Early Modern China: Ming
(1368–1644) and Early
Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming dynasty founder, was born into a desperately poor peasant family. He was such a sickly baby that his parents once offered him to the Buddha if his life could be spared. When he was sixteen, during the floods of 1344, his parents and two brothers died during an epidemic, leaving him and one brother alone with no means of support. Finding refuge at a Buddhist temple, he joined in begging on the streets for food and learned basic literacy from some of the monks. In 1352, the Buddhist temple was attacked and burned by the Yuan military because it was seen as part of the Red Turban movement—troops of the White Lotus Society, which had just risen in rebellion against the Yuan government.
With his temple burned to the ground, Zhu Yuanzhang, at age twentyfour, joined a Red Turban army. Physically imposing, very intelligent, and fearless in battle, Zhu quickly impressed his commander, who made him a top assistant and then gave him command of his own troops. Zhu soon married the commander’s adopted daughter, and when his commander was killed in battle in 1355, Zhu took his place. In 1356, his troops occupied the important regional city of Nanjing, which had been the seat of several southern kingdoms. He had gained the allegiance of a number of capable men of some learning and experience, and rather than simply loot and plunder, he and his forces began to administer the territory surrounding Nanjing and to impose peace and order in areas that had been in chaos for over a decade.
As Zhu Yuanzhang’s ambitions grew with his success, he came to see the limitations of the Red Turbans, whose forces were splintered and poorly disciplined. He formally broke with the Red Turbans in 1366, and within two years he had eliminated his rivals among the