Yongle († August 12, 1424 in Yumuchuan, Inner Mongolia) was the third emperor of the Chinese Ming Dynasty and ruled the empire from July 17, 1402 until his death in 1424. His birth name was Zhū Dì (朱棣), his temple name Tàizōng (太宗 – “Supreme Ancestor”). The latter was changed to Chéngzǔ (成祖 – “Forefather of Completion”) in 1538. Yongle was the fourth son of Emperor Hongwu.
The Yongle Emperor is considered the most important ruler of the Ming Dynasty and is counted among the most outstanding emperors in the history of China. He overthrew his nephew Jianwen from the throne in a civil war and took over the office of emperor himself. Yongle continued his father”s policy of centralization, strengthening the empire”s institutions and founding the new capital city of Beijing. He pursued an expansive foreign policy and undertook several large-scale campaigns against the Mongols. To strengthen his influence in East and South Asia, he had a large fleet built and entrusted Admiral Zheng He with diplomatic missions.
Zhu Di was born in 1360 as the fourth son of the future first Ming emperor Hongwu in his capital Nanjing. Officially, his mother was recorded as Empress Ma, but it is quite possible that a concubine named Gong was his biological mother. If so, she died shortly after the birth, so the empress adopted the newborn Prince Zhu Di as her biological child. At the very least, there is no doubt that the prince”s relationship with the empress was quite intimate, because after ascending the throne, Yongle elevated the empress mother to deity status and had temples built in her honor.
When Zhu Di was born, his father Zhu Yuanzhang was still a warlord of China, fighting for power while the Yuan Dynasty was about to fall. With the final expulsion of the Mongol dynasty from China, he founded the Ming dynasty as Hongwu in 1368. During the coronation and founding ceremonies, Zhu Di and his brothers also played a role as extras. At the same time, Nanjing was elevated to the new capital of a unified China.
Hongwu strictly supervised the education of his sons. The crown prince Zhu Biao was given precedence, but since all Ming princes were educated together with the heir to the throne, they all received the same instruction. The master Kong Keren instructed the emperor”s sons extensively in the Confucian classics and history as well as in philosophy and ethics. It is said that Yongle was particularly interested in the Qin and Han dynasties, and in later years he often recited quotations from the First Emperor and the famous Han emperors Gaozu and Wudi.
In 1370, Emperor Hongwu created imperial principalities for his sons on the borders of the empire. Thus, at the age of ten, Zhu Di was appointed Prince of Yan 燕王; that region in the north whose seat of government was the former Yuan capital of Dadu, now called Beiping (Northern Peace). Since he was still too young, his father appointed a governor in Beiping at the same time as he handed over the Royal Seals of Yan to Zhu Di. Now the new prince of Yan received his own teachers to prepare him for his future task as regional prince of the north.
Even as a young man, the court considered Prince Zhu Di one of the Hongwu Emperor”s most capable sons, who received special attention from his father. Zhu Di showed himself to be a gifted student with quick perception. He was of great athletic stature and fond of hunting, so his father enjoyed spending time with his fourth son. In 1376, the prince was married at the age of sixteen. He married Lady Xu, daughter of General Xu Da. The general had played a leading role in Hongwu”s conquest of China and had now become not only the father-in-law of an imperial prince, but also Zhu Dis governor in Beiping and commander-in-chief of the northern armies.
In 1380, Zhu Di and his young family (the first son Zhu Gaozhi was born in 1378) moved from the capital Nanjing to Beiping in the principality of Yan. The prince now moved into the old palaces of the Mongol emperors, which his father had once had sealed. The residence was not in the best condition, but had similar dimensions to the imperial palace of Nanjing, which meant that the prince now resided far more splendidly than any of his brothers in the other principalities.
Zhu Di had obtained the most important of all principalities with Yan and also wanted to savor his new fullness of power. He created around him a staff of experienced advisors and sought to administer Yan in an exemplary manner. Still at his side was his father-in-law Xu Da, who had been staying in Beiping since 1371 and had developed the city into the main military base of the north. From there, he had already undertaken several successful campaigns against the Mongols along the borders. The veteran general instructed Zhu Di in war tactics, military organization, and defensive strategy. As a result, the prince undertook maneuvers in northern China with the general year after year. To the emperor, Zhu Di was able to report successful, albeit small, expeditions to Inner Mongolia. General Xu Da fell seriously ill in 1384 and was recalled to Nanjing. He left his son-in-law a well-trained army of about 300,000 men, who now transferred their loyalty to the prince.
For nineteen years, Zhu Di remained in Beiping and could boast a well-organized territory. Meanwhile, in 1392, the crown prince Zhu Biao, and later Zhu Di”s other elder brothers, had died. So the prince had good hopes of succeeding the old Hongwu emperor in office. But Hongwu had become increasingly capricious and unpredictable. He distrusted his numerous sons, and by now he did not exclude Zhu Di from this either. Zhu Di could not rely on his past good relations with his father. He waited to see whom the old emperor would appoint as his designated successor. Contrary to his expectations, his father chose his grandson Zhu Yunwen.
In 1398, Emperor Hongwu died and his grandson ascended the Dragon Throne as Jianwen. The new government got off to a bad start for the Prince of Yan, as the Jianwen Emperor expressly forbade his eldest uncle Zhu Di from attending his father”s funeral ceremonies in Nanjing. This was not to be the only humiliation Zhu Di suffered at the hands of his nephew, the emperor. Numerous followed. The imperial court shared Hongwu”s distrust of the influential princes on the borders of the empire, given their enormous military might and the vast financial resources they possessed. Emperor Jianwen and his advisors sought to reform the imperial system and significantly curtail the princes” powers. But this inevitably met with resistance from the princes. Zhu Di was the eldest member of the imperial clan, and it was to him that his brothers and nephews now turned to demand a decisive response. This was not inconvenient for Zhu Di, who saw himself as the rightful heir to the throne.
After Zhu Dis attempt to gain an audience with the emperor in Nanjing failed, he decided to act. In 1399, he declared war on Nanjing with the justification that he needed to “free his imperial nephew from the clutches of evil advisors.” The civil war initially went very favorably for the Jianwen emperor. He had more troops and more money at his disposal, as well as the better strategic position. Quite quickly, the imperial army was in front of Beiping, which was defended by Zhu D”s wife, Lady Xu. But the well-built city withstood the onslaught.
The Prince of Yan then changed his military strategy. First, he relied more heavily on his Mongol cavalry. As prince of the north, numerous Mongol tribes had surrendered there during his twenty-year tenure and were now fully loyal to him. This elite force could not be withstood by the imperial cavalry. Second, unlike the Jianwen emperor, Zhu Di now commanded his army himself, which earned him great respect among the enemy army and also the populace. The third point was to make the Prince of Yan the emperor. Instead of trying to reach Nanjing via the well-defended Imperial Canal, the prince led his army westward across the country. In open field battle, the troops of Jianwen failed to defeat the prince. In the spring of 1402, the breakthrough was achieved. Zhu Di stood on the lower Yangzi. The emperor”s negotiators made a secret pact, and the commanders of the river army defected. On July 13, 1402, defectors opened the city gates of the capital Nanjing. It is said that Emperor Jianwen then set fire to the palace himself, committing suicide with his wife and eldest son.
Zhu Di thus decided the civil war in his favor. He now ascended the throne himself on July 17, 1402, at the age of forty-two, and adopted the governmental motto Yǒnglè, which means Perpetual Joy. According to tradition, his birth name Zhu Di thus became taboo, for the Son of Heaven, as a god, no longer had a name. The reign period of Jianwen was deleted from the historical records, the missing time was simply added to the Hongwu era. First, the new emperor began a large-scale purge. He had all of his nephew”s advisors executed, along with their families. Large parts of the civil service were also eliminated. Many committed suicide voluntarily because they despised Yongle”s usurpation. Another major problem was the remaining two sons of Jianwen and his three brothers. They too were executed without exception as potential rivals. About 20,000 people fell victim to the purges in the capital.
Despite the bloody beginning, the reign of Emperor Yongle is seen in Chinese historiography as a flourishing period of the empire. The era was characterized by increasing prosperity and internal stability, led by an extremely ambitious emperor and capable officials.
The first official act of the Yongle era concerned the privileges of the Ming princes. With the strength of his armies behind him, Yongle immediately stripped the princes of control over their troops and also took away much of their financial resources. This ensured that a civil war would not be repeated. Bit by bit, Yongle disempowered his male relatives, a process that reached its final conclusion under his grandson Xuande.
First, the new emperor moved into the restored palaces of Nanjing and made the center of power of his former enemies his own. Over the course of a decade, he replaced virtually all senior officials or sent them to distant provinces far from the capital. The entire administrative apparatus was re-staffed with loyal men, many of whom had already served at Yan”s court.
The imperial bureaucracy was a major focus of the emperor. Yongle consistently pushed the centralization of the administration and thus the concentration of power in the hands of the Son of Heaven. From the emperor”s personal staff of advisors he formed a new powerful institution, the Neige. This Privy Council, better known as the Grand Secretariat, was staffed by administrative experts who served inside the palace and exclusively assisted the ruler in handling the affairs of state. The Grand Secretaries of the Neige not only enjoyed enormous prestige, but in later times were also able to wield great power.
While Emperor Yongle liked to think of himself as a martial ruler, he also valued classical Chinese education. A gifted calligrapher himself, he encouraged the literary class and the imperial civil service examinations. Yongle brought particularly talented candidates to his court. To facilitate the work of the scholars, he had the famous Yongle Encyclopedia created, which was to encompass all the knowledge of the time. More than 2,000 officials worked for five years to compile this work, which, when completed, contained 22,938 chapters with more than 50 million words. The Yongle Encyclopedia was far too extensive to ever be printed regularly. Therefore, only a few copies were produced. The emperor kept the original manuscript in the palace for himself and his advisors.
Eunuchs were part of the imperial court at all times. Only the imperial family was allowed to use such persons. The eunuchs were especially valued for their loyalty, since they were either sold to the court by their families as children or had no family connections at all. Thus, they were completely dependent on the ruler. Like palace servants, eunuchs were employees with the rank of civil servant, with numerous opportunities for advancement. These special servants constantly surrounded the emperor and his family, even in the most private moments.
The Yongle Emperor increasingly relied on eunuchs, both as palace servants and as representatives of his imperial authority. He not only provided excellent training for the court eunuchs, but also established the so-called Twenty-Four Offices of Palace Administration, which were staffed exclusively by eunuchs. These Twenty-Four Offices were composed of the Twelve Boards of Supervisors, the Four Agencies, and the Eight Sub-Offices. All of these departments were concerned with the organization of palace life, that is, the management of the imperial seals, horses, temples and shrines, the procurement of food and objects, but cleaning and garden maintenance were also among the tasks of the eunuchs.
In 1420, Yongle expanded the work of his eunuchs to include intelligence activities. He created the Eastern Depot (Dongchang), a notorious secret service in which eunuchs were incessantly busy checking officials to see if they were corrupt or disloyal.
The Eastern Depot was supplemented by the Brocade Uniform Guard (Jinyi wei), an elite force of bodyguards of the emperor. The brocade-garbed guard consisted exclusively of deserving soldiers with great combat experience and served as military police. It supervised the Eastern Depot prison and carried out arrests and interrogations at its instigation. More generally, the Guard in brocade uniforms was responsible for all sensitive government missions. Through this tight network of intelligence surveillance, Yongle wanted to ensure that he was aware of everything inside and outside the palace. In this way, he could quickly counter possible agitators, but also check whether submissions and reports sent to him were true.
After his accession to the throne, Yongle still resided in Nanjing for the time being. There he had the Bao”en Temple with the famous Porcelain Pagoda built in honor of his mother as his first major building project. He renamed his old residence Beiping Shuntian (Obedient to Heaven).
As early as 1406, Yongle had it announced that he would move the capital to the north. In doing so, he renamed Shuntian Beijing, the Northern Capital. The construction plans were extensive. The emperor found both the imperial palace of Nanjing and the old palaces of the Mongols too small and not representative enough. The entire inner city of the former Dadu of the Yuan Khans was razed to the ground. Beijing was to be completely rebuilt. As an image of the world order, it comprised four districts, nested squarely within each other. In the center was built the Purple Forbidden City, which was about twice the size of the old palaces. Followed by the Imperial City, which contained imperial parks, the Western Lakes Palaces, and other residences for princes and officials. This was followed by the inner and outer residential cities for the ordinary population.
By the end of the Yongle reign, Beijing and its outlying districts already contained about 350,000 inhabitants. Since 1408, the emperor spent most of his time in Beijing to personally supervise the construction work. He left his crown prince, Zhu Gaozhi, in Nanjing, where he headed a provisional regency council and handled the day-to-day routine. Nanjing was not officially demoted to a secondary residence until 1421 and thus had to make way for Beijing as the seat of government.
The decisive points for moving the capital were, firstly, that Yongle wanted to leave the Nanjing region, as it seemed to him to be the least trustworthy. In Nanjing, his nephew Jianwen had ruled, and there were still forces working against him there. His old residence in the north was also his power base, where there were numerous powerful families who owed their rise to him. Second, the Mongol problem was still present. In faraway Nanjing, he was cut off from events on the borders. Since Yongle was planning an offensive policy against the northern territories, he needed spatial proximity to the steppe and short reaction times for the army. Beijing thus offered both domestic and foreign policy advantages.
Emperor Yongle also went down in history as one of the most active sons of heaven. In addition to the new palace district of Beijing, he had numerous large temple complexes built in his new capital, including the Temple of Heaven for the sacrifice to the highest cosmic order and many more famous buildings. In order to supply Beijing with sufficient food from the south, Yongle had the Imperial Canal restored and extended to the front of the city. The enormous quantities of goods that Beijing devoured soon made the canal the main trade route of the empire again.
The emperor was also active as a builder outside the capital. His building activities in the Wudang Mountains are particularly noteworthy. There he built a Daoist temple at a cost of over one million silver ounces, which was even elevated to a state shrine. The Wudang temple was dedicated to a Daoist god of war, quickly attracted large crowds of pilgrims and is still known today as the center of kungfu.
Emperor Yongle sought to consolidate China”s position in the world. He did not avoid foreign policy threats and enemies, but tried to make them harmless militarily. His rule was characterized by a high sense of mission to the outside world. The emperor not only wanted to make clear to all neighboring regions that the Middle Kingdom had regained its strength under a Han Chinese dynasty, but also to show that China was the hegemonic power of Asia, with the Son of Heaven at the center of the world order.
Ming-era China constantly felt threatened by the Mongol tribes living to the north. During the Yongle era, the expulsion of the Yuan Khans was just forty years ago. Therefore, China considered an invasion by Genghis Khan”s descendants to regain power or possible plundering campaigns a realistic threat. Yongle sought to eliminate this potential threat. Many Mongols had remained in China after 1368 and became loyal subjects of the Ming. This group could be used by the emperor to his advantage, both as elite soldiers and as instruments against their cousins from the steppes. Most loyal Mongol families were settled on the northern border in buffer zones. But Yongle also tried to pacify the hostile steppe dwellers with honorary titles and gifts. This rarely succeeded.
The Mongols had lost their former greatness and lived fragmented into two major political blocs, the Western and Eastern Mongols. The Western Mongols, also called the Oirats, were a fairly stable entity, but more distant from China. The Chalcha in the east, on the other hand, lived directly on China”s northern borders and posed an immediate threat to that extent, but on the other hand were at odds with each other. Yongle wanted to prevent any military reunion of the Mongol forces and further weaken the Mongols.
First, he extended the empire”s borders far to the northeast, where he established the Chinese province of Manchuria. The Jurchen of northern Manchuria were united in a protectorate by concluding treaties of alliance and friendship with them. This was to increase the pressure on the Mongols. However, when the Mongol general Arughtai was able to unite numerous tribes of the eastern Mongols and even had a Ming envoy executed, Yongle intensified his military ambitions. He attacked the Mongol territories in large-scale campaigns. Yongle personally commanded five campaigns against the Mongol tribes: 1409, 1410, 1414, 1423, and 1424, reportedly with a force of about 250,000 men, which the emperor led deep into Mongolia. In the process, he was able to inflict heavy defeats on the Mongols.
Although Yongle”s Mongol campaigns were considered successful, they were never crowned with a final victory. The capture of Arughtai could not be achieved, and time and again the Mongols managed to reorganize and raise new formations to defend themselves. Yongle was able to keep the northern tribes in check and conquer new territories in the north, but a final solution to the border problems in the north was never achieved either.
In 1400, the usurper Lê Loi killed the king of Annam from the house of Tran. As a result, various parties proclaimed their own king and sent envoys to the Ming court to legitimize their rule. The imperial court knew little about the events in Annam and accepted the representative of the Lê party with the information that the Tran family had died out.
However, when Yongle took office, a member of the Tran family laid claim to the Annamese throne and asked the emperor for help. Yongle also recognized his predecessor”s mistake and asked Lê to leave the throne to the rightful heir. Lê accepted the demand. When the legitimate Tran prince entered the country in 1405, accompanied by a Chinese expeditionary force and a Ming envoy, all were massacred on Lê”s orders. Since there was no other Tran representative, Yongle decided to integrate Annam into the empire as a new province and punish Lê.
In 1406, a Ming army invaded Annam and annexed the country, and Lê went into hiding. Yongle believed that since Annam had been a Chinese province from the Han to the Tang period, it was a natural part of China anyway. In addition, the emperor wanted to demonstrate China”s military strength. But the population stubbornly resisted the annexation to the Middle Kingdom, thus giving Lê the opportunity to resume the fight. A long war against rebel armies was the result.
The Annam War is considered the Yongle Emperor”s greatest mistake, as Annam was neither economically nor strategically attractive to China. His grandson Xuande took a more moderate stance toward Annam, ending the useless war and legitimizing the Lê dynasty as the new ruling house of Annam.
See main article: Zheng He
Among all the projects of Yongle, the voyages of the treasure fleet are among the most impressive. Immediately upon his accession to the throne, the emperor commissioned the construction of a fleet consisting of large junks (see Treasure Ship) and reportedly carrying 33,000 people in some 300 vessels. A major goal of his fleet policy was to inform seafaring countries that he was now the rightful ruler on China”s throne. Foreign rulers were to be intimidated by the size of the fleet, reflecting China”s superiority and splendor. Foreign kings were invited to come to the Ming imperial court in person or represented by an ambassador to submit to the Son of Heaven with the triple kowtow.
As commander-in-chief of his treasure fleet, Yongle chose his court eunuch Zheng He. Zheng He had arrived at the Yan court as a youth and had earned the prince”s trust there. During the Civil War, Zheng He successfully commanded an army company, and after Yongle took office, Zheng He remained one of the emperor”s most important confidants. Zheng He was suitable as an expedition leader because he belonged to the loyal group of eunuchs and because he was a Muslim. Yongle primarily wanted to make contact with areas where Islam was the predominant religion. Therefore, he gave the command to someone who was not only a trustworthy servant but also familiar with the peculiarities of foreign peoples.
On Yongle”s instructions, Zheng He undertook six major voyages between 1405 and 1422, which took him as far as the coasts of Arabia and Africa. However, he used routes that the Chinese had already been using for centuries with their junks, which is why the term “expedition” must be considered rather inappropriate. What was new, however, was the enormous size of the fleets, the fact that the emperor himself was the client, and the fact that profit was completely secondary in this undertaking. Zheng He was to engage in diplomacy and proclaim the splendor of China to all the countries visited. With great satisfaction, Emperor Yongle was able to welcome countless legations from all over South Asia to the capital, who willingly delivered their “tribute” to the Son of Heaven. Thus, Yongle actually succeeded in enormously increasing his prestige abroad.
The main political goal was overachieved, but the costs exceeded all trade profits. The treasure fleet was able to transport enormous quantities of goods, but these served solely to refinance the maintenance costs. Moreover, most of the transported items were intended as gifts for the emperor, so they were never sold and remained in the possession of the court. Among other things, Zheng He acquired a set of eyeglasses from Venice in Jeddah for his nearsighted master, a European invention that had been completely unknown in China until then. As overwhelming and successful as Zheng He”s sea voyages were, they were, on the other hand, a huge burden on the state budget. Therefore, many of the emperor”s advisors and ministers, even in Yongle”s time, strongly objected to a merchant fleet that had to be borne solely by the state and brought nothing but glory. For this reason, the elite of officials argued in favor of leaving it to private maritime trade.
Korea and Japan
In Korea, the Joseon Dynasty had been founded in 1392 by a coup d”état. Even as a prince in Yan, Zhu Di maintained good contacts with the Korean royal court. After Yongle”s violent takeover, the new Joseon dynasty was only too willing to accept the regime change in China. Since Korea was the richest Chinese vassal, it was also the most important among all the vassal states. Yongle showed gratitude for its quick submission to his suzerainty and presented it with rich gifts at audiences of his envoys.
Yongle also sought good contacts with Japan. Relations, which had often been strained in the past, were to be normalized. Yongle also planned to draw Japan into the sphere of his influence. But since the Japanese never were and never became Chinese vassals, they always acted with great self-confidence. A good opportunity for political offering presented itself when Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu sent an envoy to Yongle in 1403. Being in money trouble, the shogun sought to bring Japan”s very profitable China trade under his control. Yongle offered him a trade monopoly and financial benefits if he formally submitted. In fact, Yoshimitsu accepted the title of King of Japan and accepted numerous gifts from Yongle, which the shogun was proud to present. Ultimately, however, the title remained an office of no relevance and the influence of the Ming remained negligible after Yoshimitsu”s death; his successor also showed far less interest in China trade.
The Yongle Emperor died of a stroke on August 12, 1424, during his last campaign against the Mongols in Inner Mongolia at the age of 64. The emperor had already suffered several mild strokes in the years before, but had recovered each time. In 1424, already physically ailing, he set out from Beijing with his army for Mongolia. Apparently, on the way back, he suffered a last severe seizure, in the course of which he passed away four days later. Shortly before his death, he was still able to communicate a final instruction to his general Zhang Fu: Surrender the throne to the crown prince; follow the etiquette of the dynasty founder in matters of funeral dress, ceremonies, and sacrifice. His body was sealed in a pewter coffin and returned to Beijing, where national mourning was imposed and the new emperor initiated the official funeral ceremonies.
Yongle had been thinking about his final resting place for a long time. One thing was clear to him: he did not want to rest in Nanjing, but to create a new resting place in the north for himself and his successors. In the summer of 1407 Empress Xu died and the Yongle Emperor ordered the geomancers to start searching for a place for the imperial mausoleums. 50 km north of the capital, they found what they were looking for on the Mountain of Heavenly Longevity. There the emperor built the Changling Mausoleum for himself and his wives, which means home of eternal abiding.
The Changling 長陵 has monumental dimensions. It is also, in fact, the largest of the Ming imperial mausoleums and is ranked among the largest imperial tombs in China. It is a scaled-down version of the Forbidden City, with two large entrance gates, each followed by a forecourt. In the center is the Hall of Sacrifice (Hall of Heavenly Favor), which is an image of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Next come the Altar of Sacrifice and the Tower of Souls, followed by a tumulus of tombs three hundred meters in diameter. Under this is the underground palace of the dead emperor. In it Yongle was buried with a large number of precious grave goods. Following the burial tradition of the Mongolian Yuan emperors, ten of his concubines were also forced to follow him to his death. The changling remains unopened to this day. After Yongle”s death, all Ming emperors had their mausoleums built in the same auspicious valley according to the scheme of the Changling. The valley is known and appreciated today as the District of Ming Tombs.
The Yongle emperor was succeeded on the throne by his son Zhu Gaozhi as Hongxi, but he reigned only very briefly. Therefore, Yongle”s favorite grandson Zhu Zhanji ascended the throne soon after. As Xuande, he was to continue his grandfather”s policies. The Yongle emperor was considered a very successful ruler, but he left his son largely empty coffers. The construction of a huge new capital, an expensive foreign policy and a highly costly fleet policy had overstretched China”s state finances. Nevertheless, the Middle Kingdom was stronger internally and externally than it had been for five hundred years. Only the still blazing conflict in Annam was a burden for the Ming administration. The Yongle era went down in the history books as the beginning of a two-century era of internal peace in China.
His son gave Yongle the temple name Taizong, an honorary name granted only to the strong successor of a dynasty founder, making the honored one a co-founder. Emperor Jiajing later changed the name to Chengzu. The component zǔ 祖 is a particularly honorific word for ancestor and is actually only due to the dynasty founder. Jiajing thus elevated the status of his ancestor and wanted to emphasize that only Emperor Yongle had completed the foundation of the Ming dynasty. Jiajing thus granted the epithet zǔ 祖 (forefather) to a successor of a dynasty founder for the first time in history.
Buildings of the Yongle in Beijing:
Yongle”s buildings outside Beijing: