Upon leading a victorious rebellion against the foreign Mongul rulers of the
Yuan Dynasty, a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang seized control of China and
founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. As emperor, he founded his capital at
Nanjing and adopted the name Hongwu as his reign title. Hongwu, literally
meaning “vast military,” reflects the increased prestige of the army during the
Ming Dynasty. Due to the very realistic threat still posed by the Mongols,
Hongwu realized that a strong military was essential to Chinese prosperity.
Thus, the orthodox Confucian view that the military was an inferior class to
be ruled over by an elite class of scholars was reconsidered. During the Ming
Dynasty, China proper was reunited after centuries of foreign incursion and
occupation. Ming troops controlled Manchuria, and the Korean Joseon Dynasty
respected the authority of the Ming rulers, at least nominally.
Like the founders of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.), Hongwu was
extremely suspicious of the educated courtiers that advised him and, fearful
that they might attempt to overthrow him, he successfully consolidated
control of all aspect of government. The strict authoritarian control Hongwu
wielded over the affairs of the country was due in part to the centralized
system of government he inherited from the Monguls and largely kept intact.
However, Hongwu replaced the Mongul bureaucrats who had ruled the
country for nearly a century with native Chinese administrators. He also
reinstituted the Confucian examination system that tested would-be civic
officials on their knowledge of literature and philosophy. Unlike the Song
Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), which received most of its taxes from mercantile
commerce, the Ming economy was based primarily on agriculture, reflecting
both the peasant roots of its founder as well as the Confucian belief that trade
was ignoble and parasitic.
Culturally, the greatest innovation of the Ming Dynasty was the introduction
of the novel. Developed from the folk tales of traditional storytellers, these
works were transcribed in the everyday vernacular language of the people.
Advances in printmaking and the increasing population of urban dwellers
largely contributed to the success of these books. Architecturally, the most
famous monument of the Ming Dynasty is surely the complex of temples and
palaces known as the Forbidden City that was constructed in Beijing after the
third ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle, moved the capital there.
Today, the Forbidded Palace remains one of the hallmarks of traditional
Chinese architecture and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the
Here, the Buddha is portrayed as a youthful prince with a round, full face,
suggestive of his spiritual fullness and inner self-satisfaction. An inner calm
and complacency is visible on his face and in his sweet smile. The hair is
twisted into tight curls incised with spirals forming an usnisa, a swelling on
the top of the head signifying the Buddha's enlightenment. The swelling is
usually covered with hair, as it is here, but there is another smaller bump at
the base of the larger protrusion that is bare, as if the artist opted to utilize
both types of ushnishas. His elongated earlobes droop down, the sagging
caused by wearing heavy earrings as an infant, reflecting his royal origins. The
urna, or “third eye,” is represented by a small bump in between his eyebrows,
is also symbolic of his nobility and enlightenment. This fragment of a head
was most likely originally part of a full-figured sculpture that once revered
inside a temple or shrine. The mystical energy and divine wisdom of the
Buddha radiates from within this sculpture. The contemplative wisdom of the
Buddha shines through the stucco and warms our spirits.