Hongwu Emperor of Ming 洪武帝: Commissioned Artwork for Vincent Ho

Artwork commissioned by Vincent Ho (Aka: FerrumFlos1st
The 洪武帝 Hongwu or "Vast Martial" Emperor of Ming. Gruff, authoritarian, but also diligent, Zhu Yuanzhang (the future Hongwu Emperor) rose from a penniless beggar who lost both of his parents to starvation to become one of the greatest warriors of the 14th century. From illiterate beggar to rebel to warlord to emperor, his life was a kaleidoscope of strife and harsh measures.

Recently I was extremely fortunate to be commissioned by my Patron Mr. Vincent Ho, (aka FerrumFlos1st) to do the portrait of the founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Mr. Ho has been a long time patron of mine and when he recently found a temporary job he commissioned this piece with one of his first paychecks. :') I am proud to announce that after two weeks of work I was able to finish this portrait for him. With love and the deepest gratitude, thank you for your support and most of all your belief in me. You are my hero.


It has been almost 7 decades since Kublai Khan remade China as the center of his own empire. In 1344 calamity struck the Yuan dynasty during its twilight days, the Yellow River shifted course and flooded over vast swaths of Central China. Whole areas as large as several European nations combined were inundated and whole communities were blasted away in the mammoth torrent. In total, 7 provinces were ruined, the whole heartland and breadbasket of China was devastated. 

Millions died from the starvation all while the avalanche of muddy water barreled southward in a unceasing gout until it found a new exit some 260 miles at the south end of the modern Shandong Province. The Mongol overlords were powerless to help, and millions would continue to die as a consequence of this national catastrophe. This would be one of the many dominoes that would completely unseat the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Within a decade there would be several great rebellions across southern China, and within two and a half decades the Yuan would be completely driven out of China by its native rebels. The great flood alone was but one of a long series of factors that contributed to the uprising against the Yuan. 

Worldly, sagacious, and ambitious, Kublai Khan was perhaps the single most influential political figure of the the 13th century world. Educated by the foremost Persian, Chinese and Eurasian polymaths he received a level of education that was the envy of nearly all of his contemporary monarchs. The empire that he created in his image reflected his ambition to consolidate the many distinctive people that existed in his domains into a new cosmopolitan identity. He was a great Khan who ruled a newly stylized Sinicize dynasty called "Yuan," whose court was staffed with the best Nepalese artists, Tibetan Lamas, Mongol generals, and Chinese Mandarins. But despite his unequal achievements, he also enshrined many restrictive and oppressive policies toward the citizendry of the vanquished Song dynasty in southern China which one day would lead to the massive rebellion that expelled his successors from China.

Although the Yuan were multi-cultural and was tolerant of all faiths and races, it also had a restrictive racial caste system that hierarchically placed the native Han Chinese at the bottom of the society. The likes of horse-lords such as the Mongols, Turks, even ostensibly foreigners such as the Nepalese and Tibetans benefited at the top and middle of the society and were enrolled in its army and bureaucracy. Northern Han Chinese were barred from having military power, and were restricted beneath the aforementioned races- they were also forbidden from marrying such more privileged races. Southern Chinese (the remnants of the vanquished Song) were subjected to even more restrictive racial restrictions. Not only were they barred from having any political power but they were also forbidden entrance into the rungs of their own local civilian governments as well. Taxes against those already oppressed groups were crippling, and many were sold into slavery because of these debts. 


Music: The Gods Duel

From the late 1340s onwards, people in the countryside suffered from frequent natural disasters such as droughts, floods and the resulting famines, and the government's lack of effective policy led to a loss of popular support. Those who cannot pay taxes were sold into slavery by the Mongols or left to starve, whole regions perished in these great famines. Worse yet- when the great flood happened in 1344, much of the grain reserves were transferred from the local areas to the northern provinces, and those who resisted the confiscations were massacred by the government.

Millions in the south would die- leaving whole regions that were already depopulated and deeply resentful of the Yuan overlords (and still loyal to the vanquished Song) to rise up in full flung rebellion. To them, the great flood might as well have been a sign from Heaven itself- to signify once and for all for a change in the world order. 


Gruff, authoritarian, but also diligent, Zhu Yuanzhang (the future Hongwu Emperor) rose from a penniless beggar who lost both of his parents to starvation to become one of the greatest warriors of the 14th century. From illiterate beggar to rebel to warlord to emperor, his life was a kaleidoscope of strife and harsh measures. Because of his early sufferings he had the bearing of a cheerless career soldier. 

Perhaps it was fitting in someway that the person who would rise up and challenge the Khans would be one who was directly affected by those policies. Zhu Yuanzhang was but a poor peasant from southern China, when he was sixteen, Zhu lost his entire family - with the exception of one brother - to the Black Death, and had to scrape and beg to survive for a time. During that time southern China was plagued with famine and millions starved. Thus he took shelter in a monastery to live by the scraps of food he could find there, becoming an itinerant monk & beggar. 

After the death of his parents in the famine of 1344, Zhu Yuanzhang first took refuge in a Buddhist temple, then became a beggar and finally a soldier.

It was during that time that Zhu was first exposed to the revolutionary philosophy of the bandit and rebel group known as the Red Turbans. He joined the Red Turbans at the age of 24, and married a daughter of one of the rebel leaders. In 1355, his father-in-law died, and Zhu succeeded him as head of the Red Turbans, and began launching raids and attacks against the Mongol establishment. 

 Battle of Lake Poyang: One of Zhu's most decisive battles (and supposedly one of the largest naval battles of the world) Zhu's smaller fleet was able to utterly crush his archrival Chen Youliang's larger fleet of massive junks and tower-ships with clever use of fireships. The fluctuating high records of the participants of the battle ranged from 30,000 vs 300,000 to 200,000 vs 650,000. 

Zhu Yuanzhang’s military ability and skill in creating tactical alliances contributed to his victory. As his influence grew he heeded the advice of Confucian advisers and gained a reputation for taking care of lowly peasants. By 1355 he had built a base camp and had organized an army. He took over Nanjing in 1356. In 1363, Zhu destroyed one of his key rivals in one of the largest naval battles ever fought on Lake Poyang, and cemented his position as the head of all the powerful rebels. 

After repelling the Mongols and eliminating half a dozen of other Chinese warlords, in 1368, he had taken Beijing (Khanbaliq,) and toppled the Yuan Dynasty- diving off the Khans to the north. 

Zhu named himself the new Hongwu Emperor, marking the beginning of a new dynasty- the Ming, meaning "Bright" or "Radiant" and came to be known as well as "Ming Taizu," or "Great Ancestor/Founder of Ming" and made Nanjing his capital.

In 1370 the Yuan remnants retreated north until it receded back into the steppe lands of modern Mongolia, where Kublai's name "Great Yuan" (大元) would formally carried on and they would continue to call themselves "Emperor of China," though for historical distinction is would be known as the "Northern Yuan" dynasty because they lost most of their core administrative centers and diverse population.


Hongwu is known for his autocratic style of rule, centralizing power in the hands of the emperor even further than it had been previously, by eliminating several of the top ministerial positions; his paranoia against others gaining power extended to the establishment of a powerful spy network, which was used to keep officials in line. 

Because of the suffering that Zhu had personally witnessed that Hongwu Emperor would spent his entire life sympathizing with the little farmers and punishing corrupt officials with equal diligence. Often Zhu would give liberal tax breaks and stipends to the peasantry while killing suspected corrupt officials in the thousands. Zhu would spend most of his tenure as emperor in the saddles and would seek to force his children to emulate his back breaking work schedule. Scholars have suggested it was this extremely demanding work schedule that led to the early death of many Ming emperors. At least half of the Ming emperors would die relatively early in their middle ages. 

Personally, Hongwu was extremely hard-working, looking over thousands of memorials a week, but this put an exceptional burden on his successors. He also created an overarching legal framework known as the Great Ming Code, which was meant to transform and regulate society in a new, Ming, form; it had some considerable lasting impacts, but Hongwu also frequently contradicted or undermined the Code through his judgements on individual matters. In one eight-day period, the emperor is said to have reviewed more than 1,600 petitions dealing with nearly 3,400 separate matters

Above: 14th century, Hongwu Emperor's Edict to officially conferring the title of General of the Ngari Military and Civil Wanhu Office to Tibetan leader Choskunskyabs in 1373. 

This Code, and Hongwu's policy decisions otherwise, were heavily motivated, however, by a desire to restore the greatness of China after nearly a hundred years of Mongol rule. He restored the civil service examination system, and the National Academy, and oversaw the establishment of a great number of schools across the empire.

The Hongwu Emperor sought to restore, or at least evoke, the glories of the great Chinese dynasties of the past, in particular the Tang Dynasty, and so had many aspects of court protocol, including court costume, patterned after that of the Tang. Even so, many aspects of Ming Dynasty court protocol, and especially governance policies and administrative structures, can be traced more directly to a continuation and/or modification of Yuan Dynasty systems, rather than any more dramatic break from the immediate past or more complete restoration of the more distant past. One example of this is seen in the Chinese imperial examinations, put back into place in 1384, but based on the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi and of the Yuan Dynasty examinations, rather than the classical Confucian forms of the Tang dynasty exams.


At Nanjing, the newly risen Ming would become the dominant power in East Asia although the Mongols would remain a powerful force in the northern steppes.

According to the traditional Chinese political orthodoxy, there could be only one legitimate dynasty whose rulers were blessed by Heaven to rule as Emperor of China, thus the Ming denied the Yuan remnants' legitimacy as "Emperors of China," but the Ming did consider the previous Yuan which it had succeeded to be a legitimate Chinese dynasty. During the rise of the Ming, Zhu Yuan Zhang (the new Hongwu Emperor) and his sons would vigorously attack the Northern Yuan forces until peace was finally struck between the Northern Yuan Khans and the Ming Emperors.  



Thank you to my Patrons who has contributed $10 and above: 
You helped make this happen!
➢ ☯ José Luis Fernández-Blanco
➢ ☯ Vincent Ho (FerrumFlos1st)
➢ ☯ BurenErdene Altankhuyag
➢ ☯ Stephen D Rynerson
➢ ☯ Michael Lam
➢ ☯ SRS (Mr. U)


Der said…
Another excellent.

Only one criticism. Your Zhu Yuanzhang picture, he's too handsome. Legend has it he was horribly ugly, not handsome at all. They say he survived smallpox when he was young but suffered from horrible scars on his face all his life. Most people would be self conscious and feel shame, I like to think this made Zhu stronger and helped him develop a stronger Will, an iron Will.
Dragon's Armory said…
I actually made a joke meme version of the real him with a Pelican Habsburg lower jaw, hunchbacks and laced with pockmarks, but only for a joke, I doubt that's what my Patron commissioned lol.
Dragon's Armory said…
Although I did try to make this version have a jutting chin and elongated jaw.
Der said…
Haha, excellent illustration nonetheless.

You mention in your article that Zhu Yuanzhang was the greatest warrior in the 14th century. I would agree, despite the fact that he was a contemporary of men like Tamerlane, Bayazid I (Thunderbolt), Edward III of England and his son The Black Prince, etc, I'm sure there are more in Japan and in the New World but I'm not too familiar with them. How would you compare Zhu with Tamerlane, et al ??
Vincent Ho said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vincent Ho said…
I couldn't care less about the facial features. Admittedly, he does look more manhua than his historic portraits.

I was more into how would an emperor wear armor while showing off the five-clawed dragon, seeing it is sign of royal not dissimilar to the 'born in the purple' expression in the Byzantines.

Edit: I had to delete the previous comment due to spelling error.
Dragon's Armory said…
Der: Japan had Ashikaga Takauji but Hongwu was a better commander, he was a self made man from the bottom where as Takauji was a noble already in position of power. Look at it this way, one had to be initiated to fighting, to team building, to prove his mettle to be given command from a completely uninitiated position, while the other inherits an army from the family, was given tutors, who also does not have to face the possibility of being stripped of command and executed after failure. Also this: One was born into a world where half the realm see you as a rebel and have no problem with your head impaled on the spike for being a criminal, while you have to fight the best the sitting government have to throw at you, the other is the sitting government and most people agrees that the army by right is yours. Hongwu also had to face greater variety of enemy with much greater numbers so yeah.

As for How Hongwu compare to the people you listed, well I think he's better than Edward by the same standard with Ashikaga Takauji. Although it gets to be more tricky with Bayazid and Tamerlane. Bayazid spend his life fighting a variety of enemies on several fronts so by the merit that he was able to constnatly rise above the difficulty and continually extend his empire into the Balkans and the surrounding areas he had proved that he was a good commander. He was also a life time "fireman" in that he had to fix problems and crush resistant forces every few years on two fronts, he spent his entire career fixing problems and then make the empire rise above it and acquire more territories (til the end of course) so I'm a bit conflicted.

I'd park the Hongwu Emperor near Bayazid although both are great for different reasons. One is that Zhu Yuan Zhang had native support, by the time he emerged as the most formidable rebel against the Mongols their grasp on power was already slipping, and aside from several governors and Princes they were expelled locally. What that translated to is that Zhu could rely on the locals to do his work for him and build momentum to repel the Mongol overlords despite having to go from a beggar to Emperor. I guess what I am saying is that if its not him- if he fell on his ascension someone will do the task and become the new Emperor when the time comes. But for Bayazid, he had competely different priorities- in that he WAS the foreign conqueror to most of his neighbors, he was saddled with stabilizing a empire after the death of his father and then despite his odds, conquer many begrudging foes and consume their lands. The fact that Bayazid was able to get his way despite stiff resistance showed that he was the formidable master of his domains.

As for how all of the figures you listed compared to Tamerlane-
No, I don't think anyone on the list + Zhu could quite hold a candle to Tamerlane, namely in that he too was a self made man who had to ascend to power the hard way. The fact that he fought so many different peoples and crushed them repeatedly meant that Tamerlane was the better commander. But here is the clencher, just because he was a better commander does not meant he could be guarenteed to win against- say, long supply lines, rebellious provinces while he was fighting, and a large front that's densely populated, even history itself has never seen him penetrate that far outside of his Central Asian and Persian domains. He was able to achieve his victories in Anatolia and the levant but aside from winning those were not his and would have caused him headache should he say- turn his full attention east and invade the Ming.
Der said…
Thanks for the analysis.

The 14th century was an Age of Calamity, all over the world, not just in China. Floods and famine in China, the Black Death in Europe and the Scourge of God himself in the form of Tamerlane. But like the old Chinese saying goes, Crisis = Opportunity right? And men Zhu and Tamerlane took advantage to rise to the top.

I appreciate your placing Tamerlane above Zhu Yuanzhang, ... the Ming founder was just that, a Founder of a State whilst Tamerlane was more in the mold of a conqueror and pure military commander. The battle of Ankara and his defeat of Bayazid Thunderbolt is evidence of that (although the treachery of the Turkic tribes against Ottomans shows Timur's political savvy as well!). Timur knew only how to destroy, while Zhu was meant to build. The results can be seen with that came after these two men died.

Although I must disagree with your assertion that Tamerlane didn't penetrate outside Central Asia and Anatolia. Didn't Timur invade Golden Horde territory in Russia and burn Moscow to the ground? Did Timur not invade the Indian subcontinent itself and capture Delhi? From Moscow to Delhi, that is some achievement!!

Also, what do you know about the diplomatic relationship between Timur and the Ming Court? I read somewhere that Timur actually pledged allegiance to the Ming and took Vassal and tributary status to Zhu Yuanzhang? But when Timur gained world conqueror status, he spurned the Ming and treated Ming envoys with contempt, putting them below the Castilian ambassador in diplomatic precedence. Was any of this true? It would be fascinating to be in the presence of Timur's Court in Samarkand where Iberian envoys met Ming diplomats, I wonder if this news influenced the future voyages of Christopher Columbus ??
Dragon's Armory said…
I guess you are right, I stand corrected- I am always looking at things in terms of legacy and state, so I was looking at it through an empire's perspective because I appreciate what lasts. But on a purely military level, I would say Timur's victories are quite remarkable.

I knew he invaded Golden Horde but I don't remember reading him burning down Moscow anywhere. I just don't see the point of fighting wars so far away, it's as if a bully runs deep into the enemy territory to deliver a crippling punch (without killing the fellow) then, after cowing them ran back to his own lands satisfied that he had proven he could do it. Btw his wholesale slaughter in northern India was extremely excessive and got nothing done.

As for your last point, my understanding of Timur's later life was sketchy at best, I gravitated to him because he was a good conqueror so I seek to gleam what really worked for him. But he's a bad statesman if I could be honest, all brutality and megalomania but little to consolidate and perpetuate- what's the point of keep conquering for the sake of conquest, all that proves is that you could bully everyone else- its purely held by fear and awe. All the artisans brought to Bukara to intricately paint its squares and Mosques meant little if his scions and folk are torn to shreds everywhere. Also sort of pointless to me.

As for the intricacies of state diplomacy, well, idk, I just didn't spent too much time on Timur. I guess I didn't study Timur for those details because ultimately it didn't matter, the fact it unraveled so fast showed that it was a state held on only by Timur and fear of him.
Der said…
Timur's armies are the proverbial tiger and Timur himself rode that tiger's back. The moment he falls off (defeated) or stops riding that tiger (stop invading and conquering) then Timur will become tiger food. That is why for the whole of Timur's life from his boyhood as a bandit thief it was one battle after another, one massacre after another, one giant plundering expedition after another to satisfy the hunger of his giant gang of thugs. Remember Timur was a semi-nomad, not a true nomad like Genghis Khan, and his armies were paid in plunder and loot, unlike Samurai armies who were paid in rice growing lands or Chinese armies who fought in within a dynastic hierarchy and were served by a vast bureacracy. He had to constantly satisfy the hunger of this army or else he gets eaten alive. And he was the only one who could do it, his successors in the Timurid line of Amirs did not have his ruthlessness or restlessness. You have the right terminology, Timur was the better general, Hongwu was the better statesman. Timur was the destroyer of kingdoms and empires, Hongwu the founder and builder of a dynasty.
Dragon's Armory said…
That was a great summation, they were roving raiders who bullied for tributes and submission, even after slaughter never managed to entrench their influences that deep in the area. I guess from a sedentary culture I always underestimate the importance of seasonal raids. It was a form that suited Timur well but once its passed on to someone with a different character then the entire thing disintegrates. There is so little legitimacy and identity building so it all went away like a gust of wind.

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