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Jiajing Emperor
Palace portrait on a hanging scroll, kept in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Emperor of the Ming dynasty
Reign27 May 1521 – 23 January 1567
Enthronement27 May 1521
PredecessorZhengde Emperor
SuccessorLongqing Emperor
Prince of Xing
Tenure15 April 1521 – 27 May 1521
PredecessorZhu Youyuan, Prince Xian of Xing
Born16 September 1507
Zhengde 2, 10th day of the 8th month
Anluzhou, Huguang Province, Ming dynasty
Died23 January 1567(1567-01-23) (aged 59)
Jiajing 45, 14th day of the 12th month
Palace of Heavenly Purity, Forbidden City, Beijing, Ming dynasty
Yongling Mausoleum, Ming tombs, Beijing
(m. 1522; died 1528)
(m. 1522; dep. 1534)
(m. 1530; died 1547)
(m. 1530; died 1554)
Zhu Houcong (朱厚熜)
Era name and dates
Jiajing (嘉靖): 28 January 1522 – 8 February 1567
Posthumous name
Emperor Qintian Lüdao Yingyi Shengshen Xuanwen Guangwu Hongren Daxiao Su (欽天履道英毅聖神宣文廣武洪仁大孝肅皇帝)
Temple name
Shizong (世宗)
FatherZhu Youyuan
MotherEmpress Cixiaoxian

The Jiajing Emperor (Chinese: 嘉靖帝; pinyin: Jiājìng Dì; Wade–Giles: Chia-ching Ti; 16 September 1507 – 23 January 1567), also known by his temple name as the Emperor Shizong of Ming (明世宗), personal name Zhu Houcong (朱厚熜), was the 12th emperor of the Ming dynasty, reigning from 1521 to 1567. He succeeded his cousin, the Zhengde Emperor. "Jiajing", the era name of his reign, means "admirable tranquility".

Zhu Houcong was born as a cousin of the reigning Zhengde Emperor, so his accession to the throne was unexpected. However, when the Zhengde Emperor died without an heir, the government, led by Senior Grand Secretary Yang Tinghe and the Empress Dowager Zhang, chose Zhu Houcong as the new ruler. However, after his enthronement, a dispute arose between the emperor and most of the officials regarding the method of legalizing his accession. The Great Rites Controversy was a major political problem at the beginning of his reign. After three years, the emperor emerged victorious, with his main opponents either banished from court or executed.

The Jiajing Emperor, like the Zhengde Emperor, made the decision to reside outside of Beijing's Forbidden City. In 1542, he relocated to the West Park, located in the middle of Beijing and west of the Forbidden City. He constructed a complex of palaces and Taoist temples in the West Park, drawing inspiration from the Taoist belief of the Land of Immortals. Within the West Park, he surrounded himself with a group of loyal eunuchs, Taoist monks, and trusted advisers (including Grand Secretaries and Ministers of Rites) who assisted him in managing the state bureaucracy. The Jiajing Emperor's team of advisers and Grand Secretaries were led by Zhang Fujing (張孚敬), Xia Yan, Yan Song, and Xu Jie in succession.

At the start of the Jiajing Emperor's reign, the borders were relatively peaceful. In the north, the Mongols were initially embroiled in internal conflicts. However, after being united by Altan Khan in the 1540s, they began to demand the restoration of free trade. The emperor, however, refused and attempted to close the borders with fortifications, including the Great Wall of China. In response, Altan Khan launched raids and even attacked the outskirts of Beijing in 1550. The Ming troops were forced to focus on defense. The conflict only came to an end after Jiajing's death, when the new Ming emperor Longqing allowed trade to resume.

In the Jiajing era, Wokou pirates posed a significant threat to the southeastern provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong for several decades. The Ming authorities attempted to address this issue by implementing stricter laws against private overseas trade in the 1520s. However, piracy and related violence continued to escalate throughout the 1540s and reached its peak in the 1550s. It was not until the 1560s, particularly after 1567 when the Longqing Emperor relaxed laws against maritime trade with foreign countries, that the problem began to be gradually suppressed.

In 1556, northern China was struck by a devastating natural disaster—the deadliest earthquake in human history, with its epicenter in Shaanxi. The earthquake claimed the lives of over 800,000 people. Despite the destruction caused by the disaster, the economy continued to develop, with growth in agriculture, industry, and trade. As the economy flourished, so did society, with the traditional Confucian interpretation of Zhuism giving way to Wang Yangming's more individualistic beliefs.

However, in his later years, the emperor's pursuit of immortality led to questionable actions, such as his interest in young girls and alchemy. He even sent Taoist priests across the land to collect rare minerals for life-extending potions. Unfortunately, these elixirs contained harmful substances like arsenic, lead, and mercury, which ultimately caused health problems and may have shortened the emperor's life.


A porcelain vase with glazed fish designs, from the Jiajing era. Guimet Museum, Paris

Zhu Houcong was born on 16 September 1507. He was the eldest son of Zhu Youyuan, who was Prince of Xing from 1487. Zhu Youyuan was the fourth son[1] of the Chenghua Emperor, who ruled the Ming dynasty from 1464 to 1487. His mother, Lady Shao, was one of the emperor's concubines. Zhu Houcong's mother, surnamed Jiang, was the daughter of Jiang Xiao of Daxing in North Zhili.[2] Jiang Xiao was an officer of the Beijing garrison.[1] Zhu Houcong's parents from 1494 lived in Anlu zhou (present-day Zhongxiang) in Hguang in central China, where Zhu Houcong was born.[3] His father, Zhu Youyuan, was known for his poetry and calligraphy.[1]

Zhu Houcong received a classical (Confucian) education directly from his father, who he was a diligent and attentive student to.[4] However, in July 1519, his father died.[2] After this, Zhu Houcong took on the responsibility of managing the household with the assistance of Yuan Zonggao, a capable administrator who later became a trusted advisor after Zhu Houcong's ascension to the throne in Beijing.[4] Following the traditional period of mourning for his father's death, Zhu Houcong officially became the Prince of Xing in late March 1521.[3]

Beginning of reign


Meanwhile, in Beijing, the Zhengde Emperor (ruled 1505–1521) fell ill and died on 20 April 1521.[5] The Zhengde Emperor was the son of the Hongzhi Emperor (ruled 1487–1505) and the older brother of Zhu Youyuan. Zhu Houcong was Zhengde's cousin and closest male relative.

Before the death of the Zhengde Emperor, Grand Secretary Yang Tinghe, who was effectively leading the Ming government, had already begun preparations for the accession of Zhu Houcong. Five days prior to the Zhengde Emperor's death, an edict was issued ordering Zhu Houcong to end his mourning and officially assume the title of Prince of Xing. On the day of the emperor's death, Yang Tinghe, with the support of eunuchs from the Directorate of Ceremonial in the Forbidden City and Empress Dowager Zhang (the late emperor's mother), issued an edict calling for the prince to arrive in Beijing and ascend the throne.[4]

However, there was uncertainty surrounding this matter due to the Ming succession law. According to this law, although Ming emperors were allowed to have multiple wives, only the sons of the first wife, the empress, had the right to succeed the throne. Any attempt to install a descendant of a secondary wife was punishable by death. Zhu Houcong's father, Zhu Youyuan, was not the son of the empress, but rather of a secondary wife, therefore he had no legitimate claim to the throne.[6] In order to circumvent this issue, Yang Tinghe proposed adopting Zhu Houcong as the Hongzhi Emperor's son, so he could ascend as the late emperor's younger brother.[6]

In addition, there were many favorites of the deceased emperor living in Beijing who were afraid of changes. The most influential among them was General Jiang Bin, the commander of the border troops who had been transferred to Beijing. It was feared that he would try to install his own candidate for the throne,[6] namely Zhu Junzhang (朱俊杖), Prince of Dai, who was based in the border city of Datong.[7][a]

The proposal for the era name "Shaozhi" ("Continuation of proper governance") by the Grand Secretaries was rejected by the Jiajing Emperor. It is believed that "Shaozhi" was a summary of the government's call for the Jiajing Emperor to take the throne and follow the policies and rituals set by the founders of the dynasty in order to ensure proper governance. This expressed a desire for continuity in rule. The era name "Jiajing" means "admirable and tranquility" and is derived from a passage in the Book of Documents, in which the Duke of Zhou admonishes the young King Cheng and praises King Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty for his admirable and tranquil leadership. Wu Ding was commended for restoring the fallen prestige of the Shang dynasty not through force, but through the radiance of his virtue. Therefore, the era name "Jiajing" can be seen as a criticism of the state of the country and the Zhengde regime, as well as a declaration of a policy of change and restoration.[8]

In the mentioned reprimand, King Wen, the father of the founder of the Zhou dynasty, King Wu, is also contrasted with the unworthy last Shang king, Zhou. The Jiajing Emperor saw a parallel between King Wen, Zhou and Wu, and his noble father, unworthy Zhengde Emperor, and himself. Therefore, he judged that he did not owe the throne to the Grand Secretaries, ministers, or the empress dowager, but to the virtues of his father recognized by the Heavens.[b] This was the basis of his respect for his parents and his rejection of adoption in the dispute over rituals.[8]

The day after the Zhengde Emperor's death, a delegation of high-ranking dignitaries left Beijing for Anlu to inform the prince of the situation.[c] They arrived in Anlu on 2 May.[9] Zhu Houcong accepted them, familiarized himself with the edict of the empress dowager, and agreed to ascend the throne. On 7 May,[3] he set out for Beijing accompanied by forty of his own advisers and servants.[10] Yang Tinghe issued orders for him to be welcomed in Beijing as the heir to the throne, but Zhu Houcong refused to appear as the heir apparent, stating that he was invited to assume the imperial rank and was therefore the emperor, not the son of the emperor.[8] According to the Grand Secretaries and the government, he was the son of the Hongzhi Emperor. He forced his way into the city with imperial honors and on the same day, 27 May 1521, he ceremoniously ascended the throne.[3][11] The young emperor reportedly chose the name of his era himself, from his favorite chapter of the Book of Documents, with jia meaning "to improve, make splendid" and jing meaning "to pacify" in Chinese.[12]

Great Rites Controversy

Further information: Great Rites Controversy

Yang Tinghe, book illustration from the Qing period

The primary desire of the new emperor was to posthumously elevate his father to the imperial rank.[3] In contrast, Yang Tinghe insisted on his formal adoption by the Hongzhi Emperor, in order to legitimize his claim to the throne and become the younger brother of the late Zhengde Emperor.[13] However, the Jiajing Emperor and his mother rejected the adoption, citing the wording of the recall decree which did not mention it.[3] The emperor did not want to declare his parents as his uncle and aunt. Instead, he requested the elevation of his parents to the imperial status "to bring their ranks into line."[13]

Most officials agreed to maintain a direct line of succession and supported Yang Tinghe, but the emperor argued for the duty to his biological parents. He insisted on his mother's acceptance as Empress dowager when she arrived from Anlu and entered the Forbidden City on 2 November. A group of officials, led by Zhang Fujing (張孚敬) and standing on the side of the emperor, had already formed.[3] In late 1521, the Jiajing Emperor succeeded in having his parents and grandmother, Lady Shao, granted imperial rank.[14] However, disputes continued until Yang Tinghe was forced to resign in March 1524,[15] and the removal of the emperor's opponents began in August 1524. After a disapproving demonstration by hundreds of opposing officials in front of the gates of the audience hall, the opposition was beaten at court. 17 officials died from their wounds, and the rest were exiled to the provinces by the emperor.[16]

During the dispute, the Jiajing Emperor asserted his independence from the Grand Secretaries and made decisions based on his own judgment, rather than consulting with them or simply approving their proposals. This was seen as a despotic approach that went against the traditional way of governing, and was criticized by concerned scholars. As a result of the dispute, the teachings of Confucian scholar and reformer Wang Yangming gained popularity, as some of the emperor's followers were influenced by his arguments. Additionally, there was an increase in critical analysis and interpretation of texts during discussions, and there was a growing criticism of the conservative attitudes of the Hanlin Academy.[16]

Honoring parents and legitimizing the government

The Xianling Mausoleum, where the Jiajing Emperor's parents are buried, Zhongxiang, Hubei

In 1530, the Jiajing Emperor published the biography of Empress Ma, the Gao huanghou chuan (高皇后傳), and the Household Instructions of Empress Xu under the title Nüxun (女訓, 'Instructions for women', in 12 volumes). The work was attributed to the emperor's mother. Empress Ma was the wife of the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the dynasty, and Empress Xu was the wife of the Yongle Emperor, the first monarch in the new branch of the dynasty. Additionally, the emperor changed the Yongle Emperor's temple name from "Taizong" to "Chengzu".[d] It is believed that Jiajing's interest in the Yongle Emperor stemmed from the precedent of starting a new branch of the dynasty.[17]

The emperor also suggested transferring his father's remains from the mausoleum in Huguang to the vicinity of the imperial burial ground near Beijing. However, in the end, only a shrine was created for him in the palace.[3] The emperor also took steps to honor his ancestors, such as restoring ancestral temples, giving his parents longer titles, and supervising rituals and ritual music.[17] After his mother's death in December 1538,[18] the emperor traveled south to Anlu to resolve the question of whether to bury his parents together in the south or in Beijing. He ultimately chose to bury his mother in his father's mausoleum near Zhongxiang. In honor of his father, he also published his Veritable Records (Shilu) and renamed Anlu zhou to Chengtian Prefecture (承天府, Chengtian Fu) after the example of the imperial capitals.[17][19]

During his journey to Anlu, the Jiajing Emperor was shocked by the sight of starving and impoverished people and refugees. He immediately released 20 thousand liang (746 kg) of silver for relief. He saw their suffering as a failure of his ceremonial and administrative reforms. Two years later, during civil service examinations, he asked candidates why there was still poverty in the country despite his efforts to faithfully follow Confucian teachings and observe ceremonies.[18]

Further ceremony reforms

Temple of Heaven in Beijing

After successfully resolving the Great Rites Controversy, the emperor proceeded to make changes to other rituals and ceremonies,[20] despite facing opposition from some officials. These changes primarily affected the rites performed by the monarch. In the late 1530s, separate sacrifices to the Heavens, Earth, Sun, and Moon were introduced.[21]

Additionally, the Jiajing Emperor altered the titles and forms of honoring Confucius,[21] including a ban on images in Confucius temples, leaving only plaques with the names of Confucius and his followers.[e] The layout of the Temple of Confucius was also modified to include separate chapels for Confucius' father and three disciples.[20] As part of these changes, Confucius was stripped of his title of king by the Jiajing Emperor, who believed that the emperor should not bow to a king. Furthermore, the emperor did not want Confucius to be worshipped in the same rituals used for imperial sacrifices to the Heavens. As a result, the ceremonies in the Temple of Confucius were simplified and no longer resembled imperial sacrifices.[21]

In addition, sacrifices to former emperors and kings were separated from the imperial sacrifices to the Heavens, and a special temple was built for them.[21] This elevated the status of the monarch, as his rites were now distinct from all others. However, from the years 1532–1533, the Jiajing Emperor lost interest in ritual reforms and the worship of Heaven, as he was no longer able to elevate his own or his father's status. This led to a decline in the importance of ceremonies during his reign.[22]



Important positions in the imperial palace were filled by eunuchs brought from Anlu by the Jiajing Emperor. As part of the dismissal of eunuchs associated with the previous monarch, some eunuch posts in the provinces were eliminated. However, the overall influence of eunuchs did not decrease; in fact, it continued to grow.[23] By the 1530s, the most influential eunuchs saw themselves as equal to the Grand Secretaries. In 1548–1549, the roles of the head of the Eastern Depot and the Directorate of Ceremonial were combined,[f] and the palace guard (established in 1552 and composed of eunuchs) was also under their control. This effectively placed the entire eunuch branch of state administration under their management.[24]

Grand Secretaries

Portrait of Grand Secretary Zhang Fujing

After 1524, the emperor's closest advisers were Zhang Fujing and Gui E (桂萼). They attempted to remove followers of Yang Tinghe, who were associated with the Hanlin Academy, from influential positions. This resulted in a purge of the Beijing authorities in 1527–1528 and a significant change in personnel at the academy.[25] In addition, Zhang Fujing and Gui E worked to limit the influence of Senior Grand Secretary, Fei Hong (費宏), in the Grand Secretariat. To balance this, they brought back Yang Yiqing, who had previously served in the Grand Secretariat in 1515–1516. In the following years, there was a power struggle between the Grand Secretaries and their associated groups of officials. The position of Senior Grand Secretary was constantly changing, with Fei Hong, Yang Yiqing, Zhang Fujing, and others taking turns.[26]

In the early 1530s, the Jiajing Emperor's trust was won by Xia Yan, who had been promoted from Minister of Rites to Grand Secretary.[27] Later, in the late 1530s, Yan Song, Xia Yan's successor in the ministry, also gained the Jiajing Emperor's trust. However, despite initially supporting Yan Song's rise, Xia Yan and Yan Song eventually came into conflict. In 1542, Yan Song was able to oust Xia Yan and take control of the Grand Secretariat.[28] In an attempt to counterbalance Yan Song's influence, the emperor called Xia Yan back to lead the Grand Secretariat in October 1545. However, the two statesmen were at odds, with Xia Yan ignoring Yan Song, refusing to consult him, and canceling his appointment.[29] As a result, the emperor grew distant from Xia Yan, partly due to his reserved attitude towards Taoist rituals and prayers. In contrast, Yan Song strongly supported the emperor's interest in Taoism.[30] In February 1548, Xia Yan supported a campaign to Ordos without informing Yan Song, making him solely responsible for it.[29] When the emperor withdrew his support for the campaign due to unfavorable omens and reports of discontent in the neighboring province of Shaanxi, enemies of Xia Yan, including Yan Song, used this as an opportunity to bring charges against him and have him executed.[31]

From 1549 to 1562, the Grand Secretariat was under the control of Yan Song. He was known for his attentiveness and diligence towards the monarch, but also for pushing his colleagues out of power.[30][31] Despite facing numerous political crises and challenges, Yan Song managed to survive by delegating decisions and responsibilities to the appropriate ministries and authorities. For example, the Ministry of Rites was responsible for dealing with the Mongols, while the Ministry of War handled their expulsion.[31] However, Yan Song avoided getting involved in the government's biggest issue at the time—state finances—leaving it to the Ministries of Revennue and Works.[32] He only maintained control over personnel matters and selected political issues. Despite facing criticism for corruption and selling offices, Yan Song was able to convince the emperor that these were false accusations and that his critics were simply trying to remove him from power. The emperor, who was always suspicious of officials, believed Yan Song's defense.[31]

Yan Song, who was already eighty years old in 1560, was unable to continue his role as Grand Secretary. This was especially true after his wife died in 1561 and his son, who had been assisting him with writing edicts, went home to organize the funeral. To make matters worse, he faced opposition from his subordinate, Grand Secretary Xu Jie.[33] As a result, the emperor no longer relied on Yan Song and dismissed him in June 1562.[34] Xu Jie then took over as the head of the Grand Secretariat.

With the personnel changes in the immediate surroundings of the emperor, the focus and style of his policies also shifted. During the first phase of his reign, the Jiajing Emperor placed great importance on ceremonies, which were seen as essential in maintaining order and promoting a sense of superiority over non-Chinese peoples, according to Confucian beliefs. The refinement and organization of these ceremonies aimed to showcase the Ming dynasty as a model for surrounding countries and the world. The emperor received significant assistance from his Senior Grand Secretary, Zhang Fujing.[35] However, during Xia Yan's dominance in the Grand Secretariat, the emperor withdrew from the Forbidden City to the West Park, neglecting his public duties but still maintaining control over the government. During this time, Ming China used military force to intimidate neighboring countries, successfully in the case of Vietnam, but falling in the attempt to recapture Ordos, resulting in Xia Yan's death in 1548.[35] In the following period, during the conflicts of the 1550s in the north and on the coast, Yan Song pursued a policy of compromise and negotiation, which was accompanied by corruption. After the fall of Yan Song in 1562, the emperor's interest in good governance was rekindled under the influence of the capable and energetic Grand Secretary, Xu Jie.[30] Thus, the Jiajing Emperor's rule after the overthrow of Yang Tinghe can be divided into four phases: Zhang Fujing's strict adherence to ideology, Xia Yan's aggressive expansionism, Yan Song's complacent corruption, and Xu Jie's corrective reforms.[36]

Organization of the government

One important aspect of the decision-making process since the beginning of the Ming dynasty has been the system of interdepartmental consultation among high officials. Memoranda and proposals were submitted for debate to the "nine ministers," as well as to generals of the Central Military Commissions and other officials. The result of these discussions was then presented to the emperor for a final decision. The Grand Secretaries were responsible for organizing the circulation of these memoranda but did not have the authority to make decisions. The Jiajing Emperor emphasized the importance of discussing important decisions at court[37] and encouraged officials to express their opinions, particularly in the case of high-ranking government officials, to the obligee.[38]

However, in the early Ming period, this system often served to justify the decisions of the emperors (especially after the crisis of 1380),[37] as there was no social basis for diverse attitudes. However, as the crises of the mid-15th century emerged, the situation changed, and the need for political changes became apparent. The emergence of officials with merchant-family backgrounds also provided a basis for assessing problems from different perspectives. Officials used this system to debate, build support networks, lobby for their own interests, push opponents out of office, and sometimes even sabotage their policies.[39]

Assassination attempts and relocation to West Park

Further information: Palace plot of Renyin year

Qiu Ying: Pavilions in the Mountains of the Immortals, 1550, National Palace Museum, Taipei

The emperor's harsh treatment of dissenters earned him many opponents and led to multiple attempts on his life. In 1539, while traveling to Anlu, his temporary residences were repeatedly set on fire.[40] The most serious incident occurred on 27 November 1542, when a group of palace women attempted to strangle him.[41] When the emperor had fallen asleep in one of his concubines' quarters, a serving girl led several palace women to start strangling him with a silk cord. However, one of the palace women panicked and alerted the eunuchs, who then informed Empress Fang. The emperor eventually woke up after being unconscious for eight hours but was unable to speak. Empress Fang ordered the execution of all women involved in the assassination attempt, both those who were actually involved and those who were falsely accused.[40] The motives of palace women are unclear, but it is possible that the emperor's cruel treatment towards them, possibly in his pursuit of a longer life, may have played a role.[41]

After the assassination, the Jiajing Emperor completely withdrew from the formal life of the court and the Forbidden City. He moved to the Yongshou Palace (Palace of Eternal Life) in the West Park of the Imperial City,[40] where he occasionally stayed starting in 1539.[42]

The West Park was located in the western third of the Imperial City, separated from it and the Forbidden City by a system of three lakes called Taiye Lake. These lakes stretched over two kilometers from north to south and occupied half of the park's area.[43] The emperor built West Park to be a complex where he could live and seek immortality.[44] Since the beginning of the Ming dynasty, West Park has been seen as a symbol of the Lands of Immortals. The Jiajing Emperor, who was fascinated by Taoism and the concept of immortality, was intrigued by this and attempted to reconstruct the site in accordance with contemporary beliefs about the Lands of Immortals. He aligned the names of the palaces and the attire of the servants and officials with Taoist symbolism, and Taoist ceremonies were performed. Animals were also kept, and plants were grown for divination purposes.[45] However, after the emperor's death, most of the buildings he had constructed were demolished, leaving only one temple, Dagaoxian dian, which still stands today.[46]

After 1542, the emperor never resided in his palace in the Forbidden City.[23][41][42] This relocation to the West Park also resulted in the transfer of the administrative center of the empire, further isolating the emperor from the bureaucracy.[47] In fact, as early as 1534, he ceased holding imperial audiences.[23] Instead, his decisions were conveyed to the ministries and other authorities through a select group of advisors who had direct access to him.[23] This group included the Grand Secretaries, the Minister of Rites, and several military commanders.[48] However, the discontinuation of audiences did not indicate a lack of interest in governing; the emperor diligently read reports and submissions from officials and often worked late into the night.[49]

Taoist pursuits

Yellow glazed pot and cover with hidden streak designs from the official kiln. Jiajing era. Excavated from Dadao tomb, Huangzhou.

From the beginning of his reign, the Jiajing Emperor was drawn to the Taoist faith, with its focus on supernaturalism and the pursuit of immortality. This may have been influenced by his childhood spent in Huguang, where the people were known for their superstitious beliefs.[17] However, the Jiajing Emperor's support of Taoism was not without limits. In 1527, ministers and Grand Secretaries Gui E, Fang Xianfu (方獻夫), Yang Yiqing, and Huo Tao (霍韜) proposed stricter regulations for the establishment of new Taoist and Buddhist temples and monasteries. They also suggested the abolition of nunneries and temples, the confiscation of their property, and the return of Buddhist and Taoist nuns and priests to secular life.[g] The emperor signed the decree that was prepared.[51][h] However, as the Jiajing Emperor had no heir in the first ten years of his reign, some high-ranking officials suggested that Taoist prayers and rituals could solve the problem. This piqued his interest, which only intensified after the assassination in 1542.[17]

The Jiajing Emperor spared no expense or time for Taoist ceremonies. The Taoists requested, among other things, tens of kilograms of gold dust for their prayers. The emperor even had temples built for them, which required a lot of wood to be transported from distant Sichuan. Additionally, he gave them valuable items.[41] Among the Taoists, Shao Yuanjie (邵元節)was particularly favored by the emperor starting in 1526. Shao Yuanjie was known for his prayers for rain and protection against calamities. After the birth of the emperor's first sons (the eldest died young in 1533, and the second was born in 1536), he was highly honored.[52] However, Shao Yuanjie died in 1539 and was replaced by Tao Zhongwen (陶仲文). Tao Zhongwen further strengthened the emperor's faith in Taoism and gained respect for himself by accurately predicting a fire on the way south to Anlu.[18] In order to prolong the emperor's life, Tao Zhongwen offered him aphrodisiacs and elixirs of immortality made from surite and arsenic. In September 1540, the emperor announced his plans to withdraw into private life in the coming years to seek immortality. This caused great concern among officials, who criticized the preparations as toxic. Those who openly criticized the emperor were executed, and in the following decades, he slowly consumed the elixirs.[52]

After 1545, the emperor began to rely on oracles for guidance in state affairs. These oracles were organized by Tao Zhongwen, who had control over their results. Yan Song also participated in divination, seeing it as an opportunity to influence politics in a favorable direction. The emperor's pursuit of immortality included engaging in sexual relations with young girls, of which he and Tao Zhongwen collected 960 for this purpose.[53] He also called on officials throughout the country to search for and send magical herbs. However, after Tao Zhongwen's death in November 1560, the emperor struggled to find a Taoist adept who could meet his needs.[54]

In addition to Taoist prayers, the literary form of qingci (青詞), a poetic style of prayer full of allusions, was revived and developed. The emperor's favor with officials was often based on their skill in writing in this style, rather than their statesmanship. Yan Song and Xia Yan, who were particularly skilled in this style, were often referred to contemptuously as qingci zaixiang (青詞宰相, 'Qingci premiers').[55][i]


Natural disasters and the economy

Chen Chun: Mountains in Clouds, 1535, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

During the reign of the Jiajing Emperor, the climate was cooler and wetter compared to previous years. However, towards the end of his reign, there were warmer winters. Temperatures were 1.5 degrees lower than in the second half of the 20th century. The south and north of China were affected by floods, while the Yangtze River basin experienced severe drought. In 1528, the worst drought of the entire Ming era hit Zhejiang, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Hubei,[57] resulting in the death of half of the population in some areas of Henan and Jiangnan. Jiangnan continued to suffer from droughts, epidemics, rains, and famines until the late 1540s.[58]

Earthquakes were also a frequent occurrence during the Jiajing Emperor's reign, with many recorded in various areas. For instance, in the span of ten months from July 1523 to May 1524, there were 38 recorded earthquakes. In Nanjing alone, there were fifteen in just one month in 1525.[20] The most devastating earthquake occurred on 23 January 1556, affecting the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Henan. In Shaanxi, entire regions such as Weinan, Huazhou, Chaoyi, and Sanyuan were left in ruins. The Yellow River and the Wei River also overflowed, and some areas experienced tremors for several days. The disaster claimed the lives of 830,000 people, including several former ministers.[20] As a result, the affected areas were granted tax forgiveness for several years.[59]

Despite facing occasional challenges from nature, the first half of the 16th century saw significant economic growth in agriculture and crafts. However, the state struggled to collect taxes, particularly from newly cultivated land, trade, and handicraft production. The quotas and revenues set a century earlier were not met.[60]

New crops from America

During the Jiajing era, Chinese peasants began to expand their agricultural crops to include species native to Central and South America. In the 1530s, groundnut cultivation was documented in Jiangnan, having spread there from Fujian. It is believed that Fujian peasants acquired it from Portuguese sailors.[61] Sweet potatoes were documented in Yunnan at the beginning of the 1560s, having arrived via Burma. Their presence on the southeast coast (Fujian and Guangdong) was only mentioned by authors of the time in the last decades of the 16th century, during the Wanli era.[61][62] Maize cultivation was documented as early as the 1550s in inland Henan, but it was most likely acquired from Europeans several decades earlier.[61][63] It was also sent by Yunnan natives to Beijing as part of tribute before the mid-16th century.[61] However, maize was not well-liked by the Chinese and its cultivation remained the concern of minority peoples in southwest China for nearly three centuries. It was only in the 18th century that it began to be grown on a larger scale in Chinese-populated regions.[63]

State finances at the beginning of the Jiajing Emperor's reign

Yang Tinghe, upon the accession of the Jiajing Emperor, implemented a program of severe austerity.[64] This was in response to the significant increase in the number of state-paid dignitaries during the previous century. The number of officers rose from less than 13,000 at the beginning of the Hongwu Emperor's reign (1368–1398) to 28,000 by the end, and eventually reached 100,000 in 1520; many of them lived in and around the capital. Many of these officers were surplus and did not actively serve in the military. The same was true for civil servants, resulting in a total of around 4 million tons of grain being imported to Beijing each year to support the needs of civil servants, soldiers, and officers. This grain was distributed at a rate of 1 ton (107.4 liters) per person per month, providing for approximately 300,000 individuals. In 1522, Yang Tinghe took decisive action by cutting off payments to 148,700 supernumerary and honorary officers and officials, resulting in an annual reduction of 1.5 million tons of grain in state expenditure.[65] This move proved to be beneficial in the mid-16th century, as the savings allowed the authorities to convert the 1.5 million tons of grain tax into a silver tax, greatly improving the state's finances.[65]

State finances in the 1540s–1560s

A silver ingot from the Ming dynasty, on display at the Hubei Provincial Museum, Wuhan

In the mid-1520s, despite efforts to save money, the state's financial situation remained problematic. The costly construction projects during the early years of the Jiajing era had depleted the grain supplies from 8–9 years' worth of expenditure to only 3 years, as well as the silver reserves that had been accumulated in the 1520s.[66] In 1540, the Minister of Revennue was dismissed for refusing to agree to an increase in the number of workers on public works, which already numbered 40,000. He argued that the cost of reconstructing palaces, ceremonial altars, and temples had already reached 6 million liang (224 tons) of silver since the beginning of the Jiajing Emperor's reign, and that he did not have the means to sustain such a pace of construction. While the emperor did cancel some projects, the most expensive buildings in the West Park were not among them.[32]

The revenue of the Taichang treasury, which consisted of the Ministry of Revennue's income in silver, averaged 2 million liang (74.6 tons) per year after 1532. Out of this amount, 1.3 million liang was allocated for border defense. However, in the 1540s, the annual silver expenditure increased to 3.47 million liang, resulting in a deficit of 1.4 million. The Ministry of Revennue attempted to address this issue by implementing stricter monitoring of income and expenses, as well as requiring final accounts to be presented at the end of each year. Despite these efforts, the deficits persisted.[66] In 1541, 1.2 million tans of grain surplus, which was a result of Yang Tinghe's austerity measures, were converted into silver payments. However, this decision was later revoked after five years, but was eventually reinstated. This led to an increase in the annual revenue of the Taichang treasury from 2 to more than 3 million liang in the early 1550s.[67] From 1540 onwards, the conversion of taxes from grain to silver became widespread, although the specific proportion and method of conversion varied among different counties.[32]

In the 1550s, state expenditures, both regular and extraordinary, increased significantly. The cost of maintaining military garrisons on the northern border doubled, and the state faced additional financial burdens due to the earthquake of 1556 and the fire that destroyed three audience palaces and the southern gate of the Forbidden City in 1557.[59] The reconstruction of these palaces took five years and cost hundreds of thousands of liang of silver.[68] Unfortunately, in 1561, the emperor's palace in the West Park, which had also been recently rebuilt, burned down again.[69] During this time, the state's annual expenditure in silver ranged from 3 to 6 million liang, while the proper revenue was only around 3 million. To make up for the shortfall, the state resorted to extraordinary taxes, savings,[68] and even transfers from the emperor's personal treasury, which often left it completely depleted.[59][j] In 1552, the Minister of Revennue proposed an additional tax of two million liang to be imposed on the wealthy prefectures of Jiangnan. The emperor agreed and this procedure was repeated. However, during the 1550s, Jiangnan was frequently attacked by pirates and also suffered from natural disasters, making it difficult to collect even the usual taxes. The local authorities were exhausted and lacked the resources to deal with floods and crop failures, and the government did not respond until the situation became dire and refugees, along with epidemics, appeared on the streets of Beijing. To fund military operations in southeastern China, taxes were levied in the affected regions, often in the form of labor surcharges. These taxes remained in place until some of them (totaling 400–500 thousand liang) were abolished in 1562.[68]

Savings and frugality also had negative consequences. In 1560, the market price of rice doubled to 0.8 liang of silver per tan, leading to a revolt by the Nanjing garrison. To appease them, 40 thousand liang (1492 kg) of silver was distributed, and the soldiers were not punished.[70]

Another issue was the salaries of members of the imperial family, which exceeded 8.5 million tons of grain in the early 1560s and were still insufficient for the large number of family members. This problem was brought to the attention of the emperor, who discussed it but took no action. In 1564, 140 members of the imperial family gathered in front of the governor's palace in Shensi to demand payment of their arrears, which amounted to over 600,000 tons of grain. However, the local authorities were only able to collect 78,000 liang of silver. As a result, the emperor excluded those involved from the imperial family, but the issue persisted.[71]

Land tax reforms

The government's need for silver revenue prompted the implementation of the single whip reform, beginning in the south-east coast where there was a surplus of silver due to the flourishing trade industry.[71] During the period of 1530s to 1570s, the primary source of silver for China was western Japan, where new deposits were found. In the 1550s and 1560s, Chinese merchants faced restricted access to Japan due to conflicts on the Chinese coast. As a result, the Portuguese took on the role of intermediary between Japan and China.[72]

The reforms, known as the "single whip reform," encompassed a variety of measures that were implemented in different locations and combinations. These measures included the replacement of taxpayers with compulsory labor for land assignments, the introduction of annual payments instead of the previous ten-year levy cycle of the lijia system, the substitution of compulsory labor tax payments, the consolidation of various fees and mandatory services into a single payment, and the simplification of land categorization.[73] In 1522, a new method of calculating taxes was implemented (initially in one county). This method took into account the fertility of newly fertilized land and the conversion of field area to fiscal mu, making it easier for taxpayers to calculate their taxes. This method became popular in both the North and South, but the government had mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it simplified the tax calculation process, but on the other hand, it relied on lower-ranking officials who were known for their corrupt practices. As a result, the government would sometimes support and other times ban this method. The adjustments and equalization of taxes also had a positive impact on land prices and market activity.[74] In some cases, the implementation of new local cadastres led to households acquiring land registers, replacing the outdated Yellow Registers.[75]



Portrait of Wang Yangming

During the early years of the Jiajing Emperor's reign, the statesman and philosopher Wang Yangming (d. 1529) was in the last years of his life. Although he did not participate in the rites dispute, his disciples were sympathetic towards the emperor's "following of the inner moral voice."[76] Despite his previous success in quelling the rebellion of the Prince of Ning, Wang had been dismissed from his position in the civil service under the Zhengde Emperor. However, in 1525, the Minister of Rites, Xi Shu (席書), proposed his reinstatement due to his exceptional reputation as a statesman.[77] Unfortunately, this proposal faced opposition from Grand Secretaries Gui E and Yang Yiqing, whose influence would diminish with Wang's return to Beijing. As a result, they suggested sending him to the southeast[76] to suppress the rebellion in Guangxi.[78]

Wang Yangming's new concept of Neo-Confucian philosophy, centered on the concept of xin (heart/mind), was met with criticism from representatives of the official Zhusist orthodoxy. As a result, his teachings were banned and he was only rehabilitated in 1567, after the death of the Jiajing Emperor.[79] However, despite this setback, his ideas continued to spread throughout the country. As his teachings gained popularity, his followers formed various regional schools. The Jiangzhou school, led by figures such as Luo Hongxian, Zuo Shouyi (鄒守益), Ouyang De (歐陽德), and Nie Bao (聶豹), provided the most accurate interpretation of Wang's ideas. The Taizhou school, on the other hand, led by Wang Gen, He Xinyin (何心隱), and others, took a more radical approach.[80]

Some Neo-Confucians disagreed with the views of either Wang Yangming or Zhu Xi on the origin of the universe. Instead, they focused on elaborating the concept of qi. For example, Wang Tingxiang (王廷相) drew inspiration from the ideas of Zhang Zai of Song and Xue Xuan (薛瑄) of Ming. He argued that the universe did not arise from the principle of li, but from the primordial energy of qi (yuan qi).[81] Similarly, Luo Qinshun (羅欽順) believed that energy was the primordial force, while principle served as the source of order and regularity. Both of these thinkers aimed to shift philosophy from moralizing to empiricism, a direction that would become prevalent in Chinese Confucianism a century later during the early Qing period.[81]

Painting and calligraphy

During the Jiajing era, the epicenter of artistic creativity was in the wealthy Jiangnan region, particularly in Suzhou. This area attracted intellectuals who prioritized artistic self-expression over pursuing an official career. These intellectuals were known as the Wu School, named after the region's old name. The most prominent and representative painters of the Wu School were Wen Zhengming and Chen Chun. Wen Zhengming was a master of poetry, calligraphy, and painting. He was known for his monochrome or lightly colored landscapes in the style of Shen Zhou, as well as his "blue-green landscapes" in the Tang style. He is credited with reviving the tradition of southern amateur painting. Chen Chun, a disciple of Wen Zhengming, brought originality to the genre of flowers and birds. He was also renowned for his conceptual writing as a calligrapher. Wen Zhengming had many disciples and followers, including his sons and the painters Wen Peng and Wen Jia. Wen Peng, in addition to his skills in conceptual writing, gained recognition for his seal carving. Other notable painters from the Wu School include Wen Zhengming's relative Wen Boren, as well as Qian Gu and Lu Zhi.

Many artists, such as Qiu Ying and Xu Wei, were influenced by the Wu school but did not belong to it. They worked in Suzhou and its surrounding areas. Qiu Ying was part of the conservative wing of the Southern tradition, while Xu Wei broke away from this conservative expression. His paintings are characterized by a deliberate carelessness and simplification of form, resulting in exceptional credibility and expressiveness in his compositions. Qiu Ying's works were more popular among the general public than the work of scholars and officials, known as literary painting. As a result, merchants often signed his paintings in his name, even if they were far from his style.

Poetry, drama

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Portrait of the Jiajing Emperor

Consorts and Issue:


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Xuande Emperor (1399–1435)
Emperor Yingzong of Ming (1427–1464)
Empress Xiaogongzhang (1399–1462)
Chenghua Emperor (1447–1487)
Zhou Neng
Empress Xiaosu (1430–1504)
Lady Zhen
Zhu Youyuan (1476–1519)
Shao Yi
Shao Lin
Lady Peng
Empress Xiaohui (d. 1522)
Lady Yang
Jiajing Emperor (1507–1567)
Jiang Sheng
Jiang Xing
Jiang Xiao
Empress Cixiaoxian (d. 1538)
Lady Wu

See also


  1. ^ Zhu Junzhang was a descendant of Zhu Gui (1374–1446), the 13th son of the Hongwu Emperor, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty.
  2. ^ Mencius used an analogy to justify King Wu's claim to the throne: King Wen, who was loyal to the Shang dynasty and virtuous, gained the favor of Heaven and his son was able to establish a new dynasty and restore proper governance.[8]
  3. ^ The delegation was led by Xu Guangzuo, Duke of Ding (a descendant of Xu Da); Zhang Heling, Marquis of Shouning and the younger brother of the Empress Dowager Zhang; the commandant-escort Cui Yuan, husband of the Chenghua Emperor's daughter; Grand Secretary Liang Chu; Minister of Rites Mao Cheng; and three highly ranked eunuchs.[9]
  4. ^ Previously, only the founder of the dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, had a temple name ending in -zu (ancestor, founder), while the temple names of other emperors ended in -zong (ancestor).
  5. ^ Already the first Ming emperor Hongwu (ruled 1368–1398), prayers to Confucius were banned in Buddhist and Taoist temples, and the use of name tablets in place of images was proposed. However, his decree was not enforced until before 1530.[20]
  6. ^ The Directorate of Ceremonial was the most influential of the eunuch offices of the Forbidden City, while the East Depot was the office of the eunuch secret police.
  7. ^ The event was motivated by the desire for moral reform in society. Monasteries were seen as places where people gathered for sexual purposes by ministers.[50]
  8. ^ According to the proposal, the old priestesses were to be relocated to the Baoming ('Protecting the Ming [dynasty]') Temple near Beijing. The emperor agreed, rejecting the idea that the "witch-priestess" presented to Baoming Temple could protect the dynasty. However, the abolition of this temple faced protests from two empress dowagers: the mother of the Jiajing Emperor and the mother of the Zhengde Emperor. As a faithful son and nephew, the emperor was unable to oppose their wishes, and the temple was preserved. It is likely that the close relationships between the temple, eunuchs, and women of the imperial palace played a role in the intervention of the two empress dowagers.[51]
  9. ^ Through their skill in writing qingci prayers, Grand Secretary Gu Dingchen (顧鼎臣, 1473–1540) and ministers Yuan Wei (袁煒, 1508–1565), Li Chunfang (李春芳, jinshi 1547), Yan Na (嚴訥, 1511–1584), and Guo Pu (郭朴) were able to gain access to high-ranking positions.[56]
  10. ^ State expenditures were funded through the revenues of the emperor's private property, which became a regular practice. From 1543 to 1558, the emperor allocated 1 million liang of silver annually in this manner. [66]



  1. ^ a b c Geiss (1998), p. 440.
  2. ^ a b Goodrich & Fang (1976), p. 315.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Goodrich & Fang (1976), p. 316.
  4. ^ a b c Geiss (1998), p. 441.
  5. ^ Goodrich & Fang (1976), p. 308.
  6. ^ a b c Geiss (1998), p. 442.
  7. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 436.
  8. ^ a b c d Geiss (1990), pp. 37–51.
  9. ^ a b Dardess (2016), p. 7.
  10. ^ Dardess (2016), p. 8.
  11. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 443.
  12. ^ Dardess (2016), p. 1.
  13. ^ a b Geiss (1998), pp. 444–445.
  14. ^ Geiss (1998), pp. 446–447.
  15. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 448.
  16. ^ a b Geiss (1998), p. 449.
  17. ^ a b c d e Goodrich & Fang (1976), p. 317.
  18. ^ a b c Wan (2009), p. 75.
  19. ^ Fang (2014), p. 30.
  20. ^ a b c d e Goodrich & Fang (1976), p. 320.
  21. ^ a b c d Geiss (1998), p. 457.
  22. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 458.
  23. ^ a b c d Geiss (1998), p. 465.
  24. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 466.
  25. ^ Geiss (1998), pp. 453–455.
  26. ^ Geiss (1998), pp. 455–456.
  27. ^ Geiss (1998), pp. 456–457.
  28. ^ Geiss (1998), pp. 482–483.
  29. ^ a b Geiss (1998), p. 483.
  30. ^ a b c Dardess (2016), p. 4.
  31. ^ a b c d Geiss (1998), p. 484.
  32. ^ a b c Geiss (1998), p. 485.
  33. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 505.
  34. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 507.
  35. ^ a b Dardess (2016), p. 3.
  36. ^ Dardess (2016), p. 5.
  37. ^ a b Li (2010), p. 101.
  38. ^ Li (2010), pp. 100–101.
  39. ^ Li (2010), p. 102.
  40. ^ a b c Geiss (1998), p. 464.
  41. ^ a b c d Goodrich & Fang (1976), p. 318.
  42. ^ a b Wan (2009), p. 71.
  43. ^ Wan (2009), p. 69.
  44. ^ Wan (2009), pp. 66–67.
  45. ^ Wan (2009), p. 98.
  46. ^ Wan (2009), p. 99.
  47. ^ Wan (2009), p. 65.
  48. ^ Dardess (2016), p. 128.
  49. ^ Liu (1984), p. 177.
  50. ^ Brook (2003), p. 181.
  51. ^ a b Li & Naquin (1988), pp. 136–138.
  52. ^ a b Geiss (1998), pp. 479–480.
  53. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 481.
  54. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 482.
  55. ^ Goodrich & Fang (1976), p. 319.
  56. ^ Wan (2009), p. 91.
  57. ^ Heijdra (1998), p. 427.
  58. ^ Brook (2003), pp. 127–129.
  59. ^ a b c Geiss (1998), p. 478.
  60. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 508.
  61. ^ a b c d Ho (1955), pp. 191–201.
  62. ^ Garcia & De Sousa (2017), pp. 62–66.
  63. ^ a b Bonjean (2010), pp. 11–12.
  64. ^ Huang (1974), p. 7.
  65. ^ a b Huang (1974), p. 59.
  66. ^ a b c Geiss (1998), p. 486.
  67. ^ Huang (1974), p. 272.
  68. ^ a b c Geiss (1998), p. 487.
  69. ^ Geiss (1998), p. 488.
  70. ^ Geiss (1998), pp. 488–489.
  71. ^ a b Geiss (1998), p. 489.
  72. ^ Atwell (1982), pp. 68–69.
  73. ^ Heijdra (1998), p. 492.
  74. ^ Heijdra (1998), p. 446.
  75. ^ Heijdra (1998), p. 447.
  76. ^ a b Brook (2007), p. 79.
  77. ^ Brook (2007), p. 78.
  78. ^ Brook (2007), p. 75.
  79. ^ Liščák (2013), pp. 408–409.
  80. ^ Liščák (2013), p. 386.
  81. ^ a b Cheng (2006), pp. 513–514.

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Jiajing Emperor House of ZhuBorn: 16 September 1507 Died: 23 January 1567 Chinese royalty Preceded byZhu Youyuan Prince of Xing 1521 Merged into the Crown Regnal titles Preceded byZhengde Emperor Emperor of the Ming dynastyEmperor of China 1521–1567 Succeeded byLongqing Emperor