Wan Zhener and Chenghua Emperor — Their Great Love with A Huge Age Difference
Wan Zhener (1430 — 1487), respected as Consort Wan, was a famous imperial concubine of the Ming Dynasty because of her love story with the emperor, who was 17 years younger than her.
Besides the big age difference, in many gossips, Wan also had aborted or murdered some of the emperor’s babies. However, she had always been fully loved by the emperor.
Wan’s husband, Zhu Jianshen (1447 — 1487), respected as Chenghua Emperor or Emperor Xianzong of Ming, was one of the most remarkable monarchs of the Ming Dynasty that flourished the empire and brought his people better lives.
Chenghua Emperor was quite mature, decisive, intelligent, and artsy. He had two queens and many young and beautiful concubines but only truly loved Wan Zhener.
Portrait of Chenghua Emperor Zhu Jianshen, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum
Imperial Maid Wan and Prince Zhu Jianshen
Wan Zhener was born into an official family, but her father got involved in a crime when she was little. Later, she was sent to the royal palace as a maid when she was four years old.
Wan was intelligent and diligent and was liked by her master, Empress Dowager Sun (? — 1462) (also respected as Empress Xiao Gong Zhang).
In 1449, Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen (1427 — 1464) encountered a colossal loss fighting against the Oriats Mongols, and he got captured.
The Ming officials decided to support Zhu Qizhen’s brother as the new emperor so that they won’t be pinned down on the battlefield, and their enemy won’t have any advantages by holding Zhu Qizhen the hostage.
Empress Dowager Sun, the mother of Zhu Qizhen, agreed to this decision but demanded to nominate Zhu Qizhen’s first son Zhu Jianshen as the crown prince.
At the same time, she also sent her trusted 19-year-old maid Wan to take care of this 2-year-old crown prince.
Wan Accompanied the Crown Prince Through Thick and Thin
One year later, Zhu Qizhen was sent back after the Ming Empire successfully defeated the Oriats Mongols.
The new emperor Zhu Qiyu (1428 — 1457), respected as Jingtai Emperor or Emperor Jingdi of Ming, didn’t want to relinquish the throne.
So he imprisoned Zhu Qizhen, his former beloved old brother, in a faraway palace.
When Zhu Jianshen was 5, he was abolished, while his uncle, the Jingtai Emperor, nominated his son as the new crown prince.
Firearm (Huo Chong) Produced During Jingtai Emperor's Reign, to Protect Ming from the Crisis that was Caused by Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen's — National Museum of China
During that period, Zhu Jianshen was imprisoned, isolated in a small palace, and strictly monitored by his uncle's spies. He had encountered some life-and-death moments and got scared a lot.
Besides, he could not meet with his parents or grandmother.
All he had was the maid Wan, who cared for and protected this little prince very well.
Wan was his nanny, maid, guard, friend, sister, and to some extent, even his mother. No matter what happened, Wan had always been there for him.
When Zhu Jianshen was 10, his father took the throne back through a coup and nominated him as the crown prince again.
Wan Zhener as the Most Powerful Imperial Concubine
No one knew precisely when Zhu Jianshen fell in love with Wan.
When Zhu Jianshen was 17, he ascended to the throne as Chenghua Emperor after his father passed away.
Then he wanted to nominate Wan as his queen, but his mother strongly disagreed because of Wan’s age, maid status, and ordinary appearance.
Hence, Zhu Jianshen married Wu as his queen, a noble, young, beautiful girl his parents chose for him.
Wu, a gorgeous, proud girl, was quite upset about being neglected by the emperor. Soon after their marriage, Wu punished Wan for having behaved disrespectfully.
This made the emperor furious. He fabricated a crime that Wu and her family never committed and soon abolished Wu.
Later, another elegant girl named Wang was nominated as queen. Since she knew how much the emperor loved Wan, she behaved modestly and obediently to Wan.
Afterward, Wan was respected as the real queen in the royal palace.
Gold Cup Decorated with Valuable Gems, Unearthed from Grave of Wan Zhener's Younger Brother Wan Tong — Capital Museum
Chenghua Emperor's Great Reign and His Heir Problem
Chenghua Emperor Zhu Jianshen took over an empire that encountered a massive military failure and was full of dissatisfied civilians and uprisings.
After 23 years of his reign, lost land was recovered, the population, economy, and agriculture were further developed, and the empire continued flourishing.
However, this remarkable emperor had been bothered by the heir's problem.
When he was 19, his beloved Wan gave birth to his first baby boy, who passed away a few months later.
Later, another imperial concubine had the emperor's second boy. But this boy died only a few months after being nominated as the crown prince.
In some gossip, this young crown prince was murdered by Wan Zhener out of jealousy; she might have aborted other babies when other women were pregnant as well.
Anyhow, afterward, no one gave birth to any babies for the emperor until he was 29 years old.
Having no heir for his enormous empire became Chenghua Emperor's biggest problem.
Zhu Jianshen's mother, the empress dowager, kept selecting young and gorgeous imperial concubines for him, but he still only loved Wan.
A Secretly Raised Prince and Wan Zhener's Giving Up
When Chenghua Emperor was young, he spent a romantic night with an imperial maid named Ji, who got pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy.
In some documents, Wan tried to abort and murder this boy after hearing about this pregnancy, but the servants sent to implement these crimes didn't do and lied to Wan that the girl and her baby had been taken care of.
Others believed that Chenghua Emperor knew about Ji's pregnancy; he kept Ji and the baby boy outside his palace because he didn't want to hurt Wan's feelings.
Anyhow, this boy Zhu Youcheng was raised secretly in servants' yards, with the help of the former abolished queen Wu and some friendly maids and eunuchs.
Contrasting Colors Porcelain (Doucai) Jar Produced During Chenghua Emperor's Reign — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
In 1476, when Chenghua Emperor was 29, this 6-year-old boy was introduced to the royal palace. The empress dowager immediately protected him and soon nominated him as the crown prince.
Wan Zhener was very angry.
Soon, the boy’s mother, Ji, and those people that had lied to Wan to protect this boy, all committed suicide or died out of a sudden.
But she could do nothing to this boy, who was under the careful protection of the most powerful woman, the empress dowager.
There’s no concrete evidence about Wan’s killings in history.
Coincidentally, after the boy showed up, the emperor had 17 children in his last 11 years.
Zhu Jianshen's Painting "Sui Zhao Jia Zhao Tu", To Pray for Blessings in New Year — Palace Museum
Failed Plan of Abolishing Crown Prince
However, Wan Zhener still disliked Zhu Youcheng being the crown prince, since she, in many people’s opinions, murdered his mother and those who kindly took care of him before, which was almost everyone he was ever close to when he was little.
Wan worried that after this boy became the next emperor, she and her entire family would be avenged.
So she tried several times to persuade her husband to replace the heir with another prince, whose birth mother was close to Wan.
Soon after Chenghua Emperor made the decision, an earthquake happened on Mount Tai, a place with significant political meaning in Chinese culture, where former extraordinary emperors in the history of China held sacrifice ceremonies to heaven.
Chenghua Emperor was scared and took this as a warning not to change the heir.
Therefore, Zhu Youcheng was finally stable and safe as the crown prince.
Mount Tai in Shandong Province
Chenghua Emperor and Consort Wan’s Departure
After failed replacing the crown prince, Wan Zhener stopped influencing politics. She spent the rest of her life peacefully in the royal palaces until she died when she was 57.
Chenghua Emperor had children with other women, but he only loved Wan his entire life, no matter how much his mother and officials disliked her or what Wan did to his queens, imperial concubines, and unborn children.
Hearing Wan’s death, he grieved, became sick, and told others he would leave the world soon. A few months later, the Chenghua Emperor passed away.
Blue and White Porcelain Bowl Decorated with Tangled Branches and Flowers Produced During Chenghua Emperor's Reign — Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (Photo by Dongmaiying)
After Zhu Youcheng ascended to the throne, many officials suggested he convict Wan’s family, but he refused and let go of everything that happened in the past.
No concrete evidence shows Wan committed those murders, but in some historical novels, she had been described as a jealous, evil, luxurious, powerful consort.
The truth might be buried forever, but there’s one thing for sure, the love of Wan Zhener and Chenghua Emperor was sincere and pure.
She accompanied him almost his entire life, from an abolished, ignored prince to the paramount, accomplished emperor.
Jade and Gold Made Plum Flower Shaped Hairpin (Zan) of the Ming Dynasty — Suzhou (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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