Reign of Wanli Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The reign of Wanli witnessed the rapid deterioration of the imperial government and marked a turning point in the history of the Ming Dynasty.

Summary of Event

Wanli (whose temple name, Shenzong, means “Divine Progenitor”) ascended the imperial throne at the age of ten and inherited an empire ridden with crises and challenges. Externally, with its frontier defenses deteriorating—despite efforts under Wanli’s father Longqing to bolster the Great Wall with new construction—the empire was faced with the renewed danger of Mongol raids in the northern frontier and by Japanese pirates in the southeastern coastal regions. Domestically, the imperial governmental system had become inefficient, plagued with inertia (in the wake of Longqing’s inattentiveness and irresponsibility), bureaucratic corruption, and rampant factionalism as well as financial difficulties. These problems worsened during Wanli’s reign, except for the early part of Wanli’s reign, from 1573 to 1582, when Zhang Juzheng, grand secretary under Longqing and now Wanli, was in charge of state affairs. Wanli Zhang Juzheng Feng Bao Zhang Juzheng Feng Bao Wanli

In his early years of reign, Wanli lived in the shadow of Zhang Juzheng, whose office combined the roles of head of the civil administration with imperial tutor. The young emperor pursued his education diligently under Zhang’s rigorous supervision. He also depended on Zhang for administrating state affairs. He showed great respect for Zhang, calling him “Mr. Zhang” rather than by his familiar name. Zhang Juzheng was a competent, prudent, and pragmatic statesman. The decade of his administration represented, as modern scholars generally admit, an excellent phase in late Ming Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);government reform history.

Zhang adopted an austerity program to reduce expenditures, especially by suspending or curbing unnecessary and unimportant court expenses and eunuch procurement missions. He initiated the reform of taxation known as the single-whip system Single-Whip Reform[Single Whip Reform] , under which all the various labor service levies, surcharges, and miscellaneous requisitions were combined into a single payment of silver bullion. This method significantly simplified the tax-paying procedure and reduced abuses in tax collections, hence increasing state revenues. Taxation;China Zhang also set in motion a nationwide review of local accounts, with the purpose of checking corruption of local officials. In addition, he took measures to strengthen administrative discipline and curb factionalism. The implementation of these policies was successful: State revenues increased and governmental efficiency was enhanced.

In conducting state affairs, Zhang Juzheng enlisted and enjoyed the strong backing of the emperor’s mother and the close cooperation of the eunuch director Feng Bao. Unlike most other eunuch Eunuchs, Chinese officials during the Ming Dynasty, who were unscrupulous and corrupt, Feng was believed to be conscientious. He commanded enormous respect from the young emperor, who treated Feng as his “big companion.”

During these early years, Wanli, intelligent and perceptive, showed signs of a wise ruler: He was concerned with the welfare of the populace and with the frontier defenses, he held regular audiences with his officials, and he was ready to endorse policy proposals potentially beneficial to the state. However, these years were also ones of frequent frustration for the young emperor. Although an absolute ruler in theory, his power and activities were in practice circumscribed even with regard to his personal life. For example, he was once forced by his mother to kneel on the ground for failing to finish his assigned readings; he was criticized for getting drunk and for practicing archery, horse riding, and even calligraphy too often. Such experiences were to shape Wanli’s behavior and performance in later years.

The death of Zhang Juzheng in 1582 ushered in a new phase of Wanli’s reign, during which the imperial rule began to decline rapidly and irrevocably. Immediately after Zhang’s death, he was accused by his erstwhile political enemies, those who suffered during his administration, of being corrupt: taking bribes, living in luxury, and deceiving the emperor. Without bothering to inquire whether these charges were true, Wanli angrily and vengefully denounced Zhang Juzheng, not only depriving him of his titles of honor, confiscating his family property, and persecuting his sons, but also annulling the programs initiated and implemented by Zhang. The emperor particularly felt insulted by what he believed to be Zhang’s “hypocrisy”: Zhang had cut back court expenses and urged the emperor to live a frugal life, whereas he himself had lived luxuriously. The emperor also vented his spite upon the eunuch head Feng Bao and ordered his arrest based on the accusation that he had been corrupt (accumulating personal wealth).

An adult now and full of pride, Wanli was ready to pursue his life and to exercise his imperial power as he desired. He became greedy and fond of accumulating personal wealth. Among his money-making techniques was dispatching eunuchs to the provinces to collect taxes and to supervise mining and other local administrative operations. This practice often led to conflict between eunuchs and local officials. Wanli was also eager to assume direct control of state affairs. When he attempted to do so, however, the emperor found himself in confrontation with his civil officials, who severely undermined his power. For example, the emperor’s own appointees to official positions were often met with disagreement or opposition from incumbent civil officials, especially those of the censorial branch of the government. He was also criticized by them for his so-called negligence.

Wanli encountered the strongest opposition over the issue of succession. He attempted to raise the rank of his third son, borne by his favorite concubine Lady Zheng, to that of heir apparent. Yet this attempt caused such a great uproar among the bureaucrats, who unyieldingly defended the conventional principle of primogeniture, that the emperor had to give up his attempt. After a long delay and under enormous pressure from his advisers, Wanli finally installed his eldest son as heir apparent.

As the ultimate ruler, Wanli did have the power to punish those officials who disobeyed him—and indeed he often did so by demoting them or having them beaten—but many officials, for seeking personal fame or driven by moral consideration, proved recalcitrant and ready to run the risk of being punished. Deeply frustrated and helpless, Wanli adopted the strategy of inaction and passivity. He chose to isolate himself from his officials, avoiding meeting them and ignoring their remonstrances. Eventually, he suspended all public audiences and retreated into the deep recesses of the imperial palace, indulging in personal pleasures with his favorite women.

Wanli’s negligence of state affairs exacerbated the persistent problem of partisan struggles or factionalism, as evidenced by the rise and activities of the Donglin Faction Donglin Faction . This faction primarily included those retired scholar-officials who were known for their adherence to Confucian ethics. Members of this faction were especially inclined to conduct moral evaluations of the officials at the central government, with the proclaimed goal of removing officials whose moral character was allegedly deficient. These evaluations led to frequent changes in bureaucratic personnel, accompanied by so many accusations and counteraccusations that eventually the bureaucracy became paralyzed. By the end of Wanli’s reign, the political structure of the Ming Dynasty was in crisis.

The deterioration of government during Wanli’s reign heralded the demise of the Ming Dynasty. During this politically unstable era, however, Chinese economy, society, and culture continued to develop. The pace of commercialization and urbanization accelerated. Merchants prospered. Urban and popular culture flourished. Brilliant fiction, often reflecting the life of urban people, emerged as the dominant form of literature. Moreover, China’s contact with the outside world accelerated as Jesuit missionaries arrived from Europe and American crops were spread to China.


The political deterioration during the reign of Wanli illustrates some fundamental defects and contradictions inherent within the Ming governmental structure. The emperor was acknowledged as the ultimate ruler. In reality, however, his power was often compromised by his officials, who intended to reduce the emperor to the status of a nominal or ritual figurehead, while reserving substantial power for themselves.

Political stability and governmental efficiency under the Ming system depended upon the availability of extremely competent and conscientious monarchs or administrators such as Zhang Juzheng and, to a lesser extent, Feng Bao. Because such figures were not always available, there was no guarantee that government would operate efficiently and honestly. The reign of Wanli illustrates that this monarchal system, dependent on the chance that individuals in power would ruler wisely and well, was an unreliable and ineffective form of government.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brook, Timothy. The Confusion of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. An account of the impact of commercialization on social and cultural life during Ming Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cass, Victoria Baldwin. Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies, and Geishas of the Ming. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. Contains valuable information about official attitudes toward women and women’s situation in Ming times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huang, Ray. 1587, a Year of no Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. A highly readable and interesting description of the major events and the working of the government during Wanli’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huang, Ray. Taxation and Governmental Finance in Sixteenth-Century China. Beijing: Shenghuo, Dushu, Xinzhi Sanlian Press, 2001. An analysis of the financial institutions of Ming China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, Frederick W., and Denis Twitchett, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1. Vol. 7 in The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. An account of the political history of the Ming dynasty, including chapters on Wanli’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twitchett, Denis, and Frederick W. Mote, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 2. Vol. 8 in The Cambridge History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Addresses the Ming Dynasty’s governmental structure, fiscal and legal systems, socioeconomic situations, and intellectual trends.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zhu, Dongyun. Biography of Zhang Juzheng. Shanghai: Shanghai Press, 1989. An detailed examination of Zhang Juzheng’s reform programs and his relations with Wanli.

16th cent.: China’s Population Boom

16th cent.: Single-Whip Reform

1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

1521-1567: Reign of Jiajing

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

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

Categories: History