Portrait of the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di, founder of the Ming dynasty. Ink and color on silk, by an anonymous painter.

Zhu Di ??, son of the founder of the Ming ? dynasty, usurped the throne from his nephew in 1402 to become the Yongle ?? emperor. During his reign he extended the power and influence of the dynasty, commissioned naval expeditions to the Indian Ocean, moved the imperial capital to Beijing ??, and oversaw important scholarly enterprises.

Zhu Di (reigned 1402–1424) was the son of the Hongwu emperor (reigned 1368–1398), who founded the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Zhu, usurping the throne from his nephew, the Jianwen emperor (reigned 1398–1402), became one of the most powerful and effective emperors of the dynasty. Under his reign the empire became stabilized after the tumultuous early years of the dynasty. As a powerful military leader, Zhu Di oversaw the consolidation and expansion of Ming power.

Zhu Di claimed to be the fourth son of the founder by his primary wife, Empress Ma (1332–1382). Some later sources rumored that Zhu Di was a son by a concubine, perhaps from Korea or Mongolia. As a youth, Zhu Di was known for his military prowess, and his father entrusted him with the strategic northern fiefdom of Yan, the ancient name for the Beijing region. Zhu Di took up his post as the prince of Yan in 1380 when he was twenty years old, participating in successful military campaigns against the Mongols in 1381, 1390, and 1396.

In 1399, suspicious of the Jianwen emperor and covetous of the throne, the prince of Yan launched a civil war against his nephew. He claimed that the court had fallen prey to evil advisors and that his intervention to “quell the difficulties” was in accord with the wishes of the founder. Zhu Di’s superior military leadership and well-trained troops defeated the imperial forces, leading to the capture of Nanjing, where the Jianwen emperor apparently died in the burning palace (although rumors persisted that he had miraculously escaped).

Yongle’s Preface to the Great Compendium of the Yongle Reign (Yongle dadian)

The Yongle emperor was so pleased with the compilation of material in this 11,095-volume encyclopedia that he gave it the eponymous title Great Compendium of the Yongle Reign. To confirm that he was the driving force behind this historical enterprise, Yongle wrote a lengthy preface.

Ever since I succeeded to my father’s throne, I have thought about writing and publication as a means of unifying confusing systems and standardizing government regulations and social customs. But it is indeed very difficult to write introductions to the biographies of hundreds of rulers, to summarize classics from every dynasty, to record continuing events of so many centuries, and to simplify and edit so many complex topics… Undertaking such a task is like sifting gold from sand or searching for pearls from the sea. Nevertheless, I ordered my literati-officials to compile The Four Treasuries, to purchase lost books from the four corners of the country, to search and to collect whatever [works] they could find, to assemble and classify them according to both topical and phonetic order, and to make them into enduring classics. The fruit of their labor is this encyclopedia, which includes the breadth of the universe and all the texts from antiquity to the present time, whether they are big or small, polished or crude…

Source: Shih-Shan Henry Tsai.. (2001). Perpetual happiness: The Ming emperor Yongle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 133–134.

After the bloody civil war Zhu Di ascended the throne, declaring his reign “Yongle” (Everlasting Happiness). Seeking to consolidate his rule and restore order to the realm, he restored the civil service examination system and recruited large numbers of scholars to work on several ambitious literary projects, including the giant encyclopedia, the Yongle dadian (Great Compendium of the Yongle Reign), comprehensive editions of the Confucian canon (the Five Classics and the Four Books), a large anthology of neo-Confucian terms and teachings, and the entire Buddhist canon (the Tripitaka).

The Yongle emperor had grand imperial pretensions far beyond those of his predecessors. He launched military campaigns against the Mongols to the north and affirmed the northern power of the dynasty by moving the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where he built an imposing imperial complex (the Forbidden City). To the south he sought to extend Ming military and political control over Vietnam. His most celebrated initiative was the series of voyages in the Indian Ocean from 1405 to 1433, led by the eunuch Zheng He. These expeditions asserted Ming military and economic power as far as the Persian Gulf and the coast of Africa.

Upon his death in 1424 Zhu Di was canonized with the posthumous title of Taizong (Grand Ancestor), a standard title for the second emperor of a dynasty, once again officially bypassing the Jianwen reign. In 1537 the Jiajing emperor (1521–1567) changed Zhu’s posthumous title to Chengzu (Accomplished Progenitor) in recognition of his importance in the consolidation of the dynasty.

Further Reading

Shih-shan Henry Tsai. (2001). Perpetual happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Shang Chuan ??. (1989). Yongle huangdi ????. Beijing: Beijing Publishing.

Source: Ditmanson, Peter B. (2009). Yongle, Emperor (ZHU Di). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2590–2591. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Yongle, Emperor (ZHU Di) (Y?nglè Huángdì (Zh? Dì) ????(??))|Y?nglè Huángdì (Zh? Dì) ????(??) (Yongle, Emperor (ZHU Di))

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