Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen — Captive of both Nomadic Enemy and His Own Brother

Very few dynasties could keep progressing and flourishing continuously in the history of China, this also applied to the Ming Dynasty.

Zhu Qizhen (1427 — 1464), respected as Zhengtong Emperor or Emperor Yingzong of Ming put the Ming Empire in a life-and-death crisis that almost perished this flourishing kingdom.  

He caused the Tumu Fortress Crisis, a huge military failure in fighting against the Oriats Mongols.

This was the first big military failure of the Ming Empire that perished its entire crack force, as well as almost the best generals at that time.  

His reckless behavior changed the path of the empire and the fates of tens of thousands of people. 

Court Portrait of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen — Taipei Palace Museum

Toddler Zhengtong Emperor with Brilliant Regents 

Zhu Qizhen, the first boy of exceptional Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji and his beloved Lady Sun, was nominated as the crown prince a few months after he was born. 

When he was 8 years old, he ascended to the throne, after his father passed away at a young age.

Fortunately, Zhu Qizhen’s intelligent grandmother the Empress Dowager Zhang, and some outstanding ministers that his father left to him assisted him very well, which made sure the empire was prosperous and stable.

During this period, his respectful grandmother and an insightful politician were in actual authority; under their governance, only loyal and righteous officials would be trusted with power.  

About 10 years later, these talented, experienced regents and his grandmother all passed away, Zhu Qizhen then was fully in charge of the empire, and started to make all decisions by himself. 

Exquisite Porcelain Bowl Produced under Reign of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen — Taipei Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Zhengtong Emperor's Absurd Trust to Eunuch Wang Zhen

However, the young Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen only trusted eunuchs who closely served him, instead of intelligent officials that were strictly selected through the Imperial Examination.

His favorite eunuch was named Wang Zhen, who knew how to read and write and had been serving Zhu Qizhen for a long time. Therefore, he always respected Wang Zhen as his teacher and fully believed in him.

When Zhu Qizhen’s grandmother the Empress Dowager Zhang was alive, she was always very strict with eunuchs, especially Wang Zhen; she had warned Wang several times to stay away from politics.

But after Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen was in charge on his own, Wang started to gain more and more power, through manipulating political decisions and collecting countless bribes; many honest officials were framed or demoted by Wang as well. 

Caisson of Eunuch Wang Zhen's Ancestral Shrine, Now the Zhimiao Temple in Beijing City — Philadelphia Museum of Art (Photo by Antigng)

Northern Expedition War with Absurd Commands 

A few years later, a separated regime of the former Mongol Empire, the Oriats Mongols, had a new and ambitious lord named Yexian, who unified many of other small clans and built a big troop; soon, he started to invade the Ming Empire, under the reason of insufficient awards from Ming.

Wang Zhen was very happy hearing the invasion; he persuaded the Zhengtong Emperor to lead the army to fight back, and to nominate him as the general. 

When other insightful, talented officials and marshals all strongly disagreed with this reckless decision, Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen, however, listened to his teacher Wang, and led around 250,000 of the Ming Empire’s first-class warriors marched northward.

As a crown prince who has been living in the fancy royal palace in Beijing since he was born, Zhu Qizhen wanted to be a monarch with outstanding military achievements, like his ancestors Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, Zhu Di, and his father Zhu Zhanji.  

This army, which was also the main crack force of the Ming Empire, had the best generals at that time and many smart officials in service. However, Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen never listened to their suggestions. 

Instead, he only believed in Wang Zhen, a literate eunuch that was only good at serving the emperor and conspiracies but had no military experiences nor adequate knowledge of the Imperial Examination.

In the end, tens of thousands of first-class soldiers, led by Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen and eunuch Wang Zhen’s ridiculous orders, kept marching without any explicate plans nor a proper direction.

 

This caused severe supply problems that made those soldiers had to keep marching with insufficient food and water. 

When they were extremely hungry and exhausted, they encountered the well prepared nomadic cavalry army’s large-scale slaughter. 

Catastrophic Loss of the Ming Empire

This was the Tumu Fortress Crisis in the year 1449, the first but biggest military failure since the Ming Dynasty was established 81 years ago.

Many intelligent civil ministers were slaughtered in that battle, many excellent warriors and generals sacrificed their lives protecting Zhu Qizhen. 

Zhang Fu (1375 — 1449), the best marshal at that time, who had won many large scale wars that expanded Ming’s territory and had been invincible, here in the Tumu Fortress, sacrificed for the young emperor that had never listened to his correct advice.

About 60,000 to 70,000 good soldiers were massacred there, most of whom even didn’t have a chance to fight back. The rest of them were injured or captured along with Zhu Qizhen.

Ming Empire’s powerful main force, the troop that his great grandfather Emperor Zhu Di established and had been invincible for decades, along with countless resources that provided support to this army, were all perished in this battle.  

This was a turning point of the Ming Dynasty in the history of China when Ming Empire changed into defense mode in the northern borders. 

These tragedies happened all because of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen and Eunuch Wang Zhen’s stupid, horrible commands. 

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

Captured Emperor and Failed Blackmails

The eunuch Wang Zhen was killed by a general of Ming in chaos, Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen himself was captured by the Oriats Mongols.

The government of the Ming Empire didn’t want to be threatened by the nomadic regime, so Zhu Qizhen’s only brother was supported to be the new emperor.

In the meanwhile, Ming Empire refused to pay ransom money, nor negotiate, nor move the capital to a safer city in the south like the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127) did before; they chose to fight.

Therefore, when the nomad lord Yexian took the former Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen to some cities in the border and asked Ming’s generals to pay money or to open gates of the city walls, none of these Ming’s generals complied. 

Firearm (Huo Chong) Produced in 1450 to Protect Ming — National Museum of China

Battle of Life and Death of the Ming Empire

Yexian, the lord of Oriats Mongols became quite angry, so he led his best cavalry troop marched toward the capital city Beijing.

Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen already took away and buried Ming Empire’s best marshals and soldiers in the shameful Tumu Fortress Crisis, and himself could be used as a human shield, plus a captured eunuch of Ming surrendered and informed much important info. 

Despite many of the Ming’s brave generals and warriors fought intensively again them and sacrificed their lives in battlefields, Yexian’s troops arrived in Beijing easily. 

Ming’s entire royal family and government were surrounded inside of the Beijing city, by the aggressive nomadic troop.

It was only four months after the catastrophic loss in the Tumu Fortress Crisis.

Hence, Ming was in a very severe situation, a life-and-death moment. If they failed, the dynasty would be ended, and the whole of the nation would fall into separation and chaos again. 

Fortunately, a remarkable official named Yu Qian led the remaining third-class soldiers of the Ming Empire successfully protected the capital city and defeated the nomads for several times.

Under hero Yu Qian’s extraordinary commands, Ming Dynasty survived this life and death crisis. Meanwhile, a new strong army was established, and many of the Ming’s lost cities and military sites were recovered. 

Lord Yexian couldn’t win over the Ming Empire nor get more money, so he went back north to his realm. 

Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen’s Captive Life in the North

Unlike emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan of the Song Dynasty that were also captured and humiliated by the nomadic army, Zhu Qizhen tried his best to stay calm and maintained his decency.

He didn't surrender to the nomadic lords nor beg for his life; instead, he was always cool and composed. He didn’t have his ancestors’ exceptional military skills, but he inherited the dignity.

Surprisingly, Emperor Zhu Qizhen didn’t get many humiliations; soon, his nomadic guards even would love to serve him and sincerely respected him.

Lord Yexian even tried to marry his younger sister to Zhu Qizhen, but he refused.

Besides, Zhu Qizhen became a close friend with Lord Yexian’s brother, the second most powerful person in that regime. He frequently visited and talked with Zhu Qizhen, and then protected and respected him as both a dear friend and a monarch.  

Zhu Qizhen’s Returning and Imprisoned Life 

One year after being captured in the Tumu Fortress Crisis, Zhu Qizhen was sent back to Beijing by his nomadic friends.

One reason was that the Lord Yexian couldn’t conquer nor get anything from the Ming Empire, and it was pointless to keep a former emperor.

Additionally, Zhu Qizhen's new friend, the dear brother of Lord Yexian, had tried his best to make Zhu Qizhen’s returning trip happen; he even planned to lead his army to help Zhu Qizhen get the throne back. 

Anyway, Ming Empire’s strong attitude and excellent achievement on the battlefield, plus Zhu Qizhen’s nice personality and good friends, allowed him to go back to his kingdom.

However, the current emperor of Ming, the Jingtai Emperor Zhu Qiyu, the former caring, loving younger brother of Zhu Qizhen, now didn’t want to give back the throne, after having enjoyed the taste of real power.

So, Zhu Qizhen was imprisoned in another palace, along with his wives and kids.

During his captive life, they were strictly monitored and poorly provided; Zhu Qizhen’s wife, the former honorable queen, needed to sell her embroidery works in exchange for money.

Cloisonne (Jingtai Lan) Bowl, Produced in the Reign of and Named after the Jingtai Emperor Zhu Qiyu — National Museum of China

Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen's Second Chance

Seven years later, Jingtai Emperor Zhu Qiyu, who had no alive sons, was very sick. Some opportunists then started a coup and welcomed Zhu Qizhen back to the royal palace and take the throne back.

Afterward, Zhu Qizhen in return imprisoned his brother till death. 

Not everyone could get a second chance, but Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen gained it.

After that big military failure and eight years of captivity, this time, Zhu Qizhen started to try to be a good emperor.

He nominated some talented ministers and diligently worked with them. Moreover, he abolished the system in which all imperial concubines without children should be buried alive together with their emperors who had passed away.  

However, he executed Yu Qian, the hero that had saved the Ming Empire from the life-and-death crisis that he caused, under the name of “treason”. Many other officials that supported his brother Jingtai Emperor were imprisoned or executed too.

Memorial Temple of Yu Qian Next to the West Lake of Hangzhou

For the first time being the monarch, Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen was frequently criticized for his big military failure and huge destructions that put the empire in great danger. Also, he was responsible for tens of thousands of people’s death.

Plus his execution of the loyal and exceptional savior Yu Qian, he was widely criticized throughout the history of China.

For the second time that him wearing the crown, however, Zhengtong Emperor was an ordinary monarch who tried to make up for the huge loss that he caused before.

Probably he didn't quite fail his second chance much. 

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