Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng — The Only Monogamous Monarch in the History of China
Zhu Youcheng (1470 — 1505), respected as the Hongzhi Emperor or Emperor Xiaozong of Ming, was the first and only monogamous emperor in the entire history of China.
Meanwhile, he was one of the most exceptional monarchs of the Ming Dynasty; under his reign, people lived stable and wealthy lives, and all aspects were well-developed.
Besides being a talented musician, poet, and painter, Hongzhi Emperor was also believed to be the inventor of the toothbrush.
Portrait of Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum
A Perilous Pregnancy and Brave Heroes
Zhu Youcheng’s mother, Ji, a beautiful girl, was a warehouse keeper in the Forbidden City.
One day, the current emperor Zhu Jianshen (1447 — 1487) met her and was impressed by her beauty and talent, so they spent a romantic night together.
Later, Ji found she was pregnant, but everyone kept telling her to stay quiet.
Because the emperor's favorite consort Wan Zhener was super jealous and powerful, she wouldn't allow any other woman to have a baby for the emperor.
During that period, no babies were born in the royal palace, except Wan's baby boy, who died a few months later.
According to some gossip, Wan Zhener aborted or murdered all the babies of the emperor.
Somehow, Wan heard about this pregnancy, so she sent a maid to force Ji to abort. But this nice maid told Wan that Ji was sick and not pregnant.
Gold Cup Decorated with Valuable Gems, Unearthed from Grave of Wan's Younger Brother Wan Tong — Capital Museum
Prince Secretly Raised by Servants
Soon after Ji gave birth to a baby boy, Consort Wan was furious.
She killed that kind maid who lied about the pregnancy to her before and then sent another eunuch named Zhang Min to kill the baby.
But Zhang Min hid this baby in a secret room and asked other kind-hearted servants to take care of Ji and this boy.
Then he reported to Consort Wan that the baby had been murdered already.
Plum Shaped Agate Cup of Ming — Wuhan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Afterward, those servants and a former queen who was abolished because of having displeased Wan together helped Ji raise this boy, Zhu Youcheng.
He grew up in the backyard of the servants' rooms until he was six.
These nice people kept the secret carefully, so Wan never heard about his existence during those six years.
No one knew when the truth would be revealed and what would happen to them after Wan found out, but they tried their best to protect this polite, innocent little prince.
Obtaining Royal Honor While Losing Beloved Ones
One day, Emperor Zhu Jianshen felt sad about not having an heir to his enormous empire as he ages.
Luckily, the eunuch, Zhang Min, who had lied to Wan to save that baby boy, was on duty that day.
So he told the emperor about the little prince living in the servants' place.
Soon, Zhu Youcheng was taken to his father's palace and officially awarded his prince's title after being proven by many brave people.
His mother, Ji, was awarded as an imperial concubine as well.
His grandmother, the empress dowager, knew about Wan's evilness, so she immediately welcomed Zhu Youcheng to her palace and has carefully looked after him since then.
However, Wan was outraged, so she murdered Zhu Youcheng's birth mother and the eunuch Zhang Min that had saved and introduced Zhu Youcheng to the emperor.
Emperor Zhu Jianshen's Painting "Sui Zhao Jia Zhao Tu", To Pray for Blessings in New Year — Palace Museum
Well-Protected Zhu Youcheng Ascending to the Throne
Under his powerful grandmother’s protection, Zhu Youcheng got to grow up safely.
Soon, Zhu Youcheng stayed cautiously and started to be educated as a crown prince until he ascended to the throne when he was 17 after his father passed away.
In the next few years, he sent many people to look for his mother’s birthplace and other relatives, trying to find more connections, but they failed.
His mother Ji, now respected as Empress Xiaomuji (1451 — 1475), came from a clan that lost to the Ming in a war and was sent to the royal palace because of her beauty, but no one knew her other relatives or her real name.
Exquisite Carved Door of A Confucian Temple (Wen Miao) Built During Hongzhi Emperor's Reign — Honghe, Yunnan Province (Photo by Dongmaiying)
When Zhu Youcheng was still the crown prince, Wan successfully persuaded his father to abrogate him because she feared he would seek revenge.
But, soon, an earthquake happened on Mount Tai, a holy place with significant political meaning in Chinese culture.
So, his father considered this as a warning not to change the heir.
Zhu Youcheng, now the Hongzhi Emperor, didn’t fail this magical earthquake or those who sacrificed their lives to keep him alive.
Mount Tai in Shandong Province
Hongzhi Emperor and His Remarkable Reign
After Hongzhi Emperor ascended to the throne, he decisively and immediately expelled those incapable officials and nominated many talented ones.
He then invented an efficient system to select good ministers, with whom he worked diligently from day till night.
However, when many officials suggested he perish Wan’s clan and let them pay for their sins, Hongzhi Emperor chose the path of forgiveness and let go.
He believed Wan, who had already passed away, did those horrible things alone.
To people who had helped him before, on the contrary, Hongzhi Emperor showed his gratitude properly.
Part of "Zhu Yuan Shou Ji Tu" that Described Officials' Literature Activities During Hongzhi Emperor's Reign — Palace Museum
Hongzhi Emperor was very nice, polite, and open-minded.
Under his governance, officials worked hard, served the country properly, and highly respected him.
He lowered taxes and constructed some irrigation systems; agriculture and the economy increased steadily under his rule.
Unlike his forefathers, Hongzhi Emperor never initiated wars nor tried to extend territory; for invaders, he could always fight back and protect his empire.
Gold Hair Crown Decorated with Valuable Gems, Unearthed from the Mausoleum of Hongzhi Emperor's Nephew the King Yizhuang — National Museum of China
The Only Monogamous Emperor and His Great Love Story
Hongzhi Emperor lost his mother when he was still a kid; his father didn’t quite love him and even tried to abolish him as the crown prince.
The only relative that he had ever been close to was his grandmother.
He barely enjoyed parental love in the first part of his life; instead, he always needed to stay careful and humble.
When he was 17, Hongzhi Emperor married his beloved wife Zhang, and later she became Empress Xiaokangjing (1471 — 1541).
Portrait of Empress Xiaokangjing, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum
Besides working, Hongzhi Emperor spent most of his time with her.
When his queen was sick, he took care of her all by himself, including serving water, medicine, etc.
When officials suggested he take more imperial concubines and have more heirs to the empire, Hongzhi Emperor firmly rejected it.
He deeply loved and only wanted to be with his queen.
After their first boy Zhu Houzhao was born, officials stopped criticizing the emperor for only having one woman.
Afterward, Hongzhi Emperor and his beloved queen finally lived their loving, happy lives together, like ordinary civilians, without interruptions and critics.
Phoenix Shaped Gold Hair Decoration of the Ming Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
A Perfect Person and A Benevolent Emperor
Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng was not quite a very epic monarch throughout the history of China, but he was one of the most highly respected sovereigns, with exceptionally positive comments.
He dedicated his life to developing his kingdom.
Excellent officials were elected and nominated, the empire flourished, and civilians lived wealthy and peaceful lives.
Hongzhi Emperor did well in all his roles: great monarch, loyal son, loving husband, and kind father.
Yellow Glaze Jar Produced During Hongzhi Emperor's Reign — Palace Museum
He passed away when he was only 35 years old because of heavy work and sickness.
He left a flourishing empire for his beloved 14-year-old son and some loyal and intelligent officials.
His crown prince was then enthroned as Zhengde Emperor, a unique, deviant, and controversial monarch who reigned the Ming Empire well while leaving a series of exciting stories.
Blue and White Porcelain Plate Decorated with Dragon Patterns, Produced During Hongzhi Emperor's Reign Period — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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