1572, Renshen Year
Longqing Reign, Sixth Year
The Longqing Emperor is critically ill. He summons Grand Secretaries Gao Gong (1513-1578), Zhang Juzheng (1525-1582), and Gao Yi (1517-1572) to his deathbed for posthumous instructions. On the twenty-sixth day, the Longqiong Emperor dies at the age of thirty-six in the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Gong). His named successor is Zhu Yijun. Zhang Juzheng begins reforms.
The heir apparent Zhu Yijun ascends to the throne with the reign name Wanli. The following year is the first year of the Wanli reign.
The late Longqing Emperor receives his posthumous and temple names.
The Longqing Emperor is buried at the Zhaoling Tomb.
1576, Bingzi Year
Wanli Reign, Fourth Year
Collected Statutes of the Great Ming (Daming huidian) is revised, with Zhang Juzheng, Lü Tiaoyang, and Zhang Siwei as directors-general.
1578, Wuyin Year
Wanli Reign, Sixth Year
Lady Wang, the eldest daughter of Vice Commissioner-in-chief Wang Wei, is appointed as empress.
The imperial wedding ceremony is held on the nineteenth day.
Lady Liu is conferred the title of Bright Consort (Zhaofei). Lady Yang is named as the Suitable Consort (Yi ei). Minister of Rites Ma Ziqiang is concurrently appointed as the grand secretary of the Hall of Literary Profundity (Wenyuan ge daxueshi). Shen Shixing (1535-1614), the left vice minister of personnel, is appointed to be the grand secretary of the East Hall (Dongge daxueshi) while maintaining his original title. Both of them are recruited to the Grand Secretariat to aid in handling state affairs.
The empress of the late Longqing Emperor and the biological mother of the Wanli Emperor are conferred honorary titles.
Having ended his mourning period for his father in his hometown, Senior Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng resumes work in the Grand Secretariat.
1581, Xinsi Year
Wanli Reign, 9th Year
Beautiful young women are selected as candidates for nine concubine titles.
1582, Renwu Year
Wanli Reign, 10th Year
The Nine Concubines (jiupin) are named.
Lady Wang, a palace attendant, is appointed as the Reverent Consort (Gongfei).
Zhang Juzheng dies and is succeeded by Zhang Siwei who is named as senior grand secretary.
The first son of the Wanli Emperor is born to the Reverent Consort and named Zhu Changluo.
The two empress dowagers receive honorary titles.
1583, Guiwei Year
Wanli Reign, 11th Year
Three hundred young women under the age of fifteen (as reckoned in the Chinese lunar birth years, or sui) are summoned.
Zhang Siwei withdraws from service upon the death of one of his parents. Shen Shixing replaces him as the senior grand sectary.
1584, Jiashen Year
Wanli Reign, 12th Year
Shen Shixing is informed of the construction of the imperial tomb.
1586, Bingxu Year
Wanli Reign, 14th year
Lady Zheng, the Honored Consort, is elevated as Imperial Honored Consort. Shen Shixing appeals to the emperor to name the eldest son, Zhu Changluo, as the heir apparent, but is rejected, marking the beginning of conflicts between the emperor and his administration over the bestowal of heirship.
1589, Jichou Year
Wanli Reign, 17th Year
The Lunar New Year audience and celebration is canceled, a practice followed hereafter.
1593, Guisi Year
Wanli Reign, 21st Year
The emperor issues a foeffment proclamation, naming his eldest, third, and fifth sons as princes.
At age thirteen, the emperor’s eldest son Zhu Changluo begins his formal education.
1594, Jiawu Year
Wanli Reign, 22nd Year
Lady Zhou is conferred the honorary title the Upright Consort (Duan fei), and Lady Li is named the Respectful Consort (Jingfei).
1596, Bingshen Year
Wanli Reign, 24th Year
There are fires in the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) and the Palace of Earthly tranquility (Kunning gong) in the Forbidden City.
The Empress Dowager Rensheng, the designated mother of the Wanli Emperor, dies.
1597, Dingyou Year
Wanli Reign, 25th Year
The three front halls of the Forbidden City, the Hall of Imperial Supremacy (Huangji dian, which is later called the Hall of Supreme Harmony), the Hall of Central Supremacy (Zhongji dian, present-day Hall of Central Harmony), and the Hall of Establishing Supremacy (Jianji dian, later known as the Hall of Preserving Harmony), as well as the nearby belvederes Wenzhao ge and Wucheng ge (present-day Belvedere of Spreading Righteousness and Belvedere of Embodying Benevolence), are destroyed in fires.
1601, Xinchou Year
Wanli Reign, 29th Year
Zhu Changluo is crowned the heir apparent. On the same day other imperial sons are enfeoffed as princes.
1603, Guimao Year
Wanli Reign, 31st Year
A pamphlet titled Continued Discussions on Distressing Calamity (Xu youwei hongyi) circulates in Beijing and arouses the attention of the court. It claims the emperor’s favorite son Zhu Changxun will replace the heir apparent.
The Wanli Emperor summons the heir apparent Zhu Changluo, asking him to focus on his studies and not be disturbed or frightened by the malicious pamphlet.
1604, Jiachen Year
Wanli Reign, 32nd Year
The case of the malicious pamphlet Continued Discussions on Distressing Calamity (Xu youwei hongyi) concludes.
1606, Bingwu Year
Wanli Reign, 34th Year
The Wanli Emperor’s grandson is born. According to court rites, the Empress Dowager Cisheng, the great grandmother of the imperial grandson, is conferred an additional honorary title “Gongxi”.
The biological mother of the heir apparent Zhu Changluo is promoted from the Reverent Consort to Imperial Honored Consort (huang guifei). The biological mother of the newly born imperial grandson is designated Lady of Talents (cai ren).
1610, Gengxu Year
Wanli Reign, 38th Year
Another imperial grandson Zhu Youjian, the future Chongzhen Emperor (r. 1628-1644), is born to the lower-ranking Chosen Attendant (xuan shi) Lady Liu.
1611, Xinhai Year
Wanli Reign, 39th Year
The Honored Consort, biological mother of the heir apparent, dies.
1612, Renzi Year
Wanli Reign, 40th Year
With the emperor having refused to manage court affairs for quite some time, Ye Xianggao (1559-1627) is solely responsible for duties in the Grand Secretariat, while Zhao Huan (1541-1619) solely administers the Six Ministries.
1613, Guichou Year
Wanli Reign, 41st Year
Lady Guo, the principal consort of the heir apparent, dies.
1614, Jiayin Year
Wanli Reign, 42nd Year
The Empress Dowager Cisheng, the biological mother of the Wanli Emperor, dies.
Zhu Changxun, the Prince of Fu, is sent away to his designated fief, Luoyang (in today's Henan Province), after years of improper living in the capital.
1616, Bingchen Year
Wanli Reign, 44th Year
The heir apparent Zhu Changluo resumes the imperial practice of going forth from the palace to conduct lectures and recitation after twelve years. The practice is no longer continued henceforth.
1617, Dingsi Year
Wanli Reign, Forty-fifth Year
The Prince of Fu's eldest son Zhu Yousong (1607-1646) is named as Prince of Qingchang.
1619, Jiwei Year
Wanli Reign, Forty-seventh Year
The Battle at Sarhū is fought between the Ming and the Jurchen Latter Jin (1616-1636).
1620, Gengshen Year
Wanli Reign, 48th Year
Lady Wang, the Empress of the Wanli Emperor, dies.
The Wanli Emperor dies on the twenty-first day. Following the late emperor’s will, the next day the heir apparent endows troops on the frontier with millions in public funds and discharges eunuchs sent by the Wanli Emperor to collect and supervise mining and sale taxes across the country.
The heir apparent Zhu Changluo ascends the throne, adopting the reign name Taichang. On the fourth day, he appoints Shi Jixie (1560-1635) as the vice minister of personnel and Shen Que, the vice minister of rites in the southern capital as the minister of rites and grand secretary of the East Hall. They are to participate in the handling of state affairs. On the twelfth day, the newly enthroned emperor falls ill but continues to supervise matters of state. On the fourteenth day, he announces his eldest son Zhu Youjiao as the heir apparent and designates the ninth day of the following month for the crowning ceremony. On the twenty-first day, the emperor’s condition is very serious, and on the twenty-ninth day his condition worsens. He takes two red pills presented by the chief minister of the Court of State Ceremonial (Honglu si), Li Kezhuo, and becomes critically ill.
The Taichang Emperor dies on the first day of the month. Since his death is attributed to the red pills he took, this incident is called the "Case of the Red Pills". On the second day, court officials jointly appeal to Lady Li, the Chosen Attendant (xuanshi) and favorite concubine of the late Taichang emperor, to move out of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong), since she is no longer entitled to occupy the chambers. This is called the “Change of Palace Incident”. On the sixth day, the eldest imperial son Zhu Youjiao succeeds the throne, adopting the reign name Tianqi. The months preceding the eighth lunar month of the year are considered to fall within the Wanli reign, while the remaining months fall under the Taichang reign. Starting the following lunar year, the reign name Tianqi is adopted. On the tenth day, the late Wanli Emperor, grandfather of the Tianqi Emperor, is bestowed with posthumous and temple names. On the thirteenth day, the deceased Empress Dowagers Xiaoduan and Xiaojing are conferred honorary titles.
The Wanli Emperor (whose temple name is Divine Ancestor, or Shenzong) and his Empress Xiaoduan are buried at the Dingling Tomb.
The Wanli Emperor (r. 1573-1620)
The Wanli Emperor, Zhu Yijun (temple name Emperor Shenzong), was born in 1563 (on the seventeenth day of the eighth lunar month in the forty-second year of the Jiajing reign). He was the third son of Emperor Muzong, the Longqing Emperor (r. 1567-1572), with his consort née Li who was a servant at Emperor Muzong’s princely residence before his accession. Because his two half brothers died prematurely, Zhu Yijun was installed as heir apparent in 1568 (the second year of the Longqing reign). Four years later in 1572, he was formally enthroned as the Wanli Emperor.
In the first years of the Wanli reign, the Chief Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng (1525-1582) assisted the young emperor in government. Zhang took a personal interest in supervising the emperor’s classical education. He arranged lecturers by erudite scholars and detailed schedules for the emperor and, aside from Confucian teachings, he tutored the emperor in administrative skills. In the meantime, the Chief Grand Secretary also applied his personal influence to promote his measures in policy making. Under Zhang’s direction, a stringent fiscal policy was implemented with cutbacks in administrative personnel and hostel services provided by the imperial postal system. The selection mechanism of officials serving the government was likewise reformed. A national land survey was carried out to curb local landlords’ or despots’ illegal seizure of land. Zhang also ordered a review of the local districts’ accounts. The reviewed and revised account books were published as semi-permanent budget so that “the single whip method of taxation” (yitiaobian fa) was able to be established on a nationwide basis. Under this system, all the various labor service levies, surcharges, and miscellaneous requisitions were combined into a single payment of silver bullion. These measures were accompanied by reductions in taxes levied on the populace. Military leaders such as Qi Jiguang (1528-1588) enjoyed Zhang’s full confidence and thus were able to maintain an armed peace in frontier regions. From the middle of 1572 to the middle of 1582, Zhang Juzheng’s administration marked a period of exceptional efficiency and prosperity in late Ming dynasty.
After Zhang Juzheng’s death, the Wanli Emperor made an attempt to assume control of imperial affairs with disastrous results. Very soon he ceased to appear at morning audience, with the court indefinitely, routinely canceled the classics expositions (jingyan) where discussions between the emperor and his academicians were held. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, he reduced his public appearance to the minimum, even suspended his personal attendance at regular ritual ceremonies and sacrifices.
The emperor was avaricious in enhancing his own income through weakening the fiscal basis of the dynasty. He confiscated lands to establish vast imperial estates from which heavy rents were collected directly for his privy purse and lavished on construction projects. It was recorded that in the nineteenth year of the Wanli reign (1591) alone, a total of 230,000 pieces of ceramic objects were produced in the imperial kiln in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Moreover, eunuch commissioners were dispatched to work in concert with local administrators to exploit money from industrial and commercial sources, provoking many incidents of local unrest. The administrative evaluation scheme devised by the former Chief Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng, which ensured that any case mentioned in a report would have to be settled within a reasonable period, was abolished. With their emperor indulging in collecting more money for himself, civil officials were also lax and corrupt in
administering revenues, while factionalism threatened to hamstring the entire bureaucracy.
Corruption exhausted the dynasty’s capacity to maintain a sound fiscal structure and to check the nomadic invasions on the frontier. While none of the invasions posed serious threat to the imperial order, the most serious menace was posed by the rise of the Later Jin (1616-1626) tributary khanate in the Northeast, led by Nurgaci, chieftain of the “Jianzhou Commandery” designated by the Ming court in 1412. The Jianzhou tribe of the Tungusic people was descended from the Jurchens. In 1635, they started to call themselves Manchus. As his father and grandfather did, Nurgaci maintained cordial relationships with the Ming empire. In 1589, he was granted title and rank by the Wanli Emperor and later visited Beijing for several times as head of tributary missions. It took Nurgaci thirty years to annex almost all the Manchu tribes and established the aforementioned Later Jin regime in 1616 (the forty-fourth year of the Wanli reign), which rose to challenge the Ming dynasty. In 1618, the forty-sixth year of the Wanli reign, Nurgaci publicized his “Seven Grievances” and launched an attack on the Ming empire under the name of avenging the death of his father and grandfather. Nurgaci’s father and grandfather were killed in 1582 in an offensive launched by the Chinese army to storm a hostile Manchu chieftain’s bastion. The Wanli Emperor appointed Xiong Tingbi (1569-1625) to command the punitive expeditionary campaign in Liaodong. Yet, Xiong was viciously attacked by his partisan enemies. Although the Ming forces retained numerical superiority, the expedition was foredoomed as a result of court factionalism, unsound finance and supplies. The emperor was unwilling to finance the campaign from his palace treasury; therefore, a silver surcharge was added to the land tax, exacerbating the grievances of the populace. Many Chinese historians regard the Wanli reign as the turning point in the history of the Ming empire, thus the saying that “the fall of the Ming actually started with Emperor Shenzong”.
At the age of fifty-eight sui, the emperor died in 1620 (on the twenty-first day of the seventh lunar month in the forty-eighth year of the Wanli reign) in the Hall of Manifesting Virtues (Hongde dian). With the temple name Emperor Shenzong, he is buried in the Stability Mausoleum (Ding ling) in Changping, the construction of which cost over eight million taels of silver.
Lady Wang, Empress Dowager Xiaojing of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1573-1620)
Introduction: Lady Wang came from humble origins. Although she was the biological mother of the heir apparent, she did not get any favor or respect from the Wanli Emperor (r. 1573-1620).
Lady Wang was a lady-in-waiting in the Palace of Compassion and Tranquility (Cining gong) where the Wanli Emperor’s mother lived. One day, as the emperor was passing by, he saw this young dainty woman. Secretly, he had his way with her. Lady Wang became pregnant, but she did not get any promotion or the favors that normally would be forthcoming from the emperor, who had kept silent about their encounter. When the Empress Dowager Li heard of this, she pleaded with the emperor: “I am an old woman without a grandson. If Lady Wang can give birth to a boy, the dynasty and ancestors will feel the blessings. The boy will be the heir apparent of the empire, and his mother can be promoted to high status. Why should her humble origins be an issue?” In 1582, Lady Wang was given the title of Consort Gong. Four months later she gave birth to the first son of the Wanli Emperor, Zhu Changluo the heir apparent. But unlike other consorts who were promoted after giving birth to sons, Lady Wang got no further conferment. It was not until the birth of her grandson in 1606, the son of Zhu Changluo, that she was given the title of the Imperial Honored Consort to confirm the legitimacy of the imperial line.
In 1611, the thirty-ninth year of the Wanli reign, Lady Wang was critically ill. Her son Zhu Changluo visited, finding the courtyard deserted and his mother already blind. She plucked at his robe, crying: “My son is grown up. I shall die without any regret!”
After her death, the Grand Secretary Ye Xianggao advised the Wanli Emperor to hold a grand funeral for her. Getting no response, he again supplicated the emperor and was approved. Lady Wang was buried in the Ming tomb complex north of Beijing with a posthumous title. When her son ascended the throne, he ordered that she be given a further title, but he died before the command was carried out. His will was fulfilled by his successor, the Tianqi Emperor (r. 1621-1627), who extended Lady Wang’s posthumous title and moved her coffin to Dingling, the mausoleum of the Wanli Emperor.