When the Ming took control of China (1369-1644) they brought with
them a deep desire for scholarly bureaucracy, a measure of
compassion for farmers and intense vigilance against invasion. The
combination gave China almost 300 years of stability.

Cultural achievement blossomed. If one follows occasional news
items on the auction houses Christy’s or Sotheby’s one finds that
pottery and art from the Ming Dynasty are among the most valued
commodities on the “ancient’s list”.  I have wondered about that;
Why Ming? Why not Han? How about Qing?  What makes the Ming

I’m not sure I have all the answers here, but one thing is clear; the
Ming succeeded the short-lived, war making, dramatically destructive
dynasty, of Kublai Khan for a reason: too much war; too much
corruption; and too much poverty.  The Ming, to their credit,  
provided for the Chinese the three things that make great art
possible: stability, markets and craftsmen.

The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, was a great military leader, and he
is one of only three emperors (Emperor Gaozu of Han Dynasty was
one other) to come out of the impoverished classes and rule China.
In sixteen years, he went from being a penniless monk to becoming
the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and his reign is regarded by
historians as one of the most influential in all of Chinese history.

He has been described as follows: “'
an adventurer from peasant
stock, poorly educated, a man of action, a bold and shrewd tactician,
a visionary mind, in many respects a creative genius; naturally
coarse, cynical, and ruthless, he eventually showed symptoms of
paranoia, bordering on psychopathy

Hongwu confiscated land from large property owners, redistributed it
with the restriction that it could not be sold, and gave lifetime
exemption from taxes to those farmers who put fallow land back into
production.  Food production became the highest in all of Chinese

For the bureaucrats, he dismissed the corrupt gentry who had filled
the Mongol government, eliminated Mongol dress, style and fashion
and filled the government with scholars who passed the Confucian
Examinations. There was indeed a new sense of energy, order,
fairness and prosperity associated with the Ming and it began with
Hongwu, its first emperor.

He was not without his enemies, particularly those nobility whom he
had disfranchised, and he always worried about the “return of the
Mongols” which led to a dynasty-long effort to rebuild, expand and
fortify the “Great Wall”.  Without the Ming, we would have little of it
left to admire today.

In the time of the Ming, the Chinese became extremely proficient at
producing what they needed to eat and in maintaining a long lasting
stability. Government was more fair minded and in the hands of
bureaucrats who had earned their status, rather than inherited it.

At the same time, it was the Confucian scholar/gentry who made one
of the Ming’s most significant decisions, concluding after a long,
long look at exploration that the voyages of Cheng Ho which took
him to the east coast of Africa, were no longer necessary.  
Exploration was fruitless because the west had nothing to trade that
China wanted.

Yet, China had silk, and the conclusion among the Ming was that
westerners could make their way to Xian to find Chinese markets.   
Their creative arts flourished and the west bought and shipped home
to Europe vast amounts of Chinese goods: more silk, more pottery,
more textiles and more jade and precious stones.  The balance of
trade was always in China's favor to the detriment of western finance
and budgets.

Stability, markets and craftsmen: the Ming provided it all and the
auction houses of the west flourish today whenever Ming art comes
on the market.
The use of eunuchs in Chinese courts was a very old tradition, and no society
clung more tenaciously to long-established custom than the Chinese. Court
chronicles reveal that Chinese kings as early as the eighth century BC., kept
castrated servants. Confucianism exalted all that was ancient, and admonished
monarchs of every dynasty to meticulously follow such precedents.

Since remotest times, and especially after the advent of Confucianism, Chinese
males, including rulers, demanded strict moral purity in their womenfolk. Hordes
of sexually impotent men were needed to guard the chastity of imperial ladies
languishing in the teeming women's quarters.

The emperor kept the largest harem in the land not only to support his image as
the paramount personage of the realm, but also to ensure many heirs to the
throne in a time of high infant mortality. If the emperor's queens failed to bear a
living heir, sons of the highest ranking concubines could succeed to the throne.

The presence of numerous ever-watchful eunuchs lurking in the recesses of the
sprawling palace guaranteed that each child born therein was sired by the
monarch. "Whole" males, even relatives of the ruler or of his consorts, were
barred from the vicinity of the women's apartments on penalty of death.

Male infants sired by the emperor were reared in the profound seclusion of the
palace, nourished by wet nurses till weaned. Thereafter, the young princes were
placed almost exclusively in the hands of eunuchs who cherished the hope of
remaining forever near the seat of power.

Toward this end, many eunuchs went to exhaustive lengths to win and hold a
future emperor's favor. Unscrupulous, power-hungry eunuchs could - and often
did, mold a young heir's character to suit their own ambitions. The film, "The Last
Emperor" deals with this dynamic extremely well.

The Monguls depleted the number of eunuchs to about 2,000  because they
preferred to work with trusted nobility.   
But, by the end of the Ming Dynasty
there were about 70,000 eunuchs employed by the emperor, with some serving
inside the Imperial palace. Certain eunuchs gained immense power that
occasionally superseded that of prime ministers. (Cheng Ho, the maritime explorer
was one such eunuch).  

Voluntary castration was commonplace, because a place in the emperor's service,
meant food to eat and support for the family.  Often, men would sire a child to
ensure an heir, then undergo castration so they could enter into the staff of the

It is said that the justification of the employment of eunuchs as high-ranking civil
servants was that, since they were incapable of having children, they would not
be tempted to seize power and start a dynasty. In many cases, eunuchs were
considered more reliable than the scholar officials.

The tension between eunuchs in the service of the emperor and virtuous
Confucian officials is a familiar theme in Chinese history.  The Han were
essentially undermined by the eunuchs; yet, there were instances of very capable
eunuchs, who were valuable advisors to their emperor, and the resistance of the
"virtuous" officials often stemmed from jealousy on their part.
Cheng Ho's maritime explorations probably came to a halt because of the
antipathy of the bureaucrats.

To learn more about eunuchs, the techniques of castration, the role of eunuchs  
in general society and their political expertise go to:

Mary M. Anderson, Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China,
This is the best source I have found on this subject.
These enormous sculptures line the walkway from the entrance to
the grounds of the Ming Emperors to a single museum housing
artifacts found among the burial grounds of the Ming. The tombs of
the thirteen  Emperors found here have not yet been opened.
Cheng Ho was born in Kunyang, Yunnan province, China, in 1371. Originally
named Ma Sanpao, he was captured and sent to the Chinese army where he
helped Chu Ti become Emperor Yonglo of the Ming Dynasty.

In thanks, he was made Grand Imperial Eunuch.  Yonglo chose Zheng to
head a series of naval expeditions to ports all over the Indian Ocean.  
Cheng had ambitious diplomatic, scientific, and commercial goals, and
fortified with the treasury of the Emperor, he traveled more widely and
more distantly than any explorer in the world, prior to astronauts. He visited
more than 35 countries during his voyages.

First Voyage (1405-1407)
The first Treasure Fleet consisted of 62 ships; four were huge wood boats,
some of the largest ever built. They were approximately 400 feet (122
meters) long and 160 feet (50 meters) wide.

The four were the flagships of the fleet of 62 ships assembled at Nanjing
along the Yangtze River.

Included in the fleet were 339-foot (103-meter) long ships that carried
nothing but horses, water ships that carried fresh water for the crew, troop
transports, supply ships, and war ships for offensive and defensive needs.

The ships were filled with thousands of tons of Chinese goods to trade with
others during the voyage. In the fall of 1405 the fleet was ready to embark
with 27,800 men.

The fleet utilized the compass, invented in China in the 11th century, for
navigation. Graduated sticks of incense were burned to measure time.

One day was equal to 10 "watches" of 2.4 hours each. Chinese navigators
determine latitude through monitoring the North Star (Polaris) in the
Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Cross in the Southern Hemisphere.

The ships of the Treasure Fleet communicated with one another through
the use of flags, lanterns, bells, carrier pigeons, gongs, and banners.

Through the course of seven voyages between 1405 and 1430, Cheng took  
his fleet to most of southern Asia, East Africa, the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and
Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka).  

It's likely that a detachment of one of Cheng Ho's fleets sailed to northern
Australia during one of the seven voyages based upon the Chinese artifacts
found as well as the oral history of the Aborigine.

Almost 30 countries sent envoys back to China to give homage to the
emperor, and all of the countries eagerly welcomed Cheng and traded for
Chinese goods. He set up diplomatic relations in all the countries he visited
and received tribute from most rulers that he met.

When in Ceylon, Cheng helped restore the legitimate ruler to the throne. In
Indonesia, the fleet defeated a powerful Chinese pirate who was later
brought back to China for execution.

Cheng’s voyages not only established Chinese trade routes throughout
Asia and Africa, but also established China as the dominant power in the
known world. China was far more technologically advanced than any other
culture on the planet, even those in Europe. It had no contact with Europe,
but none of the European fleets could have successfully challenged China’s

Unfortunately, Emperor Yonglo died in 1424 and China suspended
exploration for a time.  Around 1430,  Cheng Ho himself died during a trip
home from India, ending the seventh and final voyage of the Grand Fleet.  

China again banned all naval expeditions, this time indefinitely. Future
emperors practiced strict isolationism and burned all records of Cheng Ho’s
voyages. Chinese influence on the world ceased, thus opening the door for
the rise of European superpowers . By the year 1500,  Columbus was in
North America and Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese, had entered the Indian
Ocean and laid the groundwork for an era of Asian colonization by European
naval powers.

The Ming made a bad decision and in time, the Qing had to live, and perish,
with the results.  
These are scale models of a Cheng Ho Grand Ship and the
Santa Maria that Columbus sailed to the new world in 1492,
sixty years after Cheng Ho's last voyage.