The Xuande Emperor (16 March 1399 – 31 January 1435), personal name Zhu Zhanji (朱瞻基), was the fifth Emperor of the Ming dynasty, reigned from 1425 to 1435. His era name “Xuande” means “Proclamation of Virtue”.
Zhu Zhanji was the eldest son of the Hongxi Emperor and Empress Chengxiaozhao. He was described as a crown prince who was endowed with the quality of an excellent monarch in a section of his biography surrounded by superstition. His grandfather, the Yongle Emperor, had high hopes that he might play an important part to assist his father.
He was fond of poetry and literature. Although he continued to refer to Beijing as the secondary capital on all official documents, he maintained it as his residence and continued to rule there in the style of his grandfather, the Yongle Emperor. He permitted Zheng He to lead the seventh and last of his maritime expeditions.
The Xuande Emperor’s uncle, Zhu Gaoxu (the Prince of Han), had been a favorite of the Yongle Emperor for his military successes, but he disobeyed imperial instructions and in 1417 had been exiled to the small fief of Le’an in Shandong. When Zhu Gaoxu revolted, the Xuande Emperor took 20,000 soldiers and attacked him at Le’an.
Zhu Gaoxu surrendered soon afterward, was reduced to the status of a commoner. Six hundred rebelling officials were executed, and 2,200 were banished. The emperor did not wish to execute his uncle at the start, but later events angered the emperor so much that Zhu Gaoxu was executed through fire torture. All his sons were executed as well. It is very likely that Zhu Gaoxu’s arrogance, well detailed in many historic texts, offended the emperor. A theory states that when the emperor went to visit his uncle, Zhu Gaoxu intentionally tripped him.
In 1428, the Xuande Emperor granted King Hashi of Chūzan the family name Shang (尚, Shō in Japanese), gave him the title of Liuqiu Wang (琉球王, Jap: Ryūkyū-Ō, King of Ryūkyū), and gifted him a red lacquered tablet with Chung Shan (中山, Chūzan in Japanese) inscribed in gold, which was then placed on the Chūzonmon gate near Shuri Castle.
The Xuande Emperor wanted to withdraw his troops from Việt Nam, but some of his advisors disagreed. After Ming garrisons suffered heavy casualties, the emperor sent Liu Sheng with an army. These were badly defeated by the Vietnamese. The Ming forces withdrew and the Xuande Emperor eventually recognized the independence of Việt Nam. In the north, the Xuande Emperor was inspecting the border with 3,000 cavalry troops in 1428 and was able to retaliate against a raid by the Mongols of the Northern Yuan dynasty.
The Ming government let Arughtai’s Eastern Mongols battle with Toghon’s Oirat tribes of the west. The Ming imperial court received horses annually from Arughtai, but he was defeated by the Oirats in 1431 and was killed in 1434 when Toghon took over eastern Mongolia. The Ming government then maintained friendly relations with the Oirats. China’s diplomatic relations with Japan improved in 1432. Relations with Korea were generally good with the exception of the Koreans resenting having to send virgins occasionally to the Xuande Emperor’s imperial harem.
A privy council of eunuchs strengthened centralized power by controlling the Jinyiwei (secret police), and their influence continued to grow. In 1428, the notorious censor Liu Guan was sentenced to penal servitude and was replaced by the incorruptible Gu Zuo (d. 1446), who dismissed 43 members of the Beijing and Nanjing censorates for incompetence. Some censors were demoted, imprisoned, and banished, but none were executed. Replacements were put on probation as the censorate investigated the entire Ming administration including the military.
The same year the emperor reformed the rules governing military conscription and the treatment of deserters. Yet the hereditary military continued to be inefficient and to suffer from poor morale. Huge inequalities in tax burdens had caused many farmers in some areas to leave their farms in the past forty years. In 1430, the Xuande Emperor ordered tax reductions on all imperial lands and sent out “touring pacifiers” to coordinate provincial administration, exercising civilian control over the military. They attempted to eliminate the irregularities and the corruption of the revenue collectors. The emperor often ordered retrials that allowed thousands of innocent people to be released.
In the ninth year of the Ming Xuande emperor the Jurchens in Manchuria under Ming rule suffered from famine forcing them to sell their daughters into slavery and moving to Liaodong to beg for help amd relief from the Ming dynasty government.
The Xuande Emperor died of illness in 1435 after ruling for ten years. He ruled over a remarkably peaceful period with no significant external or internal problems. Later historians have considered his reign to be the height of the Ming dynasty’s golden age.