Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398)Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398) - Founder of the great Chinese Ming Dynasty, he was known as Emperor Hongwu.  Not only did he establish the Ming, but he also overthrew the Yuan Dynasty, which was Mongol.  Thus ended the last remnant of Mongol domination that began with Genghis Khan.  Zhu's rise to emperor is really rather remarkable.  He was born into a peasant family in Eastern Central China around 1328.  When he was 16, a plague swept through his village and killed his entire family except for a brother.  Now homeless and orphaned, Zhu joined a Buddhist monastery and became a monk; but he left after a few years and wandered as a beggar.  Three years later though, he returned.  During his second stint at the monastery he learned to read and write which was a huge step forward for him.  Several regions of China were in almost constant rebellion against the Yuan.  Being a Mongol dynasty, most Chinese were anxious to expel them from their country.  And Yuan armies were constantly quelling these rebellions.  About 1352, Zhu's monastery was destroyed by a Yuan army in retaliation for an uprising in the region.  Zhu responded by joining a local militia fighting against the Yuan.  Despite no previous military experience, he displayed exceptional ability and quickly rose through the ranks to become a commander.  In 1356, his army captured the city of Nanjing, a major accomplishment.  They made it their headquarters (and eventually it became the first capital of the Ming).  Nanjing and the surrounding area, the Yangtze River Valley, became autonomous and one of the smoother running regions in China.  People trying to escape Yuan rule and other independent regions in near anarchy fled to Nanjing.  As a result, it's population surged providing Zhu's army with new recruits.  At the same time, the Yuan Dynasty was in decline.  It was well aware of the growing threat in the Yangtze River Valley, but could do nothing to stop it.


By 1363, Zhu Yuanzhang had become leader of the region and no longer commanded armies personally.  He directed his generals from Nanjing, and he even gave a name to his growing kingdom, "Ming".  As the Ming expanded it absorbed other nearby regions, either through conquest or voluntarily submission.  In 1368, the Ming had become powerful enough to launch an attack directly into Yuan territory.  The Yuan Dynasty had become so weak, it did not even put up a fight.  The army withdrew from the capital of Dadu (Beijing) as well as the rest of northern China, and retreated back into their original homeland, Mongolia.  Zhu Yuanzhang immediately declared the establishment of the Ming Dynasty and proclaimed himself emperor.  Although he rose to power as a champion of the Chinese people who expelled the Mongols, he quickly became corrupted by that power and enforced his rule harshly.  He was known for executing opponents and even those who criticized him; and he did it in brutal fashion.  One of his favorite forms of execution was known as slow slicing, which is closely associated with China in the Middle Ages.  It involved slicing off parts of the body over a long period of time until the victim slowly bled to death.  This is where the term "death by a thousand cuts" comes from.  There is a story of a Confucian scholar who had become so fed up with the emperor that he went before his court and condemned him publicly.  He brought a coffin along with him and when he had finished, he laid down inside it expecting to be executed.  However, the emperor was impressed by the man's bravery and allowed him to live.  It's also said that around 1380, after his palace was struck by lightning, he stopped executing opponents (for awhile) for fear of divine retribution.  Zhu ruled from 1368 until his death in 1398.  Along with the ancient Han Dynasty, the Ming of the Middle Ages is one of the most recognizable dynasties in Chinese history.