Emperor Hongwu (or Zhu Yuanzhang) lived as a farmer, wandering monk and rebel leader and eventually become the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
Zhu Yuanzhang was born into a destitute peasant family in the 14th century AD. He lived as a monk, a wanderer and a rebel leader. He led a rebellion that successfully toppled the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 AD and went on to take the title of Emperor Hongwu and become the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
Early Life of Zhu Yuanzhang
Zhu Yuanzhang, who later became known as Emperor Hongwu, was born in 1328 in what is now Anhui Province in eastern China. He had five older brothers and his parents were poverty-stricken tenant farmers. In 1344 when Zhu Yuanzhang was a teenager, his family was killed off by a plague. The Yellow River dykes had also flooded that year, causing widespread famine. Zhu Yuanzhang was forced to become a Buddhist monk to survive.
Zhu Yuanzhang eventually left the monastery and wandered for several years, begging for food as he went. He returned to the monastery at the age of 24. However, a Mongol army of the Yuan Dynasty destroyed it soon after, again rendering Zhu Yuanzhang homeless and destitute.
Zhu Yuanzhang’s Rise to Power
Zhu Yuanzhang vowed revenge against the Yuan Dynasty and joined a number of rebel movements. Through a combination of his forceful personality, clever maneuvering and ruthlessness, Zhu Yuanzhang positioned himself as a leader of a rebel group known as the Red Turbans.
In 1356 Zhu Yuanzhang’s rebel army captured Nanjing. He became an extremely popular leader and defeated his rival in the Red Turban army Chen Youliang for supremacy of the Yangze River Valley. The ailing Yuan Dynasty was unable to stop Zhu Yuanzhang’s advances and the Mongols fled rebel armies in 1368. Zhu Yuanzhang then became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
Rule of Emperor Hongwu
Zhu Yuanzhang’s imperial name was Emperor Hongwu; he took the temple name of Taizu. His rule brought a return to neo-Confucian doctrine in Chinese government. The imperial examination system which the Mongols had abolished (based on Confucian classical texts) was reinstated. Emperor Hongwu also wrote Da Ming Lü, an updated, comprehensive legal code with a heavy Confucian influence.
Emperor Hongwu, or Taizu, remembered his own peasant past and many of his policies were designed to aid poor farmers. He distributed land to many poor farmers and created records to prevent the gentry from taking peasant land. Public works projects, including dikes, irrigation canals and more, were designed to help the peasantry. Land taxes were kept low during the rule of Emperor Hongwu. His policies conformed to Confucian doctrines that place agriculture above commerce and trade.
However, Emperor Hongwu was also incredibly cruel and paranoid. He frequently executed those he suspected of plotting against him, and even went so far as to punish friends and family members of the accused. He was known for whipping and beating his ministers in court if they displeased him.
Zhu Yuanzhang, known as Emperor Hongwu or Taizu, was one of China’s most enigmatic figures. He rose from a peasant background, lived as a monk and a rebel leader, and eventually became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He was sympathetic to the plight of China’s poor farmers but as a ruler he was ruthless and paranoid.