Emperor Yingzong of Ming


Zhu Qizhen, (born November 29, 1427, died February 23, 1464) was the sixth emperor of China of the Ming dynasty, reigning from 1435 to 1449 in the Zhengtong (正統) era and again from 1457 to 1464 in the Tiānshùn (天順) era.

Zhu Qizhen was the eldest son of Emperor Xuande (1425-1435), who died when he was only eight years old. This situation led to many procedural problems, because according to the rules established by the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Hongwu (1368-1398), only the emperor himself could make decisions on state affairs, and no regency was possible. For this reason, the government functioned nominally under the control of the emperor-child, but the actual regency was exercised by the empress dowager Zheng and the eunuch Wang Zhen, who enjoyed the absolute confidence of the emperor.

After the death of the empress dowager in 1442, Zhu Qizhen actually took power, and his army won a war fought against the Thais attacking Yunnan province. This victory spurred the emperor to personally lead a campaign against the Orators, but Wang Zhen”s disastrously led imperial army was nearly destroyed by their leader Esen in 1449, and the emperor was taken prisoner. This event is considered the turning point of the Ming period, ending an era of Chinese military superiority over the nomads.

In Beijing, Zhu Qizhen”s brother, Jingtai, was appointed emperor. Upon his return to the capital in 1450, Zhu Qizhen was placed under house arrest. Zhu Qizhen”s second reign was unpopular, as he punished many officials simply for their collaboration with Jingtai, regardless of actual merit, including the death sentence on the war minister Yu Qian, widely considered a hero for saving Beijing from the Ojrats. During his reign, Zhu Qizhen issued edicts prohibiting the private trade in porcelain, making the Zhengtong, Jingtai, and Tianshun eras notorious for their lack of porcelain and referred to by Western experts as the Ceramic Interregnum.

He was the eldest son of Emperor Xuande (1425-1435), who proclaimed him heir to the throne on February 20, 1428. Sun, the emperor”s mother, was an imperial concubine of the highest rank (guifei, 贵妃) and was elevated to the rank of empress four months after her son”s birth. Some later historians have suggested that Zhu Qizhen was not in fact the child of Empress Sun, who allegedly took him as an infant from another woman and presented the child as her own to curry favor with the emperor. This rumor does not lend itself to verification in any way. During his childhood, the father of the future emperor favored him in various ways and showed him great interest. In 1433, a guard of 7112 boys between the ages of 11 and 20 was formed and probably trained with Zhu Qizhen as its commander. During this time, the heir to the throne began learning to read and write, probably under the guidance of the eunuch Wang Zhen. It was in his hands, and those of four other eunuchs, that the emperor left custody of the capital when he went north in October 1434 to inspect the front.

On the day of his father”s death in January 1435, Zhu Qizhen was only 8 years old, and there was some debate as to whether his adult uncle Zhu Zhanshan, whose mother was the Empress Widow Zhang, would be a better emperor. According to one source, she was the one to put forward her son”s candidacy, but according to the later official “History of the Ming Dynasty,” she supported her grandson, leading the entire court to take an oath of obedience to him. According to the rules established by the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Hongwu (1368-1398), only the emperor himself could make decisions on matters of state, and no regency was possible. Therefore, the government functioned nominally under the control of the emperor-child. In reality, the actual regency, as arbiter of important matters, came to be exercised by the empress dowager together with the chief eunuchs of the Directory of Ceremonies, making decisions for the emperor and consulting with the three Great Secretaries, who put edicts into formal language. It soon became clear that Wang Zhen, who enjoyed the emperor”s complete confidence, had more power than the others, and officials began to kneel in his presence. Of the three Grand Secretaries (all of whom bore the surname Yang, though they were not related), two, Yang Shiqi and Yang Rong had served in the Grand Secretariats since 1402, and the third, Yang Pu, since 1426. It was their experience, prestige, and personality that made the Zhengtong era one of the best periods of Ming dynasty rule. In June 1442 the emperor married a Qian lady, and a few months later his grandmother died. Now he had indeed assumed power, but the government worked as before.

Since assuming power in 1413, Si Ren Fa, ruler of the Thai state of Luchuan, had been raiding Chinese territory. It was not until 1436, as the threat from him grew, that the Chinese court decided to respond to requests from Yunnan and move into action. In 1439, Yunnan governor Mu Sheng was ordered to attack Si Ren Fa, and after a fierce but inconclusive campaign, he led a tribute mission to the Beijing court in 1440. Fighting continued, however, and later that year Si Ren Fa inflicted a heavy defeat on the Chinese. However, the defeated rebuilt their army, which was now led by Wang Zhen”s close relative Wang Zhi. In 1441-1442 he defeated the Shan tribes and captured Si Ren Fa”s headquarters, but the latter found refuge in Ava (present-day Inwa). Wang Zhi”s subsequent attempts to negotiate with Ava and other Shan states claiming Luchuan were unsuccessful. Consequently, in late 1443 and early 1444 he attacked Ava, and in 1444 the Beijing court threatened to destroy it if it did not surrender Si Ren Fa. In 1445, Ava succumbed to Wang Zhi”s forces, and Si Ren Fa committed suicide. Meanwhile, his son Si Jifa captured Mohnyin and sent a tribute mission to Beijing, but refused to appear in person. Ava asked the Chinese to launch a joint campaign against him, which occurred between 1448 and 1449. Wang Zhi, at the head of the joint force, crossed the Irrawaddy and defeated Si Jifa. Wang Zhi was the first civilian to bear the title of commander-in-chief, a testament to the declining influence of military commanders.

In March 1449, the Chinese court celebrated victory in Yunnan and around the same time news of the suppression of the rebellion in Fujian Province was received. These victories contributed to the emperor”s overly optimistic assessment of the effectiveness of his own army and encouraged him to personally lead it into the field. So, when news of border attacks by the Ojrat chief Esen reached the emperor on June 20 of that year, he decided to march out against him. The court was against this decision, thinking that the emperor should not endanger his person, but Wang Zhen encouraged him to go on the expedition. On August 3, the emperor appointed his half-brother Zhu Qiyu as regent and set out to fight the invaders from the north. Esen had already attacked Hami in 1443 and 1445, finally capturing it in 1448. He also captured Gansu and subjugated the Urianchai, so that his power extended from present-day Xinjiang to Korea. When he failed to bring about an increase in the tribute paid by the Chinese to the Mongols under the official name of “gifts” and “trade”, with the Ojrats nominally paying “tribute”, he launched a real invasion of the Chinese frontier in 1449, besieging among others Datong, a key point of the Great Wall in Shanxi.

Zhu Qizhen was to lead half a million men with him, many of them members of the entourage of top commanders and officials whom the emperor took with him in huge numbers, led by Wang Zhen as commander-in-chief. Already at the beginning of the campaign, rain delayed the march for 7 days and many commanders and courtiers advised the emperor to retreat, but the stubborn Wang Zhen convinced him to continue the march. On August 16, the army passed a battlefield full of bodies where Esen had routed a detachment from Dadong led by one of Wang Zhen”s protégés, and by the time they reached the city on August 18, many of the soldiers had died, not from the enemy, but from starvation. Only now did Wang Zhen realize the situation and ordered a retreat along the same route already ravaged by the previous march. The army gradually fell into complete disarray. On August 30 the Ojrats destroyed its rear guard and the relief force of forty thousand horses. The next day the army camped around the Tumu post station. Wang Zhen reportedly refused to go to the nearby fortified Huailai because his personal baggage would then have to be abandoned. On the morning of September 1, the Mongols attacked and massacred Zhu Qizhen”s soldiers deprived of food and water, killing many of the empire”s highest dignitaries, including Wang Zhen. When Esen arrived the emperor “was sitting on the carpet with unbroken composure, without a trace of any emotion on his face, and the bodies of the murdered members of his bodyguard lay all around.”

In Chinese historiography, the consequences of the Tumu disaster are often referred to as Tumu zhi bian. The term “bian” means “to turn around,” and is used to denote important turning points in Chinese history. For as Charles Patrick Fitzgerald writes:

In captivity, Zhu Qizhen was allowed to live in his own yurt and enjoyed the company of both the Chinese survivors and the Mongols, among whom he made loyal and close friends. These were to include Esen himself. When news of Zhu Qizhen”s capture reached Beijing, the empress dowager Sun led to the declaration of his two-year-old son, Zhu Jianshen, as emperor, with Zhu Qiyu still acting as regent. However, the only logical step was to make Zhu Qiyu emperor, and he eventually succumbed, ascending the throne with a minimum of ceremony on September 23 and assuming the title of Jingtai. The captive Zhu Qizhen was given the title of “emperor at rest” (Taishang Huangdi, 太上皇帝) and was expected, in the presence of deputies sent to him, to assent to the status quo and warn of a new attack by Esen. Orders were sent to the garrisons forbidding them to listen to orders issued by the Mongols through the previous emperor. Esen realized that the value of his hostage had greatly diminished and attacked Beijing, which he besieged between October 27 and 30, but the war minister Yu Qian panicked and, surprised by the tough resistance, the Ojrat chief had to relent.

In this situation, Esen offered to release his captive, which was received with reluctance in Beijing. At this time a campaign to discredit Zhu Qizhen was launched there, and Jingtai established his mother as empress dowager and his wife as empress. It was clear that despite his initial reluctance to take the throne now he had no intention of relinquishing it to the returning Zhu Qizhen. The two missions that Jingtai had sent to Esen, headed by Li Shi and Yang Shan, did not mention the imperial captive at all in the letters they had forwarded. Meanwhile, Zhu Qizhen declared to Li Shi that he wanted to return to China even as an ordinary subject. Eventually, Yang Shan, who had previously served Zhu Qizhen, took him to China on his own responsibility in September, guaranteeing Esen that “tributary,” or commercial, relations would be restored. On September 19, Zhu Qizhen arrived in Beijing. Officials were forbidden to greet him and sent only two or three men with a lectika and two horses to face him. Jingtai met him at the side door of the palace and Zhu Qizhen renounced all claims to the throne, after which he was immediately transported to the South Palace, where he lived with his family under house arrest for the next six and a half years. Each year on his birthday, officials made an official request to be able to wish him well and were regularly denied. Meanwhile, in June 1452, Jingtai”s son became the official heir to the throne in place of Zhu Jianshen, but died less than a year later.

On February 11, 1457, when Jingtai became seriously ill, a group of four hundred conspirators, led by eunuch Cao Jixiang who had once fought with Wang Zhi against the Thais, strategist Xu Yuchen, and generals Shi Heng and Zhang Yue, broke down the gate of Zhu Qizhen”s residence, declaring him restored to power. He was quickly transported to the imperial palace and seated on the throne in the audience hall, after which officials were summoned using bells. This act became known as “tomen” – “the balancing of the palace gates,” but later this name was considered too outlandish and the name “fupi” – “restoration of the throne”. Thus Zhu Qizhen began his second reign, this time as Tianshun, with it being unclear whether he knew of the plot at all. On March 14, Jingtai died – according to some sources – strangled by a eunuch. During this time, the emperor punished many people accused of insulting or harming him or his son. Yu Qian, hated by the conspirators, was accused of treason at their instigation. The conspirators wanted him executed by quartering, but the Emperor had his sentence commuted to beheading, which was carried out on February 16, 1457. Along with the man whom Chinese historians have hailed as the savior of the Ming Dynasty, Grand Secretary Wang Wen and four chief eunuchs were also beheaded. Many other people were also killed or removed from office, sometimes sentencing them to military service in the frontier. A history book mentioning Jingtai was banned and the publication of a dictionary of the geographical names of the empire mentioning him was halted. At the same time, the emperor held a solemn funeral for Wang Zhen, erected a monument to him and consecrated temples. The execution of Yu Qian and Wang Wen was widely regarded as a great injustice, and together with the other acts mentioned above, they made the emperor unpopular.

At the same time, the emperor generously rewarded the conspirators by endowing them with high offices and titles. Xu Yuchen became head of the Grand Secretariat and also minister of war. Shi Heng was given the title of prince (gong), and his corrupt cousin, Shi Biao, became marquis (hou). Cao Jixiang became chief of ceremonial, thus becoming, so to speak, the leader of the eunuchs and commander of the Beijing garrison. His foster son, Cao Qin, was given the title of count (bo). Nevertheless, in the end, the end of the corrupt and relentlessly struggling conspirators for more influence was pathetic. As early as June 28, 1457, Xu Yuchen was accused of “improperly assuming power,” stripped of his offices, and exiled thanks to the machinations of his former co-conspirators, most notably Cao Jixiang. Shi Heng was brought to his doom by his scandalous extravagances and arrogance toward the emperor, as well as his corrupt connections with Shi Biao. He was first forced to resign in November 1459, but when more accusations came to light, a trial was initiated against him. He eventually died in prison on March 8, 1460. Cao Jixiang, also involved in dishonest dealings, now felt threatened, especially since the commander of the Imperial Guard, Lu Kun, who presided over the criminal investigations, belonged to the opposite faction. In this situation, on August 7, 1461, together with his son, General Cao Qin, he attempted to rebel and capture the Imperial City, but this attempt failed. Cao Qin committed suicide, and Cao Jixiang and his entire family were sentenced to death for treason.

It seems that by choosing Xue Xuan and Li Xian as Grand Secretaries, the emperor was trying to improve his image. After Xue Xuan left in mid 1457, the trio of Grand Secretaries consisted of the talented Li Xian (head of the Grand Secretariat), Peng Shi, and Lu Yuan. After 1458, no major minister was dismissed and all changes were made due to death or resignation from office. In administrative matters the emperor relied mainly on three men: the already mentioned Li Xian; Wang Ao, the old minister of ceremonies whom the emperor held in high esteem, the only minister to retain the office held under Jingtai; and Ma Angu, the minister of war since 1460. At the same time, he forced into service with him the provincial Confucianist Wu Yupi, who at first thought it immoral to serve a government that had gained power through unjustified rebellion, but eventually, before the emperor let him go, rendered him considerable service by performing various secret assignments for him and never hesitating to voice his criticisms. Politically, Zhu Qizhen”s second reign was marked by rivalry between the people of the north and the south. Zhu Qizhen, unlike Jingtai, seemed to rely more on the former. The southerners regarded Li Xian, who came from Henan, as the leader of the northern people”s party.

Zhu Qizhen died a natural death on 23 February 1464, before decreeing an end to the custom of imperial concubines committing suicide after their master”s death. He was given the posthumous name Rui (睿) and the temple name Yingzong (英宗).

During Zhu Qizhen”s reign, editions of the classical books of Taoism and Buddhism were completed, in 636 and 481 books respectively. For the first of these editions, the emperor wrote an introduction, although he personally showed no particular interest in Taoism. He was also to write (or had written) the introduction to a new edition of a treatise on acupuncture from the Song dynasty. A book of ethical examples was also printed in 1443. The emperor forbade dressing and speaking Mongolian in Beijing and the depiction of Confucius in Mongolian robes. Although he was not particularly interested in art, in 1439 he banned the private sale of blue and white porcelain, and on January 22, 1448 he also banned all persons in the Yaozhou (present-day Jingdezhen) manufactory from selling yellow, purple, red, green, dark blue, and light blue porcelain privately. Violation of this ban was punished in the same way as treason. Because of these two prohibitions, which were designed to maintain the imperial monopoly, the Zhengtong, Jingtai and Tianshun eras are notorious for their lack of porcelain and are called the “Ceramic Interregnum” by Western specialists.


  1. Zhu Qizhen
  2. Emperor Yingzong of Ming
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