1436, Bingchen Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 1st Year
The Classics Colloquium for the newly enthroned emperor begins. Grand Preceptor and Duke of the State of Ying Zhang Fu is commissioned to organize the session. Grand Secretaries Yang Shiqi and Yang Rong and Chancellor Yang Pu, known as the “three Yangs”, are designated to preside over the colloquium and assist the emperor. The Vice Supervisor of the Household Wang Zhi and eight other court officials concurrently hold the posts of lecturer, while Confucius officials including Hanlin academicians serve as expositors-in-waiting. The colloquium is scheduled once a month, and clear etiquette is established. The eunuch Wang Zhen and Director of the Bureau of Evaluation Li Maohong feel the monthly sessions are merely a vain formality and believe the emperor and the lecturers will not communicate well during the session. In the early days of the new emperor’s reign, as soon as the Classics Colloquium begins, Wang Zhen distracts the young emperor with troop inspections and military officers’ horse-riding and archery performances. Gradually, Wang wins the trust of the emperor and monopolizes power. He continually intervenes in state affairs, and the grand empress dowager plots to kill him but eventually fails.
1440, Gengshen Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 5th Year
The reconstruction of the imperial palace begins. It has been nearly two decades since the palace complex was partially destroyed by fire during the Yongle reign. The eunuch Ruan An (1381-1453), Commander-in-chief Shen Qing, and Minister of Works Wu Zhong are assigned to supervise the reconstruction of the three main halls, namely, the Hall of Venerating Heaven (Fengtian dian), Hall of Splendid Canopy (Huagai dian), and Hall of Scrupulous Behavior (Jinshen dian) as well as the renovation of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunning gong). More than seventy thousands workers and soldiers contribute to the project.
Fond of Buddhism and Taoism, every year Wang Zhen uses his power granted by the young emperor to ordain prospective Buddhist monks and Taoist priests. In all, he issues more than 22,300 ordination certificates. (At the time, Buddhist monks and Taoist priests were exempt from taxes and corvée and enjoyed free mobility. Usually those seeking ordination were required to take an examination and prove themselves versed in religious texts, but many were received through bribery.)
1441, Xinyou Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 6th Year
Yu Qian (1398-1457), the vice minister of the Ministry of War, has a good reputation among the people due to his kindness and severity as the grand coordinator of Shanxi Province. Every time he returns to the capital to report to the emperor, he never privately pays homage to the potent eunuch Wang Zhen as other timid or sycophantic bureaucrats. Wang hates him for this and asks the commissioner of the Office of Transmission to impeach Yu Qian on the false charge of Yu Qian holding a grudge for not receiving promotion. The judicial office sentences Yu to death, but releases him three months later and transfers him to serve the vice minister of the Court of Judicial Review. More than a thousand officials and people from Shanxi and Henan petition to let Yu Qian stay. Eventually Yu resumes his former post.
A feast is held to celebrate the reconstruction of buildings in the imperial palace. Civil officials and military officers are both invited to attend. From the founding of Ming rule, eunuchs have been prohibited from attending public feasts like this. However, during the feast, the emperor asks why Wang Zhen is not present and orders to open the middle door of the East Prosperity Gate (Donghua men) to summon Wang Zhen. Wang arrives, unsettled, but when he sees all the officials and officers waiting for and greeting him outside the gate, he is overjoyed.
1442, Renxu Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 7th Year
Lady Qian is appointed as empress. Minister of Works Wu Zhong (1373-1442) retires. The imperial palace (also known as the Forbidden City) and the Changling, Xianling, and Jingling tombs were all designed and constructed under his supervision. These architectural complexes are well planned and orderly laid out.
Grand Empress Dowager Zhang dies, which encourages Wang Zhen in even more unscrupulous behavior. The emperor begins to attend court audiences and discuss state affairs with officials.
The grand empress dowager is buried in the Xianling tomb, with her posthumous title "Sincere and Filial" (cheng xiao). Since the grand empress dowager has died, the iron plaque, which is inscribed with a warning against the infiltration of eunuchs in political affairs, placed in the palace during the Hongwu reign, is secretly removed and destroyed per Wang Zhen's order.
1443, Guihai Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 8th Year
The late Xuande Emperor's empress who demitted her position, Lady Hu, dies.
1444, Jiazi Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 9th Year
Grand Secretary Yang Shiqi dies at the age of eighty.
1446, Bingyin Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 11th Year
Grand Secretary Yang Pu dies.
1447, Dingmao Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 12th Year
The eldest imperial son Zhu Jianshen is born to Honored Consort Zhou.
1449, Jisi Year
Ming Dynasty: Zhengtong, 14th Year
It is reported that the Mongolian chieftain Esen is harassing subjects on the outskirts of Datong ten times a day. The eunuch Wang Zhen urges the emperor to personally confront the Mongolian invaders and make his mark as a military leader as his ancestors, but Minister of War Kuang Ye, Vice Minister of War Yu Qian, and Minister of Personnel Wang Zhi lead various officials in submitting memorials dissuading the emperor from such action. The emperor rejects their proposal and announces a personally led military campaign. He leaves his younger brother Zhu Qiyu, the Prince of Cheng, to manage state affairs.
On the fourteenth day, the Ming troops camp at Tumu, a small military guard station southeast of today’s Huailai, Hebei Province. Esen’s Mongolian troops lay siege to the Ming forces, and the emperor is captured. Casualties number in the hundreds of thousands, and more than fifty civil officials are killed. It is known as the “Incident at Tumu” (Tumu bao zhi bian). In Beijing, on the seventeenth day court officials assemble at the palace to mourn the debacle. The following day the empress dowager designates the Prince of Cheng as de facto ruler. Expositor-in-waiting Xu Cheng proposes to withdraw to the south, but Minister of Rites Hu Ying (1375-1463) disagrees. The courageous Vice Minister of War Yu Qian bitterly opposes Xu saying, “He who urges relocation to the south should be beheaded! The capital is the foundation of the empire! If we relocate, we admit failure! Have you not studied the Southern Song’s retreat to the south of the Yangtze River? Please immediately gather the imperial guard and defend the capital to the death!” Other court officials concur. The eunuchs Xing An, Jin Ying, and Bei Yongchang ask the empress dowager who will guard the imperial ancestral tombs if the family moves to the south. There is no retreat to the south. The Prince of Cheng heads the entire bureaucracy and reports to the empress dowager. Yu Qian commands the military and food supply. The population is relatively put at ease. On the twenty-first day, Yu Qian is promoted as the minister of war and commands the defense of Beiping. On the twenty-second day, the empress dowager installs Zhu Jianshen as the heir apparent and reaffirms the Prince of Cheng's leadership over the empire. The following day the Prince of Cheng attends audience with court officials at the left gate of the Meridian Gate (Wu men). Chen Yi (1389-1456), the right censor-in-chief, with other fellow officials accuse Wang Zhen of treachery and call for his execution, as well as that of his clan, to pacify the anger of the people after bringing such disaster to the country. Seeing the Prince of Cheng's hesitation, Wang’s sycophant Ma Shun demands for him to oppose such action and is struck dead by angry officers. Two of Wang Zhen's supporters are also beat to death on site. Wang’s nephew is caught, spit upon, and cursed, while guards and officials are caught up in the chaos at court. The Prince of Cheng is umbfounded by these happenings. Not knowing what to do, he attempts an exit but is stopped by Yu Qian, who requests him to declare the legitimacy of Ma Shun's killing. The Prince of Cheng consents, and the court is appeased. Wang Zhen and his clan members are executed, his residence is searched, and his property and extravagant fortune is confiscated.
Court officials petition the empress dowager for a new emperor to be enthroned since the heir apparent is too young. The empress dowager accepts their suggestion and designates the Prince of Cheng as successor. The Prince of Cheng declines. Later the regional military commissioner Yue Qian is sent as an envoy to the Mongolian Oyrat where the Zhengtong Emperor is held captive. When he returns, he brings with him the emperor’s edict to pass the throne to the Prince of Cheng. The prince finally agrees to ascend to the throne, and designates the following year as the first year of the Jingtai reign. The captured Zhengtong Emperor is honored as the emperor emeritus.
The Mongolian chieftain Esen leads a massive invasion into Ming territory claiming to be returning the emperor emeritus. The capital prepares for war. Esen’s troops arrive at the capital but are blocked outside the Gate of Virtue Victorious (Desheng men). Then they move to the northwest of the city at Xizhi men (another city gate) but are again held at bay. Esen retreats to the old earthen wall, outside the Gate of Virtue Victorious, but is attacked with bricks and stones by commoners from their roofs. When the Ming troops arrive, Esen withdraws with the emperor emeritus.
The empress dowager is designated as the “Most Divine Empress Dowager”, while Worthy Consort Wu, the biological mother of the Prince of Cheng, is honored as the empress dowager. Consort Wang is elevated as the empress. The Empress Qian, principal consort of the emperor emeritus, moves to the Palace of Benevolent Longevity (Renshou gong)
Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1436-1449)
The Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen (temple name Emperor Yingzong) was the eldest son of the Xuande Emperor and his secondary consort née Sun.
Following his father, the Xuande Emperor’s sudden death in 1436, Zhu Qizhen was enthroned at the age of nine sui. A de facto regency was formed by the “Three Yang’s” - Yang Shiqi (1365-1444), Yang Pu (1372-1446), and Yang Rong (1371-1440), all were experienced, highly competent, and extremely powerful grand secretaries who served successive emperors. In the early years of the Zhengtong reign, their regency ensured social stability and government continuity from the Hongxi (r. 1425) and Xuande (r. 1426-1435) reigns.
The political situation changed rapidly following the death and retirement of the “Three Yang’s”, the political power almost totally fell into the hands of a eunuch named Wang Zhen (d. 1449). His political dominance soon inflicted a humiliating debacle on the throne and the captivity of the Zhengtong Emperor.
The eunuch had been the emperor’s first teacher when he was still heir apparent. Quick-witted and always ready for fawning, he established personal dominance over the young heir apparent. After Zhu Qizhen ascended the throne, Wang Zhen was installed as eunuch director in the Directorate of Ceremonial (sili jian), in charge of reviewing all the official documents and memorials submitted by the officials. The emperor deemed Wang Zhen the most reliable person around him.
During the Hongwu reign (1368-1398), Emperor Taizu stipulated that eunuchs were strictly forbidden to interfere with state affairs. When the “Three Yang’s” were still in office, the eunuch director had been circumspect and deferred to the senior grand secretaries. However, when they either died or withdrew from active participation in politics, Wang Zhen immediately gathered power into his own hands. In 1384, the Hongwu Emperor had ordered an iron tablet be put in front of the palace saying that “Eunuchs are forbidden to interfere with government affairs. Those who attempt to do so will be subjected to capital punishment”. Wang Zhen ordered this tablet be removed and very soon became an effective dictator dominating the court, which had to pay him flattery and obeisance.
After the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1272-1368), the Mongol tribes returned to their steppe pastures and suffered from constant factional disputes for decades. In the 1440s, they gradually regained their power after a series of inner subjugations and reunification. The Oirats soon became the most powerful group among the tribes and formed a renewed menace to the Ming empire’s northern borders. Realizing the deficiency of the defense policies in the crucial northern frontier zone, some officials and border generals warned of the shortcomings of the frontier defenses and requested defense reinforcements. Their protests were ignored or rejected by the eunuch director. In 1449, Esen, the chief administrator of the powerful Oirat tribe, launched a large-scale invasion of China. With a carefully crafted, four-pronged attack, the Oirats soon crushed the malfunctioned and sluggish Ming army and advanced through the garrisons. Shocked by the precipitate retreat, the emperor was persuaded by Wang Zhen to lead his own armies into the battle against the Oirats, completely regardless of the fact that the troops were ill-provisioned, ill-prepared, and exhausted. Within a month, the Chinese army (sometimes said to be half a million strong) was almost completely annihilated at the Tumu post station northwest of Beijing. The Zhengtong Emperor was capture by the Oirats and the eunuch Wang Zhen was said to have been killed by his own entourage. This is the famous “Tumu Incident” (Tumu zhibian) in Chinese history.
After the military fiasco, the half brother of the captured Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qiyu (1428-1457) assumed the throne as the Jingtai Emperor (r. 1450-1456) and promulgated his own calendar. The Zhengtong Emperor was deposed as Emperor Emeritus. The following year, he was released by the Mongols and returned to Beijing. In 1456 (the eighth year of the Jingtai reign), the emperor fell severely ill. The general Shi Heng (d. 1460), vice-censor-in-chief Xu Youzhen (1407-1472), Commissioner-in-chief Zhang Yue and the eunuch Cao Jixiang (d. 1461) seized the opportunity to mount a coup d’état to restore the deposed Zhengtong Emperor to the throne. Because they put the former emperor into a sedan chair, brought him to the palace, “forced the palace gate to open”, and sat him on the throne, this incident was later called “forcing the palace gate” incident (duomen zhibian). The restored emperor changed the reign title to Tianshun (literally “obedient to heaven”). Soon officials who supported the Jingtai Emperor were purged. Yu Qian (1398-1457), for instance, the Minister of War who led a successful campaign against the Mongol attack on Beijing during the Tumu Incident, was indicted for high treason and beheaded. The eunuch general Cao Jixiang was promoted to an important position.
In 1464, the eighth year of the Tianshun reign, the emperor died in the first lunar month. Before his death, he issued an edict ordering the abolishment of sacrificial immolation of his imperial consorts. With the temple name Yingzong, he is buried in the Benevolent Mausoleum (Yu ling) in Changping, on the northern outskirts of Beijing.
Lady Zhou, Empress Dowager Xiaosu of the Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1436-1449)
Introduction: since her teenage years, Lady Zhou was considered perceptive. During the reign of her son, the Chenghua Emperor (r. 1465-1487), he saw fit to honor his consort, Lady Wan, who subsequently abused her power in the imperial household. Lady Zhou brought up her grandson, the heir apparent Zhu Youtang, whose biological mother was said to have been killed by Lady Wan.
Lady Zhou (?-1504) was a native of Beijing, daughter of a noble family. A rabbit was the matchmaker for her and the Zhengtong Emperor. While hunting in the suburbs, the emperor chased a rabbit into Lady Zhou’s home. The break-in scared all family members away except her, a teenage girl. Finding her charming and interesting, Zhengtong brought her back to the Forbidden City.
In 1447, Lady Zhou gave birth to prince Zhu Jianshen. In 1457, she was promoted as the Honored Consort. Later her son succeeded to the throne as the Chenghua Emperor (r. 1465-1487), and she was venerated as Empress Dowager. After two decades, in 1487 the Chenghua Emperor died. Her grandson Zhu Youtang ascended the throne as the Hongzhi Emperor (r. 1488-1505) and gave her the special title of the “Grand Empress Dowager of Compassion and Longevity”. The Hongzhi Emperor had a strong affection for his grandmother who brought him up after his biological mother died [under suspicious circumstances in the Yongshou gong when he was five or six]. However, Lady Zhou was no angel. The Zhengtong Emperor’s officially appointed empress was Lady Qian. But after Zhu Jianshen ascended the throne, Lady Zhou as his biological mother was also elevated to the empress and was reluctant to share her status with Qian. After Lady Qian’s death, Zhou tried to obstruct her burial in the same tomb with their deceased emperor husband. Her selfish try was rejected by the leading officials.