Among the Chinese populace there were strong feelings against the rule of "the foreigners" under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty which finally led to a peasant revolution, led by Hongwu, that pushed the Yuan dynasty back to the Mongolian steppes and established the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Hongwu, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, was one of the only two dynasty founders who emerged from the peasant class. The other one was Han Gao Zu of Han Dynasty. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping are the two other peasant revolutionaries to have ruled the world's most populated nation.
Orphaned as a teenager, he entered a Buddhist monastery to avoid starvation. Later, as a strongwilled rebel leader, he came in contact with the well-educated Confucian scholar gentry from whom he received an education in state affairs. No longer a Buddhist, he positioned himself as defender of Confucianism and neo-Confucian conventions and not as a popular rebel. Despite his humble origins, he emerged as a national leader against the collapsing Yuan Dynasty. Defeating rival national leaders, he proclaimed himself emperor in 1368, establishing his capital at Nanjing and adopting Hongwu as his reign title.
Under Hongwu, the Mongol bureaucrats who had dominated the government for nearly a century under the Yuan dynasty were replaced by the Chinese. The traditional Confucian examination system that selected state bureaucrats or civil servants on the basis of merit and knowledge of literature and philosophy was revamped. Candidates for posts in the civil service or the officer corps of the 80,000-man army, once again, had to pass the traditional competitive examinations in the Classics. The Confucian scholar gentry, marginalized under the Yuan for nearly a century once again assumed its predominant role in the Chinese state.
Having fought off the calamities of the Mongol invasion, and given the realistic threat to China still posed by the Mongols, Hongwu reassessed the orthodox Confucian view regarding the military as an inferior class to be subordinated by the scholar bureaucracy. Simply put, maintaining a strong military was essential since the Mongols were still a threat. As an aside, the name Hongwu means "Vast Military" and reflects the increased prestige of the military.
Hongwu attempted to, and largely succeeded in, consolidating control all aspects of government so that no other group could gain enough power to overthrow him and to buttress the country's defenses against the Mongols. As emperor, Hongwu increasingly concentrated power in his own hands and abolished the Imperial Secretariat, which had been the main central administrative body under past dynasties, after suppressing a plot for which he had blamed his chief minister. When the emperorship became hereditary, the Chinese recognized this and established the office of prime or chief minister. While incompetent emperors could come and go, the prime minister could guarantee a level of continuity and competence in the government. Hongwu, wishing to concentrate absolute authority in his own hands, abolished the office of prime minister and so removed the only insurance against incompetent emperors. Hongwu was succeeded by his grandson, but he son was soon usurped by his uncle Cheng-tsu, a younger son of Hongwu, who ruled as the Emperor Yung-lo from 1403 to 1424 (Yung-lo was responsible for moving the capital back to Beijing).
Hongwu noted the destructive role of court eunuchs under the Sung, drastically reducing their numbers, forbidding them to handle documents, insisting that they remained illiterate, and liquidating those who commented on state affairs.
Hongwu had a strong aversion to the imperial eunuchs (a castrated court of servants for the emperor), capsized by a tablet in his palace stipulating: "Eunuchs must have nothing to do with the administration". Under his successor, however, they began regaining their old influence.
The emperor's role this became even more autocratic, although Hongwu necessarily continued to use what he called the Grand Secretaries to assist with the immense paperwork of the bureaucracy, which included memorials (petitions and recommendations to the throne), imperial edicts in reply, reports of various kinds, and tax records.
The role of state support is the focus of much of this debate on the official downgrading of commerce. Hongwu laid the foundations for a state disinterested in commerce and more interested in extracting revenues from the agricultural sector.
With little understanding of economic processes of markets, Hongwu, backed by the Confucian scholar gentry, just accepted the Confucian viewpoint offhand that merchants were soley parasitic. In a typically Confucian viewpoint, Hongwu felt that agriculture should be the country's source of wealth and that trade was ignoble and parasitic. Perhaps this view was accentuated because of his background as a peasant. As a result, the Ming economic system emphasized agriculture, unlike that of the Sung dynasty, which had preceded the Mongols and relied on traders and merchant for revenues. With an aversion to trade, he also supported the creation of self-supporting agricultural communities.
Neo-feudal land-tenure developments of late Sung and Yuan times were expropriated with the establishment of the Ming dynasty. Great landed estates were confiscated by the government, fragmented, and rented out; and private slavery was forbidden. Consequently, after the death of Yung-lo, independent peasant landholders predominated in Chinese agriculture. These laws might have paved the way to social harmony and removed the worst of the poverty of the Mongol era. The laws against the merchants and the restrictions under which the craftsmen worked, remained essentially as they had been under the Sung dynasty, but now the remaining foreign merchants of Mongol time also fell under these new laws, and their influence quickly dwindled.
Although Hongwu's rule saw the introduction of paper currency, capitalist development would be 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 given that the currency was worth 1/70 of its original value.
During Hongwu's reign, however, the early Ming dynasty was characterized by rapid and dramatic population growth, largely due to the increased food supply and Hongwu's agricultural reforms. Population probably rose by at least 50 percent by the end of the Ming dynasty, stimulated by major improvements in agricultural technology promoted by the pro-agrarian state, which came to power in midst of a pro-Confucian peasant's rebellion. Under his tutelage, living standards greatly improved.
Hongwu died after a reign of 30 years.