Determined to erase the stain of illegitimacy from his name, the Yongle Emperor of Ming China embarked on an unprecedented series of ambitious projects. He lengthened and widened the Grand Canal, which carried grain and other goods from southern China to Beijing in the north. He built the Forbidden City. He personally led a number of attacks against the Mongols, who threatened the Ming's northwestern flank.
Most notably of all, the Yongle Emperor, or Zhu Di, sent his faithful servant Zheng He and the medieval world's largest armada out on six voyages to the west. Zheng He returned with ambassadors, tribute and amazing beasts - but Zhu Di's name was never quite cleared.
Zhu Di's Early Life:
Zhu Di was born on May 2, 1360 to the future founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, and an unknown mother. Although officially the boy's mother was the future Empress Ma, rumors persist that his true biological mother was a Korean or Mongolian consort of Zhu Yuanzhang.
Some scholars even speculate that Zhu Di was actually the son of Toghun Temur, the last Yuan Emperor; they note that Zhu Di "inherited" some concubines from the defeated Mongol ruler, one of whom might have already been pregnant. Whatever his biological origins, Zhu Di was accepted as the third son of Zhu Yuanzhang.
Prince of Yan:
From an early age, according to Ming sources, Zhu Di proved more capable and courageous than his older brother Zhu Biao. However, according to Confucian principles, the eldest son should succeed to the throne - any deviation from the rule could spark a civil war.
As a teenager, Zhu Di became Prince of Yan, with his capital at Beijing. With his military prowess and aggressive nature, Zhu Di was well-suited to holding northern China against raids by the Mongols. At 16, he married the 14-year-old daughter of General Xu Da, who commanded the northern defense forces.
In 1392, Crown Prince Zhu Biao died suddenly of illness. His father had to choose a new successor: either the Crown Prince's teenaged son, Zhu Yunwen, or the 32-year-old Zhu Di.
The choice was not easy. One legend says that the emperor gave the two candidates the assignment of finishing a piece of poetry he had started.
The first line was "Wind blows the horse's tail into a thousand strands of thread." Zhu Yunwen said "Rain beats the sheep's wool into a flat piece of felt." Zhu Di's answer, however, was "Sun reflects off the dragons' scales into ten thousand bits of gold." (Levanthes, 61)
Despite Zhu Di's cleverer and more ambitious answer, the emperor did not make him crown prince. Zhu Yuanzhang's advisors all believed that it was dangerous to break the tradition of crowning first sons.
Path to the Throne:
In 1398, the first Ming emperor died. His grandson, Zhu Yunwen, became the Jianwen Emperor. The new emperor carried out his grandfather's orders that none of the other princes should bring their legions to observe his burial, for fear of civil war.
Bit by bit, the Jianwen Emperor stripped his uncles of their lands, power and armies. Zhu Bo, the prince of Xiang, was forced to commit suicide.
Zhu Di, however, feigned mental illness as he plotted a revolt against his nephew. In July 1399, he killed two of the Jianwen Emperor's officers, the first blow in his uprising.
That fall, the Jianwen Emperor sent a force of 500,000 against Beijing. Zhu Di and his army were out on patrol elsewhere, so the women of the city fended off the imperial army by throwing crockery at them until their soldiers returned, and routed Jianwen's forces.
By 1402, Zhu Di had made his way south to Nanjing, defeating the emperor's army at every turn. On July 13, 1402, as he entered the city, the imperial palace went up in flames. Three bodies, identified as those of the Jianwen Emperor, the empress, and their oldest son, were found among the charred wreckage. Nonetheless, rumors persisted that Zhu Yunwen had survived.
At the age of 42, Zhu Di took the throne under the name "Yongle," meaning "perpetual happiness." He immediately set about executing anyone who opposed him, along with their friends, neighbors and relatives to the tenth degree (a tactic invented by Qin Shi Huangdi).
He also ordered the construction of a large ocean-going fleet. Some believe that the ships were intended to search for Zhu Yunwen, whom some believed had escaped to Annam, northern Vietnam, or some other foreign land.
The Treasure Fleet:
Between 1403 and 1407, the Yongle Emperor's workmen along the coast built well over 1,600 oceangoing junks of various sizes. The largest were called "treasure ships," so the armada was called the Treasure Fleet.
In 1405, the first of seven voyages of the Treasure Fleet left for Calicut, India, under the direction of the Yongle Emperor's old friend, the eunuch Admiral Zheng He. The Yongle Emperor would oversee six voyages through 1422, and his grandson would launch a seventh in 1433.
The Treasure Fleet sailed as far as the east coast of Africa, projecting Chinese power throughout the Indian Ocean littoral, and gathering tribute from far and wide. The Yongle Emperor hoped that these exploits would rehabilitate his reputation after the bloody and anti-Confucian chaos by which he gained the throne.
Other Foreign Policy Issues:
Even as Zheng He set out on his first voyage in 1405, Ming China dodged a huge bullet from the west. The great conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) had been detaining or executing Ming envoys for years, and decided that it was time to conquer China in the winter of 1404-05.
Fortunately for the Yongle Emperor and all the Chinese, Timur became ill and died in what is now Kazakhstan. The Chinese seem to have been oblivious to the threat.
In 1406, the northern Vietnamese killed a Chinese ambassador and a visiting Vietnamese prince. The Yongle Emperor sent an army half a million strong to avenge the insult, conquering the country in 1407. However, Vietnam revolted in 1418 under the leadership of Le Loi, who founded the Le Dynasty, and China had lost control of nearly all Vietnamese territory by 1424.
Domestic Policies and Projects:
The Yongle Emperor considered it a priority to erase all traces of Mongolian cultural influence from China, following on his father's defeat of the ethnically-Mongol Yuan Dynasty. He did reach out to the Buddhists of Tibet, however, offering them titles and riches.
Transport was a perpetual issue early in the Yongle era. Grain and other goods from southern China had to be shipped along the coast, or else portaged from boat to boat up the narrow Grand Canal. The Yongle Emperor had the Grand Canal deepened and widened, as well as having it extended up to Beijing, a massive undertaking.
After the controversial palace fire in Nanjing that killed the Jianwen Emperor, and a later assassination attempt there against the Yongle Emperor, the third Ming ruler decided to permanently move his capital north to Beijing. He built a massive palace compound there, called the Forbidden City, whch was completed in 1420.
Decline and Death of the Yongle Emperor:
In 1421, Heaven turned against the Yongle Emperor. His favorite senior wife died in the spring. Two concubines and a eunuch were caught having sex, setting off a horrific purge of palace staff that ended with the Yongle Emperor executing hundreds or even thousands of his eunuchs, concubines and other servants.
Days later, a horse that had once belonged to Timur threw the emperor, whose hand was crushed in the accident. Worst of all, on May 9, 1421, three bolts of lightning struck the main buildings of the palace, setting the newly-completed Forbidden City on fire.
Contritely, the Yongle Emperor remitted grain taxes for the year and promised to halt all expensive foreign adventures, including the Treasure Fleet voyages. His experiment with moderation did not last long, however.
In late 1421, the Tatar ruler Arughtai declined to pay tribute to China. The Yongle Emperor flew into a rage, requisitioning over a million bushels of grain, 340,000 pack animals, and 235,000 porters from three southern provinces to supply his army during its attack on Arughtai.
The emperor's ministers opposed this rash attack; six of them ended up imprisoned or dead by their own hands as a result. (Levanthes, 160) Over the next three summers, the Yongle Emperor launched annual attacks against Arughtai and his allies, but never managed to find the Tatar forces.
On August 12, 1424, the 64-year-old Yongle Emperor died on the march back to Beijing after another fruitless search for the Tatars. His followers fashioned a coffin and carried him to the capital in secret. The Yongle Emperor was buried in a mounded tomb in the Tianshou Mountains, about twenty miles from Beijing.
Despite his own experience and misgivings, the Yongle Emperor had appointed his quiet, bookish eldest son Zhu Gaozhi as his successor. As the Hongxi Emperor, Zhu Gaozhi would lift tax burdens on peasants, outlaw foreign adventures and promote Confucian scholars to positions of power rather than palace eunuchs, as in his father's reign. The Hongxi Emperor survived his father for less than a year; his own eldest son, who became the Xuande Emperor in 1425, would combine his father's love of learning with his grandfather's martial spirit.
Levanthes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.