An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Wuzong 明武宗, the Zhengde Emperor 正德

Jan 17, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald

Emperor Wuzong 明武宗 (1491-1521, r. 1505-1521), personal name Zhu Houzhao 朱厚照, was a ruler of the mid-Ming period 明 (1368-1644). In 1492 he was, as the oldest son of Emperor Xiaozong 明孝宗 (the Hongzhi Emperor 弘治, r. 1487-1505), made heir apparent. His reign motto was Zhengde 正德 "Correct Virtue".
The time of his reign was seen as a period of chaos and instability. Emperor Wuzong did not care for government affairs and preferred to dedicate his life to Buddhism, for which reason he adopted the title of "Dharma King of Great Blessing" (daqing fawang 大慶法王) and built many Buddhist shrines as well as entertainment pavilions like the Baofang 豹房 inside the Imperial Palace. As an admirer of Buddhism he even dispatched the eunuch Liu Yun 劉允 to bring a "living Buddha" from the region of Ü-Tsang in central Tibet. For all his undertakings Emperor Wuzong spent tremendous amounts of money. He also loved musical entertainment and hired dancers. Popular fiction even says that he left the palace at night and frequented the brothels of the ordinary people. Instead of relying on court officials Emperor Wuzong trusted a group of eunuchs, the "Eight Tigers" (ba hu 八虎), the most important of which were Liu Jin 劉瑾, Gu Dayong 谷大用, Qian Ning 錢寧 and Jiang Bin 江彬. They wielded greatest power and controlled even aspects of politics. Liu Jin was Director of Ceremonial (silijian 司禮監) and controlled the palace depot (neixingchang 內行廠), while Wang Yongcheng 馬永成 and Gu Dashi the Eastern and Western Depots (dongchang 東廠, xichang 西廠). Liu Jin threatened court officials and forced many of them to commit suicide. Yet Zhang Yong 張永 later reveiled these brutal machinations to the emperor, and he had executed Liu Jin.
Emperor Wuzong adopted more than hundred sons to whom he conferred titles and land that he had confiscated as "imperial estates" (huangzhuang 皇莊).
During the whole Zhengde reign China was shaken by numerous peasant uprisings, like that of Liu Liu 劉六 and Liu Qi 劉七 in Hebei, whose armed troops three times approached Beijing and devastated many provinces. The rebels Liao Hui 廖惠 and Wu Benshu 鄢本恕 called themself "earth-sweeping king" (saodiwang 掃地王), Lan Tingrui 藍廷瑞 King Shuntian 順天王, Yang Qing 楊清稱 "Heavenly King" 天王”, Xie Zhishan 謝志山 "Conquerer of the South" 征南王, and Chi Zhongrong 池仲容 "Hegemonial king of the golden dragon" (jinlong bawang 金龍霸王).
In his later years the emperor loved to undertake inspection tours to the southern capital Nanjing 南京. His entourage molested the population to such a degree that everyone tried to hide in the mountain valleys when the imperial tour approached. The emperor saw these tours as games, and even called himself "Great General of Authoritative Martiality" (weiwei da jiangjun 威武大將軍), change his personal name to Zhu Shou 朱壽, and called himself "Defender-Duke of the State" (zhenguogong 鎮國公). Jiang Bin once persuaded the emperor to undertake a hunting tour as far as Yangzhou 揚州, Jiangsu, where he "hunted" girls that might enter his harem. Officially the tour was undertaken to engage the troops of the rebellious Prince of Ning 寧王, Zhu Chenhao 朱宸濠.
When he returned to Beijing after a tour to the north he fell ill and not long thereafter died in the Baofang Pavillon in the Forbidden City. He was buried in the tomb hill Kangling 明康陵. His posthumous honorific title is Xiaoyi huangdi 孝毅皇帝, his temple name Wuzong 武宗. Because he had no son Counsellor-in-chief Yang Tinghe 楊廷和 suggested to enthrone Prince Xingxian 興獻王, Emperor Shizong 明世宗 (the Jiajing Emperor 嘉靖, r. 1521-1566).

Chen Quanli 陳全力, Hou Xinyi 侯欣一, eds. (1988). Diwang cidian 帝王辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe), 204.
Xiong Tieji 熊鐵基, Yang Youli 楊有禮, eds. (1994). Zhongguo diwang zaixiang cidian 中國帝王宰相辭典 (Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe), 342.