1426, Bingwu Year
Xuande Reign, the 1st Year
Zhu Gaoxu, the Prince of Han, rises in revolt. The Xuande Emperor personally leads a campaign against this sedition and besieges the rebel stronghold of Le’an (in present day Shandong Province). The Prince of Han submits to defeat and confesses to treason. He and his family are sent to the northern capital and confined in a dwelling in the southwestern part of the imperial palace. Over six hundred and forty accomplices are sentenced to death and the rest are banished to the frontier.
1427, Dingwei Year
Xuande Reign, the 2nd Year
Zhu Qizhen, the eldest son of the emperor, is born to Honored Consort Sun. Honored Consort Sun surreptitiously takes a palace woman’s son as her own, as recorded in the Comprehensive Mirror of the Ming (Ming tongjian). She is excessively favored by the emperor for the birth of the son.
1428, Wushen Year
Xuande Reign, the 3rd Year
The emperor installs Zhu Qizhen as his heir apparent. Empress Hu requests to demit her position. The emperor accompanies the empress dowager to visit the Western Garden and climb the Hill of Myriad Years (Wansui shan) to celebrate to her longevity.
Empress Hu demits her position and resides in the Palace of Eternal Peace (Chang’an gong). Honored Consort Sun is elevated to empress.
The emperor is accompanied by Jian Yi and Yang Rong on his inspection of the frontier, which is a measure taken against possible northern revolts. The second son of the emperor, Zhu Qiyu, is born to Worthy Consort Wu.
1429, Jiyou Year
Xuande Reign, the 4th Year
The emperor visits the confined Prince of Han, but is deliberately tripped by the vengeful prince. The furious emperor orders his men to place the errant prince in a large bronze vat, which is then heated, burning the prince to death. All his sons are subsequently executed.
The emperor conducts military training on the outskirts of the capital and hunts at Yukou.
1430, Gengxu Year
Xuande Reign, the 5th Year
On Tomb Sweeping Day, the emperor, accompanied by the empress dowager, worships at Changling (the Yongle Emperor’s tomb) and Xianling (the Hongxi Emperor’s tomb). The emperor rides a horse and leads the way for the empress dowager. Upon reaching the Qinghe Bridge, the emperor dismounts and leads his horse to a peasant family's home. The empress dowager tries the food and wine and says, “An emperor should know the taste of the countryside.”
The emperor instructs Zheng He to take another maritime expedition.
1432, Renzi Year
Xuande Reign, the 7th Year
A man spouts defamatory views outside the West Prosperity Gate (Xihua men). Guards apprehend him, and he is taken to see the emperor. He continues his ranting. Court officials request the man be sent to the judiciary office. The emperor says, "Ancient Sage Rulers never accused slanderous subjects. How could I convict such a man? Release him."
1434, Jiayin Year
Xuande Reign, the 9th Year
State ministers greet the heir apparent at the Hall of Literary Brilliance (Wenhua dian). The heir apparent is but eight years old (in sui).
The emperor says: “Although all is well in Our realm, We ought not neglect military preparedness.” He personally leads an army for frontier inspection accompanied by Yang Shiqi, Yang Rong, Yang Pu, and Hu Ying, and returns in the tenth month.
The emperor falls ill.
1435, Yimao Year
Xuande Reign, the 10th Year
The emperor's illness prohibits him from attending audiences. He orders court officials to assemble and report to the heir apparent in the Hall of Literary Brilliance (Wenhua dian). On the third day, the emperor dies in the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) at the age of thirty-eight. His final testament reads, “Crucial state affairs shall be reported to the empress dowager. The heir apparent Zhu Qizhen shall ascend to the throne, with the following year as the first year of his Zhengtong reign.” The heir apparent is merely nine years old (in sui). A rumor spreads saying the empress dowager intends for the Prince of Xiang to claim the throne. Grand Secretaries Yang Shiqi and Yang Rong lead a host of court officials to the imperial palace to greet the heir apparent in the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong). The empress dowager soon arrives, declaring the heir apparent to be the new emperor. Officials immediately pay homage to Zhu Qizhen. The rumor is put to rest. On the eleventh day, the construction of the Xuande Emperor's tomb begins. On the twenty-fifth day, the posthumous title and the temple name of the late Xuande Emperor are designated.
The empress dowager is elevated to the grand empress dowager. The widowed empress is named empress dowager. At times, officials request the dowagers to attend state affairs behind a screen, but she refuses. She defers negligible matters, has the palace cleared of recreational items, and exhorts the newly enthroned emperor to be studious. Crucial state affairs sent to the dowagers are delivered to the Grand Secretariat by her order, waiting to be implemented after discussion by Yang Shiqi and other grand secretaries. On the ninth day, the emperor’s younger brother Zhu Qiyu is designated as the Prince of Cheng.
Over 3,800 music performers from the Music Office are discharged, while more than 17,000 forced laborers are freed.
The late Xuande Emperor is buried at Jingling (ling meaning tomb).
The eunuch Wang Zhen is designated as the Directorate of Ceremonial. In his youth, he was elected to attend the Eunuch School and later served the emperor in the Eastern Palace, craftily earning the sovereign's favor.
The Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1435)
The Xuande Emperor, Zhu Zhanji (temple name Emperor Xuanzong), was the eldest son of Emperor Renzong, the Hongxi Emperor Zhu Gaochi (r. 1425), and his chief consort née Zhang. The Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424) showed marked affection towards this grandson. Therefore, in 1411, soon after his father had been designated heir apparent, Zhu Zhanji was formally installed by the emperor as imperial grandson. The Yongle Emperor took him on his second Mongolian campaign and ordered the boy be instructed in Confucian letters and government by Hanlin Academicians. Some people believe that it was out of his affection toward Zhu Zhanji that the Yongle Emperor installed Zhu Gaochi as heir apparent in spite of his obvious lack of confidence in him. In the summer of 1425, the Hongxi Emperor fell ill and died in the following day in the Hall of Imperial Peace (Qin’an dian). Zhu Zhanji formally ascended the throne as the Xuande Emperor.
During the ten years of the Xuande reign, the “three Yangs” (Yang Shiqi [1365-1444], Yang Rong [1371-1440], and Yang Pu [1372-1446]) along with Minister Jian Yi (1364-1435) and Xia Yuanji (1366-1430) formed a steady if slightly conservative nucleus to assist the new emperor in government affairs. Upon his enthronement, he was immediately confronted by his uncle Zhu Gaoxu’s rebellion. In 1417 (the fifteenth year of the Yongle reign), the emperor uncovered the Prince of Han Zhu Gaoxu’s conspiracy against the heir apparent and banished him from the capital to a small fief in Le’an (today’s Huimin, Shandong province). In the fall of 1426 (eighth lunar month of the first year of the Xuande reign), shortly after the Xuande Emperor was enthroned, the Prince of Han made an attempt to repeat the earlier rebellion of the Prince of Yan against the Jianwen Emperor (r. 1399-1402). At the urging of his officials such as the “Three Yangs”, the Xuande Emperor took personal command of an expedition to Le’an to quell the uprising. To consolidate imperial authority, he reduced Zhu Gaoxu to commoner status and imprisoned him in Beijing.
In order to relieve the state from military burdens, the Xuande Emperor abolished the Yongle Emperor’s military policies towards Annam which aimed at annexation of this neighboring state; he ordered a complete withdrawal of the Chinese occupation armies and restored Annam’s independence. This decision removed the serious financial and military burden imposed by these futile operations. It also contributed to the restoration of Annam’s relations with the Chinese empire.
Following his father’s policies of retrenchment, the Xuande Emperor brought significant administrative changes and institutional development. He dismissed delinquent officials who could not live up to their responsibilities. Under his rule, many government institutions were streamlined and capable and competent court officials were dispatched to fill posts in local administrations such as prefect (zhifu). The emperor also reformed the system of provincial governorship. He formalized the appointment of Grand Coordinator in some important provinces and later in vital areas of defense on the northern frontiers, mainly to maintain fiscal order on the local level.
Meanwhile, he strictly limited the number of officials, appointed officials through recommendation and through evaluation of their popularity and efficiency. He responded promptly to droughts, floods and epidemics by implementing various remedial measures to stricken regions, such as tax remission and restoration of refugees to work. His relief measures contributed substantially to the social stability during his reign.
A highly-cultured ruler, the Xuande Emperor was also known for his indulgence in hunting, cricket-fighting, and other diversions. Several paintings by his own hand and some court paintings depicting his entertainments can be found in the Palace Museum collection, such as Zhuge Liang (181-234) in Repose, Auspicious Beginning of a New Year, Hunting (later renamed The Ming Emperor Xuanzong Hunting) and Enjoying Pleasure (later renamed The Ming Emperor Xuanzong Enjoying Himself).
At the beginning of 1435 (the tenth year of the Xuande reign), shortly after Spring Festival (the third day of the first lunar month), the Xuande Emperor died in the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) at the age of thirty-eight sui. He was canonized as Zhang Huangdi (literally “Distinguished Emperor”). With the temple name Xuanzong (literally “Penetrating Ancestor”), he is buried in Reverence Mausoleum (Jing ling) in Changping on the outskirts of Beijing.
Lady Sun, Empress Xiaogong of the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1435)
Introduction: Lady Sun was brought up in the Ming palace. She adopted a son of a lady-in-waiting, gaining her the position of the primary consort of the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1435). Whether as a consort or an empress dowager, she received favor and honor.
Lady Sun (? -1462) was the daughter of a low-ranking official in Shandong province. As a pretty teenage girl, she was adopted by the chief wife of the crown prince of the Yongle Emperor, and later she was given to Zhu Zhanji, the future Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1435). According to Ming dynasty court law, only the emperor’s primary consort had a seal certifying her position. But Lady Sun was so much in favor that she was bestowed a seal, too. Hence, since the Xuande reign, consorts could have seals.
The empress of the Xuande Emperor, Lady Hu, had no sons; neither did Lady Sun. But Sun secretly adopted a son who later became the Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1436-1449). Sun’s efforts had gained her even more favor. Feeling the threat from Lady Sun, the empress Hu asked to be allowed to retire, a wise device to save face and to maintain her reputation. In 1428 the Xuande Emperor removed Lady Hu and elevated Lady Sun to Empress.
In 1435 the Xuande Emperor died. Sun’s adopted son Zhu Qizhen succeeded to the throne as the Zhengtong Emperor. Thus Lady Sun was venerated as Empress Dowager. In 1449, the emperor was captured by the Mongolian Oirat troops. During the year he was held by the enemy, Lady Sun sent cotton clothing to him. After his capture, his younger brother ascended the throne as the Jingtai Emperor. When Xuande was released in 1450, he was put under house arrest. Lady Sun, still the empress dowager, visited him many times. In 1457 with the Jingtai ailing, with the support of his old subordinates in the military, and with the empress dowager’s approval, Zhu Qizhen quietly planned to resume rule. In the first lunar month of 1457 Zhu Qizhen re-ascended the throne as the Tianshun Emperor, and granted the empress dowager a special title. It was from this time that palace ladies while still alive could have titles of honor.
Lady Sun died in 1462. No one knows who was the biological mother of the Zhengtong Emperor.