Sources (The first four are in Chinese, as unfortunately most Chinese historical texts are not translated):
Ming Shilu Volume 29
Ming Shilu Volume 34
Ming Shilu Volume 53
History of Yuan
Description of the Yuan Dynasty's Decline
During the mid 14th century, the Yuan Dynasty of China, ruled by the Mongol Borjigin clan, was nearing its end. Several natural disasters compounded by years of misrule and internal instability after the death of Kublai resulted in massive rebellions throughout southern China. The rebels eventually coalesced under several leaders, including Han Lin'er, Xu Shouhui, Guo Zixing, Zhu Yuanzhang, Zhang Shicheng, Chen Youliang, Ming Yuzhen, Fang Guozhen and others. Note that the rebels were by no means united, as each rebel can be treated as an independent state which posed just as much threat to each other as their common enemy, the Yuan court. Although the Yuan court attempted to suppress the rebellions and were initially successful, court intrigue and resulting infighting within the Yuan court dashed those chances and resulted in the Yuan losing any ability to defeat the rebels. Meanwhile, Zhu Yuanzhong, a peasant rebel who at one point nominally submitted to Han Lin'er, managed to defeat the other rebel leaders and unite the Yangtze river valley by 1368. His erstwhile lord, Han Lin'er, also died under mysterious circumstances that some attribute to Zhu. Zhu then defeated the Yuan court and drove them out towards the Mongolian plateau, thus creating the Ming dynasty.
Even though Zhu Yuanzhang rebelled against the Yuan dynasty as a part of the Red Turban Rebellion, after he established the Ming Dynasty in 1368, at least for the purpose of internal propaganda, he seemed to be extremely willing to distance himself from his Red-Turban roots and derive his legitimacy from the Yuan Dynasty instead. To achieve this, he released a number of edicts and statements after his accession to the throne:
In 1368, upon his proclamation of a new dynasty, he began his official speech offering sacrifices to the mountains and rivers by saying: "As for the people of China, since the mandate of the Song ended, heaven commanded the True Man (Kublai) to enter China from the deserts and become the lord of all under heaven. The emperor, father and son and grandson ruled for a hundred years. Their mandate ends today..."
After capturing the Yuan capital Dadu the same year, he said: "I've thought about the history of the three ancient dynasties, Han, Tang, Song for some time, and always found that their ancestors were righteous and tolerant, which was the reason they were able to command the hearts of people, and so it is important that they did not forget their origins. The Yuan, since Shizu (Kublai)'s time united the realm, and acted with tolerance and virtue, it could be said that they possessed a benevolant heart. But their descendants were able to maintain this and not change; thus it was to the benefit of the land and soil."
In a letter sent to the Northern Yuan court in 1369, he wrote: "I was originally a peasant, in the past I was in the fields, and depended on the joy of peace within the nation. Suddenly various sorcerers and bandits overturned the nation, and the nation exploded into chaos..."
In a conversation with Li Wenzhong, one of his chief generals in 1370, he said, after reading a proposed victory proclamation after defeating the Yuan, he replied that Li was far too boastful, saying: You are a chief minister, so you should learn from the etiquette of sages, instead of acting as a petty local official. Even though the Yuan originated from Barbarians, they were the Emperors of China for nearly a hundred years, and mine and your parents all depended on it for livelihood and survival. Yuan's defeat was a matter of its own luck, which I could not have predicted. If we proclaim this way, learned men would likely disagree even though they do not speak up. You should change it."
In an edict titled "Edict on Pacifying the Desert" issued the same year, he said: I was originally a farmer, and I was happy to be born in Yuan times. However, at the time of the lord of Gengshen (Toghon Temur), he was weak and chaotic in governance. So heroes arose and divided the land within the seas. Even though the Yuan troops attempted to save the situation, they were unable to help, and it was the will of heaven that it be so. However, agents of chaos (rebels) inflicted great devastation upon the country, and attempted to seize land and establish themselves as kings and dukes. Watching their actions, they did not adhere to rites, and were thus annihilated...
In a conversation a few days later with Liu Bowen, his main strategist, Liu advised: "Since ancient times there as never been a group of barbarians who could take over all of China, but the Yuan, being so, ruled China in a barbaric fashion for several hundred years. Heaven in fact detests it. This is compounded by the fact the the Yuan's final ruler was licentious and inept, the state of affairs was collapsing, and the people were trapped under corruption and disaster. How would such a state not fall. Your majesty should follow the will of heaven and the people, and proclaim that you had saved the people from the Yuan's catastrophic rule, and had been undefeated in battle. Should such not be the best choice?"
To which Zhu replied: "During the Yuan, the monarch was peaceful in his abode, while his ministers were the cause of trouble. The country was misused and its abilities gradually limited. Natural disasters followed, and occurred year after year. Heaven's anger and the people's resentment led to thieves and bandits rising and becoming warlords, attacking and illegally occupying provinces and counties. I was forced into this order of affairs to protect myself, but eventually I was able to gather sizable forces and begin my conquests east and west. I eventually crushed the bandits and expanded my realm, but by then the realm no longer belonged to Yuan. Had the Yuan's lords acceded to heaven's will, and did not make themselves complacent, and make their ministers dutiful and obedient, how would there ever be a chance for uprisings? I took the realm from the various warlords, not Yuan. Today I have captured their heirs, and the desert is calm, was this not accomplished by the auspiciousness of heaven?"
A few days later he released another statement: Since ancient times heaven birthed sages to rule the realm and create laws to benefit the people. The three ancient dynasties, Han, Tang's monarchs are too distant in history, so we shall only speak of the recent past. The Song dynasty's founding emperor was capable and benevolent in administration, and the populace prospered, so heavens adored him. But his descendants were weak, and their borders were reduced, so heaven commanded Emperor Shizu of Yuan (Kublai) to replace them. This lasted until Toghon Temur, who was weak and corrupt, who did not care to administer, who lacked knowledge of the people's difficulties, so various evil forces (Red Turbans) took advantage of the chaos to rise up. The realm was in disorder, and the people's livelihoods were destroyed. I could not stand the destruction, so I rose up for the salvation of the people, and various heroes who worshipped righteousness came to join me. I defeated the cruel rebels and pacified the four seas, so they raised me as emperor of the Great Ming. This I achieved by heaven's grace, thus I was able to do it relatively quickly...
In 1373, he established the Temple of Emperors of Past Dynasties, and added all founding emperors of united Chinese dynasties to it. He thus added the three sovereigns and five emperors (all legendary rulers), Yu of Xia, Tang of Shang, Wu of Zhou, Gao of Western Han (Liu Bang), Guangwu of Eastern Han (Liu Xiu), Wen of Sui (Yang Jian), Taizong of Tang (Li Shimin, second emperor of Tang, added instead of the first emperor because Li Shimin did all the heavy lifting in unifying China under Tang and was in general a much better emperor than his father who was forced to abdicate by him), Taizu of Song (Zhao Kuangyin), and and Shizu of Yuan (Kublai). Several Years later he kicked Emperor Wen of Sui out of the temple, as he did not consider Emperor Wen worthy of standing with the others. However, Kublai, being the only non-Han in the temple, remained.
In addition to Zhu's personal statements, in the "History of Yuan", which was the official dynastic history of the Yuan dynasty compiled on Zhu's orders in 1369, all Red Turban rebels were categorically referred to by various derogatory epithets, such as "devils", "thieves", "bandits", "hooligans", and others. Some examples are:
From Toqto'a biography: Various devils and bandits rebelled between Ru and Ying, using the red turban as a signal. Xiang, Fan, Tang, Deng joined in rebellion.
From Toghon Temur's biography: Since the Red Turban devils and bandits threw the nation into chaos, various districts north and south were lost, so the Great Ming came and replaced them.
Such examples are very numerous throughout the History of Yuan.
It is possible that Zhu's statements are a reflection of general attitudes in China at the time, or at least the attitude of the Confucian gentry. Zhu considered Yuan to have ruled by heaven's mandate despite their Mongol origin, and also believed that by heaven's mandate he was destined to replace the Yuan. On the other hand, all of the destruction involved was entirely blamed on the Red Turbans, who Zhu condemned for being lawless bandits bringing chaos everywhere. He also repeatedly claimed that he either was forced to rebel himself, or even in some instances claimed that he accidently rebelled. All of these were likely done to reinforce the notion to the nation that while rebelling against the emperor is bad and is unfilial, Zhu was able to do it only because he was chosen by heaven. It is a strange world view, but it makes sense given the nature of the mandate of heaven system.
However, in Zhu Yuanzhang's external statements in the form of diplomatic letters to other nations, Zhu denounced the Yuan several times for being barbaric (Although he did not reduce his condemnation of the Red Turbans, he instead denounced both). For example, in his letter to Korea, he wrote: The Yuan are not like us, and in their hundred years ruling China, heaven detested their decadence and destroyed their foundations with natural disasters. China was then thrown into disorder for 18 years, and warlords arose. I was originally a peasant by the Huai river, and the rebel troops suddenly arrived, and I joined by accident. Seeing that they couldn't amount to anything, I became disturbed, but heaven and earth graced me with civil and martial servants, so I crossed the Yangtze River and learned the art of raising the people for 14 years. In those days I suppressed Chen Youliang to the west, captured Zhang Shicheng to the east, pacified Min and Yue to the south, and defeated warlords of various kinds. I then turned north to expel the barbarian emperor and cleanse China, restoring its former frontiers.
In his letter to Japan, he wrote: God likes the living and dislikes those who are cruel. In the past, we, China, were lost by the Song, and northern barbarians entered and spread their customs to defile it, thus the lands and customs of the central plains became polluted. For a hundred years, how could we not be angry? Since 1351, the central plains were in war, and Japanese pirates raided Shandong, but this was only possible because of the collapse of the barbaric Yuan! I, being from the old of China, washed away the previous humiliations and raised armies to sweep away the barbarian's rule.
Since times immemorial, emperors and kings have lived and China and ruled the various barbarians. Generation after generation, such has it always been. Only the Yuan, being originally barbarians from the northern desert, seized the central kingdom for a hundred years and polluted its customs so that they become unstandardised. Thus heroes arose and fought against the barbarians for twenty years. I, being blessed by heaven and ancestors, aided by spirits of all kinds and my various generals, took into my fold the various warlords and restored the boundaries of old. Thus I have become emperor, now for three years.
As noted the external messages and diplomatic letters differ drastically from the internal messages.
All originals texts I've quoted are below in order: