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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, and 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 buried this flourishing kingdom.  

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

This was the first significant military failure of the Ming Empire, in which its entire crack force had perished, 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

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 his birth. 

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

Fortunately, Zhu Qizhen’s intelligent grandmother Empress Dowager Zhang, and some outstanding ministers that his father left to him assisted him very well, ensuring 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 ten years later, these talented, experienced regents, and his grandmother passed away.


Zhu Qizhen was now entirely in charge of the empire and began making all decisions himself.

Exquisite Porcelain Bowl Produced under Reign of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen

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

Zhengtong Emperor's Absurd Trust in Eunuch Wang Zhen

However, the young Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen only trusted eunuchs who closely served him instead of intelligent officials who 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, the young emperor always respected Wang Zhen as his teacher and fully believed in him.

When Zhu Qizhen's grandmother 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 by 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 as the Zhimiao Temple in Beijing City

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 Foolish 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 other small clans and built big troops.


Shortly after, he began invading the Ming Empire, citing insufficient rewards from the Ming as justification.

Wang Zhen was delighted to hear about the invasion. He persuaded the Zhengtong Emperor to lead the army in retaliation and to appoint him as the general.

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

As a crown prince 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 Zhu Yuanzhang, Zhu Di, and his father, Zhu Zhanji.  

Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Hunting Activity (Ming Xuanzong Xing Le Tu), Painted By Shang Xi the Commander of Court Secret Agency (Jin Yi Wei)

Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Hunting Activity (Ming Xuanzong Xing Le Tu), Painted By Shang Xi the Commander of Court Secret Agency (Jin Yi Wei) — Palace Museum

This army, which was also the main crack force of the Ming Empire, had the best generals at that time and many competent officials in service.


However, Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen never listened to their suggestions. 

Instead, he only believed in Wang Zhen, a literate eunuch who 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 or a proper direction.


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

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

The Battle Defending Beijing City in Ming Dynasty

Massive Loss of the Ming Empire in the Tumu Fortress Crisis

This was the Tumu Fortress Crisis in 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, and many excellent warriors and generals sacrificed their lives protecting their monarch 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 absurd young emperor who had never listened to his correct advice.

Tumu Fortress Crisis of the Ming Dynasty

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 troops that his great grandfather Emperor Zhu Di established and had been invincible for decades, along with countless resources supporting this army, all perished in this battle.

This was a turning point in the Ming Dynasty when the Ming Empire shifted into defense mode on the northern borders.

These tragedies happened because of Zhengtong Emperor and Eunuch Wang Zhen’s stupid, unreasonable commands. 

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

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 Blackmail Attempts

Eunuch Wang Zhen was killed by a general of the Ming in chaos, and Zhu Qizhen himself was captured by the Oriat 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.

Meanwhile, the Ming Empire refused to pay ransom money, negotiate, or move the capital to a safer city in the south like the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127) did before.


They chose to fight back.

Therefore, when the nomad lord Yexian took the former Zhengtong Emperor to some cities on the border and asked Ming generals to pay money or to open the gates of the Great Walls, none of these Ming generals complied. 

Beacon Towers on Ming Great Wall in Jinshanling Section

Ming Dynasty Great Wall in Jinshanling Section in Hebei Province, Photo by Gucheng.

Defense of Beijing: The Battle for the Survival of the Ming Empire

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

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

Therefore, despite many of the Ming's brave generals and warriors having fought intensively against them and sacrificed their lives on battlefields, Yixian's troops arrived in Beijing quickly.

The entire royal family and government of the Ming were surrounded inside Beijing city aggressive nomadic troops.

Forbidden City the Imperial Palace of the Ming Dynasty

Forbidden City the Imperial Palace of the Ming Dynasty, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

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 end, and the nation would descend into fragmentation and chaos.

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 several times.

Under hero Yu Qian’s extraordinary commands, the 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 or get more money, so he returned north to his realm. 

Firearm (Huo Chong) Produced in 1450 to Protect Ming

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

The Captive Life of Zhengtong Emperor in the North

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

He didn't surrender to the nomadic lords nor beg for his life; instead, he was always calm 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. On the contrary, his nomadic guards would love to serve and sincerely respect him.

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

Besides, Zhu Qizhen became a close friend of Lord Yexian's brother, the second most powerful person in that regime.


He frequently visited and conversed with Zhu Qizhen, protecting and respecting him as both a dear friend and a monarch.

Lord Yexian and the Oriats Mongols

Zhu Qizhen's Return and Life in Imprisonment

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 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, tried his best to make Zhu Qizhen's return trip happen. 


He even planned to lead his army to help Zhu Qizhen regain the throne. 

Anyway, the Ming Empire's firm attitude and excellent victory on the battlefield, plus Zhu Qizhen's nice personality and good friends, allowed him to return to his kingdom.

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

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

However, the current emperor of Ming, 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 absolute power.

So, Zhu Qizhen and his wives and kids were imprisoned in another palace.

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.

Court Portrait of Empress Qian, the Beloved Queen of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen

Court Portrait of Empress Qian, the Beloved Queen of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen — Taipei Palace Museum

Zhengtong Emperor's Second Chance

Seven years later, Jingtai Emperor Zhu Qiyu, who had no living sons, fell seriously ill.


Some opportunists then initiated a coup and welcomed Zhu Qizhen back to the royal palace to take the throne back.

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

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

Plum Shaped Agate Cup of the Ming Dynasty

Plum Shaped Agate Cup of Ming — Wuhan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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

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, under the pretext of 'treason,' he executed Yu Qian, the hero who had saved the Ming Empire from the life-and-death crisis he himself had caused.


Many other officials who supported his brother, the Jingtai Emperor, were imprisoned or executed.

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

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 massive destructions that put the empire in great danger.


Also, he was responsible for tens of thousands of people's deaths.

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

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

Probably he didn't entirely fail his second chance. 

Gold Jug of the Ming Dynasty with Gem and Dragon Patterns Decorations

Gold Jug of the Ming Dynasty with Gem and Dragon Patterns Decorations — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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