Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji — An Intelligent Monarch and A Wonderful Artist

Zhu Zhanji (1399 — 1435), honored as Xuande Emperor or Emperor Xuanzong of Ming, was the fifth monarch of the Ming Dynasty.

 

He brought to his people one of the greatest reigns in Chinese history, in the meanwhile, he also opened up the chapter of including eunuchs into the politics in the Ming Empire. 

 

The Encounters of Xuande Emperor in his early reign period were quite similar to Jianwen Emperor Zhu Yunwen (1377 — ?): they all ascended to the throne at a young age and had some aggressive uncles that trying to snatch their crown through wars. 

Unlike Jianwen Emperor that had his throne snatched by his uncle (the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di), Xuande Emperor won and took care of his uncles decisively. 

Besides being an extraordinary emperor, Zhu Zhanji was also a talented artist with many excellent paintings and poems, and a big fan of the cricket fight. 

Some Animal Paintings of Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji 

Zhu Zhanji’s Brilliant Childhood

Yongle Emperor Zhu Di (1360 — 1424), who snatched the throne through the Jingnan Campaign, highly appreciated his second son Zhu Gaoxu (1380 — 1426), who was strong, brave, and had been quite contributing in that war. Zhu Di even once promised his second son to be the future crown prince. 

Until his first son, Zhu Gaochi (1378 — 1425) had a very smart and brave boy named Zhu Zhanji. 

Afterward, Zhu Di decided to give the throne to his first son Zhu Gaochi and started to raise his favorite grandson Zhu Zhanji as the heir of the Ming Empire.

Emperor Zhu Di sent the most intelligent officials to teach him literature and politics, while passing on military skills himself, through taking Zhu Zhanji along with him in the Northern Expedition War against the Mongolian regimes. 

In the battlefields, Zhu Zhanji showed great courage and talent as both a warrior and commander, which impressed his grandfather even more. 

During this period, his uncle Zhu Gaoxu was still coveting the throne and had incited frame-ups and assassinations, but Zhu Zhanji always stayed alert and well protected his father and himself.

Copper Censer (Xuande Lu) Designed by Zhu Zhanji — Guangdong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Zhu Zhanji’s Challenging Enthronement  

After Emperor Zhu Di passed away, Zhu Zhanji became the crown prince, when his father Zhu Gaochi ascended to the throne as the Emperor Renzong of Ming.

His father was a very kind emperor that had published many benevolence policies; those people who were executed or expelled because of their opponent to the Emperor Zhu Di’s snatching of the throne were all recognized as loyal and honorable, such as scholar Fang Xiaoru

However, around nine months later, Emperor Zhu Gaochi departed because of sickness, right after having cleansed those faithful people’s names and gave them a late justice.

Hearing of his father’s sudden death, Zhu Zhanji started to rush to the capital city from south China, when he successfully escaped from his uncle Zhu Gaoxu’s assassinations. 

When he arrived in Beijing, he finally ascended to the throne, as Xuande Emperor, Ming Xuan Zong, or Emperor Xuanzong of Ming. 

Portrait of Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji — Palace Museum

Aggressive Uncle Trying to Snatch the Throne

Seeing Zhu Zhanji became the emperor, Zhu Gaoxu that had never stopped trying to seize the throne was quite resentful.

Zhu Gaoxu was tall, brave, and had made great contributions assisting emperor Zhu Di in taking the throne through the Jingnan Campaign.

The next year after Zhu Zhanji became the emperor, his uncle Zhu Gaoxu initiated a war snatching the throne, the same as Emperor Zhu Di did decades ago.

Now, Xuande Emperor was facing the same situation as Jianwen Emperor: a young emperor fighting against an experienced uncle, who extremely excelled in the military. 

Xuande Emperor’s First Military Operation 

Based on the Jianwen Emperor's failed experiences, Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji didn’t trust his army with any generals; therefore, he led his soldiers on his own.

Thanks to his early battle experiences with his grandfather Zhu Di and his excellent judgment, he led his army enclosed his uncle’s military base city, and then kept throwing letters into the city to persuade people to surrender.   

Soon, Zhu Gaoxu surrendered, and was imprisoned.

Then, Zhu Zhanji implied another uncle to give up all military power, and finally eliminated potential threats from the rest half-independent kings of the Ming Empire.

A few months later, Zhu Gaoxu tried to stumble Zhu Zhanji during a visit; afterward, Zhu Gaoxu and all of his sons were executed.

Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Hunting Activity (Ming Xuanzong Xing Le Tu), Painted By Shang Xi the Commander of Court Secret Agency (Jin Yi Wei) — Palace Museum

Xuande Emperor's Excellent Governance 

After having taken care of all the unstable issues, Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji started his reign as an extraordinary monarch. 

As other diligent and intelligent emperors in the history of China did, Xuande Emperor made his government more efficient and kept hard-working, lowered taxes, and encouraged the development of agriculture and business.

He was very good at selecting talented officials and assigning them into proper positions, together with his excellent leadership, the Ming Empire was flourishing under his governance.  

Xuande Emperor also frequently visited the civilian world and communicated with them, wearing plain clothes, to get first-hand info about his people’s lives. Then, he would refine and adjust his policies to improve people’s wellbeing. 

Malachite Green Glaze Bowl Produced Under Xuande Emperor's Reign — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Seventh Voyage and Zhu Zhanji’s Another Military Success  

Xuande Emperor summoned great voyager and diplomat Zheng He (1371 — 1433) back and commanded him to finish his seventh voyage in the history of China.

A few years later, Zheng He passed away on his way back; then lots of officials were strongly against more voyages, which Xuande Emperor agreed.

At that time, threats from nomad regimes on the northern border still existed, so the Xuande Emperor paid more attention to that and frequently toured armies there.

Copper Bell that Zheng He Made to Pray for Blessing for the seventh Voyage — National Museum of China

Once when Xuande Emperor was touring in the north, a nomad army with 10,000 cavalrymen was trying to invade Ming’s border.

He then led 3000 first-class cavalrymen, commanded by himself, actively attacked this nomad army. His extraordinary command, judgment, and courage deluded his enemies. 

When those nomad cavalrymen saw the emperor of Ming Empire was leading the army by himself, plus Ming’s soldiers’ exceptional performance, they believed that Zhu Zhanji was leading the main force of Ming that was consisted of a large number of strong warriors and advanced weapons.

So they surrendered in the end. Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji captured them and achieved another important military success.

Xuande Emperor’s Love Story with Lady Sun 

When Zhu Zhanji was little, he met a beautiful girl named Sun. He liked this childhood sweetheart a lot, but years later, his grandfather arranged him another marriage to another woman named Hu.

Therefore, Lady Sun could only stay as Zhu Zhanji’s concubine. However, Zhu Zhanji always wanted to promote Sun and let her be his queen. 

A few years later, Lady Sun gave birth to his first baby boy named Zhu Qizhen, who was soon nominated as the crown prince. 

Bitter Gourd and Rat (Gua Shu Tu), Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Painted to Celebrate the Birth of His First Boy — Palace Museum

Afterward, Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji spent a long time persuading his important officials to approve the Lady Sun’s promotion.

 

Then he implied his current queen to resign, and in the end, finally made his beloved Lady Sun as the new queen.

This made him the only emperor who abolished a queen without any proper reason in the entire Ming Dynasty, which brought him many criticisms in history.

And Lady Sun didn’t let him down. A few years later, she did a good job of protecting the Ming Empire from a life-and-death crisis, with the assist of great hero Yu Qian

A Cute Dog (Yi Xiao Tu) that Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Painted to Please Lady Sun — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art 

Zhu Zhanji's Empowerment of Eunuchs 

Another behavior that Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji was frequently criticized about was allowing teaching eunuchs to read and write, and to ask them to help go through political documents when he was too busy.

Unlike his ancestors who all strictly forbidden eunuchs from politics, this behavior gave eunuch groups more and more opportunities to get into politics and to communicate with officials. 

Though a good emperor like himself could control eunuchs, restrain their power, and make the best use of them; other weaker or lazier ones, however, would lose authority and cause chaos in the society. 

Part of the Court Painting "Zhu Zhanji Xing Le Tu" (690 cm × 36.7 cm), Presenting Emperor Zhu Zhanji's Entertainment Activities in the Royal Palace — The Palace Museum

Xuande Emperor's Interesting Leisure Times 

Xuande Emperor was a huge fan of the cricket fight; civilians could use aggressive crickets to pay for their taxes under his reign period, which was a very special phenomenon in the history of China.  

Also, he liked kindly teasing his officials, many of these types of behaviors were well documented, such as visiting his prime minister’s house in the midnight, or rewarded officials food that they didn’t like to eat.  

Meanwhile, Zhu Zhanji was a great painter, with many exceptional masterpieces left behind. 

Porcelain Cricket Pot of Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji — Royal Kiln Museum of Jingdezhen (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji’s Sudden Departure and Legacy

Xuande Emperor passed away when he was only 38 years old because of sickness; the 8-year-old crown prince Zhu Qizhen then became the next emperor, with the assistant of five intelligent ministers. With their assistance, any ordinary emperor could govern the kingdom very well.

Though this heir Zhu Qizhen turned out to be an unusual emperor, which wasn't something that Xuande Emperor had ever expected. 

Besides the passion for the cricket fights, the Xuande Emperor was a good person and an exceptional emperor in the history of China.

Under Xuande Emperor's reign, officials were hardworking and qualified, some of them were very famous and talented; meanwhile, there were no Factional conflicting nor unbalanced super powerful clans. Civilians were living in peace and wealth.

"Hu Zhong Fu Gui Tu" that Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Painted to Award His Exceptional Prime Minister Yang Shiqi (1365-1444), Wishing Him A Long and Wealthy Life — Taipei Palace Museum

He had never initiated wars against other regimes; but when his empire was under attack, he always could successfully defend his kingdom, bravely and decisively.

He didn’t construct any magnificent projects like his grandfather did so that his people could rest and live a better life.

However, he did bring eunuchs to politics, which was proved to be quite negative in the history of China.

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