The Significance of the Ming in Chinese History
The Ming Dynasty is important for a variety of reasons. First, it was the last native ruling house in imperial Chinese history, sandwiched between the Mongol Yuan (1279-1368) and Manchu Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. As such its governmental institutions and cultural developments represented a maturation of processes initiated in the Qin (220-206 BC) period, most notably the refinement of the civil service examination system to select officials for government service, which included civil and military components in the Ming period. The names and boundaries of many of the provinces of modern China were fixed during the Ming as well.
Additionally, many architectural marvels that modern people consider quintessentially Chinese, such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven, date from the Ming period. It was a golden age of Chinese literature as well, with famous novels such as The Journey to the West, The Golden Lotus, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin all having been produced in the Ming. Indeed, it is widely accepted that Ming China was the most literate society in the world at the time and scholars estimate that there were more books in Ming China in the early seventeenth century than in the rest of the world combined. Ming achievements extended to other areas of the arts as well. Ming blue and white pottery became so widely desired that black markets producing knock off wares flourished in Southeast Asia. Ming silks were exported around the world and Ming clothing styles influenced its neighbors, especially Korea. The Ming tributary system of foreign relations was a brilliantly flexible way of facilitating diplomatic relations and cultural exchanges that also provided international political stability unrealized in the rest of the world.
With respect to technological achievements, the early Ming naval expeditions under the eunuch Admiral Zheng He featured massive “treasure boats” that dwarfed the vessels that sailed under Columbus nearly a century later and they served to extend Ming power and cultural influence throughout South and Southeast Asia and all the way to Africa and the Middle East. The Ming was also the world’s first “Gunpowder Empire” and it pioneered the creation of dedicated firearms training divisions for its military. Ming military technology was disseminated throughout Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Achievements in mass production of items such as steel weapons and porcelains were not exceeded elsewhere until the Industrial Revolution.
Taken as a whole these achievements and others render the moniker “Empire of Great Brightness,” which is the literal translation of “Ming,” especially fitting.