Yongle Emperor of China

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Yongle Emperor of China
Birth and death: May 2, 1360–12 August, 1424
Family name: Zhu (朱)
Given name: Di (棣)
Dates of reign: July 17, 1402–August 12, 1424
Era name: Yongle (永樂)
Era dates: 23 January, 1403–19 January, 1425
Temple name: Chéngzǔ¹ (成祖)
Posthumous name:
Emperor Wen (文皇帝)
Posthumous name:
Emperor Qitian Hongdao
Gaoming Zhaoyun Shengwu
Shengong Chunren Zhixiao Wen
General note: Dates given here are in the Julian calendar.
They are not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.
1. The original temple name was Taizong (
太宗), but it was
changed in 1538 into Chengzu.

The Yongle Emperor or “Yung-lo Emperor” (永楽帝 ) May 2, 1360 – August 12, 1424), born Zhu Di (Chu Ti; 朱棣; Pinyin Yonglo (reign name); temple name (Ming) Ch'eng Tsu; posthumous name (Ming) T'ai Tsung, was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (明朝) of China from 1402 to 1424. His father, the Hongwu Emperor, placed all of his sons as princes of strategic regions, and Zhu Di became Prince of Yan (燕王), possessing a heavy military base in Beijing. Though Zhu Di excelled as a military leader and administrator, the Hongwu emperor named Jianwen, the son of an older brother, as his successor. Zhu Di rose in rebellion, and by 1402, had taken the city of Nanking. His usurpation of the throne is now sometimes called the "Second Founding" of the Ming dynasty. His era name means "Perpetually Jubilant."


Though he was despotic and ruthless, Yongle is considered one of the greatest Chinese emperors. His economic, educational, and military reforms provided unprecedented benefits for the people and established the social and economic patterns for the rest of the Ming dynasty. Several major cultural landmarks were achieved during his reign, including the design and construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing; the completion of the monumental Yongle Encyclopedia (永樂大典); the erection of monuments such as the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing; and the exploratory sea voyages of Zheng He (鄭和).

Early Years

Zhu Di (Chu Ti)'s father, the Hongwu (Hung-wu; Chinese: 洪武帝; Wade-Giles: Hung-woo T'I; September 21, 1328 – June 24, 1398) emperor, had risen from his origins as a poor orphaned peasant and a mendicant Buddhist monk, to become a subaltern in a popular rebellion against the Mongol rulers of the Yüan dynasty (元朝), and then a virtually independent satrap in part of the rich eastern Yangtze River Valley, with his headquarters at Nanking.

Emperor Yongle was born Zhu Di (Chu Ti) on May 2, 1360, one of 26 princes. Modern scholars have suggested that Zhu Di’s mother was probably a secondary consort of Korean origin, although in traditional Chinese fashion, he always treated his father's principal consort, the influential Empress Ma, as his “legal” mother. Zhu Di grew up as a prince during the Ming Dynasty in a loving, caring environment. His father, Emperor Hongwu supplied nothing but the best education for his sons and eventually entitled them their own princedoms.

At the time of Zhu Di’s birth, Emperor Hongwu was striving to establish his supremacy in the Yangtze Valley, while in Beijing, the Yüan government was all but immobilized by court factionalism. During the next seven years, the Hongwu emperor's armies swept central and eastern China clear of opposition, and in 1368 he established the new Ming dynasty, with its capital at Nanking, and then drove the last Mongol emperor out of Beijing and beyond the Great Wall into the Gobi Desert.

In 1370, at the age of ten, Zhu Di (Chu Ti) was entitled as the Prince of Yan or Yen (燕), an ancient name for the area around Beijing. During the next decade, the new Ming empire was stabilized, an elaborate administrative system was erected, and a new socioeconomic order was established. When Zhu Di moved to Beijing in 1380, the city had been devastated by famine and disease and was under threat of invasion from Mongolians from the north. Under the early Ming system of government, all the imperial princes except the eldest son, who remained in Nanking as heir apparent, were appointed to strategic areas as regional viceroys. During the 1380s, with help from his father-in-law, General Xu Da (徐達), a talented general who had helped to found the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Di secured the northern borders. In 1390, he and his older half-brother, the Prince of Chin (viceroy of adjacent Shansi Province to the west) took joint command of an expedition to patrol beyond the Great Wall, and in 1393 they assumed control over the defense forces of the whole central sector of the northern frontier.

Zhu Di’s success against the Mongols, and his energy, ability to assess risks, and leadership capability impressed his father. Even Zhu Di's troops praised his effectiveness, especially when Emperor Hongwu rewarded them for their service.

In 1392, the crown prince, the Prince of Jin, died of illness, raising concerns about the imperial succession. Some historians believe that the Hongwu emperor considered violating the household rules he himself had promulgated, and designating the Prince of Yen his new heir. After hesitating for almost six months, the Emperor complied with tradition by naming the dead crown prince's 15-year-old son, the Jianwen Emperor (Chu Yün-wen; 建文帝; the second Emperor of Ming)), as his heir. When his two remaining older brothers died in 1395 and in 1398, Zhu Di became increasingly arrogant.

Journey to Power

The Yongle Emperor observing court eunuchs playing cuju, an ancient Chinese game similar to soccer.

When the Hongwu Emperor died on June 24, 1398, Zhu Di, Prince of Yen, considered himself to be the de facto head of the imperial clan and expected to be treated deferentially by his nephew, the heir apparent. Almost as soon as Zhu Yunwen (the son of the Prince of Jin) was crowned Emperor Jianwen they began a deadly feud.

When Zhu Di traveled with his guard unit to pay tribute to his deceased father, Jianwen interpreted his actions as a threat and sent forces to repel him. Zhu Di was forced to leave in humiliation. Jianwen persisted in refusing to let Zhu Di visit his father's tomb, and Zhu Di challenged the emperor's judgment. Zhu Di quickly became the biggest threat to the imperial court. Influenced by Confucian scholar-officials, the young Emperor Jianwen instituted a series of reforms intended to remove the princes from their regional power bases and replace them with generals loyal to himself. During 1398 and 1399, one prince after another was imprisoned, exiled, or driven to suicide. Zhu Di soon found himelf surrounded by Jianwen's generals, gradually more isolated and endangered. In August, 1399, he rose in rebellion, declaring it his duty to rescue the inexperienced emperor from his malicious advisers.

Zhu Di's claim that he was acting in self-defense was enough to earn him strong support from the populace and many generals. An experienced military commander who had studied Sun Zi's Art of War extensively, he used surprise, deception, and such tactics as enlisting several Mongolian regiments to aid him in fighting Jianwen. Several times he deceived and overwhelmed Jianwen's general Li Jinglong in decisive battles. The rebellion devastated much of western Shantung Province and the northern part of the Huai River Basin. Jianwen’s government at Nanking apparently underestimated the Prince of Yen's strength; the war was a long stalemate.

On January 15, 1402, Zhu Di made the bold decision to march his army straight to Nanjing, encountering stiff resistance. He broke through the Imperial armies in the north and moved quickly, almost unopposed, southward along the Grand Canal, accepting the surrender of the Imperial fleet on the Yangtze River. The imperial forces had to retreat to defend the residence of Jianwen. When Zhu Di reached the capital city in July 1402, the frustrated and disgraced General Li Jinglong opened the gates and permitted Zhu Di's army to enter freely. In the widespread panic caused by the sudden entry of Zhu Di’s army, the emperor's palace caught fire and Jianwen and his wife disappeared. Whether Jianwen died in the palace fire, as was officially announced, or escaped in disguise to live somewhere as a recluse was a question that plagued Zhu Di until his death, and has been a subject of conjecture ever since.

The Purge

With Jianwen's reign ended, Zhu Di and his administration spent the latter part of 1402 brutally purging China of Jianwen's supporters and their families. Jianwen’s new policies were revoked, except for the curtailing of the power of the regional princes. The surviving princes were transferred from their domains to central and southern China, and deprived of all governmental authority. No future Ming emperor was ever threatened by a rebellious prince.

Zhu Di ordered all records of the four-year-reign of Jianwen Emperor to be dated as year 32 through year 35 of the Hongwu Emperor, in order to establish himself as the legitimate successor of the Hongwu Emperor.

Zhu Di has been credited with ordering perhaps the only case of "extermination of the ten agnates" (誅十族) in the history of China. For nearly 1500 years of feudal China, the "extermination of nine agnates" (誅九族) was considered one of the most severe punishments found in the traditional Chinese law enforced until the end of the Qing dynasty. The practice of exterminating all the relatives of an enemy had been established since the Qin Dynasty when Emperor Qin Shi Huang (reigned 247.–221 B.C.E.) declared "Those who criticize the present with that of the past: Zu (以古非今者族). Zu (族) referred to the "extermination of three agnates" (三族): father, son and grandson, to ensure the elimination of challenges to the throne. Emperor Yang (reigned 604–617) extended the punishment to nine agnates: the four senior generations back to the great-great-grandfather, and four junior generations forward to the great-great-grandson. All siblings and cousins related to each of the nine agnates were included in the extermination.

Just before the accession of Emperor Yongle, prominent historian Fāng Xìao-rú (方孝孺) was sentenced to the "extermination of nine agnates" for refusing to write the inaugural address and for insulting the Emperor. He was recorded as saying in defiance to the would-be Emperor: "莫說九族,十族何妨!" ("Never mind nine agnates, go ahead with ten!"). He was granted his wish, the infamous, and perhaps the only, case of "extermination of ten agnates" in the history of China. In addition to the blood relations from his nine-agnates family hierarchy, his students and peers were added as the tenth group. Altogether, 873 people are said to have been executed. Before Fāng Xìao-rú died, he was forced to watch his brother's execution. Fāng Xìao-rú himself was executed by the severing-waist technique (腰斬). Prior to his death, Fāng Xìao-rú used his blood as ink and wrote on the ground the Chinese character "篡," which means "usurping the throne through illegal means."


Bronze statue of the Yongle Emperor

On July 17, 1402, after a brief visit to his father's tomb, Zhu Di was crowned Emperor Yongle. He spent most of his early years suppressing rumors, stopping bandits, and healing the wounds of the land scarred by rebellion. As the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di was domineering and protective of his authority. He staffed his central government with his loyal young protégés, and relied on eunuchs to an unprecedented extent for services beyond their usual palace duties, sending them for foreign envoys, and using them for regional oversight of military garrisons, and requisition of supplies for special construction projects. In 1420 he created a special agency of eunuchs, the Eastern Depot (Tung-ch'ang), which was responsible for espionage and the exposure of treason, and later came to be hated and feared.

The Yongle Emperor also made use of an advisory group of young scholars recruited from the Hanlin Academy; by the end of his reign they had become the Grand Secretariat, a buffer between the Emperor and the administrative agencies of the government. The Emperor was quick-tempered and sometimes abusive, but he built a strong and effective administration. During his reign, the stable political and economic patterns which characterized the remainder of the Ming dynasty were established.

Yongle followed traditional rituals closely and remained superstitious. He did not overindulge in the luxuries of palace life, but used Buddhism and Buddhist festivals to overcome some of the backwardness of the Chinese frontier and to help calm civil unrest. He stopped the wars between the various Chinese tribes and reorganized the provinces to best ensure peace within China.

When it was time for him to choose an heir, Yongle very much wanted to choose his second son, Gaoxu, an athletic warrior-type that contrasted sharply with his older brother's intellectual and humanitarian nature. Eventually, ignoring counsel from his advisors, Yongle chose his older son, Gaozhi (the future Hongxi Emperor), as his heir apparent, mainly due to the influence of his Grand Secretary, Xie Jin. Gaoxu became infuriated and refused to give up jockeying for his father's favor or to move to Yunnan province (of which he was Prince). He attacked Xie Jin's reputation and eventually killed him.

After Yongle's overthrow of Jianwen, China's countryside was devastated. Low production and depopulation threatened the fragile new economy. Yongle created an extensive plan to strengthen and stabilize the new economy, but first he had to silence dissension. He created an elaborate system of censors to remove corrupt officials from office, and dispatched some of his most trusted officers to reveal and destroy secret societies, Jianwen loyalists, and even bandits. He fought population decline and strengthened the economy by reclaiming uncultivated land for agriculture, utilizing the labor of the Chinese people as efficiently as possible, and maximizing textile and agricultural production. He also worked to reclaim production rich regions such as the Lower Yangtze Delta and organized a massive rebuilding of the Grand Canal of China. The Grand Canals were almost completely restored and were eventually moving goods from all over the world.

Yongle ambitiously moved China's capital from Nanjing to Beijing. According to a popular legend, the capital was moved when the emperor's advisors brought the emperor to the hills surrounding Nanjing and pointed out the emperor's palace showing the vulnerability of the palace to artillery attack. Yongle planned a massive network of structures to house government offices, officials, and the residence of the imperial family itself. After a painfully long period of construction, the Forbidden City was finally completed and became the political capital of China for the next five hundred years.


Yongle sponsored and created many cultural traditions in China. He promoted Confucianism and kept traditional ritual ceremonies with a rich cultural theme. He commissioned his Grand Secretary, Xie Jin, to write a compilation of every subject and every known Chinese book. The massive project was intended to preserve Chinese culture and literature in writing. The initial copy consisted of eleven thousand volumes and took seventeen months to transcribe; another copy was transcribed in 1557. The Yongle ta-tien (“The Great Canon of the Yung-lo Era,” or Yongle Encyclopedia) preserved many older works of Chinese literature that might otherwise have been lost.

Emulating the Mongol khans, Yongle summoned a Tibetan lama to his court, and the strongest intellectual influence on him may have been that of a favorite personal advisor, the Daoist priest Tao-yen. Yongle's tolerance of Chinese ideas that did not agree with his own philosophies was well-known. Though he favored Confucianism, he treated Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism equally. Strict Confucianists considered this hypocrisy, but his open-minded approach helped him win the support of the people and unify China. Yongle went to great lengths to eradicate the Mongolian culture of the preceding Yuan dynasty, forbidding the use of popular Mongolian names, habits, language, and clothing.

Military accomplishments

Ming China under the Yongle Emperor

Mongol and Northern Frontier

During the early years of Yongle’s reign, the northern frontier was relatively quiet. At the beginning of his insurrection in 1402, Yongle had enlisted the support of the Urianghad Mongol tribes in northeastern China, and he repaid them by withdrawing his command posts south of the Great Wall, giving them autonomy, and sending regular gifts to their chieftains. The Eastern Mongols (Tatars) and Western Mongols were too disorganized to present a threat, and Timurlane died in the west in 1405, before he was able to launch a campaign against China. After his death, Yongle maintained friendly relations with his heirs in Samarkand and Herat, and kept the Silk Road Central Asian trade routes open.

The rise of a new Tatar leader named Aruqtai, drew Yongle’s attention back to the northern frontier, and in 1410, he resumed the aggressive patrolling of the area north of the Great Wall which he had done as a prince. Between 1410 and 1424, Yongle personally led five expeditions into Mongolia to crush the remnants of the Yuan Dynasty that had fled north after being defeated by Emperor Hongwu. He repaired the northern defenses and forged buffer alliances to keep the Mongols at bay in order to build an army. His strategy was to force the Mongols into economic dependence on the Chinese, gather national support against them, and to launch periodic initiatives into Mongolia to cripple their offensive power. He attempted to compel Mongolia to become a Chinese tributary, with all the tribes submitting and proclaiming themselves vassals of the Ming, and established nominal authority over the Jurchen in the far northeast. Through fighting, Yongle learned to appreciate the importance of cavalry in battle and eventually began using a substantial portion of his resources to keep horses in good supply.

Annam (Vietnam)

In 1400, the Tran Dynasty, heir to the Annamite throne in Vietnam (the former Chinese province of Annam), had been deposed and a new dynasty proclaimed. Tran loyalists formally petitioned Yongle several times to intervene and restore legitimate rule, and in 1406, he sent envoys to Vietnam. However, when they arrived in Vietnam, both the Tran prince and the accompanying Chinese ambassador were ambushed and killed. In response to this insult, the Yongle Emperor sent a huge army of 500,000 south to conquer Vietnam. The Tran royal family had all been executed by the Ho monarchs and there was no legitimate heir, so Vietnam was integrated as a province of China, just as it had been until 939. In 1407, with the Ho monarch defeated, the Chinese began a serious and sustained effort to Sinicize the population. Almost immediately, their efforts met with significant resistance from the local population. Several revolts started against the Chinese rulers. In early 1418 a major revolt was begun by Le Loi, the future founder of the Le Dynasty. By the time the Yongle Emperor died in 1424 the Vietnamese rebels under Le Loi's leadership had recaptured nearly the entire province. In 1427 the Xuande Emperor gave up the effort started by his grandfather and formally acknowledged Vietnam's independence.

Exploration of the World

An African giraffe being led into a Ming Dynasty zoo.

As part of his desire to expand Chinese influence, the Yongle Emperor sponsored at least seven epic sea-going expeditions between 1405 and 1433, led by the great admiral, the Muslim eunuch Zheng He (Cheng Ho; 鄭和). Each was larger and more expensive than the last; some of the boats used were apparently the largest sail-powered boats in human history [1]. In 1403, Yongle emperor sent out three fleets to proclaim his accession throughout Southeast Asia as far as Java and southern India. Throughout his reign, “tributary” missions regularly traveled to China from nations overseas, including Malacca and Brunei. Zheng He visited at least 37 countries, some as far away as the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa almost as far south as Zanzibar; and from all of them, he brought back envoys bearing tribute to acknowledge the Yongle emperor's authority. Chinese emissaries acted as arbitrators in Ceylon and Sumatra. Over 60 embassies visited China within a short space of time, many bearing gifts of strange animals, plants and jewels.[2]

Although the Chinese had been sailing to Arabia, Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), these were China's only major sea-going explorations of the world. The first expedition launched in 1405 (eighteen years before Henry the Navigator began Portugal's voyages of discovery. It is possible that one of these expeditions reached America in 1421. According to British Admiral Gavin Menzies[3], the Chinese fleet was burned upon returning to China, since Zhu Di had already passed away. Even if the American discovery isn't correct, the Zheng He expeditions were a remarkable technical and logistical achievement. It is very likely that the last expedition reached as far as Madagascar, thousands of miles from where it started. Zhu Di's successors, the Hongxi Emperor(洪熙帝) and the Xuande Emperor(宣徳帝), felt the expeditions were harmful to the Chinese state. The Hongxi Emperor ended further expeditions and the Xuande Emperor suppressed much of the information about the Zheng He voyages.

Yongle also sent a eunuch emissary on repeated tribute-seeking missions to Tibet and Nepal, and a civil servant across Central Asia to Afghanistan and Russian Turkistan.


The Yongle emperor became the only ruler in Chinese history to be acknowledged suzerain by the Japanese, under the Ashikaga shogun Yoshimitsu. For a short time, the Japanese sent pirates to the Chinese court to punish them for plundering the Korean and Chinese coasts. Yoshimitsu’s successor ended this relationship. After 1411, despite Yongle’s inquiries, no further tribute missions arrived from Japan, and Japanese raiders became active again on China's coast. Yongle threatened to send a punitive expedition Japan, but in 1419, when the Japanese shogunate denied responsibility for the activities of the pirates, he was occupied with other concerns and did not carry out the threat.


On April 1, 1424, Yongle launched a large campaign into the Gobi Desert to chase a nuisance army of fleeting Tatars. Yongle became frustrated at his inability to catch up with his swift opponents and fell into a deep depression, then suffered a series of minor strokes. On August 8, 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. He was entombed in Chang-Ling (長陵), the central and largest mausoleum of the Ming Dynasty Tombs, located northwest of Beijing. The coordinate of his mausoleum is 40.301368 north, 116.243189 east.


The Yongle Emperor is generally considered as one of the greatest Chinese emperors and one of the most influential rulers in Chinese history. He is regarded as an architect and preserver of Chinese culture, because of his efforts to remove all Mongol influence and his sponsorship of cultural activities. Several major cultural landmarks were achieved during his reign, including the design and construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing; the completion of the monumental Yongle Encyclopedia (永樂大典); the erection of monuments such as the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing; and the exploratory sea voyages of Zheng He( 鄭和). His military accomplishments and his leadership in establishing political relationships with surrounding states and tribes are rivaled by only a handful of people in world history.

Yongle's economic, educational, and military reforms provided unprecedented benefits for the people, but he is often criticized for his ruthless and despotic style of government. He executed many of his own generals and advisors to prevent them from usurping his power. He was domineering and relied on [[eunuch[[s and young officials who were personally loyal to him rather than on experienced and more independent bureaucrats. His execution of ten generations of the family of the historian Fāng Xìao-rú (方孝孺) for refusing to write his inaugural address is an example of his ruthlessness. Yongle’s usurpation of the throne is sometimes called the "Second Founding" of the Ming. He admired and the accomplishments of his father, the Hongwu Emperor, and devoted considerable effort to proving the legitimacy of his claim to the throne.


  1. National Geographic, May 2004
  2. W.E. Cheong. The legacy of Confucius - role of the ocean in Chinese history, UNESCO Courier, (August-Sept, 1991). Retrieved September 20, 2007.
  3. Gavin Menzies. 1421 The Year China discovered the World.


  • Hucker, Charles O. 1978. The Ming dynasty, its origins and evolving institutions. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan. ISBN 0892640340
  • Levathes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 0195112075
  • Menzies, Gavin. 2003. 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America. New York: Wm. Morrow. ISBN 0060537639
  • Stearns, Peter N., Michael Adas, and Stuart B. Schwartz. 1992. World civilizations: the global experience. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0065002601
  • Tsai, Shih-Shan Henry. Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle. University of Washington Press, ISBN 0295981245
  • Twitchett, Denis Crispin, and John King Fairbank. 1978. The Cambridge history of China. Cambridge [Eng.]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521214475

External links

All links retrieved July 29, 2013.

Preceded by:
Jianwen Emperor
Emperor of China
(Ming Dynasty)
Succeeded by:
Hongxi Emperor


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