Childhood & Early Life
Born on May 2, 1360, Zhu Di was the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang, the future Hongwu Emperor, who, at the time, was the leader of the central Red Turbans.
The surviving Ming records state that his mother was Empress Ma, the Empress Consort of Hongwu Emperor. This is the view that Zhu Di himself asserted. However, some contemporaries stated that one of Hongwu Emperor’s concubines gave birth to him. They added that the change in the identity of his mother was introduced to sanction his claim to the throne.
Zhu Di had a loving upbringing. Hongwu ensured that his sons were provided with the best of education available in the empire and reintroduced the ancient feudal principalities for several of his sons.
Zhu Di was appointed the prince of Yan. After relocating to Beiping (modern-day Beijing), the former Khanbaliq of Yuan, he discovered a city that had been utterly devastated by famine and disease. With the help of General Xu Da, he brought the region under control.
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Accession & Reign
Gradually consolidating his power, Zhu Di became one of the most powerful princes of the dynasty. His older brother and his father’s first heir, Zhu Biao, passed away in 1392. The Hongwu Emperor was still alive, and he made Zhu Biao’s son, Zhu Yunwen, his second successor.
After Hongwu’s passing in 1398, Zhu Yunwen claimed the throne as the Jianwen Emperor. However, his reign did not last long. In order to secure his throne, he started removing or killing his uncles. Several of Zhu Di’s less powerful brothers were either demoted or executed. This gave him the opportunity to start a rebellion against his nephew.
Eunuchs had been a quintessential part of the Chinese government for most of the country’s history. However, Hongwu distrusted them and categorically reduced their influence in the government and appointed the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats. Jianwen upheld these policies. For Zhu Di, this ill-treatment of court eunuchs gave him a chance to join forces with powerful allies.
After surviving the early attacks against his princedom, he began the Jingnan campaign or Jingnan rebellion in 1399. In the ensuing three years, he gradually pushed the imperial forces back until the fall of the imperial capital Nanjing.
Jianwen, in despair, set fire to the imperial palace. After Zhu Di took control of the city, three charred bodies, identified as the Jianwen Emperor, Empress Xiaominrang, and Crown Prince Zhu Wenkui, were presented to him.
There are speculations that Jianwen had survived the war and fled the city. Either way, Zhu Di announced that the reign of the Jianwen Emperor had been nullified. The historical records of this era were categorically either purged or changed. Thousands of Confucian scholar-bureaucrats, including the revered scholar and politician Fang Xiaoru, were executed, and their families either suffered the same fate or were exiled.
On July 17, 1402, Zhu Di ascended the Ming throne as the Yongle Emperor. His early years on the throne were invested on stifling speculations, eradicating bandits, and rebuilding the country after the devastation caused by the rebellion.
He depended on eunuchs to an unprecedented degree. Aside from their typical palatial duties, they were put in charge of military garrisons and dispatched as envoys to foreign lands. In 1420, he set up the Eastern Depot (Tung-ch'ang), a spy agency exclusively made up of eunuchs.
The Yongle Emperor appointed an advisory group of young scholars who had studied at the Hanlin Academy. By the time the emperor passed away, they had risen through the ranks to become the Grand Secretariat, which served as the link between the emperor and the administrative agencies of the government.
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The emperor empowered and stimulated the economy by taking back uncultivated lands for agriculture, making use of the Chinese labour force with extreme efficiency, and increasing the textile and agriculture production.
One of his most favourite eunuch officials was the famed explorer Zheng He, who, with permission from the emperor, embarked on multiple voyages of exploration into the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
Governing from Nanjing posed multiple problems, so the emperor decided to shift his capital to Beiping. He restored the Grand Canal, effectively making the transport of various types of goods from all over the world much easier. Between 1406 and 1420, he oversaw the establishment of the Forbidden City.
The Yongle Emperor was behind the construction of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. Regarded as one of the wonders of the world, it was demolished by the Taiping rebels in 1856.
In order to rein in the influence of the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats, the emperor preferred to utilize the imperial examination system over his father's methods of personal recommendation and appointment. These scholars composed the impressive ‘Yongle Encyclopedia’ during his reign.
The emperor forged diplomatic relations with Timurlane’s successors in Samarkand and Herat and let trade continue through the Silk Road. From 1410 to 1424, he himself helmed five expeditions into Mongolia to eradicate the last of the Yuan Dynasty that had been overthrown by his father. He also launched a successful campaign against Annam (Vietnam).
Marriage & Issue
In 1376, Zhu Di married the daughter of General Xu Da. After the Yongle Emperor’s enthronement, she became Empress Xu, formally Empress Renxiaowen.
They had at least seven children together, three sons, Zhu Gaochi (the future Hongxi Emperor), the Prince of Han Zhu Gaoxu, and the Prince Jian of Zhao Zhu Gaosui, and four daughters, Princess Yong'an, Princess Yongping, Princess Ancheng, and Princess Xianning. The Yongle Emperor also had other children with his concubines.
Death & Succession
On April 1, 1424, the Yongle Emperor began an extensive military campaign into the Gobi desert to pursue a large force of fleeing Oirats. Infuriated by his failure to trap his swift enemies, the emperor became depressed and fell sick, likely caused by a number of minor strokes.
He passed away on August 12, 1424, in Yumuchuan, Nurgan, Ming dynasty, at the age of 64. He was laid to rest in the Changling Tomb, which is the central and largest mausoleum of the Ming tombs situated north of Beijing.
After the Yongle Emperor, his son Zhu Gaochi ascended the throne as the Hongxi Emperor. The economic, educational, and military reforms he ushered in definitely helped his people.
On the other hand, his despotic government established a spy agency, and he was incredibly cruel. However, he is still regarded as an architect and keeper of Chinese culture, history, and statecraft and a highly important ruler in the history of China.