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Yongle: Mighty Ming
Source: Author: Date: 09.07.22
Reputed by many to be the most important of all Ming emperors, Zhu Di (1360-1424) ranks high in the greatest Chinese emperors of all time. He was the third to rule the Ming dynasty, assuming the role of emperor after a civil war and taking the name Yongle. And with one of his first official actions being to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, Yongle was also the driving force behind the Ming Tombs. It is there that he is entombed for eternity.
Zhu Di was the fourth son of the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang. Although he always claimed his mother was Zhu Yuanzhang's first wife, it was likely he was born from a secondary queen consort or possibly even from Korean or Mongolian origin. Regardless of his blood ancestry, Zhu Di was provided with the best education possible from his father and made Prince of Yan - the area outside of Beijing. When he moved to Beijing, Zhu Di found it had not only been destroyed by famine and disease, but was also in serious danger of falling to the Mongols. He immediately set about securing the northern borders with help from his father-in-law, General Xu Da, impressing his father Hongwu. But tradition took precedence, and imperial power was passed to the oldest son; Zhu Di had to wait until 1392 when his older brother died of illness.
The Struggle for Power
Hongwu died in 1398 and power transferred to Zhu Yunwen, son of Zhu Biao, the Crown Prince; Zhu Di was quick to respond. The following years witnessed a battle during which emperor Jianwen (Zhu Yunwen) repeatedly stopped Zhu Di from visiting his father's grave. Humiliation turned to anger and Zhu Di gathered an awesome rebellion under the slogan of 'selfdefense,' even using Mongolian soldiers in his army. Zhu Di was a skilled military tactician and went from strength to strength, culminating in a takeover of Nanjing, the capital at the time, and the mysterious disappearance of Jianwen and wife.
1402 was spent purging the country of Jianwen's supporters but it wasn't enough. Zhu Di next altered every single historical record of Jianwen's rule and gave himself a legitimate right to the throne. And so, on the 17th of July, following a quick visit to his father's tomb, Zhu Di was crowned Emperor Yongle at age 42. His new title meant "Perpetual Happiness," but some were not convinced of its authenticity.
Yongle the Emperor
Yongle believed heavily in traditional rituals and superstitions, and was particularly focused on Buddhism and Buddhist festivals as ways to calm social unrest. Essentially he controlled his empire by hiring without force some of the greatest minds in China. He was also concerned with Buddhism in China and after meeting with Tibettan Buddhism leader Deshin Shekpa, Yongle was taught that different religions suited different people.
In terms of the country as a whole, life after the rebellion was very hard. Yongle challenged the decline in population by forcibly reclaiming land and building the textile and agricultural industries. He also rebuilt the Grand Canal of China to provide Beijing with a steady supply of goods, and then moved the capital there.
The new emperor immediately started building the Ming Tombs and his own future resting place, Changling. At the same time he was also working on his new home, the Forbidden City, which would serve as the government building for a political capital which ruled for 500 years.
Alan Sweeten, Adjunct Professor of History at California State University, remarks that this was a particularly important strategic move, saying: "The Yongle emperor greatly influenced China by moving the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, a shift that oriented the Ming towards Inner Asian affairs due to geographic proximity and contact."
Yongle promoted Chinese culture, particularly Confucianism, and requested a compilation of every possible subject and literature written in Chinese. Entitled the "Yongle Encyclopedia," it became one of the most significant human achievements in history. With culture came philosophy, and with his openness to Chinese ideologies, Yongle treated Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism all equally.
Land and Sea
But he was also a military tactician who spent much of his reign fighting against the Mongols. He wanted to control and suppress, forcing them into becoming a Chinese tributary; victories were both won and lost. The same was true of Vietnam when Yongle conquered the country in 1406 with an army of 500,000, integrating it as a province of China, until furious local Vietnamese started a rebellion that lasted his entire lifetime and was victorious.
Despite those problems, one of Yongle's most significant achievements was in his exploration of the world. With a growing empire in mind, he sponsored at least seven sea voyages into the Indian Ocean with eunuch Zheng He at the helm, reputedly journeying as far as Madagascar. Although it was later stopped by his successors, the Zheng He expeditions were both remarkable technical and logistical achievements. ?Sweeten says: 'The expeditions did stimulate contact with other states, boost the Chinese economy, and lead to increased 'private'trade with and immigration to SE Asia.' They would have been even more legendary had it not been for the dramatic overspending Yongle made in his military quests, swallowing funds intended for Zheng He from the imperial treasury.
Death
Yongle died on August 12, 1424, after a depression turned into a series of strokes. He was entombed in Changling, a location northwest of Beijing, leaving behind a crooked legend. He had been fanatical about increasing China's size and influence, but too liberal in dispersing power and money on fruitless military campaigns. Sadly Yongle's vision stretched far beyond his ability, his flamboyant system of rule eventually draining the country of both its resources and power. But putting his obvious failures aside, however, there's little doubt that Yongle did reunite China and set it on a path of empowerment and security that marked a golden age of Chinese history. Sweeten summarizes this by concluding that: "The Ming period was a time when (Han) Chinese controlled their own affairs and destiny. In its day, the Ming Empire was the largest unified state in the world and, perhaps,"