An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢

Jan 6, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald

Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢 (1568–1627, original name Wei Si 魏四), courtesy name Wei Wanwu 魏完吾, was the most notorious evil eunuch of Chinese history. In the early decades of the seventeenth century he was able to control the whole central government apparatus of the Ming empire 明 (1368-1644) and wielded greatest power.
He came from Suning 肅寧, Hebei, and had no relatives to rely on. When facing bankruptcy by gambling debts he submitted himself to castration in the hope to enter the palace service. He therefore changed his name to Li Jinzhong 李進忠. As a palace servant he became acquainted with Ms Ke 客氏, the nurse of the imperial grandson (huang zhangsun 皇長孫), who was eventually enthroned as Emperor Xizong 明熹宗 (the Tianqi Emperor 天啓, r. 1621-1628) on the unforeseen death of his father, Emperor Guangzong 明光宗 (the Taichang Emperor 泰昌, r. 1620-1621). Ms Ke was bestowed the title of Lady Fengsheng 奉聖夫人, and Li Jinzhong was appointed Brush-Holding Director of Ceremonial (silijian bingbi taijian 司禮監秉筆太監) and concurrently Commissioner of the Three Treasures of Commercial Revenues (tidu baohe sandian 提督寶和三店), and allowed to resume his original family name and was allowed to use the personal name Zhongxian 忠賢. From that time on Wei Zhongxian planfully expanded his influence and created a faction of court eunuchs the most important members of which were the Director of Ceremonial Wang Tiqian 王體乾, Li Yongzhen 李永貞, Shi Yuanya 石元雅 and Tu Wenfu 涂文輔. Wei's nephew was made assistant commander of the Brocade Guard (jinyiwei zhihui qianshi 錦衣衛指揮僉事), and Wei Guangwei 魏廣微 given the honours of a Grand Academician (daxueshi 大學士). Only two years after Emperor Xizong's accession Wei Zhongxian forged edicts and forced Emperor Guangzong's 光宗 trusted "chosen attendant" (xuanshi 選侍), Ms Zhao 趙氏, to commit suicide. He incited Emperor Xizong to neglect government duties and to engage in pleasures and hunting. He handed over important posts in the palace service with a large amount of loyal eunuchs and established a private eunuch guard (neibiao 內標). Together with Lady Ke he managed the murder of the imperial Consort Yu 裕妃, Ms Zhang 張氏, and caused the abort the fetus in the womb of Empress Xiao'ai (Xiao'ai Zhe Huanghou 孝哀悊皇后), Ms Zhang 張氏. He so brought greatest turmoil into the imperial harem and had greatest control over the chief eunuchs (taijian 太監). His next campaign was to take control over the outer court. He therefore secretly joined with Grand Academician Shen Que 沈{榷-木+水}. Except the members of the Donglin Faction (Donglin dang 東林黨) all court officials cooperated with the mighty eunuch. The Chu Faction 楚黨 from Hubei, the Zhe Faction 浙黨 from Zhejiang and the Qi Faction 齊黨 from Shandong were therefore called the "eunuch factions" (yandang 閹黨). From 1623 on Wei Zhongxian also controlled the Eastern Depot (dongchang 東廠), a eunuch institution with inquisitional rights. A member of the Donglin Faction, Censor-in-Chief (fudu yushi 副都御史) Yang Lian 楊漣, was the first to memoralize to the throne. He accused Wei of twenty-four capital crimes. Yet Wei Zhongxian fought back and had beaten to death Wan Jing 萬燝, Director in the Ministry of Works (gongbu langzhong 工部郎中), and dismissed the Grand Academician Ye Shanggao 葉尚高, Minister of Personnel (libu shangshu 吏部尚書) Zhao Nanxing 趙南星, the Left Censor-in-Chief (zuo duyushi 左都御史) Gao Panlong 高攀龍, Vice Minister of Personnel (libu shilang 吏部侍郎) Chen Yuting 陳于廷 and Yang Lian 楊漣, Zuo Guangdou 左光斗 and Wei Dazhong 魏大中. He had furthermore purged many adherents of the Donglin Faction in the central government and even through the provincial administrations. In 1625 Wei Zhongxian opened a judicial case called the case of Xiong Tingbi 熊廷弼, a trial at the end of which Yang Lian, Zuo Guangdou, Wei Dazhong, Zhong Chaorui 周朝瑞, Yuan Huazhong 袁化中 and Gu Zhang 顧章 were executed. A year later Gao Panlong, Zhou Qiyuan 周起元, Zhou Shunchang 周順昌, Miao Changqi 繆昌期, Zhou Zongjian 周宗建, Huang Zunsu 黃尊素 and Li Yingsheng 李應昇 found their death. During these excesses Wei Zhongxian ordered Gu Bingqian 顧秉謙, a member of the "eunuch faction", to compiled the judicial canon Sanchao yaodian 三朝要典. In this canon three cases were publicly justified. These were the enforced transferral of Emperor Xizong's foster-mother, Chosen Attendant Li 李選侍, to the Huiluan Palace 噦鸞宮 in 1620, while she had insisted to dwell in the Qianqing Palace 乾清宮, which was only allowed to the emperor and his mother (the "Palace-removal case" Yigong an 移宮案); secondly, an alleged attempted murder of the heir apparent Prince Zhu Changluo 朱常洛 arranged by Lady Zheng 鄭貴妃 in 1615 (the "Club-hit case" Tingji an 梃擊案); and thirdly, the "Red-Pill case" Hongwan an 紅丸案 that dealt with the death of Emperor Guangzong 明光宗 after only one month of reign (the former Prince Zhu Changluo), caused by a pill given to him by Li Kezhuo 李可灼, probably on the order of Lady Zheng.
In order to further strengthen his own influence Wei Zhongxian had closed all academies (shuyuan 書院) throughout the empire and prohibited free teaching and political discussions. Wei Zhongxian was at that time the undisputed master of the Ming empire. He was assisted by more than two dozen of loyal followers inside the palace, like the eunuch Wang Tiqian, and by many high officials at the court, like Cui Chengxiu 崔呈秀, Tian Ji 田吉, Wu Chunfu 吳淳夫, Li Kuilong 李夔龍, Ni Wenhuan 倪文煥 or the military officials Tian Ergeng 田爾耕, Xu Xianchun 許顯純, Sun Yunhe 孫雲鶴, Yang Huan 楊寰 or Cui Yingyuan 崔應元. These were called the "Five Tigers" (wu hu 五虎), "Five Panthers" (wubao 五彪), "Ten Dogs" (shigou 十狗) etc. In some prefectures collaborators even erected shrines for the living Wei Zhongxian, on order to please him. Yet there were also places, where people openly rebelled against him, like in Jiangyin 江陰 or Suzhou 蘇州.
He then began to interfere into political matters and interfered into the border defense in sensitive areas. The eunuchs Liu Yingkun 劉應坤, Tao Wen 陶文 and Ji Yong 紀用 were made commanders of the Shanhai Pass 山海關 northeast of Beijing.
Wei decided furthermore to ennoble his adopted son Gan Sun 干孫 and his relatives. All memorials to the throne had first to be submitted to Wei Zhongxian before matters were decided. When he left the palace he had to be welcomed with greatest honours, wished "nine thousand years of life" (jiuqian sui 九千歲) to him, and all officials were forced to kowtow before him as if he were the emperor.
When Emperor Xizong died he was succeeded by his younger brother Zhu Youjian 朱由儉, the Prince of Xin 信王 (Emperor Sizong 明思宗, the Chongzhen Emperor, r. 1627-1644). Immediately after his accession a tribute student (gongsheng 貢生) of Jiaxing 嘉興, Qian Jiazheng 錢嘉徵, submitted a memorial to the throne in which he accused Wei Zhongxian of ten capital crimes (XXX “一并卒、二蔑后、三弄兵、四無二祖列宗、五克削藩封、六無聖、七濫爵、八掩邊功、九{俊-人+月}民、十通關節”。). The emperor decided to send the eunuch into exile in Fengyang 鳳陽, Anhui. Wei knew that his time was over, and arrived in Fucheng 阜城, Hebei, he committed suicide. His corpse was mutilated and his head hung over the citygate. Lady Ke, his patron, was flogged to death, and many of his collaborators like Wei Liangqing 魏良卿 (who had been allowed to conduct the suburban sacrifices), Hou Guoxing 侯國興 and Ke Guangxian 客光先 were executed, and so one of the darkest times in the history of the Ming dynasty was ended.
The case of Wei Zhongxian influenced popular minds and resulted in several books and even theatre plays. Zhao Jishi 趙吉士 wrote the short semi-historiographical text Wei Zhongxian shimo 魏忠賢始末. It is included in the series Xunmintang congshu 遜敏堂叢書. A longer, anonymous text ("Master Righteous from the West Lake 西湖義士") of 51 chapters is called Wei Zhongxian yishi 魏忠賢軼事 or Huang-Ming zhongxing shenglie zhuan 皇明中興聖烈傳. It was written during the last decades of the Ming and republished in 1906 by the Zhongxin Press 中新書局 in Shanghai. A third, 40 chapters long novel, is called Wei Zhongxian xiaoshuo chijian shu 魏忠賢小說斥奸書. The author is called "Master Caomang from Wuyue 吳越草莽臣". This might be a pseudonym of the famous writer Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 or of Lu Yunlong 陸雲龍. It was published during the Chongzhen reign. A fragmentary copy exists is the library of Peking University 北京大學圖書館.

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