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Jiajing Emperor Zhu Houcong — A Professional Taoist Monarch of the Ming Dynasty

Zhu Houcong (1507 — 1567), also respected as Jiajing Emperor or Emperor Shizong of Ming was a controversial emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

He ascended to the throne at a young age and wore the crown for 45 years. 

He was an intelligent and sly politician that controlled centralized authority firmly, but he was also the only emperor in Chinese history that nearly assassinated by imperial maids. 

Within nearly half a century of his reign, the Ming Empire developed well, though Jiajing Emperor barely showed up in public after he started practicing Taoism Religion full time.

Portrait of Jiajing Emperor Zhu Houcong, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty

Portrait of Jiajing Emperor Zhu Houcong, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Prince Zhu Houcong's Perfect, Happy Childhood

Zhu Houcong’s father was the half-brother of Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, who was rewarded a king’s title and a fief.

As the only child of his beloved parents and an honored prince, Zhu Houcong was well educated and lived in their fief happily and affluently, where he spent his perfect childhood.

Zhu Houcong inherited the king's title when he was 12 after his father departed.

Two years later, his cousin Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao passed away and left no heir to the empire.

As the closest male kinsfolk of the late emperor, Zhu Houcong was welcomed to the capital city and ascended to the throne, under the support of the current empress dowager and some powerful ministers.

Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty

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

Intense Controversy Initiated by Teenager Emperor

To everyone’s surprise, this 14-year-old Jiajing Emperor, though with few political resources, immediately initiated a big controversy regarding etiquette, against many officials. 

This was The Great Controversy of Rites that had lasted for three years.

Though he inherited the throne from his cousin, Jaijing Emperor Zhu Houcong wanted to honor his parents as the overlord and empress dowager, which was completely against the etiquette of the Ming Empire. 

According to the rules, he should now respect his cousin's father, Emperor Zhu Youcheng, as his (adoptive) father, or at least the superior overlord.

After knowing that he couldn’t resign as the emperor, Jiajing Emperor frequently and intensely debated with those intelligent ministers that were carefully selected through the Imperial Exam.

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)

Gradually, Jiajing Emperor found more allies who supported him, though some of them were just sycophant opportunists.

Many ministers who were against his ideas were demoted and expelled from the central government.

Jiajing Emperor finally won this long-term, large-scale discussion, three years later. 

These contentions were not only about etiquette and titles, but they also represented who could make decisive rules of the Ming Empire: those brilliant, mature ministers, or the teenage emperor that newly ascended to the throne.  

After the Great Controversy of Rites, Jiajing Emperor achieved absolute centralized authority over the government and became an excellent politician. 

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

Jiajing Emperor as An Excellent Monarch

Jiajing Emperor was very unsatisfied with some of his playful cousin emperor’s behaviors, especially his closeness to eunuchs.

So, after he got the throne, he executed Zhengde Emperor’s closest eunuchs and banished the rest from political power. 

Under Jiajing Emperor's ruling period, those former powerful and influential eunuchs, now, only could do cleaning work and behave as inferior servants. 

Then Jiajing Emperor refined the Cabinet System and reformed etiquette ceremonies. 

Like other good monarchs in the history of China, he lowered taxes, encouraged agriculture and business, and made sure his kingdom kept progressing.

In the first twenty years of his reign, he was undoubtedly an intelligent and diligent emperor who brought his people better lives.

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

A Passionate Believer of Taoism Religion

The first ten years after Jiajing Emperor got married, he had no babies at all, until a Taoist cured him using Taoism medicine. 

Afterward, the Jiajing Emperor had many kids, which made him quite passionate about practicing alchemy.

He made friends with Taoists, diligently learned Taoism philosophy and did alchemy in his palace every day, and even recommended all his officials to believe in Taoism. 

Nearly Assassinated by Imperial Maids

One night in the year 1542, a group of imperial maids sneaked into Jiajing Emperor’s bedroom, and almost strangled him to death. But they were too nervous and scared, so they didn’t succeed. 

Soon, the queen was informed, and immediately, she captured those maids.

Many people, including some imperial concubines, were executed afterward; but the actual commander and the reason behind this assassination were buried deep. 

Some gossip said that the Jiajing Emperor asked many maids to collect dew very early in the morning for his alchemy practice, which was very annoying and exhausting.


Others believed that this was a political coup initiated by some unsatisfied imperial concubines.

The real reason for this assassination, however, was still unknown.

Blue Glaze Wine Cup (Jue) with Gold Dragon Patterns Produced Under Reign of Jiajing Emperor

Blue Glaze Wine Cup (Jue) with Gold Dragon Patterns Produced Under Reign of Jiajing Emperor — Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Taoist Jiajing Emperor and His Commands Hidden in Puzzles

After that assassination, Jiajing Emperor stopped showing up in government meetings, but he still got everything under control.

In the next twenty years of his reign, he practiced Taoism Religion in the daytime, and read government reports at night. 

The way Jiajing Emperor sent his command was special and interesting.

Instead of direct instructions, he always wrote down his decrees on letters using word puzzles, and then sent them to his important officials. Only very smart people could solve his puzzles, and gain his trust and promotion.

Some Taoism Deities on Murals of the Yuan Dynasty in the Yongle Palace of Shanxi Province

Some Taoism Deities on Murals of the Yuan Dynasty — Yongle Palace, Shanxi Province

Making Decisions by Consulting Immortals

Jiajing Emperor also liked consulting deity questions, and he had a trusted Taoist that helped him to communicate with immortals. 

Usually, Jiajing Emperor would write his question down, seal it, and hand the envelope to his trusted Taoist, who then would send the question to immortals by burning it; soon, the deities would come and guide two people to write the answer in a special sand table.

Jiajing Emperor had been doing this for decades, and he truly believed everything that immortals had suggested.

One day, immortals told the Jiajing Emperor that his empire was declining because he trusted the treacherous minister Yan Song, and didn’t nominate the talented official named Xu Jie. 

Yan Song (1480 — 1566) was a smart but treacherous minister who was an expert in the conspiracy. He pleased the Jiajing Emperor often, using his excellent flattery skills, and outstanding writing regarding Taoism articles.

After he became the prime minister of Ming and obtained more authority, he framed up or murdered many loyal officers and collected a large amount of money using his abused power.

Excellent Calligraphy Work of Yan Song

Excellent Calligraphy Work of Yan Song — Palace Museum

Important Personnel Adjustment of Jiajing Emperor

Many people believed that the emperor's trusted Taoist manipulated this important answer, which made him soon tortured to death by Yan Song.

But, after this influential answer from the immortal, Jaijing Emperor estranged, demoted, and executed Yan Song in the next few years. 

Then, the brilliant, decent Xu Jie (1503 — 1583) was nominated as the most powerful prime minister, just as what deities had suggested to him.

Since then, Jiajing Emperor spent more time practicing Taoism, because prime minister Xu Jie was very loyal and capable, and always refused his unreasonable requirements.

For instance, Jiajing Emperor wanted to build more palaces, or spend more money on his alchemy career, which was all vetoed by his officials.

Also, Xu Jie asked many imperial censors to point out and criticize the emperor’s inappropriate behaviors, frequently, while Jiajing Emperor had to listen.

Afterward, he trusted the daily administrative works of Xu Jie, while he kept practicing Taoism and pursuing immortality until he passed away in his 60s.

Mausoleum of Jiajing Emperor (Ming Yong Ling) in Beijing

Mausoleum of Jiajing Emperor (Ming Yong Ling) — Changping, Beijing (Photo by Charlie Fong)

Controversial Jiajing Emperor Zhu Houcong

Jiajing Emperor Zhu Houcong was another controversial and deviant emperor in the history of China.

Many people criticized him for his extreme passion for practicing Taoism Religion and alchemy, while he barely worked diligently as a monarch.

Besides, the Jiajing Emperor was not close to anyone, except his parents. He even had barely met his kids. 

Others believed that even though he rarely showed up in government, he always had everything under control, and had never lost power. 

Under Jiajing Emperor’s reign, some intelligent civil ministers managed the kingdom well, while exceptional generals successfully eliminated invaders from the north and southeast borders.

As a monarch or a person, he was very special and eccentric; however, he was indeed a wonderful Machiavellian, and an excellent politician. 

Double Dragon Heads Shaped Glod Bangle Inlaid With Gems, Produced Under the Reign of Jiajing Emperor

Double Dragon Heads Shaped Glod Bangle Inlaid With Gems, Produced Under the Reign of Jiajing Emperor — Guizhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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