Jinyiwei: Ming Elite Guards 錦衣衛 3. Ghost of the Master

When the megalomaniac Yongle Emperor died in 1424, I could easily imagine thousands, if not millions of Ming subjects breathed a collective sign of relief. Often called the "usurper" behind his back for launching a civil war that displaced his own nephew, this usurper Emperor killed, oppressed, and jailed his detractors mercilessly with his own secret police~ the brocade- robe clad agents called the Jinyiwei 錦衣衛. At the time of his passing- thousands were imprisoned by the Jinyiwei or were under special investigation by them, and millions of the Ming citizenry were groaning (silently of course) under the crippling imperial tax rate to pay for the Yongle Emperor's endless wars into the steppes. His passing, and the ascendancy of his tolerant and scholarly son spelled the beginning of a new era in Ming politics. The days of terror were over.

The new Hongxi Emperor's reign would began by a mass pardon of many of his father's political prisoners, then went as far as restoring may of the illustrious disgraced Confucian officials, such as the Yongle Emperor's former minister of revenue Xia Yanji (imprisoned since 1421), and reorganized the administration to give high ranks to his close advisors. Scholarly Hanlin academicians became grand secretaries, and they dismantled his father's unpopular militaristic policies to restore civil government.

Hongxi Emperor, the 4th Emperor of the Ming dynasty. His short reign was marked 
by a series of drastic, yet humane and lenient reforms that relieved much of the 
stress his tyrannical father brought, just to die nearly a year and half later in his reign 
as a beloved ruler with much still untapped potential.  Regardless, his 
reforms would cement the Ming golden age  

Domestically, he reduced much of the forced corvee labors, reduced the years of those who are harshly sentenced, taxes were remitted so that vagrant farmers could return home, especially in the overburdened Yangtze River Delta. To combat corruption, the Hongxi Emperor appointed a commission to investigate taxes. Many times, he overruled his more spendthrift secretaries by ordering imperial stored grain should be sent immediately to relieve disaster areas.

To the Chinese mind of his time, the Hongxi Emperor quickly became a beloved ruler in the popular consciousness. Culturally and morally, he was seen as tolerant, patient, moderate- thus a sober spender- thus a humane tax collector. But perhaps best of all, that he was not his father: where as his father was bellicose and dictatorial, he was humble and appointed many able advisers. Where as his father was perpetually fighting wars and taxing his subjects, the Hongxi Emperor bolstered the army while lowering taxes for the masses. To the commoners, It was like their abusive foreman had been replaced, a boot lifted from their necks, and finally- looking around at the vast wealth of the empire, they realized its time to relish the joy of living at their leisure. The time of peace and prosperity had come. And then in 1425, scarcely not even a year and half after the passing of these critical reforms, the Hongxi Emperor suddenly died of a heart attack.

The jovial and restrained Xuande Emperor, he was tougher than his
father, having ordered the execution of an uncle who rebelled against
him, but otherwise continued the lenient policies of his father. Often
preferring simple pleasures such as poetry and painting.

Panic immediately spread throughout the realm as many were terrified that the upcoming new Emperor- whoever he was, would overturn much of the lenient reforms, after all, the Imperial Zhu clan was not known for producing many soft hearted rulers~ nor do most of them stay in power for long against more ruthless clansmen. After all, just look at how this branch of the dynasty began- in fact he even looked like the Yongle Emperor with his swarthy complexion and great physical stature.

But all the fear was misplaced, Xuande (Xu pronounced like "shoe") the new Emperor- being the eldest son of the Hongxi Emperor had no problem stepping into his father's shoes. In terms of personality, he was much like his father, often preferring simple, inexpensive and personal pleasures and continued nearly all of his father's tolerant policies. During his ten year reign Ming China would become the official kingmaker of the orient, receiving tributes and conferring royal titles to China's surrounding Kingdoms.

In time, the new Xuande Emperor would preside over a remarkably peaceful period with no significant external or internal problems. Later historians have considered the combined reign of the Hongxi and Xuande Emperors to be the height of the Ming dynasty's golden age.

The Silent Fear

But not all were pleased by these changes. In many ways, the Hongxi emperor, and the Xuande Emperor that followed him were indeed excellent peace time emperors- the merchants and the common folks will happily attest to that~ being able to enjoy the prosperity of the empire leisurely and enjoy being the preeminent power of Asia (having all those "barbarian" kingdoms bowing to their emperor and bearing tributes in those ginormous parades)- yes, being on top of a pyramid scheme was a mighty ego boosts for them.

Jinyiwei imperial bodyguards tending the horse of the Emperor

Those who actually saw through the evanescence of such rituals, who saw through the transience of wealth and words thought other wise. The Jinyiwei as an organization certainly felt their role diminished in this age of peace. This new age for them meant only increased irrelevance, and a heightened awareness of the loss of their patron. The loss of that paranoid fighter- Emperor equaled in proportion to the loss of their purpose.

Several view of the flashy "brocade robe" of the Jinyiwei: where they
derived their names, Jinyiwei 錦衣衛 means "borcade robed guards."

Sure, the late Yongle Emperor was authoritarian, but like the Hongwu Emperor, the progenitor of the dynasty he made everyone fall in line~ especially those corrupt, inept, lying officials. With such a climate of "tolerance" one day they will be bold enough to be lying, inept, and corrupt again. And when they take root and thrive, it will already be too late to cleanse out the cancerous rot- the doom of all preceding Chinese dynasties.

"Oh no no, I'm just smiling because I'm such a good servant"

Sure, the late Yongle Emperor had perhaps sent out too many campaigns throwing China's tax money against the Mongol Khans, how many times? Five, six campaigns? And indeed he would have kept doing that if he had not died of a stroke on the campaigns chasing after them. Maybe the citizenry are indeed crippled by the massive taxes, but...to those who see only power and see foes still beyond the quiet frontier~ they knew better than allow themselves to feel safe.

The Apogee: Yongle Emperor's Ming Empire in 1420, at the maximum expansion 
of the dynasty. Incorporating Vietnam and Manchuria, as well as recovering much
of the former "western regions" of China around the Tarim Basin, Yunnan was 
fully annexed into the realm, and half a dozen Khans have been displaced
further into the north. Tibet~ the Sakyapa, and various "Red hat faction" including the
Kagyu and the Nyingma have pledged vassalship, and the Ming Treasure Fleet
even fought and subdued the Sri Lanka Kingdom of Kotte.

Above: 14th century, The first Ming Emperor's Edict to officially conferring the title of General of the Ngari Military and Civil Wanhu Office to Tibetan leader Choskunskyabs in 1373. The second scroll is from the 18th century, of a Qing dynasty Emperor's Edict conferring the title of Dalai Lama to the Tibetan ruler. Kublai Khan was the first East Asian ruler~ headquartered in Beijing to practice the ritual of appointing the Lamas in Tibet. Since feudal Tibet is largely ruled by a celibate priestly caste- devoid of blood dynasties, this ritual conferred a sense of secular support from 
the kingmaking power broker of the region~ Ming or Qing China.

19th century Edict of a Qing appointment of a Lama of 
the Nyingma sect

Sure, more than a dozen Mongol Khans have bowed to the Ming courts and paid tributes, but to those who live to see dangers everywhere, all they see is that in this age of "tolerance" the martial sharpness of the state has become lax, the gains of the previous generations are not consolidated, worse of all, that they feared the greatness of the dynasty has already reached its zenith, that from then on, for the rest of their lives and the life of the dynasty, it would be a long process of contraction. To their supremacist minds~ there was a Great generation of harsh but tough men who got what the dynasty acquired, now in this...soft age, softer men who never knew hardship will loose it all. Beneath the surface level of abundance and transient leisure, behind the feigned suppliant of the empire's neighbors...things are unraveling.

What if...what if the Emperors would decide to throw away the best part of the dynasty? What if...
they start to crack down on the Admiral Zheng He? What if...Gods forbid they burn down 
his entire fleet to close the Empire's borders forever for centuries? 

How does that saying go? "Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times." Well, they strongly felt they are in the "good times create weak men," portion of the cycle.


Bodyguard wearing late Ming chainmail, wielding a saber and a composite bow. Ever since 
the death of the Yongle Emperor, the ranks of Jinyiwei began to deplete, the terror and 
prestige they once felt was steadily curtailed during the following decades.
But fate has prepared a sudden and dramatic comeback for them when a naive young
Emperor ascended the throne after the death of the Xuande Emperor.

Ghost of the Master

No, they realized. There will never be a master like the Yongle Emperor, at least not within the next several generations. Because he was so illegitimate, because he was so insecure, he resorted to prove himself as an emperor every step of the way- in extremely ambition and achievement, his megalomania and gaudiness to cover up his usurpation and insufficiency. Because he has already lost all respect from conservative loyalists, he was liberal and ruthless, he looked out of China's traditional behavioral patterns and sought to expand it to prove himself.

And because he always knew what people probably really thought of him, he set off Admiral Zheng He across the known globe to let thousands of other kings to acknowledge not only him as Emperor, but also China as the master of the orient.

The Porcelain tower of Fragrant Hills in Beijing, such smaller compared to the Massive Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, which rose up to a height of 260 feet (79 m) with nine stories and a staircase in the middle of the pagoda, which spiraled upwards for 184 steps. The top of the roof was marked by a golden pineapple. 

Because he felt like he needed to prove himself, he built the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing and build the Forbidden City from the ground up. Because he killed those scholarly ministers who challenged him, he needed to show he still supported learning. That's why he ordered the massive Yongle Encyclopedia, 2,169 scholars spent four years incorporated 8,000 texts from ancient times through the early Ming dynasty- in 11,095 volumes, occupying roughly 40 cubic meters (1400 ft3), and using 370 million Chinese characters to include all that had been written on the Confucian canon, as well as all history, philosophy, arts and sciences from the entirety of Chinese literature and knowledge.

Because he knew if- Gods forbid, the dynasty fell immediately after his passing, all who believed in the Mandate of Heaven would blame it on his usurpation, therefore he spent his entire career as a soldier Emperor driving back the mortal challenger of his realm- even died due to a stroke in camp during one of those many campaigns.

In the end, that proving process- proved him in many of the areas that did matter- such that when he passed, Ming China swung up into what many scholars referred to as a "Golden Age" of the Ming dynasty. So rare in Chinese history where we find utterly so much ugliness and achievement within one figure.

(Above) the ruthless Yongle Emperor, and the lenient Hongi and Xuande Emperors. 

The Yongle Emperor's (illegitamate) ascension through elimination of his nephew was often called the "Second Founding of the Dynasty" in many ways he was like his father- the stern and ruthlessly militant Hongwu emperor. However, he also seemed to inherit the self awareness (that is of his own cruelty) of the Hongwu Emperor as well, just as the Hongwu Emperor picked a scholarly and kind successor (said nephew Yongle overthrew) The Yongle Emperor also passed the throne to a moderate and scholarly son. 

Despite whatever the Yongle Emperor's motivation and intentions (and nearly all bellicose) he was able to initiate the official Golden Age of the Ming dynasty, which his son and grandson would preside through.

New Purpose. New Intrigues.

As described above, this golden age of peace and lenience was a period of decline for the Jinyiwei. Where as they were once direct informers to the paranoid Yongle Emperor, they were now scarcely more than glorified imperial bodyguards. Several interrogation offices were closed down and the ranks of their enlisted men dwindled. Despite these decade long setbacks, they clung to survival and adapted to consort themselves with other equally cunning creatures within the palace~ the Eunuchs.

For those who knew well of the Yongle Emperor's court, this alliance would have not been a surprise at all. Because the Yongle emperor had usurped his nephew- the righteous sitting emperor, Many loyal and conservative scholar- minister of the court protested to his rule (it is one of the persistent reasons why the Yongle Emperor jailed so many of them by the thousands) for they represented a direct (and legitimate) challenge to his reign.

After all, if hundreds dared to protest, knowing they would die by a thousand cuts openly to his face, how many thousands could one day secretly get a military governor to launch a coup and kill his entire clan in the palace?

And they were doubly dangerous because they are the traditional pillars of the Chinese society, often seen as revered sages, ministers, and teachers that ran the dynasty for the sitting emperor. From the Yongle Emperor's eyes, as a faction and an antagonistic network, they just couldn't be relied on to carry out his orders faithfully. If you consider that so many of them DID form anti- Yongle factions in secret either in the palace or with local provincial governors, you could see why the Yongle Emperor was so liberal, so anti- tradition and had to seek a direct chain of command to rule China without them.


Thus Yongle's Empire was practically given to the eunuchs and the Jinyiwei. 

To exert his rule directly- without partisan obstruction or disloyal tampering, the Yongle Emperor ruled through the eunuchs and his secret police (one cannot have heirs to create their own dynasty and the other was bred to be absolutely obedient to the blood-heirs of the Zhu clan.)

Effectively he created a separate command structure that bypassed the entire court of his Scholar Official ministers~ instead, he ordered the Scholar-Ministers to aid in the purely scholarly compilation of the massive Yongle Encyclopedia~ a way to distract them but still include them in his administration as a way to show the masses that hey stayed due to loyalty to the imperial court.

With the passing of Yongle, both factions lost their previous status as the sole henchmen of the Emperor, both lost their influence to act as spies and whisper directly into the Emperor's ears. Despite this, in the new age of Hongxi and Xuande, both remained as creatures of gossip and kept their ears on the latest intrigues. This is why the Yongle Emperor trusted the eunuch admiral Zheng He and trusted eunuchs in general

Both survived through passing precious information to each other to bolster their detective capabilities, in time, they were able to keep tabs on every character within the court. During the later reign of the Xuande Emperor, a privy council of eunuchs strengthened centralized power by controlling the Jinyiwei, sending them out on anti-corruption campaigns and soon, both of their influence began to grow again. 

In this age of plenty, it was corruption, the enemy they were made to combat that resurrected this diminished office. In 1428, the notorious censor (one of the main branches of the executive office) Liu Guan was sentenced to penal servitude and was replaced by the incorruptible Gu Zuo (d. 1446), who dismissed 43 members of the Beijing and Nanjing censorates for incompetence.

As the scent trail of legitimate corruption widened, some censors were demoted, imprisoned, and banished, but none were executed. Replacements were put on probation as the censorate investigated the entire Ming administration including the military. Thus, the scope of anti- corruption campaign expanded, soon, the Jinyiwei were ordered into further their investigations.

The same year the emperor reformed the rules governing military conscription and the treatment of deserters. Yet the hereditary military continued to be inefficient and to suffer from poor morale. Huge inequalities in tax burdens had caused many farmers in some areas to leave their farms in the past forty years.

Because of these structural and morale problems, in 1430, the Xuande Emperor ordered tax reductions on all imperial lands and sent out "touring pacifiers" to coordinate provincial administration, exercising civilian control over the military. During these reforms, they attempted to eliminate the irregularities and the corruption of the revenue collectors. Though the Jinyiwei reported the case of many corrupt officials,

Though known to be a lenient man like his father, the Xuande Emperor swiftly punished many corrupt officials, But knowing the Jinyiwei's capacity for lies in their reports~ (in memory of the famous case in Hongwu's reign where 40,000 innocent people were slaughtered due to their dishonest report) The emperor often personally ordered retrials that allowed thousands of innocent people to be released. For his entire reign, he was the watcher that watched his watchmen.

Then, after ruling for ten years, the Xuande Emperor died of illness on January 31st of 1435. Though knowing that with his passing he would turn the fate of the realm to the hand of his child son, unlike the previous rulers of the Ming dynasty, who all either proved themselves through battle~ the Yongle Emperor fought for his father the Hongwu Emperor on campaigns, and the Xuande Emperor fought for his grandfather the Yongle Emperor~ this time the throne would be passed to the hands of a eight year old boy.

Surely, this wouldn't be too much of a burden for the boy? Surely, with the great abundance of the overflowing treasury, the unrooting of corruption from many pockets of the realm, the refurbished military, and the reverend supplication of hundreds of China's neighboring Kingdoms he did enough for the boy?

The Cataclysm,

Unfortunately for the Xuande Emperor, he couldn't be more wrong. In a desperate bit to prove himself, his son would single handedly plunge the Ming dynasty from the height of a golden age and the preeminent rising power in the orient to become a state torn apart by its enemies and crippled by the bitterest of court intrigues, of the blood of the imperial Zhu family plotting to snuff out kindred blood, and many, many sudden deaths and disappearances in the new age of intrigue and suspicion.

The Yongle Emperor's sword 1402-1424. 

But fear not. This is the exact climate, the perfect environment for the Jinyiwei to re-exert their fallen status. If the loss of the Yongle Emperor presented the Ming dynasty with the "second founding" that ushered another age of peace and prosperity. The loss of such a golden age was the virtual second founding of the Jinyiwei. The scent of blood and cold stare of suspicion was again in the air, and the way they made their comeback amdist war, national disaster, and the deepest- most climax of Shakespearean hate would make a most interesting gore soaked story. 

A tale with the utter destruction of an entire frontier, deep national humiliation, a lone mad general's Dog Day Afternoon like coup where everyone ended up in a bloody Mexican standoff, and a bitter Hamlet- like feud where the Jinyiwei were the swinging blades. 

I believe- with the distance of centuries, the pain, outrage, and suffering have given space to the horror of that living age. And what did remain, did gleam from those days of strife and darkness- in short, what the Jinyiwei DID was, well- nothing less than spectacular. 

History is~ if anything filled with good drama. 

Stay Tuned