Yongle Emperor

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  • Born: 1360
  • Died: 1424
  • Reign: 1402-1424
  • Other Names: (Zhū Dì), 明成祖 (Míng Chéngzǔ)
  • Chinese/Japanese: 永楽帝 (Yōnglè dì / Eiraku-tei)

The Yongle Emperor was the third emperor of China's Ming Dynasty. His reign saw considerable developments in economics, foreign relations, and public works, including tally trade relations with the Ashikaga shogunate for a brief time, the first of the famous voyages of Admiral Zheng He, and the last change of capital in the Imperial period.

Zhu Di was the fourth son of the Ming founder, the Hongwu Emperor, and uncle to Hongwu's successor, the Jianwen Emperor. Following the death of Hongwu in 1398, and the ascension of Jianwen to the throne, Zhu Di sought to seize power for himself, succeeding in 1402 with an attack on the imperial palace at Nanjing, which was set aflame. The Jianwen Emperor was believed killed in the fire, and his uncle, Zhu Di, then declared himself emperor, taking the reign name Yongle. Early in his reign, however, Yongle sent missions periodically to search for the Jianwen Emperor, who it was believed might have survived the attack and escaped; these missions were then, if they found him, to kill him, securing Yongle's claim to the throne. Some scholars have suggested that searching for Jianwen may have been a secondary or ulterior motive for Yongle's launching of Zheng He's famous voyages across the entire Indian Ocean region.

Immediately after claiming the throne, Yongle officially named Beijing the new capital of the empire; ruling in Nanjing after having set fire to that palace was profoundly troublesome for his efforts to build a sense of legitimacy. He was not, however, able to actually relocate the Court and government to Beijing until 1420, after a major public works project repaired and reconstructed the Grand Canal. For a time, Ming tax revenues had been shipped by sea, but wakô ("Japanese" pirates) attacks were making this increasingly unsafe. Once the Imperial Court, along with the army and numerous associated individuals and families, relocated to Beijing, the city grew to become, quite likely, the largest city in the world.[1]

The Yongle Dadian, the largest encyclopedia ever compiled, was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor in 1407; roughly 2,000 literati were involved in its production. He also commissioned, in 1414, the production of a definitive edition of the "Four Books" - the four classical texts identified by Zhu Xi as the core of the Neo-Confucian curriculum, restoring the full-length Mencius into use after an abbreviated version was promoted by the Hongwu Emperor. Among Yongle's other notable cultural contributions was the construction of a nine-story, more than 276-foot tall octagonal porcelain pagoda in Nanjing; built following the death of his wife, it remained standing until 1854, when it was destroyed in the Taiping Rebellion.[2]

Foreign Relations

Yongle continued formal tribute/tally trade relations with the Ashikaga shogunate, established in 1401-1402 under his predecessor, receiving ambassadors from Kyoto in 1403; this 1403 mission marked the first time Japanese documents containing the phrases "your subject" and "King of Japan" were formally sent to a foreign court. This first initial phase of formal relations only lasted a few short years, however, as Ashikaga Yoshimochi, following the death of his father Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1408, severed ties. The Yongle Emperor sent envoys to Shogun Yoshimochi several times, in 1417 and 1419, seeking to establish formal relations, but was rebuffed both times.

Still, the great number of coins minted during the Yongle reign which eventually flowed into Japan over the course of the 15th-16th centuries (and later) is attested by the continued use in Japan, as late as in the 19th century, of the character 「永」 - the Yong in Yongle tongbao (J: Eiraku tsûhô), inscribed on the coins - to refer to copper coins in general.[3]

Nervous about Mongol invasions, since his father had only ended Mongol rule over China a generation earlier, Yongle launched five military expeditions into Mongolia in the 1410s-1420s. He also launched expeditions into Annam (Vietnam), but after twenty years of fighting, was forced to withdraw and give up on efforts to conquer Vietnam.

Yongle dispatched a number of eunuch envoys to Southeast Asian courts, and beginning in 1405, he famously dispatched eunuch admiral Zheng He on a series of voyages across the Indian Ocean; Zheng would visit the eastern coast of Africa, India, and the Persian Gulf, bringing back numerous luxuries to the court, including exotic animals. There are many theories as to why Yongle launched such maritime expeditions, and why they stand out as so unique in Chinese history. These were not missions of conquest, but were rather aimed at spreading awareness of the existence of the Chinese Emperor, and of his great virtue and power, and seeking nominal ritual submission and tribute from the peoples Zheng discovered. These were clearly, in large part, undertaken in order to boost the impression of Yongle's power and legitimacy at home, though there may have also been economic or other motives as well.

The Yongle Emperor died in 1424, and was succeeded by the Hongxi Emperor.

Preceded by
Jianwen Emperor
Emperor of Ming
Succeeded by
Hongxi Emperor


  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 376-?.
  1. Hansen (p377) gives the figure of 2 million residents, but this seems difficult to believe, given that other sources indicate that Beijing and Edo were roughly tied for largest city in the world at roughly 1 to 1.5 million people in the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, hundreds of years later.
    Yokohari, Makoto. "Agro-activities in the Fringe of Asian Mega-Cities." Institute of Policy and Planning Sciences, University of Tsukuba (2003), 1-2.
    Nicholas Fiévé and Paul Waley, Japanese capitals in historical perspective: place, power and memory in Kyoto, Edo and Tokyo, Psychology Press (2003), 100.
    Other sources, speaking of the early Ming, give the city's population as reaching 1 million at that time. Lillian M. Li, Alison Dray-Novey, and Haili Kong, Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, Macmillan (2008), 27.
  2. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 245.
  3. For example, an amount to be paid might be referenced or recorded in a document as 「永二〇〇文」 (ei nihyaku mon), meaning 200 mon, in copper.