Episode 69 – Zhu Yuanzhang versus Nicholas Copernicus

This episode, we move over to the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket. Our first contestant is possibly the most successful rebel in world history, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. The second, was the Polish polymath and polyglot, a man who gave us the principle of heliocentrism, Nicholas Copernicus.

My sources for the Chinese rebel start with two books with the same title, China: A History. The first is by John Keay, and the second is Harold Miles Tanner. As for Nicholas Copernicus I’ve used Man and the Universe: The Philosophers of Science by Saxe Commins and Robert Linscott, Copernicus’s Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began by Jack Repcheck and The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicholaus Copernicus by Owen Gingrich.

Hongwu Emperor
Zhu Yuanzhang

Had you asked me who Zhu Yuanzhang was before I began this podcast, I’d have drawn a blank. But, as I said in the introduction, he is the most successful rebel leader in world history. His rags to riches story is absolutely mindboggling. If you wanted to tell a young child that no matter what your background, you could achieve anything you set your mind to and then some, this would be the tale. As American historian at the University of Washington, Patricia Buckley Ebrey once wrote, “Seldom has the course of Chinese history been influenced by a single personality as much as it was by the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang.” As John Keay states in his book China: A History, “Self-made emperors were rare, and none had more ground to make up than Zhu.”

Born on October 21, 1328 in Zhongli Village, which is in present-day Fengyang, Anhui Province, Zhu Yuanzhang had an incredibly hard start to life. His peasant farming family was as dirt poor as they come. Zhu had seven older siblings; many were given away because the family did not have enough food to go around. In 1344 a terrible drought hit his home region killing every member of his family except one brother. 

The family’s death by famine is one story I found, but there are other tales. One is that a plague hit China and that is what did them in. Another, claims that it was a flash flood that killed his family. Some claim that it was a flood first and then disease that took them. Whatever the real cause, Zhu was without family.

China at the time, was ruled by the Yuan dynasty, one started by someone we will get to know in episode 92, Kublai Khan. The Mongols were not the best rulers of China as they had little bureaucratic skills, and as such were unable to deal with the multitude of problems besetting the country. Toghon Temür was the Chinese emperor at the time of Yuanzhang growing up and when he would eventually overthrow him.

Toghon Temur
Toghon Temur

With his family wiped out, Zhu headed to the Huangjue Temple, a Buddhist monastery. That didn’t last very long as they ran out of money and had no way of feeding the monks living there. For the next three years, Yuanzhang wandered the countryside, begging for food. When he returned to the monastery after three years, he began to learn how to read and write. He would remain there until he turned twenty-four.

Turning back to John Keay, he writes this about the man, “By nature a firm disciplinarian and fearless leader, the young Zhu Yuanzhang possessed few other imperial attributes. He was ugly to behold, woefully ignorant and without that most basic unit of support, a family. But he was a good listener and a quick learner. Literary proficiency plus a knowledge of history, strategy and governance were acquired along the way; the steep curve of his learning experience mirrored that of his ruse to power and seemed to validate it.”

As I mentioned previously, the Yuan Dynasty of Mongol rulers was loosing control of the country as bandits roamed the countryside, especially in the lands between the Yangtze and Huai River Valleys. It is in response that a rebel group named the Red Turbans popped up. As Harold Tanner puts it in his book China: A History, “Loosely coordinated rebel groups called the Red Turbans combined Daoist religion, millenarian Buddhist beliefs in the coming of the Maitreya Buddah (the Buddah of the Future) and Manichean beliefs in the coming of a ‘Prince of Light’ who would defeat the forces of darkness.” It is the Red Turbans that Zhu Yuanzhang would join and quickly become one of their dominant leaders in the coming years.

Beginning in 1352, Zhu would climb the power ladder by being a bold, talented and brave leader. Not only would he be fighting the Yuan armies successfully, he would turn back other rebel forces and local strongmen. Twelve years into his military career, he already controlled vast swathes of land around the Yangtze River. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang would become the first Ming ruler, the Hongwu Emperor with his capital being Nanjing. 

Zhu would take his years as a poor peasant to heart. The people of China were his main concern with the corrupt bureaucrats being his target of anger. His influence came from Confucian advisors and scholars. The Hongwu Emperor would put together a centralized and highly autocratic government which would work at purging Mongol influence and promoting Han Chinese culture at all costs. And the cost would be extremely high in human life. 

Zhu wanted to focus on agriculture stability, remembering the famines of his youth. He pushed against trade with the West as he felt that this was poisoning the people against their Chinese heritage. His brutality in making his policies to be carried out would be legendary. People like Mao Zedong would point out Yuanzhang’s programs to justify his strategies. Tens of thousands would be tortured and executed if Zhu felt in the slightest that his orders were not being carried out. 

One of his many purges was against one of his oldest and most trusted advisors, Prime Minister Heu Weiyong. The Hongwu Emperor was suspicious that Heu was getting too powerful and posed a threat to his rule. In 1380, Yuanzhang decided another purge was in order. Not only was Heu Weiyong executed, but tens of thousands of people who had even the barest thread of a connection to the Prime Minister were killed. 

When he died in 1398, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor had ruled over his country for thirty years. His rise to power from the lowest place possible in society to the ultimate in position remains the greatest in the history of mankind and makes him the most successful rebel ever.

Now we need to move on over to the next contestant, a Polish scholar who would change the world of science forever, Nicholas Copernicus.

Nicholas Copernicus
Nicholas Copernicus

Nicholas was born on February 19, 1473 he city of Toruń, then in the province of Royal Prussia, in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. Copernicus’s birthplace is situated on the Vistula River in north-central Poland. His father Nicholas, was a merchant from Krakow and his mother Barbara Watzenrode, was a wealthy heiress from Torun. Nicholas was the youngest of four children all of whom made it to adulthood.

Copernicus was born into a family of some means, which meant he had access to the finest education that money could buy. He also had a relative, who would become his benefactor, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger who was the Prince-Bishop of Warmia and uncle to Nicholas. Lucas had studied at Jagiellonian University and at Cologne and Bologna. One of the benefits of having Watzenrode as an ally was his close relations with the monarchs of Poland, John I Albert, Alexander Jagiellon, and Sigismund I the Old.

Even with all of these connections, no one would have heard of Nicholas Copernicus had he not been a genius in his own right. He was a polyglot, as he spoke or was literate in Latin, German, and Polish as well as knowing some Greek and Italian, and rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew. As a polymath, he was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist. His doctorate was in canon law of the church.

Nicholas’s education was rich, spending his time under his uncle’s supervision and guidance. There is debate amongst scholar whether Copernicus had ever been ordained as a priest during his life and there is no concrete evidence that he was. There was a time when he was under consideration to become a bishop, which would have required being ordained. Nicholas could have been ordained after his selection, so we still are at the place where he likely wasn’t.

Copernicus left Poland and headed to Italy to study at the Bologna University of Jurists, which lasted between the fall of1496 and spring of 1501. He parted from his studies of canon law, instead focusing on the humanities and astronomy. In 1500 he spent some time in Rome before heading to Padua University to study medicine from 1501 to 1503. It is been suggested that it was during his time in Padua that Nicholas had begun to put together his heliocentric theories of the universe to the test.

Now thirty, Copernicus returned to Poland and to the town of Warmia, where he would spend the remaining forty years of his life. Unlike Isaac Newton who wouldn’t leave his little hamlet as we learned in episode 39, Nicholas would travel a bit, but it was pretty much restricted to his native Poland, with some visits to Prussian towns.

When I reviewed the life and times of Copernicus, I came away surprised at how little ambition he seems to have exuded. I’d like to share a description of Nicholas from the book, Copernicus’ Secret by Jack Repcheck which I found fascinating. It tells us a lot about his personality and how unlikely he was to become the historical figure he is today. “Second, there is not even a whiff of ambition emanating from Copernicus’s life, nothing to indicate that he might pursue a line of inquiry that would be revolutionary. Most of the other titans of the scientific revolution – certainly Leonardo, Brahe, Galileo, and Newton – had ambitious streaks and outsize egos, and each was eager for acclaim and recognition. Not Copernicus. He was a retiring hermitlike scholar who wanted nothing more that to be left alone.” 

Repcheck goes on further to say, “After finishing his languid studies, Copernicus followed the path of least resistance and took a position as the personal assistant to his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, who was an influential prince-bishop in the Church.” To show even less ambition, “Watzenrode wanted to groom Nicholas to be his successor, thus guaranteeing a life or riches and power. Instead, Copernicus opted off the fast track at the age of thirty-seven, left his uncle’s side, and spent the rest of his thirty-three years as a comfortable, but minor, cleric.”

This is the man who would shake up the world, and yet, he didn’t seem to want any notoriety surrounding what he was about to propose. What makes his discoveries even more incredible was that he was using inferior observational instruments to make the calculations that would end up with the theory of heliocentrism. Remember, Copernicus lived in a time about fifty years before the invention of the telescope.

What Nicholas did have in his favor was both brilliance and the time he was born. Remember, back in episode 47 when we discussed the Black Death and how the loss of one-third of the population would stimulate the Renaissance? The field of astronomy was one that was lifted to new heights because of the Renaissance. It was in 1514 that we finally hear from Copernicus about his belief that the prevalent theory for the past 1,500 years, the Ptolemaic one that the earth is at the center of the universe, was false. His presentation in the Commentariolus would be circulated around Europe with the cavaet that his mathematical proof for his idea that the Sun was the center of the universe would come later. They would wait for over twenty years. The work, which came out the year Copernicus died, 1543, was entitled, Dē revolutionibus orbium coelestium or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Overturning the traditional Church viewpoint of an Earth-centric universe was difficult on Nicholas. He almost abandoned the idea of publishing his results. Here is why he waited so long to publish his book, in his words. “when I attribute certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will immediately shout to have me and my opinion hooted off the stage. Therefore, when I weighed these things in my mind, the scorn which I had to fear on account of the newness and absurdity of mu opinion almost drive me to abandon a work already undertaken. I had kept the manuscript hidden among my things.”

How different our world might have turned out had Copernicus not allowed his work to be passed around is debatable. Someone would have eventually had come up with the right answer eventually, but they didn’t, Copernicus did. He set off what would be known as the Scientific Revolution which we enjoy the benefits of today.

It is said that in his last days alive, Nicholas Copernicus was in a coma following a series of strokes. He supposedly woke up, according to legend, when his book was put on his chest, looked at it, smiled and died. It was on May 24, 1453.

Now is the time to head on over to the scorers table and settle this battle.

First up is the fifteen points for how long they were a rebel, rogue or scholar. With Zhu Yuanzhang, we have the period starting in 1352 when he joined the local rebel unit, the Red Turban’s and end with his death in 1398 for a total of 46 years. As for Nicholas Copernicus, we have a muddier path as to when he started his scholarship. I’m picking 1503 as it is when he to make his astronomical observations and ends with his death in 1453 for a total of fifty years. Copernicus receives 15 points, Yuanzhang, 14.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. The Hongwu Emperor had little effect on the world aside from curtailing trade along the Silk Road. Copernicus also had little effect in his immediate time, but his influence on science, happened right after his death. For these reasons, I’m giving the Polish polymath 20 and the Chinese Emperor, 5.

Next up is their lasting effect on world history. You cannot diminish Yuanzhang’s influence on his country throughout history, people like Mao Tse Tung have looked at his reign as a history lesson for his time. Copernicus on the other hand, sparked a revolution, the Scientific Revolution which influences our world to this day. For these reasons, Nicholas gets 25 and Zhu receives 15.

Last up is how they affected their country for the better in the time they lived. This one is a runaway for the Hongwu Emperor. He took a country in total disarray and began a long-lived dynasty that would bring stability to his people for hundreds of years. Copernicus would make his country better in the long-term, as he did with all of mankind, but the immediate effect was minimal. For these reasons, I’m giving the full 40 points to Zhu Yuanzhang and 20 to Nicholas Copernicus.

So, who moves on to the second round? By a score of 80 to 74, Nicholas Copernicus will take on, in an interesting twist of fate, the other Polish citizen to appear in Battle Ground History, Lech Walesa.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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