Jinyiwei: Ming Elite Guards 錦衣衛 2. The Usurper's Patronage

It was chaos that sustained order. A raw, perverse truth that only those with initiative~ and thus always steps ahead of the common herd could perceive. Chaos- when unleashed by a mastermind could be utilized to mold his own form of order. It was chaos that renewed the order of imperial assassins called the Jinyiwei.

The second (and perhaps greatest) period of Jinyiwei prominence rose in national calamity. Last we have heard, after having been collectively demoted by the megalomaniacal Hongwu emperor, the order languished for a decade in the coming years, no more than one of the many intelligence branches of the empire. The illustrious associations of being founded by the progenitor of the dynasty, of being feared unilaterally by the highest ranks of the court, of being respected~ after all, weren't they instrumental in breaking apart the cabal of traitors in the 洪武四大案 Four Hongwu Cases? Weren't they the ones who showed no mercy to any disloyal general and corrupt officials? Weren't they the ones who had no allegiance to any petty master but the king and nation?

To comprehend their frustration and bewilderment~ it was as if Hitler had suddenly became horrified by the methods of the Gestapo and summarily stopped all their extra- legal activities, or Stalin at the height of his paranoia in the 1930s discarded the NKVD. Suddenly, they had became disgraced and useless, dogs without masters. You can barely imagine it, needless to say, they cannot either.

And then, to the entire empire's surprise their emperor picked a stranger to become his successor~ a little know grandson both untried and weak. Chaos, which the Jinyiwei have always loved like a punctual foe, returned on the empire's horizon.

The Old Soldier's Will

Gold thread crown of the Ming emperors: from Wanli emperor's imperial tomb
(Remember, Hongwu~ or "martial tide," or "a deluge of force" is his imperial title, 
similar to Augustus Caesar, his real name is Zhu YuanZhang of the Zhu clan.) 

Originally, the Hongwu 洪武 emperor's first son, crown prince Zhu Biao had been personally groomed to become the next emperor, but his early death in 1392 created sudden cracks in the dynastic system.

Music: Spiritual (Instrumental) 

Zhu Biao's selection as crown prince would shed some light on the inner nature of the harsh Hongwu Emperor~ for they were two very different men marked by clear contrasts. The Hongwu Emperor had been a soldier his entire life, his throne was his saddle, while Zhu Biao was a contemplative scholar raised by whole academies of mentors.

When the young Hongwu emperor was merely one of the many rebel soldiers fighting to topple China's Mongol overlords, Zhu Biao was hidden away from the frontlines to be raised by the most esteemed of Chinese sages. While the Hongwu emperor conquered far and wide, Zhu Biao was introduced to the court's powerful statesmen and instructed with bureaucracy and acumen. While the Hongwu Emperor had been paranoid and proactively went after even his former generals, Zhu Biao publicly issued strong criticisms of his father for such perceived betrayals~ criticisms which the Hongwu emperor both tolerated and acknowledged.

When compared with his father or his younger brothers, Zhu Biao is remembered as being soft-hearted. The official History of Ming records him once questioning his father why so many of the ministers and generals who had aided him in forming the Ming Empire were being rewarded with death or banishment. His father replied that they were like thorns on a vine; not trusting Zhu Biao to do it himself, the Hongwu Emperor was kindly removing them before passing it on to his son. This is not entirely strange to the sphere of east Asian politics~ future emperors, even Manchu emperors such as the Yongzheng emperor would spend entire lifetimes fending off enemies from within his own court and family just so his son would ascend unchallenged.

If you are familiar with family companies~ familiar in proximity to corporations and CEOs, you may have guessed the reasons behind such actions. The singular threat that his son faced would be the power blocks created by those "grown ups," when the Hongwu emperor passed, they would still have the loyalty of the veterans in the army,  they would have bought enough of the ministers in court to swing matters in their direction, (the Bush dynasty and Dick Cheney comes to mind) they would~ if they chose, be the greatest threat in establishing a replacement dynasty, just like when Sima Yi's scions replaced Cao Cao's descendants in Jin dynasty. What would his son do then?~

I've said above: in choosing the moral but soft-hearted Zhu Biao, there lies a glimpse of the Hongwu emperor's personality. That despite his forceful tyranny, his megalomania and his establishment of the zealous Jinyiwei~ in picking Zhu Biao as crown prince, it showed that the founding emperor was far-sighted, that he was doing all he can to "snip the dangling threads," to crush the various dangers that would threaten his children. When his sons and grandsons come to the throne, they would rule in safety, and rule~ like proper emperors a dynasty needs. I have stated in my previous article that the Hongwu emperor, an orphaned peasant who grew up starving- had always been suspicious of the officials~ who would, without supervision and + daily scrutiny, inevitably descend to corruption. The generals, who with time without restraint and fear inevitably become disloyal.

Wouldn't it be better in his mind to properly clean house and retool the court's power structure before the inevitable transition of power?

The Forbidden City in snow: an anachronism as at this time the Ming court was in Nanjing. In fact, 
it was the third Ming emperor who moved it to Beijing and erected the Forbidden City

But the dream of the benevolent scholar- emperor did not came. During one his many surveys across the empire, the young crown prince died in 1392 at the age of 36. The Hongwu emperor was devastated, the house of cards he had been building his entire life was crumbling before his eyes. He initially considered choosing a successor from among his other sons, who wielded considerable influence in their respective princedoms throughout the Ming Empire-

But~ again demonstrating the intention for restrained and scholarly rulership. The Hongwu emperor invested in the scholarly heirs of his dynasty, after several months of careful deliberation and discussion with his subjects, he decided to uphold the strict rules of primogeniture, instead of passing the throne laterally to his younger son, the ambitious and unrestrained prince Zhu di (remember him,) the crown would pass to Zhu Biao's son, the 14 year old teenager Zhu YunWen, who had also exhibited lifelong literary tendencies and a sober temperament. For the Jinyiwei, it was like the scent of blood in the water.

The Feud of Kings

When the Hongwu emperor passed in 1398, the young Zhu YunWen ascended to the throne with the illustrious (and revealing) imperial title of "Jiawen"~ or "establishing civility." Like his father, the Jiawen emperor immediately set out to demonstrate his restraint and benevolence. One of his first acts was to release many of the prisoners his grandfather had imprisoned. He then rehabilitated and set free the victims (and their families) of the Hongwu Emperor's purges, particularly those who had contributed to the founding the Ming dynasty.

But specters plagued the young emperor. For his uncles have not been quiet, daily he heard rumors that they have been gathering support from powerful agents and commanders, daily, his uncles grumbled about his shaky throne. It was clear to all concerned that soon there would be a confrontation.

Though his uncles were not feudal rulers per se~  as they did not have the administrative power over their territory, but they were entitled to a personal army that ranges from 3,000 to 19,000 men. Royal members that were stationed in the northern frontier were entitled to even larger forces. For instance, the Prince of Ning was said to have an army of over 80,000 men of various ethnic backgrounds including Han Chinese, Mongol braves sworn to him~ and many other steppe auxiliaries. They were created out of necessity by the Hongwu emperor when he persecuted the generals and ministers who had founded the dynasty together with him~ ensuring that power presided solely within the family, preserving the dynasty in the process.

But when the founder of the dynasty died and was succeeded by their inferior in the familiar line, they went from being trusted clan generals to be militarized claimants for the throne~ each with a personal army of their own. By now, they are called the Marcher Lords, with enough army to fund a private kingdom if they so wished, and if they should all band together~ it was too much to imagine. To survive, the Jiawen emperor must break apart all of their holdings. Upon the advice of the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats in his government, the Jiawen Emperor continued his grandfather's policy of restraining the court eunuchs and began taking back territory and power from his uncles. Within the year 1399, he demoted or arrested several of his uncles and even caused one of them to commit suicide.

The 4th son of the Hongwu emperor, Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan

Music: Blade of Gu Qin

Out of all of Jiawen's uncles, the most dangerous was Zhu Di (the tall and swarthy Prince of Yan and the ambitious fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor.) Volatile, aggressive, and a life long strategist and soldier, Zhu Di was both a sharp tactician who can think and change on his feet and was gifted with the ability to make deals, consolidate, and juggle many factors that in the span of months would snowball his gains until they become unstoppable. When all of these factors combined with his innate ability to make friends out of all caste of people, whether they be disgraced politicians, eunuchs, or the barbarians beyond the steppes, the Jiawen Emperor was in serious trouble.

1398 Just years ago, the Prince of Yan had attempted to publicly mourn his father in Nanjing in direct violation of the dynastic instructions, bringing a large armed guard with him (this was seen by many even then as his attempt to legitimize himself as a filial son and challenge/ discredit the sitting emperor.) The imperial army was able to block him at Huai'an and, given that three of his sons were serving as hostages in the capital, the prince withdrew in disgrace.

Soon, in response to the Jianwen Emperor's crackdown on the influence of imperial princes, Zhu Di swiftly captured and coöpted the princedom of his 17th brother, Zhu Quan (the Prince of Ning), thereby putting himself in control of the bulk of the Ming army in northern China. Though Zhu Di had started the game of thrones with one of the smaller armies, this move instantly increased his odds.

He also won the support of several Mongol tribes when he burnt down Daning, the capital of Zhu Quan's princedom, and evacuated Ming forces from the princedom. Later, Zhu Di feigned illness and madness to convince the Jianwen Emperor to release three of his sons, who were being kept as hostages in Nanjing to prevent Zhu Di from rebelling against the emperor. However, the Jianwen Emperor became wary of Zhu Di and tried to arrest him later but failed. Zhu Di then launched the Jingnan Campaign against the Jianwen Emperor.

Within monthes, despite being outnumbered 3 to 1, Zhu Di was able to repel a direct assault against his Beijing, bribe the next imperial assault with a minor coup in the enemy camp, before personally led a flank assault against the imperial column that completely shattered it. He would take in all who surrendered to be his soldiers. Using landmines, cannons, steppe auxiliaries and diplomacy, the superior imperial army repeatedly disintegrated before his advance. In 1399 alone, on more than two occasions, whole Imperial armies of over 100,000 men were either destroyed or wholly surrendered to the Yan forces.

During all of these battles, Zhu Di maintained an extraordinarily high initiative~ his philosophy was that the army that gets to the location earliest could choose the terrain, could choose the deployment and thus force the foe to realign their plans and loose cohesion in the process. Though this strategy worked most of the time, it did leads to occasions of catastrophe, in the Battle of Dongchang, the Prince of Yan suffered his first defeat when he preemptively attacked the imperial positions at Cangzhou, despite taking the city and scattering his enemy repeatedly on two battles, the imperial army lured Zhu into an encirclement. Surrounded suddenly by ranks of gunpowder troops and crossbowmen, a hail of fire pored down on the exhausted Yan troops. In the ensuing battle, one of Zhu Di's key generals and personal friend Zhang Yu was killed while trying to break Zhu Di out of the encirclement.

The Battle of Dongchang was the largest defeat suffered by Zhu Di since the onset of the campaign, and he was particularly saddened by the death of Zhang Yu. During the battle, Zhu Di was almost killed on numerous occasions. However, the government forces were instructed by Jianwen Emperor to refrain from killing Zhu Di, in which the Prince of Yan took advantage of.

The news of victory following the Battle of Dongchang was well received by Jianwen Emperor. In January 1401, Qi Tai and Huang Zicheng were restored of their posts, and the emperor went on to worship the imperial ancestral temple in Nanjing.

But Zhu Di would return, harder and stronger.

The defeat at Dongchang was a humiliating loss for Zhu Di, but characteristic to himself, he would immediately rebound and get back on his feet. The Yan forces mobilised again on 16 February 1401 and marched southwards~ This time with a much smaller force against a large imperial cohort of 200,00 troops. Zhu Di advanced with the cover of the rough weather, and once the enemy positions have been deeply scouted, Zhu Di assaulted the entrenched position. In the long ensuing fight, a strong wind blew all over the battlefield, forcing the disorganized imperial troops to retreat until they are broken by Zhu's forces. Now, initiative was once again in Zhu Di's hands.

The Jingnan Campaign has been ongoing for more than two years up until this point. Despite of numerous victories, the Yan forces were unable to hold on to territories due to a severe shortage of manpower. But in typical Zhu Di- fashion, he pounced forward in a plunging attack. By the winter of 1401, Zhu Di decided to alter the general offensive strategy:

The Yan forces were to skip the strongholds of the government forces, and advance straight south toward the Ming capital along the Yangtze River~ to prevent his entrenched foes in the various cities from combining behind his warpath, he sent out tendrils of skirmishing detachments to constantly disrupt them.

The march was long and on several occasions Zhu Di nearly lost his host to stubborn defenses, but steadily he pressed on, city by city, until at last, the three cities surrounding Nanjing were all taken, rendering the capital wide open to the invading forces. Nanjing was effectively isolated by 12 June. All messengers dispatched to other provinces were intercepted by the Yan forces, and no reinforcement was in sight for the imperial capital. On 13 July 1402, the Yan forces arrived in Nanjing. The city defenders decided to open up the city gate and surrender without resistance.

As the Yan forces marched into Nanjing, Jianwen Emperor set the imperial palace on fire in despair. The body of Jianwen Emperor was never found. From there, he disappeared from the world's history. It was alleged that the Emperor may have escaped through the tunnels and went into hiding.

Zhu Di decided to go on and hold an imperial funeral for the emperor to imply his death to the general public. On 17 June, Zhu Di was crowned at the imperial palace and became the Yongle Emperor, meaing "Perpetual Happiness." He would move the imperial capital from Nanjing to his domain in Beiping~ which he would later name Beijing, or "the Northern Capital" and there he would build a new palace of his own called the "Forbidden City." All of the Jianwen policies were reversed to the original policies set during the reign of Hongwu Emperor. With that~ the Jinyiwei was reborn into prominence.

Where as prince Zhu Biao and Zhu Yunmen (JiaWen Emperor) inherited the academic fascination exhibited by the Hongwu emperor. Zhu Di was the reincarnation of the Hongwu emperor's most brutal aspects, he was the warrior, he was the horror until things gets done~ and almost fatally, he was exactly the kind of man that would wear his father's mantle.


With unrestrained vigor, the Jinyiwei were reinstated with their former duties and were unleashed upon Zhu Di's enemies and critics. On 25 June, barely a week after Yongle's accession, several of the staunchest ministers and generals of the Jiawen emperor were all executed, and their families exterminated. Various other imperial advisors to the Jianwen Emperor were either executed or were pressured to committed suicide, and their families were exiled by the new government. As the strict Confucian morality forbade such an act of usurpation, many vocal ministers were either banished or retired in self exile. For the rest of the Yongle Emperor's reign, he would rely on the eunuchs (including the Muslim Admiral Zheng He) and his imperial agents to exercise a centralized form of forceful rule.

The Jinyiwei hunted- proscriptions, investigations plagued the upper ranks of the officialdom. Many of the literate gentry were hounded for their daily activities, and nearly all suspicions were searched from top to bottom.

But through it all, it must be stated, the limits and the scopes of their purges were largely restricted to the upper echelons of the Ming court, with targets specifically linked with the former Jiawen Emperor, and not the general populace. Despite such...distinctions, there was no love lost between them and the general populace of the empire, who regarded them as wolves in flowery clothing.

The New Order

History treated Zhu Di with the same perfect detachment it had treated men like Gaius Marius, Sulla, Henry VIII, and the many, many now nameless Khans that rampaged over the steppes- nothing of the sort of karmic justice in Hollywood movies or the equivalent of divine intervention.

In fact, by the examples of history, the Yongle Emperor he became wasn't a "bad" emperor at all by the definition of human history (though his recorded cruelty was truly the equal of likes of Ivan the Terrible.) In his mind, war and an enemy army came to his doorsteps, his three sons had been unjustly imprisoned, and he barely got them out, but then his nephew wanted him- and his future dead. He won~ by being himself, all the while loosing friends and endless men, but he won in the end in a duel of life and death. After all, didn't he look up to the great Taizong, the greatest of Tang Emperors? The most progressive, lenient emperor of all Tang, who had took China to undreamed cultural, military and economical heights? Didn't that emperor have to "defend himself" against his two cruel brothers? No, he would stay.

During his reign, Ming China's prosperity skyrocketed, always anxious to be acknowledged as the legitimate Chinese emperor by China's neighbors, Zhu Di sent his trusted Admiral Zheng He in over 7 great voyages across the Pacific and the Indian Sea, all the way to the Horn of Africa. The tributes from those missions and the subsequent Ming trading networks established throughout SE Asia, in the Indian Sea would endure for centuries, cementing a prosperity that lasted long after the disintegration of the empire.

He repaired and reopened the Grand Canal and, between 1406 and 1420, directed the construction of the Forbidden City. He was also responsible for the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, considered one of the wonders of the world. As part of his continuing attempt to control the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats, the Yongle Emperor also greatly expanded the imperial examination system- in place of his father's use of personal recommendation and appointment~ now, the expanded examination system allowed for a much wider margin of attendants, with government subsidies- talented and able students (like himself) would have a better chance to rise to the top. These scholars would completed the monumental Yongle Encyclopedia during his reign- the world's largest general encyclopedia, comprised of 22,937 manuscript rolls or chapters, in 11,095 volumes, occupying roughly 40 cubic meters (1400 ft3), and using 370 million Chinese characters, an achievement unsurpassed until the 21st century Wikipedia. (As actually stated by Encyclopedia Britannica, and Wikipedia)

Militarily, Ming China would also rise to its zenith during the Yongle Emperor's reign, his constant campaigns against the Mongols eventually destroyed or repelled 4 seperate Khans and like his father, who destroyed Karakorum in 1388, pursued the steppe nomads with vigor unseen from the Chinese~ and was never seen again until modern day. In regards to the familiar practice of the princes and uncles owning princedoms with their own armies, he carefully scaled back their troop's quota, and then with time, undid their importance altogether so another like him would be impossible to come again.

Zhu Di was his father magnified in all forms, in forcefulness, megalomania, and vigor. And in terms of his negative traits, cruelty, severity, and paranoia, but though he was utterly ruthless in establishing his power~ he was at least the right man for the job at a time such a man was needed~ the man that ironically the empire needed. When considering how his distant grandchildren would be powerless to exert their will in the court~ and unable to break up corrupt power blocks in court for centuries to come, Zhu Di was one of a kind the Empire would only see once.

The Next Order

For the many loyalists who were unjustly purged and exiled by the Yongle Emperor, their strife would continue for decades until the majority of these families were pardoned and allowed to return to their homeland during the reign of Zhu Di's son, the future Hongxi Emperor~ who would ironically turned out to be both scholarly as well as measured, and a near image of Prince Zhu Biao and the Jiawen Emperor. He restored disgraced Confucian officials and reorganized the administration, the virtuous Hanlin academicians became grand secretaries, and they dismantled his father's unpopular militaristic policies to restore a more meritocratic civil government.

The Jinyiwei would now be restricted as a wholly intelligence agency, though they would still be able to carry their arms and tasked with rooting out corruption, the scales of their aggression would be greatly curtailed in Hongxi's reign.

Zhu Di's son, The scholarly Hongxi Emperor, 
who undid much of the injustices of his father

Although the Hongxi Emperor had a short reign, he is credited with reforms that made lasting improvements, and his liberal policies were continued by his son.

If the Yongle emperor was a do over of the Hongwu emperor in endless vigor and severity, then the Hongxi emperor would be a do over of the displaced- truncated scholar-emperors. This time, the scholar emperors would stay, on their own terms.

To be continued in Part 3. 


The Jiawen emperor kept reminding me of Tommen Baratheon, while Zhu Di is like an
amalgamation of both Robert and Stannis Baratheon