15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 1 – The Hongwu Emperor


By T.V. Antony Raj


In the 14th and 15th century, the three major cultural realms: China, Christendom and the Islamic World, dominated the maritime activities around Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the China Seas.

The Arabs and other groups adhering to the Islamic faith, while on pilgrimage to Mecca or in trade undertook extensive voyages on the sea from the coasts of Africa across the Indian Ocean to China, north, east, and northwest and vice versa.

At that time there would have been definitely a lot of interactions between China and the Arab World. Did they share geographical information and maritime know-how? What were the maritime endeavors of the Chinese? What circumstances hindered the Chinese from circumnavigating Africa or sailing into the Atlantic?

According to a few pseudo-historians the Chinese landed in North America in 1421, long before Christopher Columbus. Even if it is true, then 420 odd years before the Chinese, Leif Erikson an Icelandic explorer and his crew had already set their feet in North America. (Read my three-part article: “Vikings, the First Colonizers of North America …“)

To know whether the Chinese set foot in North America in 1421 long before the Iberians, let us skim through the history of China in the 14th and 15th century.

The Hongwu Emperor (born as  Zhu Yuanzhang)


The Hongwu Emperor (born as Zhu Yuanzhang), founder of the Ming Dynasty.
The Hongwu Emperor (born as Zhu Yuanzhang), founder of the Ming Dynasty. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)


The Hongwu Emperor (October 21, 1328 – June 24, 1398), also known by his given name Zhu Yuanzhang and his temple name Ming Taizu, was the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China.

Zhu Yuanzhang was born to poor peasants in a village in Zhongli, present day Fengyang, Anhui Province. The region was then ruled by the Yuan dynasty, the empire established by Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan. Zhu had seven older siblings. As they did not have enough food to support the whole family, his parents gave away several children.

When Zhu was 16, the Yangtze River broke its banks and flooded the lands where his family lived. Then, a plague killed his entire family. He and one of his brothers survived.

Destitute Zhu Yuanzhang became a novice monk at the local Buddhist monastery in Huangjue Temple. After a short time, the monastery ran short of funds and food, and Zhu had to leave.

For the next few years, Zhu Yuanzhang led the life of a wandering mendicant. After about three years, he returned to the Huangjue Temple monastery and stayed there for the next five years. The monks taught him to read and write.

In 1352, the monastery where Zhu Yuanzhang lived was  destroyed during a local rebellion against the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.

Zhu joined one of the many insurgent groups that had risen in rebellion. His rise through the ranks was rapid, and he became a commander. Later, Zhu Yuanzhang’s rebel group joined the Red Turbans, a millenarian sect related to the White Lotus Society, and one that followed cultural and religious traditions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and other religions.

Soon, Zhu Yuanzhang emerged as a leader of the rebels struggling to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty. He and the Red Turbans conquered the whole of China. They endeavored to reunite the country.

In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang’s army conquered the city of Nanjing. Later, during his reign, Nanjing became the capital of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang became famous for good governance. The city of Nanjing attracted people fleeing from many lawless regions in China. Over the next decade,  the population of Nanjing increased tenfold.

In the meantime, internal factions fighting for control weakened the Yuan government. It made little effort to retake the Yangtze River valley that played a large role in the history, culture and economy of China. By 1358, different rebel groups took over central and southern China. The Red Turbans also split up.

Around 1360, Zhu Yuanzhang became the leader of a small faction called “Ming”. A larger faction, under Chen Youliang, controlled the center of the Yangtze River valley.

Zhu Yuanzhang was able to attract many wise and talented people into his service. One of them, a hermit named Zhu Sheng advised him:

Build high walls, stock up rations, and don’t be too quick to call yourself a king.

Another, Jiao Yu, was an artillery officer who later compiled a military treatise outlining the weapons using various types of gunpowder. Another person,  Liu Bowen, became one of Zhu’s key advisors. In later years, Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen edited the military-technological treatise titled Huolongjing (Fire Dragon Manual).

Starting from 1360, Zhu Yuanzhang and Chen Youliang fought a long lasting war for supremacy over the former Red Turban territory. Zhu defeated Chen’s larger navy. A month later, Chen died in battle. After that, Zhu Yuanzhang did not take part in any battles in  person. He remained in Nanjing from where he directed his generals to go on campaigns.

In 1367, Zhu’s forces defeated Zh.ang Shicheng’s Kingdom of Dazhou. This victory granted Zhu’s Ming government authority over the lands north and south of the Yangtze River.

Soon, the other major warlords surrendered to Zhu.


The grand ceremony of first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ascending to the throne exhibited at the Wax Sculpture Palace of Ming Emperors in Changping, Beijing. (Source: ebeijing.gov.cn)
The grand ceremony of first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ascending to the throne exhibited at the Wax Sculpture Palace of Ming Emperors in Changping, Beijing. (Source: ebeijing.gov.cn)


On January 20, 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing. He adopted the name “Hongwu” meaning “vastly martial” as his era. He pledged that his dynasty would drive away the Mongols and restore the Han Chinese rule  in China.

Ming armies headed north to attack territories that were still under the Yuan Dynasty’s rule. In September 1368, the Mongols gave up their capital city of Khanbaliq (modern Beijing) and the rest of northern China and retreated to Mongolia..


Map of the Ming Empire (Source: globalsecurity.org)
Map of the Ming Empire (Source: globalsecurity.org)


In 1381, the Ming army captured the last Yuan-controlled province of Yunnan and China became unified under the Ming Dynasty’s rule.


Next →  Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor




8 thoughts on “15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 1 – The Hongwu Emperor”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.