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Period of the reign of Wanli Emperor (萬曆)

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Examples of porcelain from period of the reign of Wanli Emperor

Names / Owners

1573 - 1620: 
Wanli Emperor (萬曆)

Historical note

The Wanli Emperor (Chinese: 萬曆; pinyin: Wànlì; 4 September 1563 – 18 August 1620), personal name Zhu Yijun, was the 13th emperor of the Ming dynasty of China. "Wanli", the era name of his reign, literally means "ten thousand calendars". He was the third son of the Longqing Emperor. His reign of 48 years (1572-1620) was the longest among all the Ming dynasty emperors and it witnessed the steady decline of the dynasty.

Early reign (1572 - 1582)

Zhu Yijun ascended the throne at the age of nine and adopted the regnal name "Wanli", thus he is historically known as the Wanli Emperor. For the first ten years of his reign, he was aided by the Senior Grand Secretary (shǒufǔ), Zhang Juzheng, who governed the country as Yijun's regent. During this period, the Wanli Emperor deeply respected Zhang as a mentor and a valued minister. However, as the emperor's reign progressed, several factions within the government began to openly oppose Zhang's policies as well as to resent his powerful position in government, and tried to influence the Wanli Emperor to dismiss Zhang. By 1582, the Wanli Emperor was a young man of 19 and was tired of the strict routine of Confucian duties that Zhang still imposed on the emperor even though he was past childhood.[2] The emperor became willing to dismiss Zhang, but Zhang died in 1582 before the emperor was able to act.

During the first ten years of the Wanli era, the Ming dynasty's economy and military power prospered in a way not seen since the Yongle Emperor and the Rule of Ren and Xuan from 1402 to 1435. After Zhang's death, the Wanli Emperor felt free to act independently, and reversed many of Zhang's administrative improvements. In 1584, the Wanli Emperor issued an edict confiscating all of Zhang's personal wealth and purging his family members.

Wanli Emperor

Middle reign (1582 - 1600)

After Zhang Juzheng died, Wanli decided to take complete personal control of the government. During this early part of his rule he showed himself to be a competent and diligent emperor. Overall, the economy continued to prosper and the country remained powerful. Unlike the 20 years at the end of his rule, Wanli at this time would attend every morning meeting and discuss affairs of state.

The first eighteen years of Wanli's reign would be dominated by three wars that he dealt with successfully:

  • Defense against the Mongols. In the northern frontier regions one of the leaders rebelled and allied with the Mongols to attack the Ming. At this time, Wanli sent out Li Chengliang and his sons to handle the situation, resulting in overall success.
  • Japanese invasions. Toyotomi Hideyoshi of Japan sent 200,000 soldiers in his first expedition to invade Korea. Wanli made three strategic moves. First, he sent a 3,000 man army to reinforce the Koreans. Second, if Koreans entered Ming territory, he gave them sanctuary. Third, he instructed the Liaodong area to prepare for possible invasion. The first two battles fought with the Japanese were defeats since Ming troops under Li Rusong were outnumbered and ill-prepared to fight the 200,000-strong Japanese army. Wanli then sent a bigger army of 80,000 men, with more success. This resulted in negotiations that favored the Ming. Two years later, in 1596, Japan once again invaded. However, that same year Hideyoshi died and the remaining Japanese leadership lost their will to fight. Combined with the raids of Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin and the bogging down of Japanese forces in the Korean mainland, the demoralized Japanese army withdrew, with peace negotiations following.
  • The Yang Yinglong rebellion. At first, Wanli was engaged in war with Japan and sent only 3,000 troops under the command of Yang Guozhu to fight the rebellion. However, this army was annihilated and Yang Guozhu was killed. After the war with Japan ended, Wanli turned his attention to Yang Yinglong, sending Guo Zhizhang and Li Huolong to lead the offensive. In the end, Li Huolong defeated Yang's army and brought him back to the capital.

After the last of these three wars were concluded, Wanli withdrew from active participation in morning meetings, a practice which he continued throughout the rest of his reign.

Late reign (1600 - 1620)

During the later years of Wanli's reign, he became thoroughly alienated from his imperial role and, in effect, went on strike. He refused to attend morning meetings, see his ministers or act upon memoranda. He also refused to make necessary personnel appointments, and as a result the whole top echelon of the Ming administration became understaffed. (He did, however, pay close attention to the construction of his own tomb, a magnificent structure which took decades to complete.)

There are several reasons why he deliberately neglected his duties as Emperor. One is that he became disenchanted with the moralistic attacks and counterattacks of officials, rooted in an abstract Confucian orthodoxy. A more important reason, though, was a dispute about the imperial succession. Wanli's favorite consort was Lady Zheng, and throughout the 1580s and 1590s Wanli very much wanted to promote his son by her (Zhu Changxun) as crown prince, even though he was only Wanli's third son and not favored for the succession. Many of his powerful ministers were opposed, and this led to a clash between sovereign and ministers that lasted more than 15 years. In October 1601 Emperor Wanli finally gave in and promoted Zhu changluo - later Emperor Taichang - as crown prince. Although the ministers seem to have triumphed, Wanli adopted a policy of passive resistance, refusing to play his part in allowing the government to function adequately, leading to serious problems both within China itself and on the borders.

At this time began the growth of what would become the Manchurian threat. The Jurchen area was gradually conquered by Nurhaci. Nurhaci would go on to create the Later Jin Empire which would now become an immediate threat. By this time, after 20 years of imperial dysfunction, the Ming Dynasty army was in steep decline. While the Jurchens were fewer in number, they were fiercer and better fighters. For instance, in the grand battle of Nun Er Chu in 1619, the Ming Dynasty sent out a force of 200,000 against the Later Jin Empire of 60,000, with Nurhaci controlling 6 banners and 45,000 as the central attack while Dai Shan and Hong Taiji each controlled 7,500 troops and one banner attacked from the sides. After 5 days of battle, the Ming Dynasty had casualties of over 100,000, with 70% of their food supply stolen.

Palace Assault
In 1615 the court was hit by yet another scandal. A man by the name of Zhang Chai (Zh: 张差), armed with no more than a wooden staff, managed to chase off eunuchs guarding the gates and broke into Ci-Qing palace (慈庆宫), then the Crown Prince’s living quarters. Zhang Chai was eventually subdued and thrown into prison. Initial investigation found him to be a lunatic, but upon further investigation by a magistrate named Wang Zhicai (王之寀) the man confessed to being party to a plot instigated by two eunuchs working under Lady Zheng. According to Zhang Chai’s confession, the two had promised him rewards for assaulting the Crown Prince, thus implicating the Emperor’s favorite concubine in an assassination plot. Presented with the incriminating evidence and the gravity of the accusations, Emperor Wanli, in an attempt to spare Lady Zheng, personally presided over the case. He laid the full blame on the two implicated eunuchs who were executed along with the would-be assassin. Although the case was quickly hushed up, it did not quash public discussion and eventually became known as the "Case of the Palace Assault" (梃擊案), one of three notorious 'mysteries' of the Late Ming Dynasty.

Legacy and death

Many scholars of Chinese history believe that the Wanli Emperor's reign was a significant factor contributing to the decline of the Ming dynasty. He refused to play the emperor's role in government, and delegated many responsibilities to eunuchs, who made up their own faction. The official administration was so dissatisfied that a group of scholars and political activists loyal to the thoughts of Zhu Xi and against those of Wang Yangming created the Donglin Movement, a political group who believed in upright morals and tried to influence the government according to strict Neo-Confucian principles.

His reign also experienced heavy fiscal and military pressures, especially since during the final years of the Wanli era, when the Manchus began to conduct raids on the northern border of the Ming Empire. Their depredations ultimately led to the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644. It has been said that the fall of the Ming dynasty was not a result of the Chongzhen Emperor's rule but instead due to the Wanli Emperor's gross neglect of his duties as Emperor.

The Wanli Emperor died in 1620 and was buried in the Dingling Mausoleum among the Ming tombs on the outskirts of Beijing. His tomb is one of the biggest in the vicinity and one of only two that are open to the public. The tomb was excavated in 1956, and remains the only imperial tomb that had been excavated since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. In 1969, during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards stormed the Dingling Mausoleum, and dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned after photographs were taken of their skulls. Thousands of other artifacts were also destroyed.

In 1997, China's Ministry of Public Security published a book on the history of drug abuse. It stated that the Wanli Emperor's remains had been examined in 1958 and found to contain morphine residues at levels which indicate that he had been a heavy and habitual user of opium. According to Dikötter's Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China, Madak was introduced in China by Dutch traders between 1624 and 1660. Before that, Chinese only used opium in medicinal purposes, so therefore the Wanli Emperor could not have been addicted in smoking opium.

The Wanli Emperor's contribution to the defense of the Joseon dynasty in Korea against the Japanese invasion has endeared him to Koreans over the centuries. In the late 1990s, Koreans still paid respect to the Wanli Emperor.

In many ways, he was similar to other Chinese emperors who were initially successful but later deteriorated, contributing to their dynasty's eventual overthrow, such as the Emperors Gaozong and Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty, and the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty.

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More info: Wanli Emperor (Wikipedia)