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.
Through a rebel war, he usurped the throne from his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor Zhu Yunwen (1377 — ?).
Besides the illegal means of achieving the throne, he was a remarkable emperor that achieved great success on 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 busy fighting with other forces.
When he was 20, he was assigned as the Lord of Beijing City to defend the Ming Empire from nomadic regimes who had participated in many battles and had learned a lot through cooperating with the marvelous generals of Empire Ming.
When he 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 in managing 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, and the crown prince, Zhu Biao.
However, to the nephews whom he had barely met before, he 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 significant 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 without military experience, 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
Moreover, those exceptional generals were mostly allied through marriage with other sons of Zhu Yuanzhang. Their close relationship with other princes and extraordinary military skills made them possible and capable of rebelling against young Zhu Yunwen’s reign and supporting a new emperor.
Therefore, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang executed most of the contributive and exceptional marshals that he believed had the potential 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 Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, plus his exceptional military achievements. He once believed that he was 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.
Later, his 21 years old nephew, emperor Zhu Yunwen ascended to the throne and abrogated the authority and noble titles of five of Zhu Yuanzhang’s sons within a year.
Then, Zhu Di realized he would also be removed from power as a king with an independent army that might threaten the new emperor.
Then, he pretended to act like a psycho to fool other people while sending spies on his nephew emperor, secretly preparing for his rebellion.
Sweet White Glaze Jar Produced under Yongle's Reign — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Initiating Rebel War and His Lucky Success
Soon, Zhu Di allied with his other brave brother and 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 Expeditions, the wars his father initiated against the former Mongolian regime. Therefore, his army was very experienced and aggressive.
On the contrary, his nephew, emperor Zhu Yunwen was very young and had no military experience.
Moreover, most of the remarkable marshals of the central government of the Empire Ming 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 on the battlefields and then surrendered.
Consequently, after four years of intense wars, Zhu Di and his army arrived outside of Ming's capital city.
When Zhu Yunwen and many loyal soldiers were determined to fight back and wait for reinforcements, another prince and a cowardly general allied and opened the gate for Zhu Di.
Led by these traitors, he quickly got in and occupied the capital city of Nanjing.
To his surprise, his nephew emperor did not surrender, suicide, or 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 he died in the fire, but no one found his body; others said 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 disappeared as well.
Many of Zhu Yunwen's loyal officials committed suicide after hearing about his failure.
Others who hadn'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.
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 Similar Policy
Then, Zhu Di became the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, respected as Yongle Emperor, Emperor Chengzu of Ming, or Emperor Taizong of Ming.
He moved the capital of the Ming Empire to Beijing city, built the Forbidden Palace, and re-established all his father's policies (because his nephew changed some), whether they were good or bad.
He re-established his father's military spy agency and established a monitoring system.
Unlike his father, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, who built that agency to fight against corrupted officials, he used it to kill people against his throne.
Zhu Di initiated the rebel war against his nephew because Emperor Zhu Yunwen wanted to remove power from him.
Therefore, after being enthroned as Yongle Emperor, he 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 civilians, except Princess Zhu Changning, who frequently disrespected Zhu Di but stayed honorable for her entire life.
Ultimately, he and his nephew were the same; they all desired centralized authority and needed to deprive the power of half-independent kings who were seen as potential threats.
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
Reign of Yongle
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 included intelligent officials selected from the Imperial Examination; this agency soon became the most powerful authority in the Ming Dynasty.
Yongle encouraged agriculture, constructed many canals, and sent Zheng He on the Treasure Voyage six times, significantly contributing to communication among different cultures.
According to some gossip, Zheng He's secret mission was to track down the disappeared Emperor Zhu Yunwen.
Yongle Emperor's achievements were extraordinary as well. He initiated some wars that vastly extended his realm, and then he held a big military parade (including around 100,000 soldiers) which many foreign monarchs visited.
Military Activities on the Battlefields
Besides wars that Zhu Di had participated in when his father was the emperor after he got the throne, he led his army, marched northward to the desert, and attacked the remaining Mongolian forces five times.
As an emperor, participating in wars in person so many times was relatively 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 vast desert when Yongle marched there for the fourth and fifth times, so he didn’t achieve the military goals he had planned.
Yongle Emperor died on his way home during the fifth Northern Expedition War.
Mausoleum (Chang Ling) of Yongle Emperor — Beijing (Photo by Charlie Fong)
Controversial Birth Mother
Yongle Emperor Zhu Di was sometimes criticized for his cruel behaviors toward his nephew, emperor Zhu Yunwen and other brothers, and toward people against his throne.
His legality of being the emperor was questioned frequently, not only because he usurped the throne from his nephew, the legal heir that his father assigned.
Another suspicious reason was if he was the 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 didn't have sons.
Therefore, in general condition, sons of imperial concubines don't have the right to inherit the throne.
Zhu Di himself claimed that he was the biological son of Empress Ma Xiuying, the only honorable queen of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang; therefore, his being the emperor was still reasonable.
But there are valid shreds of evidence showing that his 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, he 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, constructed under the command of the 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 way that Yongle got the throne was destructive, and how he treated those loyal officials of his nephew Emperor Zhu Yunwen was exceptionally cruel.
Besides, he might have hidden the existence of his birth mother to support the legality of the throne.
Besides that, Yongle Emperor was an excellent monarch with outstanding military and governance skills in history.
He flourished, expanded his empire, and brought prosperous and stable lives to 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 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's Reign — Philadelphia Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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