After examining the foundation of the Ming dynasty, what were the greatest accomplishments of the Ming and what led to their decline?
My text for this is Traditions & Encounters by Bentley and Ziegler.
I would argue that the greatest Ming accomplishment would be expansion into the foreign market. In earlier dynasties in China, the emphasis was on keeping foreigners out and staying isolated from global trade. As the Indian Ocean and Silk Roads trade routes grew and more goods were offered, China became more interested in exports. During the Ming Dynasty, the Yongle emperor (third emperor in the Ming) launched a series of expeditions that reached the coastlines of West Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. This kind of expedition was unprecedented in China. This extended China's reach in trade. Among the traded goods during the Ming Empire was porcelain, blue and white 'china' (which was a highly sought after import in Europe), textiles, paper, and silk. This led to massive industrial development in China.
Another important achievement was consolidation. While the Great Wall of China was initially built during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE), the Wall was we know it today was completed by the Ming Dynasty. The brick work was redone, the watchtowers were rebuilt, and cannons were placed along the walls, showcasing China's gunpowder.
In the late Ming Dynasty, overseas expansion and exploration ended. Substandard emperors replaced the great, early Ming emperors (good connection here to one of the causes of the fall of Rome- weak, ineffectual emperors), and infrastructure fell in to disrepair. Along with the constant threat of nomadic forces outside the Great Wall, rebels within the Ming Empire advanced on the failing dynasty's doorstep. The emperor at the time, Chongzhen, hung himself. The. Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
I would argue that the main accomplishments of the Ming Dynasty were their success in driving the Mongols out of China and setting up an imperial system that would last for centuries. The dynasty, however, did not set up a system that could last forever. Instead, the dynasty started to collapse largely because of misrule by its emperors.
For about two hundred years before the rise of the Ming Dynasty, China was ruled by outsiders. These were the Mongols who created the Yuan Dynasty. The first major thing that the Ming accomplished was to defeat the Yuan Dynasty. This allowed them to set up a new dynasty that would be ruled by ethnic Han Chinese.
Once they took power, the Ming set up a system that brought back the civil service examinations that the Mongols had neglected. This allowed them to do a decent job of administering the empire. Because they had fairly good administration, they were able to accomplish impressive feats. The most famous of these, of course, was their creation of the Great Wall of China as we know it today.
However, the system also had the seeds of its own destruction. It gave the emperor tremendous power and some emperors used their power simply to give themselves lavish lifestyles. They hid themselves away in the Forbidden City and did not attend to the needs of the country. As this happened, the empire became more corrupt and less efficiently run. This was the beginning of the collapse of the Ming Dynasty.
I think perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of the Ming dynasty was the establishment of maritime voyages, which were led by Zheng He, an eunuch. Under his leadership, the imperial fleets sailed all the way to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, Africa, India and the Persian Gulf and established relations with these states. Such successes in the travels were a direct result of the legacy left behind by the Mongol empire, which allowed Ming fleets to gain relatively accurate geographical knowledge of the world, as compared to their Western counterparts. In their interactions with these foreign states, Zheng He helped to further establish the practice or tradition of tribute trade. Local rulers were often complied to present exoitic gifts, such as lions, giraffes, and ostriches to the Chinese imperial court as an acknowledgement of the glory and might of the Emperor. In doing so, Ming China had their first interactions with faraway foreign lands. The Mings, under Emperor Hong Wu, also revamped the imperial civil service examination by emphasising on Confucian classics, which had been marginalised during the Yuan dynasty, allowing talented individuals to be brought in as civil servants. Another Ming Emperor, Yong Le, was also successful in conquering the border regions inhabited by the Mongolians and bringing them under the sphere of control of the Chinese.
The decline of the Ming dynasty was largely the result of a series of successive weak emperors, who were irresponsible and tyrannic. They refused to meet with officials, read memorials or deal with the day-to-day running of the state. Power was instead ceded to corrupt eunuchs, such as Wei Zhongxian, who controlled the official bureaucracy, imperial payments and taxation, making the state weaker, especially in the border regions. The Mings also found themselves having to deal with large-scale resistance from the nomadic tribes of the Mongols, the threat of Japanese pirates on the southeast coast and the rise of the Manchus in Manchuria. These weak emperors proved inept at resolving such challenges and were wholly incompetent in addressing the political turmoil the country was in, making the state even more vulnerable.