An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Shenzong 明神宗, the Wanli Emperor 萬曆

Jan 17, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald

Emperor Ming Shenzong 明神宗 (1563-1619, r. 1572-1619), the Wanli Emperor 萬曆, personal name Zhu Yijun 朱翊鈞, was the last great emperor of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). His rule, lasting for almost fifty years, was also the longest of all Ming emperors. Born in 1563 as the third son of Emperor Muzong 明穆宗 (the Longqing Emperor 隆慶, r. 1566-1572) and Lady Li 李貴妃, he acceeded to the throne in 1572 with the age of no more than nine sui and in the following spring adopted the reign title Wanli "Ten Thousand Years (of Rule)"
As an under-age boy the Wanli Emperor relied on the support of Empress Dowager Ciding 孝定太后 who acted as regent, and Feng Bao 馮保, who was Director of Ceremonial (silijian taijian 司禮監太監), as well as Zhang Juzheng 張居正, Grand Academician (daxueshi 大學士) of the Grand Secretariat (neige 内閣), Gao Gong 高拱 and Gao Yi 高儀. Zhang Juzheng, the most important of the three, was a very loyal and energetic official who steered the state ship safely and confidently. His most important political issue was the reform of the fiscal sector with the introduction of the single-whip taxation (yitiao bianfa 一條鞭法), but he also conducted a successful stabilization of the border regions in the north, river conservancy works at the Yellow River and the Grand Canal and so secured the prosperity of the whole economy during the late sixteenth century. Zhang Juzheng also abolished a series of state offices in order to cut expenditure, yet the custom to create posts only by corruption continued and was later so serious that even for illiterate persons state offices were created.
In 1587 the Wanli Emperor personally took over regency. One of his first steps was to dismiss Zhang Juzheng in fear that the latter might gain too much power. He also abolished a lot of administrative rules initiated by Zhang. Yet instead of implementing his own concepts and ideas of government, the young emperor neglected the daily business, ignored to appear in court audiences and refused to read memorials to the throne. The only active measures he took was to aggrandize the imperial lands by purchasing large fiels in the northern provinces. Only when the state finances became so distresses that the imperial treasury faced bankruptcy, in 1596, he decided to send out a group of court eunuchs to open new sources of income from the salt monopoly and the mining business throughout the empire. The eunuchs took over the posts of overseer of mining (kuangjian 礦監) or tax commissioner (shuishi 稅使). Their ruthless fleecing of the local administration and of the population, their exploitation and fraudulent practice caused riots in many prefectures. Li Sancai 李三才, grand coordinator (xunfu 巡撫) of Fengyang 鳳陽, reported the widespread popular dissent to the throne that he saw as a real danger for the dynasty.
Three large-scale military campaigns (Wanli san da zheng 萬曆三大征) also contributed to the precarious situation of the state finances. The first of these was the suppression of the rebellion of the Mongol prince Bobai 哱拜 in Ningxia 寧夏 in 1592. The second campaign was the support of the Chosŏn dynasty 朝鮮 in Korea against the invasion by Japan which took seven years to fully expell the Japanese. In 1598 a third campaign was undertaken against the rebellious Miao tribes 苗 under Yang Yinglong 楊應龍 in Bozhou 播州 (north of modern Zunyi 遵義, Guizhou).
At the court, the ministers had divided into several large factions that vehemently fought each other. The Donglin Faction (Donglin dang 東林黨) supported Prince Zhu Changluo 朱常洛, son of Ms Wang, Lady Gongfei 恭妃王氏, while the Qi-Chu-Zhe Faction 齊楚浙黨 stood on the side of the Emperor. The main themes these faction fought about were XXX 國本, 京察, 李三才, 福王之國家 and 三案.
A dangerous incident in 1615 finally brought attention to the emperor that it was necessay to care personally for governmental affairs. The emperor's son Zhu Changxun 朱常洵, Prince of Fu 福王, was given as an estate a large tract of land around Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan). Zhang Chai 張差 (a "guy from Jizhou" 薊州男子) had access to the Princes' residence and killed his chief eunuch. He was accused of having attempted the asassination of the Prince. The affair is known as the "Club-hit case" (Tingji an 梃擊案) and caused an intensive fighting of court factions in Beijing, and the emperors' decision to return to the court, in fear for the life of his heir apparent.
In 1616 the Jurchen leader Nurhaci (Emperor Qing Taizu 清太祖, r. 1616-1626) adopted the title of Khan and founded the Later Jin empire 後金 (1616-1636) in the northeast of China, the region that was later to become Manchuria. After several intensive raids by the Jurchens on the northeastern border region the Wanli Emperor appointed Xiong Tingbi 熊廷弼 as military commissioner (jinglüe 經略) to Liaodong 遼東.
The posthumous honorific name of the Wanli Emperor is Emperor Xiaoxian 孝顯皇帝, his temple name Emperor Shenzong 明神宗. He was buried in the tomb hill Dingling 明定陵, and was succeeded by his oldest son Zhu Changluo 朱常洛, called Emperor Guangzong 明光宗 (the Taichang Emperor 泰昌, r. 1620).

Chen Quanli 陳全力, Hou Xinyi 侯欣一, eds. (1988). Diwang cidian 帝王辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe), 206.
Xiong Tieji 熊鐵基, Yang Youli 楊有禮, eds. (1994). Zhongguo diwang zaixiang cidian 中國帝王宰相辭典 (Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe), 343.