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Wanli Emperor

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Wanli Emperor
Palace portrait on a hanging scroll, kept in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Emperor of the Ming dynasty
Reign19 July 1572 – 18 August 1620
Enthronement19 July 1572
PredecessorLongqing Emperor
SuccessorTaichang Emperor
See list
Born4 September 1563
Jiajing 42, 17th day of the 8th month
Shuntian Prefecture, North Zhili
Died18 August 1620(1620-08-18) (aged 56)
Wanli 48, 21st day of the 7th month
Hongde Hall, Forbidden City
(m. 1578; died 1620)
(m. 1578; died 1611)
(m. 1581)
Zhu Yijun (朱翊鈞)
Era name and dates
Wanli (萬曆): 2 February 1573 – 27 August 1620[i]
Posthumous name
Emperor Fantian Hedao Zhesu Dunjian Guangwen Zhangwu Anren Zhixiao Xian (範天合道哲肅敦簡光文章武安仁止孝顯皇帝)
Temple name
Shénzōng[1] (神宗)
FatherLongqing Emperor
MotherEmpress Dowager Xiaoding
Wanli Emperor
Traditional Chinese萬曆帝
Simplified Chinese万历帝
Literal meaning"Ten Thousand Calendars" Emperor

The Wanli Emperor (4 September 1563 – 18 August 1620), also known by his temple name as the Emperor Shenzong of Ming (明神宗), personal name Zhu Yijun (朱翊鈞), art name Yuzhai (禹齋),[2] was the 13th emperor of the Ming dynasty, reigned from 1572 to 1620. He succeeded his father, the Longqing Emperor. His reign of 48 years was the longest among all the Ming dynasty emperors.[1] "Wanli", the era name of his reign, means "ten thousand calendars".

The Wanli Emperor ascended the throne at the age of nine. During the first ten years of his reign, the young emperor was assisted and effectively led by Grand Secretary and skilled administrator, Zhang Juzheng. With the support of the emperor's mother, Lady Li, and the imperial eunuchs led by Feng Bao, the country experienced economic and military prosperity, reaching a level of power not seen since the early 15th century. The emperor held great respect and appreciation for his Grand Secretary. However, as time passed, various factions within the government openly opposed Zhang, causing his influential position in the government and at court to become a burden for the monarch. In 1582, Zhang died and within months, the emperor dismissed Feng Bao. He then gained discretion and made significant changes to Zhang's administrative arrangements.

The Wanli era was marked by a significant boom in industry, particularly in the production of silk, cotton, and porcelain. Agriculture also experienced growth, and there was a notable increase in both interregional and foreign trade. This development had the strongest impact in Jiangnan, where cities such as Suzhou, Songjiang, Jiaxing, and Nanjing flourished. However, despite the overall economic growth of the empire, the state's finances remained in a poor state. While wealthy merchants and gentry enjoyed a life of splendor, the majority of peasants and day laborers continued to live in poverty.

The closing decade of the 16th century was marked by three major campaigns. A large rebellion in Ningxia was quelled by a Ming force of 40,000 soldiers by October 1592, allowing them to shift their focus to Korea. Concurrently, Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea with 200,000 soldiers, leading to a joint Korean-Chinese force, including 40,000 Ming soldiers, pushing the Japanese out of most of Korea and forcing them to retreat to the southeast coast by 1593. In 1597, a second Japanese invasion was thwarted, and the suppression of Yang Yinglong's rebellion in southwest China concluded in a few months from 1599 due to Ming forces concentrating there amidst the ongoing war with Japan.

Over time, the emperor grew increasingly disillusioned with the constant moralizing attacks and counterattacks from officials, causing him to become increasingly isolated. In the 1580s and 1590s, he attempted to promote his third son, Zhu Changxun (the son of his favorite concubine, Lady Zheng), as crown prince, but faced strong opposition from officials. This led to ongoing conflicts between the emperor and his ministers for over fifteen years. Eventually, the emperor gave in and appointed his eldest son, Zhu Changluo (later the Taichang Emperor), as crown prince in October 1601. In 1596, the Wanli Emperor attempted to establish a parallel administration composed of eunuchs, separate from the officials who had traditionally governed the empire. However, this effort was abandoned in 1606. As a result, the governance of the country remained in the hands of Confucian intellectuals, who were often embroiled in disputes with each other. The opposition Donglin movement continued to criticize the emperor and his followers, while pro-government officials were divided based on their regional origins.

In the final years of the Wanli Emperor's reign, the Jurchens grew stronger on the northeastern frontiers and posed a significant threat. In 1619, they defeated the Ming armies in the Battle of Sarhu and captured part of Liaodong.

Childhood and accession


Zhu Yijun was born on 4 September 1563 to Zhu Zaiji, the heir to the throne of the Ming dynasty, and one of his concubines, Lady Li. He had two older brothers, both of whom died in early childhood before 1563, and a younger brother, Zhu Yiliu (朱翊鏐; 1568–1614), who was created Prince of Lu in 1571.

Zhu Zaiji became emperor of the Ming dynasty in 1567 and reigned as the Longqing Emperor, but he died five years later on 5 July 1572. Zhu Yijun then ascended the throne two weeks later on 19 July 1572. Before his death, the Longqing Emperor instructed minister Zhang Juzheng to take charge of state affairs and become a devoted adviser to the young emperor.

The Wanli Emperor was known for his restless and energetic nature during his youth.[3] He was described as a quick learner,[4][ii] intelligent,[3][4] and perceptive, always staying well-informed about the happenings in the empire.[3] Zhang Juzheng assigned eight teachers to educate the Wanli Emperor in Confucianism, history, and calligraphy. The history lessons focused on teaching him about good and bad examples of governance, and Zhang Juzheng personally compiled a collection of historical stories for the emperor to learn from. However, the Wanli Emperor's fascination with calligraphy concerned Zhang, who feared that this "empty pastime" would distract him from his duties as a statesman. As a result, Zhang gradually stopped the Wanli Emperor's calligraphy lessons.[6] From 1583 to 1588, the Wanli Emperor visited several mausoleums near Beijing and paid attention to the training of the palace guard.[7] However, his mother, Zhang Juzheng,[3] and high-ranking officials in Beijing were worried that he would become a ruler similar to the Zhengde Emperor (reigned 1505–1521),[7] and discouraged him from traveling outside the Forbidden City and pursuing his interests in the military, horse riding, and archery.[3][7] Under their pressure, the Wanli Emperor stopped leaving Beijing after 1588 and stopped participating in public sacrifices after 1591. He also canceled the morning audience (held before dawn) and the evening study of Confucianism (after sunset).[8] In his youth, the Wanli Emperor was obedient to his mother and showed respect towards eunuchs[iii] and the Grand Secretaries. However, as he grew older, he became cynical and skeptical towards rituals and bureaucrats.[7] His opposition to ritualized royal duties linked him to his grandfather the Jiajing Emperor (reigned 1521–1567), but he lacked the Jiajing Emperor's decisiveness and flamboyance. Instead of the Jiajing Emperor's passion for Taoism, the Wanli Emperor leaned towards Buddhism.[7]

In the first period of his rule, he displayed a strong commitment to the well-being of his people, actively combating corruption and striving to improve border defense. His mother, a devout Buddhist, had a significant influence on him, leading him to rarely impose the death penalty. However, one punished official claimed that his leniency was sometimes excessive. Despite this, he was not afraid to use violence against offending officials, although he did not make it a regular practice. He was known to be both vulnerable and vengeful, but also generous.[3] However, since the mid-1580s, he began to gain weight[8] and his health deteriorated. In 1589, he cited long-term dizziness, accompanied by fevers, heatstroke, eczema, diarrhea, and general weakness as reasons for his absence from audiences. It is believed that his health issues were linked to his regular use of opium.[10][iv]

Zhang Juzheng and his mother raised the Wanli Emperor to be modest in material possessions and exemplary in behavior, which he saw as a humiliation that he never forgot. However, upon learning that Zhang Juzheng himself lived in luxury, the Wanli Emperor was deeply affected. This display of double standards hardened his attitude towards officials and made him cynical about moral challenges. Two years after Zhang Juzheng's death, his family was accused of illegal land dealings, and the Wanli Emperor severely punished them by confiscating their property and sending Zhang's sons to the border troops.[11]

Wanli as emperor


Zhang Juzheng government (1572–1582)

Zhang Juzheng (1525–1582); during the first ten years of the Wanli Emperor's reign, he played a crucial role as the emperor's teacher and de facto ruler of China due to the emperor's young age. His decisive foreign and economic policies brought one of the most successful periods for the Ming dynasty.[12] He contributed to the centralization of administration, limited various privileges, and revised exemptions from land taxes.[12] However, after Zhang's death in 1582, many of his reforms and policies were abolished, and in 1584, his family was stripped of their accumulated wealth and assets.[12] He was not rehabilitated until more than half a century later, shortly before the fall of the Ming dynasty.

At the end of the Longqing Emperor's reign, the Grand Secretariat and Government were headed by Senior Grand Secretary and Minister of Rites Gao Gong. However, after the Wanli Emperor's accession, the eunuch Feng Bao (馮保), head of the Directorate of Ceremonial (the most important eunuch office[iii] in the imperial palace), worked with Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng to depose Gao Gong. Zhang Juzheng then took over as head of the Grand Secretariat and remained in power for ten years until his death in 1582.[13] In response to the Mongol raids in the 1550s, Zhang aimed to "enrich the country and strengthen the army",[v] using legalistic methods rather than Confucian ones.[14] He sought to centralize the government and increase the emperor's authority at the expense of local interests by streamlining the administration and strengthening the military.[15] This included closing local academies and placing the investigating censors under the Grand Secretariat's control.[15] Zhang had the support of eunuchs, particularly Feng Bao, and the emperor's mother,[16] who acted as regent. He was able to handpick his colleagues in the Grand Secretariat and informally control the Ministry of Rites and the Censorate, appointing his followers to important positions in central offices and regions. This gave him significant influence in the government, although he did not have the authority to issue orders or demands.[16] Zhang also attempted to redirect the control officials from seeking revenge against each other and instead focus on collecting taxes and suppressing bandits. As a result, the efficiency of the Ming state administration improved between 1572 and 1582,[17] reaching a level that had only been achieved in the early days of the empire.[18]

Zhang Juzheng implemented a series of reforms during his time in office, including the conversion of tax payments from goods to silver (known as the Single whip reform), changes to the military peasant system,[14] and between 1572 and 1579, revised the accounts of county offices regarding corvée labor and various fees and surcharges.[17] In 1580–1582, a new cadastre was also created.[19] These reforms were formalized across the empire with the publication of revised lists of taxpayers' duties, now converted to a unified payment in silver.[17] As part of the administrative reforms, unnecessary activities were abolished or limited, the number of Confucian students receiving state support was reduced, and provincial authorities were urged to only require one-third of the previous amount of corvée labor. Additionally, the services provided by post offices were reduced. Despite these changes, taxes remained at their original level and tax arrears were strictly enforced. Zhang Juzheng was able to accumulate a surplus of income over expenditure.[20] This was a significant achievement, as the Ming state typically operated without reserves in the 16th century. However, Zhang Juzheng's administration was able to save money and improve tax collection, resulting in considerable reserves. In 1582, the granaries around the capital held nine years' worth of grain, the treasury of the Ministry of Revenue contained 6 million liang (about 223 tons) of silver, the Court of the Imperial Stud (太僕寺) held another 4 million, and an additional 2.5 million was available in Nanjing. Smaller reserves were also available to provincial administrations in Sichuan, Zhejiang, and Guangxi. Despite these achievements, there were no institutional changes during Zhang Juzheng's time in office. He simply made existing processes more efficient under the slogan of returning to the order from the beginnings of the empire.[21]

As a proponent of peace with the Mongols, Zhang Juzheng rejected the proposal of Minister of War Tan Lun for a pre-emptive strike against them. Instead, he ordered Qi Jiguang, commander of the northeastern border, to maintain an armed peace.[20] This decision not only allowed for a reduction in the border army, but also resulted in the return of surplus soldiers to their family farms.[17] Zhang Juzheng not only rejected the notion that military affairs were less important than civilian ones, but also challenged the dominance of civilian dignitaries over military leaders. He appointed capable military leaders such as Qi Jiguang, Wang Chonggu (王崇古), Tan Lun, Liang Menglong (梁夢龍), and Li Chengliang to positions of responsibility. Additionally, he implemented a combination of defensive and offensive measures to strengthen border defenses and fostered peaceful relations with neighboring countries by opening border markets, particularly in the northwest.[22]

Zhang Juzheng's actions were within the bounds of existing legislation, but critics viewed them as an abuse of power to promote his followers and exert illegitimate pressure on officials. However, open criticism was rare until his father's death in 1577. According to the law, Zhang was supposed to leave office due to mourning, but the emperor chose to keep him in office. This was not unprecedented, but criticism of disrespect for parents was widespread.[18] Despite the fact that the most vocal critics were punished with beatings, Zhang Juzheng's reputation was damaged. In an attempt to suppress opposition, Zhang then enforced an extraordinary self-evaluation of all high-ranking officials,[23] resulting in the elimination of around fifty opponents.[24]

Zhang Juzheng died on 9 July 1582. After his death, he was accused of the typical offenses of high officials, including bribery, living in luxury, promoting unqualified supporters, abusing power, and silencing critics.[25] After Zhang Juzheng's death, his followers among the officials were dismissed,[26] and in the beginning of 1583, Feng Bao also lost his position.[27][vi] However, the emperor protected the officers, which boosted their morale to a level not seen since the mid-15th century. The Wanli Emperor's more aggressive military policy was based on Zhang's successes,[15] as he attempted to replace static defense with more offensive tactics and appointed only officials with military experience to lead the Ministry of War.[26] The emperor also shared Zhang Juzheng's distrust of local and regional authorities and opposition to factional politics.[15] Like Zhang Juzheng, the Wanli Emperor preferred to solve real problems rather than engage in "empty talk"[vii] and factional conflicts.[29]

Anti-Zhang opposition government (1582–1596)

The Wanli Emperor in his middle age

After Zhang's death, a coalition formed between the emperor's mother,[30] the Grand Secretaries, the Ministry of Personnel, and the Censorate to ensure efficient administration of the empire. This alliance was opposed by the opposition, who deemed it illegal.[31] However, with the absence of a strong statesman in the Grand Secretariat, there was no one to bring the administration under control.[32] Both the emperor and opposition officials feared the concentration of power in the Grand Secretariat and worked to prevent it.[33] From 1582 to 1591, the Grand Secretariat was briefly led by Zhang Siwei (張四維) and then for eight years by Shen Shixing. Shen Shixing attempted to find compromises between the monarch and the bureaucracy, while also tolerating criticism and respecting the decisions of ministries and the censors. However, his efforts to create a cooperative and cohesive atmosphere were unsuccessful.[31] In 1590, the Grand Secretariat's alliance with the leadership of the Ministry of Personnel and the Censorate fell apart, causing Shen Shixing to lose much of his influence.[34] He was eventually forced to resign in 1591 due to his approach to the succession issue, which had lost him the confidence of opposition officials.[32]

After 1582, the emperor chose the leaders of the Grand Secretariat from among the opponents of Zhang Juzheng (after Shen Shixing, the position was held by Wang Jiaping (王家屏), Wang Xijue, and Zhao Zhigao (趙志皋) until 1601). Except for the short-lived Wang Jiaping, all of Zhang's successors—including Shen Yiguan (沈一貫), Zhu Geng (朱賡), Li Tingji (李廷機), Ye Xianggao, and Fang Congzhe (方從哲)—fell out of favor and were either accused by censors during their lifetime or posthumously.[35][viii]

The anti-Zhang opposition, led by Gu Xiancheng, was successful in condemning him and purging his followers from the bureaucracy after his death.[36] However, this also created an opportunity for the censors to criticize higher-ranking officials, which angered the monarch and caused dissatisfaction because the critics did not offer any positive solutions.[11] As a result, Zhang's opponents became embroiled in numerous disputes, hindering the restoration of a strong centralized government.[36] From 1585, the censors also began to criticize the emperor's private life.[11] This criticism was fueled by the emperor's reluctance to impose harsh punishments, which emboldened the critics.[37] In response, the Wanli Emperor tried to silence their informers among his servants[11] and gradually stopped responding to comments about himself.[37] However, in 1588, the Wanli Emperor's censors accused him of accepting a bribe from one of his eunuchs, which shocked the emperor and caused him to withdraw from cooperating with officials. He reduced his contact with them to a minimum and canceled the morning audience. He only appeared in public at celebrations of military victories and communication with the bureaucracy was done through written reports, to which he may or may not have responded. Towards the end of his reign, he also hindered personnel changes in offices, leaving positions vacant and allowing officials to leave without his written consent–which was illegal, but went unpunished.[38] As a result, by 1603, nine positions of regional inspectors (out of 13) were vacant for a long time, and in 1604, almost half of the prefects and over half of the ministers and deputy ministers in both capitals were vacant.[39] The emperor also deliberately left many positions vacant in the eunuch offices of the palace, particularly the position of head of the Directorate of Ceremonial, in an attempt to weaken communication between eunuchs and officials.[40] This also resulted in significant financial savings from unoccupied seats.[39]

The emperor's lack of involvement in official positions did not affect the administration's responsibility for tax collection.[39] In times of military or other serious issues, he sought advice from responsible officials in Ministries and the Censorate, and was not hesitant to appoint capable individuals outside of the traditional hierarchy to handle the situation. However, he had a lack of trust in the regular administration and often found ways to bypass it.[41] While he may have left some memoranda unanswered, he actively responded to others. Despite leaving some high positions vacant, the authorities were able to function under the guidance of deputies and the country's administration continued to run smoothly. Assistance was provided to those affected by famine, rebellions were suppressed, border conflicts were resolved, and infrastructure was maintained.[42][ix]

Hundreds of memoranda arrived on the Wanli Emperor's desk daily, but he only read and decided on a handful of them. The rest were handled by commissioned eunuchs, who were equipped with the imperial "red brush".[x] These eunuchs mostly confirmed the recommendations and proposals of the Grand Secretaries, but occasionally made different decisions if they believed the emperor would not agree with the Grand Secretaries' proposals.[44]

Despite his desire to reform the civil service, the emperor was unable to do so, and he also did not want to simply confirm the decisions of the officials. Both sides—the emperor and the bureaucrats—wanted the other to behave properly, but their efforts were unsuccessful and only served to paralyze each other.[38] As a result of these disputes at the center, the state's control over the countryside weakened.[36]

Succession dispute (1586–1614)

Golden crown (replica) excavated from the Dingling Mausoleum

In 1586, the issue of succession arose when the emperor elevated his favorite concubine, Lady Zheng, to the rank of "Imperial Noble Consort" (Huang Guifei),[37][45] placing her only one rank below the empress and above all other concubines, including Lady Wang, mother of the emperor's eldest son Zhu Changluo (1582–1620). This made it clear to those around him that he favored the son of Lady Zheng, Zhu Changxun (1586–1641)—his third son (the second had died in infancy)—over Zhu Changluo as his successor. This caused a division among the bureaucracy; some officials defended the rights of the first son based on legal primogeniture, while others aligned themselves with Lady Zheng's son.[37] In response to the widespread support for the eldest son's rights among officials, the emperor postponed his decision.[37] He justified the delay by stating that he was waiting for a son from the empress.[46] When asked to appoint Zhu Changluo as the crown prince at the age of eight so that his education could officially begin, the emperor again defended himself by saying that princes were traditionally taught by eunuchs.[5]

In 1589, the emperor agreed to appoint Zhu Changluo as his successor. However, this decision was opposed by Lady Zheng, causing a wave of controversy and, two years later, even arrests when a pamphlet accusing her of conspiring with high officials against the emperor's eldest son spread in Beijing. In an attempt to improve her public image, the emperor made efforts to portray Lady Zheng in a favorable light.[45] This reached its peak in 1594 when he supported her efforts to aid the victims of a famine in Henan. He ordered all Beijing officials of the fifth rank and above to contribute to her cause from their incomes.[47]

The failure to appoint a successor sparked frequent protests from both opposition-minded officials and high dignitaries, such as Grand Secretaries Shen Shixing (in office 1578–91) and Wang Xijue (in office 1584–91 and 1593–94).[37] The rights of Zhu Changluo were also supported by the empress[48] and the emperor's mother.[46] However, it wasn't until 1601, after facing pressure from another round of protests and requests, that Wanli finally appointed Zhu Changluo as crown prince.[46][49] At the same time, Zhu Changxun was given the title of Prince of Fu,[38] but he was kept in Beijing instead of being sent to the province as originally planned when he turned eighteen in 1604. This fueled rumors that the question of succession was still unresolved.[50] It wasn't until 1614, after numerous appeals and protests against inaction, that the emperor finally sent the prince to his provincial seat.[49][51] This decision was only made after the emperor's mother firmly advocated for it.[46]

Related to the succession debates was the "Case of the Wooden Staff Assault" (梃擊案), which greatly damaged the ruler's reputation. In late May 1615, a man with a wooden staff was detained at the crown prince's palace. From the subsequent investigation, it was discovered that the man, Zhang Chai (張差), was mentally unstable[52] and had attempted to use his wooden staff to settle a dispute with two eunuchs. Initially, it was decided that he would be executed to resolve the issue.[40] However, Wang Zhicai (王之寀), a prison official, intervened and disputed the claim that Zhang Chai was insane. He pushed for a public investigation involving the Ministry of Justice. This new version of events suggested that Zhang Chai was actually of sound mind and had been invited into the palace by two eunuchs close to Lady Zheng and her brother. This raised suspicions that their true intention was to assassinate the crown prince and replace him with Lady Zheng's son.[53] This caused quite a stir at court. In response, the Wanli Emperor took the unprecedented step of summoning all civilian and military officials employed in Beijing and appearing before them[xi] with his family–the crown prince, his sons and daughter. He scolded the officials for doubting his relationship with the crown prince, whom he trusted and relied on. The crown prince himself confirmed their close relationship and requested an end to the matter. Ultimately, the emperor decided to execute Zhang Chai and the two eunuchs involved in the case.[56] However, officials from the Ministry of Justice opposed the execution and demanded further investigation. A compromise was reached through the mediation of the Grand Secretaries—Zhang Chai was executed the following day, while the suspected eunuchs were to be interrogated. The interrogation did take place, but both eunuchs remained under the supervision of the emperor's eunuchs. On the fifth day after the emperor's speech, the officials were informed that the eunuchs had died.[53] The case then quieted down.

Mines and Taxes (1596–1606)

Map of China, showing the capital cities (Beijing, Nanjing), provincial capitals, and main transportation routes (mostly between the capitals and provincial capitals).
Ming China in the 1580s and its neighbors. Marked are both capitals, provincial capitals, and main state transportation routes.

In August 1596, due to poor tax collection and the depletion of the treasury from the costly restoration of the Forbidden City palaces destroyed by fire in April of that year, the Wanli Emperor made the decision to accept proposals for silver mining that had been suggested by lower-level administrators for several years. He dispatched a team consisting of eunuchs, Imperial Guard officers, and representatives from the Ministry of Revenue to the outskirts of Beijing to establish new silver mines. He also sent an Imperial Guard officer to Henan province with the same task, and within a few weeks, other officers and eunuchs were sent to Shandong, Shaanxi, Zhejiang, and Shanxi provinces.[57] There was a long-standing tradition of sending eunuchs to various regions, as the business, trade, and mining industries provided opportunities for them to earn income.[58] However, within a few days, this initiative was met with opposition from local authorities in Beijing, who raised concerns about the potential threat to imperial tombs in the mountains near Beijing and the difficulty of recruiting miners who were still engaged in illegal mining. In response, the emperor designated a protective zone for the tombs, but did not cancel the mining operation. He also appointed wealthy individuals from the local gentry to manage the mines and oversee necessary investments.[57]

Confucian officials, who were concerned about the erosion of their authority,[58] opposed the emperor's initiative on ideological grounds, as they believed that the state should not engage in business and compete with the people for profit. They also objected to the emperor's involvement in the mining industry, as it required the employment of miners who were considered untrustworthy and derogatorily referred to as "mining bandits." Another reason for the gentry and officials opposition was the fact that eunuchs, a rival power group, were in charge of the mining operations. Furthermore, mining for silver was a complex task that required expertise and skills that the emperor's eunuchs did not possess. To address this issue, the emperor appointed wealthy local individuals as mine managers, who were responsible for paying the mining tax and delivering the silver, regardless of the profitability of the mine. As a result, the mining of silver shifted from underground to the coffers of the wealthy, effectively taxing them. American historian Harry Miller bluntly described Wan-li's actions as an "economic war against the wealthy".[57]

After the war in Korea reignited in 1597, the emperor made increased efforts to raise additional funds.[59] Due to his lack of trust in the gentry, he began to establish an alternative eunuch regional administration. Gradually, the mining tax commissioners (kuangshi 礦使; literally “mining envoy”) gained control over the collection of trade and other taxes, in addition to the mining tax (kuangshui 礦稅) which was officially approved by the emperor in 1598–1599.[60] The emperor granted these commissioners the authority to supervise the county and prefectural authorities, and even the grand coordinators. As a result, the imperial commissioners no longer had to consider the opinions of local civil or military authorities. Instead, they could assign tasks to them and even imprison them if they resisted. While the emperor disregarded the protests of officials against the mining tax and the actions of the eunuchs, he closely monitored the reports and proposals of the eunuchs and responded promptly, often on the same day they arrived in Beijing.[59] In 1599, he dispatched eunuchs to major ports, where they took over the powers of official civil administration.[61] The emperor finally resolved disputes with officials defending their powers in the spring of 1599 by officially transferring the collection of taxes to mining commissioners.[62] This expansion of eunuch powers and their operations earned the emperor a reputation among Confucian-oriented intellectuals as one of the most avaricious rulers in Chinese history, constantly seeking ways to fill his personal coffers at the expense of government revenue.[40]

According to American historian Richard von Glahn, tax revenue from silver mines increased significantly from a few hundred kilograms per year before 1597 to an average of 3,650 kg per year in 1597–1606. In the most successful year of 1603, the revenue reached 6,650 kg, accounting for approximately 30% of mining.[63] According to estimates by modern Chinese historians Wang Chunyu and Du Wanyan, the mining tax earned the state an additional 3 million liang (110 tons) of silver, with the eunuch commissioners retaining eight or nine times more. Another estimate suggests that in 1596–1606, the mine commissioners supplied the state with at least 5.96 million liang of silver, but kept 40–50 million for themselves. While officials commonly profited from their positions, eunuchs were known to pocket a significantly larger portion of the collected funds.[64]

At the turn of the years 1605/1606, the emperor realized that not only gentry officials, but also eunuchs, were corrupt. He also recognized that the mining tax was causing more harm than good. As a result, in January 1606, he made the decision to abandon the attempt at alternative administration and issued an edict to abolish state mining operations. Tax collection was then returned to the traditional authorities.[65] The gentry not only suffered financially from the eunuchs' actions, but also lost control over the financial transactions between the people and the state. This loss of control was a significant blow to their perceived dominance over the people. It was a humiliating experience and disrupted the natural order of things. However, by 1606, the gentry regained their dominance over both the people and the state as a whole.[66]

Reforms in the selection and evaluation of officials


In the Ming administrative system, ultimate authority rested with the monarch. However, it required an energetic and competent ruler to effectively carry out this power. In cases where the ruler was not capable, the system of checks and balances resulted in collective leadership.[67] This was due to the dispersion of power among various authorities. In the mid-15th century, a system of collective debates (huiguan tuiju; literally "to rally officials and to recommend collectively") was established to address issues that were beyond the scope of one department.[68] These gatherings involved dozens of officials discussing political and personnel matters. As a result, the importance of public opinion (gonglun; 公論) grew and the autocratic power of the monarch was limited.[69]

During the Wanli Emperor's reign, one of the issues that was resolved collectively was the appointment of high state dignitaries.[69] At the beginning of his reign, Zhang Juzheng successfully abolished collective debates, giving the emperor the power to appoint high officials based on his own suggestions. However, after Zhang's death, the debates were reinstated and the emperor's power was once again limited.[68] Despite this, Wanli attempted to overcome these restrictions, such as in 1591 when he announced his decision to appoint the current Minister of Rites, Zhao Zhigao, as Senior Grand Secretary without consulting with other officials. This decision was met with criticism from Minister of Personnel, Lu Guangzu, who argued that it violated proper procedure and undermined the fairness and credibility of the government's decision-making processes. Lu and others believed that collective consideration of candidates in open public debate was a more impartial and fair method, as it eliminated individual bias and ignorance. In response to the criticism, the emperor partially retreated and promised to follow the proper procedure in the future. However, he continued to occasionally appoint high dignitaries without collective debate, which always sparked protests from officials.[68]

In the late Ming period, there was a widespread belief that public opinion held more weight than individual opinions. This was evident in the way political and administrative issues were addressed, with decision-making being based on gathering information and opinions from officials through questionnaires and voting ballots.[70] This also had an impact on the evaluation of officials, as their performance began to be judged not only by their superiors but also by the wider community. In 1595, Minister of Personnel Sun Piyang conducted a questionnaire survey on the conditions of several offices and used the results to persuade the Wanli Emperor to dismiss a certain official from Zhejiang. The survey had received a large number of negative comments, including accusations of corruption and other crimes. This unprecedented event sparked a heated debate, with Zhao Zhigao arguing that anonymous questionnaires should not be the main criteria for evaluation and that no one should be accused of criminal offenses based on unverified information from anonymous sources.[70] Sun defended himself by stating that solid evidence against the individual was not necessary, as they were not being accused or standing trial. He believed that in evaluating officials, it was sufficient for him to impartially discover the widely held opinion of the individual's recklessness through the survey.[71]

The reform of civil servant evaluations resulted in their careers being dependent on their reputation, as determined by the ministry and censors through anonymous surveys filled out by their colleagues.[71] This shift, along with collective debates, elevated the significance of public opinion during the Wanli Emperor's reign, leading to intense public debates and conflicts as groups of officials vied for control of public opinion while the monarch's authority and the weight of his voice declined.[72]

Donglin movement and factional disputes (1606–1620)


In 1604,[73][74] Gu Xiancheng, with the suggestion of his friend Gao Panlong (高攀龍), established the Donglin Academy in Wuxi, located in Jiangnan. The academy served as a hub for discussions and meetings.[75] With the support of local authorities and the gentry, the academy quickly gained prominence. As the founders had been out of politics for many years, the government did not view it as a threat.[76] The academy attracted hundreds of intellectuals and soon became a significant intellectual center in all of China. It also inspired the creation of similar centers in nearby prefectures,[75] forming a network of associations and circles.[74]

Portrait of Gu Xiancheng, the founder of the Donglin Academy

According to the academy, they was a group of officials who advocated for strict adherence to Confucian morality.[77] The supporters of the Donglin movement believed that living an exemplary life was essential for cultivating moral character, and they did not differentiate between private and public morality. They believed that one's moral cultivation should begin with the mind/heart, then extend to one's home, surroundings, and public life. This belief was exemplified by Gao Panlong.[78] However, they viewed Zhang Juzheng's decision to not mourn for his father as a sign of being an unprincipled profiteer. They also criticized the emperor for hesitating to confirm the succession of his eldest son, considering it unethical and unacceptable.[77] The Donhlin movement promoted a system of government based on Confucian values, particularly the values of the patriarchal family, which were extended to the entire state. They believed that the local administration should be led by the educated gentry, who would guide the people. In this context, the technical aspects of governance were considered unimportant[79] and any issues with the organization of administration were addressed by promoting Confucian virtues, preaching morality, and emphasizing self-sacrifice for higher goals.[80] Disputes within the movement centered around moral values and qualities, with opponents being accused of immoral behavior rather than professional incompetence.[81][xii] The emphasis on morality allowed the Donglin movement to claim that they were not pursuing selfish goals, but were united by universal and true moral principles.[75] Although the leaders of the movement did not return to office until the end of the Wanli Emperor's reign, it had a significant influence among junior officials in Beijing.[76]

They opposed the concentration of power in the Grand Secretariat and the Ministries, advocating for the independence of the Censorate. They also called for limitations on the activities of eunuchs within the imperial palace.[78] Their stance on succession was based on principles, arguing that the ruler does not have the right to unilaterally change fundamental laws of the empire, including succession rules.[81] However, their emphasis on decentralization and prioritizing morality and ideology over pragmatism hindered effective governance of the empire, which was already challenging due to its size and population.[80]

The tendency to equate personal virtue with administrative talent led to morality becoming the main target in factional disputes.[83] The regular evaluation of the capital officials was often used to eliminate opponents. In 1577, Zhang Juzheng used this type of evaluation for the first time, resulting in the removal of 51 of his opponents. Another evaluation in 1581 led to the dismissal of 264 officials in the capital and 67 in Nanjing,[24] which was a significant purge considering that during the late Ming period, there were over a thousand officials serving in the central government in Beijing and almost four hundred in Nanjing.[84] In 1587, only 31 jinshi were removed by Gand Secretary Shen Shixing, but none from the Ministry of Personnel, the Hanlin Academy, and the Censorate, where factional disputes were common. However, censors also demanded the dismissal of the Minister of Works He Qiming (何起鳴), apparently for political reasons (as a supporter of Zhang Juzheng), just a month after his appointment, which angered the emperor. The minister was forced to leave, and the emperor also dismissed the head of the Censorate and transferred the responsible inspectors to the provinces. This sparked protests against "the emperor's interference in the independence of the Censorate."[24]

In the 1593 evaluation, the Donglins utilized their positions in the Ministry of Personnel and the Censorate to eliminate the followers of the Grand Secretaries. The newly appointed Senior Grand Secretary, Wang Xijue, was unable to support his party members. He did, however, request the dismissal of several organizers of the purge during additional evaluations. The head of the Censorate opposed this, but the emperor ultimately agreed,[85] sparking further protests from junior officials, including future founders of the Donglin Academy.[86][xiii] By the time of the 1599 evaluation, the Donglin opposition had lost its influence, resulting in a more peaceful evaluation.[88] f the However, in the 1605 evaluation, the Donglin movement once again attacked their opponents, and through Wen Chun (溫純), the head of the Censorate, and Yang Shiqiao (楊時喬), Vice Minister of Personnel, demanded the dismissal of 207 officials from the capital and 73 from Nanjing. However, the emperor did not agree to such a large-scale purge and explicitly stated that several of the accused officials should remain in their positions. This was an unprecedented refusal and sparked sharp criticism, leading to a months-long debate filled with mutual recriminations. Even Heaven seemed to intervene when lightning struck the Temple of Heaven. Eventually, the accused officials were forced to resign, but so were the organizers of the purge, including Grand Secretary Shen Yiguan, the following year. While the Donglins were successful in dismissing their opponents, they did not have suitable candidates for top positions.[89] And even when a candidate like Li Sancai emerged, he was thwarted in the same way—through an attack on his moral integrity—in Li's case, through bribery. This was also the first instance where a connection to the Donglin movement was used as an argument against a candidate.[90]

In the 1611 evaluation, two anti-Donglin factions clashed, resulting in the downfall of their leaders (Tang Binyin (湯賓尹), Chancellor of Nanking University, and Gu Tianjun (顧天俊), teacher of the heir apparent). The career of the highest-ranking Donglin sympathizer, Vice Minister of Personnel and Hanlin Academy scholar, Wang Tu (王圖), was also ruined. In the 1617 evaluation, three cliques based on regional origin were in conflict, formed by anti-Donglin censors.[91] In the last decade of the Wanli Emperor's reign, the spineless bureaucrat Fang Congzhe led the Grand Secretariat, while the emperor left many high administrative positions vacant for long periods and simply ignored polemical memoranda.[91]



Climate and natural disasters


The years 1570–1620 were relatively warm, especially in winter, with an average temperature one degree higher than the previous half century. However, the weather was also drier, leading to occasional flooding.[92] This trend was particularly evident in the years 1585–1589 and 1614–1619, which experienced severe droughts.[93][xiv] On the other hand, cold winters were recorded in 1595–1598 and 1616–1620, resulting in an increase in snowy landscapes depicted in Chinese paintings.[94][xv] In addition to these weather patterns, China also faced other natural disasters during this time period. In 1586, extensive flooding occurred, while locust raids destroyed crops in 1587, 1609, and 1615–1619, following periods of drought.[95] Deforestation in the northwest also caused sandstorms, which covered Beijing in clouds of dust in 1618 and 1619.[96] The most significant natural disaster during the Wanli era was the earthquake that struck China in December 1604. Its epicenter was located 30 km off the coast of Fujian, resulting in the destruction of the port cities of Quanzhou and Zhangzhou, as well as damage to buildings in Moon Port. The effects of the earthquake were felt as far as Shanghai and inland areas such as Huguang and Guangxi.[97] The worst individual disasters were the floods in the north in 1585 followed by a major epidemic the following year; a severe drought across the country in 1589; droughts in Fujian and the north in the second decade of the 17th century; and finally, widespread floods in 1613.[92]

Overall, the most difficult years of the Wanli era were the periods 1586–88 and 1615–17.[98] The drought-induced famine of 1587–88 was the first major famine since the mid-1540s,[99] followed by an epidemic.[100] According to the historian of demography Zhao Shuqi, half of the people in northern China died during this time, causing the population of Shanxi, Zhili, and Henan provinces to decrease from 25.6 million in 1580 to 12.8 million in 1588. The Yangtze Valley was also affected by these disasters.[101] The disasters in the years 1586–88 shocked the government, however, the reserves accumulated by Zhang Juzheng helped overcome the difficulties. The authorities learned from this crisis and were able to intervene when the Henan famine broke out six years later, preventing it from spreading.[102]

The second series of natural disasters began in 1615, preceded by two years of flooding in northern China. This combination of floods and drought greatly impacted agriculture, leading to regions across the country requesting assistance starting in the autumn of 1615. The situation was particularly dire in Shandong, where 900,000 people were starving and the civil administration was beginning to fall apart due to food shortages. The famine spread from northern China to the Yangtze River basin by the end of the year, and the following year it affected Guangdong. By the following year, the northwest and southwest regions of the Ming dynasty were also affected.[102] The drought and floods continued until 1620.[96]

In response to the famine, local authorities did not rely on state reserve granaries, which had mostly disappeared, but instead called on the wealthy to purchase and import grain. Officials only intervened by setting maximum prices. This meant that the state did not have to maintain a stockpile of grain when it could be purchased on the market. However, even in fertile years, regions such as Jiangnan still struggled due to their dependence on rice imports.[103]

New crops from America


In the first third of the 16th century, Europeans brought new agricultural crops to China, including maize, sweet potatoes, and groundnuts. These crops were documented to have been cultivated in China during the second third of the 16th century.[104][105] During the Wanli era, other originally American species such as tobacco and sweet potatoes were introduced and spread throughout the country.

Tobacco was commercially grown in Fujian and exported to the Philippines in the early 17th century, and cultivation began in Guangdong. Initially, tobacco was popular among the poor in Jiangnan, but eventually became a habit among the elite. By the beginning of the Qing period, it was reported that "every official, soldier, and eight out of ten peasants" in the region smoked. It wasn't until the 1630s that Beijing officials began to mention tobacco.[106]

Sweet potatoes arrived in China in the early 1590s, possibly even earlier. They were brought by Chinese merchants from the Philippines to Fujian and Guangdong, and may have also been imported from Vietnam. After a famine in Fujian in 1594, the local governor encouraged and promoted the cultivation of sweet potatoes.[107] These crops quickly took hold in Fujian and Guangdong, and later spread to other regions of China in the second half of the 17th century.[108]

Economic development

Porcelain teapot from the Wanli era; British Museum, London

During the Wanli era, there was a significant boom in industry,[109] particularly in the production of silk, cotton, and porcelain.[110] The textile industry in Shaanxi employed a large number of people, while Guangdong saw the emergence of large ironworks with thousands of workers.[109] This period also saw the development of specialization in agricultural production and a significant increase in interregional trade.[110] The impact of this development was most strongly felt in Jiangnan, where cities such as Suzhou, Songjiang, Jiaxing, and Nanjing flourished. Suzhou, known for its silk and financial industries, saw its population grow to over half a million by the end of the 16th century, while Songjiang became a center for cotton cultivation.[111]

A significant portion of the production was exported in exchange for silver. Between 1560 and 1640, the Spanish colonies in the Americas shipped 1,000 tons of silver across the Pacific, with 900 tons ending up in China. However, during this same time period, Japan sent 6–7 times more silver to China.[xvi] This influx of foreign silver coincided with the commercialization of the economy, which led to growth in industries such as cotton and silk, as well as the growth of cities and trade. However, this commercialization did not result in prosperity for all. Land and rice prices remained stagnant, and even fell in the 1570s and 1580s,[112] before experiencing a sudden increase in 1587–89 due to famines in southern China.[113] Additionally, wages and labor productivity in the Jiangnan cotton industry also declined.[112] Contemporary commentators observed that while the market economy was thriving, state finances remained poor. Despite the luxurious lifestyle of urban elites, the majority of peasants and day laborers continued to live in poverty.[114] These economic changes also brought about changes in values, particularly in regards to official Confucian doctrines.[109]

During the 16th century, the Ming state gradually shifted towards the policy of zhaoshang maiban (召商買辦, 'the government purchase from private merchants'). For example, during the Jiajing era, the government began purchasing clothes for silver instead of relying on state textile factories in Suzhou and Hangzhou, which had since disappeared and been replaced by private factories. This marked the emergence of a market economy, where traders were no longer mere extensions of the state apparatus and were able to negotiate prices and contract volumes. State contracts also encouraged the growth of private enterprises, while the quality of production in state factories declined. For instance, in 1575, the army had to return 5,000 unusable shields. By the late 16th century, army officers were refusing to use goods produced by state workshops and instead demanded silver from the government to purchase equipment on the market. The government obtained the necessary silver by converting compulsory services into payments in the single bar reform.[115] The aim of the reform was to eliminate levies in kind, services, and compulsory work in the lijia system and replace them with a surcharge to the land tax paid in silver.[116] Transfers of various duties to silver payments had been taking place in various counties since the 1520s, with the most intense changes occurring in the 1570s to the 1590s. The reform was implemented by county authorities throughout the country.[117][xvii] The changes proceeded from the more developed south of the country to the north, where the introduction of procedures common in the south caused a wave of resistance. Controversy centered primarily on the repeal of progressive household taxation: advocates of the reform argued that wealthy households usually received tax exemptions, making progressive taxation only fictitious.[118] By the end of the 16th century, land tax surcharges had already replaced almost all benefits and labor performed in the lijia system.[119]

In an effort to streamline the collection of land tax in 1581, Senior Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng advocated for the creation of a new cadastre. Over the course of 1581–1582, fields were measured, boundaries were marked, sizes were calculated, and owners and tenants were recorded. Cadastral maps were also compiled during this time.[120] Unfortunately, due to Zhang's untimely death, there was no final summary of data for the entire country. However, at the local level, the work served its purpose.[121] Zhang's cadastre served as the foundation for later Ming and Qing cadastres.[120]

As early as 1581, the Ministry of Revennue had compiled the Wanli kuai ji lu (萬曆會計錄, 'Record of the accounting procedures of the Wanli reign'), which provided an overview of taxes and fees throughout the empire. This document highlighted the complexity, diversity, and dependence on local conditions of these taxes, making unification a challenging task.[79] After incorporating some compulsory works, the land tax amounted to 5–10% of the harvest, but in the four most heavily taxed prefectures of Nanzhili, it reached 14–20%. In the 1570s–1590s, approximately 21 million liangs of silver were collected for the land tax, mostly in the form of grain.[122]


Map of China, showing regions of cultivation and trade patterns for rice and food, cotton and cotton fabrics, and silk. Significant economic centers are marked.
The national market during the late Ming period, production areas:
and trade directions:
  cotton fabrics,

Outside of Jiangnan, in most counties of Ming China, few products were traded across borders, with the most important being grain.[123] Grain was primarily imported to Jiangnan from Jiangxi, Huguang, and western Nanzhili, while North Zhili imported rice from Shandong and Beijing imported tax rice. The majority of rice on the market was collected by landlords from their tenants as rent. However, the grain market also facilitated the production of non-food goods, particularly textiles. In Jiangnan, there were areas that did not grow rice, but instead focused on textile crops such as cotton and mulberry.[124] Mulberries were primarily grown in northern Zhejiang, with Huzhou being a central location.[125] In and around Songjiang, cotton was grown on more than half of the land. The focus was not just on growing and producing goods, but also on selling them. In the late Ming period, the economy in Jiangnan shifted from cultivation to the processing of cotton, which was imported from Shandong, Henan, Fujian, and Guangdong.[126] Suzhou and Hangzhou were known as centers for the production of luxury goods, while ordinary fabrics were produced in the surrounding areas.[127] Within the production process, there was specialization in individual stages, such as spinning and weaving.[128]

Of the various regional merchant groups, those from Shanxi dominated the salt trade in the interior, including Sichuan. Meanwhile, merchants from Huizhou controlled long-distance trade on the Grand Canal and were the most influential wholesalers and retailers in Jiangnan. They were followed by merchants from Suzhou, Fujian, and Guangzhou, in that order. Merchants from Jiangxi operated on a smaller scale, mainly in Henan, Huguang, and Sichuan.[129] Local agents offered boats, crew, and porters for hire on trade routes.[130] Travel guides were published, providing information on routes, distances, inns, famous places, ferries, and safety.[131] Commercial intermediaries allowed for the sending of money through drafts.[132]

Women entrepreneurs emerged, selling various goods, and also acted as intermediaries in legal disputes.[133] Conservatives viewed women's involvement in trade with disdain, as seen in the case of Li Ze, who praised a prefect for "banning gambling and women from selling at markets" in the Jiaxing prefecture.[134]



The growth of silver imports in the first third of the 16th century led to an increase in its use. By the second half of the 16th century, Ming statesmen were already concerned that silver would completely replace bronze coins. In the last third of the 16th century, the issue of the relationship between silver and coins became a central topic in discussions about monetary policy. Some officials suggested halting the production of coins due to their lack of profitability, while their opponents argued that this was a short-sighted policy that ignored the long-term benefits of increasing circulation. This allowed silver to become the dominant currency.[112] In the 1570s and 1580s, debates about currency were dominated by concerns about silver shortages causing deflation,[135] but these debates died down in the 1590s.[136]

The import of silver had a significant impact on the Ming economy. Its price relative to gold and copper fell by half during the Wan-li era, but its purchasing power was still greater compared to the rest of the world. The Ministry of Revennue's silver income doubled during the 1570s alone, from about 90 tons to approximately 165 tons per year. The income of local authorities also increased, such as in the Moon Port, the main center of foreign maritime trade, where trade licenses and customs fees grew from 113 kg of silver to over one ton between 1570 and 1594. However, the influx of silver also led to the export of gold and coins.[110] This influx of silver also had negative effects, as inflation appeared in regions with a surplus of silver in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, such as the southeast coast, Jiangnan, and the Grand Canal.[137]


Wanli era coin, 1576

Silver was distrusted by many officials because they feared dependence on its inflow from abroad and did not trust its ability to provide all the functions of money. As a result, they attempted to revive the use of coins.[114] In 1571–1572, the mints were briefly opened, but Zhang Juzheng reopened them in 1576. He restored the mints in Beijing and Nanjing, and later in Yunnan.[138] Additionally, he opened mints in both the northern provinces where coins were commonly used—Shanxi, Shandong, and Henan—as well as in provinces where they were not commonly used—Shaanxi, Jiangxi, Fujian, and Huguang.[139] While the mints in the metropolitan areas were state-owned, those in the provinces were run by licensed entrepreneurs.[140] However, the production of coins faced immediate challenges such as a shortage of copper[xviii] and difficulties in hiring qualified personnel.[139] In Jiangxi, for example, the mint was only able to produce 5% of the planned amount of coins. In response, the authorities decreed that at least 70% of tax payments must be made in new coins and encouraged merchants to import coins from surrounding provinces. However, merchants often supplied low-quality privately produced coins, which were illegal.[139] Similarly, the introduction of coins failed in Fujian, where silver was already widely used.[139] Zhang's monetary policy was fragmented, with each province's officials making their own decisions on supporting coinage. This led to various issues, such as a revolt in Hangzhou in 1582 when soldiers' salaries were converted into coins in Zhejiang, and the banning of private exchange offices in Jiangxi, which hindered the circulation of new coins. Some provinces also prohibited the export of coins from their territory, while others prohibited coins cast outside their territory.[135][xix] Attempts to introduce new coins into circulation by selling them at a discount only benefited money changers who bought cheap coins from the authorities and resold them at the normal market price. In some cases, attempts to ban the use of illegal private coins resulted in violent protests and the lifting of the bans.[142] While coins cast in Beijing were accepted by the market,[xx] low-quality private coins continued to dominate in the south.[140] In 1579, Zhang admitted that the attempt to introduce coins had failed.[140] He closed the Yunnan mint the following year and most of the other provincial mints in 1582. However, three mints in Huguang continued to operate, casting different coins and leading to the division of the province into several mint zones.[141] After Zhang's death, his successors and opponents closed most of the mints due to inefficiency.[141] Zhang's opponents argued that the state should not interfere in market and currency affairs and impose a currency that the people did not want. On the other hand, some argued that while silver served as a capital and store of value, coins were essential as a medium of exchange and their production, even if unprofitable, would lead to economic recovery in the long run.[143]

In 1599, the Wanli Emperor returned to an expansive monetary policy. The production of new coins was concentrated in Nanjing,[144] where the capacity of mints increased tenfold. However, the circulation of these coins was limited to the immediate vicinity of Nanjing. As a result, there was a surplus of coins in the city, causing their value to decrease from 850 to 1300 per liang of silver. However, in 1606, floods disrupted the import of metals, causing the price of copper to rise. In response, the state limited coin production[145] and laid off 3,000 workers from the mints. These workers then used their knowledge to produce illegal coins. As a result, private coins began to replace national coins within a few years. The government responded by banning the use of private coins, but this caused money changers to stop accepting any coins as a precaution. Nanjing merchants followed suit, leading to riots among the people. This was especially problematic for day laborers and workers who were paid in coins and relied on merchants accepting them for their daily needs.[146] The use of less valuable private coins became more beneficial for their day-to-day transactions.[147]

Culture and society



The restored gate of the Donglin Academy

Wang Yangming rejected the idea of Confucianism as a fixed belief, stating that "The Way is not the private property of Confucius." He emphasized the importance of self-awareness and self-knowledge over strict adherence to doctrine. In general, he shifted the focus of Confucianism from following the teachings of past sages to following one's own heart.[148] However, in the 1570s, Zhang Juzheng emerged as a strong opponent of Wang's followers, offering an alternative perspective. Zhang emphasized the pragmatic pursuit of state interests, in contrast to the emphasis on personal improvement within Wang's teachings.[149] He believed that actions that benefited the state and its people were the correct ones, stating "If it is to the benefit of the state, I would do it regardless of life or death."[150] Zhang justified his actions against those who were preoccupied with moral debates and self-reflection, viewing them as irresponsible and unproductive. He did not see them as moral role models, but rather as lazy individuals.[150]

After the death of Zhang Juzheng in 1584, three Ming philosophers, Hu Juren (胡居仁), Chen Xianzhang, and Wang Yangming, were given exceptional official recognition. They were among the supporters of private Confucian academies whose tablets were placed in the Temple of Confucius.[151][xxi] Wang Yangming's followers, particularly Wang Gen and his students, known as the Taizhou School, were the most radical in their rejection of Zhuist orthodoxy. In the late 16th century, Li Zhi accused the conformists in authority of hypocrisy, prioritizing their own benefit and career over correctness. He also questioned the infallibility of the classics and defended the legitimacy of human desires.[153] Li Zhi believed that pursuing self-interest was good, as it motivated peasants, artisans, and scholars to perform their professions to the best of their abilities.[148] This led to the spread of values such as materialism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism, and the judging of people not by their occupation but by their wealth. As a result, the social status of poor scholars was no longer higher than that of rich merchants.[154] The enthusiasm for Wang Yangming's subjectivism reached its peak at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, when individual experience was valued above traditional patterns. These attitudes later influenced the criticality and empiricism of the Qing Confucians.[155]

In the late 16th century, there was a growing trend towards syncretism, which seemed to stem from a dissatisfaction with traditional Confucian beliefs.[156] Lin Zhao'en (林兆恩), known as the "Master of the Three Teachings", sought to connect Confucianism with Buddhism and Taoism, particularly in regards to Taoist healing practices. Along with his studies in Confucianism, Hu Zhi also delved into Buddhism and Taoism, practicing meditation[157] and ultimately achieving enlightenment. From a Buddhist perspective, this was seen as a "revelation of Buddha-Nature", while Confucians viewed it as a "discovery of the heart/mind through innate knowledge".[155]

In 1603, Gu Xiancheng, upon the suggestion of his friend Gao Panlong, revived the Donglin Academy as a hub for discussions on Confucianism. This initiative attracted hundreds of educated individuals who engaged in regular debates, quickly establishing the academy as a prominent intellectual center on a national level.[75] The Donglins rejected the Buddhist and Taoist practice of seclusion, instead advocating for active participation in public life.[158] The academy's leaders aimed for a moral revival to improve the political climate of the country. They opposed the devotion to intuition promoted by Wang's follower Wang Ji and the Taizhou School, instead emphasizing disciplined effort and action.[158] Following Zhu Xi's model, they divided their studies between reading books and meditation,[159][160] which they did not associate with Chan Buddhist, but rather derived from Confucian ritualism.[74]

Calligraphy and painting

Brush with a filling pen of a specific shape and size, adorned with golden and silver dragons on a black background
Calligraphy brush, Wanli era

In his theoretical works, Dong Qichang (1555–1636)[161] from Songjiang, a renowned scholar who excelled in literary composition, painting, and calligraphy from a young age, best expressed the aesthetic rules of the Imperial Painting Academy. While he was primarily known as a theoretician of painting, he also wrote about the history of calligraphy.[162] Dong emphasized the importance of painting as a form of calligraphic expression and encouraged artists to study the techniques of past masters. In order to validate his own artistic abilities, he argued that throughout history, painters were divided into two distinct schools: the ink painting of the Southern School, which strove to express the inner essence of the subject, and the descriptive, decorative tradition of professional "craftsman" painters of the Northern School.[163] He himself positioned himself at the end of the development of the Southern School as the true heir of literati painting, seeking to express the thoughts of the creator rather than seeking material gain. His monumental ink landscapes became the standard for traditional painting,[162] and it was not until the 20th century that the concept of the Northern and Southern Schools was reevaluated.[164] One of the notable painters of the Wanli era was Wu Bin, who worked in Nanjing and later at the Beijing court. He was known for his eccentric style, influenced by the local Fujian tradition and elements of the Wu School, which gave his paintings a sense of elegance and beauty. However, he also incorporated expressive techniques from the Zhe School.

Dong Qichang was a dominant figure in the theory and practice of late Ming calligraphy. In his works on calligraphy, he placed the masters of his Songjiang region above those of Suzhou.[162] He stressed the importance of studying calligraphy from the Eastern Jin (4th century) and Tang (7th–9th century) periods,[163] specifically highlighting the works of Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi.[162] However, he did not advocate for direct imitation of their styles, but rather a thorough analysis of their techniques.[163] Other notable calligraphers from the second half of the 16th century in Songjiang included Dong Qichang's friend Chen Jiru, a versatile artist and collector, and Xu Wei, a predecessor of individual Qing dynasty artists, known for his "flowers and birds" genre paintings and his "crazy conceptual calligraphy" style, which was similar to abstract painting.[165]



In the 1570s and 1580s, Wang Shizhen (王世貞) held the esteemed position of literary arbiter and most respected critic of Ming China. He was a versatile artist and the leading figure among the Later Seven Masters of the Ming.[166] In the following generation, at the beginning of the 17th century, poets focused on expressing their own nature, individual creativity, and emotions. Their thinking was influenced by the individualistic philosophy of Li Zhi. Prominent figures of this era included Tang Xianzu, a poet, essayist, calligrapher, dramatist, and literary theorist; Xu Wei, a poet, essayist, calligrapher, painter, and dramatist; and Tu Long, a poet, critic, dramatist, art collector, and connoisseur.[167] One of the most notable poets of the Wanli era was Hu Yinglin, who came from a wealthy family but chose to pursue literature instead of a career in the civil service after failing the examinations. Although his poems were not particularly significant, he compiled an encyclopedia of poetics called Shisou (Thickets of criticism). In this work, he provided a structured overview of poetic forms, history, and sources from the perspective of the archaizing movement. This movement viewed Tang poetry as the pinnacle of poetic achievement, but also recognized its revival during the Yuan period and the contributions of the seven earlier and seven later masters in the 16th century.[168]

The poets of the Gong'an School, particularly the Yuan brothers—Yuan Hongdao, Yuan Zongdao (袁宗道), and Yuan Zhongdao—held distinct positions.[168] Li Zhi had a direct influence on the Yuan brothers and their Gong'an school, shaping their rejection of traditional authorities, avoidance of imitation (which they believed stifled creativity), pursuit of natural expression, and advocacy for drama and fiction as legitimate literary forms. However, the poetry of the three brothers was largely conventional; they differed from previous generations (Earlier Seven Masters and Later Seven Masters of the Ming) by imitating middle Tang (especially Bai Juyi) and Song (Su Shi) poetry rather than the pinnacle of Tang poetry.[167] In this, they followed Wang Shizhen, who also looked to middle Tang and Song poets as role models. More than their poetry, the brothers' criticism was widely read and their conclusions had gained general recognition by the mid-17th century.[166]The brothers were also active in literary associations, blending Confucianism with Buddhism and Taoism, and exploring various prose and encyclopedic disciplines such as floristry and pharmacopoeia.[167] Yuan Hongdao was a proponent of literature written in colloquial language, arguing that it too was capable of conveying moral truths.[168] Literary connections were not limited to the educated gentry, but also extended to professional painters, writers, and calligraphers, as well as art-loving merchants, talented women, and courtesans. This diverse cultural scene became a significant aspect of Ming literature in the following generation.[167]

During the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, another literary movement emerged known as the Jingling School, led by Tan Yuanchun and Zhong Xing. While they shared the belief of the Gong'an school that poetry should express "natural feelings", they criticized the imitation of Bai Juyi and Su Shi as producing "vulgar and crude" poetry. Instead, they focused on cultivating their own style, striving to capture the depth and scale of their favorite pre-Tang and Tang works, but often falling into the trap of imitation.[169] Their most notable contributions were the anthologies Return to Old poetry (古詩歸, Gushi gui) and Return to Tang poetry (唐詩歸, Tangshi gui), published in 1614 and 1617 respectively, in which they expressed their views on poetic creation. The success of these anthologies was further enhanced by the contributions of Min Qiji (閔齊伋), who distinguished the poems in color from the editors' notes and comments for the convenience of readers.[170]

Prose and drama

Illustration from the novel Jin Ping Mei, 17th century

In 1566, Tan Kai, a retired official and bibliophile, published Extensive Records of the Taiping Reign (Taiping guangji), a collection of seven thousand mostly supernatural stories from the early Song dynasty. This collection revived many Tang and older stories and tales.[171] During this time, writers edited and published both old and new stories, as well as short story collections. Some notable examples include Wang Tonggui's Tales Overheard (Ertan, 1597), Su Changzuo's Complete Records of Yanshan (Yanshan conglu, 1602), and Qian Xiyan's Garden of Cleverness (Kaiyuan, 1613), which gained great popularity. Short stories in the classical language were written by Song Maocheng and Pan Zhiheng, while Ling Mengchu and Feng Menglong wrote in the colloquial language.[172] Around 1590, the genre of novels in colloquial language, which was rare at the time, began to flourish.[173] Two notable novels from the Wanli era were Journey to the West, one of the Four Classic Chinese Novels, and the socio-critical Jin Ping Mei. Additionally, Luo Maodeng's 1597 novel The Eunuch Sanbao's Voyage to the Western Ocean (Sanbao taijian xiyang ji) was the first work to impress readers with the size of Zheng He's "treasure ships".

The development of drama was greatly influenced by Liang Chenyu, who incorporated the Kunshan style of music, known as Kunqu, into his drama Washing Silken Gauze (浣紗記, Huan Sha Ji). This combination of Kunqu music and Chuanqi dramatic form was a huge success, leading to the merging of the two concepts.[174] As a result, in the following decades, numerous authors and plays emerged.[175] The most prestigious position in the theater world was held by private theater troupes, who were employed by the wealthy for their own entertainment and that of their guests.[176] Among the playwrights, Tang Xianzu was particularly notable for his "four dream plays," with his work The Peony Pavilion being highly regarded. Another important playwright of the Wanli era was Zheng Zhizhen, who adapted the popular story Mulian Rescues His Mother (Mulian jiu mu xing xiao xi wen) into a theatrical form.[177] Of Shen Jing's dramas, only the play The Noble Knight-Errant (Yixia ji; an adaptation of one of the chapters of Water Margin) succeeded, yet he became an important theoretician. His followers are known as the Wujiang School.[178] In theory, he emphasized the role of music, which he considered more important than the textual component of the play (the opposite opinion was defended by Tang Xianzu).[178][179] Zang Maoxun compiled the Anthology of Yuan Plays (Yuanqu xuan), which became the basic source of Yuan zaju dramas for four centuries, however, the plays in it do not have an original form, but were significantly modified by Zang in accordance with late Ming values and artistic attitudes [180]

Books and the book market, newspapers


In the early 16th century, printed literature prevailed over manuscript literature, leading to an explosive expansion of written texts.[181] Compared to Europe, paper was cheap in China and woodblock printing did not require a large initial investment, allowing for the rapid spread of printed literature of various kinds and genres.[182] This abundance of books was noted by Europeans such as Matteo Ricci during the Wanli era, who marveled at the wealth of literary resources in China.[183] While books were generally affordable, rare prints could still be quite expensive, costing up to a hundred liangs of silver.[184] The widespread availability of books also led to an increase in leisure reading, as people were not only reading for work, but also for pleasure.[185] According to European visitors, literacy was widespread in China, with even the poorest families having access to education and the ability to read and write.[186] This resulted in a larger number of people reading books in China and around the world than ever before.[184]

The book market grew exponentially. In the first third of the 16th century, the market was relatively limited and focused mainly on Confucian classics, official histories, and neo-Confucian philosophers. These books were printed in princely palaces, offices, and commercially, with a particular concentration in Fujian, specifically in Jianning Prefecture in the northern part of the province. However, in the Wanli era, commercial publishers began printing a wide range of literature in hopes of making a profit. This included not only the aforementioned official literature, but also various genres of fiction, encyclopedias, and manuals of all kinds.[187] These ranged from "pocket classics" for students to guides on how to become a writer or lead the country.[187] The market was also flooded with manuals and encyclopedias on household management.[188] By the end of the century, fiction had become extremely popular.[189] The affordability of printing allowed for the distribution of specialized books, such as medical texts, which had previously only been available in manuscript form.[190]

The most significant regions for book production were Suzhou, Fujian, and Zhejiang. Suzhou was known for printing the highest quality and most expensive books, while Fujian produced the largest quantity at the lowest cost. Zhejiang ranked second in both aspects.[183] The growth and commercialization of the book market encouraged academics to publish their own work, a departure from the previous practice of having their students or descendants publish for them. Esteemed scholars could rely on publishers to pay them in advance for their writing, with the expectation of making a profit. [191] This led to the emergence of scholars who focused solely on writing and publishing.[192]

Private libraries were growing in size. During the Song dynasty, it was rare for someone to have a library with ten thousand juan. However, during the Wanli era, private libraries in Jiangnan had 30,000 to 50,000 juan. Some scholars, like Ke Jian from Yangzhou, even had 10,000 titles in their personal collections[193] (with each title possibly costing several tens of juan). There were dozens of these extensive private libraries in existence.[184] Due to their size, many of these large private libraries were housed in separate buildings. For example, the famous bibliophile Mao Kun's library had twelve rooms. These impressive private libraries were a source of amazement for Europeans.[193]

Private newspapers also began to emerge during this time. Initially, they mainly republished material from the official gazette, but eventually they started to produce their own news.[194] As early as the 1590s, former minister Yu Shenxing (于慎行) expressed concern that newspaper publishers were exaggerating the failures of the fighting on the northern border, causing unnecessary panic among the population. He criticized their focus on sensational news for the sake of marketability and profit, rather than reporting on truly important events.[195]

Imperial examination


Only individuals with official status were able to ensure the preservation of a merchant family's wealth. As a result, merchants often encouraged their sons to pursue education and obtain an official rank.[196] However, during the first two centuries of the Ming dynasty, only candidates from families of officials, peasants (or landowners), craftsmen, and soldiers were allowed to take the civil service examinations. Merchants were not permitted to participate. In the Wanli era, merchants were finally allowed to participate in the imperial examinations. However, only one candidate, a certain Zheng Maohua in 1607, was able to pass the highest level of the exams, known as the palace exams, and obtain the jinshi rank.[xxii] Despite this, merchants still managed to pass the exams by registering under the names of others or posing as peasants or soldiers from a different location.[197] As a result, in the late Ming period, the majority of successful exam candidates came from merchant families.[198]

In the students' environment, the eight-legged essay was an important genre, and mastery of it was crucial for success in exams. This literary form emerged in the Wanli era and gained popularity over the course of a century. It was not yet rigid and was seen as a challenge for intellectuals to showcase their stylistic dexterity. Esteemed art critics like Li Zhi and Yuan Hongdao valued this genre for its experimental and innovative nature. However, mastering the eight-legged essay required more than just individual study. The preferences and styles favored by examiners were constantly changing, giving an advantage to candidates from larger cities who could keep up with these trends. This is why it was beneficial to be part of literary societies. In the 1570s, these societies began publishing successful essays with commentary and criticism.[199][xxiii] Additionally, collections of model essays were published by the authorities starting in 1587.[200]

The study was costly; for example, Wang Shizhen (王世貞) spent 300 liang (11.2 kg) of silver per year on his studies. Even the poorest candidates had to cover at least a third of the cost, often resulting in debt. After being appointed to office, officials had to use their salaries to pay off creditors, who were often wealthy merchants.[201] However, official salaries were not high, with county heads only earning 87 liang[202] per year in the 16th century. As a result, most officials relied on the revenues from their office, and any significant increase in wealth was considered corrupt.

In 1583, the government tightened control over provincial examinations by selecting chief examiners and their deputies from members of the Hanlin Academy. Previously, these positions were held by teachers in charge of county and prefectural state schools, who typically only passed the provincial exams.[203][xxiv]



In the early Ming period, the style, materials, and color of clothing were determined by the state. As early as 1541, the Ministry of Rites prohibited inappropriate styles of dress. However, by the 1560s, these prohibitions were no longer being enforced and people began to dress according to ever-changing fashion trends.[204] The city of Suzhou became the center of fashion and set the trends for the rest of the country.[205] This distinction between appropriate and inappropriate extended beyond clothing to items of daily use and household equipment. The arbiters of taste and elegance condemned the ostentatious display of wealth, such as the use of gold utensils and dishes, as vulgar behavior of the uneducated wealthy.[206] This behavior was becoming more common due to the influx of silver from abroad, which led to the enrichment of merchants who surpassed landowners in terms of wealth and extravagant spending.[207] These "nouveau riche" individuals sought social recognition, but the traditional elites fought back and tried to maintain their upper hand. One of their tactics was the institution of fashion.[208] In the last decade of the Wanli era, the fear of the wealth and influence of the "nouveau riche" reached its peak.[209] On the other hand, from the 1590s onwards,[210] writers from the gentry class produced manuals instructing the ignorant on what objects and antiques were appropriate to own and how to properly dispose of them in accordance with cultural norms.[206][207] However, the counterfeiting of antiquities and valuables also became widespread.[206]

Fashion was intertwined with geji cultures, as educated and cultured Gējìs like Xue Susu and Ma Shouzhen emerged, breaking free from the traditional role of women being limited to the household.[211]Fashion was also intertwined with sexual relations,a trend for sexual relations with boys also emerged among the elite, openly defying Confucian norms.[212]

Military and foreign policy


Restoration of Ming military power in the last third of the 16th century

Ming artillery, illustration from the 17th-century military manual Jing guo xiong lue (經國雄略)

The largest military campaigns of the Wanli era were known as the "Three Great Campaigns of the Wanli Era." The first of these was the suppression of the rebellion in Ningxia, followed by the Imjin War with Japan in Korea[213] and the suppression of Yang Yinglong's rebellion in Bozhou. These campaigns involved the mobilization of tens and hundreds of thousands of troops, as well as their movement and long-distance supply. The success of the Ming dynasty in these campaigns can be attributed to the overall increase in China's military power during the 1570s to the first decade of the seventeenth century. During this time, the Ming dynasty was aggressively expanding along all frontiers, including launching raids into the Mongolian steppes and supporting the colonization of Han borderlands.[214] In addition to these three major campaigns, the Ming troops also suppressed several rebellions within the empire and successfully expanded and secured the borders in the southwest through battles with the Burmese. This allowed for the colonization of previously indigenous territories in the southwest and northwest. The Ming dynasty also actively interfered in the affairs of the Jurchens in the northeast.[215]

Following the example of his teacher Zhang Juzheng, the Wanli Emperor placed great emphasis on military affairs.[216] This was one of the few areas where most civil officials felt insecure, giving the emperor the ability to enforce his will.[217] In order to bypass the usual bureaucratic procedures, Wanli relied on successful generals.[216] In the emperor's eyes, generals were more dependable and trustworthy than officials, as they spent most of their time in the field and did not have the opportunity to build networks of support in the capital. Additionally, the Wanli Emperor saw generals as representatives of a different lifestyle, one that was more free and unartistic.[4] He took great care in selecting capable generals and was not afraid to give them extraordinary powers, allowing them to make quick decisions without waiting for his approval. This contributed greatly to the success of their campaigns. The Wanli Emperor was also willing to allocate significant funds from his reserves to supply and equip the troops,[218] and he entrusted the generals with powers and responsibilities that were typically reserved for civil officials, despite objections from the government.[22]

Squad composition, illustration from the military manual Jixiao Xinshu by General Qi Jiguang

On the northern border, the Wanli Emperor aimed to replace static defense with more aggressive tactics.[26] In his own words,

We still shouldn't try to appease the nomads. They could be very ambitious and arrogant; there is no way to satisfy their appetite. It is still essential to build up our own stength so that the borderland is alertly safeguarded.

— Wanli Emperor[26]

He generally preferred a decisive rather than aggressive approach towards domestic rebels and foreign enemies.[215] Under the leadership of capable generals, the Ming army was the strongest it had been since the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402–1424).[26] Contemporary estimates put the number of Ming soldiers in the 1570s at 845,000. By the beginning of the 17th century, the Ming dynasty had over 4 million men in arms. Training centers were established near Beijing, where units preparing for Korea also trained.[219] Instead of relying on the inefficient and incompetent hereditary soldiers of the weisuo system, the Ming government turned to hiring mercenaries who were better trained, more disciplined, and more cost-effective in battle.[220] Troops from militant minority nations were also utilized, particularly "wolf troops" (lang bing) from Guangxi.[221] The development of the military was supported by a number of manuals and handbooks. The most extensive surviving works on military affairs are the Chouhai tubian ("Gazeteer of Coastal Defense") by Zheng Ruozeng in 1562, the Shenqi pu ("Treatise on Firearms") by Zhao Shizhen in 1598, and the Wubei Zhi ("Encyclopedia of Military Preparedness") by Mao Yuanyi in 1601.[222] In his manuals Jixiao Xinshu and Lianbing Shiji, General Qi Jiguang provided detailed tactics for using small groups of soldiers, discussed psychological warfare, analyzed the composition, tasks, and training of units, and outlined the use of weapons and procedures based on terrain and soldier experience. He emphasized the importance of morale and training for soldiers.[223]

Towards the end of his reign, the emperor closely monitored military threats on the borders. In 1619, shortly before his death, he allocated funds for an expedition against the Jurchens in Liaodong. However, the campaign ended in a disastrous defeat for the Ming army. The emperor then protected the surviving generals, including Li Rubai, from government attempts to execute them.[224]

Rebellion in Ningxia


In March 1592, a rebellion broke out in Ningxia, an important fortress city on the northwestern frontier. Led by Chinese officer Liu Dongyang, the soldiers of the garrison revolted.[225][226] The rebellion was also joined by Pubei, a Mongol and deputy regional commander who had three thousand horsemen in his personal guard. Due to his origin, the rebellion was attributed to him.[225][226] The rebels successfully took control of Ningxia and nearly fifty nearby fortresses. They demanded recognition from the government, threatening to ally with the Ordos Mongols.[225] At the time, Ningxia had a population of 300,000 and a garrison of 30,000[227] (or 20,000)[228] soldiers. The city walls were six meters thick and nine meters high, making it a formidable stronghold. The rebels were experienced soldiers.[227]

On 19 April, the emperor was informed of the uprising and immediately summoned Minister of War, Shi Xing (石星). Following the minister's proposal, he ordered the mobilization of 7,000 soldiers from Xuanhua and Shanxi.[229][230] Wei Xueceng, an experienced military official and commander-in-chief of the three border regions (Xuanfu, Shanxi, and Datong), was entrusted with the task of suppressing the rebellion. The emperor provided him with a number of officers and officials, including General Ma Gui.[225][230] Wei Xueceng successfully secured the southern bank of the Yellow River, captured key forts, and within weeks recaptured nearby frontier forts, leaving only the city of Ningxia under rebel control. However, he then declared that he did not have enough men and equipment and took a passive stance. Despite the reinforcements provided, he insisted on negotiating with the insurgents, citing concerns for the lives of civilians in Ningxia.[225] The emperor discussed the situation with the Gand Secretaries, as well as the censors and the ministers, and ultimately took a decisive position to suppress the rebellion as quickly as possible.[231] For the next six weeks, Ming troops besieged Ningxia, occasionally facing resistance from the Mongols. In the fourth month of the year, the Ming launched an attack on the city and managed to eliminate about 3,000 defenders. However, their attempt to penetrate the city through the northern gate failed and resulted in heavy losses.[225]

In an effort to conduct the siege operations more effectively, the emperor appointed General Li Rusong as the military superintendent in charge of suppressing the rebellion.[232] This appointment was met with shock by the bureaucracy in the capital, as the position and overall command were traditionally held by civilian officials rather than professional officers.[233] In July, Ming reinforcements arrived at Ningxia and skirmishes between the besiegers and the rebels continued. At the end of July, Li Rusong also arrived and began attacking the city day and night in early August. The rebels were only able to repel them with difficulty.[232] Meanwhile, the Japanese were successfully occupying Korea, prompting the emperor to urge a swift resolution of the situation. In late August, Wei Xueceng was arrested for his reluctance and taken to Beijing. The emperor then approved Shi Xing's plan to build ramparts around the city and fill the interior, including the city itself, with water.[234]

On 23 August, a 5.3 km long dam surrounded Ningxia. The rebels gained the alliance of Mongol chief Bushugtu, but Li Rusong sent Ma Gui and General Dong Yiyuan with part of the army to attack them and occupy the passes east of the city. Ma and Dong successfully repulsed the Mongols. By 6 September, the city was already flooded with almost three meters of water, causing the rebels' attacks to fail and the besieged to suffer from a critical shortage of food. The city's inhabitants and Ma Gui pleaded with the insurgents to surrender in order to save human lives. However, the rebels continued to launch unsuccessful raids while also facing attacks from Minsk troops.[235] By the end of September, the 18,000-strong Mongolian army was blocked north of the city. Li Rusong and Ma Gui led a counterattack and drove the Mongols back.[236] As the water breached the walls, the city was eventually taken in mid-October.[228] Pubei committed suicide, while several other rebel leaders were captured and executed.[236][228] The emperor then sent a large portion of the troops from Ningxia, led by Li Rusong, to Korea.[236][237]

Korea and Japan: The Imjin War

The Korean-Chinese army besieges the Japanese in their fortress of Ulsan

In the early 1590s, Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi had successfully unified Japan under his rule. However, his ambitions extended beyond just ruling over his own country.[238] In challenges sent to the rulers of neighboring countries, he declared his intention to dominate East Asia and establish his rule from the Chinese port of Ningbo.[239] His first target was Korea, with the ultimate goal of conquering Ming China.[238] The Chinese were well aware of the Japanese threat to their hegemony in East Asia and responded with vigor.[240]

In May 1592, Japanese troops landed in Korea. Due to the Korean army's lack of preparation, they were unable to put up much resistance and the Japanese quickly advanced, taking control of Seoul in just twenty days and continuing further north. The Korean king fled north to the Korean-Ming border on the Yalu River.[241] In response, the Koreans sought help from Ming China. The Wanli Emperor decidedly took an anti-Japanese stance and only sent a small scouting force of three thousand soldiers. This force was ultimately surprised and destroyed by the Japanese in Pyongyang in August 1592.[242] This event shocked the Beijing court and they began to organize coastal defenses. Vice Minister of War Song Yingchang was sent to Liaodong, a Ming region bordering Korea, to take command of the Korean campaign.[243] A large army was also gathered in Liaodong. The Japanese occupation of Korea sparked a wave of popular resistance, which eventually escalated into a guerrilla war. The victories of the Korean navy, led by Admiral Yi Sun-sin, in the summer and autumn of 1592 played a crucial role in organizing the resistance.[238]After the rebellion in Ningxia was defeated, part of the troops and several generals, including Li Rusong, reinforced the troops gathered in Liaodong.[244] The Korean land army also rose up and, in early 1593, the Ming troops, led by Li Rusong, went into battle.[238][245] By May 1593, the Sino-Korean forces had pushed the enemy to the vicinity of Busan in southeastern Korea. This led to the Japanese agreeing to negotiate a truce.[238] However, the preliminary negotiations dragged on for several years and ultimately failed in October 1596. As a result, Hideyoshi decided to attack Korea again.[246] Despite this, the second invasion in 1597 was not successful. The Japanese did manage to approach Seoul to within 80 km in August 1597, but were eventually pushed back to the southeast after the arrival of Ming troops. The outcome of the war was heavily influenced by naval operations. Initially, the Koreans suffered setbacks under an incompetent admiral, but after Yi Sun-sin was released from prison and placed in command of the fleet,[247] they gained superiority at sea. This forced the Japanese onto the defensive between Ulsan and Sunchon. In May 1598, the Ming fleet arrived and reinforced the Korean fleet. Meanwhile, lengthy sieges and bloody battles took place on land. In the spring of 1598, part of the Japanese troops withdrew from Korea, while the rest successfully resisted the Ming-Korean attacks. After Hideyoshi's death in September 1598, the remaining Japanese troops were evacuated from Korea by the end of the year.[247]

The Imjin War was one of the largest military conflicts of the 16th century, with Japan mobilizing over 150,000 soldiers for the first invasion and over 140,000 for the second. The Ming dynasty also sent a significant number of troops, with over 40,000 soldiers in 1592 and more than double that in 1597.[248] According to Chinese historian Li Guangtao, a total of 166,700 Ming soldiers were deployed to Korea and were provided with 17 million liang of silver and supplies, which was roughly equivalent to half a year's income for the Ming state.[249] While the exact number of Korean soldiers is difficult to estimate, it is believed that there were tens of thousands of them.[248] The losses suffered by Korea were devastating, with the Japanese presenting Hideyoshi with the noses of their enemies as proof of their victory instead of the usual heads. Modern historians estimate that the number of noses brought back to Japan ranged from 100,000 to 200,000.[250]

Yang Yinglong's rebellion

Remains of the palace in Hailongtun. In 2015, UNESCO added it to the World Heritage List as "a symbol of China's historical administrative procedures that unite the country while respecting the customs and way of life of minorities."[251][252]

The Yang family, descendants of a 9th-century Tang general, controlled a mountainous region on the border of Huguang, Guizhou, and Sichuan. The area spanned over 300 km in the east-west direction and slightly less in the north-south direction, with its center located in Bozhou.[253] The clan ruled this territory for many centuries and, although originally Chinese, they assimilated and identified with the local Miao tribes over time.[227]

Yang Yinglong inherited his position from his father during the Longqing era. He distinguished himself on the Ming side in battles against other natives and Tibetans, and also received recognition from the Ming court for the quality of the wood he supplied.[254][255] However, he was very ambitious and viewed the Ming troops as weak.[254] Problems with Yang Yinglong's actions continued for the local Ming authorities from 1587.[227] He became involved in disputes between the local Miao tribes and Chinese colonists by attacking the former. Initially, the government in Beijing rejected the local authorities' requests for intervention, stating that there were more pressing matters to attend to and that Yang Yinglong was simply seeking an opportunity to distinguish himself.[254] However, in 1590, open and protracted fighting broke out between Yang Yinglong's warriors and Ming forces.[256] Eventually, Yang Yinglong submitted to the Ming authorities, but was unexpectedly sentenced to execution. In order to secure his release, he offered a large payment and five thousand troops for the war in Korea. After his release, however, he hid in the mountains and plundered a number of prefectures and counties. In 1595, he was caught again and once again escaped punishment by offering a deal. As a result, his son Yang Chaodong was given a hereditary post and another son was sent to Chongqing as a hostage.[257][258] The emperor considered the matter settled and rewarded the commander. However, within a year, Yang Yinglong was once again leading raids on the provinces of Huguang, Sichuan, and Guizhou, and even declared himself emperor. Over the next three years, his hundred thousand Miao soldiers spread fear throughout the area.[257][259]

Focused on the war in Korea, the Wanli Emperor postponed solving the problems in the relatively peripheral southwest of the empire until early 1599, when he appointed the distinguished official Guo Zichang (1543–1618) as pacification commissioner of Sichuan. The former head of the Censorate, Li Hualong, was promoted to vice minister of war and put in charge of the military affairs of Sichuan, Huguang, and Guizhou. Several generals from Korea were sent to Sichuan, including Li Rumei and the well-known and feared Liu Ting (劉綎) in the southwest.[259][260] Fighting with the rebels lasted the rest of the year, while they also attacked the major cities of Chongqing and Chengdu.[257] At the turn of 1599/1600, minor skirmishes took place between the ever-strengthening Ming troops and the rebels. In the end, the Ming army had 240,000 soldiers from all over the empire.[261] Yang Yinglong tried to mobilize indigenous warriors against the superior Ming troops, who were much better armed with cannons and rifles. He gathered perhaps up to 150,000 warriors by the end of 1599.[262][xxv] However, even the Ming armies were largely composed of local natives.[262] After extensive preparations, Li Hualong planned to attack the rebels from eight directions, each with an army of 30,000 men. He launched the attack at the end of March 1600.[262] The Ming troops systematically pushed back the enemy and in early June, surrounded Yang Yinglong in the mountain fortress of Hailongtun. The fortress fell in a final assault in mid-July,[262] with Yang Yinglong killed.[261][263] According to Li Hualong's final report, over 22,000 rebels were killed in the fighting.[256]

Yang Yinglong's chiefdom was then incorporated into the standard Chinese administrative system.[256] In the following decade, Ming military actions continued quite successfully in the southwest, putting down several minor revolts.[261] In an effort to prevent the recurrence of such a large-scale rebellion, the Ming authorities organized a systematic policing of the region.[264]

Other rebellions and border wars


During the Wanli Emperor's reign, there were numerous domestic uprisings and rebellions, with the most significant being the uprisings organized by the White Lotus sect in Shandong in 1587 and 1616.[265]

Despite a peace agreement with the Mongol Altan Khan in 1571 and the resumption of Sino-Mongol trade, there were occasional armed clashes between the Ming state and its northern neighbors, although they were not a serious threat. These clashes sometimes involved tens of thousands of men. The Ming troops also conducted raids in Mongolia and Manchuria, resulting in the burning of settlements, killing of defiant leaders, and confiscation of livestock. For instance, in 1591, General Li Chengliang destroyed a Mongol camp during a raid, killing 280 Mongols and dispersing over a thousand of them. These types of actions were already an idea of Zhang Juzheng.[266]

After 1571, relations with the Mongols living north and northwest of Beijing calmed down. However, the Mongols in Ordos remained restless and continued to raid Gansu. The Ming armies were able to successfully fight them, utilizing Tibetan and Uighur auxiliaries. In the northeast, the Mongols also attacked the Ming Liaodong. They were a formidable force, with up to 30,000–50,000 horsemen in battle. In 1598, even the Ming commander of the region, General Li Rusong, fell in battle against them.[265]

There were also occasional conflicts on the southwestern border, where the Burmese violated the borders. In 1582-1583 and again in 1584, a Ming army led by General Liu Ting successfully repelled the Burmese and even penetrated deep into Burma. The Burmese launched another attack in Yunnan in the late 16th century. In response, the governor of Yunnan organized a counter-attack with Siam in 1594.[267] In 1600, combined Ming-Siamese forces burned the Burmese capital of Pegu.[268] In 1607, the Vietnamese also raided the Yunnan and Guangxi borderlands.[267]



In the 1520s, a civil war broke out in Vietnam between the Mạc dynasty, which had been ruling the northern part of the country since 1527, and the followers of the previous Lê dynasty in the south. In 1592, Lê Thế Tông's army invaded the north and captured Hanoi and most of the country. The followers of the Mạc retreated to Cao Bằng Province and the surrounding area near the Vietnamese-Ming border. The government of Lê Thế Tông, led by Trịnh Tùng, who held more power than the monarch, established connections with the Ming regional authorities in an attempt to gain recognition for the Lê dynasty instead of the Mạc. In 1540, Mạc Đăng Dung was recognized by the Ming emperor (the Jiajing Emperor) as the ruler of Vietnam, but the country's status was reduced from a kingdom to a local command (都統使司, Dutongshisi), which he administered as a pacification commissioner or commander (都統使司, Dutongshiguan, with the lower second rank). In 1597, after a year of negotiations, Lê Thế Tông arrived at the border with a thousand soldiers and servants to meet with a delegation of Ming regional officials in Ming territory. The meeting was held in a friendly manner, with Lê Thế Tông expressing his desire for Vietnam to maintain its status as a tributary kingdom. However, the Ming representatives did not make any commitments.[269] That same year, Lê Thế Tông sent Vice Minister of Works Phùng Khắc Khoan to Beijing as an envoy.[270] Phùng Khắc Khoan made a good impression in Beijing with his classical education,[271] but he was unable to gain recognition for Lê Thế Tông as the King of Vietnam. The Wanli Emperor justified this by stating that the civil war was not yet over and it was uncertain if the Lê dynasty had true support. As a result, Lê Thế Tông only received the seal of the pacification commissioner.[272][xxvi]

Spain, Portugal, Japan

Wanguo Quantu ("Complete Map of the Myriad Countries") compiled in 1620 by the Jesuit Giulio Aleni for Chinese readers

In the early 1570s, Manila fell to the Spaniards.[275] Trade with the Spanish was highly profitable for the Chinese, as silk in Manila was bought by the Spanish for double its price in China.[207] The Spanish paid for Chinese goods in American silver, which they imported to China across the Pacific in considerable quantities, estimated to be between 50 and 350 tons per year.[276] This trade between the Spanish Philippines and China flourished,[277] leading to the rapid growth of a Chinatown in Manila.[275] The number of Chinese settlers in Manila increased from forty in the early 1570s to 10,000 in 1588 and 30,000 in 1603.[277] However, the Spanish authorities viewed the Chinese with suspicion and concern. This mutual distrust often resulted in armed clashes,[275] and in 1603, a pogrom occurred in which 20[207][275] (according to Chinese sources) or 15 (according to Spanish sources) thousand Chinese lost their lives.[275]

During the 1540s, American silver was also introduced to China through the extensive Portuguese trade. Lisbon elites were known to wear Chinese silks, drink Chinese tea, and order porcelain with European motifs from China.[278] The Portuguese had settled in Macau with the consent of local authorities as early as the 1550s. In 1578, they were granted permission to trade in Canton and have continued to do so since then.[279] At the end of the 16th century, between 6 and 30 tons of silver were transported annually from Portugal to Macau.[278] The Dutch also played a significant role in the trade, with the turnover of their trade at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries matching that of the Portuguese. By 1614, Amsterdam burghers were regularly purchasing blue and white Ming porcelain.[280]

In addition to merchants, missionaries also traveled to China from Europe. The Jesuits, in particular, were successful in spreading the Christian faith through their strategic approach of honoring missionaries. Notable figures such as Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci gained the trust of Chinese dignitaries and were able to persuade some to convert to Christianity.[281] The Jesuits were highly esteemed in Beijing's upper circles for their expertise in mathematics and astronomy, and Ricci was even accepted by the emperor.

In China, silver was a scarce commodity, making it more valuable than in other countries. This was well-known to European traders, who took advantage of the relative cheapness of Chinese goods. As a result, Chinese silk became popular in other parts of the world, such as Latin American countries like Peru and Mexico. This led to a decline in local silk production in Mexico, which had only been introduced by the Spanish a short time before. On the other hand, the textile industry, which utilized Chinese silk, flourished and even exported to European markets. By the 1630s, there was a significant Chinese community in Mexico City, and they also resided in other areas like Acapulco.[282]

After the unification of Japan, the discovery of new silver mines and the improvement of mining techniques, the extraction and export of silver from Japan increased dramatically, particularly to Ming China. Between 1560 and 1600, the annual export of silver ranged from 33 to 49 tons. However, due to the Ming ban on trade with Japan, the import of Japanese silver was facilitated by the Portuguese. In the early 17th century, Japanese silver exports continued to rise, with the import of luxury goods such as silk (reaching up to 280 tons per year in the 1630s). Silk was so abundant and inexpensive in Japan that even some peasants were able to afford it, leading to a rise in its popularity among the lower classes.[283]



In the autumn of 1618, the first Russian ambassadors arrived in Beijing. Led by Ivan Petlin, a group of Siberian Cossacks had been sent to China by the Tobolsk voivode Ivan Kurakin on the orders of Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich. The journey began in May 1618 from Tomsk and involved crossing the mountains on the Russian-Mongolian border, passing through Mongolia and the Gobi, and finally arriving in Beijing in early September. However, due to the lack of gifts or credentials, the Cossacks were not granted an audience with the emperor by Ming officials. Despite this, they were warmly received at the Ministry of Rites and were given a letter from the Wanli Emperor, agreeing to future Russian missions and the arrival of Russian merchants.[284] After a few days, the Russians began their return journey, arriving back in Tomsk in May 1619 and eventually reaching Moscow by the end of the year. However, due to Russia's focus on European affairs, there were no further official contacts with China until the end of the Ming dynasty.[284]

Rise of the Jurchens

Battle of Sarhū. Illustration from Nurhaci's biography, 1635

In 1583, Nurhaci, the leader of one of the many Jurchen tribes in southern Manchuria, began to establish his own state. He united the Jurchens with the support of the Ming dynasty, particularly General Li Chengliang. However, some Ming officials grew concerned about Nurhaci's growing power and called for his destruction in 1587. However, this issue was not resolved due to discussions within the Ming administration. Nurhaci acknowledged his subordinate relationship to the Ming dynasty and paid tribute in 1590 and 1597 by personally visiting Beijing. By the early 1590s, Nurhaci's state had a large military force, estimated at 30–40,000 horsemen and 10,000 infantry. The Ming authorities declined his offer to lead his army into Korea against the Japanese. In 1599, as part of building his state, Nurhaci introduced a new Manchu script and in 1601, a new organization based on banners. In 1603, he reached an agreement with Ming generals in Liaodong to define the borders.[285]

In 1618, Nurhaci had gained control over all the Jurchen tribes except for Yehe and Haixi, who were under Ming protection. An attack on these tribes would trigger a war with China, which is exactly what Nurhaci provoked by raiding Fushun in May 1618. The Ming retaliated with an expedition in early April 1619, after extensive and costly preparations.[xxvii] Yang Hao, a former commander in Liaodong and leader of the Ming forces in Korea from 1597–1598, was put in charge of the overall command. The army was divided into four corps, led by experienced generals (from north to south) Ma Lin, Du Song, Li Rubai, and Liu Ting. The Ming troops consisted of about 100,000 men, including 83,000 Chinese, with the rest being Korean and Jurchen allies. On the other hand, Nurhaci had 50–60,000 soldiers at his disposal, but unlike the Chinese, he did not divide them.[287] Instead, he used his knowledge of the terrain, weather, and mobility[288] to his advantage and crushed the individual Ming corps one by one. First, he defeated Du Song's corps on 14 April, followed by Ma Lin's the next day. Yang Hao, in response, ordered a retreat, and while Li Rubai attempted to retreat as well, the order did not reach Liu Ting and his corps, resulting in their defeat on 20 April. Generals Du Song and Liu Ting both fell in battle.[287] After defeating the Ming, Nurhaci joined forces with the remaining Jurchens and occupied Kaiyuan, where he killed General Ma Lin, and Tieling in northern Liaodong.[289] As a result of the defeat, Li Rubai was accused of cowardice and committed suicide under the weight of criticism,[288] while Yang Hao was imprisoned and executed in 1629.

Death; successors and their reign


In the final months of his life, the Wanli Emperor's health deteriorated significantly. In 1620, he experienced severe dizziness and was confined to his bed.[290] Finally, he died on 18 August 1620.[291] The day after his death, an edict was issued ordering the transfer of one million liang of silver from the emperor's treasury to the frontier troops. Two days later, an additional million was sent from the treasury to strengthen the defenses of Liaodong. The edict also called for the abolition of mining and trade dues, and the dismissal of the eunuchs responsible for collecting them. On 28 August, the Wanli Emperor's eldest son, Zhu Changluo, ascended the throne as the Taichang Emperor.[291]

The Taichang Emperor relied on representatives and sympathizers of the Donglin movement, who were soon appointed to high positions.[291] However, he soon fell ill and died on 26 September 1620. His fifteen-year-old son, Zhu Youjiao, became the new emperor as the Tianqi Emperor.[292] Tianqi enjoyed working with wood, making furniture and wooden models of the palace, but he did not enjoy his official duties. During this time, there was a power struggle between the official and eunuch groups in the government.[293] Initially, the Donglins had the upper hand, but from 1624, the court was dominated by the eunuch Wei Zhongxian.[294] In 1627, after the death of the Tianqi Emperor, his younger brother Zhu Youjian ascended the throne as the Chongzhen Emperor and removed Wei Zhongxian's clique.[295] However, due to suspicion and a lack of purpose, he was unable to control the factionalism among officials and assemble a capable administration.[295][296]

While the government was consumed by internal strife, conditions in the countryside worsened in the 1620s. From 1628, northern China was ravaged by war between rebellious peasants (Li Zicheng rebellion) and the government army.[297] As a result, starving people fled to the cities and entire counties were destroyed in the countryside. The gentry were shocked by the depth of resentment of the poor against the rich, and the state administration began to disintegrate.[298] In 1644, Li Zicheng's army captured Beijing and the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide. General Wu Sangui, who commanded the Ming border army north of Beijing, saw no other option but to submit to the Qing dynasty (which was renamed in the mid-1630s from the Jurchen state founded by Nurhaci). With the support of the landlords and gentry, the Qing army quickly defeated the rebels and took control of northern China. In the following years, they also conquered the south of the country.[297] In 1662, Wu Sangui, at the head of the Qing army, detained and executed the last Ming emperor, Zhu Youlang, in Yunnan.[299]



One of the many historical accounts of the Wanli Emperor and his reign is a unique book written by the eunuch Liu Ruoyu (劉若愚, 1584 – c. 1642) titled The Eunuch's Diary (Long zhong zhi, 隆中志). This book provides a detailed description of life in the palace during that time.[8]

The traditional portrayal of the emperor as a ruler who neglected his duties and did not focus on governing is inaccurate and biased. This view was perpetuated by Confucian historians and scholars who criticized the fact that the emperor listened to—in their view—the wrong advisors instead of the right ones.[300]

The Wanli Emperor is often portrayed in traditional Chinese historiography as one of the main causes of the decline and fall of the Ming dynasty. Classical Chinese historians focused on his greed, misuse of eunuch power, factionalism within the government, seclusion in the Forbidden City, indulgence in alcohol and sex, extravagant tomb construction, and political blunders.[301] The History of Ming (the official Ming history completed in 1739) and subsequent works depict him as a lazy, selfish, and reckless ruler who only cared about his harem and neglected state affairs.[302] The animosity of Confucian scholars towards the Wanli Emperor stemmed from different visions of the state and the emperor's protection of military officers against complaints from civilian officials who controlled the administration at the time.[302] Even modern Chinese works on the Wanli Emperor continue to adhere to this traditional perspective.[303] Furthermore, Western historiography tends to adopt the viewpoint of Chinese Confucians[302][303] and perpetuates it. For instance, Charles Hucker in his Dictionary of Ming Biography (1976) echoes Ray Huang's portrayal of the Wanli Emperor in his books 1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (1981), as well as in his chapter on the Wanli Emperor in the Cambridge History of China, Volume 7 (1988).[301] It is primarily Ray Huang who is responsible for the Western perception of the Wanli Emperor as an isolated and frustrated emperor, "trapped" by his own bureaucracy.[47]

The downfall of the Ming political system can be attributed to its reliance on ideological and moral principles. Zhang Juzheng, in his pursuit of effective rule through personal relationships, faced criticism from his opponents who focused on his personal life, deeming it immoral and illegitimate. This led to a lack of focus on the practical outcomes of his policies. After Zhang Juzheng's death, the government became divided into factions, with officials in the Censorate and ministries engaging in feuds and purging Zhang's supporters. As a result, important reforms were neglected, and the emperor's indecisiveness only worsened the situation. The emperor was not interested in ruling according to the ideas of his officials,[304] preferring to act according to his own will and disliking being pressured.[49] However, he lacked the qualities of an effective despot. His mishandling of the succession question also eliminated the Grand Secretariat as a potential center for government restructuring—as attempted by Gao Gong and Zhang Juzheng—as its Grand Secretaries were suspected by the government of supporting the emperor, depriving them of the ability to mediate between the ruler and the government.[304]

The Wanli Emperor, like Zhang Juzheng, attempted to increase the military strength of the empire, control the civilian bureaucracy, reduce factionalism, and rely more on military officers rather than civil officials. During the first three decades of his reign, he devoted himself greatly to military affairs and did not hesitate to allocate funds for the army, including the 1619 expedition. Despite the defeat in 1619, he made efforts to protect the officers, such as Li Rubai, who were targeted by the government.[303] During the Wanli era, the Ming armies maintained control over the border with the Mongols, intervened in border disputes in Burma, conducted raids in Mongolia and Manchuria, suppressed a major rebellion in Ningxia, participated in the war in Korea, and deployed 200,000 soldiers to suppress a rebellion in Sichuan and quell minor rebellions. However, after the Battle of Sarhu, the Ming government became embroiled in factional conflicts and began to blame others for their failures. Later Chinese Confucian scholars emphasized the defeats at Sarhu and downplayed the previous victories achieved by eunuchs, soldiers, and the emperor.[305]



Portraits of Emperor Wanli and Empress Xiaoduanxian

The Wanli Emperor had 18 children by eight women, including eight sons, five of whom lived to adulthood, and two daughters who survived. The most important women in his life were his mother, Empress Dowager Li, and his favorite concubine, Lady Zheng. Behind them were Empress Wang and Lady Wang, the mother his eldest son.[8]

After the death of the Longqing Emperor and the accession of the young Wanli Emperor to the throne in 1572, Wanli's mother was given the title of Empress dowager. In accordance with tradition, she headed the government during her son's minority, although the decisions remained in the hands of Senior Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng. She formed a ruling alliance with the head eunuch Feng Bao and retained her influence even after Zhang Juzheng's death. She also formed alliances with the great secretaries Shen Shixing, Xu Guo (許國), and Wang Xijue.[30] She was a devout Buddhist and made large donations to Buddhist monks and monasteries.[30][46] She supported the succession of the Wanli Emperor's eldest son, the later Taichang Emperor, against the younger Zhu Changxun, the son of Wanli's favorite Lady Zheng. When the emperor objected that his eldest son was the son of a mere palace servant, she replied that he, the Wanli Emperor, was also the son of a mere servant.[46]

In 1577, Empress Dowager Chen (the Longqing Emperor's widow) and Empress Dowager Li (the Wanli Emperor's mother) organized the selection of a wife for the young emperor. They chose the twelve-year-old Wang Xijie, who was married to the Wanli Emperor in early 1578 and became the empress. However, she only had one daughter and no sons.[48] Unfortunately, Wanli did not have a good relationship with his empress and instead devoted himself to Lady Zheng. The empress, on the other hand, maintained a dignified public image and showed respect to Empress Dowager Li. She also supported Wanli's eldest son, who would later become the Taichang Emperor, over Lady Zheng's son. However, she was known for her strictness and cruelty within the imperial palace, causing fear among those who served her.[48] The empress died in April 1620, just a few months before the Wanli Emperor's own death.

Lady Wang served as a servant in the palace of Empress Dowager Li. In late 1581, during one of his visits to his mother, the emperor took notice of a young maid who soon became pregnant with his child.[307] Although the Wanli Emperor initially wanted nothing to do with the child, his mother convinced him to acknowledge paternity by providing records of his visits.[307] In August 1582, Lady Wang gave birth to a son, Zhu Changluo, who was the emperor's first child.[308] Two years later, the Wanli Emperor's concubine, Lady Zheng, gave birth to a daughter, Zhu Xuanshu, and quickly gained the emperor's favor and trust, causing his interest in Lady Wang to diminish.[307] She lived in seclusion in the Forbidden City and was neglected by the emperor. It wasn't until 1606, after the birth of Zhu Changluo's first son (the later Tianqi Emperor), that Lady Wang was granted the title of "Imperial Noble Consort" (Huang Guifei),[307][308] which was appropriate for the mother of an heir.[309] She died in 1611.[307]

Lady Zheng was chosen to join the emperor's harem in 1581,[308] and soon after her arrival, she captured his attention and love.[308] In 1586, after giving birth to Zhu Changxun, she was promoted to the position of "Imperial Noble Consort", which was just one step below that of empress.[307] She went on to have a total of six children.[308] However, her and the emperor's desire to name Zhu Changsun as the successor instead of their eldest son, Zhu Changluo, caused a political crisis. Despite the emperor's efforts, he was unable to overcome the strong opposition from his ministers and officials, and the decision was postponed for almost two decades. It wasn't until 1601 that Zhu Changluo was finally appointed as crown prince.[49][307] In 1615, Lady Zheng was suspected of being involved in the "man with a stick" incident, but these were only rumors and nothing was ever proven.[307] Unfortunately, Zhu Changluo fell ill shortly after taking the throne and died after just one month of reign. Once again, Lady Zheng was the subject of rumors that she was responsible for his death, but there was no concrete evidence to support these accusations. She died in 1630.[307]

Consorts and Issue:

  • Empress Xiaoduanxian, of the Wang clan (孝端顯皇后 王氏; 7 November 1564 – 7 May 1620), personal name Xijie (喜姐)
    Titles: Empress (皇后)
    • Princess Rongchang (榮昌公主; 1582–1647), personal name Xuanying (軒媖), first daughter
      • Married Yang Chunyuan (楊春元; 1582–1616) in 1597, and had issue (five sons)
  • Empress Dowager Xiaojing, of the Wang clan (孝靖皇太后 王氏; 27 February 1565 – 18 October 1611)
    Titles: Consort Gong (恭妃) → Noble Consort Gong (恭貴妃) → Imperial Noble Consort Cisheng (慈生皇貴妃)
    • Zhu Changluo, the Taichang Emperor (光宗 朱常洛; 28 August 1582 – 26 September 1620), first son
    • Princess Yunmeng (雲夢公主; 1584–1587), personal name Xuanyuan (軒嫄), fourth daughter
  • Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning, of the Zheng clan (孝寧太皇太后 鄭氏; 1565–1630)
    Titles: Imperial Concubine Shu (淑嬪) → Consort De (德妃) → Noble Consort (貴妃)
    • Princess Yunhe (雲和公主; 1584–1590), personal name Xuanshu (軒姝), second daughter
    • Zhu Changxu, Prince Ai of Bin (邠哀王 朱常溆; 19 January 1585), second son
    • Zhu Changxun, Prince Zhong of Fu (福忠王 朱常洵; 22 February 1586 – 2 March 1641), third son
    • Zhu Changzhi, Prince Hai of Yuan (沅懷王 朱常治; 10 October 1587 – 5 September 1588), fourth son
    • Princess Lingqiu (靈丘公主; 1588–1589), personal name Xuanyao (軒姚), sixth daughter
    • Princess Shouning (壽寧公主; 1592–1634), personal name Xuanwei (軒媁), seventh daughter
      • Married Ran Xingrang (冉興讓; d. 1644) in 1609, and had issue (one son)
  • Grand Empress Dowager Xiaojing, of the Li clan (孝敬太皇太后 李氏; d. 1597)
    Titles: Consort ()
    • Zhu Changrun, Prince of Hui (惠王 朱常潤; 7 December 1594 – 29 June 1646), sixth son
    • Zhu Changying, Prince Duan of Gui (桂端王 朱常瀛; 25 April 1597 – 21 December 1645), seventh son
  • Consort Xuanyizhao, of the Li clan (宣懿昭妃; 1557–1642)
  • Consort Ronghuiyi, of the Yang clan (榮惠宜妃 楊氏; d. 1581)
  • Consort Wenjingshun, of the Chang clan (溫靜順妃 常氏; 1568–1594)
  • Consort Duanjingrong, of the Wang clan (端靖榮妃 王氏; d. 1591)
    • Princess Jingle (靜樂公主; 8 July 1584 – 12 November 1585), personal name Xuangui (軒媯), third daughter
  • Consort Zhuangjingde, of the Xu clan (莊靖德妃 許氏; d. 1602)
  • Consort Duan, of the Zhou clan (端妃 周氏)
    • Zhu Changhao, Prince of Rui (瑞王 朱常浩; 27 September 1591 – 24 July 1644), fifth son
  • Consort Qinghuishun, of the Li clan (清惠順妃 李氏; d. 1623)
    • Zhu Changpu, Prince Si of Yong (永思王 朱常溥; 1604–1606), eighth son
    • Princess Tiantai (天台公主; 1605–1606), personal name Xuanmei (軒媺), tenth daughter
  • Consort Xi, of the Wang clan (僖妃 王氏; d. 1589)
  • Concubine De, of the Li clan (德嬪 李氏; 1567–1628)
    • Princess Xianju (仙居公主; 1584–1585), personal name Xuanji (軒姞), fifth daughter
    • Princess Taishun (泰順公主; d. 1593), personal name Xuanji (軒姬), eighth daughter
    • Princess Xiangshan (香山公主; 1598–1599), personal name Xuandeng (軒嬁), ninth daughter
  • Concubine Shen, of the Wei clan (慎嬪 魏氏; 1567–1606)
  • Concubine Jing, of the Shao clan (敬嬪 邵氏; d. 1606)
  • Concubine Shun, of the Zhang clan (順嬪 張氏; d. 1589)
  • Concubine He, of the Liang clan (和嬪 梁氏; 1562–1643)
  • Concubine Dao, of the Geng clan (悼嬪 耿氏; 1568–1589)
  • Shiyu, of the Hu clan (侍御 胡氏)
  • Noble Lady, of the Guo clan (貴人 郭氏)


Zhu Youyuan (1476–1519)
Jiajing Emperor (1507–1567)
Empress Cixiaoxian (d. 1538)
Longqing Emperor (1537–1572)
Du Lin
Empress Xiaoke (d. 1554)
Wanli Emperor (1563–1620)
Li Yu
Li Wei (1527–1583)
Empress Dowager Xiaoding (1545–1614)
Lady Wang


The Dingling Mausoleum (明定陵) where the Wanli Emperor, together with his two empresses Wang Xijie and Dowager Xiaojing, was buried.

The Wanli Emprror was buried in the Ming tombs at the base of the Tianshou Mountain, located outside of Beijing. This site is the final resting place for thirteen of the sixteen emperors who reigned from 1368 to 1644. The Wanli Emperor's burial complex, known as Dingling Mausoleum, was constructed between 1584 and 1590. It consists of three walled courtyards, each containing smaller buildings. The second and third courtyards are separated by a three-tiered terrace, which leads to a vast sacrificial hall measuring 30x67 meters. At the back of the third courtyard stands a mound surrounded by a three-meter-high rampart. In 1956–1957, Chinese archaeologists excavated the mound and discovered an underground structure. This structure includes an entrance hall, an outer hall, a middle hall, and a proper burial chamber. The middle hall is accessible through entrances on the left and right side chambers, as well as the back of the chamber. The burial chamber, which is 9.1x30 meters and 9.5 meters high, is larger than the other rooms. The entrance is located in the middle of the longer side. Inside the burial chamber, archaeologists found wooden coffins containing the remains of the emperor, empress, and the Taichang Emperor's mother. Over three thousand objects were also discovered, including jewelry, gold and silver items, jade and porcelain objects, clothing, and the crowns of the emperor and empress.[310][311]

Archaeological survey conducted in the 1950s has been considered unprofessionally carried out in China since the 1990s.[xxviii] Due to a lack of necessary knowledge, it was not possible to preserve and protect wooden and textile artifacts. The report of the survey was compiled in 1986 based on the preserved notes of the participants in the excavations. Additionally, many of the discovered objects, including the remains of the emperor and his wives, were destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.[312][313]

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.
  2. ^ He learned to read at the age of four.[5]
  3. ^ a b Eunuchs served the Ming emperors not only as guards and servants in the harem but also managed the operations of the entire Forbidden City palace complex. Outside of Beijing, they oversaw the imperial estates, supervised the use of firearms in the army, collected certain taxes and fees, and supervised state workshops. There was no shortage of eunuchs, but rather an excess: although voluntary castration was prohibited, the harsh living conditions of peasants led them to break the law and undergo castration in hopes of a better life in imperial service. In the early 16th century, eunuchs flocked to Beijing to seek employment from the emperor. In 1572, the Wanli Emperor accepted 3250 eunuchs into service; in 1578, 3570; in 1588, over 2000; and in 1601, 4500 (two-thirds for himself and the rest divided among princes of the imperial family). By 1620, over 20,000 castrated men had gathered in Beijing seeking employment; when rejected, they responded by inciting street riots.[9]
  4. ^ In 1958, Chinese archaeologists opened and explored the Wanli Emperor burial complex. Upon analyzing the bones, it was discovered that they contained a significant amount of morphine, indicating frequent consumption of opium.[10]
  5. ^ "Enrich the country and strengthen the army", or in Chinese, Fuguo qiang bing (富國強兵), is a phrase from the Zhan Guo Ce that summarizes the (legalist) policy of Shang Yang.
  6. ^ After Feng Bao, in the late 1580s, Zhang Cheng (張誠) rose to a prominent position among the imperial eunuchs. He first led the Directorate of Ceremonial and then, from 1590, the Eastern Depot (secret service). However, in 1596, he fell from power and was transferred to the Hongwu Emperor's tomb in Nanjing. The emperor also confiscated his property and that of his relatives. Following this, Chen Ju (陳矩; 1539–1607), one of the most capable and respected Ming eunuchs, took over the eunuch offices. He was known for his caution, carefulness, and strong sense of duty.[28]
  7. ^ Xuyan, 虛言.
  8. ^ In an attempt to avoid this fate, Li Tingji declined the appointment of Senior Grand Secretary, citing illness. He retreated to a desolate temple and persisted in his refusal to hold office for three years and nine months before the emperor finally signed his retirement in 1613.[35]
  9. ^ The 180 km long Jia Canal was a major construction project, running parallel to the Grand Canal further east near Xuzhou. Its construction began in 1593 and faced numerous challenges, such as unexpectedly high demand for stone and a shortage of funds.[43] As a result, it wasn't until 1603 that work really picked up and the canal was finally opened in 1609.[39]
  10. ^ The emperors did not write their official correspondence with ink, as was customary, but with red vermilion paste.
  11. ^ This was the first meeting between the emperor and the officials of the "outer court" since 1602.[54] At that time, the Wanli Emperor fell seriously ill, and in anticipation of his death, he summoned the Grand Secretaries and ministers. He ordered the drafting of an edict to abolish the mining tax, cancel the contracts for state textile factories in Suzhou and Hangzhou, and porcelain factories in Jiangxi, as well as the dismissal of eunuchs overseeing them and the release of officials imprisoned for criticizing the emperor. However, the following day, the emperor's condition improved, and he withdrew the edict that had already been drafted. This sparked a wave of criticism from many officials towards Senior Grand Secretary, Shen Yiguan, for not officially announcing the edict regardless of the emperor's change of heart.[55]
  12. ^ One example of political issues that the supporters of the Donglin movement focused on was the case of Zhu Huakui, Prince of Chu. His father, Zhu Yingxian, Prince Gong of Chu, died in 1571, and Zhu Huakui, who was born in the same year, was confirmed as the Prince of Chu by the emperor in 1580. In 1603, thirty members of the imperial family petitioned the emperor, declaring Zhu Huakui illegitimate and claiming that his alleged father was impotent. They requested that the emperor strip him of his title. The Donglin supporters successfully pushed for an official investigation involving dozens of officials. The emperor eventually closed the investigation, declaring the prince legitimate and the case closed. However, the case continued as officials from both sides accused each other of bribery and dishonesty. The emperor distanced himself from their disputes and did not respond to the accusations.[82]
  13. ^ As a result of the conflict of 1594, Zhao Nanxing (趙南星) and later Gu Xiancheng were expelled from their official positions. Gao Panlong was transferred to the far south.[87]
  14. ^ Over the last seven years of the Ming period, there has been a devastating drought.[93]
  15. ^ Before the Wanli era, paintings of snowy landscapes were common in the first quarter of the 16th century, and then again in the years 1636–1643.[94]
  16. ^ André Gunder Frank estimated that out of the 137,000 tons of silver mined between 1550–1800, 60,000 ended up in China.[109]
  17. ^ Three of the most prominent advocates of the Single whip reform were Hai Rui (1513–1587), Pang Shangpeng (龐尚鵬; 1524–1581), and Wang Zongmu (王宗沐; 1523–1591).[111]
  18. ^ State production of coins caused a 70% increase in the price of copper during the years 1577–1581, which in turn raised the cost of casting coins from 0.9–0.98 liang of silver per 1000 coins (officially valued at 1 liang) to 1.35 liang.[141]
  19. ^ In the pursuit of profits, officials are associated with private coin manufacturers.[135]
  20. ^ The government, however, did not primarily put the coins into circulation, but instead kept it as reserves in the treasury of the Ministry of Revennue and the emperor.[140]
  21. ^ During the Ming dynasty, from 1368 to 1644, the honor of having one's name displayed on a tablet in the Temple of Confucius was only bestowed upon four Confucian scholars—in 1571 to Xue Xuan (薛瑄) and in 1584 to the mentioned trio.[152]
  22. ^ Over the course of three centuries, a total of 22,404 men were awarded the title of jinshi during the Ming dynasty. Out of these, 14,756 were registered as farmers (specifically landowners), 5,372 came from soldier families, 808 from bureaucratic families, 801 from artisan families, and only one was mentioned as being from a merchant family. The origins of the remaining 657 jinshi are unknown.[197]
  23. ^ Collections of essays by leading scholars (such as Wang Ao) have been published since the end of the 15th century.[200]
  24. ^ At that time, only 2–3% of candidates were able to pass the provincial exams.[203]
  25. ^ Ray Huang in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 7, states that there were approximately 40,000–50,000 rebels and 200,000 soldiers on the Ming side.[256]
  26. ^ The royal title was only confirmed for the rulers of the Lê dynasty in 1646 by the Southern Ming emperor Zhu Youlang. However, by this time, the Ming had already lost most of China to the Qing dynasty.[273] After establishing diplomatic relations, the Qing also confirmed the royal status of Vietnamese rulers.[274]
  27. ^ The land tax was increased three times between 1618 and 1620 in order to gather funds for the provision of equipment for the troops stationed in Liaodong.[286]
  28. ^ Yang Ren and Yue Nan criticized the excavations from the 1950s in their publication Fengxue Dingling (风雪定陵), Beijing: Liberation Army Art Press, 1991.[312]




  1. ^ a b Frederick W. Mote (2003). Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press. pp. 727–. ISBN 978-0-674-01212-7.
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Further reading

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

Succeeded by