Great Rites Controversy

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The Great Rites Controversy (Chinese: 大禮議) took place in the decade following 1524 in Ming China. It pitted the young and newly empowered Jiajing Emperor against the Grand Secretary Yang Tinghe and the majority of the Confucian officials in his government.

The Jiajing Emperor had succeeded his first cousin the Zhengde Emperor after the latter had no children and his father Hongzhi Emperor did not leave any other surviving children either. In order to perform the proper rituals owed him according to tradition, it was necessary that the Jiajing Emperor be posthumously adopted by his late uncle who has been dead for nearly two decades. The purpose of this was rather to keep Jiajing in control under his blood paternal uncle's wife Empress Dowager Zhang.

The Jiajing Emperor refused to pay this respect under the guided influence of his biological mother, who grew angry as she heard on the way to Beijing that her only son is being removed from her custody. [1] The conflict between the emperor backed by his mother and officialdom backed by the empress dowager was finally broken by memorials to the throne (namely, newly qualified scholar-bureaucrats Zhang Cong and Gui E) arguing that rituals performed contrary to the emperor's own heart would be against human nature. Hinted by this, gradually Emperor Jiajing fostered the idea of "ascending the clan but not the lineage" and grew more presumptuous.

The core just of the counter-argument to Emperor Jiajing's claim, supported by massive majority of court officials (a few hundreds of high-ranked statesmen), had to do with the imperial treatment of Zhengde Emperor and his now widowed wife Empress Xia. The couple together had passed the throne to their cousin instead of an adopted child of their own, in favor of their mother-in-law. As a matter of fact, Emperor Jiajing's grandfather Emperor Chenghua had other great-grandsons and this was brought up in the discussion of royal succession with the empress dowager, prior to summoning Emperor Jiajing to Beijing in her name.

Emperor Jiajing decided to allow his own father Zhu Youyuan, the late Prince Xian of Xing, to be posthumously elevated to the status of emperor and above all, be granted superiority over Zhengde Emperor whom the late prince was once a subject of. Prime Minister Yang Tinghe was forced into retirement; his son Yang Shen who led the counter-argument to the sharpest degree [2] was sent to exile and nearly murdered on the way. By the end of Emperor Jiajing's one-sided settlement, enemies and dissenters at court were beaten (sometimes to death), imprisoned, or banished. This marks the beginning of authoritarian power established by the young emperor.


  1. ^ Adler, Joseph. "The Confucian Body". China Review Intl., Vol. 10, No. 2 (2003).
  2. ^ Leonard, Andrew. "Invasion of the Great Green Algae Monster. Salon. 25 Jun 2007.