The Ming Economy


July 1, 2022

The economy of China's Ming Empire (1368–1644) was the largest in the world at the time, with China's share of the world's gross domestic product at the time estimated at 31%, other estimates at 25% by 1500 and 29% by 1600. The Ming era is considered one of the three golden ages of China (the others were the reigns of the Han and Tang dynasties). The founder of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Chung-wu, sought to build a relatively egalitarian society of self-sufficient peasant farms, supplemented only by essential artisans and merchants in the cities. Distribution of surpluses and infrastructure investment were to be carried out by the state. In an effort to realize this ideal, the state administration was renewed, and tax lists of the population and land were drawn up. Taxes were reduced from the high levels set by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. The support of agricultural production and the overall restoration of the country led to the production of surpluses, which were soon traded on the markets. Subsequently, however, also to property differentiation and the rise of political influence of large landowners (gentry) and merchants, accompanied by a gradual weakening of government power. In the middle Ming period, state control of the economy was gradually relaxed. The government abolished the state monopolies for the production of salt and iron and privatized these and other industries (for example textile, porcelain, paper mills). In addition, many new private enterprises have sprung up, often of considerable size, with many hundreds of wage workers. In agriculture, the specialization of estates in crops grown for the market, different in different regions, became widespread. Tea, fruit, and technical crops (e.g. lacquer or cotton) were grown on a large scale in market-oriented enterprises. The regional specialization of agriculture that arose in this way survived even under the Qing. Taxes, which at the beginning of the dynasty were levied in products and in the form of labor obligations, were gradually converted into monetary form. In addition to internal trade, foreign trade also developed, strictly regulated in the first two centuries of the Ming Dynasty. The negative attitude of government conservatives towards foreign trade in the first two thirds of the 16th century was not so much reflected in its volume as in its militarization. After opening connections with Europe and America and lifting government restrictions, China became the center of a global trade network. The uneven economic development of different regions of China continued. With the changes in trade routes and centers of economic life, Sichuan, Shensi and some other regions receded into secondary status. The loss of importance of the Silk Road led to the decline of Kaifeng, Luoyang, Chengdu and Xi'an, now far from the main trade routes. In contrast, the southeastern coastal provinces and territories along the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal experienced significant growth. New cities grew up along the waterways – Tianjin, Jining, Changzhou, Sungjiang and Shanghai. The most populous cities were the two metropolises - Beijing and Nanking - and Suzhou, the economic center of China during the Ming period. Towards the end of the Ming era, natural disasters and the onset of the Little Ice Age caused declines in agricultural production, especially in economically weaker northern China. Unable to ensure the safety and lives of the population, the regime lost legitimacy and collapsed in the fire of peasant uprisings.

Earth and People


Ming China can be divided into several distinct regions. The basic division is north and south with the border roughly at the Chuaj River. In northern China, agriculture was based on the cultivation of wheat and millet, which brought with it a tendency to consolidate fields into larger estates. Peasants resided in compact villages connected by a network of overland roads. After the wars that gave birth to the Ming Empire, the north was depopulated