Hongwu Emperor of China

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Hongwu Emperor
Birth and death: Sep. 21, 1328 – Jun. 24, 1398
Family name: Zhū (朱)
Birth name (小名): Chongba¹ (重八)
Given name (大名): Xingzong (興宗),
later Yuánzhāng² (元璋)
Courtesy name (字): Guorui (國瑞)
Dates of reign: Jan. 23 1368³ – Jun. 24, 1398
Dynasty: Ming (明)
Era name: Hóngwǔ (洪武)
Era dates Jan. 23 1368–Feb. 5, 1399 4
Temple name: Tàizǔ (太祖)
Posthumous name:
Emperor Gao (高皇帝)
Posthumous name:
Emperor Kaitian Xingdao Zhaoji
Liji Dasheng Zhishen Renwen
Yiwu Junde Chenggong Gao


General note: Dates given here are in the Julian calendar.
They are not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.
1. Name given by his parents at birth and used only inside the
family. This birth name, which means "double eight," was
allegedly given to him because the combined age of his parents
when he was born was 88 years.
2. Was known as Zhu Xingzong when he became an adult, a name
that was changed to Zhu Yuanzhang in 1352 when he started
to become famous among the rebel leaders.
3. Was already in control of Nanjing since 1356, was made Duke
of Wu
(吳國公) by the rebel leader Han Lin'er (韓林兒)
in 1361, and started autonomous rule as self-proclaimed Prince
of Wu
(吳王) on February 4, 1364. Was proclaimed emperor
on January 23, 1368, establishing the Ming Dynasty
that same day.
4. The era was officially re-established on July 30, 1402 when
Emperor Jianwen was overthrown, with retroactivity for the four years
of the Jianwen era, so that 1402 was considered the 35th year
of Hongwu. The Honwgu era then ended on January 22, 1403,
the next day being the start of the Yongle era.

The Hongwu Emperor (September 21, 1328 – June 24, 1398), personal name Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yüan-chang, posthumous name ("shih"), Kao-ti, temple name (ming), T'ai Tsu) was the founder and first emperor (1368–1398) of the Míng Dynasty that ruled China for nearly three hundred years. Born to a family of poor peasant farmers and orphaned at the age of 14, Zhu eventually became leader of a rebel army, and began to make plans for the overthrow of the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty. In 1363, Zhu defeated his rival Ch'en Yu-liang in the Battle of Lake Poyang (鄱陽湖之戰), one of the largest naval battles in world history. Zhu and the rebel forces advanced on Peking, forced the flight of the Mongol emperor, and proclaimed the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

Though he came from a peasant background, Zhu surrounded himself with Confucian scholars and advisors who helped him to organize an effective administration. He drafted a code of laws known as Ta-Ming Lu which laid much emphasis on family relations. Especially sympathetic to the plight of peasant farmers, Zhu initiated policies that promoted agriculture as the economic foundation of the Ming dynasty. During his reign, the Hongwu emperor established a despotic tradition for the Ming dynasty, instituting administrative, educational and military reforms that gave the emperor personal control over all matters of state. Hongwu kept a powerful army organized on the military system known as Wei-so, which prevented military leaders from acquiring too much influence. As a consequence of the Hongwu agricultural reforms, more land was under cultivation in China during the Ming dynasty than at any other time in history, and the population increased by 50 percent.


Early in the fourteenth century, anti-Mongol sentiments caused many Chinese to perceive the Yuan Dynasty( also called Mongol Dynasty 元朝; Yuáncháo; Dai Ön Yeke Mongghul Ulus), as being foreign and illegitimate. It was during this era that Zhu Yuanzhang led a peasant revolution that was instrumental in expelling the Yuan Dynasty and forcing the Mongols to retreat to the Mongolian steppes. Consequently, he claimed the title Son of Heaven for himself and established the Ming Dynasty (明朝; Míng Cháo) in 1368. In Chinese political theory, the concept of "Mandate of Heaven" made it possible for dynasties to be founded by non-noble families, such as the Han Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty, or by non-ethnic Han peoples such as the Mongols' Yuan Dynasty and the Manchu (Qing Dynasty). The theory was that the Chinese emperor acted as the "Son of Heaven" and had a valid claim to rule as long as he served the people well. If the ruler became immoral, rebellion was justified and heaven would take away the mandate and give it to another.

Early Life

Zhu Yuanzhang, born September 21, 1328, is said to have been a poor peasant of Hao-chou, about one hundred miles (160 km) northwest of Nanking in present day Anhui Province (安徽). His birth name, Chongba (重八), which means "double eight," was allegedly given to him because the combined age of his parents when he was born was 88 years. According to legend, he worked as a cowhand in his youth until he was fired for roasting and eating one of his master's livestock and joined a Buddhist monastery. It is more likely that he was forced to enter the Huang-chüeh monastery near Feng-yang to avoid starvation, after a plague took the lives of his parents and brothers in 1344. At the monastery he learned to read, but his studies were interrupted when the monastery ran out of money. He left the monastery for the country at large and spent a period of time as a wandering mendicant, begging for food in the areas surrounding Ho-fei (about 80 miles west of Nanking), where no official authority existed. All of Central and Northern China was suffering from drought and famine at that time, and millions were starving.

Eventually, Zhu Yuanzhang joined a group of rebels, where he displayed a natural talent for leadership, rising to become second-in-command. His rival, a bandit leader named Kuo Tzuhsing, who in 1352 led a large force to attack and take Hao-chou, became jealous of him, but was reconciled when Zhu married Kuo’s adopted daughter, the princess Ma. In 1353, Zhu captured Ch'u-chou (now Ch'u district in Anhwei Province, an area west of Nanking). He continued to receive important commissions and gathered a following, some of whom later became officials under the early Ming dynasty. When Kuo Tzu-hsing died in 1355, Zhu became leader of the rebel army.

Zhu’s rebel army continued to attack and captured towns and cities in eastern China. When he reached the Yangtze Delta, Zhu came into contact with well-educated Confucian scholars and gentry, from whom he received an education the Chinese language, Chinese history and the Confucian Classics. Some of them joined his movement and advised him in state affairs; Zhu established an effective local administration in conjunction with his military organization. He was also influenced by the [[Red Turbans|Red Turban Movement, a dissident religious sect combining cultural and religious traditions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and other religions.

Following the direction of his advisors, Zhu abandoned his Buddhist upbringing and positioned himself as a defender of Confucianism and neo-Confucian conventions, rather than simply as a popular rebel. Despite his humble origins, he emerged as a national leader against the collapsing Yuan Dynasty. His charisma attracted talented supporters from all over China, such as Zhu Sheng(朱升), who is credited with the mantra "Build high walls, stock up rations, and don't be too quick to call yourself a king." The rebel leader followed this advice and decided to subdue the smaller, weaker rebel groups in Southern China before turning against the Mongols, his main enemy.

Zhu had the assistance of many capable officers in his campaigns against the Mongols and other Chinese rebel groups. One was Jiao Yu( 焦玉), an artillery officer who, assisted by Liu Ji ( 劉基), compiled a military treatise outlining the various gunpowder weapons used in battle. Jiao Yu's contemporary Liu Ji( 劉基) was also a key advisor to Zhu Yuanzhang, and assisted Jiao in the compilation and editing of the Huolongjing. (火龍經, Fire Drake Manual ) a treatise on military technology outlining the use of various 'fire-weapons' involving the use of gunpowder.

National Military Leadership

Intending to overthrow the Yüan dynasty (1206–1368), Zhu now marched on Nanking and captured it in 1356. He proclaimed himself duke of Wu, and set up an effective administration in the area, encouraging agriculture by granting unused land to peasants. He acknowledged the ineffectual pretender to the Sung dynasty, Han Lin-erh, as his superior. Mongol authorities were able to subdue rebels in the north and maintain relative peace there, but could not control the south. Zhu now emerged as the national leader of the Chinese against the Mongols. He had two rivals, Ch'en Yu-liang (陳友諒), the self-proclaimed emperor of the Han Dynasty, based in Wu-ch'ang, (about 400 mi west of Shanghai); and Chang Shih-ch'eng, the self-proclaimed prince Ch'eng of the Chou Dynasty, whose headquarters were at P'ing-chiang in the east.

The decisive event that cemented Zhu's authority amongst the rebel groups was the enormous Battle of Lake Poyang( (鄱陽湖之戰) in 1363, one of the largest naval battles in world history, between Ch'en Yu-liang's huge fleet of war junks and Chu's small but swift barges. The battle was waged for three days and ended with Ch’en’s death and the destruction of his fleet. In 1364, Zhu captured Wu-ch'ang, Ch'en's stronghold, and then Hupeh, Hunan (a large province west of Kiangsi Province), and Kiangsi provinces. In the same year Chu proclaimed himself prince of Wu.

Events moved quickly to a climax. In 1367, the Sung pretender Han Lin-erh felt so threatened by the Mongols at his headquarters at Ch'u-chou that he decided to flee to Nanking for protection. Escorted by one of Chu Yüan-chang's men, Han drowned when his boat capsized during the journey, an event perhaps contrived by Chu. The same year Chang Shih-ch'eng was captured and brought to Nanking, where he committed suicide. Other rebels decided to submit or were eliminated. Fang Kuo-chen, who had operated as a pirate along the coast and been one of the first to rebel against the Mongols, surrendered to Chu Yüan-chang and was given honors and a stipend, but no real power. Ch'en Yu-ting, a Yüan loyalist who protected Fukien Province (on the southeast coast, opposite Taiwan), was captured and brought to Nanking for execution.

Overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty

With the south under his control, Zhu sent two generals, Hsü Ta and Ch'ang Yü-ch'un, to lead troops against the north. In 1368, he proclaimed himself the Ming emperor in Nanjing and adopted "Hongwu" (Vastly Martial) as the title of his reign. He used the motto 'Exiling the Mongols and Restoring Hua (华)' as a call to rouse the Han Chinese into supporting him. The campaigns in the north succeeded, and Shantung and Honan provinces (south of Peking) submitted to Ming authority. IN August, 1368, Ming troops entered Peking (Dadu). The Mongol emperor Shun Ti fled to Inner Mongolia, and the rule of the Yüan dynasty came to an end. By 1382, China was unified again under the Ming.

Hongwu Rule

Under Hongwu, the Mongol bureaucrats who had dominated the government for nearly a century under the Yuan Dynasty were replaced by Han Chinese. Zhu revamped the traditional Confucian examination system, which selected state bureaucrats or civil servants on the basis of merit and knowledge of literature and philosophy, mostly the Classics. Candidates for posts in the civil service, or in the officer corps of the 80,000-man army, once again had to pass the traditional competitive examinations, as required by the Classics. The Confucian scholar gentry, marginalized under the Yuan for nearly a century, once again assumed their predominant role in the Chinese state.

The rejection everything associated with the Mongols was extended into other areas. Mongol dress was discarded, Mongol names were no longer used, and palaces and administrative buildings used by the Yuan rulers were attacked.[1]

Historians consider Hongwu to be one of the greatest Emperors of China. He apparently made it his policy to favor the poor, to who he tried to provide a means of support for themselves and their families. From the beginning, Hongwu used land reform to distributed land to small farmers. Public works projects, such as the construction of irrigation systems and dikes, were undertaken, in an attempt to help poor farmers. Demands on the peasantry for forced labor of both the scholar-gentry and the imperial court were reduced by Hongwu, which affected both imperial and scholar-gentry demands. In 1370 an order was given that some land in Hunan and Anhui should be distributed to young farmers who had reached manhood. This order was made in part to preclude the absorption of this land by unscrupulous landlords, and as part of this decree it was announced that the title to the land would not be transferable. During the middle part of his reign, an edict was published to the effect that those who brought fallow land under cultivation could keep it as their property without it ever being taxed. The people responded enthusiastically to this policy, and in 1393 the amount of cultivated land rose to 8,804,623 ching and 68 mou, a greater achievement than any other Chinese dynasty.

Having come from a peasant family, Hongwu knew well how much the farmers suffered under the oppression of the gentry and the wealthy. Many of the latter, relying on their influence with the magistrates, not only encroached unscrupulously on farmers’ land, but contrived, through bribing lower officials, to transfer the burden of taxation to the small farmers they had wronged. To prevent such abuses, Hongwu instituted two important systems: "Yellow Records" and "Fish Scale Records." These systems served to guarantee both the government's income from land taxes and the people's rights to their property.

The well-meant reforms did not eliminate the exploitation of peasants by the scholar-gentry. The expansion of the scholar-gentry and their growing prestige translated into more wealth and greater tax exemptions for those related to government bureaucrats. The gentry obtained new privileges, allowing them to show off their wealth, and they were often money-lenders, and even operators of gambling rings. The scholar-gentry often expanded their estates at the expense of small farmers, who were absorbed into the estates, both through outright purchase of peasants' land, and through foreclosure on their mortgages during times of want. These peasants often became either tenant workers, or left and sought employment elsewhere. [2]

In 1372, Hongwu ordered the general release of all innocent people who had been enslaved during the anxious days at the end of the Mongol reign. Fourteen years later he ordered his officials to buy back children in Huinan province who had been sold as slaves by their parents because of famine.


As he grew older, the Hongwu Emperor became increasingly cruel, suspicious and irrational. His court came to resemble the Mongol court of which he had been so critical during his days as a rebel leader, and the despotic power of the Emperor became institutionalized for the rest of the Ming dynasty. Emperor Hongwu granted principalities to all of his sons, ostensibly so that they could be given military powers in case of another Mongol invasion. Through his sons, Hongwu was able maintain personal control over the empire.

In 1380, when the Prime Minister Hu Wei-yung was implicated in a widespread plot to overthrow the throne, Hongwu had him executed along with thirty thousand members of his clique. The Emperor then abolished the positions of Prime Minister and the Central Chancellery, so that administrators of all six ministries of the government reported directly to him. Even the most energetic Emperor could not attend to all matters of state, so the Emperor appointed six Grand Secretaries as administrators. The institution of Grand Secretaries evolved from that of the Hanlin Academy, whose original purpose had been to educate and advise the heir apparent, and they were little more than servants of the Emperor.

The Sung emperors had attempted to weaken the power of the military and encouraged the ascension of the scholarly class. Hongwu, however, felt that after the Mongol expulsion, the scholars presented the greatest threat to his empire. Nevertheless, he recognized the necessity for trained bureaucrats and wanted to restore traditional Chinese values, so he rehabilitated the Confucian scholar class but kept them under tight control and refused to grant them power and status. He introduced the use of beatings with heavy bamboo poles as punishment for even the slightest offense, and scholar officials were frequently beaten to death. This attitude discouraged many of the gentry from entering careers in the government.


Though the Mongols had bee expelled from China, Hongwu realized that they still posed a real threat of invasion. Believing that it was essential to maintain a strong military, he reassessed the orthodox Confucian view of the military as inferior to the scholar class. Hongwu kept a powerful army organized on the military system known as Wei-so, which resembled the Fu-ping system of the Tang Dynasty. According to Ming Shih Gao, the political intention of the founder of the Ming Dynasty in establishing the Wei-so system was to maintain a strong army, while avoiding the formation of personal bonds between commanding officers and the soldiers.

Military training was also conducted within the soldiers' own military districts. In time of war, troops were mobilized from all over the empire under the orders of a Board of War, and commanders were chosen to lead them. As soon as the war was over, all of the troops returned to their respective districts and the commanders lost their military commands. This system largely avoided troubles of the kind which had been caused, under the Tang and Song dynasties, by military commanders who had great numbers of soldiers directly under their personal control. The Wei-so system was a success during the early Ming because keeping soldiers based in their home districts assured that the empire had a strong military force without heavily burdening the people for its support.

Consolidating Control

Hongwu became increasingly fearful of rebellions and coups, and made it a capital offence for any of his advisors to criticize him. One story relates that a Confucian scholar who was fed up with Hongwu's policies decided to go to the capital and berate the emperor. When he gained an audience with the emperor, he brought his own coffin along with him. After delivering his speech he climbed into the coffin, expecting the emperor to execute him. Instead, the Emperor was so impressed by his bravery that he spared his life. Hongwu largely succeeded in consolidating control over all aspects of government, so that no other group could gain enough power to overthrow him.

Hongwu also noted the destructive role of court eunuchs, castrated servants of the emperor, under the previous dynasties and drastically reduced their numbers, forbidding them to handle documents, insisting that they remain illiterate, and executing those who commented on state affairs. His strong aversion to the imperial eunuchs was epitomized by a tablet in his palace stipulating: "Eunuchs must have nothing to do with the administration." However, eunuchs soon returned to the courts of Hongwu’s successors. In addition to Hongwu's aversion to eunuchs, he never consented to any of his imperial relatives becoming court officials. This policy was fairly well-maintained by later emperors, and no serious trouble was caused by the empresses or their relatives.

As emperor, Hongwu increasingly concentrated power in his own hands. He abolished the prime minister's post, which had been head of the main central administrative body under past dynasties, by suppressing a plot for which he had blamed his chief minister. Many argue that the Hongwu emperor, because of his wish to concentrate absolute authority in his own hands, removed the only insurance against incompetent emperors. However Hongwu's actions were not entirely one-sided since he did create a new post, called "Grand Secretary," to take the place of the abolished prime minister. Ray Huang argued that Grand-Secretaries, outwardly powerless, could exercise considerable positive influence from behind the throne. Because of their prestige and the public trust which they enjoyed, they could act as intermediaries between the emperor and the ministerial officials, and thus provide a stabilizing force in the court.

Legal Code

The legal code drawn up in the time of the Hongwu emperor was considered one of the great achievements of the era. The Ming Shih mentions that, as early as 1364, the monarchy had started to draft a code of laws. This code was known as Ta-Ming Lu. The emperor devoted great personal care to the whole project, and in his instruction to the ministers told them that the code of laws should be comprehensive and intelligible, so as not to leave any loophole for lower officials to misinterpret the law through twisting its language. The Ming code laid much emphasis on family relations. The code was a great improvement on the code of the earlier Tang dynasty in regard to the treatment of slaves. Under the Tang code, slaves were treated as a species of domestic animal; if they were killed by a free citizen the law imposed no sanction on the killer. Under the Ming dynasty, however, the law protected both slaves and free citizens.


Backed by the Confucian scholar-gentry, Hongwu accepted the Confucian viewpoint that merchants were solely parasitic. Perhaps because he himself had been a peasant, Hongwu felt that agriculture should be the country's source of wealth and that trade was ignoble. The Ming economic system emphasized agriculture, unlike the economic system of the Song Dynasty, which had preceded the Mongols and had relied on traders and merchant for revenues. Hongwu supported the creation of self-supporting agricultural communities.

Hongwu's prejudice against the merchants, however, did not diminish the numbers of traders. Instead, commerce increased significantly under Hongwu due to the growth of industry throughout the empire. The growth in trade was due in part to poor soil conditions and overpopulation in certain areas, which forced many people to leave their homes and seek their fortunes in trade. A book entitled Tu Pien Hsin Shu, written during the Ming dynasty, gives a very detailed description of the activities of merchants at that time.

Inflation and Population Growth

Although Hongwu's rule saw the introduction of paper currency, capitalist development was stifled from the beginning. Not understanding inflation, Hongwu gave out so much paper money as rewards that by 1425 the state was forced to reintroduce copper coins because the paper currency had sunk to only 1/70 of its original value.

The increased food supply resulting from Hongwu's agricultural reforms and New World foods, such as corn and sweet potatoes, which entered China through the world trading system [3] resulted in a dramatic rise in population during the early Ming dynasty. By the end of the dynasty, the population had increased by as much as fifty percent, and living standards had greatly improved.


Hongwu died June 24, 1398, after a reign of thirty years. His first choice as successor, made when he was prince of Wu, was his eldest son Piao, later known as the heir designate I-wen. Later there were indications that Hongwu favored his fourth son, Ti, the Prince of Yen, whose principality was at Peking and who had more impressive personal qualities and military ability. In 1392, when the heir designate I-wen died, Hongwu was persuaded to appoint I-wen's eldest son as his successor, rather than the Prince of Yen, who was angered by this decision. When Hongwu died in June 1398, he was succeeded by his grandson Yün-wen, known in history as Hui Ti, or the Chien-wen emperor, who reigned for only four years before the throne was usurped by the Prince of Yen (the Yung-lo emperor).

Hongyu had 24 sons, all of whom became princes. They include:

  • Zhu Biao (1355–1392), Hongwu's first child, and the father of his successor Jianwen
  • Zhu Di (1360–1424), Hongwu's fourth son, and third emperor after usurpation of the throne from Jianwen
  • Zhu Quan (1378–1448), 17th son


Hongwu also is known as Hung-Wu. That name is also applied to the period of years from 1368 to 1398 when Zhu Yuanzhang ruled. Other names for him include, his temple name Ming Tàizǔ (明太祖) "Great Ancestor of the Ming," and the "Beggar King," in allusion to his early poverty.


  1. Peter N. Stearns, et al. World Civilizations: The Global Experience, AP Edition DBQ Update. (New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006), 508.
  2. Stearns, 511.
  3. Stearns, Peter N., et al. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. AP Edition DBQ Update. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006. 366.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hucker, Charles O. 1978. The Ming dynasty, its origins and evolving institutions. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan. ISBN 0892640340
  • Stearns, Peter N.; Adas, Michael; Schwartz, Stuart B. 1992. World civilizations: the global experience. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0065002601
  • Twitchett, Denis Crispin; Fairbank, John King. 1978. The Cambridge history of China. Cambridge [Eng.]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521214475
Preceded by:
Emperor Huizong
Emperor of China
(Ming Dynasty)
Succeeded by:
Jianwen Emperor


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