Zhengde Emperor

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Feb 26, 2023

Table of Content


Emperor Zhengde (Chinese: 正德, 26 October 1491 - 20 April 1521), originally known as Zhu Houzhao (Chinese: 厚照), was the tenth emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China, who ruled from 1505 to 1521. His epochal name Zhengde means right virtue or rectification of virtue.

Zhengde was appointed crown prince at a very early age. As his father had no concubines and only two sons, one of whom died in early childhood, Zhengde did not have to compete with other princes for the throne. Zhengde received a thorough education in Confucian literature and excelled in his studies. Many Hongzhi ministers expected Zhengde to become a benevolent and brilliant emperor like his father, but this did not happen.

Zhenge ascended the throne at the age of 14 and married the future empress. Unlike his father, Zhengde had no interest in ruling or his empress, and neglected all matters of state. His actions have been considered reckless, senseless or effortless. On many occasions he showed a lack of responsibility.

Zhengde led a luxurious and lavish life, and he was devoted to women. He is said to have enjoyed frequenting brothels and even established palaces known as "Bao Fang" (豹房, "leopard's chamber") outside the Forbidden City in Beijing, first housing exotic animals such as tigers and leopards for his amusement, and later beautiful women for his own pleasure. Once he was badly wounded while hunting tigers and could not receive audiences at court for a month. On another occasion, he set fire to his palace while storing gunpowder in its courtyard buildings during a lantern festival. His harem was so full that many of its women starved to death because they could not be supplied with enough food.

Zhengde often spent months at a time outside the Forbidden City, travelling around the country at great expense, paid for out of the imperial funds. When urged to return to the palace and take care of government affairs, he refused to receive any of his ministers and rejected all their requests. Zhengde also allowed eunuchs to rise to high positions. One of them, Liu Jin, the leader of the Eight Tigers, became particularly notorious for taking advantage of the young emperor and squandering an extraordinary amount of silver and valuables. The losses to the empire amounted to 36 million pounds of gold and silver. There were even rumours that Liu Zin was planning to assassinate the emperor and place his own grandson on the throne. Lui Jin's plots were eventually exposed and he was executed in 1510, but the corrupt eunuchs remained influential throughout the Zhengde reign.

During the Zhengde period, two rebellions broke out in the country, the first led by Prince Zhu Zhifan of Anhua, the second by Prince Zhu Chenhao of Ning. The Prince of Anhua was the great uncle of Zhengde, the Prince of Ning his great uncle.

In time, Zhengre attracted attention, not only for his abuse of the emperor's power, but also for his childish behaviour. For example, he set up a marketplace inside the palace and ordered all his ministers, eunuchs, soldiers and servants to dress as merchants or street vendors while he passed through the area posing as an ordinary citizen. The ministers considered the requirement unworthy and insulting to their dignity, but anyone who refused to take part in the display, or only took part reluctantly, was punished or dismissed from office.

In 1518, Zhengde proclaimed himself General Zhu (鎮國公朱壽) and led a campaign north to defeat an invasion of tens of thousands of men led by a Mongol general dubbed "The Little Prince". He met the enemy outside the city of Yingzhou and defeated them in a great battle surrounding himself. For a long time after this battle, the Mongols made no further incursions into China. In 1519, Zhenge led a second campaign south into Jiangxi province to defeat the rebellion of Prince Ning, led by Zhu Chenhao, who had recruited several members of the Zhengde court. On arrival, he discovered that the local administrator Wang Shouren had already defeated the rebellion. Disappointed that he could not lead his troops to victory, Zhengde's adviser suggested that the leader of the rebellion should be released so that he could be recaptured. In January 1521, the rebellious prince of Ning was executed in Tongzhou, Beijing, on Zhengde's orders, a fact also noted by the Portuguese embassy in China.

Foreigners greatly fascinated Emperor Zhengde, and he invited many Muslims to his court as advisors, eunuchs and ambassadors.

European authors such as Bret Hinsch, in his controversial book Passions of the cut sleeve: the male homosexual tradition in China, wrote that Emperor Zhengde had a homosexual relationship with a Muslim leader from the city of Ham, Sayyid Husain, who served as governor of Ham during the Ming-Turpan border wars, although this claim has no support in Chinese sources.

Emperor Zhengde also had relations with many Muslim women. He was interested in the daughters of many of his officials. Another Muslim in his court, the medieval Yu Ying, sent Uyghur dancers to Zhengde's court for sexual purposes. The emperor was fond of foreign women, especially Mongols and Uyghurs. He took as his favourite first wife a Uyghur woman surnamed Ma, who had received military and musical training, learned archery and horse riding, could sing Turkestan songs and speak many languages.

The first direct European contact with China took place under Zhengde's rule. Several expeditions led by Afonso de Albuquerque from Malacca in Portugal and Portuguese explorers Jorve Álvares and Rafael Peresterello landed in southern China and traded with the Chinese in Tuen Mun and Canton. In 1513, King Manuel I of Portugal sent Fernão Pires de Andrade and Tomé Pires to officially open relations between the courts of Beijing and Lisbon. Although Zhengde greeted the Portuguese embassy during his visit to Nanking in May 1520, he died shortly afterwards, and officials led by the new General Secretary Yang Tinghe expelled from China the Portuguese, who were rumoured to have caused unrest in Canton and even eaten the flesh of Chinese children they had abducted. Although illegal trade continued thereafter, official relations between Portugal and the Ming court did not improve until the 1540s, culminating in the Ming court allowing Portugal to establish Macau as its trading base in China.

The Malay Sultanate of Malacca was a vassal state and ally of the Ming Dynasty-ruled Chinese. When Portugal invaded Malacca in 1511 and committed atrocities there, the Chinese took violent countermeasures against Portugal.

The Chinese imperial government imprisoned and executed many Portuguese ambassadors, who were first tortured in Canton. The Chinese had been informed by the Malaccans of Portuguese activities in Malacca, to which the Chinese responded by engaging in hostilities against Portugal. According to the Malaka, the Portuguese were planning to conquer the area under the pretext of trade and had committed atrocities against the local population.

Because the Sultan of Malacca had complained to the Chinese Emperor about the Portuguese invasion, the Chinese considered the Portuguese their enemies when they later arrived in China. The Sultan of Malacca, who had settled in Bintan after fleeing from Malacca, sent a message to the Chinese which, together with the pillaging and violence by the Portuguese, led the Chinese authorities to execute 23 Portuguese and torture others in dungeons. When the Portuguese set up trading bases in China and engaged in piracy and raiding, the Chinese responded by killing all the Portuguese in Ningbo and Quanzhou. One of those killed was Pires, a Portuguese trade envoy.

The Chinese defeated the Portuguese fleet at the First Battle of Tamao in 1521, killing and capturing so many Portuguese that the Portuguese had to abandon their junk and retreat with only three ships. These allowed them to return to Malacca, as the wind scattered the Chinese fleet as they attempted their final assault.

The Chinese held Portuguese envoys hostage to demand that the Portuguese return the deposed Sultan or King of Malacca to his throne. Many of them were executed or tortured and kept in chains. They also confiscated all their property, especially from the Pires embassy.

To the deposed Sultan of Malacca, the Chinese sent a message concerning the fate of the captured Portuguese embassy. When he replied, the Chinese officials decided to execute the members of the Portuguese embassy and dismember their bodies. The Chinese executed them in several places in Canton, in public, to show that Portugal was irrelevant from the Chinese point of view. As Portuguese ships continued to arrive in Chinese ports, their crews were also beheaded, their genitals cut off, and the remaining Portuguese were forced to dress in the parts of the executed bodies, while the Chinese celebrated and played music.

Before the emperor's death in 1521, rumours spread of mysterious creatures roaming the capital, known as the "Dark Harassers" (黑眚), who caused much unrest by attacking residents at night at random and inflicting wounds with their claws. The War Ministry asked the emperor to issue an order that local security forces should arrest anyone who caused terror in other people. Once such an order was issued, the threat of punishment quickly stopped the stories from spreading.

Emperor Zhengde was said to have been drunk while sailing on a lake in the autumn of 1520, when his boat capsized and he almost drowned. He survived, but later fell ill in the waters of the Imperial Canal and died at the age of 30 in 1521. As none of his many children were still alive, he was succeeded as emperor by his cousin Zhu Houcong, who became Emperor Jiajing. Zhengde's tomb is in the Ming Dynasty burial ground at Kangling.

Despite attempts to raise Zhengde to be a successful ruler, he completely neglected his duties and set in motion a dangerous trend that would plague later emperors of the Ming dynasty. The abandonment of official duties in favour of personal pleasures gradually led to the increasing transfer of power to the eunuchs of the court, and ultimately to the downfall of the Ming dynasty.

However, several modern historians have reassessed him and concluded that his actions and those of his successors such as Wanli were a reaction to the bureaucracy that plagued the Ming dynasty in the second half of its reign. The emperors had little opportunity to influence policy decisions and could not implement lasting reforms when they were clearly needed at a time when they were under constant pressure and held responsible for all the difficulties the dynasty faced. As a result, ministers became increasingly disillusioned with their posts and lost hope for the better, and expressed their protests in ways that effectively amounted to a strike. As a result, emperors like Zhengde preferred to stay outside the palace, while Jiajing and Wanli simply did not show their faces at court.

In the 1959 film Kingdom and Beauty (江山美人), Emperor Zhengde pretends to be a commoner among his people.

The film Chinese Odyssey 2002 is based on the story of Zhengde's visit to Zhejiang province.


  1. Zhengde Emperor
  2. Zhengde
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  11. ^ Divenne noto per la sua condotta di approfittatore che gli fruttò ben 36 milioni di tonnellate tra oro e argento, rendendolo uno degli uomini più ricchi della Cina dell'epoca
  12. ^ Wintle, Justin. Guides, Rough. [2002] (2002). China. ISBN 1-85828-764-2. p 244-245.
  13. ^ ??????
  14. 1 2 Китайская биографическая база данных (англ.)

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