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 quite 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 other than a monarch.

 

He had traveled a lot, served his own country as a general, commanded people built a fancy shopping center in his palace for him to do business, mastered at Sanskrit and Portuguese because of curiosity, and was an excellent wild animal trainer.

Meanwhile, he was an excellent emperor that reigned his empire well, who always could make correct decisions concerning important issues.  

However, most officials were dissatisfied with his unusual and ridiculous behaviors, which brought the Zhengde Emperor plenty of critics. 

Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao Wearing Imperial Robe (Gun Fu), By Dong Jin (Xie Fang Zhu Ren).

Perfect Childhood of Crown Prince Zhu Houzhao

Zhu Houzhao was the only child of the great Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, the only monarch in the ancient history of China that strictly followed monogamy.

Zhu Houzhao, the crown prince of the Ming Empire, obtained his affectionate parents’ full love and attention, as well as the best education. 

As a boy who had both the royal honor and authority and the 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, left him a big empire and some smart 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 teenager monarch, Zhengde Emperor spent lots of time playing different types of 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 him to 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 kept being absent in many government meetings.

Sometime later, his officials had given up persuading him to show up at important meetings and got used to his long term absence. 

However, Zhengde Emperor did select many talented and responsible officials to do daily administration works for him.

And when important things happened, as the monarch, Zhengde Emperor always could 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 further expanded this place, 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 that was designed and built as his will.  

Zhengde Emperor also enjoyed going out to the civilians’ world. According to some gossips, he used to date and take different women home, and had visited brothels for 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 be safely eating, shopping, lingering, doing business, and acting like a carefree civilian. 

What’s more, he adopted over a hundred foster sons and awarded them to have the royal family name, Zhu. Eunuchs, soldiers, officials, as long as they impressed the emperor, they 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 Mongolia clans and then started to invade Ming’s borders, which caused big destruction to the Ming Empire.

Zhengde Emperor was quite excited to hear about 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 just thinking about the possibility was already scary enough.

Seeing that he was impossible to get support from those civil officials, Zhengde Emperor took a few imperial guards and escaped out of his capital city at night, secretly. 

But, a general named Zhang Qin that garrisoning an important military pass in the north refused to let Zhengde Emperor go. Zhang Qin persuaded him to not take any risks, and to go back to the capital city.  

Zhengde Emperor then left and hide in a village nearby. When he was informed that general Zhang Qin left the pass and was touring in another city, he immediately came through this pass and finally reached the northern borders.

Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao Touring in Northern Borders, By Dong Jin (Xie Fang Zhu Ren).

Military Life of Zhengde Emperor in Northern Borders

After Zhengde Emperor arrived at the borders, he decided to give himself a new title that suits the military environment there. 

He renamed himself as 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 a small city up in the north, the aggressive Lord of Tatar Mongols led 50,000 cavalry warriors 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 go back 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 the chance 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 in Battlefield 

Everyone in Ming's government and the army was worried because everything sounds quite ridiculous and spontaneous. They knew that besides training some wild animals, their young emperor had zero military experience. 

However, it turned out that the Zhengde Emperor's military talent was quite exceptional; all of his commands in the battlefields were proved correct. 

He ate and slept with other common soldiers, which greatly inspired everyone in his army.

When his army was actively attacking their nomadic enemies, he also joined in 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 big success, he left this city and toured other northern cities for months. He refused to go back to his royal palace until his beloved grandmother passed away. 

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, now 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, include severe monitoring. Hence, the Zhengde Emperor had to stop his plan.

A few years later, a king led about 100,000 soldiers rebelled, which made Zhengde Emperor very excited. 

He decided to lead the Ming’s army to conquer that king on his own because this rebel happened in southern China, where he always wanted to go.

However, soon after he left the capital city, an extremely talented minister named Wang Shouren already defeated the whole of the rebel army, alone.

Zhengde Emperor was unhappy and continued to march southward until Wang Shouren said that the battle was won because of the Grand Marshal Zhu Shou’s exceptional commands.

But Zhengde Emperor still set this rebel king free, and then commanded his imperial guards to capture him again.

Stele to Memorize this War and Compliment Zhengde Emperor's Success, Written by Wang Shouren — Mount Lu, Jiangxi Province (Photo by Zhang Zhugang)

Unwelcomed Zhengde Emperor and His Wondrous Trips

After having defeated the rebel king, Zhengde Emperor visited many places in southern China, though most of his governors were unhappy with him showing up, and kept persuading him to go back.

He also left the world many stories and gossips during these tours, most of them were hard to prove if they had happened or not.  

Once, he took some of his followers left the big guardian army again, only to meet and pick up a woman that he liked, which was then caused more criticisms.

Zhengde Emperor liked fishing during this trip, when he could sell his fishes to his eunuchs and guards, and charge for big money. But when some unpleasant officials refused to buy his fishes, 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 when he was fishing; he then got sick and passed away soon, when he was only 30 years old.

Zhengde Emperor was a strong person who was excellent at martial art and military training; therefore, the lethal sickness after just a falling 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 quite controversial in the history of China.

Some thought he was ridiculous and unbelievable, because of his extremely deviant behaviors.

Others believed that 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 being quite disrespectful and critical, Zhengde Emperor barely got angry, and always stayed reasonable, kind, and cool. 

Based on his extraordinary and colorful life experiences, probably Zhengde Emperor had never cared what people would say or write about him at all. 

Exquisite Malachite Green Glaze Bowl Produced Under the Reign of Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao — Palace Museum

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