The Ming Court 明宫

The early Ming dynasty was a period of internal unity, prosperity, and vigorous expansion. After languishing as secondary citizens within the Mongolian "Yuan" dynasty, the native Han Chinese reasserted their local autonomy in 1368 and ended the Mongol yoke. After millions died from the mismanaged famines in 1360s the countryside rose up in rebellion.

Zhu Yuan Zhang, a peasant whose both parents died in the great famines became one of the top rebel generals and later became the only peasant in Chinese history to "rose to the gold" so to say.

Zhu Yuan Zhang, now the Hongwu Emperor was~ a megalomaniac in every sense of the word. In this case he initiated massive building projects and attempted to overhaul the civil infrastructures that had lasted for three centuries. He sought to reinvigorate the dried Grand Canals, which in sections has been abandoned to misuse, attempted to control the flooding of the Yellow River, he personally involved in the restoration of many religious sites, including Buddhist temples and Daoist shrines, built massive monuments and drastically lowered the taxes for the peasants.

Having tasted the plight of poverty Zhu saw the peasants as eternally ignored by the court officials, whom he always distrusted. It was after all, always the officials who ruined many previous dynasties and led to its collapse. He became the first Chinese monarch to issue to practice of "Kowtow" or kētóu in Mandarin, which involved the officials prostrate before the Emperor in submission.

He also saw the emperor's role much more as a ceremonial figure (in the sense of performing religious rituals and tours rather than a figure head) than any Emperors of the preceding dynasties. For his successor he mandated a rigid daily ritual where they would rise around five o clock and stand alone upright in the front of the imperial palace, then parcel out their days equally in learning, recitation, and ceremony. A rigorous lifestyle that ended up shortening most of the Ming emperor's lifespan to be no more than 50.

Because of his lack of official education Zhu trusted the most important tasks of the court to the eunuchs, who, having been borne from obscure families and castrated, could never lead an army, never have relatives in high power, and never start their own rival dynasty to usurp the throne. They could then trusted with missions in very far away lands, such as the great naval exploits of the eunuch admiral Zheng He and his treasure fleet.

Zhu thus unknowingly established the distinctive "Ming" nature of court life:

A palace divided between the Confucian scholars who served as the government officials, and the eunuchs of the inner court, who wielded great powers. Beyond both was the Jinyiwei, the secret police who reported directly to the Emperor on both for signs of dishonesty and foul play.

By the way that was in the same painting:

The Scholar Officials

Like the many dynasties before it, the ruling elite of the Ming court were not hereditary nobility like those of Medieval Europe or Feudal Japan. Power, instead of conferred from father to son naturally by right of blood, was instead awarded to the best participants in the imperial civil service exam. A national exam that tested the participants competency in grammar, the Confucian classics, and history. All students of all classes are legible to participate in, though provided they are literate and male borne. The best student with the best score would be eligible for highly coveted imperial appointments from secretary of treasury to a provincial governor. Those with the high position would keep them as long as they are competent and would receive great stipends for their tenures. Usually such an appointment would result in great wealth and high privileged for the entire clan.

If the holder's sons wished for the position of power it necessary for them to take the test and only then could they have the stations of nobility conferred upon them. Despite the meritocratic nature of such a nation ritual, the ephemeral guarantee of both wealth and privilege from father to successor eventually led to many corrupt officials who regarded their tenure as opportunities for self aggrandizement. An endemic plague that rotted many Confucian dynasties many millennias from China, Korea, to Vietnam.

Indeed many competent and loyal officials held firm their ground, usually at the tail end of a dynasty corruption would ran rampant while the nation reeled.

The cycle goes that at the founding of a dynasty, the warrior emperor would be just and appoint his trusted loyal advisers to reform the corrupt system, by the middle of the dynasty, the emperor would have his power eroded at the hands of these local officials who are now new men and are many contradictory pairs of eyes and ears. By the end of the dynasty the emperors would be so powerless while corrupt officials and rebellious generals tore the realm apart.

Zhu, regarding at the healthy end of his dynasty could not but contemplate the almost inevitable day the unrestrained and unreformed officials would ruin his own house and deprive them of any power. So he introduced another element in the dynamic.

The Eunuchs:

The eunuchs are usually portrayed, and are still portrayed in the Chinese/ Taiwanese media as scheming, selfish, and conniving puppet masters in many of the movies and TV dramas. Often combining the aspect of sexual confusion (laced with China's post 1949 communist influenced homophobia) and equal measures brutality and duplicity. A creature failed by feminine impossibilities and virile impossibilities, totally epitomized the perverse old feudal system that castrated little boys.

The second part of their criticism was true. Yes, it is only in an old imperial system this could occur, it is only largely in the oriental nations this could occur. Yet their origin, although grotesque for the sensitive mind, is still equally tragic. For one they could never defend themselves in terms of history. History in China was has always been written by the Confucians who always regarded the Eunuch's favors with equal measures jealousy and mistrust. The peasants always regarded them as the source of evil, whenever a unfavorable edict was struck by the Emperor they would easily blame the eunuchs as the source of the wickedness, and thus attribute the "bad" of the state to what should be incorruptible in their minds. The communists hated them for their support of the old regime, the moderns are disgusted and repelled by their very nature. Even the 21st century view would more distracted with painting them with only their social justice origin, than appreciate the details of their solid acumen. Perhaps more than a few were just enforcers of unpopular edicts, maybe a few really cared about the realms.

Like this guy~

Over the grand scheme of things they served a function for an authority to break the traditional excesses of the scholar officials. They did this, ensuring a channel of direct authority that allows the Emperors to bypass cabals of incompetent officials. But like everything with age, eventually this dynamic was changed as well. Over two hundred years the Eunuchs became subdivided into their own factions as well, this, added with the scholar officials, created endless partisan deadlocks that stymied the state.

Partisan Strife

As you can imagine, with this unsettling combination of statism, and internal distrust, sooner or later it will all go out of control. Zhu Yuan Zhang was able to handle the pulleys and levers of his initially benevolent authoritarian court but sooner or later, one of his less than competent successors will be crushed by the complex mechanism. By the middle of the Ming dynasty, it was the court, or more clearly the systemic partisan-ism of the court that led the boy emperors rather than the other way. Like the Praetorian guards, the machine now ruled the children of its creator. Often princes who are brothers would try to co-opt the factions to assassinate his siblings.

This exemplified in the Tumu Crisis, where the Ming Emperor Zhengtong was kidnapped by the Mongolian raiders. He was well treated by the Mongol Khan, but when news came that he could be returned to his brother who was now the reigning emperor, he pleaded not to return for he feared his own life should he return.

Rumors and assassination attempts drove many of the young emperors to the recesses of the inner harems, where they left the affairs of the state to the squabbling ministers and eunuchs.

The long end was thus in sight.