Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, was born in 1328 in a village in Anhui, as the youngest of six sons of a tenant farmer and tofu seller, who had supposedly fled from Jiangsu to evade taxes; there, he had married the daughter of a sorcerer or Taoist priest. Zhu Yuanzhang herded cows in his youth, until at the age of 16 a plague broke out in the Huai River valley, killing his father, mother and elder brother one after another. In order to survive, he became a monk, and later spent three or four years wandering around and living on alms.
In 1344, the dykes on the Yellow River had collapsed after heavy rain, flooding huge areas and causing great famines. Large numbers of peasants were assembled to repair the dykes over the next five years, creating greater hardship and discontent. The White Lotus sect, whose leader Han Shantong claimed to be the incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha, recruited many members among these peasants, and rose in rebellion with 3,000 men at Yingzhou in 1351. Han further claimed to be a descendant of Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song, while his disciple Liu Futong claimed to be a descendant of the great Song general Liu Guangshi. They declared their aim to be reviving the Song, and said that reinforcements were arriving soon from Japan. The Yuan quickly moved in, arrested Han and executed him, but his son escaped. Liu then regrouped the White Lotus and captured Yingzhou and several other prefectures. In 1355, he proclaimed Little Han as the "Junior King of Brilliance" with the name of the regime as Song. An imperial court was set up, with Liu rising to the post of Prime Minister. The White Lotus army grew to 100,000 - they tied red scarves on their heads, and thus were referred to as the Red Turban troops.
Rebels rose up all over the empire at the news of Liu"s success, and many pledged allegiance to the Song regime and the Red Turbans. One of these rebel leaders had taken the place in 1352, and Zhu joined his army. He rose steadily in the ranks, distinguishing himself as a leader despite tensions with some other rebel commanders.
He continued campaigning in the Anhui region, taking cities and fighting Yuan troops and pro-Yuan militias. He gathered the troops and launched another attack on Nanjing, capturing the city in 1356. The Song regime recognized his authority in Nanjing, promoting him to provincial governor. But other rebel leaders soon converged on the Nanjing area from their respective spheres of influence, and he had to fight them all.
While he was busy fighting other warlords in the south, the Song regime was trying to drive the Mongols out of north China. In 1357, Liu sent three armies on three routes against the Mongols, but all three armies, after enjoying initial success, were defeated by 1362. Liu himself had led an army to take Kaifeng, the old Song dynasty capital, and established it as the new capital of the Song regime. But the Yuan counter-attacked in 1359, driving the Song regime out of Kaifeng. The Red Turbans in the city were brought to the level of eating rotting corpses and frying pellets of mud in human fat, until Zhu finally led an army personally to rescue Little Han and Liu.
In all the territories captured by Zhu, he had recruited famous Confucian scholars to be his advisors. One of them gave him this famous piece of advice in 1357: "Build your walls tall, stock up your rations, and don"t be in a hurry to call yourself a king" - in other words, lie low and remain obedient to the Song regime while building up your strength. On the Chinese New Year in 1364, Zhu finally called himself a king. In early 1367, he sent his general with a fleet to ferry Little Han and Liu across the Yangtze and bring them to Nanjing. The general sank the ship carrying Little Han and Liu, drowning them both.
Whatever the case, Zhu was steadily eliminating all his rivals in the south.
It was only in 1367, ten years after the Red Turban northern expeditions, that Zhu sent troops against the much-weakened Mongols in the north. In 1369-1370, the Mongols were driven all the way back to Outer Mongolia.
In the spring of 1368, Zhu also proclaimed himself emperor of the "Great Brilliance". He soon banned the White Lotus sect, and suppressed records of his early career in its ranks. It was said that Zhu was quite an ugly person, but the court artist painted him much more handsome, so as to avoid making him angry.
Zhu cared a lot for the common peasants. However, it was pretty disappointing that he oppressed the freedom of thought and was quickest to kill off those who might be against him. At first, his empress Ma served as a counter to his quick temper, but when she died (and his son through her as well) he became increasingly irrational and shut off from the rest of the world.
Not only did he free China from Mongol rule, he was also devoted to helping out ordinary folks as well at the same time. He never allowed his armies to plunder and pillage the peasantry, and actively tried to relieve the suffering of the peasants by reducing taxes and quickly issuing relief grain during emergencies.
He was notorious for killing tens of thousands of men (the number was great due to his inclination to execute someone"s entire family) for harboring treasonous thoughts. He once told his son (the crown prince) that the reason he was doing this was that he wants to remove the thorns of the branch (the thorny branch represented the nation while the thorns are the undesirable factors) such that the crown prince can rule the country more effectively.
He was also an intelligent and able administrator; it was he that re-started the civil service examinations that were abolished by the Yuan. He implemented a system of extremely harsh punishments towards the ministers and officials. His concentration on improving peasant livelihood was one of his biggest contributions to China at that time, which was necessary after the brutal civil war of unification.
Nationalist Chinese historians and novelists have celebrated him as a national hero who overthrew the Mongols and restored Han Chinese rule in China. More liberal commentators have condemned him as a paranoid tyrant who founded one of the worst dynasties in Chinese history. He seems to have been a highly intelligent but deeply insecure man, who would execute people simply for using the characters "pig" or "monk" because he thought they were mocking his pig-like features or his past as a Buddhist monk. And although he emerged supreme among all the rebel leaders who arose at the end of the Yuan dynasty, it has been argued that this was because he concentrated on fighting other rebel leaders rather than fighting the Mongols.