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Life December 5, 1337 - July 13, 1402 AD; Death by Suicide or disappeared never to be
seen or heard of again.
Reign June 30, 1398 - July 13, 1402 AD ; Reign Period: Jianwen
Zhu Yunwen , Name as Emperor GongMin
The traditional rule of preceding Dynasties had been to make the eldest son or if that was impossible or highly inconvenient, the eldest son of the eldest son the heir apparent. Thus, his father too old, the Grandson of Zhu Yuanzhang (First Son of Eldest Son of Zhu Yuanzhang) was chosen Crown Prince to become Emperor. As it turned out however, there was a contestant in the race to the Throne. One of the main problems behind the first throne succession in the Ming Dynasty was the rigid system devised by founding Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, who - attempting to establish and protect his own strong and unchallenged central control - had banished his various sons and grandsons to the various provinces. As stipulated under Hong Wu's harsh rule, the Princes were not allowed to visit the Capital Nanjing, not even upon the death of the Emperor, their father. In this way, the Capital was protected from a quick military Coup and overthrow of the Old Emperor, however there were also downsides to the system. That is, having been assigned important military and administrative oversight in various far flung border regions, with minimal accountability to the center, the young Princes were all in the position to build their own Fiefdoms, all with their own complete set of powers.
In hindsight, this proved to be a catastrophic idea. That is, although the young Emperor Jianwen enjoyed considerable support among the many Officers and Advisors of the court, especially the traditionalist Confucian scholar gentry, the young Emperor - aged 16 - utterly lacked in administrative and military experience, thus becoming easy pray for the competition.
Although it may be noted that during his brief Jianwen Reign Period the young Emperor did attempt to reign in the extra-central powers of the various young Princes. However, most historians will agree that the methods tried by the young Emperor were far to weak and in the end ineffective. As the book "Chronicle of Chinese Emperors" (Published by Thames and Hudson) has it: "Gentle, indecisive and scholarly, he was no match for his Uncle Zhu Di, fourth son of Hong Wu and the later Yongle Emperor".
Earlier Zhu Di had won himself much respect by succesfully leading military campaigns in the North against remnants of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 AD - 1368 AD) military and groups of their sympathizers. Winning the Title of "Prince of Yan" and given the (later Capital) City of Beijing, the 2nd most important city in the Empire as personal fiefdom, Zhu Di led further military expeditions in the North, gaining new territory and making himself essential to the continuing conquest. Zhu Di had thus hoped to win the Emperors Favor enough to convince the Emperor to change the rules of Imperial Succesion and name him, Zhu Di the powerful, as Crown Prince and heir to the Throne. Yuanzhang the HongWu Emperor, an astute military man aware of the importance of strategic and military skills initially responded by doing exactly so.
Initially, breaking with earlier perceived Imperial Traditions inherited from the Han, Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties, Zhu Di was promoted to be the new Crown Prince, leaving Zhu Yunwen demoted to mere Prince. This however led to great problems as the decision against tradition was not accepted by the many traditionally minded Court advisors and Ministers. Previously encouraged by their own rather dogmatic and tyranical Emperor Hong Wu to adhere strictly to the (Neo) Confucian codes he himself had drilled into the Empire, the could not be expected to do anything else then feel resentment and object.
Only after lenghty complaints of the Imperial Advisors and Courtiers warning against any change in the imperial primogeniture was the old situation restored, leaving Zhu Di a disgruntled and somewhat humiliated man.
Thus, two factions arose, one supporting the heir apparent, the Grandson - adhering to tradition. The others supporting the powerful and wealthy Zhu Di, who had proven his worth in Battle and vieying together for a less traditional style of ruling. In the future this would prove a recepy for disaster. Although there was a eunuch class in existence, the euncuhs of the Palace were mere household slaves who were in no way to be allowed to interfere with court politics, in practice they did form an alternative power group within the Government. Although the Hong Wu Emperor, a person of peasant background, had initially despised the euncuhs, and hated them for their notoriously negative role in Chinese political history, due to his own paranoia and tyranical rule, eventually the Hong Wu Emperor had had to rely more and more on his eunuchs. Altogether, this had turn the tide slowly in favor of the euncuhs, who had steadily developed as their own semi-branch of Government. Although they as yet held no official administrative titles and jobs, they did form the Inner Circle of persons around and increasingly reclusive Emperor so emerging as an independent part of the Court machinery. Altohether, where the Confucian Scholars of the official Government favored tradition and were against the rise of Prince of Yan Zhu Di, the court Eunuchs, not a class known for its traditionalist views was more inclined to favor Zhu Di, who had employed several eunuchs and had taken the liberty to promote to positions previously unimaginable for anyone part of the eunuch class.
It might be gathered that for them, the possible switch of Emperor and according style of rule held very strong attractions and considerable promise. Thus, the Imperial machine of the Empire was split to the core durig the ensuing hositilities and civil war.
Upon the death of Zhu Yuanzhang, the new Emperor, grandson Zhu Yunwen, fearing an attempt to usurp his Throne in the chaos and instability of a change of rule, sent out an order forbidding the Rulers of the "Vasal States" (13 Provinces) to travel to the Capital Nanjing for the event of the Grand Imperial Burial. As stated above, this was well in line with specifications the Hong Wu Emperor had issued himself while still alive, so desiring to protect any fledgling new Government in the Capital from military interference from outside this center.
The ruler of Beijing however, Zhu Di, the person for whom the order had been given, ignored both the existing regulations as well as the fresh Imperial Order and immediatly rode out with an army heading for Nanjing, ostensably to pay Tribute to the fallen Ruler. It sounded like a thin excuse, and since the Prince of Yan commanded an army of crack troops with plenty of experience in fighting the Mongolian Tribes and well outnumbering the troops of the Emperor himself, the message immediatly put the Capital on high alert. The Emperor could rally the Nation, but that would require considerable time. Did the young Jianwen Emperor have this time? Some crisis had to be in the making, everyone recognized as much.
When the new Jianwen Emperor Zhu Yunwen heard of the news, seeing his earlier fears confirmed, he ordered a strong miltary countermove hoping to intercept Zhu Di and his loyal army on the way to the south. Zhu Di and his accompanying army were turned back at the Huai'An Fortress in today's Jiangsu Province, leading to further strain, emnity and mistrust between the two power-factions and rulers but ending any opportunity for Zhu Di to try a coup d état for the moment.
As was a frequent gesture, the new Emperor declared an amnesty on all who had fallen into disfavor with the rather maniacal Hongwu Emperor, attempting to bring some appeasement and relief to the many families of punished Ministers, advisors and courtiers. Continuing the traditionalist Neo Confucian line set out by the Hongwu Emperor, the Jianwen Emperor appointed a total of 2 Confucian tutors in influential advisory and administrative functions. In addition, further strengthening the position of the Confucian literati who held posts in the Government Administration, their role was prioritized over that of the earlier much more necessary army. This strengthened the role of the civilian administration while doing away with the martiality and dangerously unchecked military powers of the early Dynastic Era, when the power of the Ming had to be consolidated, the Mongolians driven out and borderlands and neighbors intimidated into signing as "Tributary States".
It was the Jianwen Emperor who elevated the six chief ministers of the cilian Government (of the Outer Court) in rank over the military commissioners, who then became of secondary rank within the sytem, an arrangement which would essentially continue to the very end of the Feudal Era.
In the first year of his reign, Zhu Yunwen, the Jianwen Emperor, tried to consolidate his reign by attacking and diminishing the powers of the individual provinces or "vassal states". Using this method the Emperor hoped to erode the powers of Zhu Di, his faction, and other rival Uncles with an eye on the Throne enough to eventually overturn them, using one against the other to eliminate the rest. In addition, scholars of the so called Hanlin Academy, an institute of High Confucian Traditional Learning and a civilian Government think tank were assigned in order to "instruct" the various competing princes in Confucian policies and ethics, a process by which they were taught, explained and also ordered not to interfere in civil and military matters. Behind this seemingly rather idealistic approach lay of course and excuse for the Civilian Government officials to meet with the Princes and Staff, thus attempting to keep close tabs on whatever they seemed to be plotting.
Although the Princes felt powerful at first, they all started to realize how time was working against them.
Eventually dissatisfied with the results of the education and the incremental erosion of the powers of the 13 Fiefdoms, the Jianwen Emperor turned to more drastic methods. Not all, but five of the most strategically positioned Fiefdoms or Vasal States were abolished entirely, returning all powers of the decision in the regions to the Central Court and the Emperor while stripping the reigning Princes of their powers while gracefully retaining much of their Title and Rank. This totally changed the power balance within the Empire, eliminating some powerful competitors for the Throne, while cornering the main target of suspicions, the Prince of Yan, Zhu Di. While the Emperor sent his loyal men in to take control of the Armies and Armories of the formerly unwilling strategic five Kingdoms, the Emperor started plotting on how to pacify the rest of the Nation and eliminate those clearly disloyal to his rule.
By that time feeling the Emperors hand around his neck Zhu Di had to draw up his own plans. His first action was to secretly enlarge his armies, arming his state to the teeth while feigning a severe illness, mental weakness and states of confusion. Using his supposed disabilities as a smoke screen for the Emperor-to-be Zhu Di prepared himself. When the experienced military decided the time had come, he declared a state of emergency and led his armies south to Nanjing. What was no doubt intended as a quick campaign to seize the Capital faltered and turned into the quagmire of Civil War. The ensuing war between Zhu Yunwen and Zhu Di lasted a long 4 years becoming known as the "Pacifying the Misfortune (Jingnan)" Incident.
In essence, due to his abolishment of the Five most Strategic and crucial Fiefdoms, the Jianwen Emperor could now marshall a much larger army than the Prince of Yan and his allies. Unfortunately however, as with the earlier military move of Zhu Di on the southern Capital, an loyal Imperial Army counting some 130,000 troops sent on campaign to attack Beijing and take the northern Capital of Beijing was intercepted and defeated.
Not yet discouraged, the army of Jianwen set forth to defeat the city by laying siege to it, however due to to the diligence of garrison and commander, hugely outnubered but determined the siege of Beijing likewise failed to defeat the threat of Zhu Di.
In May of the year 1400 about 600,000 men of both sides fought to the death near Baoding in current day Hebei Province, which lies just due south of Beijing City. Reportedly the southern army was able to make use of explosive weapons, explosives and guns (of a western design) but nevertheless was unable to break through the entrenched position of the enemy, eventually suffering heavy losses and retreating with a bloodied nose. Although the mission nearlyturned succesful, when none other than Prince Zhu Di was nearly captured in the frey, however the Prince managed to slip away his cornered party relieved by brave reinforcements.
Although battered, the young Emperor tried once more to eliminate the Prince of Yan by attacking again at Dezhou in current day Shandong Province; but by the year 1401 after losing the bulk of his crack troops in three seperate campaigns, the Jianwen Emperors offensive seems to have faltered. The bloody civil war slowly dwindled down to a simmering conflict with little movement on either side and the State split between north and south roughly.
The final battles of the war, came in 1402 when the Prince of Yan found he was able to attack the capital at Nanjing, albeit only at great risk to his own positions. In June 1402, supported by a majority of his loyal Beijing troops, in a giant gamble that left his key city protected by a mere 10.000 strong garrison, Zhu Di finally captured the Ming Capital of Nanjing and the Imperial Throne. In fact it was the son of Zhu Di, Zhu Gaochi, who saved the day by holding on to the northern Capital Beijing, allowing his father to crush the opponents in the south. For his bravery he was made Crown Prince and later succeeded the Yongle Emperor as Emperor Renzong (Reign: 1424 AD - 1425 AD).
It is said that the Gates of the city were opened by the defending Generals in order to welcome the descending army of Zhu Di. Hence, the city fell easily and was pillaged, looted and burnt. The Imperial Palace was destroyed by fire and afterwards several burned bodies were displayed as the corpses of the dead Emperor, his Empress and the Crown Prince.
While Zhu Di celebrated his crowning as the new Emperor, - a clear usurpation - the Three Confucian advisors refused to serve the new Emperor on principle and were executed. Many many other political opponents and influential figures found a similar fate. Eventually, in an order to consolidate the unpopular rule of the new Emperor, tens of thousands were executed, incarcerated, or banished. Yet, the rule did not seem to stablize.
The reasons why the Nation did not find the rest after Zhu Di's victory over the Jianwen Emperor, was clear and simple: the Rise of the New Emperor presented the Nation with a Revolution. As described above, the choice was not merely between two brothers of one Family, one of whom would be Emperor but nevertheless either would continue a set path, but a choice between a Government run on the basis of a civilian led Government and a Government in which the military and the eunuchs were likely to gain more influence. In such a situation, large parts of the Government were bound to compete with eachother, instead of working together towards a common goal.
As will be seen during the following reign periods of the Ming Dynasty, the main conflict behind the throne was a rift that ran straight through the Court, one side favoring the traditionalist, Confucian dominated politics of the Young Jianwen Emperor, the other side favoring an alternative way of doing business, with proper military power and most of all, more influence for the eunuchs of the Inner Court. Although Zhu Di was militarily victories, his function and presence as Emperor was indeed largely symbolic, and the rift continued for the next centuries making a huge imprint on the history of the Dynasty.
In the Person of Zhu Di, reactionary military and political forces, supporting an autocratic Prince had overcome the civil government of Confucian literati based on argument and counter argument. Although Hongwu had already made sure the system had grown not to be as tolerant , "democratic" and subtle as it had been during preceeding Chinese Era's of glory, such as the Tang and Song, the Jianwen Emperor had intended to restore some of the previous values and lead the Confucianist back to what they considered their rightful position. All of that was now lost. History, and the competing branches of the Government had intervened in favor of a different course. In the end the victory of Zhu Di promised the development of a new course and kind of Ming Government, a promise that did not prove outright popular in a throughly indoctrinated and traditionalist society.
The Zhu Di Era would bring more sweeping changes to the way the Government was organized, and how powers were balanced. Yet, however powerful, skilled, mentally flexible, practical and energetic the Zhu Di Emperor would prove to be, he never quite succeeded in fixing the giant rift impeding the workings of Government behind his Throne.
Achievements: The Reign of Jianwen was a short and chaotic one. His reign of Jianwen was overthrown in a 4 year Civil War, ending with his uncle, Zhu Di rising to The Dragon Throne as Emperor. As a result the achievements of the Jianwen Emperor are counted as few. The most important change heralded in by the Jianwen Emperor was a switch from the organizational needs of a warring Army State as experienced by the Hongwu Emperor, to a State in which civilian rule and powers outclassed and outranked those of the military. Although the military remained a crucial and seperate branch of the acting Government administration, and many Generals would come to considerable positions of power and decision, this Confucian inspired promotion of civilian Government over the military would outlast the Dynasty and remain in practice in the Qing Dynasty pretty much until
the end of the Feudal Era in 1911 AD. Naturally, the style to a less militarized and civilian oriented administration helped set the Empire up for a period of prosperity and general well being.
His best strategic achievements may have been thwarthing the initial moves of his elder, more experienced and in hindsight also more powerful opponent. Also often presented as young, clueless and indecisive, the young Emperor showed considerable intelligence and political skills. Apparently well able to to listen to his excellent advisors Jianwen eventually managed to subdue no less than five of the Princes and their Kingdoms, neutralizing their powers and transfering them back to the central Government in the Capital without igniting a major rebellion and avoiding a massive bloodshed.
The Jianwen Emperor ruled patiently, listening and accepting more advice from his subordinates than the founding Emperor Hong Wu, who's whims, rages and sadism had terrorized all the court. Apart from decalring a General Amnesty upon coming to power, a common gesture symbolic for the generosity and forgiveness for past things done, Jianwen also cancelled many of the strict rules, regulations and laws created under the terror regime of his grandfather Zhu Yuanzhang the Hongwu Emperor. Displaying a good understanding of the emphasis of the Ming Empire on the agricultural sector, a situation re-established under the flag of Neo Confucianism as flown by founding Emperor Hongwu, excessive land taxes in the Jiangnan region were reduced winning the hearts of the peasantry. Instead, restrictions were put on the tax-exempt land and estate holdings of the Buddhists and Daoists religious groups in favor of the local small peasantry.
Death & Succession :Historic accounts of the death of Zhu Yunwen, the Jianwen Emperor are unclear. What appears to be the most commonly held view among historians he committed suicide, setting himself afire and burning to death inside his Imperial Palace at Nanjing (the current day Capital of Jiangsu Province). Other sources such as Ann Paludan's book "Chonicle of Chinese Emperors" (Published by Thames and Hudson) mentions how the Jianwen Emperor disappeared, either having been kidnapped and killed, or slipping away unnoticed never to be heard of again.Folk tales account of how the Emperor disguised himself as a Monk and escaped the burning city of Nanjing while it was being overrun by the forces of Zhu Di.