Emperor Jiajing (Chinese: 嘉靖帝, 16 September 1507 – 23 January 1567), originally known as Zhu Houcong, was the eleventh emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China, who ruled from 1521 to 1567. His epochal name Jiajing signifies admirable tranquillity.
Jiajing was the cousin of the previous emperor of China, Zhengde. His father, Xing Prince Zhu Youyuan (1476-1519), was the fourth son of Emperor Chenghuan (1465-1487) and the third son of his concubine, Lady Shao.
As Zhu Houcong was the nephew of Emperor Hongzhi, he was not raised to be the heir to power. In 1521, however, the throne became vacant when Hongzhi”s son, Emperor Zhengden, suddenly died childless. At that time, the 14-year-old Zhu Huocong was elected as the new emperor, and at that time he moved from his father”s fiefdoms near present-day Zhongxiang, in the province of Hubei, to Beijing.
When Zhu Houcong became Emperor Jiajing, his parents were elevated to “honorary” imperial rank after his death, and an imperial-style Xianling mausoleum was built for them near Zhongzxiang.
The custom required that if an emperor was not a direct descendant of the previous emperor, the previous emperor had to adopt a successor in order to maintain an unbroken line of emperors. It was suggested that Jiajing should be declared the adopted son of Zhengde after his death, but Emperor Jiajing did not accept this solution, deciding instead that his father should be declared emperor after his death. The dispute over this is known as the ”Great Rites Dispute”. Emperor Jiajing got his way, and hundreds of his opponents were either exiled to the remotest parts of the empire, flogged or executed. Among those exiled was the eminent poet Yang Shen.
Jiajing became known as a cruel and self-aggrandising emperor. He also chose to settle outside Beijing”s Forbidden City to live in isolation. He neglected state affairs and entrusted them entirely to incompetent people such as Zhang Cong and Yan Song. Gradually, Yan Song and his son Yan Shifan, who came to this position as a result of his father”s political influence, became the leaders of the government and were even dubbed the ”first and second prime ministers”. They were criticised and even punished by loyalists such as Hai Rui and Yang Xusheng, but their criticism was not taken into account by the emperor. Instead, Hai Rui and many other loyal ministers were soon dismissed or executed. From 1539 onwards, Jiajing did not even meet his ministers. For nearly 25 years, he refused to give formal audiences, expressing his wishes through eunuchs and officials. Only Yan Song, a few eunuchs and Taoist priests ever got to meet Emperor Jiajing. This gradually led to corruption at all levels of the Ming government. However, Jiajing was talented and made efforts to control the court.
Jiajing”s ruthlessness also led to his concubines attempting to murder him in October 1542 by strangling him while he slept. A group of palace girls, fed up with Jiajing”s cruelty, decided to band together to assassinate the emperor. One of them tried to strangle the emperor with ribbons tied to his hair, while the others held on to his arms and legs, but when they tried to tie a knot around his neck, they failed to tighten it. Meanwhile, some of the young girls were in a state of panic, and one of them, Zhang Jinlian, ran to the Empress. The conspiracy was discovered, and by order of the empress, all the girls involved, including the emperor”s concubines Duan and Ning, were executed by being cut to pieces and their families killed.
In 1550, Beijing began to expand into the Outer City.
During Jianjing”s reign in 1556, China suffered the Shaanxi earthquake, the deadliest earthquake ever. It killed around 800 000 people.
Jianjing was a staunch supporter of Taoism and sought to have Buddhism ousted. After an assassination attempt in 1542, he moved out of the imperial palace and from then on lived with Shan, a small and slender 13-year-old girl who matched Jiajing”s sexual preferences. He devoted his attention to promoting Taoism while neglecting his duties as emperor. He built three Taoist temples, the Temples of the Sun, Earth and Moon, and expanded the Temple of Heaven by adding the ”Earthly Mountain”. Over the years, Jiajing”s devotion to Taoism became a great financial burden to the empire and aroused opposition throughout the country.
Especially in his last years, Jiajing spent a lot of time working on alchemicals, trying to find medicines that would prolong his life. He also forced early teenage girls into his court and engaged in sexual activities in the hope that they would strengthen him in addition to his use of powerful substances considered elixirs. He commissioned Taoist priests to collect rare minerals from all over the kingdom to make elixirs. Some of them contained mercury, which inevitably caused health problems.
Jiajing”s reign was the second longest in the Ming Dynasty, lasting 45 years. He died in 1567, possibly from poisoning by what he believed to be mercury-containing substances, and was succeeded as emperor by his son Longqing. During his long reign the dynasty was stable, but by neglecting his official duties he contributed to its decline in the late 1500s. Later in the same century, his grandson, Emperor Wanli, went even further in his bad governance.