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I remember a family Christmas dinner that we once had, about four years ago, where one family member argued that no successful rebellion or revolution could take place unless the revolutionaries themselves were near the top – in other words, forget the romantic image of the ‘people’ overthrowing the ‘elite.’

Me at the Emperor Hongwu’s Mausoleum
Tuesday a week ago.

Yet one week ago, I took a visit to somewhere I was always meaning to see – the mausoleum of a man born Zhu Yuanchang but now known by the named he earned through his successful revolution – Emperor Hongwu. Emperor Hongwu – the man who, throw his rise to power, expelled the Mongol invaders, and established his new dynasty – the Ming dynasty, was no doubt one of China’s greatest emperors.  And for me personally, him making Nanjing the capital of his new China adds a further feather to his cap.

But what was particularly jaw-dropping about him was his background.  He was no aristrocrat and that is an understatement.  On the contrary he was from a peasant family that was so impoverished that everyone save for him and one brother starved to death during a drought, leaving the 16 year old Zhu Yuanchang completely destitute.

So how did this 16 year old peasant, starving and uneducated, rise from such rags to the riches of being Emperor?

Accepting his brother’s advice, he trained as a monk in a local Buddhist Monastery where he learned to read and write but even this couldn’t last long, as in the impoverished circumstances of the day the monastery was forced to close.  He thus was a wandering beggar for three years before the Monastery was able to open again.

Then, four years later, disaster struck again when the monastery was destroyed by an army that was there supressing a rebellion.  Thus, in 1352, Zhu joined one of the many rebel groups that was rising against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.

It was then that Zhu showed his capabilities as he rose up the ranks and became a commander, and eventually a key rebel leader, and was seen as a leading defender of Han Chinese Confucian values against the Mongol overlords.

In 1356, he and the forces of his rebellion conquered Nanjing, making this ancient city his new base of operations.  The Mongols however, still held the north and their capital at Beijing but they made little effort to retake the Yangtze – under these circumstances Nanjing became famous for Zhu’s good governance, and in a decade the city’s population grew 10 fold.

At first, Zhu’s forces’s mainly fought other rebel groups rather than the Yuan up north, however these victories led to Zhu proclaming himself Emperor in 1368 and it was in that year that he finally gained control of Beijing and the North – the last province to be conquered by him wasn’t taken until 1381.

There is no doubt that the hardships of his youth affected his world-view and his policies – he never forgot what it was like to be poor.

He introduced government records of land and property to ensure that peasants would not loose their lands to abusive officials, he expanded irrigation systems and dikes specifically to help peasant farmers, and abolished all tax on the cultivation of  previously fallow land – something which in percentage terms increased the amount of land under the plow more than under any other dynasty.

He was also, one could argue, environmentally very forward thinking too – he had some 50 million trees planted in and around Nanjing – perhaps foreshadowing the current project, that of the green wall of China.

So, if you ever want to find an example of a true rags to riches story, and of a succesful revolutionary from a real peasant background, you would do well to mention Zhu Yuanchang – Emperor Hongwu, the founder of the Ming dynasty, and the beggar who became an Emperor.