Wanli Emperor


Wanli (birth name: Zhū Yìjūn 朱翊鈞, temple name: Shénzōng 神宗 († August 18, 1620 ibid) was the thirteenth emperor of the Chinese Ming dynasty from July 19, 1572, and the longest reigning emperor with a reign of 48 years. Under Wanli, the expansion of the Great Wall of China reached its peak, and in terms of foreign policy, China intervened in the Imjin War against Japan in 1592. His reign was marked by an economic boom, the stabilization of the empire and a cultural flowering. Toward the end of his tenure, however, signs of governmental and economic deficits increased, which would eventually lead to the state crisis of the 17th century. The Wanli era thus marked a late high point of the Ming dynasty, but at the same time also its incipient decline.

Wanli was born on September 4, 1563, the only son of the future Emperor Longqing and his concubine Xiaoding († 1614). When his grandfather Emperor Jiajing died in 1567, Wanli”s father took over an empire with foreign and domestic problems. He was able to master these, however, with the help of capable officials, most notably the Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng. Important measures included limiting court expenditures, curtailing the rights of large landowners, protecting peasants from exploitation, expanding the Great Wall against the Mongols, peace treaties with Altan Khan, overall regulation of the river system in China, rebuilding the naval fleet to protect the coasts from the Wokou, and restoring maritime trade with Europe and Asia. All these measures eventually led to a resurgence, albeit brief, in the 3rd century of the Ming Dynasty (1550 to 1644), and it was Longqing”s will that his son, as successor, continue to support the reform policies of Grand Secretary Zhang.

After the sudden death of the 35-year-old Emperor Longqing, Prince Zhu Yijun inherited the Dragon Throne at just eight years old and took the araname Wanli. At the insistence of Empress Dowager Xiaoding, he was under the influence of Zhang Juzheng, who was appointed as the young emperor”s tutor. With Zhang Juzheng virtually reigning over China, the first phase of the Wanli era was one of the most fruitful in the history of the Ming Dynasty. The development process found its expression in social change: a proletariat and an urban petty bourgeoisie emerged, the peasant world was penetrated by urban influence, and even a class of merchants and businessmen emerged. The bankers and money changers of Shanxi with their branches in Beijing, the rich merchants of Dongting Lake in Hunan, the ship owners of Quanzhou and Zhangzhou in southern Fujian who had enriched themselves through maritime trade, and the wholesale merchants of Xin”an formed a new social class of wealthy urbanites. The wealthiest merchants acted as suppliers to the army. They traded in mass consumption items: Rice, salt, grain and cloth. This development also had its effect in the revival of literature and philosophical thought.

Advances were also made in technology. Silk looms with three to four reels were introduced and the use of cotton looms was perfected. Processes for printing three- to four-color woodblocks were improved in Wanli”s time, so that from now on five-color woodblocks could also be produced. With this, block printing reached a peak. The art of letterpress printing had also developed, resulting in increased publication. Since 1517, the printing houses of North Fujian, which published a number of multi-volume encyclopedias, were one of the main centers of letterpress printing. Songjiang even produced inventions such as a copper and lead alloy for casting movable type and a process for making white sugar and icing.

However, technological advances also affected agriculture, diversifying it. New machines for soil cultivation, new methods for irrigation, sowing and processing of agricultural products were described. The methods of soil melioration and the introduction of new crops had thus led to an improved working environment for the rural population by the end of the Ming period.

In 1581, Zhang Juzheng began the Great Project for Reforming State Finances, which also had a positive impact on the empire”s government revenues. Also, the amount of silver in circulation since the 15th century had by then greatly increased as a result of black trade with Japan, the main exporter of this metal, and the development of domestic production. This economic growth intensified at the end of the 16th century, and after the settlement of the Spaniards in the Philippines in 1564, enormous quantities of American silver were imported into the coastal provinces. From that time on, most taxes were paid in silver. As a result of this period of prosperity, the population grew to 150 million by 1600.

Neglect of reform policy

In 1582 Zhang Juzheng died unexpectedly, and shortly thereafter court officials began to slander Zhang for alleged misconduct with the emperor. Because he had been friends for some time with General Qi Jiguang (who had the Great Ming Wall built to protect it from the Mongols under Altan Khan), he was accused after his death of conspiring with Qi Jiguang against Wanli, enriching himself from the state revenues, and seeking the imperial crown himself. The cost of building the wall was already over 200 tons of silver, equivalent to a decade”s worth of state revenue at the time. The wall construction was now finally stopped and General Qi resigned as commander-in-chief of the northern border troops by imperial order, after which he retired to his hometown in Guangdong Province and died in 1588. Finally, Wanli, who was only twenty years old, believed the accusations and in 1583 posthumously stripped Zhang Juzheng of all offices and titles and even had his entire family punished.

From then on, the emperor began to show less and less interest in the day-to-day affairs of state, whereupon the eunuchs increasingly gained control of the empire until 1620, their pursuit being especially devoted to personal enrichment. The eunuch Wang An gained the greatest influence over the bureaucracy and the emperor. His power was also to promote the rise of the later feared chief eunuch Wei Zhongxian.

The political crisis

Although Wanli became increasingly obstinate after 1582, he still showed himself to be dutiful with regard to state duties. From 1585 to 1586, he ordered irrigation works in the Beijing region. The emperor left the management to Pan Jixun, a proven administrator who was responsible for reorganizing the Chinese river system. Nevertheless, in 1587, the Yellow River dam burst in Kaifeng. When Pan Jixuan died in 1595, Wanli failed to find an equal replacement and the river system was gradually neglected. As a result, severe floods occurred in Hebei around 1604, then in the Beijing region and Zhejiang province, and in Fujian around 1607 and 1609, killing nearly 100,000 people. In the same year, the Gansu earthquake occurred, destroying nearly 400 kilometers of the Great Wall but leaving the damage unrepaired.

From 1582, riots became more frequent, initially in Hangzhou. The Great Epidemic of 1585 to 1589 resulted in a population decline in the North China Plain and Jiangnan. In 1589, a rebellion followed in the Taihu Lake region. Then, when eunuchs were appointed tax commissioners and enriched themselves from government revenues, numerous artisan and merchant rebellions followed in the cities. Around 1600, popular uprisings broke out in Guizhou, which could only be put down with great difficulty. The general economic situation deteriorated after 1600, and Wanli devoted himself less and less to state affairs, probably out of deep frustration with the official class and offended by their paternalism. From then on, he neither received state guests, nor did he let his ministers go before him, nor did he take note of any reports. From 1589 to 1615 he even consistently refused to attend imperial audiences, and so for years court officials had to pay their respects to an empty throne. This was followed in 1601 by urban riots in Wuchang and Suzhou and in 1611 by artisan uprisings in the silk weaving mills of Suzhou. Eventually, severe famine also struck Shandong, after which riots broke out again.

Wanli came into conflict with the Donglin Academy over these problems. This reform party, founded in Wuxi in the 12th century during the reign of the Song emperor Huizong, was reopened in 1604 by Gu Xiancheng, a grand secretary of the emperor, together with the scholar Gao Panlong, and became one of the main centers of opposition: it used the political and moral principles of the neo-Confucian traditions of Zhu Xi as a weapon against the then ruling philosophy of Wang Yangming as well as against the imperial court itself. In 1610, it was declared illegal by the politically influential eunuchs, after which open conflict between the two parties began in 1615.

At the end of the Wanli era, a scandal occurred that directly affected the palace: in 1615, a failed assassination attempt was made on Crown Prince Zhu Changluo. Since Wanli”s favorite wife Zheng was probably behind the assassination in order to secure the succession to the throne for her own son, the emperor simply suppressed the clarification of this sensitive case.

Beginning in 1582, the Wanli era was marked by serious foreign policy crises: in 1583, the Burmese invaded Yunnan Province, as a result of which Wanli had Burma occupied. In the same year, Chinese military officials intervened in Manchuria. Together with the Jurchen prince Nikan Wailan, the Ming army attacked the city of Gure. In the process, the tribal chief Giocangga and his son Taksi were killed. Taksi”s eldest son Nurhaci then raised his own army, but initially still supported the Ming in the Korean War from 1593 to 1598. In 1606, however, the Jurchen invaded Korea on their own. After allying with the Eastern Mongols against the Chaharmongols, the Jurchen pursued an increasingly aggressive policy against the Ming from 1609. From 1618 Nurhaci declared his ruling house the Late Jin Dynasty and began to claim the Chinese imperial throne. At the same time, he occupied Fushun, part of Liaoning, and made incursions into northern China. Chinese counteroffensives in the northeast failed in 1619, despite numerical superiority of the Ming army. Ultimately, the Jurchen were to remain victorious, and under the new name of Manchu, they conquered Beijing in 1644.

In 1592, Bobai, the Mongol ruler of Ningxia near the upper reaches of the Yellow River, gained independence and the ethnic minorities of the Zunyi area in Guizhou rose up. In addition, from 1611 to 1612, there were heavy Tartar invasions of Gansu.

Also in 1592, the Japanese landed in China”s vassal state of Korea with an invasion army of 160,000 men under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In the end, China was only able to win the so-called Imjin War by spending enormous amounts of money and material. But also the new development of the so-called turtle ships by the Koreans played a central role. Wanli himself was highly involved in organizing the defensive war and closely observed the course of the battle, even personally participating in the diplomatic negotiations with Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Although the Japanese retreated defeated in 1598, they intensified their raids on the Central Chinese coast, often burning down entire towns and killing all the inhabitants in their raids. It was not until 1613 that the defense against the Wokou in Fujian and Zhejiang was strengthened. The most serious consequence of the Imjin War, however, was that the state finances of the Ming government were so profoundly shattered that they were never to recover from it, putting the imperial court in serious financial straits from 1598 onward. In the years that followed, there were repeated tax increases.

The financial crisis

Wanli”s late reign is mainly characterized by a high level of extravagance. The imperial court continued to spend large sums: the construction of Wanli”s Dingling Mausoleum between 1584 and 1601 cost 8 to 10.4 million taelsilver. The tomb was uncovered by archaeologists from 1956 to 1958 and was intended to serve the Communist Party under Mao Zedong as a propagandistic example of the supposed unrestrained exploitation of the Chinese people under imperial rule. Inside, three coffins made of red lacquer were found in which both the emperor and his two empresses had been buried. In addition, the burial chambers held a treasure trove of exquisite treasures, including porcelain vases, jade and ivory carvings, lacquer work, silk fabrics, jewelry, funerary statuettes, bronze and cloisonné wares, gold implements and brocade scrolls.

The Imjin War, fought against the Japanese under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ended in favor of China, but cost between 26 and 33.8 million silver taels. Despite the end of the war, however, the weight of military expenditure did not diminish: the Ming army was a mercenary army and had the disadvantage of not being effective despite very high costs. Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit who lived in the Middle Kingdom since 1582, criticized the Chinese armed forces in his notes on China as follows:

After 200 years of Ming rule, the army had become a catch-all for the lower strata of society, a motley collection of the unemployed and crooks.

Another reason for the amount of spending was the appanages paid to the imperial family members: the 24 sons of the first Ming emperor Hongwu had been deprived of all power to prevent usurpation; instead, they had been provided with extensive domains throughout the empire, owned pastureland in the northern provinces, had a personal guard of 3,000 to 19,000 men, and received high salaries. The imperial clan increased with each generation. Under Wanli, there were 45 princes of the first rank, who received annual appanages of 10,000 shi (the equivalent in silver of about 600 tons of grain), and 23,000 relatives of lower rank. Of the tax revenue in Shanxi and Henan (7,400,000 shi), more than half (4,040,000) was spent on these pension payouts. During the period from 1572 to 1628, this led to the temporary suspension of marriage licenses for princes and the granting of titles of nobility.

The measures implemented by the imperial court increasingly forced social discontent. In order to compensate for the revenue deficit, which was mainly caused by the rural exodus, trade taxes had been increased since the middle of the 16th century, customs posts were created on the Yangzi and the Imperial Canal, and ever higher taxes were demanded from the peasants. Because the eunuchs had also been illegally collecting money as mine and trade tax commissioners for some time, the discontent of the rural population erupted in various places during the Wanli era. Artisan revolts became more frequent, sometimes sparked by the arrest of officials with integrity. Between 1596 and 1626, riots took place almost every year in the craft centers of the various regions. In 1603, miners from the private mines of Mentougou, 30 kilometers east of Beijing, organized a protest march to the imperial capital. Frustration resulting from fiscal measures, increasing layoffs of state employees, and a depressed economy would lead to the great popular uprisings of 1627 to 1644 under Li Zicheng.

Foreign influence in China

In Wanli”s reign falls the so-called China Mission, as a result of the European expansion into Asia. The most successful was the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, thanks to his perseverance and intellectual adaptability. He reached Guangdong as early as 1582, arrived in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi, in 1595, and then in Nanjing. In 1601, he received permission to pay his respects to the imperial court in Beijing. The gifts he presented on this occasion were taken as tribute (according to Chinese tradition) and Ricci was allowed to settle in Beijing. He was soon followed by other friars from Europe. Commissioned by Emperor Wanli, Ricci created the first world map in China in 1602, which depicted the earth according to Western cartographic knowledge.

Ricci, who wore the clothes of a Buddhist monk until 1595, realized that both by adopting the dress and manners and a study of classical culture, the missionaries could win over the Chinese upper class. Ricci managed to work out a Christianization method that strongly emphasized the apparent analogies between Chinese traditions and Christianity, thus advocating Confucian orthodoxy and taking sides against Buddhism, Daoism, and popular beliefs, as well as flattering the literati”s penchant for European knowledge. The missionaries also introduced to China some mechanical curiosities such as clocks. Ricci later became the patron god of Chinese watchmakers and was revered in 19th century Shanghai in the guise of the bodhisattva Li Madou. Matteo Ricci had established the first Jesuit missions on the route he traveled between Macau and Beijing. From there the missions extended all over China until the end of the Ming period. They were more numerous in the region of the lower Yangtze River and in Fujian, to which Dominicans and Franciscans (OFM) from Manila also arrived.

The most famous literary figures converted to Christianity are those who have been called the three pillars of conversion to Christianity:

Since Ricci had succeeded in initiating a Sinicization of Christianity, he found many influential friends in the Middle Kingdom. A friar characterized him as follows: Matteo Ricci, Italian, so similar in everything to the Chinese that he seems to be one of them in beauty of face and delicacy of feeling, and in the gentleness and meekness which those so esteem. When he died in 1610, the Jesuits were commissioned to reform the Chinese calendar with the help of some Chinese converts to Christianity. In 1629, Li Zhizao, together with Xu Guangqi and Father Longobardo, were commissioned to create a completely new calendar.


The Wanli era is considered an epoch of cultural flowering. The woodblock prints and porcelain products from this period were of high artistic quality. Also, three of the most influential Chinese literary works were created during Wanli”s reign: The Robbers of Liang-Schan Moor in 1573, The Journey to the West in 1590, and Jin Ping Mei in 1610. The painter Xu Wei became particularly successful. His expressive, spirited art, which he created even as a child, found numerous admirers.

Imperial family

Wanli had two main wives:

In total, Wanli had various concubines († 1630). She was Wanli”s favorite concubine. She was also the mother of Wanli”s third son Zhu Changxun (b. 1586). However, the emperor could not elevate her to empress or her son to crown prince. Zhu Yousong, the prince of Fu and first emperor of the Southern Ming Dynasty was a son of Zhu Changxun and thus a grandson of Wanli.

Death and succession

Wanli died seriously ill in the Forbidden City on August 18, 1620, at the age of just under 57, and was buried in his magnificent Dingling Mausoleum in the Ming Tombs area. After investigations in 1958, significant amounts of morphine were detected in his bones, suggesting habitual consumption of opium. Among other things, this could be a plausible explanation for why Wanli met the duties of an emperor with increasing apathy. Whether the opium addiction was also related to his death can only be conjectured, but ultimately not proven. Furthermore, it is conceivable that Wanli was administered opium as a kind of antidepressant, since it was considered a “vitalizing elixir” in Chinese medicine.

He was succeeded as Taichang emperor by his eldest son. He was also seriously ill and died after only one month in an unexplained manner. He was presumably poisoned by eunuchs, led by Wei Zhongxian, on the orders of the concubine Zheng. Thus, state mourning had to be imposed simultaneously for two Ming emperors. Taichang received the rebuilt mausoleum of the usurper Jingtai. Wanli”s grandson Zhu Youjiao, who was barely fifteen years old and unable to rule, then assumed the imperial title under the name Tianqi.

Historical significance and conclusion

Wanli”s late reign marked the end of a golden age of the Ming dynasty that had begun once again under his father Longqing in 1567. His completely passive leadership in the end contributed to the lasting weakening of the central imperial government. From 1612, there was only one acting grand secretary at court, and half of all prefectural and district posts in the provinces were vacant because the emperor did not appoint successors. Also, the corrupt eunuchs had now visibly taken control within the Ming government. They further aggravated the court”s economic situation by enriching themselves personally and taking over most of the state offices.

On the other hand, Wanli”s repeated support of the Korean Joseon Dynasty in the Imjin War against the Japanese is still viewed with gratitude in Korea today.

Although Wanli”s legacy proved to be a heavy burden for the last Ming emperors, judging by current research, it was not an insurmountable hurdle. Even after his death, there were still committed reformers throughout the empire, such as the scholars of the Donglin Academy and conservative officials, who wanted to prevent the decline. But the growing influence of the eunuchs made it difficult to rehabilitate the empire. Wanli probably laid the foundation for the gradual collapse of his dynasty in the last years of his reign, which came to a head under his grandsons Tianqi, but especially under Chongzhen, thus facilitating the conquest of China by the Manchus under Huang Taiji and Dorgon.


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