Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, the Supreme Leader of China

The Hongzhi Emperor and Empress Xiaokangjing.

When the Hongzhi Emperor was 17, he married his adored bride Zhang, who eventually became Empress Xiaokangjing. (Image: Public Domain)

The Hongzhi Emperor was the first and only monogamous emperor in Chinese history. He was the 10th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and during his reign, people lived steady and prosperous lives in all aspects. In addition, the Hongzhi Emperor was a great musician, poet, and painter who was also thought to be the creator of the toothbrush.

Early life

Born Zhu Youcheng on July 30, 1470, to the Chenghua Emperor and consort Ji. Consort Ji was one of the Yao women seized and sold into the palace during the suppression of an insurrection in the southern Chinese region of Guangxi. Zhu Youcheng inherited his mother’s Southern appearance: a tiny frame and darker complexion.

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He is also supposed to have had bright, intelligent eyes, a mustache, and a thin beard. Unfortunately, he was not physically robust, and his strength deteriorated with time.

Zhu Youcheng was nurtured in secret by his mother and numerous eunuchs who pledged not to reveal Zhu Youcheng and upset Emperor Chenghua’s favorite consort Wan, who sought to conceive her child. Consort Wan would destroy competing concubines and forcefully terminate any pregnancies since her child died shortly after delivery in 1466.

According to rumors, Wan Zhener aborted or killed all of the emperor’s children. Consort Wan discovered the pregnancy and dispatched a maid to force Ji to abort. But this sweet maid informed consort Wan that consort Ji was only unwell and not pregnant.

Zhu Youcheng was barely 5 years old when he was reunited with his father and appointed crown prince in 1475. He was a clever boy who received the most excellent education available then; he was steeped in Confucian instruction and excelled academically.

A portrait of Emperor Hongzhi at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. (Image: viaPublic Domain)

Ascending to the throne

Zhu Youcheng grew up safely because of the protection of his formidable grandma. Soon after, Zhu Youcheng remained careful and began to be schooled as a crown prince until he succeeded to the throne at the age of 17 after his father died.

Over the next several years, he dispatched several individuals to search for his mother’s birthplace and other relatives, hoping to make new connections. His mother Ji, now known as Empress Xiaomuji (1451-1475), was from a clan that had lost a fight with the Ming and had been transferred to the imperial palace because of her beauty; no one knew her other relations or her true identity.

Consort Wan tried to convince her father to abdicate Zhu Youcheng while still the crown prince, fearing that he would pursue retribution. However, an earthquake soon struck Mount Tai, a sacred site with enormous political significance in Chinese culture. As a result, his father saw this as a warning not to change the heir.

Nevertheless, Zhu Youcheng, now Emperor of Hongzhi, did not fail this supernatural earthquake or those who gave their lives to keep him alive.

Rule as emperor

After ascending to the throne in 1487 as the 10th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongzhi Monarch’s administration was structured after Confucian ideas, and he became a diligent and conscientious emperor. He oversaw all state activities, slashed taxes, cut government expenditures, and made careful selections when appointing ministers to government positions.

Individuals like Liu Jian, Xie Qian, and Wang Shu collaborated with the Hongzhi Emperor, resulting in a seldom-seen spirit of collaboration within the administration. Furthermore, the emperor urged his ministers to be forthright about all topics, including accepting criticism aimed at the emperor himself.

This resulted in a more open administration and new life in the Ming Dynasty. As a consequence, the population thrived once more under his administration. In addition, individual eunuchs’ influence was reported to be limited, and palace intrigues, which had been prominent in earlier reigns, were said to be nonexistent during his reign.

A stele with the Hongzhi Emperor's inscription regarding the repair of the Temple of Confucius, Qufu, China, 1504.
A stele with the Hongzhi Emperor’s inscription regarding the repair of the Temple of Confucius, Qufu, China, 1504. (Image: via Wikipedia)

True love and the next stage of succession

The Hongzhi Emperor lost his mother as a child; his father did not love him and even attempted to depose him as crown prince. His grandma was the only relative he had ever been close to. He rarely experienced parental affection in his early years; instead, he had to be cautious and humble. When the Hongzhi Emperor was 17, he married his adored bride Zhang, who eventually became Empress Xiaokangjing (1471-1541).

Besides work, the Hongzhi Emperor spent most of his time with her. When his queen became ill, he cared for her independently, including serving water and medicine. When authorities advised that the Hongzhi Emperor take additional imperial concubines and have more successors to the empire, he flatly refused.

Empress Xiaokangjing had just two sons (one died in infancy), so the Hongzhi Emperor had only one son to replace him. When the emperor died in 1505, his son, the Zhengde Emperor, took his place. When the Zhengde Emperor died childless in 1521, the crown was transferred to a relative from Hubei called Zhu Houcong, essentially terminating the Hongzhi Emperor’s line of succession.

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