Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun — An Intelligent but Destructive Monarch of the Ming Dynasty

Zhu Yijun (1563 — 1620), respected as Wanli Emperor or Emperor Shenzong of Ming, was a super smart person, and the monarch with the longest-ruling period (48 years) of the Ming Dynasty

In the first decade of his reign, Wanli Emperor was a diligent, insightful, and capable sovereign that managed his empire well, and brought his people wealthy, stable lives. 

Afterward, however, his reign was frequently considered as the turning point of the Ming Dynasty, when emperors started losing power to civil officials. 

During that period, Wanli Emperor barely showed up in public and had been criticized as being lazy and indifferent in politics. 

Portrait of Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Child Wanli Emperor And His Remarkable Teacher

Wanli Emperor ascended to the throne when he was only 9 years old after his father passed away young.  

His mother, now the Empress Dowager Li, was originally an imperial maid, who had no political resources nor powerful clan to manipulate politics. 

Therefore, Empress Dowager Li trusted the remarkable prime minister Zhang Juzheng to reign the government, and to teach the young Wanli Emperor.  

Zhang Juzheng, one of the greatest prime ministers and reformers in the ancient history of China, implemented a series of successful reforms that flourished the empire and brought the last Great Reign of the Ming Dynasty.

Porcelain Produced During Wanli Emperor's Reign with "Longevity" Characters — National Museum of China

Empress Dowager Li and remarkable minister Zhang Juzheng, who had a romantic relationship in some gossips, were both quite strict to Wanli Emperor. 

He was required to get up early every day to finish school and learn politics, and not allowed to waste time on doing things that he liked but irrelevant to being an exceptional monarch. He barely had fun like normal kids, however, that might be the price to be a good emperor. 

During this period, Wanli Emperor respected Zhang Juzheng as a teacher, a regent, maybe even a father. Zhang Juzheng also considered Wanli Emperor as the heir of his great political ideology, and dedicated his entire life teaching, even parenting Wanli.

 

However, Zhang Juzheng was quite rigorous and did give the young Wanli Emperor some hard times.

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

Taking Over of A Prosperous Empire

When Zhang Juzheng passed away, he left behind a great empire with an efficient management system, wealthy and stable civilians, peaceful borders, and no threatening enemies. 

However, Zhu Yijun, now the powerful Wanli Emperor, listened to some other officials’ complaints; he confiscated Zhang Juzheng’s properties, abolished his noble titles and many of his reform policies, put many accusations on him and expelled all of Zhang’s family members.

The young Wanli Emperor had finally “revenged” for Zhang Juzheng’s strictness and all the "hard times" that he gave him. 

At that time, Wanli Emperor was only 20 years old, as a smart, ambitious and well-educated monarch, with a prosperous country.

He had been diligent and caring, and his empire continued flourishing under his governance.

Porcelain Plate Decorated with Colorful Dragons and Phoenix Patterns, Produced During the Reign of Wanli Emperor — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Sudden, Mysterious Transformation of Wanli Emperor

However, three to four years later, the Wanli Emperor started to behave like his grandfather, the Jiajing Emperor Zhu Houcong.  

He stopped showing up at government meetings or the public and sent his commands only using written letters.

Besides few important ministers, most of the Ming's officials barely could see the Wanli Emperor anymore. 

No one knew exactly what happened in that year, which made this passionate and diligent young emperor changed to a lazy and indifferent monarch. 

However, something important did happen during that period, which might be part of the reason for his sudden change. 

Once, Wanli Emperor slept with a maid named Wang, who then gave birth to his first baby boy named Zhu Changluo. 

The next year, the Wanli Emperor met with the love of his life, the Imperial Concubine named Zheng. She was beautiful, lively, and quite different from the queen, and other women that his mother chose for him. 

Wanli Emperor loved Zheng a lot, and soon, Zheng gave birth to his second baby boy Zhu Changxun. 

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

Unwanted Crown Prince of Wanli Emperor

When his first boy Zhu Changluo was born, the Wanli Emperor still considered the whole thing as a one time, unexpected encounter. He didn’t want to give the maid Wang any royal titles, nor the baby boy.  

His mother, the Empress Dowager Li, however, was quite happy having her first grandson. Since she used to be an imperial maid too, she felt sympathy for Wang, who had been serving her for a long time. 

Therefore, Li forced the Wanli Emperor to reward maid Wang a royal title and demanded him to nominate Zhu Changluo as the crown prince. 

But the Wanli Emperor still was waiting for his beloved Zheng to give birth to a baby boy. 

After Zhu Changxun was born, Wanli Emperor was quite happy and wanted to nominate this boy as the crown prince. 

However, according to the law and rule of Ming, his first boy should be the heir. 

Hence, the Empress Dowager Li and most of Ming’s officials supported Zhu Changluo, while Wanli Emperor wanted Zhu Changxun, to be the crown prince.

Wanli Emperor and Officials of Ming In the Painting About Life Experience of Xu Xianqing (1537 — 1602), By Artists Yu Ren and Wu Yue in 1588 — Palace Museum

Intense, Long Term Controversy Over the Heir

Then, the Wanli Emperor spent years debating with his mother and officials, about which son should be nominated as the crown prince.

This controversy lasted for 15 years when countless intense debates were conducted, and over 300 intelligent officials were resigned, demoted, or expelled.

 

Wanli’s respected teacher, another capable and intelligent prime minister that managed the country well, also resigned because of their disagreed ideas in this controversy.

Once, an imperial censor analogized Zheng as an evil fox, and prince Zhu Changxun and some other royal family members as other animals, which was quite offensive in Chinese culture.

Wanli Emperor got furious but still didn’t command to punish this official. Because in the Ming Dynasty, if someone got punished, like being beaten on the court, for having criticized the emperor, he would be respectfully honored in historical documents, while his family and friends would feel proud too. 

Hence, even the Wanli Emperor was quite angry hearing all of his beloved ones had been compared as inhuman livestock, he still refused to give that officer the great honor of  “Court Beat”. 

Test Paper of Champian of Imperial Exam In The Year 1598 — Qingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmiying)

Turning Point of the Ming Dynasty

In the end, Wanli Emperor still failed; his first son Zhu Changluo became the crown prince.

This was the representative of the emperor having lost power to civil-officials in the history of the Ming Dynasty.

Besides, after his exceptional teacher resigned because of the controversy over the crown prince, soon, political partial conflict appeared and expanded quickly under Wanli Emperor’s reign, and the nomadic regime Manchu became stronger in the northeast region. 

Wanli Emperor was not happy for his lost control, Zheng had been upset for her son’s lost throne. Afterward, Wanli became more and more indifferent to politics and barely shown up in public again. 

But Wanli Emperor still did his job as a qualified monarch from his palace. Civilians lived in peace and wealth, and the Ming Empire won the Three Great Military Campaigns in defeating large scale, invasive enemies.  

Cavalry Army in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu" that Described A Military Victory in 1575 Under the Reign of Wanli Emperor - National Museum of China

Knowledgeable Wanli Emperor and His Passion In Reading

However, no matter what had happened, the Wanli Emperor always had been a passionate book lover.

He frequently sent eunuchs to go outside of the royal palace and buy books for him; any kinds of books were interesting for him, including novel, drama, medication, poem, etc.

Many western missionaries arrived in China during his ruling period. Matteo Ricci was interviewed and highly appreciated by Wanli Emperor, and many scientific books that he brought along were translated and published as well.

Wanli Emperor might be indoorsy, but he was quite knowledgeable, open-minded, curious, and had never stopped learning.

Gold Flagon (Jiu Zhu) of Wanli Emperor — Capital Museum

Wanli Emperor and His Declined Empire

In his late years, his beloved son Zhu Changxun, according to law, left the capital city and started to live in his fief far away.

A few years later, the Ming Empire encountered a huge loss on the battlefield fighting against the Manchu Regime.

Before he passed away, the Wanli Emperor commanded to give the queen’s crown to his beloved Zheng, and bury her together with him. 

 

However, his official refused, and after Zheng passed away about a decade later, she was buried somewhere else. 

Mauselum of Wanli Emperor (Ding Ling) — Changping, Beijing (Photo by Charlie Fong)

Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun took over a flourishing and powerful empire from great prime minister Zhang Juzheng. After 48 years of his reign, however, he left behind a kingdom with severe partial conflicts and disordered society inside, and a threatening nomadic regime outside.    

He was a smart, ambitious, and knowledgeable monarch, who used to work diligently, tried to bring civilians good lives and to fight for his beloved woman and son. 

In the end, however, his empire started to decline under his reign, his beloved women even couldn’t be buried with him. 

His favorite son Zhu Changxun, 21 years after Wanli’s death, sacrificed in fighting against a peasant rebellion army.

Epitaph of Wanli Emperor's Beloved Son Zhu Changxun

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