Fang Xiaoru — An Intelligent Scholar, A Tragic Minister, and A Sincere Believer

Fang Xiaoru (1357 — 1402), courtesy name Xizhi or Xigu, was a well-established scholar of the Ming Dynasty, a respected teacher and influential official of Jianwen Emperor, and a sincere and loyal believer that sacrificed for what he believed in.

Fang Xiaoru's Calligraphy "Mo An Ji"

Fang Xiaoru's Calligraphy "Mo An Ji" — Taipei Palace Museum

Brilliant Scholar and Respected Royal Teacher

Fang Xiaoru was born into a scholar family. When he was little, his father, a benevolent and capable governor, got involved in the Pre-stamped Documents Case (concerning corruption and abuse of authority) and was executed.

These tragic encounters and poverty life after his father’s death didn’t beat him down; on the contrary, Fang Xiaoru became more famous as a wunderkind, for his exceptional talent and outstanding works of literature. 

When he was 25, his integrity and brilliance were highly appreciated by the Hongwu Emperor (1328 — 1398), who assigned Fang to teach at the national Confucianism college. 

Later, prince Zhu Chun (1371 — 1423), the King Xian of Shu highly admired Fang Xiaoru and invited him to teach his sons. 

Fang Xiaoru got promoted and obtained more respect through his brilliant talent.

Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty

Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Legit, Young Emperor Taking Down of Powerful Kings

Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, used to have a perfect heir, his first son Zhu Biao (1355 — 1392). 

Unfortunately, Zhu Biao passed away at a young age; hence, his first son Zhu Yunwen was nominated as the new crown prince.

After Hongwu Emperor passed away, Zhu Yunwen (1377 — ?) ascended to the throne.

Zhu Yunwen respected as Jianwen Emperor or Emperor Huizong of Ming, summoned Fang Xiaoru to the new government, assigned him important political positions, and respected him as a teacher. 

Since then, Fang Xiaoru has assisted and served the new emperor and pledged his loyalty until the end of his life. 

Under the suggestions of some trusted officials, Jianwen Emperor started to remove power from the kings of Ming, most of them were his uncles. 

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian), Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian), Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Hongwu Emperor, Uncle of Jianwen Emperor — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Incident of Jingnan and Shifting of Authority

However, those kings didn’t like being removed from their half-independent fiefs. 

Zhu Di (1360 — 1424), the fourth son of Hongwu Emperor, then rebelled; this was the Incident of Jingnan.

After four years of intense wars, Zhu Di’s army occupied Ming’s capital city Nanjing, executed or captured large numbers of Jianwen Emperor’s important officials, include Fang Xiaoru.

Jianwen Emperor burnt down the royal palace and disappeared forever. Some said he sacrificed during that fire, others believed that he escaped through secret passages of the palace and lived in seclusion afterward.  

Stone Dragon Stigma of the Relic of The Royal Palace in Nanjing (Built 1366 — 1392) of the Ming Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Many officials and generals, then, surrendered to Zhu Di, because he had some outstanding accomplishments regarding military and governance. Besides, he was one of the sons of the late Hongwu Emperor.

This Incident of Jingnan, for many people, was contention over the throne inside the royal family.

Hence, they were still serving the same royal family and the same Ming empire, it was nothing about betrayal. 

Afterward, Zhu Di ascended to the throne as Yongle Emperor, migrated Ming’s capital city to Beijing, commanded to build the Forbidden City, further expanded territory, brought people stable and prosperous lives. 

His ruling period when the Ming Empire kept developing and flourishing was honored as the Great Reign of Yongle Emperor. 

Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty

Forbidden City in Beijing That Was Built Under Yongle Emperor's Command.

Fang Xiaoru's Eternal Loyalty to Jianwen Emperor

From Fang Xiaoru’s perspective, however, Jianwen Emperor inherited the crown from his grandfather legally, and he didn’t do anything wrong, except for having trusted an incapable general to command his army in the Incident of Jingnan.

Besides, the Jianwen Emperor even didn’t have enough time to implement his policies, since the rebel war outburst only one year after he ascended to the throne.

Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, was a brilliant and outstanding monarch in the history of China, he must have carefully and seriously considered his grandson’s talent and personality, before letting him inherit the empire.

In conclusion, young Zhu Yunwen was a kind and competent crown prince, and a legit and capable emperor, who had his throne taken by his uncle through wars, illegally and cruelly. 

What’s more, Zhu Di erased most of the Jianwen Emperor’s records; hence, it was quite controversial concerning his personality and talent.

A Sincere Believer and His Tragic Martyrdom

So, Fang Xiaoru believed that Zhu Di was a traitor who even didn’t honor his father’s will and a rebel who put society in chaos.

Fang Xiaoru refused to surrender, for being Jianwen Emperor's respected teacher, close friend, and an important minister.  

Fang’s stubbornness and disrespect made Zhu Di felt insulted and outraged.

In the end, more than 800 people that had a relationship with Fang Xiaoru were executed in front of him, including all of his relatives and students.

But Fang Xiaoru still refused to surrender.

Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When they Met with the Emperors in the Ming Dynasty

Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When they Met with the Emperors in the Ming Dynasty — Ningxia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Then he was dismembered to death, cruelly, after having suffered thousands of cuts.

In another version, only Fang Xiaoru and his brothers were executed; his wife and four kids all committed suicide before Fang was captured. 

It is still controversial regarding how many people had been executed because of Fang Xiaoru’s refusal to comply with Zhu Di.

What can be confirmed was that most of his articles were banned and destroyed. Many of his masterpieces disappeared, though some people risked their lives to secretly hide and preserve some of his works. 

Lotus Shaped Purple Glaze Writing Brush Wash of the Ming Dynasty

Lotus Shaped Purple Glaze Writing Brush Wash of the Ming Dynasty — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

In the history of China, Fang Xiaoru was famous for his remarkable achievements in literature and ideology, also for his absolute loyalty and tragic ending. 

He sometimes was criticized for being stubborn and pedantic that caused so many people that were close to him to die, but also respected for his pure fidelity and brave martyrdom.

He was a true believer who sacrificed for what he believed in. 

As for the sad tragedy that happened to so many people, Fang Xiaoru was not the only one that should be blamed. 

Jade Board of Ming Dynasty Decorated with Mountains and Rivers' Pattern

Jade Board of Ming Dynasty Decorated with Mountains and Rivers' Pattern — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)