Sunday, June 15, 2014

Emperor Yongle: Usurper and Builder

Emperor Yongle
He was an Emperor that thought large. He had high ambition which drove him to power. After power was his, he continued to think big; and he was determine to realize it. From his dark rise came an open and majestic China. A China that that had a new imperial capital and a new splendor for its rulers and officials to enjoy. A China that stretched its reaches as far as Africa. This was the reign of Emperor Yongle.

Emperor Yongle (1360-1424) was the Ming Emperor from 1402 to 1424. Yongle was born as Zhudi. Zhudi was the fourth son of Emperor Hongwu, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. He received good education. But he practically excelled well in military affairs. During his time as Prince he was sent by the Emperor to the north to watch over the borders against marauding Mongols.

In 1398, Emperor Hongwu died. The throne fell to his grandson, Prince Yunwen. Pince Yunwen took the reign name Jianwen. Emperor Jianwen was still in active years. He proved to be energetic. He wanted to carry out reforms in order to strengthen the central government. This could have been his greatest mistake. Because of his planned reforms, many aristocracy who have semi-autonomous status were threatened to lose their control. Because of this, many noble were threatened.

Zhudi exploited this concern. He was an ambitious man. He wanted not just to be a mere prince and uncle of the Emperor. He wanted to be the Emperor himself. And so in 1399 he rose up to arms against the Emperor. A civil war began. Sadly for Emperor Jianwen, he lost the war in 1402 when the Ming capital, Nanjing fell in Zhudi’s hands. A fire erupted in the imperial palace. But as the flames died down, Emperor Jianwen was missing, his fate was unknown. Besides the disappearance of Emperor Jianwen, a new Emperor rose, Zhudi usurped the throne as Emperor Yongle or Perpetual Happiness.

The first years of Yongle’s reign were bloody. To secure the throne, he had his opponents within the imperial family executed. Next to the imperial family, he launched a purge of government officials loyal to the late Emperor. He also ordered the clearing of records of Emperor Jianwen’s reign. It would take a year to ease his purges.

In 1403, he launched a major intellectual project. He ordered a creation of an encyclopedia. He commissioned more than 2,000 scholars to work on the project. They were to compile and record knowledge about various fields, from the sciences, to medicine, to history, and most importantly Confucianism. When the Yongle Encyclopedia was finished in 1407, it was in epic proportions. In was composed of 11,095 volumes and 917,480 pages. All were painstakingly hand written.

To make a true fresh start, Emperor Yongle decided to move his capital. He chose a location that close to his heart – Beijing. It was in Beijing where he stayed when he posted to the north and guard the northern frontiers. He ordered the creation of an Imperial City within the city. It was to serve as residence of government officials and their family. And at the center of the Imperial City, another city was also to be constructed, the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was to be one of his greatest legacy. Completed in 1421, its construction was a matter of prestige as well as recognition. It was to show the great power he wielded. Also, it was a way to redeem himself from his usurpation of the throne. He wanted to create a heaven in earth. A city palace that was perfect harmony in Feng Shui terms.

The moving of the capital was not easy however. The whole city was in a cold desolate place. Food must be brought via the Grand Canal from the south. It was also 40 km away from the Great Wall of China, thus, it was it great risk. But Yongle was persistent. He wanted firmly to move his capital. In 1406, constructions of his specifications began.

As part of the effort to move the capital, Emperor Yongle ordered the renovation and expansion of the Grand Canal. The Grand Canal was vital in supplying food to Beijing from the agricultural south. It was also important to bring construction materials into the new capital city. New dikes and hydraulics systems were placed in order to make the canal more efficient.

Meanwhile, Yongle made efforts to make his government efficient. He created a committee that would be known as the Grand Secretaries. It was to be composed of seven competent and trustworthy officials. During the first appointments, Yongle placed officials which came from the prestigious Confucian school of Hanlin. Appointment to the post of Grand Secretaries was a lifetime job, which would provide security of tenure and result to a more efficient and continuous work.

Although Yongle gave jobs to civil service passers, his reign saw heavy reliance on palace servants or Eunuchs. Eunuch were castrated male servants of the Emperor. Yongle trusted them not just with his wives but also with different affairs. Because of their castration, Eunuchs were less susceptible of corruption because they won’t have any sons to pass wealth to. Several Eunuchs rose to prominence because of Yongle. First was Nguyen An, he was a Vietnamese slave made into a Eunuch. He was responsible for the renovation and expansion of the Grand Canal. But he was more famous for his marvelous work - the Forbidden City. Another great Eunuch that Yongle promoted was the famous Zheng He.

Zheng He was trusted by the Emperor very much. He was first sent in 1409 in Yunnan Province to crush a small rebellion. Later, he was to be appointed to supervise the construction of an armada. The armada was the largest of its kind during that time. Its treasure ships were enormous compared to their counterparts in Europe or anywhere else. The largest of the ships sized 385 x 440 ft. in length. It height was 150 x 180 ft. After the construction of the fleet, he was placed to command it and expand the reaches of the Empire. Seven voyages would be commanded by Zheng He. It brought him to Southeast Asia, then to the Indian Ocean, and reach as far as East Africa. Legends and speculations even pushed it further up to America, creating theories that Zheng He first discovered the New World.

There were various reasons for the expeditions. According to Ming annals it was an investigating team that was to go to Southeast Asia to check the rumors of the said whereabouts of the late Emperor Jianwen. It was also a way to further cement his legitimacy by increasing the number tributary states that recognize him as Emperor.

Yongle’s military exploits made justice of his victories in the Civil War. In 1407, he ordered the annexation of Tonkin in modern day Vietnam. However, the invasion was unwelcomed by the natives. A bitter guerrilla insurgency ensued and would continue for decades. Much of Yongle’s military campaigns, however, would focus in the north. Securing the northern border was a key to secure Beijing, the new capital. Yongle would personally lead 5 expeditions against the marauding Mongols: in 1410, 1414, 1422, 1423, and 1424. Some were successful and did not even faced combat.

The 1424 expedition was last of his military campaigns. On that same year, Emperor Yongle, the third Ming Emperor passed away. He was succeeded by his son that took the reign name Hongxi.

Yongle was one of the most controversial but famous emperor. Although he started as a ruthless usurper of the throne, he worked hard for his Empire. His legacy could be seen from the monuments that he erected. If it was not because of him, the modern world would not have the opulence that is the Forbidden City. It was also he who expanded the knowledge of China about the great expanse of the world through the voyages of Zheng He. Emperor Yongle would continue to be remembered and criticized for his deeds.

See also:
The Golden Age of Manchu Dynasty - Emperor Kangxi
Emperor Hongwu: Founder, General, Executioner
Emperor Yongle: Usurper and Builder
Wu Zentian: Only Woman Emperor of China
The Last Great Manchu Emperor

Chase, K. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Perkins, D. Encyclopedia of China: An Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013. 

Tsai, S.H. The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996. 

Roberts, J. The History of China. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

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