THE 0.01% …, WHICH ONE ? … The Emperor, the Scholar & the Admiral.

The 2019 sixty-four episodes Chinese historical drama series “The Mighty & Splendid Ming dynasty” 大 明 风 华 Da4 Ming2 Feng1 Hua2, featured events having begun in 1402 and having ended in 1457. The reigns of 5 Ming Sovereigns are displayed for our instruction & entertainment.

● The Yongle Emperor 永 乐 Yong3 Le4. He ruled from 1402 to August 12, 1424.

● The Hongxi Emperor 洪 熙 Hong2 Xi1. He ruled from August 1424 to May 1425.

● The Xuande Emperor 宣 德 Xuan1 De2. He ruled from May 1425 to January 31, 1435.

● The Zhengtong Emperor 正 统 Zheng4 Tong3. He ruled from 1435 to 1449

● The Jingtai Emperor 景 泰 Jing3 Tai4. He ruled from September 1449 to February 1457

● The Tianshun Emperor 天 顺 Tian1 Shun4. He ruled from February 1457 to February 1464. He was the restored Zhengtong Emperor. Only his restoration is shown in the TV serie, not the details of his second reign.

The year was 1421. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was still young.

Below is the hyperlink for the episode 20 of the TV series. The segment of interest is about 7 minutes long, starting at 33’30” to 40’45” :

Two men are at the center of attention.

First Yu Qian (1398-1457) 于 谦 Yu2 Qian1. We see in the first 3 minutes a bustling crowd, lively fireworks and animation inside an inn with students from the provinces having come to the Imperial Capital City for the triennal Palace Examination. The one granting the highest academic degree named jinshi 進 士 Jin4 Shi4 or Imperial Scholar.

On average, 89 men were elevated to that rank per Metropolitan Exam during the Ming dynasty. At its height, the Ming population was around 160 million people, some scholars even think it’s closer to 200 million people. Under the next dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912), on average, 102 men were given the accolade by the Emperor per each Metropolitan Exam with a population around 400 million at the end of the XIX century. So, for each triennal exam, on average, during the Ming, the jinshi were 0.000056% of the population (89 divided by 160 million). During the Qing, it was 0.000026% (102 divided by 400 million). We often talk of the 0.01% nowadays (representing 800 000 persons of the 8 000 000 000 people living right now on Earth) but they’re not of the same quality compared to the much more select elite prevailing in Imperial China. “Small government” is often extolled in our times. Well, … Imperial China certainly embodied the ideal of the so called small government because a lot was in the hands of the local communities. The first laureate of each Palace Exam was called 荘 元 Zhuang4 Yuan2, meaning The Magnificent First Laureate. 596 men were granted that honor during the many centuries of Imperial China.

In popular beliefs of Ancient Times, each of the laureates was seen as a star descending from Heaven and the Zhuangyuan was the brightest of them all.

Yu Qian, at 23, was the Zhuang Yuan in 1421 and he managed to seriously offend the Emperor in the brand new Imperial Palace by composing a short poem denouncing the fiscal abuses by the Imperial Administration in order to pay for the Emperor’s continuous & costly military northern expeditions. He was not killed by the furious Emperor, and it was a good thing because he will play a pivotal role in the defense of Beijing & China against the Mongols in the crisis of 1449 under the reckless Zhengtong Emperor, the great grandson of the man who granted him the first prize at the 1421 Metropolitan Exam.

The other man is the Yongle Emperor. 1421 was the penultimate year of his reign.

Starting in 140 BCE to the end of the Chinese Empire 2052 years later on Feb 12, 1912, the Chinese Sovereigns are known by 3 names : first as everyone by their *personal name* (Xing Ming 姓 名 Xing4 Ming2 meaning family name & given name). They are also known by one or many *Regnal Names* (Nian Hao 年 号 Nian2 Hao4. Regnal Names are also translated as Era Names) and after their death by a *Temple Name* (Miao Hao 庙 号 Miao4 Hao4).

The First Chinese Empire was created in 221 BCE. So for the 81 years between 221 BCE and 140 BCE when the Regnal Names (or Era Names) system was adopted by Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (born in 156 BCE/ruled from 141 to his death in 87 BCE), the Chinese Sovereigns were known by their personal names and by their posthumous names identifying a major virtue embodied by them. In the case of Emperor Wu, his personal name is Liu Che 刘 徹 Liu2 Che4 and his posthumous name Wu 武 Wu3, meaning Martial, so Han Wu Di 汉 武 帝 Han4 Wu3 Di4 means the Martial Emperor of the Han dynasty : it is Liu Che’s posthumous imperial name. Liu is the family name & Che the given name. The given name comes after the family name in China.

Oops …, I forgot the courtesy name every gentleman was endowed with during the Chinese Ancien Regime (~2070 BCE to 1912, a period having lasted for practically 4000 years) . In Chinese, the courtesy names is called Zi 字 Zi4. In the case of Han Wu Di (The Martial Emperor of the Han dynasty), it’s Tong 通 Tong1.

Back to the Yongle Emperor.

His *personal name* : Zhu (family name) Di (given name)

朱 棣 Zhu1 Di1, he was born on May 2, 1360. He died on August 12, 1424

He was the third Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), having ruled from July 17, 1402 to August 12, 1424.

His *Regnal Era* was named Yongle, meaning Perpetual Happiness 永 乐 Yong3 Le4. His Regnal Name covered the chronological period starting from July 17, 1402 to the 1425 Chinese New Year. Only one *Regnal Era* per Sovereign from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Before the Ming dynasty, each Sovereign had many Regnal Names (or Era Names) to distinguish the different periods of his rule. From 3 to more than 10 regnal names depending on the length of the monarchs’ respective rules.

His *Temple Name* at his death in August 1424 : Ming Taizong 明 太 宗 Ming2 Tai4 Zong1 meaning The Ming dynasty Supreme Ancestor.

In 1538, his offsprings decided that his role was much more vital for the dynasty and his Temple Name was changed to Ming Chengzu 明 成 租 Ming2 Cheng2 Zu3 ,The Ming dynasty Accomplished Progenitor. Progenitor is usually for the Dynastic Founding Father, rarely it is granted to a Sovereign seen as a second Founding Father.

There were 500 Emperors & 596 Magnificent First Laureates in the history of Imperial China. So the two men of our little excerpt were both members of two very select & exclusive clubs. Still not all people from these two exclusive clubs rendered unique and outstanding services to the Chinese Empire but it was the case for Yu Qian (1398-1457) & the Yongle Emperor (born in 1360/ruled from July 17, 1402 to his death on August 12, 1424).

His reign began in a bad way, to say the least. He toppled his nephew the Jianwen 建 文 Jian4 Wen2 Emperor (1398-1402) and massacred many of the bureaucrats loyal to his nephew in July 1402.

His elder brother Crown Prince Zhu Biao 朱 標 Zhu1 Biao1 died unexpectedly at 37 years old on May 17, 1392, 6 years before their father, the Hongwu 洪 武 Hong2 Wu2 Emperor (born in 1328, ruled from January 23, 1368 to June 24, 1398).

Instead of choosing an adult Prince having so far proved his valor & administrative abilities in his Princedom at Beiping, the aging Hongwu Emperor selected Zhu Biao’s son, Prince Yun Wen 允 炆 Yun3 Wen2 (born on December 5, 1377, ruled from June 24, 1398 to July 14, 1402) in order to respect the venerable rule (which has its merits) of male primogeniture (transmission of wealth & power to the eldest son and to the latter eldest son, etc.) What was bound to happen happened … Zhu Di, the future Yongle Emperor, dethroned his nephew and proclaimed himself Emperor on July 17, 1402. The corpse of the supposedly dead Jianwen Emperor has never been found, giving rise to wild speculations of Zhu Yunwen having survived and enjoying a new life as a Buddhist monk. Thus adding to Zhu Di’s worries for the next 22 years. The story is now part of the legends associated with the Ming dynasty.

You will find, in the first episode of this series, from 9’55” to 9’58”, a very strange portrait of the first Ming Emperor, the Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398), barely looking human and not at all to the likeness of his last official portrait showing a rather benign looking old Asian man. The director of the series wanted to make known a specimen from a set of propaganda portraits distributed to the Chinese people by the assistants of Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor) in the 1360s. The future Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398) was depicted with facial features making him look like a dragon, at least according to the perception of his lieutenants at the time. Those propaganda portraits have been rediscovered many years ago in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

I don’t want to go into the details of the Yongle Emperor reign. For those who are interested, I suggest the excellent biography called “Perpetual Happiness : The Ming Emperor Yongle” (published in 2001) by Henry Shih-Shan Tsai (1940- ).

Two things I want to highlight about the Yongle Emperor’s reign :

1- The Yongle Emperor moved the Capital City of the Chinese Empire to Beijing, which is still nowadays the Capital City of China.

2- The famous expeditions of the Treasure Fleet commanded by Admiral Zheng He 郑 和 Zheng4 He2 (1371-1433).

While Zheng He’s fleet was unprecedented by its huge scale, the routes were not. His fleet followed long-established, well-mapped routes of trade between China & the Arabian Peninsula that had been used since at least the 400-years-long Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE).

During the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), the King of Wu, Sun Quan (born in 182/ruled from 222 to his death in 252) sent a 20-year diplomatic mission led by Zhu Ying and Kang Tau along the coast of Asia, which reached as far as the eastern region of the Roman Empire.

After centuries of disruption, the Song dynasty (960-1279) restored large scale maritime trade from China in the South Pacific Ocean & Indian Ocean and reached as far as the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.

Zheng He generally sought to attain his goal through diplomacy, and his large army awed most would-be enemies into submission. He ruthlessly suppressed pirates, who had long plagued Chinese & Southeast Asian waters.

Zheng He’s first voyage departed on July 11, 1405 from Suzhou and consisted of a fleet of more than 200 ships holding practically 28 000 crewmen.

Over the next three decades he conducted 7 voyages on behalf of the Emperor in the Eastern Pacific & Indian Oceans.

Zheng He’s 7 maritime expeditions :

1- 1405-1407 : to Java, Sumatra, Malacca, Calicut aka Kozhikode (India).

2 & 3- 1408-1409 & 1409-1411 : a similar journey to the first expedition plus visits to Siam (Thailand) and the Malay Peninsula.

4- 1413-1415 : to the Malay Peninsula, to Sri Lanka, Calicut, the Maldives & Laccadives Islands, to the Hormuz Strait on the Persian Gulf.

5- 1417-1419 : to the same places than during the fourth voyage plus the Somali Coast and Kenya.

6- 1421-1422 : same route than for the fifth expedition and he went back to the Somali Coast (Mogadishu).

7- 1431-1433 : to Java, Sumatra and several other Asian ports before returning to Calicut in India. During this trip, Zheng He, who was Muslim, left the group of the biggest vessels to make his hajj to the Muslim Holy City of Mecca. At some point, Zheng He fell ill and died in 1433. It is not known whether or not he made it back to China, or died on his final great voyage.

July 11 is celebrated as China’s National Maritime Day, commemorating Zheng He’s first voyage.

Here are other interesting moments from Chinese History :

Five essential Watersheds in Time of the Eternal Idea called China

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