Reign of Jiajing

The reign of Jiajing marks the return of despotic rule to the Ming Dynasty and saw the enactment of controversial revisions to court ritual. Although raids by the Mongols on the northern border increased dramatically during this period, a general avoidance of military confrontation left the problem to future emperors.

Summary of Event

In 1522, the Ming Dynasty’ Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);return of despotic rule[despotic] chief grand secretary, Yang Tinghe, placed Zhu Houzong, a highly intelligent and classically trained man, on the imperial throne, thereby severing the formal line of succession. Taking the reign name Jiajing, he inherited a state neglected by the heirless tenth Ming emperor Zhengde (Cheng-te, temple name Wuzong or Wu-tsung; r. 1505-1521), whose lust for pleasure led to increased control of government by the powerful eunuch class of bureaucrats. Jiajing
Yang Tinghe
Yen Song
Shao Yuanjie
Tao Zhongwen
Yang Tinghe
Yen Song
Shao Yuanjie
Tao Zhongwen

Perhaps trouble was not expected from Jiajing, but his stubborn insistence on having his own parents recognized officially and given their rightful due soon drew loud protests from many officials, who feared formalizing this broken line of succession. Jiajing had 134 of these officials flogged and jailed, and he ordered the compilation of the history of what became known as the Ta-li affair in 1525. Above all, Jiajing wanted bestowed posthumously on his father honors similar to those accorded the previous emperor. Jiajing also insisted that his mother be received by the court as a dowager empress rather than a princess. His demands, which challenged the ritual foundations of imperial legitimacy, had the effect of altering the manner in which emperors acknowledged their predecessors.

Jiajing’s reign is known to history as one of fiscal crisis and population growth Population growth;China . Between 1522 and 1524, while Yang Tinghe was chief grand secretary, the main imperial granaries held only a three-year reserve, and demand continued to exceed supply year after year. Palace financial reserves were sometimes exhausted during the following decade. Jiajing was forced to cease additional palace and temple construction to slow the depletion of funds, but in May of 1557, the main audience halls and southern ceremonial gates were destroyed by fire and cost more than 730,000 ounces of silver to rebuild. While this project was being undertaken, another fire, started when a lamp tipped over after a night during which the court had indulged in heavy drinking, claimed the emperor’s palace in the western garden of the Forbidden City. Economy;China

Faced with constant deficits, the emperor approved fiscal reorganization, but widespread drought and famine, combined with mounting defense expenditures, continued to deplete imperial funds. On January 23, 1556, a massive earthquake Earthquake, Chinese (1556) hit the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Henan. Buildings and city walls collapsed, giant crevices opened in the earth, and the aftershocks lasted for days. It has been estimated that as many as 830,000 people perished in the subsequent flooding. The financial demands of meeting this disaster was combined with the need to provision increasing numbers of imperial clansmen with stipends, the disappearance of taxable land, and the failure to register newly cultivated land. Legal overseas trade with Japan quickly degenerated into piracy and its concomitant violence, which spiraled out of control by 1556. Imperial finances would not begin to improve until the 1570’.

Potential sources of revenues such as trade with the Mongols went untapped. Jiajing despised the Mongols Mongol Empire;China and and refused to grant their petitions for trade. This intransigence had dire consequences. The Mongols prized items such as silk, tea, metalwares, and pottery, and the procurement of these items became inextricably intertwined with power. The Mongol khan Altan conducted major raids deep into Ming territory in search of scarce supplies after his petitions for trade with China were rejected. Though Jiajing committed precious funds to building new defensive walls, the underling causes of the raids were not addressed. The Mongols were emboldened after defeating the imperial army in 1548, and by March of 1550, no rain or snow had fallen for more than 150 days. The Mongols prepared to attack again. On October 1, they besieged Beijing and looted the suburbs successfully. When an imperial army could not be raised to drive off the invaders, they retreated several days later—booty intact. The Mongols continued their raids from 1550 to 1556, and the Ming armies won only a single significant victory during this period. Not surprisingly, between 1550 and 1560, payments for garrisons doubled while revenues remained constant.

Although the first years of Jiajing’s reign saw genuine changes that included the dismissal of hundreds of eunuchs Eunuchs, Chinese and unqualified persons and the seizure of their property by the state, this zeal for office did not continue. As Jiajing’s health declined in the 1530’, he ceased attending to the routine details of government and left such tasks to the likes of Yen Song, the grand secretary from 1542 to 1562. Jiajing had stopped officiating at the Sacrifice to Earth and Heaven altogether by 1553.

Relieved of the most onerous duties of office, Jiajing pursued an ardent interest in the magical arts of Daoism Daoism and was encouraged in this pursuit first by a priest named Shao Yuanjie and later by Tao Zhongwen. This obsession began with an interest in increasing fertility, for the emperor remained childless the first ten years of his reign. Soon, however, Jiajing began relying on divinations in matters of state and increasingly ingested aphrodisiacs. His quest for longevity and immortality led to his addiction to the stimulants found in these aphrodisiacs, which were made largely from red lead and white arsenic. Ironically, these elixirs caused mood swings, diminished his mental capacity, and eventually led to his early death. Jiajing’s interest in attaining immortality may even have contributed to an assassination attempt by concubines who dreaded his visits. On November 27, 1542, eighteen palace girls tried to strangle him while he was in a drunken stupor. It seems that some of the elixirs of immortality pursued by Jiajing required intercourse with fourteen-year-old virgins at their first instance of menses. Tao Zhongwen once selected eight hundred girls between the ages of eight and fourteen for use in refining the elixir.

Jiajing’s obsession with Daoism had political implications as well. He turned against the Hanlin Academy, the bastion of Confucianism Confucianism in imperial China. He demoted and reassigned many Hanlin officials to provincial posts and replaced them with individuals who had no previous affiliation with the academy. Late in 1530, he changed the sacrifices and titles for Confucius (who had been deemed a prince since 738) and did away with all titles of nobility conferred on Confucius and his followers. Images were even ordered abolished from Confucian temples, though this decree was not widely enforced. As Daoist activities increased on the palace grounds, officials able to write well in the poetic Daoist literary form, known as Qing ci, received high favor. Attempts were made to suppress Buddhism Buddhism;China as well during this period. In 1536, the Buddhist temple on the palace grounds was ordered dismantled, and 169 of its gold and silver images were melted down.


During Jiajing’s reign, the wealth of the Ming Dynasty began to decline, though economic activity increased, driven by growth in agricultural technology and the development of the cloth and handicraft industries. Part of the reason for this economic decline amid increased production was the disappearance of existing taxable land and the failure to register new land properly. The increase in population, a series of building projects and natural disasters, and the mounting defense expenditures also contributed to the fiscal crisis. Mongol invasions from the north increased and were met defensively; consequently, the Mongols were not driven from the frontier. Raids by Japanese and other pirates began in the 1520’s and reached a peak by the mid-1550’, when they threatened the canal cities of Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing. Though the emperor refused to change his position, his ban on maritime trade (and trade with the Mongols) proved ineffective. All of these problems remained unsolved into the seventeenth century and contributed to the demise of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, less than a century after Jiajing’s death in 1567.

Further Reading

  • Goodrich, L. Carrington, ed. Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Contains useful biographies of Jiajing and other prominent Ming figures.
  • Mote, Fredrick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Useful discussion of the mid-Ming period.
  • Mote, Fredrick W., and Denis Twitchett, ed. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1. Vol. 7 in The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. In-depth overview of the reign of Jiajing.
  • Paludan, Ann. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign by Reign Record of the Rulers of China. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Includes a brief discussion of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty and provides historical context.

16th cent.: China’s Population Boom

16th cent.: Single-Whip Reform

1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1571: Mongols Raid Beijing

Jan. 23, 1556: Earthquake in China Kills Thousands

1567-1572: Reign of Longqing

1573-1620: Reign of Wanli

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea