwei 錦衣衛), staffed with court eunuchs that spied on all court officials. In order to strengthen his own power he abolished the office of Counsellor-in-chief (zaixiang 宰相), and renamed the Censorate (from yushitai 御史臺 to duchayuan 都察院) and unified it with the Court of Judicial Review (dalisi 大理寺) and the Ministory of Justice (xingbu 刑部) to the Three Judicial Offices (sanfasi 三法司). Throughout the provinces he created provincial administration commissions (chengxuan buzhengshi si 承宣布政使司, responsible for finance) as well as provincial surveillance commissions (tixing anchashi si 提刑按察使司, responsible for jurisdicton) and regional military commissions (du zhihuishi si 都指揮使司), together called du-bu-an sansi 都布按三司. With this measure the financial, judicial and military administration each province was better to control because these institutions had to report separately to the emperor, and the provincial secretariats were deprived of their authority. Military garrisons (weisuo 衛所) were distributed throught all provinces, and especially in the critical border regions of the north. The Chief Military Command (da dudu fu 大都督府) was abolished, and instead, five chief military commissions (wujun dudu fu 五軍都督府) were created. The highest command in case of war was in the hands of the emperor, and generals were only given official seals during war, and had to hand them back when a campaign was finished.
On the other hand he also supported the reconstruction of the economy, rewarded the opening of new fields, had created military colonies (tuntian 屯田) and cared for water conservancy work. New household registers were made, and all arable fields was taxed according to a new system called the "fish-scale register booklets" (yulin tuce 魚鱗圖冊). This was made in order to forestall the illegal acquisition of land by the rich. In the villages a kind of community self-monitoring system was created (lijia 里甲) and the system of tax captains (liangzhang 糧長). Peasants were not allowed to freely leave their hometowns and to settle elsewhere. In this way the government could always rely on tax income and labour corvée for official work to be delivered by the peasant households.
With the help of a rigorous administrative code (Huang-Ming zuxun 皇明祖訓) he tried to strengthen the power of the central government and to curtail that of his family members and many sons. Strangely enough, he gave large estates to all of his sons.
During the Hongwu reign the eight-legged essay (baguwen 八股文) was first used for state examinations.
Zhu Yuanzhang was buried in the tomb hill Xiaoling 明孝陵 east of Nanjing. His posthumous honorific title is Emperor Gao 高皇帝, his temple name Taizu 太祖. The throne was passed on to his grandson Zhu Yunwen 朱允蚊, Emperor Huidi 明惠帝 (the Jianwen Emperor 建文, r. 1398-1402). Zhu Yuanzhang's oldest son, Zhu Biao 朱標, had died in 1392, and the latter's oldest son, Zhu Xiongying 朱雄英, even earlier, in 1382.

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