Zhang Juzheng was a prominent government official and reformer who served as teacher, Grand Secretary, and chief advisor to the Wanli Emperor (r. 1573-1620) during the emperor's minority, and into the early years of his majority.
Zhang's reputation remains a matter of dispute. He is described as a Confucian legalist, believing in strong laws to regulate society, in order to benefit the people. During the first ten years of the Wanli reign, up until Zhang's death, he was favored by the emperor, the dowager empress, and many at court, being considered a very capable and upright official. His policies and projects, including repairs of the Grand Canal, reform of the courier system, and various reforms of the size and efficiency of the bureaucracy, contributed to an empire that was comparatively peaceful and prosperous, and full government coffers. He reduced the size of the bureaucracy overall, placed greater central control over provincial governors, and took steps to reduce the influence of palace eunuchs. Perhaps his most prominent act was the empire-wide implementation of the Single Whip Reform of the tax system, which had already been tested in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces; thirty or forty different tax obligations were now combined into one, and where taxes were previously paid in some combination of cash (coin) and kind (grain or other products), all taxes were now to be paid in coin. An empire-wide land survey ordered in 1581, the year before Zhang's death, was a significant part of this policy initiative as well.
Zhang also attempted to reform the civil service exams. Since the reign of the Hongwu Emperor two centuries earlier, the "eight-legged essay" was the standard form for essays on the exams. After serving as an examiner (reader, grader of the exams) in 1571, Zhang decided that the exams relied too heavily on adherence to form, and that they ought to be judged more chiefly on the content and quality of candidates' ideas as to how to address real political issues. Further seeing the provincial schools as training students only in form, and in empty theorizing, and worrying that these schools were in some way breeding grounds for political factions or even for rebellions, Zhang attempted to have many of the schools shut down, and met significant resistance.
When the emperor rashly sentenced two palace girls to death for not knowing certain songs he commanded them to sing, Zhang stood by the empress dowager in asserting that Wanli had no choice but to abdicate, standing firm on this until the young emperor had prostrated himself and apologized profusely and sincerely. After this episode, Zhang was an even more constant companion to the young emperor, guiding and watching over his behavior.
When a rival faction at court accused Zhang of all sorts of corruption, the emperor and his mother, believing in the wisdom and benevolence of Zhang's policies, defended him, having a number of the accusers stripped of office or even executed. Upon the death of his father, Zhang refused to resign his position in order to return home, to practice the proper filial mourning observances, claiming that he was needed at Court, for the benefit of the empire. Here, too, the emperor and empress dowager defended his decision, despite opposition and criticism from factions at court, including many associated with the Donglin Academy.
However, after Zhang's death in 1582, Zhang's successor as Grand Secretary, Zhang Siwei, began to convince the emperor that Zhang Juzheng had in fact been corrupt all along, living an extremely lavish lifestyle, and essentially just using the emperor in order to allow himself to maintain such personal wealth. Further, Siwei convinced the emperor that much of the prosperity of the previous ten years only appeared so on paper, and that Zhang Juzheng's policies were in fact misguided and damaging. Convinced of this, the Wanli Emperor then ordered that some significant portion of the land and wealth of Zhang's heirs' be seized. Even after Siwei's death, and succession as First Grand Secretary by Shen Shixing, accusations against Zhang and his "lackeys" (including Shen) continued until 1585, three years after Zhang's death.
In the end, it remains unclear whether Zhang was the upright, selfless advisor he claimed to be, or the selfish, manipulative vizier his enemies accused him of being.
- Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 249.
- Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 1-41.
- Schirokauer, et al, 265.
- Huang, 70.