History Lessons

Zhu Yuanzhang

Red turban ruthlessness

By the 1350s, the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty was plagued with famine and social strife. The people – the Han Chinese – rebelled.

The Red Turban Army was formed to overthrow the Mongols and re-establish the Song Dynasty. In 1352, a man named Zhu Yuanzhang joined the rebels and became a warlord. In 1356 he captured Nanjing.

Zhu was born in Haozhou to a poor peasant family and was never properly schooled; he even had to beg for food as a child. Despite his humble beginnings, Zhu was able to attract supporters, with a mix of charisma and a reputation for ruling Nanjing well. Denouncing his Buddhist background, Zhu also portrayed himself as a defender of Confucianism in order to rouse Han Chinese support.

At first, Zhu had supported Han Liner (a Red Turban leader) but soon sought power for himself and eliminated his rivals one by one. When the minnows were gone, only Han Liner stood in his way. Zhu had him drowned and then declared himself Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

Zhu’s next move was to order a commemorative pavilion built to honour those who had rendered him good service. He invited his chief followers for a banquet but during the meal he left, as if to relieve himself, and ordered the pavilion set on fire, killing all inside.

The lesson? The Hongwu Emperor (as Zhu is known to history) and Mao have much in common. In both cases they rose from humble roots and ruthlessly exploited a period of social strife.

In times of dislocation, ruthlessness can have stratospheric rewards.


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