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Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian — The Tragic Last Monarch of the Ming Dynasty

Zhu Youjian (1611 — 1644), respected as Chongzhen Emperor or Emperor Sizong of Ming, was the last monarch of the Ming Dynasty as a unified empire.

He was not an extraordinary monarch, pioneer, or superhero who could make a significant change and save his kingdom.


However, he did dedicate his entire life to protecting his falling empire and shouldn’t take the blame for the perdition of the Ming Dynasty.

Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian of the Ming Dynasty

Sad Childhood as an Unappreciated Prince

Zhu Youjian was a noble prince of the Ming Empire, but he had barely experienced love and warmth from his family.

His father had never been liked by his grandfather, the Wanli Emperor

His mother, originally an imperial maid, was not quite appreciated by his father, Zhu Changluo. 

When Zhu Youjian was only four, his father executed his mother. Afterward, he was raised by two different imperial concubines.

As an ordinary prince whom his father and grandfather disliked, Zhu Youjian had never been taught how to be an emperor, nor had any support from politicians. 

Calligraphy Work of Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian

Calligraphy Work of Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian

Imposed Throne and Responsibilities of Prince Zhu Youjian

When Zhu Youjian was 16 years old, his older brother, the emperor Zhu Youjiao, was sick in bed, with no sons to inherit the throne.

He summoned Zhu Youjian and commanded him to be the next emperor.

Zhu Youjian didn’t want to be the monarch initially, but his brother and the current queen told him that if he didn’t take over the kingdom, the powerful Eunuch Wei would reign the empire by supporting a baby as the puppet monarch.


As a prince of Ming, he should take responsibility for not letting that happen.

Therefore, Zhu Youjian, the 16-year-old boy, agreed and promised his older brother that he would try his best to do a good job.

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian) of the Ming Dynasty

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian) of the Ming Dynasty — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Vigilant Chongzhen Emperor Who Prepared His Own Food

Soon, his big brother passed away, and Zhu Youjian ascended to the throne as Chongzhen Emperor.

At that time, the most powerful person was Eunuch Wei, who wanted a baby to be the emperor instead of the much older Zhu Youjian, who was hard to manipulate.

When Zhu Youjian agreed to wear the crown, Eunuch Wei had already been in charge of the Ming Empire's spy agencies, central armies, and many flattering officials.

However, Zhu Youjian, now the Chongzhen Emperor, only had support from the empress dowager and a few loyal ministers who were discontented with Eunuch Wei.

The first few days after the Chongzhen Emperor moved into the Forbidden City, he remained extremely vigilant. 

He brought his own food, held a sword at night, and constantly surrounded himself with large numbers of people to prevent Wei from assassinating him.

Meanwhile, he pretended to be polite and submissive, and respected Wei just like his older brother.

The intelligent Chongzhen Emperor used a month to gain Wei's trust while testing other officials' loyalty.  

Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty

Royal Palace of the Ming Dynasty — The Forbidden City in Beijing

Elimination of the Powerful Eunuch Group

Three months later, after the Chongzhen Emperor had figured out the whole situation, he decisively and smartly eliminated Wei's entire party. 

Wei committed suicide, and all his properties were confiscated; his lover, an evil woman who had killed many of the late emperor's babies, was sentenced to death.


Meanwhile, over 260 officials who were serving Wei were executed or expelled.

Till then, the most powerful and evil political party of the Ming Empire was finally and wholly perished by this teenage Chongzhen Emperor.  

The Ming Empire Full of Crises

After the Chongzhen Emperor retrieved centralized power back and concentrated on governance, he found that his grandfather and brother left him an empire filled with chaos and crisis.    

The government included a corrupted and inefficient political system, intense and destructive partial conflict, and some incapable and unfaithful generals.

Moreover, many peasant uprising armies were fighting within the Ming Empire, and a powerful nomadic regime, Manchu, was confronting outside.

Since the Chongzhen Emperor ascended to the throne, some big natural disasters happened in the Ming Empire every year, including severe drought, big floods, and extensive plague, literally every single year.

These large-scale disasters made large numbers of people suffer from starving and losing homes and jobs, which then caused more uprisings. 

Crystal Drum of the Ming Dynasty

Crystal Drum of the Ming Dynasty — Zhongxiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Endless Dilemmas of the Chongzhen Emperor

As a newly enthroned emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor diligently tried his best to deal with these dilemmas of Ming. 

Chongzhen Emperor needed money to fight against the invasive Manchu Regime, suppress uprising armies, and help the victims of those natural disasters.

If he collected less tax, he had no money to defend the border; if he collected more, civilians would suffer more and rebel.

Soon, many professional soldiers in those natural disaster-affected areas joined rebel armies because they weren't paid for long.

The Chongzhen Emperor worked 14 to 16 hours daily; he and his queen barely wore new clothes and donated most of their money to relieve the food supply crisis to refugees.

Natural disasters, the Manchu invasion, and refugee uprisings never stopped during his ruling period.

Natural Disasters In the End of the Ming Dynasty

Inspiring Promise Given by Excellent General Yuan

After Eunuch Wei was eliminated, the Chongzhen Emperor promoted General Yuan, whom Wei had previously suppressed.

General Yuan Chonghuan (1584 — 1630), who had been invincible in defeating the Manchu Lord Nurhaci, was the apprentice of the exceptional marshal Sun Chengzong

Yuan Chonghuan was very excited about the new powerful position and the great trust the new emperor gave him, so he promised the Chongzhen Emperor that he would defeat the Manchu Regime and recover all the lost cities of Ming within five years.

Chongzhen Emperor was extremely satisfied with Yuan’s determination and confidence.


He tried to provide Yuan with everything he requested, and even when Yuan illegally murdered an important and loyal general, the Chongzhen Emperor still didn’t blame him.

Generals and Soldiers of the Late Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu"

Generals and Soldiers of the Late Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

The Crisis of the Capital City and the Intense Defense War

However, the year after General Yuan's promotion, the Manchu army bypassed the strong Line of Defense constructed by Sun Chengzong and advanced towards Beijing.

Chongzhen Emperor had to summon the 66-year-old Marshal Sun Chengzong to protect the capital city.

General Yuan also led his army to return but didn't follow Sun Chengzong's command.

Yuan followed the Manchu army marching around northern China, and they arrived outside Beijing on the same day.


Then, Yuan requested to lead his army to come inside Beijing city. 

All of Yuan's activities made him look like a traitor who didn't try to fight against the enemy but led them to arrive at the capital and wanted his army to come inside so he could have the emperor under control. 

Many people suspected Yuan's intentions, including the Chongzhen Emperor. He refused to let Yuan enter Beijing and commanded him to fight against Manchu outside the city. 

Yuan and other brave generals defeated the enemy, but the Manchu Lord occupied four cities nearby as their strongholds, surrounding Beijing.

Firelocks of the Ming Dynasty
Firelock San Yan Chong of the Ming Dynasty

Advanced Firearms of the Ming Dynasty

Controversial Execution of General Yuan Chonghuan

Many people blamed General Yuan for this enormous failure and brought up his other crimes, so the Chongzhen Emperor sentenced him to death.

This execution was widely criticized in the history of China because Yuan was a very exceptional and brave general who could protect his own country.

General Yuan didn’t have reason to betray his country since he was a powerful chief commander of the Ming Empire, while Manchu was only a poor nomadic regime with a small territory then.

But from the Chongzhen Emperor’s perspective, Yuan’s loyalty was quite doubtful. He trusted Yuan with everything he could, but Yuan killed a loyal and contributive general without asking and let the enemy march outside the capital city.

Luckily, the Chongzhen Emperor still had the great marshal Sun Chengzong to expel the Manchu army and defend his kingdom. 

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620

Cavalry Army of the Late Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

Honored Tradition and Moral Yoke

At that time, Manchu was still a nomadic regime with a smaller territory, which kept invading the Ming Empire only to rob; they would take a treaty as long as the Ming could provide them with enough money.

Inside the Ming government, they had discussed calling a truce with the Manchu Regime or the rebel army or moving the capital city into a safer city in the south.


In that manner, they would have saved both time and money, allowing them to address their problems methodically, one by one.

However, throughout the history of the Ming Dynasty, no emperor had tried to sign a pact to plea for a truce, fled outside of their capital city, or surrendered. 

No matter what happened, even when their emperor (Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen) was captured, they weren’t threatened or stopped fighting.

This was an honored tradition of the Ming Empire, the dignity that his ancestors gave to Chongzhen.

Meanwhile, it was also a chain to him.  

Therefore, the Chongzhen Emperor didn’t choose other paths except to keep fighting.

Self Description of Legendary, Heroic Experiences of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (Founder of the Ming Dynasty)

Self Description of Legendary, Heroic Experience of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (Founder of Ming Dynasty), Wrote on Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106) — Palace Museum

The Betrayal of an Important Marshal and the Subsequent Great Loss of the Ming Dynasty

When the Lord of Manchu led his main force to invade the Ming Empire again, the Chongzhen Emperor sent equal numbers of his first-class soldiers to fight against them.

This time, Ming's chief commander Hong Chengchou (1593 — 1665), fought bravely but was captured after intensive battles. 

Later, he surrendered and played an important role in helping the Manchu army to fight against the Ming.

General Hong contributed extraordinarily to establishing the Qing Dynasty (the new empire that Manchu built) and generalizing Confucianism to Qing's nomadic ruling class.  

Ironically, Qing's following emperors, who highly respected Confucianism ideology, considered Hong Chengchou disloyal and unfaithful.

Hong Chengchou's mother, brother, and other clan members all stopped talking with him and never stepped into his fancy houses; instead, they left Qing's conquered land and lived on a boat until they all passed away. 

The Fall of the Ming Empire

Hong Chengchou’s military failure and surrender caused considerable losses to the Ming Empire.

Afterward, many exceptional and loyal generals kept serving the country; in the end, most sacrificed heroically on battlefields fighting against Manchu or rebel armies, while a few surrendered.

Countless times, the Chongzhen Emperor was filled with hope, only to be consistently disappointed.

Hearing about those extraordinary, faithful warriors sacrificed, he had to immediately select other capable people to fill in before he had time to grieve.

Meanwhile, he also needed to deal with partial conflicts, political conspiracies, corrupted and surrendered officials, etc.

Soon, an uprising army of impoverished peasants and refugees kept expanding because of another bigger natural disaster and arrived outside of Beijing, led by Li Zicheng (1606 — 1645).


They requested the Chongzhen Emperor to provide them with a significant amount of money and cede territory.

Intense Wars in the End of the Ming Dynasty

Epic Sacrifice of Chongzhen Emperor

The Chongzhen Emperor refused and appealed to his officials to donate money to recruit more warriors to defend the city.


However, he only collected very little money from his officials. 

On the second day of this unsuccessful donation, some traitors opened the gate for the uprising army. 

The Chongzhen Emperor didn’t escape to another city, surrender, or abdicate his throne.


He commanded his queen and an imperial concubine to commit suicide, killed his two daughters on his own, asked his sons to escape separately, and hanged himself on the mountain behind the Forbidden City.

His last will was that he couldn’t face his ancestors, so he put all his hair in front to cover his face; the invaders could do anything to his dead body in exchange for not hurting his civilians. 

The Place that Chongzhen Emperor Sacrificed

The Place that Chongzhen Emperor Sacrificed

Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian lost his mother as a toddler and was always disliked by his father; he took over the vast empire when he was 16 and sacrificed when he was 33.

He worked diligently and never stopped fighting as a brave monarch with dignity.

He probably made some wrong decisions and was not an exceptional emperor who could save the kingdom and change history, but he shouldn't take much blame for the Ming Empire's perdition either. 

Anyway, he continued the tradition that his ancestors left for him.

Throughout the Ming Dynasty, they never paid tribute or ceded territory, never surrendered or fled, and never ceased fighting. Additionally, he possessed the courage and determination to sacrifice for his people.

It was hard to tell if the Chongzhen Emperor's "never give up fighting" spirit was right.

However, his self-sacrifice did not yield the results he had anticipated. 

Mausoleum of Chongzhen Emperor (Ming Si Ling)

Mausoleum of Chongzhen Emperor (Ming Si Ling) — Changping, Beijing

After the Death of Chongzhen Emperor

After Li Zicheng's army entered Beijing City, they occupied the royal palace, put the Chongzhen Emperor and his queen's bodies in front of the public to show off, and then started robbing and slaughtering.

Thousands of Ming officials and their family members committed suicide after hearing the Chongzhen Emperor's death.  

Ironically, after the king of the refugee army plundered all those rich people, they found that Zhu Youjian, the Chongzhen Emperor of Ming, was indeed in poverty, which showed that he did donate everything he had to save his country.

However, those officials who claimed to be poor when the Chongzhen Emperor asked for donations turned out to be extremely rich; they possessed over 300 times as much money as their emperor had. 

Gem Decorated Gold Teacup Tray of the Ming Dynasty

Gem Decorated Gold Teacup Tray of the Ming Dynasty — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Fate of Chongzhen's Sons

After the Chongzhen Emperor's sacrifice, his three sons disappeared from the public forever; there were no official records regarding how they escaped or where they ended up. They might have been safe and protected by loyal officials of the Ming Empire.  

Another son of his escaped successfully, with the help of some loyal officers. He buried his past, lived as a teacher, built his own family, stayed careful and alert, and kept moving in different places.

When he was old, he accidentally told a friend about his identity after he was drunk, and this secret was spread quickly nationwide. Two years later, he was tricked and captured by the emperor of the Qing Empire.  

His wife and daughters committed suicide after he got caught; Qing's Kangxi Emperor sentenced his sons and grandsons to death.

This former prince of the Ming Empire, after having witnessed his kingdom being perished and everyone in his family cruelly murdered, was then killed and dismembered after thousands of cuts when he was already 75 years old.

Auspicious Animal (Lu Duan) Shaped Censer of the Ming Dynasty

Auspicious Animal (Lu Duan) Shaped Censer of the Ming Dynasty — Guangdong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Intense Battle at the Shanhai Pass

When the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide, and Li Zicheng occupied Beijing city, the Manchu army still didn’t break the Line of Defense on the Great Wall Marshal Sun Chengzong built before.

Ming’s general Wu Sangui was garrisoning the most important gate of the Line of Defense, the Shanhai Pass. 

After hearing that Li Zicheng had captured his father, Wu Sangui secretly complied with the Manchu Lord and opened the Shanhai Pass for the Manchu army.

Ironically, the great marshal Sun Chengzong probably had never expected that the solid defensive line that he worked so hard to construct, in the end, was opened from the inside. 

Manchu Regime allied with Wu Sangui’s troops under the name of revenge for the Chongzhen Emperor and had an intensive war with Li Zicheng’s army in the Shanhai Pass. 

Around 250,000 soldiers fought intensely for days, and tens of thousands of warriors were sacrificed in this war.

Eventually, Li Zicheng failed and escaped westward; the Manchu troops kept marching and expanding.

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass in Qinhuangdao City

Heroic Wars, Cruel Massacres, and the Buried History

Many officials and generals supported another king from the Ming Empire's royal clan, organized another regime in southern China, and kept fighting against the Manchu regime, now named the Qing Empire. 

Countless civilians volunteered but were sacrificed in intense battles or were massacred by the Qing's army.

The following year after the Chongzhen Emperor's death, the Qing army defeated and occupied the city of Yangzhou, where they encountered colossal resistance. 

After Ming's commander and his warriors all sacrificed or committed suicide, Qing's troops turned this wealthy and prosperous city into hell.

Over 800,000 bodies were piled up in the city after Qing's army left; a book that detailedly documented this cruel massacre was then banned by Qing's government.

Until the Qing Empire perished three hundred years later, people started to know those explicit truths and other of Qing's cruel slaughters.

Those inhuman massacres were sometimes hidden or denied by butchers who wanted to fool the world; however, the truth will always come and be clear in the end.

A good reputation in public should be gained through honesty, contribution, decency, or integrity, not denial or burial of the naked truth.

After this tragedy, the next king of the Ming was also assassinated.

Then, some other princes of the Ming royal family were supported to establish other regimes, but they were all defeated, committed suicide, or were assassinated.

Exquisite Furnitures of the Ming Dynasty

Exquisite Furnitures of the Ming Dynasty — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The End of the Ming Dynasty

Until 39 years after the Chongzhen Emperor's death, the last king of the Ming failed and committed suicide; then, the Qing Dynasty finally unified the whole nation. 


During those few decades, the wars, the Qing's cruel carnages, and natural disasters led to the loss of around 30 to 40 million people, including people who fought intensely with the Qing and those who refused to shave their heads to keep the braided hairstyle that the Qing stipulated.

They were just like their Chongzhen Emperor; even though they already knew the tragic ending and realized they were not heroes who could make a huge change, they still fought bravely until the last minute.

Numerous epic stories about loyalty, courage, combat, solidity, belief, insistence, etc., but they all miserably ended up with sacrifices or massacred.   

Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian, though he tried everything he could and dedicated his entire life, in the end, he still failed to protect his people, his family, and his empire.

Part of Painting "Prosperous City Nanjing of the Ming Dynasty"  (Nan Du Fan Hui Tu), By Artist Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552)

Part of Painting "Prosperous City Nanjing of the Ming Dynasty"  (Nan Du Fan Hui Tu), By Artist Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552) — National Museum of China

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