Their beautiful blue-and-white porcelain might speak to timeless crafts, but the far-flung explorations of Zheng He and others mean the Ming are on the cusp of transformation.

The second half of the 14th century saw an outbreak of peasant revolts that spread throughout Yuan China. Fueled by recurrent famines and chronic insecurity, they precipitated the end of Chingissid rule in the country. The advent of the Ming Dynasty heralded the restoration of Chinese power to the imperial throne and launched a flourishing era in Chinese culture.

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Zhu Yuanzhang, the leader of a faction of the Red Turbans (1351–1368) established near Nanking, succeeded in taking control of China’s central provinces and became the head of state, proclaiming the mandate of heaven and taking the name Hongwu. He was the first ruler of the Ming Dynasty, a period in which China’s political and cultural influence reached far beyond its traditional borders. Hongwu founded an authoritarian, law-based regime with a long-term policy that focused on increasing agricultural production and defeating the nomadic tribes of Mongolia. The only decision-makers in the state, the Ming emperors promoted the emergence of a powerful caste of eunuchs to the detriment of the traditional imperial administration. The seven naval expeditions launched by Emperor Yongle (1402–1424) reveal the colossal scale of investments that were made to develop the Empire’s diplomatic influence. His Admiral, Zheng He, set out to collect tributes from neighboring kingdoms with his fleet of huge ships, and crossed the Indian Ocean all the way to the coast of East Africa. The Ming accession to the throne occurred at a time of deep hostility toward the Mongol rulers. The desire for renewal in Chinese literature and rapid developments in printing encouraged new styles of poetry, fiction, and theater to emerge. Sophisticated motifs used by contemporary painters were widely reproduced in the Songjiang silk factories and by Jingdezhen porcelain makers.

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It was during the reign of Emperor Yongle that most of the construction work to build the new capital of Beijing was carried out. Some of the most iconic buildings in the city, such as the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, are owed to the Ming emperors.