The Ming Dynasty And Inner Asian Neighbours Such As The Mongols

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Did the Ming dynasty deal successfully with Inner Asian neighbours such as the Mongols, thereby preserving its territory and people from being subjected to a repeat of the Yuan experience or was it an ethnocentric power that failed to engage properly with its neighbours, leading it into costly failures like the building of the Great Wall?

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was the last imperial dynasty ruled by the majority ethnic group Han and was described as one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human society (Reischauer, Fairbank & Craig, 1962). Interestingly, the Ming dynasty was preceded by the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and succeeded by the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1644-1912), which were founded by the Inner Asian neighbours and minority ethnic. The Sino-Inner Asian relations was one of the most significant topics in Chinese history from the rise of the Hsiung-nu in the third century BC to the fall of the Zunghars in the eighteenth century (Barfield, 1989). Moreover, the policy to the Inner Asian neighbour had huge impacts on the trends of Chinese history and there were alternating cycles of peace and war over the course of two thousand years. Based on the ending of the Ming dynasty, which fell to a rebellion led by Li Zicheng and soon replaced by the nomadic Manchu group led Qing dynasty, it can conclude that the Ming dynasty did not deal successfully with Inner Asian neighbour and finally did not preserve its territory. The policy of the Sino-Inner Asian relations in the Ming dynasty also led to costly failures like the building of the Ming Great Wall. This essay will briefly introduce the history of the Nomadic-Chinese interaction, particularly along the Great Wall. Then, it will explain why the ethnocentric power of the Ming dynasty failed to engage properly with its neighbour for cultural and economic reasons. In the end, it will conclude that the Ming Empire collapsed owing to financial failure and its primitive financial management. The policies and attitudes toward Central and Inner Asia were dependent on the financial situation of the Ming government.

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Sino-Inner Asian relations and the Great Wall

Inner Asian and China proper are historical terms used by western authors on the Qing dynasty to make a distinction between the core and frontier regions of China. The territory of China proper was generally established when the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang ended the Warring States Era and founded the Qin dynasty. In the last Han Chinese dynasty Ming, it governed fifteen administrative entities including thirteen provinces and two directly-governed areas. After the Manchu-led Qing dynasty was founded, the Qing court continued to apply the former Ming administrative system to rule over the Ming land but did not use it to other domains within the territory of the Qing dynasty (Fletcher, 1978). The other domains consisted of four main areas, namely Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet and Xinjiang, which referred to as Inner Asia. The fifteen administrative entities underwent minor reforms to the Eighteen Provinces which referred to as China Proper. Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet and Xinjiang were the area of origin of nomadic groups. For example, the Manchu, the largest group of Tungusic peoples, are originally from Manchuria. The Mongolia grassland supported the most of nomadic tribe in the Chinese history such as Hsiung-nu, Xianbei, Rouran, Turki, and Mongolia. In other words, these four main areas were the Inner Asians neighbours to the China proper dynasty.

The geographical and climatic factors affected the ways of living of human being. Ancient China was fundamental agriculture society which highly depended on soil, wind and rainfall. The monsoon climate of mainland China made the rainfall highly seasonal and eighty percent of precipitations coming in three summer months. Moreover, the prevailing wind direction changes in summer and monsoon rain is cyclonic in China. According to Huang (1988), these two sets of atmospheric variables had huge impacts on the livelihood of China proper. Once the warm and cold currents meet frequently, there will be inundation and flood. In contrast, if the currents constantly miss, it will result in extreme weather and droughts, which also can lead to catastrophic outcomes to the people lived in ancient China. However, the average annual precipitations in wide regions of China follow a definite pattern. It is interesting to find that the fifteen-inch isohyet line is frontier of China proper and the Inner Asian neighbours. The south-eastern areas of this line have at least fifteen-inch rainfalls where agricultural civilization is prosperous. On the contrary, people from the territory to the northwest of this line are nomadic and neglect agriculture altogether due to the geographical and climatic reasons (Huang, 1988). Therefore, the agricultural civilization of China inevitably needs a centralized powerful government and stable imperial dynasty to deal with nomadic group raids and natural disaster such as flooding and drought.

The national defence line of ancient China is roughly coincidental to the fifteen-inch isohyet line and well-known as the Great Wall (Huang, 1988). In the south-eastern areas of this line, a centralized agrarian state ruled the majority of people in China, while in the north, there were mobile pastoralists whose economy rarely supported more than millions of people spread out a large span of steppe, desert, and mountain terrain. However, these nomadic peoples were historically able to threaten the dynasty of China proper with a potent military force which often invaded into deep China. They are alternating cycles of peace and war along this frontier over two thousand years. Barfield (1989) claims that the nomads unified the steppe in response to the centralized dynasty of China proper and exploited China economically from a distance using different frontier strategies. The nomadic people were inclined to pillage the agriculturists especially in the year of extreme weather. Occasional raids could lead to large scale of invasions. On the other hands, preemptive wars can be launched by the defenders when the dynasty of China proper was strong enough like Emperor Wu period of the Han dynasty.

Ming dynasty and Inner Asian Neighbour

The most visible and existing parts of the Great wall is from the Ming Dynasty which can reflect the Inner-Asian policy at that time. Apart from defence, the most significant function of the Great Wall was border controls, including regulation of trade, collection of taxes, and the control of immigration and emigration. Jaqchid and Symons (1989) point out that trade was the determinant factor in the Sino-Inner Asian relations. Specifically, the imperial Chinese government can set the empire’s frontier trade policy alone and determine whether the border would at peace or not. Furthermore, all the nomadic empires of Manchuria and Mongolia were highly dependent on the revenue extracted from the Chinese dynasty in the ways of raids, border trade even larger-scale invasion. The reason was that the nomadic society could never achieve economic self-sufficiency and certainly not in the Ming dynasty (Henry, 1975). The nomads did not produce food and manufactured goods especially household implements and textiles. Therefore, the general pattern of the Sino-Inner Asian relations was the parasitic or predatory relationship which bound the steppe nomads to the economy of China.

The policies and attitudes toward Central and Inner Asia were generally based on restricting relations in the Ming dynasty since Chinese people had endured a century of Mongol brutal rule and sought to avert occupations by Inner Asian neighbours further (Rossabi, 1998). The Ming government argued that China would never have been subjected to the control of nomadic minorities if solidarity and discipline had been maintained, which made the Ming dynasty introverted and highly centralized (Huang, 1988). The Ming citizens were not allowed to take to the sea. The construction of the Ming Great Wall undertook seriously by Zhu Yuanzhang’s general Xu Da and another famous general Qi Jiguang. Furthermore, the Ming government officially considered that the trade would in no way profit and they needed nothing from the nomads like Mongols (Henry, 1975). In fact, for the nomadic perspective, they expected political concessions such as being “vassals” and exported massive goods from China. On the other hands, the war was much more expensive than paying the nomadic groups and the Chinese government could not occupy the entire steppe permanently. Once the demands were met, the nomads would not invade and that is one of the key reasons why the Chinese government had ambivalent attitudes about frontier policy.

Inner Asian Neighbours to the Collapse of Ming Dynasty

The Ming dynasty collapsed owing to financial failure and the economic foundation determined the policy to the Inner Asian neighbours. The Ming dynasty was founded by peasant rebellions and the agricultural primitive economic base met the requirement at that time. The third emperor Zhu Di changed the introverted policy and personally led five successful expeditions against the Mongols even crossed the Kerulen River. In addition, Zhu Di dispatched armies to invade Vietnam and ordered several times of Zheng He maritime expedition. However, the extraordinary expenses had to meet the agricultural economy organized by Zhu Yuanzhang. The Ming government had been overtaxed nearly to the breaking point in the period of Zhu di and the succeed emperors had to save the dynasty by taking drastic retreat policy (Huang, 1988). In the late Ming, the last attempt to regenerate the Ming systems came from Zhang Juzheng in the period of Wan Li emperor. However, Huang (1988) claims that the Ming systems were difficult to reconstruct or overhauled and Zhang’s campaign was limited to restoration and austerity of discipline. In 1592 and 1597, the Ming government sent military force to support Korea against massive Japanese invaders dispatched by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Clark, 1998). The war was inconclusive and both sides paid huge costs until the death of Hideyoshi in 1598. The treasury deposits accumulated during the period of Zhang Juzheng’s reform was almost exhausted to support this large-scale expedition against the Asian neighbour and it accelerated the financial failure.

The economic structure of imperial China lack of interprovincial links which reflected on the taxation system (Huang, 1988). Huang (1988) states that the Ming government only had counterproductive and direct approaches to get additional revenues including withdrawal of treasury deposits, paper currency inflation, and horizontally applied downward pressure from all quarters. The circulation of silver especially the silver from overseas benefited the southeast of China much more than the northwest, while provinces and the frontier army in the northwest region were highly depended on financial support by the central government to maintain their balance. However, the total amount of silver in circulation was rather small in the late Ming. In the Zhang Juzheng’s reform era, silver was accumulated as treasury reserves and immediately resulted in deflationary effect throughout the country. Furthermore, the war against the Manchus in the northeast urged the Ming government to redistribute the financial resources, which must sacrificed the interests of the northwest. For this reason, the widespread banditry and peasant rebellion arose in the northwest and eventually occupied Beijing in 1644. In addition, the Ming government officially thought that border trade would not result in profit and had to block the trade along the frontier more strictly due to the nation’s financial pressure. Therefore, the parasitic or predatory relationship between the Ming dynasty and nomadic neighbours directly resulted in high tension along the frontier in the late Ming.

The Ming Empire had to fight a two-front war with overburden financial situation. Huang (1988) concludes that the collapse of Ming Empire was that the existing structure of financial management cannot meet the requirement of the unprecedented strain of national mobilization and finally broken down. Furthermore, the Manchus and insurgent stayed away from the Ming’s economic structure and did not have such economic problems, which was the superiority to finally win the war.

From my point of view, the national fusion and cultural identity was the only pathway to deal with Nomadic-Chinese relationships. The national and cultural fusion of Han, Mongol, Manchu and other minorities formed the frame of the last imperial dynasty Qing even the fame of modern China.

Reference List

  1. Barfield, T. J. (1989). The perilous frontier: nomadic empires and China. Cambridge, Mass.: B. Blackwell, 1989.
  2. Clark, D. (1998). Sino-Korean tributary relations under the Ming. In D. Twitchett & F. Mote (Authors), The Cambridge History of China (The Cambridge History of China, pp. 272-300). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521243339.007
  3. Fletcher, J. (1978). Ch’ing Inner Asia c. 1800. In J. Fairbank (Ed.), The Cambridge History of China (The Cambridge History of China, pp. 35-106). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521214476.003
  4. HENRY, S. (1975). SINO-MONGOL TRADE DURING THE MING. Journal of Asian History, (1), 34.
  5. Huang, R. (1988). China, a macro history. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, c1988.
  6. Jagchid, S., & Symons, V. J. (1989). Peace, war, and trade along the Great Wall: Nomadic-Chinese interaction through two millennia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1989.
  7. Reischauer, E. O., Fairbank, J. K., & Craig, A. M. (1962). A history of East Asian civilization / Edwin O. Reischauer, John K. Fairbank. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Tokyo: C.E. Tuttle, 1962-1965.
  8. Rossabi, M. (1998). The Ming and Inner Asia. In D. Twitchett & F. Mote (Authors), The Cambridge History of China (The Cambridge History of China, pp. 221-271). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521243339.006


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