The Chenghua Emperor was born as Zhu Jianshen. His era name “Chenghua” means “accomplished change”.
He was the ninth Emperor of the Ming dynasty, and reigned from 1464 to 1487.
Zhu Jianshen was a son of the Zhengtong Emperor (also known as the Tianshun Emperor). He was only two years old when his father was captured by the Oirat Mongols and held captive in 1449.
After that, his uncle, the Jingtai Emperor, took over the throne whilst his father was released from Oirats and returned to Beijing in 1450 and was put under house arrest for almost seven years.
During this time, Zhu Jianshen lived under his uncle’s shadow and even had his title of crown prince removed while the Jingtai Emperor installed his own son as heir. Zhu Jianshen was only reinstated as crown prince on the eve of the death of the Jingtai Emperor in 1457.
The Chenghua Emperor ascended the throne at the age of 17. During the early part of his administration, he carried out new government policies to reduce tax and strengthen the Ming dynasty.
However these did not last and by the closing years of his reign, governmental affairs once again fell into the hands of eunuchs, notably Wang Zhi. Peasant uprisings occurred throughout the country; however, they were violently suppressed.
The Chenghua Emperor’s reign was also more autocratic than his predecessors’ and freedom was sharply curtailed when the emperor established institutes such as the Western Depot (to complement the existing Eastern Depot), monitoring all civilians’ actions and words.
This institute, not unlike a spy agency, would administer punishment to those whom they suspected of treason. The Western Depot would eventually be shut down but it was the start of a dangerous trend and the Chenghua Emperor’s descendants would again revive the Western Depot during the 16th century.
The Chenghua Emperor spent most of his reign under the influence of Consort Wan, an imperial concubine who was seventeen years older than him. Lady Wan had been a mother figure to the young emperor, rearing and protecting the young prince.
After he ascended the throne, she quickly became the emperor’s favourite consort. She gave birth to a child in 1466, but he died shortly thereafter. She would come to dominate the Emperor’s harem for nearly two decades. Lady Wan would employ eunuchs to oversee the harem and report back to her if any concubines became pregnant.
Tactics including the forced abortions and even murders of members of the harem resulting in the Chenghua Emperor lamenting that by the age of thirty one that he still lacked a male heir. It was only then revealed to the Emperor that a male heir, the future Hongzhi Emperor was secretly saved and raised in a secure location outside the palace.
After reuniting with the young prince, Zhu Youcheng was created crown prince. Consort Wan died in 1487 and shortly after the Chenghua Emperor died in 1487, after 23 years on the throne. He was buried in the Maoling (茂陵) mausoleum of the Ming Tombs.
The Chenghua Emperor’s reign can be distinguished by his early attempts to reform the government and trying his best to rule the country. His reign also saw a cultural flourishing with famous persons such as Hu Juren and Chen Baisha dominating the academic scene.
However, the Chenghua Emperor’s reign was prone to dominating individuals in the government and the emperor was easily influenced into granting favours based on who he liked rather than their abilities. This led to the degradation of the ruling class and wasteful spending by corrupt individuals which eventually depleted the Ming government’s coffers.