Yongle Emperor Zhu Di — Snatcher of Imperial Throne and Creator of Cabinet and Forbidden City

Zhu Di (1360 — 1424), also respected as Yongle Emperor or Ming Cheng Zu was the third monarch of the Ming Dynasty in the history of China.

He usurped the throne from his nephew the Jianwen Emperor Zhu Yunwen (1377 — ?), through a rebel war. 

Besides the illegal means achieving the throne, Zhu Di was a remarkable emperor that achieved great success in battlefields and expanded territory, constructed the Forbidden City, supported Zheng He’s Voyages, flourished his empire and brought people stable lives.

Yongle Encyclopedia (Chinese name Yongle Da Dian), the largest paper encyclopedia in the world that includes more than 8,000 valuable books and over 370 million words, was compiled and published under his reign.

Part of Yongle Encyclopedia — National Library of China (Photo by LW Yang)

Prince Zhu Di and His Exceptional Military Successes

Zhu Di was the fourth son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (1328 — 1398), the founder of the Ming Dynasty. 

After Zhu Di was born, he spent most of his time in the army, since his father Zhu Yuanzhang was busing fighting with other forces. 

When Zhu Di was 20, he was assigned as the Lord of Beijing City to defend the Ming Empire from nomadic regimes.

He had participated in many battles in the history of China and had learned a lot through cooperating with marvelous generals of Empire Ming.

When Zhu Di and his other brothers were staying in their fiefs and defending the empire, their oldest brother, the crown prince Zhu Biao, was living with Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and assisting him to run the country. 

Zhu Di was an excellent marshal with remarkable military successes, a faithful son to his father Zhu Yuanzhang, a well behaved and kind brother to his older brother, also the crown prince, Zhu Biao.

However, to the nephews whom he had barely met before, Zhu Di wasn’t quite kind.

Portrait of Yongle Emperor Zhu Di by Court Painter — Taipei Palace Museum

Empire Ming’s First Complicated Turn Over of the Throne 


In Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang’s late years, his beloved first son Zhu Biao (1355 — 1392), also the perfect heir of the Ming Empire, passed away. 

At that time, Prince Zhu Di was the oldest living son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, who made great contributions to battlefields. 

However, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang nominated Zhu Yunwen, the oldest son of Zhu Biao, as the new crown prince.

Considering Zhu Yunwen was still a talented teenager but had no military experiences, it might be difficult for him to manage a newly built kingdom with many mature, exceptional marshals like Lan Yu.  

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

What’s more, those exceptional generals were mostly allied through marriage with other sons of Zhu Yuanzhang. Their close relationship with other princes, plus their extraordinary military skills, made them quite possible and capable to rebel young Zhu Yunwen’s reign and support a new emperor.

Therefore, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang executed most of the contributive and exceptional marshals that he believed had the potentiality to rebel. Meanwhile, he promoted many talented scholars to assist his beloved grandson, such as Fang Xiaoru.

However, the Ming Empire still needed a great commander to defend the northern border against nomad regimes; therefore, prince Zhu Di was assigned to do this job. 

From A Potential Heir to An Excluded King

Zhu Biao’s departure made Zhu Di the oldest living son of the Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, plus his exceptional military achievements, Zhu Di once believed that he was very likely to become the next heir.

But after Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang nominated his grandson Zhu Yunwen as the next heir, he frequently warned Zhu Di to be loyal, supportive, and respectful to his nephew. 

After Zhu Di’s 21 years old nephew emperor Zhu Yunwen ascended to the throne and abrogated authority and noble titles of five of Zhu Yuanzhang’s sons within a year, Zhu Di realized that he would be removed from power as well, as a king with an independent army that was a threat to the new emperor.

Then, he pretended to act like a psycho to fool other people, while keeping sent spies to his nephew emperor, and secretly preparing for his rebellion.

Sweet White Glaze Jar Produced under Yongle Emperor's Reign — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Initiating of the Rebel War and His Lucky Success 

Soon, Zhu Di allied with his other brave brother, initiated a rebel war against his nephew Emperor Zhu Yunwen; this was the Incident of Jingnan.

Zhu Di had participated in many battles before with his father, he also joined and led the seventh and eighth Northern Expedition, the wars that his father initiated against the former Mongolia regime; so his army was very experienced and aggressive. 

On the contrary, his nephew emperor Zhu Yunwen was very young and never had any military experience before. Moreover, most of the remarkable marshals of the central government of the Empire Ming were departed, because of sickness, or had been executed by his grandfather Zhu Yuanzhang. 

Emperor Zhu Yunwen also wrongly gave his large, brave troops to an incapable general, who kept losing in the battlefields and then surrendered Zhu Di.

Consequently, after four years of intense wars, Zhu Di led his army to arrive outside of Ming's capital city.

When Zhu Yunwen and large numbers of his loyal soldiers were determined to fight back and wait for reinforcements, another prince and a coward general allied together and opened the gate for Zhu Di.

Led by these traitors, Zhu Di easily got in and occupied the capital city Nanjing.

To his surprise, his nephew emperor didn’t surrender, nor suicide, nor negotiate. 

Part of Painting "Prosperous City Nanjing of the Ming Dynasty"  (Nan Du Fan Hui Tu), By Artist Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552) — National Museum of China

Snatching Throne From His Disappearing Nephew Emperor

His nephew Zhu Yunwen (also honored as Jianwen Emperor), legal heir and the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty, a very nice and benevolent monarch, burnt down his royal palace, the Forbidden City of Nanjing, and disappeared together with his queen.

Some said that he died in the fire, but no one found his body; others said that he escaped through a secret tunnel, and became a Taoist or a monk in different temples.

Either way, this emperor’s ending is still a secret in the history of China.

Most of the official documents about Emperor Zhu Yunwen, along with himself, then were disappeared as well. 

Many of Zhu Yunwen’s loyal officials committed suicide after hearing his failure.

Others who haven’t got the time to suicide and refused to surrender, such as famous scholar Fang Xiaoru, were all executed cruelly; tens of thousands of loyal and intelligent people were slaughtered by Zhu Di.

Many of those faithful and knowledgeable officials' daughters were sent to brothels. 

Unearthed Stone Dragon Stigma of the Relic of The Forbidden City of Nanjing (Built in 1366 — 1392) — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Yongle Emperor and His Resemblance Policy

Then, Zhu Di became the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, respected as Yongle Emperor, or Emperor Chengzu of Ming, or Emperor Taizong of Ming.

He moved the capital of the Empire Ming to Beijing city, built the Forbidden Palace, and re-established all policies of his father (because his nephew changed some), no matter whether they were good or bad.

He re-established his father's military spy agency and established a monitoring system. 

Unlike his father the Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang who built that agency to fight against corrupted officials, Zhu Di used it to kill people who were against his throne.  

Zhu Di initiated the rebel war against his nephew because Emperor Zhu Yunwen wanted to remove power from him.

Therefore, after Zhu Di got the throne and became Yongle Emperor, he firstly gave honorable titles and power back to all the kings, who were also his brothers and nephews. 

However, right after his reign was stable, he abolished power from most of them, some were demoted to a civilian. Except for the Princess Zhu Changning, who disrespected Zhu Di frequently, but stayed honorable for her entire life. 

In the end, he and his nephew emperor were the same, they all desired the centralized authority, and needed to deprive power of those half-independent kings who were seen as potential threatens. 

The only difference was that Emperor Zhu Di was more capable and decisive, and he succeeded.

The Forbidden City in Beijing that was Constructed Under Command of Yongle Emperor Zhu Di

Yongle Emperor and His Remarkable Reign 

Nevertheless, Yongle Emperor was an outstanding monarch in the history of China, though the way he achieved the throne was illegal and cruel.

He invented the Cabinet System, which only includes intelligent officials that were selected from the Imperial Examination; this agency soon became the most powerful authority in the Ming Dynasty.

Yongle Emperor also encouraged agriculture and constructed many canals.

He also sent Zheng He on the Treasure Voyage for six times, which greatly contributed to communication among different cultures. Though according to many gossips, Zheng He’s secret mission was to track down the disappeared Emperor Zhu Yunwen. 

Yongle Emperor's military achievements were extraordinary as well. He initiated some wars that largely extended his realm, and then he held a big military parade (including around 100,000 soldiers) which were visited by many foreign monarchs.

Taoist Temples in Mount Wudang that was Constructed Under Command of Yongle Emperor Zhu Di — Shiyan City, Hubei Province

Yongle Emperor in the Battlefields 

Besides wars that Zhu Di had participated when his father was the emperor after he got the throne, he led his army marched northward to the desert, and attacked the remaining Mongolia forces for five times. 

As an emperor, participating in wars in person for so many times was quite rare in the history of China. Once, he even brought his beloved grandson Zhu Zhanji to the battlefront, trying to teach him how to command the army and fight. 

In the first three Northern Expedition Wars, Yongle Emperor achieved big successes and further perished the enemies’ effective strengths.

Then the nomad armies kept hiding in the huge desert when Yongle Emperor marched there for the fourth and fifth times, so he didn’t achieve the military goals that he had planned. 

Yongle Emperor passed away on his way home, during the fifth Northern Expedition War. 

Mausoleum (Chang Ling) of Yongle Emperor Zhu Di — Beijing (Photo by Charlie Fong)

Controversial Birth Mother of Yongle Emperor

Yongle Emperor Zhu Di was sometimes criticized for his cruel behaviors to his nephew emperor Zhu Yunwen and other brothers, as well as to people that were against his throne.

His legality of being the emperor was questioned frequently, not only because that he usurped the throne from his nephew, the legal heir that his father assigned. 

Another suspicious reason was if he was a birth son of the honorable Empress Ma Xiuying, the love of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's life.

In ancient Chinese culture, only descendants of one’s wife could inherit the throne, honorable titles, etc, unless they don’t have one. Therefore, sons of imperial concubines, in general condition, don’t have the right to inherit the throne. 

Unearthed Phoenix Crown of Queen Xiaoduan (the Queen of Emperor Wanli) of the Ming Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmiying)

Zhu Di himself claimed that he was the biological son of Empress Ma Xiuying, the only honorable queen of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang; therefore, he being the emperor was still reasonable.

But there are valid shreds of evidence showing that Zhu Di’s birth mother was only an imperial concubine of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, this was why Zhu Yuanzhang passed the throne to his young grandson Zhu Yunwen, instead of the brave and mature prince Zhu Di.

However, after he got the throne, Zhu Di erased everything about his birth mother and tried his best to show the public that he was the son of saint Queen Ma Xiuying.


In Nanjing city, there’s a royal temple named “Da Bao En”, inside the temple was a 78.2-meter tall Porcelain Tower, which was constructed under the command of Yongle Emperor, to memorize his birth mother. This fancy tower was destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion in the year 1856 and was reconstructed in 2007. 

Picture of the Porcelain Tower of Da Bao En Temple in Nanjing City, by Fischer von Erlach in 1721

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Colorful Glaze Bricks, Spare Parts of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Legacy of the Yongle Emperor

Undoubtedly, the ways that Yongle Emperor got the throne was destructive, and how he treated those loyal officials of his nephew Emperor Zhu Yunwen was quite cruel. Besides, he might have hidden the existence of his birth mother, to support his legality of the throne. 

Besides that, Yongle Emperor Zhu Di was an excellent monarch with outstanding military and governance skills in the history of China.

He flourished and expanded his empire, and brought prosperous and stable lives of his civilians.

Like his father, he also had one and only beloved queen named Xu, whom he met and fell in love with when he was very young. Together they had three sons; the first boy, another good emperor, ascended to the throne after Yongle Emperor departed. 

Carved Lacquer Case Produced Under Yongle Emperor's Reign — Philadelphia Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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