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; meanwhile, he also opened up the chapter of including eunuchs in the politics of the Ming Empire.
The encounters of the 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 tried to snatch the crown through wars.
Unlike Jianwen Emperor, whose throne was 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 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
Brilliant Childhood of A Noble Prince
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 immensely contributing to 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 brilliant 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. He took Zhu Zhanji along in the Northern Expedition War against the Mongolian regimes to teach him military knowledge from the frontline.
On the battlefield, Zhu Zhanji showed great courage and talent as a warrior and commander, which impressed his grandfather even more.
During this period, his uncle Zhu Gaoxu still coveted the throne and incited frame-ups and assassinations. Hence, Zhu Zhanji always stayed alert and well-protected his father and himself.
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 who had published many benevolence policies; those who were executed or expelled because of their opponents to 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 given them a late justice.
Hearing of his father’s sudden death, Zhu Zhanji started to rush to the capital city from south China. During that period, he escaped his uncle Zhu Gaoxu’s assassination more than once.
When he arrived in Beijing, he 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 become the emperor, Zhu Gaoxu, who had never stopped trying to seize the throne, was quite resentful.
Zhu Gaoxu was tall and brave and significantly assisted emperor Zhu Di in taking the throne through the Jingnan Campaign.
The following year after Zhu Zhanji became the emperor, his uncle Zhu Gaoxu initiated a war to snatch the throne, the same as Emperor Zhu Di did decades ago.
Xuande Emperor faced the same situation as Jianwen Emperor: a young emperor fighting against an experienced uncle who excelled in the military.
Malachite Green Glaze Bowl Produced Under Xuande Emperor's Reign — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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 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 over 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
After taking care of all the unstable issues, Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji started his reign as an extraordinary monarch.
Like other diligent and intelligent emperors in history, Xuande Emperor made his government more efficient, kept hard-working, lowered taxes, and encouraged agriculture and business development.
He was very good at selecting talented officials and assigning them to proper positions; along with his excellent leadership, the Ming Empire flourished under his governance.
Xuande Emperor also frequently visited the civilian world and communicated with them wearing plain clothes to get first-hand information about his people’s lives. Then, he would refine and adjust his policies to improve people’s well-being.
Copper Censer (Xuande Lu) Designed by Zhu Zhanji — Guangdong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Seventh Voyage and Zhu Zhanji’s Another Military Success
Xuande Emperor summoned the great voyager and diplomat Zheng He (1371 — 1433) and commanded him to finish his seventh voyage.
A few years later, Zheng He passed away on his way back; many officials were firmly against more voyages, to 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, to attack this nomad army actively.
His extraordinary command, judgment, and courage deluded his enemies.
When those nomad cavalrymen saw the emperor of the Ming Empire leading the army by himself, plus the Ming soldiers’ exceptional performance, they believed that Zhu Zhanji was leading the main force of the Ming that consisted of a large number of strong warriors and advanced weapons.
So they surrendered in the end. Xuande Emperor captured them and achieved another significant military success.
Dragon Shaped Jade Belt Hook of the Ming Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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 after he grew up, his grandfather assigned a noble girl named Hu to marry him.
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, 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 while implying that the current queen Hu resigned.
Ultimately, he finally made his beloved Lady Sun the new queen.
This made him the only emperor who abolished a queen without 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 protecting the Ming Empire from a life-and-death crisis with the assistance of the 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
Empowerment of Eunuchs
Another behavior that Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji was frequently criticized for was allowing teaching eunuchs to read and write and asking them to help go through political documents when he was too busy.
Unlike his ancestors, who strictly forbade eunuchs from politics, this behavior gave eunuch groups more and more opportunities to get involved in 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 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 during his reign period, which was a very special situation in the history of China.
Also, he liked kindly teasing his officials; many behaviors were well documented, such as visiting his prime minister's house at midnight or rewarding officials with the food 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'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 assistance of five intelligent ministers.
With their support, any ordinary emperor could govern the kingdom very well.
However, this heir, Zhu Qizhen, was an unusual emperor, which wasn't something Xuande Emperor had ever expected.
Besides his passion for 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, and some were very famous and talented.
"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
Meanwhile, there were no factional conflicting or unbalanced super-powerful clans, and civilians were living in peace and wealth.
Xuande Emperor 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 magnificent projects like his grandfather did so that his people could rest and live better.
However, he did bring eunuchs to politics, which proved to be quite harmful in history.
Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of Ming — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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