Zhang Juzheng — A Great Reformer, A Powerful Regent, and A Complicated Politician
Zhang Juzheng (1525 — 1582), courtesy name Shuda, was one of the most accomplished prime ministers in the history of China, and a brilliant reformer that had prolonged and flourished the Ming Dynasty, and who was considered strong, powerful, brilliant, extreme, and controversial.
From an ordinary-born kid to the most powerful regent of the empire, he used only his talent.
He was a complicated genius, a sly politician, and an imperfect minister with consciences.
Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When they Met with the Emperors in the Ming Dynasty — Ningxia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
A Wunderkind and His Difficult Transformation
Zhang Juzheng was born into an ordinary family with a good reputation.
He won first place in the Imperial Examination of his state when he was only 11 years old and was highly appreciated by the current governor.
Later, he kind of lost himself because he was able to get everything so easily.
Soon, however, his beloved grandfather was framed up and passed away, only because a prince was jealous of Zhang Juzheng’s talent and reputation.
This was the first time that he witnessed what power and privilege could do.
From that moment on, Zhang Juzheng realized that he needed to work hard and obtain real power.
Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian) of Prince of the Ming Dynasty — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
A few years later, he was assigned a political occupation after he achieved a very good score on the National Imperial Examination.
But Zhang Juzheng was suppressed for a long time by the current treacherous prime minister, because of his straightforwardness.
He felt unfair and angry, so he resigned and started to travel around the whole nation, where he had seen the extravagance of a privileged life, as well as the worst living conditions of poor people.
Zhang Juzheng didn't tell anyone what exactly had happened during his trips, but he did change a lot.
After he finished his trip, he came back to work in the government.
This time, Zhang Juzheng changed from a brave, passionate, cynical young man to a mature and sly politician.
From Prime Minister to the Actual Regent
After some years of complicated and intense political fights, Zhang Juzheng finally won, and became the most powerful prime minister of the Ming Empire, with huge support from his teacher Xu Jie.
Soon, the current emperor passed away, and the new emperor Zhu Yijun, a 9-year-old prince ascended to the throne.
This young emperor’s mother, the empress dowager Li, trusted Zhang Juzheng a lot.
There was gossip about her and Zhang having a romantic relationship, for Zhang Juzheng was very handsome, talented, and powerful.
The empress dowager Li trusted and nominated Zhang Juzheng as the most powerful regent, and let him teach, sometimes even parent the young emperor.
From that time on, Zhang Juzheng was technically the actual monarch and the most powerful person in the Ming Empire.
Dragon Shaped Jade Belt Hook (Dai Gou) of the Ming Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Zhang Juzheng's Reform and Overdue Vengeance
Then, Zhang Juzheng implemented one of the most important reforms in the history of China.
His reform mainly included the management and assessment of political officials, and the implementation of a much simplified and lowered tax system.
This reform increased civilians' income, provided peasants more freedom, and promoted the development of the economy.
Zhang Juzheng's Reform brought the last great reign of the Ming Dynasty, which made the empire peaceful, prosperous, and affluent.
Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
However, Zhang Juzheng was sometimes criticized for being tricky and corrupt.
An important reason was that many noble and rich families disagreed with his reform since some policies seriously jeopardized their benefits.
Therefore, the politician Zhang Juzheng did almost everything he could to make sure his reforms could be implemented well.
He received and offered bribes, flattered useful but horrible people, and defeated his political enemies with no mercy.
After Zhang Juzheng gained enough power, he framed up and executed the prince that had murdered his beloved grandfather before.
Officials who tried to intercede for that prince were also banished by Zhang, who finally finished his vengeance after decades of difficult tolerances.
Cavalry Army in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu" that Described A Military Victory in 1575 Under the Reign of Wanli Emperor － National Museum of China
Complicated Relationship Between Zhang and the Emperor
To Wanli Emperor Zhu Yijun (1563 — 1620), Zhang Juzheng was a complicated person.
When Wanli Emperor ascended to the throne as a kid, his mother, the empress dowager Li asked him to respect and listen to Zhang Juzheng as the teacher and regent.
Li and Zhang Juzheng both were quite strict with the young emperor and set a hectic schedule for him to learn everything that a good monarch should know.
Zhang Juzheng even wrote a brilliant book for the emperor, which included his knowledge, policy, ideology, and expectation.
He took over a rotten, declined empire, reformed it into a prosperous and wealthy one, and handed it back to the emperor.
After Wanli Emperor was older and the reform was succeeded, Zhang Juzheng wanted to retire, but the empress dowager Li refused. So he kept working diligently until he passed away sick.
For Zhang Juzheng, Wanli Emperor was his monarch and student to whom he dedicated his life teaching and serving, whom he believed could inherit his ideology and hope.
The young Wanli Emperor, however, didn't feel the same way.
Gilding Belt Decoration (Tao Huan) of Wanli Emperor Decorated with Gems — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Cruel Vengeance toward Zhang Juzheng and His Clan
Only a few months after Zhang Juzheng’s death, many people who hated him started to criticize and condemn him and promoted many accusations.
The emperor, who was now more mature and had already taken centralized power back, believed those accusations and became angry, he then imprisoned Zhang's entire clan and had them investigated.
Many people from Zhang Juzheng’s family starved to death, his first son was grieved and committed suicide, while his other sons got banished to remote places far away.
Zhang Juzheng’s name was cleared decades later, by Tianqi Emperor Zhu Youjiao.
Lotus Shaped Purple Glaze Writing Brush Wash of the Ming Dynasty — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Great Reformer and Complicated Politician
Zhang Juzheng was super brilliant, which impressed his governor as an 11-year-old, and achieved an excellent score in the Imperial Examination.
As the most glorious politician in the Ming Dynasty, he was decisive and fearless. He implemented one of the most important and influential reforms in the history of China, made great contributions to his country, and won many intense and cruel political conflicts.
Zhang Juzheng was not a saint and was sometimes quite cruel and sly. However, starting from a nobody of an ordinary family to the most powerful and extraordinary prime minister of the Ming Empire, Zhang achieved everything on his own.
Moreover, after having obtained power and a great deal of money, he had never forgotten civilians’ well-being; as the most powerful member of the ruling class, he put the commoners’ interests before everything.
Zhang Juzheng was a complicated genius who realized his remarkable political ideas, a sly politician who brought civilians wealthy lives, and an imperfect prime minister who had a great conscience.
Jade Tablet Carved with Exquisite Landscape Patterns of the Ming Dynasty — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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