15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The Hongwu Emperor had many consorts, concubines, 26 sons and 16 daughters. He appointed his eldest son Zhu Biao as the crown prince. He placed his trust only in his family. He appointed his many sons as powerful feudal princes along the northern marshes and the Yangtze valley.

Zhu Di , the Yongle Emperor

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The Yongle Emperor (Born as Zhu Di), the third Ming Emperor of China.
The Yongle Emperor (Born as Zhu Di), the third Ming Emperor of China.

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The Hongwu emperor installed one of his many sons, Zhu Di (May 2, 1360 – August 12, 1424), as Prince of Yan in May 1370, with his capital at Beiping (modern Beijing)..

Zhu Di at first accepted his father’s appointment of his elder brother Zhu Biao in 1368 as the crown prince.

On May 17, 1392, Zhu Biao died young. After several months of deliberation, the Hongwu Emperor upheld the strict rules of primogeniture laid out by him to the dynasty. He favored the bookish 14-year-old grandson Zhu Yunwen, son of  Zhu Biao, over his other sons and anointed him crown prince.

On June 24, 1398, Hongwu Emperor died.

On February 6, 1399, Zhu Yunwen became the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty as the Jianwen Emperor.

Zhu Yunwen then began executing and demoting his powerful uncles. So, Zhu Di found a pretext for rising in rebellion against his nephew the emperor.

Assisted in large part by eunuchs, Zhu Di survived the first attacks on his fiefdom. Eunuch commander Ma Sanbao defended Beiping’s city reservoir, Zhenglunba, against the imperial armies with great success.

In January 1402, Prince Zhu Di started his military campaign to capture the imperial capital Nanjing. Ma Sanbao was one of his commanders.

On July 13, 1402, Zhu Di’s armies defeated the imperial forces and marched into Nanjing. Four days later, Zhu Di ascended the throne
as the Yongle Emperor. He declared his new era the Yongle or the time of “Perpetual Happiness”.

Although Zhu Di presented a charred body as Zhu Yunwen’s, rumors circulated that the young emperor had escaped his burning palace in a monk’s robe. Later on, during the Qing dynasty, officials altered the Ming official history texts to please their emperor.

The Yongle Emperor repaired and reopened the Grand Canal, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, the longest canal or artificial river in the world.  The Grand Canal now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a famous tourist destination.

紫禁城 (Zijin Cheng) the “Purple Forbidden City”

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Hall of Supreme Harmony, in the forbidden city (Source :chinatourguide.com)
Hall of Supreme Harmony, in the forbidden city (Source :chinatourguide.com)

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In the beginning of the 15th century, the Yongle Emperor moved the imperial capital from Nanjing to a new city at Beijing, 550 miles to the northwest, next to the old Yuan dynasty capital of Kanbaliq or Dadu, built by Kublai Khan beginning in 1264.

Construction of the new Ming capital began in 1406 under the direct supervision of the emperor. It took 14 years and more than a million workers to build the city. Whole logs of precious Phoebe zhennan wood found in the jungles of southwestern China and large blocks of marble from quarries near Beijing were used for the construction.

A 40-foot high wall, 15-miles long surrounded the city. In the center of the city stood the imperial palace along with an administrative hub with offices for government officials. The palace had almost 10,000 rooms and to enter it required explicit permission of the emperor. Special baked paving bricks from Suzhou, known as “golden bricks” were used to pave the floors of major halls.

The emperor fascinated by the purplish constellation in the night sky along with the navigational North Star at its center, hoped to emulate it with his new capital. Hence, called  it 紫禁城 (Zijin Cheng) which literally meant “Purple Forbidden City.

UNESCO declared the Forbidden City as a World Heritage Site and listed it as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. It now houses the Palace Museum.

Porcelain Tower (or Pagoda) of Nanjing

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Early European illustration of the Porcelain Tower, from An embassy from the East-India Company (1665) by Johan Nieuhof.
Early European illustration of the Porcelain Tower, from An embassy from the East-India Company (1665) by Johan Nieuhof.

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The Yongle Emperor also constructed the Porcelain Tower (or Pagoda) of Nanjing, considered one of the wonders of the world. It was part of the former Bao’en Temple on the south bank of the external Qinhuai River in Nanjing, China.

The octagonal pagoda with a base of about 97 feet (30 metres) in diameter rose up to a height of 260 feet (79 metres) with nine stories. A staircase in the middle of the pagoda, spiraled upwards for 184 steps. The tower built with white porcelain bricks reflected the sun’s rays during the day. Glazes and stoneware worked into the porcelain created a mixture of green, yellow, brown and white designs on the sides of the tower. The tower was also decorated with animals, flowers and landscapes, and many Buddhist images. At night as many as 140 lamps hung from the building illuminated the tower.

In 1856, the Taiping rebels destroyed the pagoda.

China’s maritime operations under the Yongle Emperor

The Chinese may have sailed to Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) or earlier. At the turn of the 15th century, desiring to expand Chinese influence throughout the known world, the Yongle Emperor sponsored the great and long-term expeditions under the command of his eunuch admiral Zheng He and his associates Wang Jinghong, Hong Bao, and others.

At the turn of the 15th century,  China’s maritime operations had already reached the zenith of considerable sophistication, just when Iberia gained  the new momentum.  The seven voyages from 1405 to 1433 under the eunuch commander-in-chief Zheng He exemplify the  Chinese maritime power.

Admiral Zheng He’s last voyage to Africa preceded that of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and before Vasco da Gama reached India by more than 60 years, and 90 years before the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe.

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Next →  Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He

← Previous: Part 1 – The Hongwu Emperor

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