To tame the untameable: Zhu Yuanzhang’s (r. 1368-98) struggles to establish his ideal society by legal measures in light of the Dagao and the Dan’elu

Project: Research project

Project Details


Ming historians generally agreed that Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Ming Taizu, r. 1368-1398), the Founding Emperor of the Ming regime, emphasised the didactic nature of the law in his legislation. Guided by the principle of integrating punishments with education (Mingxing bijiao明刑弼教), Zhu tried to address the ills in 14th century China through legal means. While historians have studied the application and implications of Zhu’s legal apparatus on different sectors of society, the evolution of early Ming social realities under his judicial activities, and his harsh measures against adversaries, a critical question in early Ming legal scholarship remains: Did Zhu Yuanzhang succeed and how can such success be measured?
Through two novel approaches, in the proposed study, I will scrutinise the way in which the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty sought to create his ideal Jiangnan-based realm during the latter part of his rule, to understand and evaluate the effectiveness of his harsh legal measures in facilitating social transformation.
First, instead of following the crime-defining titles of the entries, I shall identify and analyse all of the crimes committed by the culprits in each of the cases collected in the Dagao 大誥 (Grand Pronouncement, three issues, 1385-1387) and the Dagao wuchen 大誥 武臣 (1387).
Second, by investigating Zhu’s Dan’elu 癉惡錄 (1390), an underexplored collection of cases handled by the emperor and now preserved in the rare book library of the Palace Museum in Taipei, I will shed light on the post-Dagao interactions between Zhu and his subjects in the judicial arena in the last decade of the Hongwu reign.

After implementing his harsh legal policies through the Dagao and placards of ad hoc laws, the criminal offences recorded by the Dan’elu published a few years later suggest that his subjects generally disregarded the powerful threat of bloody punishments imposed by the emperor. By studying this new source of early Ming judiciary in conjunction with the Dagao and the 1389 version of the Great Ming Code, how Zhu Yuanzhang ‘learned’ from the limited reform that his harsh punishments failed to secure, and how he might have adjusted legislation to better reflect social realities and revised his approach to achieve his ideal moral society when faced with his ‘untameable’ subjects can be traced.
Effective start/end date1/01/2431/12/26


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