The Zhengde Emperor was the eleventh emperor of China's Ming Dynasty.
While previous emperors were obligated to a strict schedule of rituals and audiences every day, Zhengde was the first to manage to break free, absenting himself from the palace, and from the city, for extended periods, beginning in 1517, during which time government and administration carried on without him. The Confucian scholar-bureaucracy resisted this, insisting on the importance of the daily rituals and meetings, but Zhengde simply pushed them aside, in favor of eunuchs who were more amenable to his intentions. The palace eunuchs, led by eight known as the emperor's "tigers," thus dominated government while the Zhengde Emperor entertained himself with sports, sex, parties, drinking, and so forth. Much of this took place at the Leopard House, a mansion in the open areas of the Imperial City (outside the innermost parts of the Forbidden City) he had built and where he took up residence beginning around 1507 or 1508. In 1517, Zhengde traveled to the front to contribute strategy and leadership to efforts to defend the empire from Mongol incursions; he later claimed to have killed a Mongol himself during the fighting. Though blocked by the bureaucracy from being permitted to journey there, the emperor had the relevant official at the Great Wall replaced by a eunuch, thus eliminating the core of the bureaucratic opposition. He was gone from the palace for four months, during which time he received many petitions and memorials, but issued few rescripts (orders from the emperor, and/or responses to petitions). For his return to Beijing, he ordered the welcoming ceremony be prepared according to a whole new set of ritual protocols, then simply blew past the gathered officials on his horse. The entire Hanlin Academy, along with certain other factions at court, refused to offer congratulations, and indeed refused to acknowledge the campaign as successful.
Later that year, the Emperor ordered that the bureaucracy grant a commission to the General of the Army of Greater Valor (a title he had given himself) to perform an inspection of the northern frontier. This, again, was an effort to skirt, if not outright make a joke of, the restrictive system governing the emperor's own ceremonial and political role. In essence, he forced the bureaucracy to make a decision between obeying their emperor and obeying their sense of propriety, precedent, and standard practice. All four grand secretaries refused to sign the commission, and one reportedly prostrated himself in tears, and begged the emperor to have him executed rather than force him to commit such an impropriety. Zhengde left the capital and led the tour of the frontier anyway. He also granted himself a number of additional titles, dubbing himself Duke of Zhengguo, and Grand Preceptor, making himself the senior civil official at court, above all the grand-secretaries and other ministers; whether this was an attempt to claim actual decision-making power, or again an effort to make a folly of the system, is unclear. This second tour was uneventful, and the emperor returned to Beijing in the spring of 1519 after a nine-month absence. Some officials were so bold as to accuse the General of the Army of Greater Valor and/or the Duke of Zhengguo of impersonating the Emperor, or of making light of the gravity of the imperial position, offenses punishable by death. However, none of these legalistic or moralistic efforts based on precedent or Confucian rhetoric convinced the emperor to change his ways.
When the emperor made preparations for another military tour in 1519, this time to the south, the vast majority of the officialdom submitted two joint petitions, and a group of nearly 150 officials amassed in front of the Meridian Gate, kneeling and demanding a response from the throne to their petitions. Zhengde had the protesters whipped and beaten, but refused to accept the resignations of his grand-secretaries, fearing no one would be willing to replace them. He left for the south later that year, and returned late in the year in 1520; however, after falling into the water when his boat capsized during this tour, the emperor is said to have developed some health problems from which he never recovered.
Zhengde died some months after returning from the south, early in 1521, without a direct heir; he was succeeded by a nephew, who took the throne as the Jiajing Emperor. This marked the first time in the Ming Dynasty that an emperor was not directly succeeded by his son. Zhengde's chief advisor and close confidant, Chiang Pin, a leading army officer, was arrested on a myriad of charges, including accusations of having amassed a personal fortune of nearly impossible proportions, and was later tortured to death. By the time of the reign of the Wanli Emperor, some sixty years later, the bureaucracy made concerted efforts to ensure that no emperor could again depart so completely (or, much at all) from his ritual obligations and expected role, or to make such a mockery of the Confucian court bureaucracy system.
|Emperor of Ming
- Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 8.
- Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 248.
- Huang, 96-99.
- Huang, 102.