Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring). When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”). The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be. His armies smote the enemies of China. He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City. He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service. Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter). The peasantry was happy and successful. Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished. It was a glorious golden age for China.
The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting
The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu. During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…
Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter. Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture). The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”). In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew. In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter. In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son. In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).
Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword
So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation. Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk. Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.
This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere. To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world. The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide). They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He). The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols. China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.