An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Sizong 明思宗, the Chongzhen Emperor 崇禎

Jan 17, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald

Emperor Sizong 明思宗 (1610-1644, r. 1627-1644), the Chongzhen Emperor 崇禎, personal name Zhu Youjian 朱由檢, was the last emperor of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). Born in 1610 as the fifth son of the Taichang Emperor 泰昌 (Emperor Guangzong 明光宗, r. 1620) and Lady Liu 劉賢妃, and younger brother the Tianqi Emperor 天啟 (Emperor Xizong 明熹宗, r. 1620-1627), he had been given the title of Prince of Xin 信王. He succeeded to the throne after the death of his older brother, who had no heir, and adopted the reign title Chongzhen "XXX".
His reign began with a very decisive step by appointing the notorious chief eunuch Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢 XXX of Fengyang 鳳陽. The corrupt man knew that his time was over and committed suicide on the way to this post. His whole family was extinguished and their shrines desecrated. At the same time he had executed the late emperor's nurse, Ms Ke 客氏, and her son. All commanders of the border garrisons, once appointed by Wei Zhongxian, were replaced by fresh and loyal personnel. Polical prisoners were amnestied and their relatives pardoned, the judicial collection Sanchao yaodian 三朝要典 was declared invalid, and Wei Zhongxian's faction and collaborators were put to trial.
Yet only a few years later a new eunuch faction had come into being, this time under the leadership of Zhang Yixian 張彝憲 and Wang Yingchao 王應朝 who controlled important positions in the central administration, the military, and throughout the empire. Opponents like general Yuan Chonghuan 袁崇煥 were charged with fabricated accusations and innocently executed. This was particularly dangerous because the eunuch faction's machinations critically weakened the border defense in the northeast, where the federation of the Jurchens (from 1636 called Manchus) threatened the border cities. Military campaings against the Jurchens, and natural diasters increased government expenditure, so that it was decided to levy a new tax for border defense, the sanxiang 三餉. Heavy taxes, inflation and strictly imposed labour corvée incited numerous peasant rebellions like that of Xingyang 滎陽 whose defenders were able to resist the imperial tropos for nine years.
In 1642 the Manchus sacked Jinzhou 錦州, a city very close to the Shanhai Pass 山海關 that allowed direct access to Beijing. Yet the real danger for the empire were not the Manchus, but a large rebellion under Li Zicheng 李自成 who in 1644 occupied Beijing. He had proclaimed himself King of Dashun 大順 in Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi. The Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself at the foot of Mt. Meishan 煤山 "Coal Hill" just north of the Imperial City. The rebel Li Zicheng plundered the city, but the Manchus soon expelled and later extinguished him in Shaanxi. The foreign occupants displayed appropriate honours to the late emperor and buried him. While the Chongzhen Emperor himself had no heir, other princes of the Ming fought for another decade against the Manchu invaders who began to reign over China as emperors of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911).
The posthumous honorific title of the Chongzhen Emperor is Emperor Zhuangliemin 莊烈愍皇帝, his temple name was first Emperor Sizong 明思宗, but the Qing renamed him Yizong 明毅宗. He was buried in the tomb hill Siling 明思陵.

Chen Quanli 陳全力, Hou Xinyi 侯欣一, eds. (1988). Diwang cidian 帝王辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe), 208.
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), 344.