Emperor Shenzong (神宗) - Wanli (萬曆) Reign Period of the Ming Dynasty (1572 AD - 1620 AD)
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Life 1563 - 1620 AD
Reign 1573 - 1620 AD , Reign Period Wanli ; translating as  "Ten thousand calendars".
Zhu Yijun , Name as Emperor ShenZong
Zhu Yijun was the 3rd Son of the Muzong Emperor Zhu Zaihou. It is said that from an early age on he showed himself to be a clever person. According to historical tale, at the age of just six Zu Ziyun observed his father riding a horse at high speed. With his father galloping by the young Prince is said to have cried out; "Father Emperor, you are the master of all under heaven, it would be terrible if something happened to when you rode too fast." Upon hearing his sons worried cry, the Emperor stopped and dismounted. Being very pleased with Zhu Yijun he was immediately promoted to the rank of Crown Prince. Thus, when the Muzong Emperor died in 1572 AD, it was not the first son but the third son who succeeded to the Throne (This was not entirely unusual. Zhu Yijun's father, Emperor Muzong himself, was the 3rd Son of the Shizong Emperor. The Shizong Emperor however was the eldest Son of Zhu Youyuan the Wuzong Emperor according to early tradition).
After the customary mourning period, in the year after enthronement the reign title was chosen as "Wanli". With a total length of 48 years the Wanli Reign was the longest reign period of the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD - 1644 AD).

The Wanli Reign period is usually devided into three seperate parts; the early reign, the middle reign period, and the later reign period of the Shenzong Emperor, as all of these were remarkably different in nature and events. During the early reign period, between 1572 AD and 1582 AD, the young Emperor governed under a regency, during which period the Empire was restrengthened and prospered. During the middle reign period, the Shenzong Emperor ruled alone and supreme with all due consequences. Yet, the Emperor did rule. During his later reign period, the Shenzong Emperor was completely absent from his court, paying no attention to his duties of Office nor heeding any call from any of his officials seeing the Empire fall into a steep decline from which there would turn out to be no recovery.
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Link: Satellite Image with Schematic of the Location and path of the Great Wall of China during the Ming Dynasty. Passes on the Great Wall included.
In the year 1607 AD of the Wanli Reign, the now famous ZhenbeiTai "Passifying the North" Tower was built overlooking the horse-market near the Yulin Garrison Fortress (near Yulin City) in north Shaanxi Province. Today the Zhenbeitai Tower remains as the largest watchtower and platform found along the entire length of the Great Wall of China of the Ming Era.

Death & Succession : In July of the year 1620 AD, the Shenzong Emperor fell gravely ill, being unable to eat anything for two whole weeks. Sensing that his end was likely very near the Emperor summoned his Minister Zhang Weixian and asked him to render help to the young Crown Prince Zhu Changluo in Governing the Empire after his death. The next month the Emperor died at Age 58 after a lenghty reign period of 48 years.
As Wanli's Empress did not have Son, the choice for a Crown Prince went to one of the babies the Emperor produced with one of the Empresses ladies in waiting. Her Son would be crowned as Emperor Guangzong in the year 1620 AD starting a period of complex intrigues at the Ming Court adding further confusion to an already declining Dynasty.

EARLY REIGN PERIOD (1572 AD - 1582 AD) -
As the new Emperor was only aged 9 on the day of his Enthronement, well under age, the reign was placed under a Regency. Traditionally such a Regency consisted of the Empress-Dowagers and a few selected Ministers, however in the case of the Wanli Reign of the Ming Dynasty it were the Empress-Dowager (of Muzhong) and the mother of the young Emperor who assumed the roles of regents to the Throne. At a later time, Zhang Juzheng (張居正) was named Grand Councilor giving him overriding powers at Court and allowing him to run the day to day Government largely as he pleased, under the Regency of the Empress-Dowager and the Empress mother. An able administrator Zhang attempted to rectify many of the problems arisen under previous Emperors and provided an admired example for the young Emperor.
Zhang Juzheng held sway at court for some 10 years, during which time he used his powers wisely. From his first day in office he vied to reform the entire administrative system of the Ming, affecting all levels of the Bureaucracy and took various measures to strengthen the Confucian Examination system. Land Taxes were reformed according to the new "One whip" system in which all (land) taxes were converted into one silver value sum to be paid in this currency. In this way, tax regulations were greatly simplified and land owners paid tax according to the amount of land they owned. Furthermore, ill willing administrators had far less room for committing fraud by altering or mismanaging records.
Further measures were taken to stimulate agriculture and increase agricultural output.

However as time progressed, different factions within the government began to openly oppose Zhang's policy as well as his powerful position in government and courted the Wanli Emperor to dismiss Zhang from his powerful and influential positions. By the year 1582 AD, the young Wanli Emperor was well beyond his puberty, and as a man of 19 naturally felt that he should be left to reign by himself. Making use of the young Emperors rebellious passions, courtiers did everything in their powers to ensure that the Emperor grew tired of the strict Confucian inspired routine Zhang still tried to impose on the emperor. Altogether, Wanli was willing to consider dismissing Zhang and pondered upon the problem several times. However, before the Emperor was able to take any actions, Zhang died rather unexpectedly in 1582 AD.
In the year 1580 AD, the years after the breakthrough peace with the Mongolians, the Chinese writer Wu Cheng-En died. His best known work and legacy is still read and performed as various stage and film acts across the globe and is know as "Journey to The West (Hsi-Yu Chi)". "Journey to the West" is the highly romanticized version of the story of the travels of the infamous Monk Xuanzang (Life: 602 AD - 664 AD), who traveled -illegally- out of China in the 7th century, returning as a master sage of Buddhism and becoming the leading teacher of Buddhist doctrines in (Tang Dynasty) China. The book was completed in the year 1580 AD, shortly before Wu Cheng-En's death.

As a result of Zhang Juzheng's sway at court, the first decade of the Wanli Reign was fairly succesful, seeing the Empire making a turn for the good after almost half a century of decline and mismanagent. The new reforms and fight on corruption greatly enhanced social stability, and the roaming bands of disgruntled farmers gradually disbanded.
The troubles would however start all over again when the Shenzong Emperor saw his coming of Age, and the Grand Councillor Zhang Juzheng died. Feeling freed of the "old fashioned" but able sage, the Emperor gradually reverted several of Zhang's imposed reforms, ending a period of great prosperity and stability not witnessed since the early years of the Ming Dynasty.

As folk tales and historical records tell, after the death of Zhang Jucheng, the discipline at court was soon lost again. Free to do as he pleased and without proper advisors, the Emperor soon embarked ona spree of wild indulgency and debauchery. It was the usual program of large hunting parties, lavish banquets, hording and yet overspending of money combined with the opportunistic corruption of the Eunuchs of the Court. A powerful group at court, once again they manage to entrap an Emperor in their ingenenously spun web of strings. Marking the final fall of the ideals and idea's that Zhang Jucheng and his group of Confucian Scholars had stood for, in 1584 AD, two years after his demise,  the Wanli Emperor issued an edict and had all of Zhang's personal wealth confiscated and a string of Zhang family members purged from the Imperial System. The eunuchs had triumphed and rejoiced at the thought of yet another era of access to the seemingly unlimited wealths of the court in Beijing.
Outside of the Capital however, their whole class was loathed by the average citizenry, who had come to refer to the people living in the Capital as a legion of parasites sucking the life out of the land and its people. Needless to say, the Confucian Scholarly class and able administrators of the Empire felt an increasing sense of desperation at their failing powers and the inability of their class to achieve any improvements in the situation of the Empire. Although, played out at Court for the time being, in the Provinces opposition against the incompetence of the Government would foment and rise.
Click Image to go to FULL Map Version !!
Route Map of Xuanzang's "Journey to The West" (India).
As for the Great Wall of China of the Ming Dynasty; up to the year 1585 AD, the Great Wall was still not really continuous. In outlying border area's there were still many gaps, which previously had been mercilessly sought out by the invading Mongolian Armies. According to the book "The Great Wall" by John Man restates there were also but a few watchtowers. In the year 1568 AD, one Qi Jiguang, a commander who had earlier achived the great success of ridding the eastern coast of Japanese Pirates, was assigned the all important job of redesigning and rebuilding the defenses of the Great Wall of China in the section between Badaling due north west of Beijing to Shanghaiguan on the eastern sea coast.
Before the time of Qi Jiguang, long sections of the Great Wall of China had been built merely of rubble, with fighting platforms, not fortified towers interspersed with too much space in between. On the largely unprotected platforms the Ming soldiers easily fell victim to Mongolian arrows. Furthermore, they were exposed to the elements which was not easy in winters and other violent weathers. As a result of the climatic conditions and severe weather, the platforms as well as the top of the wall also fell victim to erosion, with rain often washing away parts and thus impeding the movement of soldiers along it. Altogether, these weaknesses had allowed the Khalka Mongolians to bypass whole sections of the wall, leaving them free to invade and roam around the City of Beijing in the year 1550 AD. Eventhough a peace treaty had been signed in 1571 AD, with good results, naturally, a responsible commander would feel that the defenses were dangerously inadequate. In order not to see a repeat invasion, it was decided, mainly on the advice of Qi Jiguang, to have the entire wall rebuilt, but this time out of stone.
The overal design including many fortified towers and other improvements was approved of rather quickly and construction on the stone Great Wall of China started in the year 1569 AD in the last few years of the reign of the previous Emperor Muzong. The process of rebuilding the now famous sections between Badaling and Shanhaiguan Fortress was completed in the year 1585 AD.

It is said that the Wanli Emperor held 100's of women to be called on at any time the Emperor wished. Also, the Emperor was an alcoholic who frequently drank too much and was prone to violent mood swings. The Shenzong Emperor certainly helped reinforce the Ming Dynasty's record of brutal autocracy, as the Emperor is said to have killed anyone who displeased him in any way.
Although being a tyrant, for a full 20 years after the death of his main Councillor Zhang Juzheng, the Emperor never attended court nor took special care of the prescribed rituals. There were no direct communications between the Emperor and his Ministers at all, but instead all messages were written and passed on, through the careful slection of the trusted Eunuch officials of the Emperor. Naturally, this was a recipe for disaster, and it can be said that on a whole, the Wanli Period of the Ming Dynasty is a miniature reflection of the faults that eventually brought the powerful Dynasty to a screeching halt.
Being disinterested in Government, yet fascinated with his pleasures the Emperor had many lands confiscated and turned into Imperial resorts, Gardens and Palaces. Meanwhile, the corrupt eunuchs never failed to help themselves to their extra share. As a result of the illegal and wanton confiscations, the population and also the land-owning gentry was yet again offended leading to an increase in underground organizations and uprisings of the poverty stricken peasantry.
Another vice ascribed to the Wanli Emperor is his love of money. That is, the eunuchs at court made sure the Emperor appointed a large number of their court group as Tax Adminstrators and collectors at lucrative positions throughout the Empire, thus allowing them every opportunity to divide the spoils of a suffering nation among them and their family and friends.
Even more so than before, becoming a eunuch was giving up one pleasure with the chance of gaining a 1000 in return. For the eunuchs, who were mostly of uneducated backgrounds and came from non-
Keeping with well established traditions, while the Emperor was still alive, tons of silver were spent on the creation and construction of a lavish Imperial Tomb.  In concurrence with his name for lavish spending and love of exhuberance and glamour, the Wanli Emperor sought to make sure that his tomb would be exceptionally ostentatious and more impressive than any of the tombs of preceeding Ming Emperors, hence he commenced building his mausoleum relatively early in his reign. Construction on what today is known as Ding Ling Tomb started in November of the year 1584 AD, his 12th year as emperor, and was completed in June of 1590 AD.  As recorded, every day 30.000 soldiers and a multitude of laborers and artisans worked on the Imperial Tomb situated at the foot of Mount Dayu, a now renowned location in a vallery near Changping Village, just inside the Badaling Pass of the Great Wall of China. Altogether the construction of the Ding Ling Tomb, the final resting place of Zhu Yizhun, at the Ming Tomb Valley (Shisan Ling = 13 Tombs) went on for a total of 6 years. Today it is held as an example of the overspending that occurred during the declining years of the Ming Dynasty and as your tour-guie will faithfully repeat, it is said the cost of the construction of the Tomb of the Wanli Emperor amounted to a whopping 80 million tales of silver. The Ding Ling mausoleum encompasses some 180,000 square meters of the world cultural heritage Ming Dynasty Tomb valley of Beijing and can be visited today.
- Click to Enlarge -
Above: View along the central passageway inside the underground Tomb of the Zhu Yizhun, Emperor Shenzong. Today Ding Ling remains the only opened and excavated Tomb of any Ming Dynasty Emperor resting near Beijing.
Below: View of the surroundings of Ding Ling Tomb on a misty and quiet winter day in November 2004.
influential, it was a bitter but seemingly worthwhile trade off. For the Nation, it was a crushing backpain which has become the main legacy of the Ming Dynasty. Notoriously, through their malversations, the eunuchs eventually managed to bring down the Throne.

LATER REIGN PERIOD (1600 AD - 1620 AD) -
While the Emperor was an absent cat away from a court with thousands of eunuch mice dancing and dividing the spoils, resentment among the populace and the now virtually impotent Confucian scholar gentry fomented and grew. Throughout the nearly 20 years of absence of the Wanli Emperor, during which time he remaiined de facto incommunicado for his own ministers and highest advisors (except the eunuchs), the Government remained in a State of paralysis. However, on a local level opposition was abundant, and ever present. The further away from the Capital, the more leeway and support the opposition to the perceived mis-Government had.
In the year 1604 AD, Gu Xiancheng (顧憲成 Life: Gù Xiànchéng, 1550 AD – 1612 AD), a Ming Grand Secretary, and Gao Panlong (高攀龍 Gāo Pānlóng, Life: 1562 AD – 1626 AD), a scholar, who had earlier joined forces in hope of restoring the authority of the Confucian Gentry, restored and reopened the Donglin Academy in Wuxi in Jiangsu Province with the financial backing of local gentry and officials. In so doing they established a base for their movement, a center of learning where scholars sought to find new answers to the current moral dillema's by looking back into Confucian Tradition. (The Donglin Academy (东林书院 - literally meaning "Eastern Grove Academy", also known as the Guishan Academy (龟山书院), was originally built in A.D. 1111 during the Northern Song dynasty which was a revival period of Confucianism in Chinese History. It was originally a school where the neo-Confucian scholar Yang Shi taught, but later fell into disuse.)
Naturally, the center also allowed room for discussion of points of criticism against the Government and it steadily developped as center of opposition. The strength of the Donglin movement was further magnified when the Donglin Academy in Wuxi was joined by the equally renowned Confucian academies of the nearby Wujin (武進) and Yixing (宜興). A little over a decade later, when the succession of the ailing Emperor became issue, the Donglin Scholars had gained enough power at court in Beijing to be instrumental in the process of forcing the succession to the Throne.  Altogether, the Donglin movement was to grow to become one of the major and leading ideological and philosophical movements of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties of China.
Beijing - Capital of Ming Dynasty Era China
Shanhai Pass Fortress (Shanhai Guan), Hebei Province - First Gate under Heaven in the East
Jiayu Pass Fortress (Jiayu Guan), Hebei Province - First Gate under Heaven in the West
At the Ming Tombs Valley(Shi an Ling) near Beijing, inside the Ding Ling Tomb, Emperor Wanli was laid to rest between his two wives, empress Xiaoduan and Empress Dowager Xiaojing, both surnamed Wang.

Empress Wang (above) was a native of Zhejiang Province. She was the first wife of Emperor Wanli and became empress in 1578 AD. She died of illness in 1620, the same year as the emperor passed away.

Empress-Dowager Wang (right) was born in the year 1555 AD and entered the palace in 1578 AD as a court lady. She was promoted to imperial concubine when in 1582 she gave birth to the future Taichang Emperor Guangzong. She was further promoted to imperial concubine of highest rank in the year 1606 AD.
Empress-Dowager Wang died in 1611 AD of illness and was buried in Tianshou Hill.  (Tianshou Hill; alsso Jianshou was an early cemetary established in the year 1409 AD of the Ming Dynasty, 11 years before the official opening of Beijing as Capital City and its Forbidden City as the largest and most luxurious Palace in the world (1420 AD). Jianshouling, the cemetary,  was completed at Mount Tianshou in the Changping District not far from the Ming Tomb Valley).
When emperor Tianqi succeeded to the throne in 1620 he gave her the posthumous title of Empress-Dowager and had her reburied with her husband at the Dingling Mausoleum.
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