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In this imperial chronology, each year is listed according to the Chinese lunar calendar with traditional notations for each year (e.g., jiashen) followed by the internationally recognized Gregorian calendar year (e.g., 1644) that approximately corresponds to the given lunar year. Information on the imperial reign is listed with each calendar year. Specific events are listed after a title denoting the lunar month (e.g., 1st Month) in which they occurred.
Ages of historical figures are given as traditionally calculated by the Chinese lunar calendar. This traditional way of counting a person's age uses the word sui (year of age). The word conveys how many lunar years—even if only for a few days or months—an individual has experienced in life.
Chinese names are shown in the conventional Chinese order with the surname (family name) followed by the given name. When possible, Manchu names are rendered according to the Möllendorff system of transliteration (Romanization). If the original Manchu name is unknown, the name is shown with a hyphenated version of the transliterated Chinese name. Some Jurchen and Manchu figures are more commonly known by their Chinese names; in those cases, the Chinese name is used. Official titles and imperial institutions are rendered according to Charles O. Hucker's A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford, 1985) when possible.
The Reign of the Zhengtong Emperor (approx. 1436–1449)
Bingchen Year (approx. 1436)
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. Vice Supervisor of the Household Wang Zhi and eight other court officials concurrently hold the posts of lecturer while Confucian officials including Hanlin academicians serve as expositors-in-waiting. The colloquium is scheduled to be held once a month, and clear etiquette is established. The eunuch Wang Zhen and Director of the Bureau of Evaluation Li Maohong believe the monthly sessions are merely a vain formality and that the session is not conducive for effective communication between the emperor and the lecturers. 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 performances of horse-riding and archery by military officers. Wang gradually wins the trust of the emperor and monopolizes power. He continually intervenes in state affairs, and the grand empress dowager will plot to kill him but ultimately fail.
Gengshen Year (approx. 1440)
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)—and the renovation of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunning gong). More than seventy-thousand workers and soldiers contribute to the project.
Fond of Buddhism and Taoism, Wang Zhen uses power granted by the young emperor to ordain prospective Buddhist monks and Taoist priests. During his tenure, 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 certificates were received through bribery.)
Xinyou Year (approx. 1441)
Zhengtong, 6th Year
Yu Qian (1398-1457), the vice minister of the Ministry of War, is well regarded by 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 powerful eunuch Wang Zhen as other timid or sycophantic bureaucrats. Wang hates him for this and asks the commissioner of the Office of Transmission to depose Yu Qian on the false charge of 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 under the vice minister of the Court of Judicial Review. More than a thousand officials and other individuals from Shanxi and Henan petition to let Yu Qian remain. 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 invited to attend. Since the founding of Ming rule, eunuchs had been prohibited from attending public feasts. However, during this feast, the emperor asks why Wang Zhen is not present and orders for the central door of the East Prosperity Gate (Donghua men) to be opened and for Wang Zhen to be summoned to the banquet. Wang arrives in an unsettled state, but, when he sees all the officials and officers waiting and greeting him outside the gate, he is overjoyed.
Renxu Year (approx. 1442)
Zhengtong, 7th Year
Lady Qian is appointed as empress.
Minister of Works Wu Zhong retires. The imperial palace (also known as the Forbidden City) and the Chang Tomb, Xian Tomb, and Jing Tomb had all been designed and constructed under his supervision. He is celebrated for his designs and orderly plans for these architectural complexes.
The grand empress dowager, née Zhang, dies. Her death allows Wang Zhen to delve into 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 Xian Tomb and bestowed her posthumous title Chengxiao (lit. "Sincere and Filial"). Due to the death of this watchful matriarch, the iron plaque inscribed with a warning against the infiltration of eunuchs into political affairs that was installed in the palace during the Hongwu reign is secretly removed and destroyed upon Wang Zhen's order.
Guihai Year (approx. 1443)
Zhengtong, 8th Year
Formerly the principle consort of the Xuande Emperor, the empress, née Hu, (who had demitted her position) dies.
Jiazi Year (approx. 1444)
Zhengtong, 9th Year
Grand Secretary Yang Shiqi dies at the age of eighty (in sui).
Bingyin Year (approx. 1446)
Zhengtong, 11th Year
Grand Secretary Yang Pu dies.
Dingmao Year (approx. 1447)
Zhengtong, 12th Year
The eldest imperial son, Zhu Jianshen, is born to the honored consort, née Zhou.
Jisi Year (approx. 1449)
Zhengtong, 14th Year
Reports circulate that the Mongolian chieftain Esen is relentlessly harassing subjects on the outskirts of Datong on a daily basis. The eunuch Wang Zhen urges the emperor to personally confront the Mongolian invaders and establish himself as a military leader in the tradition of 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 this strategy. The emperor rejects their objections and announces his intention to personally lead a military campaign. He entrusts his younger brother Zhu Qiyu, the Prince of Cheng, in the palace to manage court affairs.
On the fourteenth day, the Ming troops camp at the small garrison at Tumu (located near present-day 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. (Historians call this event the “Incident at Tumu”, Tumu zhi bian). On the seventeenth day, court officials assemble in the capital at the palace to mourn the debacle. The following day the empress dowager designates the Prince of Cheng as the de facto ruler. Expositor-in-waiting Xu Cheng proposes to withdraw to the south, but Minister of Rites Hu Ying 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 flee, we admit failure! Are you not aware of the Southern Song’s retreat to the south? 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 about who will guard the imperial ancestral tombs if the family moves to the south. The court does not retreat to the south. The Prince of Cheng leads the imperial government and reports to the empress dowager. Yu Qian commands the military and food supply. The subjects of the empire are reassured. On the twenty-first day, Yu Qian is promoted as the minister of war and commands the defense of the capital. 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, the right censor-in-chief, with other fellow officials accuse Wang Zhen of treachery and call for his execution and that of his clan to pacify the angry populace and as punishment for bringing disaster upon the empire. 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 immediately beat to death. Wang’s nephew is caught, spit upon, and cursed while guards and officials become caught up in the chaos at court. The Prince of Cheng is dumbfounded 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 are confiscated.
Court officials petition the empress dowager for a new imperial successor to be enthroned due to the young age of heir apparent. The empress dowager accepts their suggestion and designates the Prince of Cheng as successor. The Prince of Cheng declines.
The regional military commissioner Yue Qian is sent as an envoy to the Mongolian region where the Zhengtong Emperor is being held captive. When Yu returns, he carries the emperor’s edict to pass the throne on to the Prince of Cheng. The prince finally agrees, and the following year is designated 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). 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. Lady Wu, also known as Consort Xian (Xian fei, lit. “Worthy Consort”) and the biological mother of the Prince of Cheng, is honored as the empress dowager. Consort Wang is elevated as the new empress. The preceding empress, née Qian, the principal consort of the emperor emeritus, moves her residence to the Palace of Benevolent Longevity (Renshou gong)
Translated and edited by Li Yang, Zhuang Ying, Adam J. Ensign, et al.