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Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun -- An Intelligent but Destructive Monarch of the Ming Dynasty in the History of China ​

Zhu Yijun (1563 -- 1620) was the grandson of the Taoist Emperor Zhu Houcong, also the young emperor that was assisted and educated by great prime minister Zhang Juzheng


Zhu Yijun, also respected as Wanli Emperor or Ming Shen Zong, was a very smart person and a good emperor in the first decade of his reign. 

Afterwards, however, he was frequently considered to be responsible for his empire's perdition in the history, as a turning point of the Ming Dynasty when emperors started losing power to civil officials. 


Child Wanli Emperor Educated by Remarkable Teacher 

Zhu Yijun’s father, a kind but weak emperor, passed away at a young age; so Yijun ascended to the throne as the Wanli Emperor when he was 9 years old.


His mother Li didn’t try to obtain all the power with her clan, nor manipulate politics as some of the former empress dowagers in the history of China; since in the Ming Dynasty, emperors had less centralized power, especially Li's weak husband already had lost many powers to officials and eunuchs.


Li, therefore, trusted the remarkable prime minister Zhang Juzheng to run the government and teach Yijun for her. 


Li and Zhang, who had a romantic relationship in some gossips, were both quite strict to Wanli Emperor, who was forced to get up early every day to finish school and learn politics; Zhang even personally compiled books for the young monarch.


Honestly, Zhu Yijun didn’t have much time to have fun like normal kids, however, that might be the price to be a good emperor.  


Zhang Juzheng did quite a good job, who dedicated his entire life to educating Zhu Yijun and flourishing his empire; he also considered Wanli Emperor as the heir of his great political ideology.


Indeed, Zhang was rigorous and obtained lots of power, and had gave young Zhu Yijun some hard times, but he also used his exceptional political intelligence made this kingdom prosperous again.


Taking Over of A Prosperous Empire 

When Zhang Juzheng passed away, he left behind a great empire with 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 finally “revenged” for Zhang’s strictness and all the "hard times" that he gave him. 


Now, Wanli Emperor was only 20 years old, as a smart, ambitious and well educated monarch of a prosperous country.


He was a good emperor at that time, diligent and caring; his empire continued flourishing under his governance.

Sudden, Mysterious Transformation of Wanli Emperor

Until three years later, Wanli Emperor started to act like his grandfather; he didn’t show up in government meetings and sent his orders only in the written letters.


Besides very few powerful ministers, most of the Ming's officials barely could see him 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. It is still an unsolved secret in the history of China. 


Fortunately, Wanli Emperor had another remarkable prime minister in charge for the next decade.


Thanks to the hard working of this prime minister, the kingdom was running well and successfully defeated large scale invasive enemies for several times.


During this period, civilians still lived in peace and wealth.

Start Point of the Decline of Ming Dynasty

But years later, the exceptional prime minister, also Wanli Emperor's respected teacher, resigned.


Then there was no loyal and intelligent officials who could take everything under control and ran the empire well.

Moreover, Wanli Emperor’s indifference to politics made him keep losing power, which led to the beginning of the factional political struggle in the Ming Dynasty. 


Communication with the Western Culture

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


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


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


Wanli Emperor might be indoorsy, but he was quite knowledgeable, open minded, and curious.  


Wanli Emperor's Unwanted Crown Prince

When Zhu Yijun was young, he accidentally slept with a maid, who then got pregnant. Zhu Yijun disliked this maid and her child Zhu Changluo, so Wanli Emperor didn’t want to give them any royal titles.

However, this was the first child of the Wanli Emperor, and the pregnant woman was a maid of his mother. So the empress dowager insisted on nominating the maid as an imperial concubine, and her son the crown prince. 


Few years later, Wanli Emperor fell in love with a beautiful concubine, and they had a son together very soon.


Afterwards, Wanli always wanted to nominate his second boy as the crown prince.


However, the empress dowager and all of his officials supported Changluo, his first son, to be the crown prince. 


Intense, Long Term Fights For His Beloved Woman and Son

Then Wanli Emperor spent years fighting against his mother and officials, about who should be honored as the crown prince.


His respected teacher, the capable and intelligent prime minister who managed the country well, resigned because of their disagreed ideas.


During this 15-year long famous argumentation in the history of China, countless intense debates were conducted; over 300 officials resigned, or got demoted, or expelled. 


An imperial censor even compared Wanli Emperor’s beloved concubine as an evil fox, his favorite son and many 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 officer. Because in the Ming Dynasty, if someone got punished, like being beaten on the court, because they criticized the emperor, they would be respectfully honored in historical documents; his family and friends would feel proud of him too. 


So, even Wanli Emperor was quite angry hearing all of his beloved ones were compared as inhuman livestocks, he still refused to give that offensive officer the great honor of  “Court Beat”. 


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


This was a representative of the emperor having lost powers to civil officials in the Ming Dynasty.


Soon, political partial conflicting appeared and expanded quickly under his reign, and the nomadic regime Manchu became stronger in the northeast region. 


Handing Out A Declined Empire with Multi Problems

Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun had stayed in the throne for 48 years, as the longest monarch in the entire Ming Dynasty in the history of China.


He took over a flourishing and powerful empire from great prime minister Zhang Juzheng, worked diligently for a while and then trusted his intelligent teacher to govern the kingdom. In this era, Zhu Yijun was a good emperor who could bring his civilians good lives, no matter whether he showed up often or not.


However, in the second half of his reign, he spent more times enjoying lives and fighting the crown prince’s title for his beloved woman. 


In the end, Wanli Emperor left to his son a kingdom with severe partial conflicts and disordered society inside, and a threatening nomadic regime outside.