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

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

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

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

Within nearly half a century of his reign, the Ming Empire developed well, though the 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 and 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, leaving 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 with 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 the Teenage Jiajing Emperor

To everyone's surprise, this 14-year-old Jiajing Emperor, though with few political resources, immediately initiated a considerable 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 the superior overlord.

After knowing he couldn't resign as the emperor, the Jiajing Emperor frequently and intensely debated with intelligent ministers 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, the Jiajing Emperor found more allies who supported him, though some were just sycophant opportunists.

Many ministers 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 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, the 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 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. 

During the reign of the Jiajing Emperor, the once-powerful and influential eunuchs were reduced to performing menial cleaning tasks and behaved as lowly servants.

Then, the Jiajing Emperor refined the Cabinet System and reformed ceremonial etiquette.

Like other good monarchs in the history of China, he lowered taxes, encouraged agriculture and business, and ensured 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 in Taoism Religion

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

Afterward, the Jiajing Emperor had many kids, making him passionate about practicing alchemy.

He befriended Taoists, diligently studied Taoist philosophy, practiced alchemy in his palace daily, and even encouraged all his officials to embrace Taoism.

Nearly Assassinated by Imperial Maids

One night in 1542, a group of imperial maids sneaked into the Jiajing Emperor’s bedroom and almost strangled him. But they were too nervous and scared, so they failed. 

Soon, the queen was informed and immediately 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, the 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 the Jiajing Emperor sent his command was unique and interesting.

Instead of direct instructions, he always wrote down his decrees on letters using word puzzles and then sent them to his essential officials.


Only brilliant 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 who helped him communicate with immortals. 

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

Jiajing Emperor had been doing this for decades and believed everything the immortals 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 clever 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 the 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

Significant Personnel Adjustments by the Jiajing Emperor

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

But, after this influential answer from the immortal, the 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 deities had suggested.

Since then, the 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, the 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 frequently asked many imperial censors to point out and criticize the emperor's inappropriate behaviors, while the 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 the 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 exceptional 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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