Anyone who was Emperor of China would have been, in their age, one of the world’s most powerful men, if not the most powerful. Emperor Xizhong of the Ming Dynasty, although ascending to this position, decided not to look after state affairs but instead to become a carpenter and immerse himself in woodwork. We trace his story.
Prior to the ascension of the emperor, the leading eunuch of the day, Wei Zhongxian, wished to have an incompetent on the throne in order to keep power to him. (China’s eunuchs have always had a history of taking power whenever the emperor is weak). The heir to the throne was the eldest son of the previous emperor- and who was it?
Luckily for Wei, the eldest son was Prince Zhu Youxiao, a 15 year old man. The prince was wholly incompetent. Now suspected to have severe learning disabilities, the prince was illiterate and never showed any interest whatsoever in his studies. In fact, the only thing he seemed to care about was woodwork, an area in which he had exhibited great talent. And it was this young carpenter prince that ascended to the throne, becoming Emperor Xizhong, with era name as Tianqi Emperor. Zhu Youxiao and a maid servant, Lady Wang Ke, took power behind the throne and took charge of state affairs themselves.
An era of turmoil began; any officials opposed to Wei were imprisoned or sentenced to death. The court became embroiled with immense corruption and overtaxed and mismanaged the public, and as a consequence large-scale peasant uprisings occurred throughout the country. Ancient China believed that disasters throughout the land show that the mandate of heaven has been taken away from the dynasty.
Wei, on the other hand, became increasingly confident and egoistical. He proclaimed himself the Lord of Nine Thousand Years- a clear show of defiance to the authority of the emperor, whose titles included the Lord of Ten Thousand Years; the eunuch even began erecting godlike statues of himself.
Meanwhile, Emperor Xizhong seemed to have little idea of what was going on. As he was illiterate, he could not read any of the court documents for himself, and any appeals from the officials for the emperor to attend to state affairs went unheeded. The emperor was, in fact, completely obsessed with his hobby- woodworking. During his reign his one personal accomplishment would be to construct a wooden miniature model of the Palace of Heavenly Purity in the Forbidden City, a clear demonstration of his talent as a carpenter.
Another area of interest for the emperor seemed to be drama. Stories from the era say that the emperor enjoyed performing, dressing up in summer as if it were winter and pretended to inspect a frozen palace. It was also said that he would sometimes come up on stage himself and give dramatic performances.
The Ming Dynasty had already been in decline before the reign of Emperor Xizhong, but this decline was only accelerated during it; with an emperor who completely neglected state affairs and a corrupted eunuch in charge, the dynasty fell deeper and deeper into turmoil. In fact, Emperor Xizhong would be the penultimate emperor of the Ming; the dynasty would fall shortly after his reign.
Emperor Xizhong would not reign for long, however. At the age of only 21, he was out on a pleasure boat when he fell, catching a cold from which he never recovered. On September 30, 1627, he died, succeeded by his brother, Prince Zhu Youjian, who would become the last emperor of the Ming dynasty.
The eunuch Wei would be forced to commit suicide not long after, but it was too late to save the dynasty. The immense corruption had left the government with an empty treasury, and most officials were incompetents. Less than two decades later the Ming dynasty would be faced with both a Manchu invasion and a peasant rebellion; the last emperor committed suicide, marking the end of the Ming and allowing the Qing dynasty to take power.