Wanli Emperor

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  • Born: 1563
  • Died: 1620
  • Reign: 1573-1620
  • Other Names: 翊鈞 (Zhū Yìjūn), Shenzong
  • Chinese/Japanese: 萬歷帝 (Wànlì dì / banreki tei)

The Wanli Emperor was the fourteenth emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Though one of the more prominent emperors of the dynasty, and one whose reign saw many significant events, Wanli is perhaps most known for his frustration with the bureaucracy and/or distaste for the actual work of governing, to the point that he would often leave petitions and other matters to pile up; much governmental or Imperial matters of his reign were delayed severely, or even held up entirely, never being resolved.

Throughout his life, Wanli was surrounded by state ritual and courtly obligations, and by eunuchs who controlled the bureaucracy to such an extent that even as emperor, he found himself unable to weaken their grip, or to truly exercise power himself. Historian Ray Huang identifies the Wanli reign as the culmination of a long, gradual shift of power from the active, engaged monarch in the early Ming period, to, by the Wanli reign, a powerful and well-established bureaucracy that not only did not require an actively engaged monarch, but perhaps even necessitated a disengaged and impartial monarch, to serve largely as a figurehead who did not interfere with the workings of the bureaucracy.[1] According to some interpretations, it was as a result of his frustration with this situation that, later in his reign, Wanli came to refuse to meet with officials, to hear petitions, or to participate in state rituals. Other historians attribute it to a self-centered and entitled attitude, the result of a spoiled Imperial upbringing. His inaction, and indeed at times willful stoppage of government, is often cited as contributing to the weakening and decline of the Ming Dynasty, leading eventually to its fall, 24 years after Wanli's death.

Major events of the Wanli reign included the arrival of Jesuit Matteo Ricci at the Beijing court in 1582, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea in the 1590s.

Life and Reign

Wanli ascended the throne in 1573 at age nine, spending the vast majority of his childhood both before and after that point in the Forbidden City. Until his marriage in 1578 (at the age of 15), his mother, the Empress Dowager Cisheng, shared his living quarters, and was close to him, waking him up each day and so forth. The Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng and eunuch Feng Bao were among his closest companions, his teachers, and advisors; Feng Bao was later promoted to Director of Ceremonies and head of the palace staff.

A supernova which appeared in the sky in 1572-1573 inspired the young emperor to be especially diligent in his studies, and in his efforts for right, proper, behavior, since it was an emperor's duty to maintain the order of the cosmos. The first decade or so of his reign proved quite peaceful and prosperous, in the end, tormented little by nomads in the north or pirates in the south as previous reigns had been; due to the competent administration of Zhang Juzheng, government coffers were well-filled.

His marriage in 1578 was to a commoner girl, who had been selected by his mother or other such figures, and whose father had been quickly appointed to military position in order to make the daughter eligible to marry an emperor. Though this girl, who was to come to be known as Empress Xiaoduan, was essentially of no particular significance, still this was not a love marriage, but rather was arranged so that the young Wanli Emperor might produce an heir as soon as possible. Married, he was now less watched, and less controlled, by his mother; whether for this reason or otherwise, he soon came to take more frequent entertainment, drinking and wandering the gardens of the Imperial City, as well as organizing frequent soirees. On one particular occasion in 1580, he sentenced two young women to death for failing to sing particular songs he ordered them to perform (these were not songs with which the women were sufficiently familiar); though the sentence was only symbolic, and they lost locks of hair rather than their heads, this was still taken as a serious breach of conduct for the emperor. His mother, along with Zhang Juzhen, arranged that he should have to abdicate the throne, and relented only after an hour of prostration and apology by the young monarch. While he kept his throne, Wanli was now to be accompanied more closely by Zhang Juzhen, and by a group of Hanlin Academy masters, who might help (re)educate him in the ways of virtue and proper conduct.

He had nine sons and ten daughters by ten wives, but it is said that his relationship with one of those wives, Lady Zheng, was a particularly caring one, which lasted throughout the rest of their lives; in 1585 or 1586, he promoted her above all his other wives & consorts to a status second only to the empress.

In 1582, after the death of his tutor & advisor Zhang Juzheng, the emperor freed himself of the Hanlin scholars who had been assigned to keep a watch over him. Wanli's first son was born in the summer that year, allowing him presumably to free himself from his mother's control even further as well. Yet, he still found himself at the mercy of eunuchs and officials when it came to making policy; factions warred amongst the officials, and just as Zhang Juzheng convinced the emperor of the benevolence, wisdom, and selflessness of his policies, leading the emperor to defend him against numerous critiques and complaints, now, beginning in 1582 when the late Zhang Juzheng was succeeded as Grand Secretary by Zhang Siwei, Siwei began working to convince the emperor that Juzheng had been controlling him, misleading him all along, and that the policies which had brought such prosperity in the first ten years of Wanli's reign were in fact bad policies, and had not done so. Convinced of Juzheng's treachery, Wanli began signing his approval to reverse many of Juzheng's policies, one by one, and to remove many of his followers from their official appointments. Where Zhang Juzheng had previously successfully convinced the emperor that his rivals' accusations were all lies, Zhang Siwei now succeeded in convincing the emperor they were not, and that Juzheng had been manipulating the emperor for his own personal gain, and that of his faction, without truly having the interests of the nation in mind.

While it was standard that his first son, Changluo, should have become the heir, Wanli preferred his third son, Changxun (aka Prince Fu).[2] Though he never officially announced this desire, it was clear to the officials at Court, as he refused time and again to authorize the designation of Changluo as heir, and even refused to allow him to be "capped" (his coming-of-age ceremony) and to begin the formal education standard for an heir. This came as just one part of Wanli's broader protest against the whims and factionalism of his officials. However, in the end, he was forced to give in to standard practice, but historian Ray Huang identifies this as one of the key issues which led to Wanli turning even more deeply into stubborn refusals to fulfill his duties. From roughly this time, forward, the emperor began to refuse to attend or participate in imperial rituals.[3]

Before long, Wanli also turned away from tending to administrative matters, leaving a great many matters to simply go unaddressed. While his ministers were capable of doing much without him, some matters - such as the appointment of new officials - required the emperor's approval, and so went undone; towards the end of his reign, as a result, the palace went severely understaffed, and numerous officials went without promotion. Many officials attempted to resign, but these requests too went ignored and unauthorized by the emperor; many thus abandoned their posts without permission.[3]

While Confucian and Taoist ideals offered much precedent and justification for action to be taken against an emperor who was cruel, or unvirtuous in other respects, there was little precedent or scriptural justification for action against an emperor who simply took a silent, neutral, inactive stance. If anything, Taoism advocated inaction. The emperor's refusal to answer memorials to throne served his goals further as his responses, regardless of their tone, would be entered into the record, and if he opposed the officials could be used as evidence of his poor or unvirtuous rule; however, memorials that went unanswered were not entered into the record. Still, the officialdom found some ways around the emperor's obstinacy. They began to organize systems by which exam-takers and officials already in service were assigned posts, promoted, and demoted, by the drawing of lots. The results of these chance drawings were then presented to the throne in bulk, allowing the eunuchs to authorize them on the emperor's behalf.[3]

Further, he went for long periods without even leaving the inner (residential) areas of the palace, where officials were forbidden to enter, thus causing the palace eunuchs, who could enter, to gain considerable power/influence as vital intermediaries.[4]

Wanli did not call a general audience of all his officials for over twenty-five years, from 1589 to 1615, and he had direct meetings with the Grand Secretariat only five times over a thirty-year period from 1590 until his death in 1620. Two matters that Wanli did pay attention to were taxation, and military campaigns. From the time of his majority in the 1580s onwards, the Ming fought battles with Ayutthaya and Burma as well as with tribal minority peoples in the southwest, campaigns in Inner Mongolia, and against the Manchus in the northeast, who the Ming managed to at least hold back, for a time. Wanli also had to deal with the rather expensive campaign against samurai armies in Korea in the 1590s.

Following his death, he was buried alongside Empress Xiaoduan (his primary wife, mother of Changluo), who had died four months earlier, in a lavish mausoleum he had helped design. His beloved Lady Zheng lived on for another ten years, in a residence within the Forbidden City, while her son, Prince Fu, lived on a separate estate out in the provinces. Though many officials grumbled at the vast size of his estate, it was in truth only that large (more than 600,000 acres) on paper; the actual estate was far smaller, with the remainder having been converted into a stipend as was quite typical for Imperial princes during the Ming.[5]

Preceded by
Longqing Emperor
Emperor of Ming
Succeeded by
Taichang Emperor


  • Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 499-500.
  • Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 1-41.
  1. Huang, 85-86.
  2. Wanli's second son died young.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Huang, 75-76.
  4. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 16-17.
  5. Huang, 77.