Tianqi Emperor Zhu Youjiao — Excellent Carpenter Monarch and A Weird Explosion During His Reign

Zhu Youjiao (1605 — 1627), respected as Tianqi Emperor or Emperor Xizong of Ming, was a controversial monarch of the Ming Dynasty.

Since the Ming Empire had been declining during his grandfather Wanli Emperor’s ruling period, hence, Zhu Youjiao was believed governed it quite well. 

Meanwhile, many other people criticize him for allowing eunuchs manipulated politics and persecuted decent officials, and the partial conflict became quite intense under his reign. 

As for the times that had saved by asking eunuchs to do daily administrative works for him, Tianqi Emperor used them to work diligently on his carpenter art. 

He was one of the most remarkable carpenters in the history of China, who was quite an expertise from designing big projects, to carve exquisite decorations.

Portrait of Tianqi Emperor Zhu Youjiao, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Unappreciated Prince Zhu Youjiao and His Enthronement 

Zhu Youjiao’s grandfather, the Wanli Emperor, had slept with an imperial maid once, who then gave birth to his first baby boy named Zhu Changluo (1582 — 1620).

Wanli Emperor never liked Zhu Changluo, and spent 15 years trying to nominate his favorite son as the heir, but failed. 

During this period, Zhu Changluo and his son Zhu Youjiao had to stay extremely cautious and to constantly experience Wanli Emperor’s indifference, even disdain, from time to time. 

Under great support of his powerful grandmother and many officials, Zhu Changluo finally ascended to the throne when he was 38 years old. 

Gilding Belt Decoration (Tao Huan) of Wanli Emperor Decorated with Gems — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

However, Zhu Changluo, the Taichang Emperor or Emperor Guangzong of Ming, passed away only one month after his enthronement. 

Afterward, Zhu Youjiao became the Tianqi Emperor when he was 15 years old, who took over an empire with partial conflicts and a strong enemy.

The political conflict among different parties in his grandfather’s ruling period was among officials, however, under Tianqi Emperor's reign, it changed to conflicts between some officials against his favorite eunuch.

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

Tianqi Emperor's Controversial Reign  

At the beginning of the Tianqi Emperor's ruling period, integrity officials still had advantages; many decent people were nominated into the appropriate positions, such as general Sun Chengzong

He also cleared exceptional minister Zhang Juzheng’s name, recovered his reputation. 

Three years later, however, powerful eunuch Wei Zhongxian and his lover Ke, also Zhu Youjiao’s wet nurse, framed up and executed those opponent officials, and possessed more and more power. 

Many exceptional generals who were capable to protect the Ming Empire from perishing were sentenced to death. 

Whoever didn’t comply with Wei were demoted or executed, no matter if they were contributive and loyal or not. 

This couple also plundered large numbers of treasures from civilians.

Besides, the wet nurse also murdered many of the Tianqi Emperor's babies, only because those babies’ mothers didn’t follow her orders. Then she kept sending the emperor beautiful women that complied with her. 

Gold Ingot Especially Offered to Princes During Tianqi Emperor's Reign — National Museum of China

A Remarkable Architect and An Extraordinary Carpenter 

Tianqi Emperor fully trusted Eunuch Wei with daily administrative works of the Ming Empire and dedicated his entire life to being a great architecture and an extraordinary carpenter.

He was indeed a genius artist: from spectacular buildings to tiny models, from designing draft to carving and painting, Tianqi mastered them all.

He redesigned and mended broken buildings inside his royal palace, the Forbidden City, and did an excellent job. 

He made his bed, furniture, and even a beautiful garden full of exquisite mechanisms.

Those very big architectures that would occupy lots of places, he would tear them up after finished.

For smaller handicrafts that he made, Tianqi Emperor sent his servants to put them on the market, anonymously, where his masterpieces were always sold as the most expensive and valuable products.

Despite his monarch status, he was widely considered as the second exceptional carpenter artist in the history of China. 

Unfortunately, after the Ming Dynasty was ended, most of his masterpieces didn’t preserve and pass on.

Colored Glaze Lion Renovated During Tianqi Emperor's Reign, Used As Mythical, Fortunate Animal Guarding in Front of Temples — Palace Museum

A Destructive, Mysterious Explosion 

In the sixth year of his ruling, an extremely weird and mysterious explosion happened in the capital city, which was widely considered as a warning of Tianqi Emperor being a horrible monarch. 

The year before this mysterious explosion, many extreme natural phenomena had appeared, included severe drought and cold, red and purple clouds in the sky, etc.

Days before the explosion, people saw colorful and black clouds and heard some unexplainable kinds of music; some statues of the God of Fire were shaking intensely as well.

On that explosion day, a huge fireball rushed out into the sky and exploded; with a shocking blare, dust, cracks, blood, and pieces of body parts were spreading, along with countless cries and screams.

The Tianqi Emperor’s crown prince was dead in this explosion, so did more than 20,000 other people. 

The weird explosion in the Ming Dynasty cannot be explained by poor management of ammunition nor earthquake.

The most eccentric thing was that all the dead bodies were naked; their clothes and jewelry were blown to a mountain nearby the capital city.

Colored Glaze Dragon Chiwen that was Widely used on House Ridge of the Ming Dynasty, A Mythical Animal that Can Protect People From Fire — Jiexiu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Scared Emperor and His Sudden Death

This mysterious disaster made the Tianqi Emperor believed that he was a horrible monarch; so he wrote and published an article of self-criticizing, and tried to make up his mind to be a better emperor. 

However, he only wrote it down and didn’t change anything.

The same year after the explosion, flood and drought disasters happened in different places in China, while large numbers of civilians were suffering from poverty and starvation.

The next year, when Tianqi Emperor was drinking wine with his close eunuchs in a boat, a gust of wind overthrew him into the lake; he got scared and passed away several months later. 

Porcelain Censer Produced During Tianqi Emperor's Reign — The British Museum

Tianqi Emperor’s Beautiful, Smart Queen

Tianqi Emperor’s wife Zhang Yan (1606 — 1644) was a very beautiful and smart woman, who was selected to be the queen from 5,000 pretty girls. 

Her stunningly gorgeous appearance impressed the emperor, and made him fell in love with her at first sight.

Unfortunately, her baby was aborted by the emperor's evil wet nurse Ke using poison, because Zhang Yan refused to comply with Ke.

Zhang Yan was outrageous and sad and started to plan her vengeance.

She was the only one that Tianqi Emperor loved and trusted, other than that powerful Eunuch Wei and the wet nurse Ke. 

Zhang Yan had tried several times to persuade the Tianqi Emperor to trust loyal and righteous officials and generals, instead of that greedy couple, but her husband never listened. 

Phoenix Crown of Wanli Emperor's Queen Xiaoduan — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmiying)

The departure of Tianqi Emperor and Declination of the Ming

After the Tianqi Emperor almost drowned to death, he was sick in bed, with no sons. 

The eunuch and wet nurse then planed to find another baby to ascend to the throne; that way, they could be in charge for another few decades.

Surprisingly, the Tianqi Emperor even agreed with this ridiculous idea.

Queen Zhang Yan was strongly against this decision, considering both the Ming Empire and her benefit.  

So she spent a long time trying to persuade her husband to give the throne to his 16-year-old younger brother Zhu Youjian, instead of an unknown baby who might be a puppet emperor forever. 

Exquisite Gold Hairpin (Zan) of the Ming Dynasty — Jiangxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Zhu Youjian, the only brother of Tianqi Emperor, didn’t want to ascend to the throne. But after his brother and Queen Zhang Yan’s analysis and persuasion, he agreed.

Tianqi Emperor Zhu Youjiao, the artistic monarch passed away when he was only 22 years old, and left with his brother a chaotic kingdom with many treacherous but powerful officials, a powerful nomadic enemy Manchu, and some large scale uprisings. 

His beautiful and decent wife Zhang Yan, later respected as Empress Yi’an, committed suicide with honor, before the Ming Dynasty perished, 17 years after Tianqi Emperor’s death. 

Gold Tablet of General Mu Rui, Carved with the Testament of His Ancestor General Mu Ying (1344 — 1392), Who Contributed Significantly in the Establishment of the Ming Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
The grandson and great-grandson of Mu Rui, a few decades later, sacrificed their lives in protecting the last emperor of the Ming Empire.

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