The Yongle Emperor (May 2, 1360–August 12, 1424), born Zhu Di, was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China from 1402 to 1424. His era name means "Perpetually Jubilant". His usurpation of the throne is now sometimes called the "Second Founding" of the Ming. He is generally considered one of the greatest emperors of the Ming Dynasty, and to be among the greatest Chinese emperors.
He was the Prince of Yan (燕王), possessing a heavy military base in Beijing. He became known as Chengzu of Ming Dynasty (明成祖 also written Cheng Zu, or Ch'eng Tsu (Cheng Tsu) in Wade-Giles) after becoming emperor following a civil war.
He commissioned most of the exploratory sea voyages of Zheng He. During his reign the monumental Yongle Encyclopedia was completed.
He moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. According to a popular legend, the capital was moved when the emperor's advisors brought the emperor to the hills surrounding Nanjing and pointed out the emperor's palace showing the vulnerablity of the palace to artillery attack.
The Yongle Emperor is buried in the Changling (長陵) tomb, the central and largest mausoleum of the Ming Dynasty Tombs.
Emperor Yongle was born Zhu Di on May 2nd, 1360 (mother unknown) to a monk and future emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu Di grew up as a prince during the Ming Dynasty in a loving, caring environment. His father, Emperor Hongwu supplied nothing but the best education for his sons and eventually entitled them their own princedoms. Zhu Di was entitled as the Prince of Yan, the area around Beiping (present day Beijing).
When Zhu Di moved to Beiping, the city had been devastated by famine and disease and was under threat of invasion from Mongolians from the north. Zhu Di, with help from his father-in-law, General Xu Da, secured the northern borders and became an excellent field marshal in the process. As he ruthlessly battled Mongols in Northern China, Zhu Di's supposed mother, Empress Ma, passed away, only to be followed by General Xu Da three years later.
Zhu Di had been very successful against the Mongols and impressed his father with his energy, risk taking ability, and leadership. Even Zhu Di's troops praised his effectiveness - especially when Emperor Hongwu rewarded them for their service. But Zhu Di was not the oldest brother, forcing his father to name the Prince of Jin the crown prince. When the Prince of Jin died of illness in 1392, worries of imperial succession ensued. Zhu Di was hopeful his father would choose him to be heir apparent, but to the surprise of few Hongwu complied with imperial law and named his grandson, Zhu Yunwen, crown prince. Zhu Di did not trust his nephew and would eventually become his biggest obstacle in becoming emperor.
Journey to Power
Hongwu died on June 24th, 1398, and Zhu Yunwen was crowned Emperor Jianwen. Almost immediately Zhu Di and Jianwen began their deadly feud. When Zhu Di traveled with his guard unit to pay tribute to his father, Jianwen took his actions as a threat and sent forces to turn him around. Zhu Di was forced to leave in humiliation. Jianwen persisted in refusing to let Zhu Di see his father's tomb and Zhu Di challenged the emperor's judgment. Zhu Di quickly became the biggest threat to the imperial court. Jianwen's policy tried to avoid direct contact as much as possible. To achieve this, he abolished the lesser princedoms to undermine Zhu Di's power and create room in which to plant his own loyal generals. Zhu Di was soon surrounded by Jianwen's generals, and cautiously reacted to the political gridlock in which he found himself. His rebellion slowly began to take shape.
Zhu Di's leading rebellion slogan was self defense and was enough to earn him strong support from the populace and many supporting generals. He was a great military commander and studied Sun Zi's Art of War extensively. He used surprise, deception, and caution and even questionable tactics such as enlisting several Mongolian regiments to aid him in fighting Jianwen. He defeated the loyalist General Li Jinglong several times, deceiving him and overwhelming him in many decisive battles. On January 15, 1402 Zhu Di made the bold decision to march his army straight to Nanjing, encountering stiff resistance. But his decision proved successful, forcing an imperial retreat to defend the defenseless residence of Jianwen. When Zhu Di reached the capital city, the frustrated and disgraced General Li Jinglong opened the doors and permitted Zhu Di's army to freely enter. In the wide spread panic caused by the sudden entry, the emperor's palace caught fire and Jianwen and his wife disappeared, most likely falling victim to the fire.
Zhu Di had ended Jianwen's reign. Zhu Di and his administration spent the latter part of 1402 brutally and barbarically purging China of Jianwen's supporters. Such an action was believed to be required to pacify China and maintain his rule. Regardless, on July 17, 1402, after a brief visit to his father's tomb, Zhu Di was crowned Emperor Yongle at the age of 42. He would spend most of his early years suppressing rumors, stopping bandits, and healing the wounds of the land scarred by rebellion.
Yongle followed traditional rituals closely and remained superstitious. He did not overindulge in the luxuries of palace life, but still used Buddhism and Buddhist festivals to overcome some of the backwardness of the Chinese frontier and to help calm civil unrest. He stopped the warring between the various Chinese tribes and reorganized the provinces to best provide peace within China.
Due to the stress and overwhelming amount of thinking involved in running a post-rebellion empire, Yongle searched for scholars to join his staff. He had many of the best scholars chosen as candidates and took great care in choosing them, even creating terms by which he hired people.
When it was time for him to choose an heir, Yongle very much wanted to choose his second son, Gaoxu. Gaoxu was an athletic warrior type that contrasted sharply with his older brother's intellectual and humanitarian nature. Despite much council from his advisors, Yongle chose his older son, Gaozhi (the future Hongxi Emperor), as his heir apparent mainly due to advising from Xie Jin. As a result, Gaoxu became infuriated and refused to give up jockeying for his father's favor and refusing to move to Yunnan province (of which he was prince). He even went so far as to undermine Xie Jin's council and eventually killed him.
After Yongle's overthrow of Jianwen, China's countryside was devastated. The fragile new economy had to deal with low production and depopulation. Yongle laid out a long and extensive plan to strengthen and stabilize the new economy, but first he had silence rumors of dissention. He created an elaborate system of censors to remove corrupt officials from office that spread such rumors. Yongle dispatched some of his most trusted officers to reveal or destroy secret societies, Jianwen loyalists, and even bandits. To strengthen the economy, he was forced to fight population decline by reclaiming land, utilizing the most he could from the Chinese people, and maximizing textile and agricultural production. He also worked to reclaim production rich regions such as the Lower Yangzi Delta and called for a massive rebuilding of the Grand Canal of China. The Grand Canals were almost completely rebuilt and were eventually moving goods from all over the world. A capitalist society was beginning to emerging in China.
Yongle ambitiously planned to move China's capital to Beijing. He planned to build a massive network of structures in which government offices, officials, and the impartial family itself resided. After a painfully long construction time, the Forbidden City was finally completed and became the political capital of China for the next 500 years.
Yongle sponsored and created many cultural traditions in China. He promoted Confucianism and kept traditional ritual ceremonies with a rich cultural theme. His respect for Chinese culture was apparent. He commissioned his grand secretary, Xie Jin, to write a compilation of every subject and every known book of the Chinese. The massive project's goal was to preserve Chinese culture and literature in writing. The initial copy took 17 months to transcribe and another copy was transcribed in 1557. The book, named the Yongle Encyclopedia, is still considered one of the most marvelous human achievements in history, despite it being lost by time.
Yongle's tolerance of Chinese ideas that did not agree with his own philosophies was well-known. He treated Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism equally (though he favored Confucianism). Strict Confucianists considered him hypocritical, but his even handed approach helped him win the support of the people and unify China. His love for Chinese culture sparked a sincere hatred for Mongolian culture. He considered it rotten and forbade the use of popular Mongolian names, habits, language, and clothing. Great lengths were taken by Yongle to eradicate Mongolian culture from China.
Mongolian invaders were still causing many problems for the Ming Dynasty. Traditionally, the Ming rarely went on the offensive against the Mongols. But Yongle prepared to change this less-than-prideful tradition. He repaired the northern defenses and forged buffer alliances to keep Mongolians at bay in order to build an army. His strategy was to force the Mongols into economic dependence on the Chinese, get national support against them, and to launch periodic initiatives into Mongolia to cripple their offensive power. He desired to contain and isolate the Mongols. Through fighting, Yongle learned of the importance of horsemen in battle and eventually began spending much of his resources to keep horses in good supply. Yongle spent his entire life fighting the Mongolians. Failures and successes came and went, but it should be pointed out that after Yongle's second personal campaign against the Mongolians, the Northern Ming Dynasty was at peace for over 7 years.
Annam (modern day Vietnam) was also a point of interest during Yongle's reign. A minor border dispute quickly escalated into a full scale war perhaps provoked by Yongle's desire for expansion. It took much diplomatic and military struggle before Yongle was able to sinicize the resistant Annamese. After capturing the region, Yongle began massive reforms on the Annamese way of life. He built schools, medical clinics, and registrars and hired Annamese scholars to attend universities or work for his administration. His reforms did not come without a price, though, as he spent much of his time undermining and attempting to abolish Annamese culture.
On April 1, 1424, Yongle launched a large campaign into the Gobi Desert to chase a nuisance army of fleeting Tartars. Yongle became frustrated at his inability to catch up with his swift opponents and fell into a deep depression and then into illness. On August 8, 1424, the Yongle Emperor died.
Yongle was in a life-long pursuit of power, prestige, and glory. He respected and worked hard to preserve Chinese culture while undermining and cleansing Chinese society of foreign cultures. He deeply admired and wished to save his father's accomplishments and spent a lot of time proving his claim to the throne. His military accomplishments and leadership are scantly rivaled by any other person in world history. His reign was a mixed blessing for the Chinese populace. Yongle's economic, educational, and military reforms provided unrivaled benefits for the people, but his despotic style of government gave them no room to breathe. Despite these negatives, he is considered the main architect and keeper of Chinese culture, history, and statecraft and one of the most influential rulers in Chinese history.
Sources and further reading
- "Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle." Tsai, Shih-Shan Henry. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295981245.