(6) Chongzhen Emperor of the Ming Dynasty - Hanging Tree
Map of Jingshan Park
- Click to Enlarge -
Memorial Plaquette and the Tree on the spot where the Chongzhen Emperor commited suicide.
When taking the Throne after the unexpected death of his brother, the Tianqi Emperor, the first problem that Chongzhen was faced with was of dealing with the culprits in case; a Lady of the Court named Ke conniving with the Head Eunuch, the now infamous Wei Zhongxian. Having had a free reign for some 7 years, Wei Zhongxian is often considered as the richest and most powerful Eunuch the feudal system ever created. Among things Wei declared himself to be "Lord of 9000 years", i.e. almost as powerful as the Emperor. Yet, it appears that the powerful eunuch had created himself just too many enemies while usurping the powers of the Throne. Although Wei had thought
Two Commemorative Steles erected in honor and memory of the Chongzhen Emperor stand on Rocks near the Tree.
Navigate your way to the Chongzhen Hanging Tree by entering Jingshan Park through its southern gate and from there, turning right and east to find the tree at the very south eastern foot of the Coal Hill Mountain. It is but a short walk distance from the entry point near the south gate and even closer to the eastern gate of Jingshan Park.
Not an especially conspicuous spot and monument for an Emperor, the Tree and the Steles are only seen at the very last moment
LOCATION OF CHONGZHEN HANGING TREE
As may be expected from the site of a tragic suicide, the site of the Chongzhen Hanging Tree is not anything special. That is, it is just a tree among trees in the forest climbing the hill of Jingshan. Upon that, only a few stone steles seem to commemorate the last moments of the Ming Dynasty here. Perhaps
it is befitting.
Although Chongzhen was the Emperor and officially a half god, in reality he was also but one man born into an ancient system, which already by the time that he took to the throne, was too misguided, misruled and too rife with corruption for even the best and most talented Emperor to have turned it around.
As can be read on his biography page, Chongzhen 崇祯 (Reign 1628 AD / 1644 AD) came to the throne at the young but usual age of 17 inheriting a Ming Empire which was rotten to its very core. To begin with, the rule of Chongzhen's grandfather, the Wanli Emperor (Shenzong 1572 AD - 1620 AD) had not only been the longest of the reign periods of the Era, it had also been among the most disastrous. After having
started out with fair weather under the diligent work and advise from Zhang Juzheng (張居正), the reign was frought with infighting among the various bracnhes of court politics and a long standing emnity between the eunuchs and the confucian scholarly elite simmered on. Especially the last 20 years of the Wanli Reign are known to have
The Chongzhen Steles and the climbing ridge of Coal Hill.
when approaching. Just beyond to the right (east) starts the walk up the hill side of Jing Shan.
been disastrous, as the Emperor suddenly seized to come to the scheduled morning meetings with his ministers and advisors. it seems as though the Emperor had a nervous breakdown or otherwise grew severely tired of his role as Emperor as the last 20 years of this rule were spent with the Emperor indulging in pleasures while consistently ignoring politics and refusing to meet with ministers or sign official documents. With that, the various factions of the court were given room to rule the Nation, which was, as usual, a recipe for disaster.
In addition to the lapse of attention by grandfather Wanli turning the Dynasty towards disaster, the other problem for the Chongzhen Emperor was the fact that court intrigue at the end of the Wanli Reign had allowed for a retarded Crown Prince to be promoted as Emperor. In planning with the wishes of the powerful group of the court Eunuchs this act had curtailed the future powers of the Confucian Scholar gentry, by replacing their favorite Crown Prince with one that would no doubt be more pliable to the eunuchs whims and wishes. With a retarded man crowned to be the Tianqi Emperor (Xizong), the eunuchs could set to work dividing the powers and spoils of the Empire. In the next 7 years, while a mentally incompetent Emperor was left to run about often tending to his favorite hobby of carpentry, the powers of the Throne were usurped by the Eunuch class of the Palace, continuing the disastrous course set for the Ming Empire.
himself nearly untouchable, having lost the protective cover of the name of the Tianqi Emperor, the new Emperor Chongzhen with the support of many, dealt with him rather quickly and harshly. Having made few friends no one objected. It is said that Wei Zhongxiang was forced to commit suicide, although the most likely method of his death given the rules for eunuchs would have been to have him strangled with a silk cord. In addition, as a punishment for his gross deeds, the body of the eunuch was disemboweled and left to rot.
In the aftermath the Chongzhen Emperor did try to reform his Imperial apparatus and declared war on the conniving Eunuch class, but whatever his efforts, inevitably these were all to no avail. While the Manchu Qing were growing ever more powerful in the north, the Ming Empire seemed doomed regardless of having a talented and diligent Emperor. The coffers were empty and taxes were so murderous that they had led to large scale peasant uprisings.
When the entire house of cards, and the Empire came crushing down on his head in the year 1644 AD, seeing a peasant uprising surge into his Capital City, the only honorable and bearable way out for the Chongzhen Emperor seemed to be the method of suicide.
Having started his rule in year 1628 AD, Chongzhen ended his life and with it the Ming Dynasty in the year 1644 AD, after having dispatched his Empress, Family and Concubines first. He hung himself from a tree opposite an eunuch named Wang Cheng'En while apparently leaving a note saying: "I am insufficient in virtues and weak in conducts, hence the heavenly punishment, and the ministers also failed me.
Having no dignity to face my ancestors, I would undress my crown and cover my face with hair. Mutilate my body as you wish, but do not harm a single civilian.
(朕涼德藐躬，上干天咎，然皆諸臣誤朕。朕死無面目見祖宗，自去冠冕，以髮覆面。任賊分裂，勿傷百姓一人)". This note is known as the note of "Sanyuan".
In the process of the final battle for the Imperial Palace at least a 1000 eunuchs are said to have perished.
A persistent folk legend tells of how meanwhile the Emperor spent his last few hours in solitude, only accompanied by his loyal eunuch, the unfortunate Wang Cheng'En whose corpse accompanied that of the Emperor when found. However, none of this is held true today.
According to today's tale the Emperor held a large banquet to which he invited all the royal family members. After filling their stomachs, they were apparently planned to be killed. That is, somewhere along the way, the Emperor apparently cried out the words: "oh, why must you be born into my family" , upon which he set to work on the slaying of his kinfolk with his sword. The only one reported to have survived the bloodbath was the 2nd daughter of the Emperor, 16-year-old Princess Chang Ping, who however did have her left arm cut off while fending for herself against the raging Chongzhen.
As befitting a proper Opera, the Emperor, still wearing his full Imperial Dress, is then supposed to have run out of the Shenwu Men and across the bridge into the park, to literally go get himself lost. As described, the Emperor was found strung up on a tree adjacent his eunuch and in possession of the note.
Upon hearing of the Emperors death, some 300 imperial maids are reported to have committed suicide, although one may question their ultimate motives for doing so or wonder if they might have had any help. In addition to the 300, a whole flock -12 of the highest scholars and 700 families- of the Confucian Literati are also said to have taken their own lives.
In the aftermath of all the death and destruction, the Chongzhen Emperor did receive somewhat of a proper burial, as the new one-day-fly peasant Emperor Li Zhicheng held that Chongzhen had been altogether a good Emperor, however one betrayed by all those around him and so left unable to save his turf. This site, initially intended as the tomb for his Concubine Tian's tomb, became the grave site where the Chongzhen Emperor and his wife rest. Today it is known as the Si Ling Tomb, part of the now world famous Ming Tombs (Shisan Ling) world cultural heritage site in the Changping District of Beijing.
During the early part of the Qing Dynasty (1644 AD - 1911 AD), the Shenwumen, which is the northern gate of of the Forbidden City, was avoided altogether. As it was the gate used by the Chongzhen Emperor to exit the city on his way to Coal Hill to die it was considered highly unlucky. The gate was tainted with superstition and was used for funerals and to remove bodies from the palace (although it must be admitted that the water for the Royal Family still passed through it coming from the Jade Spring Mountain (Yuquan Shan)).
The Tree that currently is visible is not the original Chongzhen Hanging Tree. The original was cut down as late as during the Cultural Revolutio Era (1866 AD - 1976 AD). In the Book 'Guide to China's Capital through the Centuries' by M.A. Ames it is noted that until as late as 1900 AD the rope or chain that Chongzhen supposedly used to kill himself was still visible on the tree.