Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian — 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, nor a pioneer or superhero that could make a big 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.

Sad Childhood of Unappreciated Prince Zhu Youjian

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 years old, his mother was executed by his father. Afterward, he was raised by two different imperial concubines.

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

Calligraphy Work of Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian

Imposed Throne and Responsibility

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 at the beginning, 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 to not let 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 — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Vigilant Chongzhen Emperor Who Prepared His 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 the 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 been already in actual charge of the Ming Empire's spy agencies, many central armies, and lots of flattering officials.

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

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

He brought food on his own, hold a sword at night, and always stayed with large numbers of people so that he won't be assassinated by Wei. 

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

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

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

Eliminating of Powerful Eunuch Group

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

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 completely perished, by this teenager Chongzhen Emperor.  

The Empire Full of Crisis

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

In the government, it included a corrupted and inefficient political system, intense and destructive partial conflicting, and some incapable and unfaithful generals.

Moreover, there were many peasant uprising armies within the Ming Empire and a powerful nomadic enemy Manchu outside.

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

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

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

Endless Dilemmas of Emperor Chongzhen

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

Chongzhen Emperor needed money to fight against the invasive Manchu Regime, to suppress uprising armies, and to 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 then rebel.

Soon, many professional soldiers in those natural disaster affected areas also joined rebel armies, because they didn’t get paid for a long time. 

The Chongzhen Emperor kept working 14 to 16 hours each day, he and his queen had barely worn new clothes and donated most of their money to relief the supplies to refugees.

During his ruling period, natural disasters, the Manchu invasion, and refugees’ uprisings had never stopped.

Inspiring Promise Given by Excellent General Yuan

After the Eunuch Wei was eliminated, Chongzhen Emperor promoted General Yuan that had been suppressed by Wei Before.

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 that 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 everything that he asked for, even when Yuan illegally murdered an important and loyal general, Chongzhen Emperor still didn’t blame him.

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

Crisis of Capital City and Intense Defending War

However, the next year that General Yuan was promoted, the Manchu army steered clear of the strong Line of Defense that Sun Chengzong built and marched toward Beijing.

Chongzhen Emperor had to summon the 66 years old Marshal Sun Chengzong back to protect the capital city.

General Yuan also led his army to come back, but he didn’t follow Sun Chengzong’s command.

Yuan followed the Manchu army marching around in northern China, and they arrived outside of Beijing on the same day. Then, Yuan requested to lead his army to come inside of Beijing city. 

All of Yuan's activities made him look like a traitor that 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, include the Chongzhen Emperor. He refused to let Yuan came into Beijing, and commanded him to fight against Manchu outside the city. 

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

Advanced Firearms of the Ming Dynasty

Controversial Execution of General Yuan Chonghuan

Many people blamed General Yuan for this big failure, and then 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 was able to protect his own country.

Honestly speaking, 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 at that time.

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

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

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, who kept invading the Ming Empire only for robbing; they would take a treaty as long as Ming could provide them with enough money.

Inside the Ming’s government, they had discussed calling a truce with Manchu Regime, or the rebel army, or to move the capital city into a safer city in the south. That way, they would have saved some time and money to deal with their problems one by one.

However, throughout the entire Ming Dynasty, no emperor had tried to sign pact to plea for a truce, nor fled outside of their capital city, nor surrender. 

No matter what had happened, even when their emperor (Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen) was captured, they haven’t been threatened, nor 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 Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (Founder of Ming Dynasty), Wrote on Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106) — Palace Museum

An Important Marshal's Betrayal and the Huge Loss of Ming

When Lord of Manchu led his main force to invade 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 Ming.

General Hong contributed extraordinarily in establishing of the Qing Dynasty (the new empire that was built by Manchu), and the generalization of Confucianism to Qing's nomadic ruling class.  

Ironically, however, Qing’s following emperors that highly respected Confucianism ideology considered Hong Chengchou disloyal and unfaithful as well.

Hong Chengchou’s mother, brother, and other members of his clan 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. 

Falling of the Ming Empire

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

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

For countless times, Chongzhen Emperor was firstly full of hope, but mostly, he ended up being disappointed. 

Hearing those extraordinary, faithful warriors sacrificed and could never come back, he had to immediately select other capable people to fill in, before he had time to grieve.

In the meanwhile, he also needed to deal with partial conflicting, political conspiracies, corrupted and surrendered officials, etc.

Soon, an uprising army that was made of poverty 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 a great deal of money and cede land.  

Epic Sacrifice of Chongzhen Emperor

The Chongzhen Emperor refused, and appealed all of 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, nor surrender, nor 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 top of 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

Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian lost his mother as a toddler and was always disliked by his father; he took over the huge 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 entire Ming Dynasty, they never paid tribute or ceded territory, never escaped or surrendered, and never gave up fighting. Also, he had the courage and will to sacrifice for his people.

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

His self-sacrifice, however, didn’t get the result that he had expected. 

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

Encounters After Chongzhen Emperor's Death

After Li Zicheng’s army came into the Beijing city, they occupied the royal palace, put Chongzhen Emperor and his queen’s body in front of the public to show off, and then started to rob, and slaughter.

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

Ironically, after the king of the refugee army plundered all of those people who were rich, 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 themselves to be poor when the Chongzhen Emperor asked for donations, turned out were extremely rich; they possessed over 300 times as much money as their emperor had. 

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

Ending of Chongzhen Emperor's Sons

After 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. It was very possible that they were safe, and protected by loyal officials of the Ming Empire.  

Another son of him got escaped successfully, with the help of some loyal officers. He buried his past, lived as a teacher, and built his own family. He 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 Qing’s emperor.  

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 was 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 — Guangdong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Intense War in the Shanhai Pass

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

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

After hearing that his father had been captured by Li Zicheng, 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 strong defensive line that he worked so hard to construct, in the end, was opened from inside. 

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

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

In the end, Li Zicheng failed and escaped westward; the Manchu troop kept marching and expanding.

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 Ming Empire's royal clan, organized another regime in southern China, and kept fighting against the Manchu regime, now named the Qing Empire. 

Large numbers of civilians volunteered, but sacrificed in intense battles, or had been massacred by the Qing’s army.

The next year after Chongzhen Emperor’s death, the Qing’s army defeated and occupied city Yangzhou, where they encountered huge 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 in three hundred years later, people started to know those explicit truths, as well as other of Qing’s cruel slaughters.

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

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 Ming was assassinated as well.

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

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

The End of the Ming Dynasty

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

 

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

They were just like their Chongzhen Emperor, even though they already knew the tragic ending, even they realized that they were not heroes who were capable to make a huge change, they still fought bravely till the last minute.

There were large numbers of epic stories about loyalty, courage, combat, solidity, belief, insistence, etc., but they were all miserably ended up with sacrifices or being 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, nor his empire.

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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