Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao — A Controversial Monarch with Deviant Behaviors and Exceptional Achievements
Zhu Houzhao (1491 — 1521), respected as Zhengde Emperor or Emperor Wuzong of Ming, was the most controversial monarch of the Ming Dynasty.
He was somewhat deviant and curious and had spent most of his life trying to escape from the fabulous royal palace.
Zhengde Emperor tried his best to experience different lives besides being a monarch.
He had traveled a lot, served his own country as a general, commanded people to build a fancy shopping center in his palace for him to do business, mastered Sanskrit and Portuguese because of curiosity, and was an excellent wild animal trainer.
Meanwhile, he was an excellent emperor who reigned his empire well and always could make correct decisions concerning important issues.
However, most officials were dissatisfied with his unusual and ridiculous behaviors, which gave the Zhengde Emperor plenty of criticism.
Portrait of Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum
Perfect Childhood of Crown Prince Zhu Houzhao
Zhu Houzhao was the only child of the great Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, the only monarch in ancient China that strictly followed monogamy.
Zhu Houzhao, the crown prince of the Ming Empire, obtained his affectionate parents' full love and attention and the best education.
As a boy with both royal honor and authority and a civilian's genuine and happy family, Zhu Houzhao was one of the happiest crown princes in the history of China.
He was an intelligent and mischievous kid with an elegant and unconventional soul.
However, when he was 14, his beloved father passed away, leaving him an enormous empire and some intelligent prime ministers to support him.
Procelain Plate with Dragon Patterns Produced Under Reign of Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
The Frequently Absent Zhengde Emperor
As a teenage monarch, Zhengde Emperor spent lots of time playing different games, supported by eunuchs around him.
He listened to his eunuchs' suggestions and dismissed some intelligent ministers that his father left to him only because they frequently suggested he stop having fun and pay more attention to politics.
Thanks to his father's hard-working and efficient political system, the government ran well, even though Zhengde Emperor was absent from many government meetings.
Sometime later, his officials gave up persuading him to show up at important meetings and got used to his long-term absence.
However, Zhengde Emperor selected many talented and responsible officials to do daily administration work for him.
And when important things happened, as the monarch, Zhengde Emperor could always respond instantly and make the right decision.
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
Zhengde Emperor's Carefree Life Outside of Royal Palace
Zhengde Emperor one day found that his imperial zoo was quite interesting, and he enjoyed taming and training wild animals there, such as leopards, tigers, and elephants.
Soon, he commanded people to expand this place further and put more valuable animals, beautiful women, and musicians inside.
Afterward, he moved out of the magnificent Forbidden City and started to work, live, and have fun in the mansion designed and built to his will.
Zhengde Emperor also enjoyed going out to the civilian world. According to some gossip, he used to date, took different women home, and visited brothels several times.
He also planned to travel to the south but was rejected by his prime ministers.
Therefore, he built a business street inside his palace and asked servants and maids to act as retailers, where he could safely eat, shop, linger, do business, and act like a carefree civilian.
Moreover, he adopted over a hundred foster sons and awarded them the royal family name Zhu. Eunuchs, soldiers, and officials, as long as they impressed the emperor, could be adoptive sons of Zhu Houzhao.
Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao Training Wild Animals, By Dong Jin (Xie Fang Zhu Ren).
Escaping from the Capital City Secretly
Some years later, the Lord of Tatar Mongols, a very excellent militarist, became powerful; he unified many Mongolian clans and then started to invade Ming's borders, which caused significant destruction to the Ming Empire.
Zhengde Emperor was quite excited to hear this news. He planned to lead the army himself and fight against the nomadic lord. But every one in his government strongly disagreed because of what had happened to Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen before.
They didn't want to risk having another emperor captured by nomadic regimes; even thinking about the possibility was already scary enough.
Seeing that he couldn't get support from those civil officials, Zhengde Emperor took a few imperial guards and secretly escaped from his capital city at night.
But, a general named Zhang Qin, who garrisoned an important military pass in the north, refused to let Zhengde Emperor go. Zhang Qin persuaded him not to take risks and to return to the capital city.
Zhengde Emperor then left and hid in a village nearby. When he was informed that general Zhang Qin had left the pass and was touring another city, he immediately came through this pass and finally reached the northern borders.
Military Life of Zhengde Emperor in Northern Borders
After Zhengde Emperor arrived at the borders, he provided himself with a new title that suited the military environment there.
He renamed himself Grand Marshal Zhu Shou and set a complete salary and welfare for this new title.
This was the first and only emperor in the history of China that loved demoting himself.
Once, when Zhengde Emperor secretly arrived in a small city up in the north, the aggressive Lord of Tatar Mongols led 50,000 cavalry warriors and marched outside of that city as well, trying to attack Ming Empire again.
At that time, this small city only had thousands of soldiers who could defend the city from the strong and outnumbered nomad army only for a short while.
But Zhengde Emperor refused to return to his capital to be safe; instead, he set his command post near the border.
Afterward, he transferred and reorganized some nearby armies, rejected suggestions of other experienced generals, and arranged Ming’s troops on his own.
He finally got to command a big army and fight a real war.
Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573－1620 － National Museum of China
Zhengde Emperor's Great Victory on the Battlefield
Everyone in Ming's government and the army worried because everything sounded ridiculous and spontaneous. They knew their young emperor had zero military experience besides training some wild animals.
However, it turned out that the Zhengde Emperor's military talent was exceptional; all his battlefield commands were proved correct.
He ate and slept with other ordinary soldiers, which greatly inspired everyone in his army.
When his army was actively attacking their nomadic enemies, he joined the battlefield and even killed a cavalryman on his own.
Consequently, the Zhengde Emperor successfully defeated this lord, using fewer numbers of soldiers, and brought peace to the borders.
After this war, the nomadic regime didn't dare to attack the Ming Empire again for decades.
However, because Zhengde Emperor secretly ran to this city and didn't take any civil officials with him, this large-scale war wasn't documented in detail in history.
After this enormous success, he left this city and toured other northern cities for months. He refused to return to his royal palace until his beloved grandmother died.
Pagoda of Fogong Temple (Ying Xian Mu Ta) Near the Border that Zhengde Emperor Visited After this Military Success, the Most Ancient (Built in 1056) and Tallest Wooden Tower (67.31 meters) in the World.
"Magnificent View" Board that Inscribed by Zhengde Emperor, Which is Hanging On the Pagoda of Fogong Temple (Ying Xian Mu Ta).
The Finally Succeed Journey to the South
After Zhengde Emperor finished his tours in northern China, he still wanted to visit some places in the south.
But this time, his officials all strongly disagreed and tried their best to stop him from being a tourist all the time, including severe monitoring. Hence, the Zhengde Emperor had to stop his plan.
A few years later, a king with about 100,000 soldiers rebelled, which excited Zhengde Emperor.
He decided to lead the Ming army to conquer that king because this rebellion happened in southern China, where he had always wanted to go.
However, soon after he left the capital city, an extremely talented minister named Wang Shouren defeated the whole rebel army alone.
Zhengde Emperor was unhappy and continued to march southward until Wang Shouren said the battle was won because of Grand Marshal Zhu Shou’s exceptional commands.
But Zhengde Emperor freed this rebel king and commanded his imperial guards to capture him again.
Unwelcomed Zhengde Emperor and His Wondrous Trips
After defeating the rebel king, Zhengde Emperor visited many places in southern China. However, most of his governors were unhappy with him showing up and kept persuading him to return.
He also left the world with many stories and gossip during these tours, though most of which were hard to prove had happened.
Once, he took some of his followers and left the big guardian army again, only to meet and pick up a woman he liked, which caused more criticism.
Zhengde Emperor liked fishing during this trip, and he could sell his fish to his eunuchs and guards and charge big money. But when some unpleasant officials refused to buy his fish, he would give them out for free.
He also tried to ask for local specialties from governors; however, he never got angry when most of them refused to tribute.
Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao Fishing, By Dong Jin (Xie Fang Zhu Ren).
Zhengde Emperor's Questionable, Sudden Death
On his way back, Zhengde Emperor accidentally fell into a lake while fishing; he then got sick and passed away when he was only 30.
Zhengde Emperor was a strong person who was excellent at martial art and military training; therefore, the lethal sickness after just a fall aroused much suspiciousness.
But no one could exactly tell what caused his death.
He had no sons, so his cousin Zhu Houcong was then supported to be the next emperor of the Ming Empire.
Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao was documented as quite controversial in the history of China.
Some thought he was ridiculous and unbelievable because of his highly deviant behaviors.
Others believed he was just playful, curious, and a huge fan of absolute freedom. He was still a good monarch who selected many intelligent officials and applied devolution, but in the meanwhile, he always had everything under control.
He reformed tax and international trade policies, brought his people wealthy lives, achieved excellent military successes, and well-defended his empire.
Moreover, when many imperial censors were disrespectful and critical, Zhengde Emperor was barely angry and always stayed reasonable, kind, and calm.
Based on his extraordinary and colorful life experiences, probably Zhengde Emperor had never cared what people would say or write about him.
Exquisite Malachite Green Glaze Bowl Produced Under the Reign of Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao — Palace Museum
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