The Life of the Chinese Emperor Zhengde (1505-21)
Emperor Zhengde was born as Zhu Houzhao in 1491. He was the eldest son of the Hongzhi Emperor.
He was carefully groomed and educated to prepare him to be Emperor. By all accounts he excelled at schooling – his powers of memory were said to be exceptional. However his academic talents it was clear that his love was outdoors and in horse-riding and games.
In the claustrophobic world of the palace his closest friends were a group of eight eunuchs, known as the ‘Eight Tigers’ and headed by Liu Jin. His father indulged Zhu Houzhao, but shortly before his death he began to express concern that perhaps the Crown Prince was a little too fond of pleasure.
The Hongzhi Emperor is considered to be one of the ‘golden ages’ of Chinese history and his rule was marked by relative peace and wealth. The Hongzhi Emperor is also rare in being the only consistently monogamous Emperor. Zhu Houzhou benefitted considerably from this monogamy since, after the death of his younger brother in beginning, he faced no competition for the throne.
Mantle of Emperor
He succeeded to become Emperor on the 19th April 1505 at the tender age of just thirteen. He was the tenth Ming Emperor and took on the regnal name Zhengde; meaning Proper Virtue.
It very soon became clear that he had no real interest in the business of state, or indeed in his wife Empress Xia, instead he was more interested in dedicating himself to worldly pleasures.
In 1507 he ordered the construction of the Leopard House. This was designed to keep up exotic animals and musician for his entertainment, however as the years passed it became more and more dedicated to housing the many women he brought into the Palace. Such was his predilection for young women that by 1520 it was reported that there was no accommodation left and that some had already starved to death as there was not sufficient food and supplies to sustain them. He had a particular interest in muslim art and muslim women and, during his time as Emperor, managed to amass a important collection of both and moved his own chambers into a yurt.
ultimately Zhengde grow weary of the Leopard House and began to cast around for other diversions. One of his main pre-occupations was to see the world outside the palace. His most famous need was to have an complete replica market built within the palace and he made his ministers and servants dress up as merchants and traders while he wandered by the scene dressed as a commoner. Liu Jin closest saw this strong desire in the Emperor to analyze and began to help to smuggle him outside the walls of the palace where he could go and experience the delights of the city beyond.
The Eight Tigers
The Emperor devolved more of the administration of the empire to Liu Jin and the other Eight Tigers who grew increasingly powerful and influential. This produced an enormous amount of friction within the court.
ultimately in 1510 Prince Zhu Zhifan rebelled, citing some 33 crimes that had been committed by Liu Jin as his reasons. The rebellion was put down by Emperor Zhengde but it did at last force him to pay attention to the rumours circulating about the Eight Tigers. He ordered a search of Liu Jin’s house and there they found Emperor’s robes, a copy of the Imperial Seal and a large quantity of weapons. Zhengde acted quickly with the only course of action which was open to him – Liu Jin was executed by being tied to a post and cut 3,357 times over three days, he is supposed to have died on the second day after experiencing 400 cuts.
Escaping the Palace
In 1517 the Emperor escaped the palace and managed to make his way undetected to the city of Xuanfu – where he had heard that the best women and music could be found. He returned to the city three times over the next three years and spent over six months there each time. It was at this time that he is supposed to have met Li Feng, the sister of an innkeeper, and had a love affair with her before she died suddenly en route to Beijing – this became the inspiration for the Opera The Dragon and the Phoenix.
In 1518 he decided that he would now be a general and so led a pointless expedition against the Mongols. In 1519 he was faced with another small rebellion, so seizing the chance, he gathered together his army only to find that the rebellion had already been suppressed by the local governor. Zhengde ordered that the captured rebels be released so that he could rule his army to recapture them.
In October 1520 he was returning to Beijing and, while drunk, he saw some fishermen in small boats. He decided to impersonate them by rowing out into the Grand Canal in a small boat. Unfortunately the boat capsized and he had to be rescued. From that moment he fell ill and he ultimately died on the 19th April 1521 – aged just 29. He left no children.
He was buried in the Ming Dynasty Tombs that can be visited outside Beijing. His tomb is now known as Kangling, little remains of the original structure, although much of the tomb has been reconstructed in recent years.
He will always be remembered chiefly as the Emperor who put pleasure before duty and who heralded in the start of the decline of the Ming Dynasty. He was blessed to have been become Emperor at a time of scarce stability in China and benefitted from a sharp mind and an active constitution, but unlike his father he was thoroughly lacking in discipline and in focus. However it is hard not have some sympathy with such a young man who ultimately just wanted to escape the cloistered confines of the palace and see what ordinary life was like.