Wei Zhongxian (Chinese: 魏忠賢; Wade–Giles: Wei Chung-hsien; 1568 – December 12, 1627) is considered by most historians as the most powerful and notorious eunuch in Chinese history. He is best known for his service in the court of the Tianqi Emperor (r. 1620–27), when his power eventually rivaled that of the emperor.
Early Life (1568-1585)
Little is known of Wei Zhongxian’s pre-court life. Wei was illiterate throughout his life, which may be an indication that he was born into a peasant or merchant class family. He is presumed to have been born in 1568 in Suning County (100 miles southeast of Beijing), to have married a girl with the surname of Fang, and to have castrated himself at age 21 (Ming dynastic records claim that he did in order to escape his gambling debts.). Due to his infamy in Chinese culture over the past 400 years, other stories of his early life have appeared, many showing him as a ruffian and a compulsive gambler.
Early Court Life (1585-1619)
Through a relative of his mother, Wei was able to enter into service at the Forbidden City. As a eunuch in the Ming court, Wei slowly gained the favor of various palace officials while working in various unofficial positions. In 1605, he was given the job of serving meals to Lady Wang and her infant son Zhu Youxiao, who would eventually become the Tianqi Emperor. While serving in this position, he grew close to Tianqi’s wet nurse, Madame Ke. As Tianqi grew older, he became extremely attached to both Madame Ke and Wei Zhongxian, treating them as his de facto parents once his mother died in 1619.
Political Rise (1620-1624)
When the Wanli Emperor and his heir Taichang both died in 1620, the palace bureaucracy was thrown into a succession crisis. The death of Taichang brought Madame Ke, Wei Zhongxian, and Tianqi under the supervision of Lady Li, Taichang’s favorite consort, whom Tianqi hated. Not wanting China to fall under the temporary rule of a regent (Tianqi was still 15, and underage) Donglin activist Yang Lian invaded the Forbidden City, captured Tianqi, and had him proclaimed emperor in his own right. With Lady Li essentially deposed, it became much easier for Wei and Madame Ke to influence the palace’s decisions. Soon after Tianqi became emperor, it became clear that he was much more interested in carpentry and building projects than in court matters; he often left such matters to Wei and the Grand Secretaries. Wei’s loyalty to Tianqi paid quick dividends—by 1625, he had become the minister of the Eastern Depot, a force of over one thousand uniformed policemen headquartered in the Forbidden City. As Tianqi’s de facto father and protector, Wei eventually became responsible for delivering imperial edicts, and any order from the palace was issued in the name of the emperor as well as Wei, the “Depot Minister.” Fourteen of the Wei’s relatives were either ennobled or received hereditary military positions; some were even appointed to high palace positions. As fear of Wei’s power became more and more prevalent in China, many local officials commissioned the building of temples to his honor, much to the chagrin of China’s Confucian scholars.
The Donglin Incidents (1624-1627)
After Emperor Wanli’s (1563-1620) long and underwhelming reign, the Donglin faction of activist scholars had hoped that Taichang and Tianqi would prove to be “Confucian gentlemen.” When Tianqi proved just as indifferent to his imperial responsibilities as his grandfather was and an illiterate eunuch seemed to be the most powerful figure in the Forbidden City, Donglin scholars decided that their intervention was sorely needed. Donglin sympathizer and Ming censor Zhou Zongjian impeached Wei Zhongxian in July of 1622, imploring the emperor to remove him from the palace. In 1624, Yang Lian wrote a memorial to Tianqi condemning Wei of “24 crimes,” some of them fabricated. Both attempts were unsuccessful, and turned Wei against the Donglin party. As head of the Eastern Depot, Wei Zhongxian’s power to arrest and convict dissidents was technically confined to peasants and merchants. Arrests and interrogations of officials had to be done through the Embroidered-Uniform Guard, who were under command of prison director Xu Xianchun. However, Wei’s true power came through his commission to deliver the emperor’s edicts, as well as his close relationship with the emperor. Xu was the one who rounded up six of the Donglin party’s leaders in 1625 (including Wei’s detractor Yang Lian), whom he had accused of squandering public money through their bureaucracy positions. After lengthy interrogations and torture, all six died, apparently without imperial edict. Seven other Donglin scholars, Zhou Zongjian among them, were rounded up and killed in 1626. Over the two-year period of 1625-26, hundreds of other presumed Donglin sympathizers were demoted or purged from the government. Although Wei’s exact involvement in these arrests and killings is not known, his overall control of the palace and the emperor’s powers of edict ensure his involvement in some degree.
Fall from Power and Suicide (late 1627)
Emperor Tianqi died in 1627, and although many expected Wei Zhongxian to attempt to seize the throne, no such coup happened. According to Li Sunzhi (a Donglin sympathizer), Wei had previously attempted to convince Empress Zhang to adopt his nephew, Wei Liangqing, in order to continue his manipulation of the throne. However, the empress refused. Because none of Tianqi’s three male children lived to adulthood, Tianqi conferred the right to rule to his younger brother Zhu Youjian, who became the Chongzhen Emperor on 2 October 1627. Although Emperor Chongzhen was intent on ruling without any decision-making surrogates, he did not immediately dismiss Wei Zhongxian. When Wei offered to resign just six days after Chongzhen’s reign began, the emperor refused. A month later, Wei decreed that no more temples should be built in his honor. In the months afterwards, multiple complaints about and calls for Wei’s impeachment came before the emperor. After ignoring the first few, Chongzhen finally called for evidence of Wei’s faults from officials. In response to this, “more than one hundred” officials sent memorials denouncing Wei. On December 8, Chongzhen issued an edict listing Wei’s crimes, and exiled him south to Fengyang (in modern-day Anhui Province.) As Wei Zhongxian traveled to Fengyang, one of Chongzhen’s commissioners warned the emperor that Wei might work with other demoted officials of deceased Emperor Tianqi to stage a rebellion. Acting on the warning, Chongzhen ordered Embroidered-Uniform Guard to arrest Wei and bring him back to Beijing. On December 13, informants found Wei Zhongxian and told him of the edict. That night, he and his entourage stopped at an inn 150 miles south of Beijing. Wei and his secretary proceeded to hang themselves from the rafters with their own belts. After discovering Wei’s death, the rest of his entourage managed to escape the area before the guards came. Chongzhen’s retribution to Wei and his political allies was swift and severe. In early 1628, Wei’s corpse was dismembered and displayed in his native village as a warning to the public. By 1629, 161 of Wei’s associates had been punished by Chongzhen; of those, 24 were sentenced to execution. Madame Ke was beaten to death by an interrogator just 11 days after Wei’s death.
Legacy and Dramatizations
Since his death, Wei has been seen by Chinese people and scholars as the instigator of the Tianqi court’s collective atrocities. According to historical Chinese scholars, Wei’s faults lay not necessarily in his persecution of the Donglin party, but in wielding power that was only supposed to be used by emperors themselves. Stories and dramatizations of this persecution were written just months after his death, and gained a large public audience. In 2009, a 42-hour primetime TV series dramatizing Wei Zhongxian and Madame Ke’s power during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor was shown on Chinese television. The series also portrayed the Wei Zhongxian and the Tianqi Emperor in a negative light.
- Temple of Azure Clouds in modern Beijing: largely expanded by Wei, who intended to use it as his burial grounds.
- Mao Wenlong (promoted by Wei)
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- Sogou. 电视剧:天下
- Works cited
- Dardess, John W. (2002), Blood and History in China: The Donglin Faction and its Repression, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press
- Wu, H Laura (May 2009). "Corpses on Display: Representations of Torture and Pain in the Wei Zhongxian Novels". Ming Studies 59 (1): 42–55. doi:10.1179/175975909X466435.
- Tsai, Shi-shan Henry (1996). The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.