Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng — The Only Monogamous Monarch in the History of China

Zhu Youcheng (1470 — 1505), respected as 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 whose reign, people lived stable and wealthy lives, and all aspects were well developed. 

Besides being a talented musician, poet, and painter, Hongzhi Emperor also was believed 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 and nice girl, was a warehouse keeper in the Forbidden City.

The current emperor Zhu Jianshen (1447 — 1487), one day, met her and was impressed by her beauty and talent, so they spent a romantic night together.

Later, Ji found that she was pregnant, but everyone around kept telling her to keep quiet. 

Because the emperor’s favorite concubine Wan Zhener was super jealous and powerful; she wouldn't allow any other woman to have a baby for the emperor. 

During that period, there had been no babies born in the royal palace, except Wan’s baby boy that died a few months later. According to some gossips, 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 just sick, and was not pregnant.

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

Prince Zhu Youcheng Secretly Raised by Servants 

Soon, after Ji gave birth to a baby boy, Wan was extremely furious. She killed that nice 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 well and asked other kind servants to take care of Ji and this boy. Then he reported to Wan that the baby was murdered already. 

Afterward, those servants, and a former queen that was abolished because of having displeased Wan, together, helped Ji raised this boy Zhu Youcheng. 

He grew up in a backyard of the servants' rooms until he was 6 years old.

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 will happen to them after Wan found out, but they tried their best to protect this polite, innocent little prince.

Part of Painting "Ming Xianzong Yuan Xiao Xing Le Tu", Presenting Emperor Zhu Jianshen's Entertainment Activities in Royal Palace During the Lantern Festival — National Museum of China

Obtaining Royal Honor While Losing Beloved Ones 

One day, Emperor Zhu Jianshen felt sad about having no heir to his big empire, as he gets older.

Luckily, the eunuch Zhang Min that 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 having proved 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 carefully looked after him since then. 

However, Wan felt 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 Ming in a war, who was sent to the royal palace because of her beauty; now, 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 had successfully persuaded his father to abrogate him, because Wan was afraid that he would seek revenge. 

But, soon, an earthquake happened in 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 people 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 him to 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 all by herself.

For people who had helped him before, on the contrary, Hongzhi Emperor showed his gratitude to all of them in proper ways.

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 all worked hard and served the country properly, and highly respected him.

He lowered taxes and constructed some irrigation systems; agriculture and economy increased steadily under his ruling.

Unlike his forefathers, Hongzhi Emperor never initiated any wars nor tried to extend territory; but for invaders, he always could fight back and protect his empire. 

Gold Hair Crown Decorated with Valuable Gems, Unearthed from 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 close to was his grandmother.

In the first part of his life, he had barely enjoyed parental love; instead, he always needed to stay careful and humble.

When he was 17, Hongzhi Emperor married his beloved wife Zhang, later she became the Empress Xiaokangjing (1471 — 1541).

Phoenix Shaped Gold Hair Decoration of the Ming Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Besides working, Hongzhi Emperor spent most of his time with her. When his queen was sick, he took care of her all by himself, included serving water and medicine, etc. 

When officials suggested him to take some more imperial concubines and to have more heirs to the empire, Hongzhi Emperor firmly rejected. He deeply loved, and only wanted to be with his queen. 

Until 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 normal civilians, without interruptions and critics.

Yellow Glaze Jar Produced During Hongzhi Emperor's Reign — Palace Museum

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 was further flourished, and civilians were living wealthy and peaceful lives.

Hongzhi Emperor did well in all of his roles, as a great monarch, a loyal son, a loving husband, and a kind father.

He passed away when he was only 35 years old, because of heavy works and sickness.

He left for his beloved 14-year-old son a flourishing empire, and some loyal and intelligent officials.  

His crown prince then enthroned as Zhengde Emperor was a special, deviant, and controversial monarch, who reigned the Ming Empire well while having left a series of interesting 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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