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

Zhu Yijun (1563 — 1620), respected as Wanli Emperor or Emperor Shenzong of Ming, was a super intelligent 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 who managed his empire well and brought his people wealthy, stable lives. 

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

During that period, the Wanli Emperor barely appeared publicly and was criticized as lazy and indifferent to politics. 

Portrait of Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty

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

Childhood of Wanli Emperor with His Remarkable Teacher

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

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

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

Zhang Juzheng, one of the most extraordinary prime ministers and reformers in Chinese history, implemented a series of successful reforms that flourished the empire and brought about the last Great Reign of the Ming Dynasty.

Porcelain Produced During Wanli Emperor's Reign with "Longevity" Characters

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 gossip, were quite strict with Wanli Emperor. 

He was required to get up early every day to finish school and learn politics, and he was not allowed to waste time doing things that he liked but were irrelevant to being an exceptional monarch.


He barely had fun like normal kids; however, that might be the price of being a good emperor. 

During this period, the Wanli Emperor respected Zhang Juzheng as a teacher, a regent, and maybe even a father.


Zhang Juzheng also considered Wanli Emperor the heir of his great political ideology and dedicated his entire life to teaching, maybe even parenting, Wanli.


Meanwhile, Zhang Juzheng was rigorous and gave the young Wanli Emperor some hard times.

Gilding Belt Decoration (Tao Huan) of Wanli Emperor Decorated with Gems

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

Taking Over A Prosperous Empire

When Zhang Juzheng passed away, he left 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 against 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" he gave him. 

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

He was diligent and caring, and his empire flourished under his governance.

Porcelain Plate Decorated with Colorful Dragons and Phoenix Patterns, Produced During the Reign of Wanli Emperor

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

Sudden and 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 a few important ministers, most other officials could barely see the Wanli Emperor anymore. 

No one knew exactly what happened that year, making this passionate and diligent young emperor become a lazy and indifferent monarch. 

Jade Horse of the Ming Dynasty

Jade Horse of Ming — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

However, something significant happened during that period, which might be part of his sudden change. 

Once, Wanli Emperor slept with a maid named Wang, who 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 his mother chose for him. 

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

Unearthed Phoenix Crown of Queen Xiaoduan (the Queen of Emperor Wanli) of the Ming Dynasty

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

The Unwanted Crown Prince of Wanli Emperor

When his first boy Zhu Changluo was born, the Wanli Emperor still considered the whole thing a one-time, unexpected encounter.


He didn't want to give the maid Wang or the baby boy any royal titles.

However, his mother, Empress Dowager Li, was quite happy to have her first grandson.


Since she was also an imperial maid before, she felt sympathy for Wang, who had been serving her for a long time. 

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

Portrait of Empress Dowager Li by Court Artist of Ming.

Portrait of Empress Dowager Li by Court Artist of Ming.

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 the Ming, his first boy should be the heir. 

Hence, 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

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 and Long-Term Controversy Over the Heir

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

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 who managed the country well, also resigned because of their disagreed ideas in this controversy.

Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of the Ming Dynasty

Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of Ming — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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

Wanli Emperor got furious but still didn’t command to punish this official.


In the Ming Dynasty, if someone got punished, like being beaten in the court, for criticizing the emperor, he would be respectfully honored in historical documents, and his family and friends would feel proud too. 

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

Test Paper of the Champian of Imperial Exam In The Year 1598

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

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

Besides, after his exceptional teacher resigned because of the controversy over the crown prince, a partial political conflict soon appeared and expanded quickly under the Wanli Emperor’s reign.


Moreover, the nomadic regime of Manchu became more substantial in the northeast region.   

Beacon Towers on Ming Great Wall in Jinshanling Section

Ming Dynasty Great Wall and Beacon Towers in Jinshanling Section, Photo by Gucheng.

Wanli Emperor was unhappy about his lost authority, and Zheng was upset about her son’s lost throne.


Afterward, Wanli became increasingly indifferent to politics and rarely appeared in public again. 

However, the 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

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 for Reading

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

He frequently sent eunuchs to go outside the royal palace and buy books; any books were interesting to him, including novels, drama, medication, poems, etc.

Many Western missionaries arrived in China during his ruling period.


Matteo Ricci was interviewed and highly appreciated by the Wanli Emperor, and many scientific books he brought were also translated and published.

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

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

Wanli Emperor and the Decline of His Empire

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

A few years later, the Ming Empire suffered a significant 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 with him. 


However, his officials refused.


After Zheng passed away about a decade later, she was buried elsewhere. 

Mauselum of Wanli Emperor (Ding Ling)

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, a disordered society inside, and a threatening nomadic regime outside.    

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

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

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


Epitaph of Wanli Emperor's Beloved Son Zhu Changxun

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