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, 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

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), Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty

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 were some gossips about her and Zhang having a romantic relationship, since 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 of the Ming Empire. 

Dragon Shaped Jade Belt Hook (Dai Gou) of the Ming Dynasty

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 had increased civilians' income, provided peasants more freedom, and promoted the development of the economy. 

Zhang Juzheng's Reform made the empire peaceful, prosperous, and affluent, and brought the last great reign of the Ming Dynasty.

Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of the Ming Dynasty

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

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 to the emperor, which included his knowledge, policy, ideology, and expectation. 

He took over a rotten, declined empire, reformed it to 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 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

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 already took 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

Lotus Shaped Purple Glaze Writing Brush Wash of the Ming Dynasty — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Reformer and Complicated Politician Zhang Juzheng

Zhang Juzheng was super brilliant, who 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, started 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 with wealthy lives, and an imperfect prime minister that had great consciences. 

Jade Tablet Carved with Exquisite Landscape Patterns of the Ming Dynasty

Jade Tablet Carved with Exquisite Landscape Patterns of the Ming Dynasty — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)