Long Reign of the Wanli 萬曆 Emperor 1. Auspices

In 1969 at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards stormed the mausoleum of the Wanli Emperor, as his tomb was the largest in the Ming Tombs and also one of of the only ones excavated in 1956 during a more peaceful time.

During the orgy of destruction that would follow there, thousands of historical artifacts would be tore down and broken by the mob of high school revolutionaries (including the emperor's own bones and those of his concubines would be dragged out and publicly "denounced" for their feudal misdeeds and imperialism before being burnt.) After the end of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government would officially refrain from opening any more imperial tombs unless an emergency or a natural disaster threatens the integrity of the tombs. Unless there are ways to guarantee the preservation of the artifacts, all would be reserved as they are.

A decision that the first Emperor (his core mausoleum,) Wu Zetian, and the rest of the Ming Emperors would probably heartily approve.

So who was he? And why did he garner such fierce hatred from the revolution's youths?

Could he be the weak link that broke China's fortunes all the way into the age of atom boms?

The Wanli Emperor

The Wanli Emperor was the longest serving emperor of the Ming dynasty, during his 48 year long reign his empire was both restored of its earlier vitality in his early reign, then spiraled into terminal decline. His life is almost a miniature of the Ming dynasty as a whole. A man who began with austere vigor, and ended in sumptuous hedonistic neglect.

A man whose greatest weakness, was that he was not cruel enough just so he could save more people in the end.

Unlike his own debauched ancestors, the young Wanli emperor was raised in austerity by a loyal, albeit severe minister named Zhang ZuZheng that whipped (caned) him personally into shape. Zhang's particular attitude derived specifically in loyalty to Wanli's father's dying wish, as the former emperor had devoted his entire short life to reform the weakening system. Having been embroiled, and barely survived the endless deadlock of Ming factions, Zhang knew too well that in order for the boy to have any chance to assert himself one day, to break the pockets of corruption and reverse the fortune of the empire he must be raised away from their lies and the decadent distractions they plied.

In this austere environment, the boy prince was barred from of all manners of pleasures. Hedonistic pursuits were punished with the rigors of caning. Even before he ascended to the throne, the boy was force to devote himself to the exhaustive daily scheduled forced upon the Ming emperors.

They would wake before twilight, read, thanks the heavens by the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City, then hold the morning council with the ministers, then, morning exercises, hold court, read in the afternoon, then only in the afternoon was he allowed time to himself. He would again perform ceremonies till dusk, upon sunset, he would sleep early just to have enough energy for the next busy day. The fact that the boy did this daily without failure demonstrated his willingness to be the man the empire needed. (It should be noted this highly stressful and highly ritualistic lifestyle killed many Ming emperors and was one of the main reasons most of them do not live past 45.)

As the years passed, Zhang was proud to see that a different sets of morals and a particular sense of restraint was able to take hold of this promising boy, he would be the one to break up the factionalism at court, he could restore the martial prestige of the empire, he would restore the empire's nearly bankrupt treasury, he would be a great sovereign that would save the empire. But as history would have it, he would be all of those things, he would have it in his palms, for a while~ and then he would willingly let it slip and give it all up. But that's only a much simplified foreshadowing, the real thrust of the story is both more complicated and much more interesting~ Back to the training montage.

Together, Zhang and the Wanli emperor were both able to salvage the long decline of the empire that had marched unchecked for 50 years and for the first time in a century, surge even higher than the august founding fathers. It was a remarkable feat as Wanli's few predecessors had all been blocked by the scheming cliques in power and in their impotent frustration had resorted to leisure and hedonistic pursuits like: spent whole weeks in the harems without attending court or spent months in seclusion attempting to make the Daoist elixirs of immortality, all while the ministers divided the country's affairs among themselves.

In these great reforms spearheaded personally by Zhang, taxes were no longer exempted for some rich officials, tax, levy, conscription were all simplified into a unified but proportional standard appropriate to the class and income level. In terms of the labyrinthine penal codes, Zhang simplified labor sentences to more efficient measures, rather than peppering their services across the months lackadaisically~ similar in form to the European system of corvee, which spawned many Ming versions of permanently indentured servants, (worse yet, bond servants, indentured to the lender's household for generations) he instituted a "Single Whip Law" that commuted all taxes and labor obligations into a unilateral payment of silver.

To root out abuse and corruption, Zhang and the young emperor initiated far reaching surveys that both tracked the empire's regions and also provided direct figures to the emperor so he can contrast with those reported by the ministers.

Zhang also appointed able generals like Qi JiGuang that utterly rooted out Japanese Wokou pirates that had for centuries plagued China's east coast. With the pacification of the Taihu Lake, Hangzhou and Fujian areas, he was able to restarted the economy of the south that had been withered by these raids. To fortify the north, Qi JiGuang and his soldiers were garrisoned along the Great Wall, where by they not only expanded the series of fortifications but also moved there with their extended families, the northern boarder would be permanently garrisoned.

Unfortunately (maybe for all) Zhang's health deteriorated around the early fruition of these early reforms. Despite his great strides, he must have realized that he was but one voice, a privileged voice that was able to personally shape and cultivate the sovereign in private. Without him, inevitably it would become a numbers game, the chorus of courtiers would come, they would circle the young ruler with all manners of titillating, exotic, distractions~ making the boy just like his ancestors.

When Zhang died, those ministers who had long been jealous of the old man's influences was able to persuade the young Emperor that Zhang's influence as the emperor's shadow was solely for his own self aggrandizement. That all the "reforms" and all the wasteful campaigns he launched was in fact distractions~ distractions that freely allowed him to skim off the profits from those "new" and "greedy" taxes ("I mean, that massive influx of silver? Who knows if there's not more? I mean why was such a loyal bureaucrat, as he claims to be- was so eager for such a hoard of penal coins? Could we really rely on the person tallying these to also be the one to report it back? I heard someone said he always orders some 100 dishes whereever he goes. Oh I'm sorry your Majesty, I thought you knew already!")

Zhang had, in their versions was actually the one to privately amass all the powers for himself, that he was the one to privately use his exclusive favor to embezzle millions for himself while hypocritically saving to create his own faction. After years of persuasion from all these cliques, the Emperor relented in purging the minister's family, all were removed from powerful posts in the imperial system, and the ministers proceeded by confiscating all the Zhang clan's wealth and forcing the rest of his circle of allies to retire immediately.

(An interesting note: Despite his personal effort in the restoration of the dynasty, Zhang's legacy would be blotted out, his many ambitious reforms would stop there by the cabal of squabbling courtiers. His legacy would become virtually untouchable for 50 years to follow. Ironically, the lone man who would restore his legacy and clear his name was both cruel and paranoid, the last Ming emperor- only years before the fall of the Ming dynasty. By then it was too late, and all that's left, refined of distractions were the clearly seen lies and the single bone of truth among them.)


The Righteous Years

Despite this rocky breakup, the first 18 years of the Wanli Emperor's reign was marked by competent leadership. Daily the emperor would attend morning meetings with his cabinet, the core fiscal reforms he started with Zhang would continue to net gains for the empire in these decades. There would be stability and prosperity, but interestingly, his most important contributions as emperor was perhaps more to the allies of Ming China than China itself.

Two major periods of strife happened beyond China's periphery during his life time, the Burmese occupation of Siam, and the Japanese invasion of Korea, and through these diligent years  the Wanli Emperor was able to lend timely support on their behalf. If you knew the name of Naresuan and Yi SunShin, know that both of them held Wanli in gratitude.