Wanli Emperor

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Wanli Emperor
Emperor of the Ming dynasty
Reign19 July 1572 – 18 August 1620
Coronation 19 July 1572
Predecessor Longqing Emperor
Successor Taichang Emperor
RegentGao Gong, Gao Yi (1572)
Zhang Juzheng (1572–1582)
Born4 September 1563
Died18 August 1620(1620-08-18) (aged 56)
(m. 1578;died 1620)

(m. 1578;died 1611)

(m. 15811620)

Grand Empress Dowager Xiaojing
(died 1597)
Issue Taichang Emperor
Zhu Changxun
Zhu Changhao
Zhu Changrun
Zhu Changying
Princess Rongchang
Princess Shouning
Family name: Zhu ()
Given name: Yijun (翊鈞)
Era name and dates
Wanli (萬曆): 2 February 1573 – 27 August 1620 [note 1]
Posthumous name
Emperor Fantian Hedao Zhesu Dunjian Guangwen Zhangwu Anren Zhixiao Xian
Temple name
Míng Shénzōng [1]
House House of Zhu
Father Longqing Emperor
Mother Empress Dowager Xiaoding
Wanli Emperor
Traditional Chinese 萬曆帝
Simplified Chinese 万历帝
Literal meaning“Ten Thousand Calendars” Emperor

The Wanli Emperor (Chinese :萬曆帝; pinyin :Wànlì Dì; 4 September 1563 – 18 August 1620), personal name Zhu Yijun (Chinese :朱翊鈞; pinyin :Zhū Yìjūn), was the 14th Emperor of the Ming dynasty, reigned from 1572 to 1620. "Wanli", the era name of his reign, literally means "ten thousand calendars". He was the third son of the Longqing Emperor. His reign of 48 years (1572–1620) was the longest among all the Ming dynasty emperors [1] and it witnessed several successes in his early and middle reign, followed by the decline of the dynasty as the Emperor withdrew from his active role in government around 1600.


Early reign (1572–1582)

Zhu Yijun ascended the throne at the age of ten and adopted the regnal name "Wanli", thus he is historically known as the Wanli Emperor. For the first ten years of his reign, he was aided by the Senior Grand Secretary (shǒufǔ), Zhang Juzheng, who governed the country as Yijun's regent. During this period, the Wanli Emperor deeply respected Zhang as a mentor and a valued minister. Archery competitions, equestrianism and calligraphy were some of the pastimes of Wanli. [2]

As Zhang Juzheng was appointed Minister of Ming dynasty in 1572, he launched a reform by the name of “abiding by ancestors’ rules". He started from rectifying administration with a series of measures such as reducing redundant personnel and enhancing assessment of officials’ performance. This improved officials’ quality and efficiency of administration, and based on such facts he launched relevant reforms in the fields of land, finance, and military affairs. In essence, Zhang Juzheng’s reform was a rectification of social maladies without offending the established political and fiscal system of the Ming Dynasty. Although it did not eradicate political corruption and land annexation, it positively relieved social contradictions. More over, Zhang efficiently protected the dynasty from Japan, Jurchens and Mongols so he could save national defense expenditure. By the 1580s, Zhang stored an astronomical amount of silver, worth second only to 10 years of Ming's total tax revenue. The first ten years of Wanli's regime led to a renaissance, economically, culturally and militarily, an era known in China as Wanli's renaissance (萬曆中興)).

During the first ten years of the Wanli era, the Ming dynasty's economy and military power prospered in a way not seen since the Yongle Emperor and the Rule of Ren and Xuan from 1402 to 1435. After Zhang's death, the Wanli Emperor felt free to act independently, and reversed many of Zhang's administrative improvements. In 1584, the Wanli Emperor issued an edict confiscating all of Zhang's personal wealth and purging his family members. Especially after 1586 when he had conflicts with vassals about his heir, Wanli decided to not hold the council for 20 years. The Ming dynasty's decline began in the interim.

Middle reign (1582–1600)

A painting of a Ming Army unit in the Wanli era Ming army2.JPG
A painting of a Ming Army unit in the Wanli era

After Zhang Juzheng's death, the Wanli Emperor decided to take complete personal control of the government. During this early part of his reign, he showed himself to be a competent and diligent emperor. Overall, the economy continued to prosper and the empire remained powerful. Unlike the last 20 years of his reign, the Wanli Emperor at this time would attend every morning meeting and discuss affairs of state.

The first 18 years of the Wanli era would be dominated by three wars that he dealt with successfully:

After the last of these three wars were concluded, the Wanli Emperor withdrew from active participation in morning meetings, a practice which he continued throughout the rest of his reign.

The Bozhou rebellion by the Chiefdom of Bozhou was going on in southwestern China at the same time as the Imjin war. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

Late reign (1600–1620)

Golden crown (replica) excavated from Dingling(Ding Ling )tomb Golden Crown Replica of King Wanli.jpg
Golden crown (replica) excavated from Dingling(定陵)tomb
Gold crown inlaid with gems from Dingling(Ding Ling )tomb Jin Xiang Hong Lan Bao Shi Guan Fu Shi .jpg
Gold crown inlaid with gems from Dingling(定陵)tomb
Gold leaf crown Jin Lian Hua Guan (Mu Xiang Fu Fu He Cang Mu ).jpg
Gold leaf crown

During the later years of the Wanli Emperor's reign, he became thoroughly alienated from his imperial role and, in effect, went on strike. He refused to attend morning meetings, see his ministers or act upon memoranda. He also refused to make necessary personnel appointments, and as a result the whole top echelon of the Ming administration became understaffed. He did, however, pay close attention to the construction of his own tomb, a magnificent structure that took decades to complete.

There are several reasons why the Wanli Emperor deliberately neglected his duties as emperor. One was that he became disenchanted with the moralistic attacks and counterattacks of officials, rooted in an abstract Confucian orthodoxy. [13] A more important reason, though, was a dispute about the imperial succession. The emperor's favorite consort was Noble Consort Zheng, and throughout the 1580s and 1590s, the emperor very much wanted to promote his son by her (Zhu Changxun) as crown prince, even though he was only the emperor's third son and not favored for the succession. Many of his powerful ministers were opposed, and this led to a clash between sovereign and ministers that lasted more than 15 years. In October 1601, the Wanli Emperor finally gave in and promoted Zhu Changluo – the future Taichang Emperor – as crown prince. Although the ministers seem to have triumphed, the Wanli Emperor adopted a policy of passive resistance, refusing to play his part in allowing the government to function adequately, leading to serious problems both within China itself and on the borders. [14] Additionally, the emperor continued to express his objection to the choice of Zhu Changluo as heir apparent, even delaying the burial of Crown Princess Guo by two years, before allowing her to be buried appropriately for the wife of the crown prince. [15]

The area known as Manchuria in northeastern China was gradually conquered by the Jurchen chieftain Nurhaci. Nurhaci would go on to create the Later Jin dynasty (the precursor of the Qing dynasty), which would now become an immediate threat to the Ming dynasty. By this time, after 20 years of imperial dysfunction, the Ming army was in decline. The Jurchens were fewer in number, but they were able to upset the Ming. For instance, in the Battle of Nun Er Chu in 1619, the Ming government sent out an army of 200,000 against the Later Jin army of 60,000, with Nurhaci controlling six banners and 45,000 troops as the central attack, while Daišan and Huangtaiji each controlled 7,500 troops and one banner and attacked from the sides. After five days of battle, the Ming army suffered casualties of over 100,000, with 70% of their food supply stolen.

When the Oirats transmitted some descriptions of China to the Russians in 1614, the name "Taibykankan" was used to refer to the Wanli emperor by the Oirats. [16]

Palace assault

In 1615, the Ming imperial court was hit by yet another scandal. A man named Zhang Chai (張差), armed with only a wooden staff, managed to chase away the eunuchs guarding the gates and broke into Ciqing Palace (慈慶宮), then the Crown Prince's living quarters. Zhang Chai was eventually subdued and thrown into prison. Initial investigation found him to be a lunatic, but upon further investigation by a magistrate named Wang Zhicai (王之寀), Zhang Chai confessed to being party to a plot instigated by two eunuchs working under Noble Consort Zheng. According to Zhang Chai's confession, the two had promised him rewards for assaulting the Crown Prince, thus implicating the Emperor's favorite concubine in an assassination plot. Presented with the incriminating evidence and the gravity of the accusations, the Wanli Emperor, in an attempt to spare Noble Consort Zheng, personally presided over the case. He laid the full blame on the two implicated eunuchs who were executed along with the would-be assassin. Although the case was quickly hushed up, it did not quash public discussion and eventually became known as the "Case of the Wooden Staff Assault" (梃擊案), one of three notorious 'mysteries' of the late Ming dynasty.

Legacy and death

The Dingling (Chinese: Ming Ding Ling ; pinyin: Ming Ding Ling) where the Wanli emperor, together with his two empresses Wang Xijie and Dowager Xiaojing, was buried. Dingling2020.jpg
The Dingling (Chinese: 明定陵; pinyin: Míng Dìng Líng) where the Wanli emperor, together with his two empresses Wang Xijie and Dowager Xiaojing, was buried.
The remains of the Wanli Emperor at the Ming tombs. Red Guards dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and Empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned. Wanlitod.jpg
The remains of the Wanli Emperor at the Ming tombs. Red Guards dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and Empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned.

Some scholars believe that the Wanli Emperor's reign was a significant factor contributing to the decline of the Ming dynasty. He refused to play the emperor's role in government, and delegated many responsibilities to eunuchs, who made up their own faction. The official administration was so dissatisfied that a group of scholars and political activists loyal to the thoughts of Zhu Xi and against those of Wang Yangming created the Donglin Movement, a political group who believed in upright morals and tried to influence the government according to strict Neo-Confucian principles.

His reign also experienced heavy fiscal and military pressures, especially during the final years of the Wanli era when the Manchus began to conduct raids on the northern border of the Ming Empire. Their depredations ultimately led to the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644. The fall of the Ming dynasty was not a result of the last Ming dynasty emperor’s Chongzhen Emperor's rule, but instead due to the lingering consequences of the Wanli Emperor's gross neglect of his duties as Emperor.

The Wanli Emperor died in 1620 and was buried in the Dingling Mausoleum among the Ming tombs on the outskirts of Beijing. His tomb is one of the biggest in the vicinity and one of only two that are open to the public. The tomb was excavated in 1956, and remains the only imperial tomb that had been excavated since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards stormed the Dingling Mausoleum, and dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously denounced and burned after photographs were taken of their skulls. [18] Thousands of other artifacts were also destroyed. [17]

Drug abuse and morphine addict

In 1997, China's Ministry of Public Security published a book on the history of drug abuse. It stated that the Wanli Emperor's remains had been examined in 1958 and found to contain morphine residues at levels which indicate that he had been a heavy and habitual user of opium. [19]


Empress Dowager Xiaojing, who was titled Imperial Noble Consort Wensu in her husband's lifetime. Chinese Ming Dynasty Empress Xiaojingxian.JPG
Empress Dowager Xiaojing, who was titled Imperial Noble Consort Wensu in her husband's lifetime.

Consorts and Issue:


Chenghua Emperor (1447–1487)
Zhu Youyuan (1476–1519)
Empress Xiaohui (d. 1522)
Jiajing Emperor (1507–1567)
Jiang Xiao
Empress Cixiaoxian (d. 1538)
Lady Wu
Longqing Emperor (1537–1572)
Du Lin
Empress Xiaoke (d. 1554)
Wanli Emperor (1563–1620)
Li Gang
Li Yu
Li Wei (1527–1583)
Empress Dowager Xiaoding (1546–1614)
Lady Wang

See also


  1. Following the death of the emperor, the Wanli era was normally due to end on 21 January 1621. However, the Wanli Emperor's successor, the Taichang Emperor, died within a month, before 22 January 1621, which should have been the start of the Taichang era. The Tianqi Emperor, who succeeded the Taichang Emperor, decided that the Wanli era would be considered as having ended on the last day of the seventh month (equivalent to 27 August 1620), to enable the Taichang era to be applied retrospectively for the remaining five months in that year. Dates before 1582 are given in the Julian calendar, not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar. Dates after 1582 are given in the Gregorian calendar.

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Wanli Emperor
Born: 4 September 1563 Died: 18 August 1620
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Longqing Emperor
Emperor of the Ming dynasty
Emperor of China

Succeeded by
Taichang Emperor