By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A bowl found at a garage sale surprisingly dates back to the Ming dynasty. The small porcelain bowl was crafted sometime in the early 15th century in China. Somehow, it made its way to the United States, now in Connecticut with a very happy buyer. The Ming dynasty arose after the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty.
The Yuan dynasty—during which time the Mongols ruled China and ignored many of China’s cultural traditions—collapsed in the mid-14th century. It left a very poor impression of foreign rule on the Chinese, and the Ming dynasty that followed sought to establish China as an independent country once again. Some of the most famous cultural items to emerge during this period are Ming vases, which became a staple of Chinese culture.
One Ming-era artifact found its way to a yard sale and into the hands of a very happy owner from Connecticut, purchasing it for only $35. The porcelain bowl is expected to fetch up to a half a million dollars when it goes to auction at Sotheby’s.
In his video series Foundations of Eastern Civilization, Dr. Craig G. Benjamin, Associate Professor of History in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University, explained how the Ming dynasty came to be.
The Return of Independent Rule
“After the Yuan dynasty collapsed in the mid-14th century—because of internal dissent and also enormous pressure from peasant uprisings—the Ming dynasty moved quickly to restore native rule to China,” Dr. Benjamin said. “Hongwu, the leader of the uprising against the Yuan, ruled as the first Ming emperor for 30 years, from 1368 to 1398.
“As founder of the dynasty, he chose the name Ming, which means ‘brilliant,’ for the new dynasty; and after driving the Mongols out, he set to work to build a tightly centralized Chinese-run state.”
According to Dr. Benjamin, Hongwu relied heavily on a new class called the mandarins, who traveled around ensuring that government policies were being implemented. He also placed trust in eunuchs—men who had been castrated—as they couldn’t produce large families and build challenges to his power.
Unfortunately, some of the eunuchs learned to exploit this trust, leading to corruption and political assassinations later on in the Ming dynasty.
The Rise of Beijing
One of the most accomplished of Hongwu’s successors was Emperor Yongle, who ruled from 1408 to 1424.
“Yongle is renowned for launching a series of naval expeditions that sailed throughout the Indian Ocean basin and that showed Chinese colors as far away as East Africa,” Dr. Benjamin said. “But Yongle’s successors discontinued these expensive maritime expeditions, although they did maintain the tightly centralized state that Hongwu had established.”
Why were the expeditions stopped? For one, Ming emperors were very concerned about preventing another invasion of China. The Mongols remained a dangerous force just outside the Great Wall despite their relatively recent pushback by the Chinese. In fact, the Mongol threat led to one of the greatest changes to the Chinese empire.
“In 1421, Yongle decided to move the early Ming capital from Nanjing in the south back to Beijing in order to keep a closer watch on the Mongols and other nomadic people of the steppes,” Dr. Benjamin said. “Beijing has remained the capital of China ever since, for the last 600 years.”
The Ming dynasty lasted until 1644.