The Ming dynasty was the last dynasty under the Han (漢族) rule in Chinese history. It was a period of turbulent politics and complex power struggle, with a thrilling history that provoked mixed feelings.
In order to eliminate the powerful generals and officials, Zhu Yuanzhang established the “Jinyiwei” (錦衣衞, imperial secret police force) to monitor and suppress dissenters. However, understanding very well the hazards inhered in a spy-based system, Zhu Yuanzhang disbanded the Jinyiwei in his later years. After Zhu Di (朱棣) succeeded the throne via a rebellion, he was afraid of criticism from his subjects due to his illegitimate claim to the throne. Therefore, not only did he restore the Jinyiwei, he also set up the “Dongchang” (東廠, Eastern Depot), a eunuch-run secret service agency that bypassed normal judicial procedures to arbitrarily monitor, arrest, and execute dissenters. In the following Ming years, Emperor Xianzong (憲宗) established the “Xichang” (西廠, Western Depot), another eunuch-run secret service agency, and Emperor Wuzong (武宗) established the “Neichang” (內廠, Inner Depot). Great anxiety and insecurity were caused among the people with the spread of secret agents across nation. Secret agent politics thus became one of the major drawbacks of the Ming dynasty.
As soon as he was on the throne, Emperor Jianwen (建文帝) started to weaken the power of the regional lords. Although he was naturally kind-hearted, he was indecisive and made poor personnel decisions, which ultimately led to his defeat by his uncle Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan (燕王). Even Zhu Di gained control of the empire, many officials remained loyal to Emperor Jianwen and refused to submit to the former even at the cost of their lives. Zhu Di resorted to massive elimination of his opponents as a result.
Emperor Yingzong (英宗), coming to the throne with youthful energy, was incited by the eunuch Wang Zhen (王振) to personally lead a battle against the Oirats. He was unfortunately captured. His younger brother Zhu Qiyu (朱祁鈺) ascended to throne as Emperor Daizong (代宗) as a result and honoured Emperor Yingzong as the “Taishang Huang” (太上皇, retired emperor). However, when Emperor Yingzong was finally released from captivity, he was then imprisoned in the South Palace of the Forbidden City and lived a harsh life. Then, in the first lunar month of the eighth year of the Jingtai reign (景泰, 1457), Emperor Daizong fell seriously ill. With others’ support, Emperor Yingzong retook the throne in what was later known the “Coup at the Palace Gate” or the “Restoration of Power to the South Palace”.
Emperor Xianzong (憲宗) succeeded the throne after Emperor Yingzong’s death. He loved Noble Consort Wan (萬貴妃) very much that he obeyed her every word. Noble Consort Wan then became arrogant and would force any pregnant consorts to take abortion medicine. When Noble Consort Ji (紀貴妃) was by chance favoured by Emperor Xianzong and became pregnant, Eunuch Zhang Min (張敏), fearing that Noble Consort Wan would harm the young prince, helped Noble Consort Ji hide her son and raised him secretly in a safe place. Named Zhu Youtang (朱祐樘), the young prince did not return to meet his father until he was six years old. He succeeded the throne as Emperor Xiaozong (孝宗) after his father’s death.
After ascending the throne, Emperor Xiaozong spoiled his only son Zhu Houzhao (朱厚照) very much due to his own unfortunate childhood. Zhu Houzhao thus became self-centred and indulgent in pleasure. When he ascended the throne as Emperor Wuzong (武宗), Zhu Houzhao constantly challenged the ancestral system and the advice from civil officials. He went on numerous trips, and forcibly took women from the common people, bringing unrest and chaos to wherever he went. He eventually died from a serious illness after falling into water on a journey.
Emperor Shizong (世宗) ascended the throne after Emperor Wuzong’s death. The arrogant and self-willed ruler believed in Taoism, took elixirs regularly, indulged in pleasure, and even abused palace maids. Eventually, the 16 maids, including Yang Jinying (楊金英), who could no longer bear the situation, attempted to strangle him. However, Empress Fang (方皇后) intervened and saved him from death, which was known as the “Palace Incident of Renyin Year” (壬寅宮變). Shaken, Emperor Shizong then left the Imperial Palace and moved to the West Garden, where he devoted himself to Taoist practice and relinquished power to his Senior Grand Secretary Yan Song (嚴嵩). During his 20 years of abusing the imperial power, Yan engaged in corruption, bribery, and persecution of dissenters during his 20 years of monopolising political power, causing chaos in the imperial court. Later, the Secondary Grand Secretary Xu Jie (徐階) bought Lan Daoxing (藍道行), the Taoist priest who was close to Emperor Shizong, off to attack Yan as a corrupt official using the pretext of divine intervention. Yan was dismissed eventually. Then, he framed Yan Shifan (嚴世藩), Yan Song’s son, for colluding with Japanese pirates to plot a rebellion, leading to Yan Song’s downfall.
Emperor Shizong’s corrupt practices continued even after Yan Song’s death. Hai Rui (海瑞), who was serving as a senior official in the Ministry of Revenue’s Department of Yunnan (雲南) Affairs, submitted a petition entitled “Directly Addressing the Most Vital Issues in the World” to Emperor Shizong to critise his various mistakes endangering the realm and harming the people. The emperor was conflicted about how to respond. Although he recognised Hai as a loyal minister, he was resentful about the petition’s content. In the end, he had Hai kept in prison. Emperor Muzong (穆宗) succeeded the throne after Emperor Shizong’s death, Hai was released and designated the Grand Coordinator of South Zhili (南直隸, regions including the southern parts of Yangtze River). Although he was able to carry out many measures that were beneficial to the people and earned himself deep respect, he became embroiled in a political struggle and was dismissed from his post after only half a year .
Emperor Shenzong (神宗) was only 10 years old when he ascend the throne after Emperor Muzong’s death. Empress Dowager Li (李太后) entrusted the regency to Zhang Juzheng (張居正) and ordered him to strictly discipline the young emperor. The responsible Zhang was loyal and wise in assisting Emperor Shenzong, but his strict discipline upset the young ruler. Moreover, Zhang, who had many personal flaws, blocked the flow of information and suppressed dissenters, jeopardising the emperor’s position and eventually leading to his own downfall. Soon after Zhang’s death, his family suffered a brutal purge at Emperor Shenzong’s hands.
Zhu Changluo (朱常洛, later Emperor Guangzong [光宗]) was the eldest son of Emperor Shenzong and born to a palace maid surnamed Wang (王氏). He was always neglected by his father. Emperor Shenzong was fond of Noble Consort Zheng (鄭貴妃) and secretly pledged to make her son Zhu Changxun (朱常洵) the crown prince. It was a decision resolutely opposed by the court officials, considering it a violation of the rules of traditional succession. Noble Consort Zheng thus did everything to depose the crown prince Zhu Changluo. As a result, there was a series of cases against him, including the “Case of Yaoshu” (妖書案), the “Case of Tingji” (梃擊案), and the “Case of Hongwan” (紅丸案). Then, the “Case of Yigong” (移宮案) took place after his death as Emperor Guangzong. The latter three cases were collectively known as the “Three Cases of the Late Ming Dynasty” for their complexity and the mysterious circumstances surrounding them.
After Emperor Guangzong’s death, his eldest son Zhu Youjiao (朱由校) ascended the throne as Emperor Xizong (熹宗). Emperor Xizong was incompetent and neglectful of his duties, trusting only his wet nurse surnamed Ke (客氏) and the eunuch Wei Zhongxian (魏忠賢). The two colluded to persecute the Donglin movement (東林黨) members and even brutally mistreated the imperial concubines. A large number of officials attempted to ingratiate Wei by starting a nationwide campaign to build shrines for him. Wei’s henchmen also called him “Jiuqian Sui” (meaning 9,000 years old, when emperors were referred to as “Wan Sui” [萬歲], meaning 10,000 years, as a blessing to their longevity) . After Emperor Xizong’s death, Emperor Sizong (思宗) ascended the throne and spared no effort to purge the Wei group. However, the group held power too long that they caused much harm to the country and the people. Loyal and righteous officials were persecuted, and society lost the ability to tell right from wrong. The nation was thus doomed to collapse.
Emperor Sizong was eager to revive the dynasty. He brought back General Yuan Chonghuan (袁崇煥) to support the war effort in Liaodong (遼東，the Ming dynasty’s northeastern territory ) and resist the attacks from the Later Jin (後金). However, Emperor Sizong’s paranoia led him to fall into Hong Taiji (皇太極)’s scheme of sowing discord, leading to Yuan’s execution by “Lingchi” (凌遲, a torture known as slow slicing or “death by a thousand cuts”.) This move caused the border problems to spiral out of control, accelerating the Ming dynasty’s collapse. In March of the 17th year (1644) of Emperor Sizong’s reign, Li Zicheng (李自成)’s rebel army took Beijing (北京) when the emperor hanged himself on Mei Mountain (煤山, now known as Jing Mountain [景山] in central Beijing). The Ming dynasty ended. After occupying Beijing, Li’s Great Shun Army (大順軍) quickly became corrupt. After for just 42 days in Beijing, Li was driven out by the Qing army (清軍) and later died in an accident.