Reign of Xianzong

Although he corrected many of the injustices of his father’s reign, Xiangzong, like many of the Ming emperors, presided over a court dominated by eunuch officials and his favorite, Lady Wan, against whose power the scholar-officials were ineffective.

Summary of Event

Xianzong was the eldest son of the Emperor Yingzong and Empress Zhou (Chou). He was only twenty months old when his father undertook his disastrous military campaign against the Mongols in 1449, during which the Chinese army was routed and Yingzong was captured. During the seven years of his father’s captivity, Xianzong suffered great hardships; he lived with the deposed empress, not his actual mother. When his father was released and returned to court, the family was kept isolated and secluded in the palace. The deprivations of these years no doubt marked Xianzong’s character and contributed to his stuttering. Xianzong (1447-1487)
Wan Guifei
Liang Fang
Wang Zhi
Huai En
Liang Fang
Huai En

In 1457, Yingzong was freed from his virtual imprisonment in the palace and assumed the throne for a second reign. Xianzong was nine years old. His personality was weak, passive, and indecisive; he was slow to act and spoke with a stutter. His father is thought to have doubted that Xianzong had the fitness and intelligence to rule, but Yingzong was convinced that it was more important to maintain the proper succession than to replace his line with another ruler.

Xianzong’s reign was typical of that of many of the Ming Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);Emperor Xianzong’s reign emperors. He allowed himself to be dominated by his favorite concubine and his eunuch servants. He lacked the vindictiveness of his father, but his open honesty and lack of suspicion of others often made it difficult for his ministers to direct him toward wise policy and actions. As a result, his reign was marked by the abuses of the eunuchs Eunuchs, Chinese , who exploited their offices and their closeness to the emperor for personal gain.

On the other hand, Xianzong also had dedicated and capable scholar-officials, who sought (not always successfully) to administer wise government and protest the abuses at court. Nevertheless, he shared in the greed and avarice of some of his servants, allowing their corruption and bribery because his own income benefited from their activities. He took back vast land holdings from a eunuch and confiscated other lands; he built up vast imperial estates, which he taxed heavily for his own benefit. Another abuse of his reign was the growing practice of allowing the emperor or court to grant appointments of government offices, ranks, and privileges on the grounds of personal favoritism or even bribery, instead of on the basis of qualifications and the procedures of nomination and approval by the Ministry of Personnel.

Xianzong came to the throne around the age of eighteen. He disdained the infighting and feuding of the court factions of his father’s reign. He purged the court of those officials he disliked and appointed a number of scholar-officials. Governance was guided by an enlightened council of twelve regents. They corrected the wrongs of the previous reign, granted justice to those falsely punished, and provided famine relief. They also reformed and enlarged the military. They revived the palace guards, creating twelve divisions of ten thousand men each under the leadership of eunuchs, who had special charge of the weapons. Between 1465 and 1479 the new military had many successes, eliminating foreign threats and enlarging territory. Nearly 3,100 miles of the Great Wall Great Wall (China) were rebuilt, which strengthened the empire’s military defenses in the north. This first part of Xianzong’s reign, therefore, is regarded as one of the most enlightened periods of the Ming Dynasty.

At court, young Xianzong’s nurse was Wan Guifei, known as Lady Wan, who had been in the service of his grandmother. By the time he became emperor, she was his favorite concubine, even though she was more than twice his age. She was shrewish, with a masculine character and a loud voice. She ruled the court like a dictator. Xianzong’s first empress, Wu, had ordered Lady Wan beaten for an offense. For this, she was dethroned after reigning only one month. His second empress, Wang, wisely let Lady Wan have free rein at court. With so many women at court, there were many possible heirs to the throne, accompanied by great jealousy and intrigue.

Lady Wan’s own son had died, and out of her jealousy that other concubines might produce heirs and achieve the status of mother of the next emperor, she prevented other concubines from having children or would have sons born of other concubines murdered. Xianzong nonetheless left her in power. When a palace servant became pregnant with Xianzong’s son, palace attendants took pity on the child and did not murder the boy; the first empress (no doubt to spite her rival Lady Wan) had the mother and child hidden in a distant part of the palace for five years. When Xianzong expressed to his courtiers regret that he had no heir, the first empress produced the child to the delighted father. The court was notified, and the Imperial City celebrated the joyous and important event. A month later, however, the jealous Lady Wan had the mother poisoned. The weak Xianzong, realizing that his son was in danger, sent him to be raised in the safety of his mother’s quarters in the palace. In short order, Xianzong fathered eleven other children with other concubines.

In the second part of his reign, Xianzong kept his distance from Lady Wan and rarely interfered in her activities. With his knowledge, Lady Wan—with the assistance of her favorite eunuch, Liang Fang, and the eunuch chief of police, Wang Zhi (Wang Chih)—began a program of systematic corruption and theft of the wealth of the country to enrich themselves. They sold noble titles as a business. They sent agents out into the country to collect copper, gold, silver, and precious gems. The holding of imperial farmlands increased more than fortyfold. Public morality declined and disintegrated. Monks who produced pornography and love potions for the emperor received noble titles. Court eunuchs and offices were given vast tracts of land. Wang Zhi founded a special police organization, the feared Western Depot, and gathered intelligence about suspicious persons. He intimidated and terrorized those at court and in government, confiscating their wealth and sending many to their deaths. Those who sought to expose him were instead punished by the emperor.

Finally, Xianzong realized how much anger Wang Zhi was arousing and demoted him to the post of stable keeper in Nanjing. Despite the open knowledge of her corruption and abuses, however, Xianzong never attempted to restrain Lady Wan. Rather he often punished those who pointed out her improper dealings, bribery, theft, and extravagancies. In contrast to the evil eunuchs in Xianzong’s government was the eunuch Huai En, who directed the entire eunuch bureacracy. He was revered for his moral authority, adherence to principle, and opposition to improper actions, and he refused to take bribes from those wanting his assistance.

Xianzong himself was cultivated and artistic. He enjoyed theater and music, painted well, and was a good calligrapher. He was especially noted as an avid connoisseur of porcelain. He encouraged the porcelain works to make multicolored china and to use marks to indicate the emperor who reigned when the china was produced. The multicolored porcelain produced during his reign is among the finest ever produced. Porcelain, Ming Dynasty

Lady Wan died suddenly after a seizure in February, 1487. Xianzong proclaimed an extraordinary seven days of mourning for her. The emperor himself fell ill and died in September, at age forty. He was succeeded by his son, who took the reign name Hongzhi.


Xianzong’s reign witnessed the continued rise to power of eunuchs and rival cliques of officeholders, as well as their greedy struggles for personal power and wealth. Government came to be divided between the bureaucracies of the talented career scholar-officials and those of the corrupt eunuchs, against whose abuses the scholar-officials had little control. The corruption brought about by government by cliques and by eunuch favorites became common in the courts of later Ming emperors and one of the ultimate causes of the downfall of the Ming Dynasty.

Although he reversed the vindictiveness and vengefulness of his father’s reign, Xianzong’s reign was subject to significant dysfunctions in government. His weak personal character ultimately made him a mediocre ruler. He allowed his concubine Lady Wan to dominate his court, and she and several powerful eunuch favorites were able to plunder the country for their personal benefit. The government’s ineffectiveness meant that the northern borders were repeatedly threatened by the Mongols, and rebellions of serious proportions by peoples within the empire were not addressed.

Further Reading

  • Dictionary of Ming Biography. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Full biographies of emperors and other important figures.
  • Hook, Brian, and Denis Twitchett, eds. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. No mention of this emperor, but extensive coverage on the artistic and social culture of the Ming Dynasty.
  • Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Good coverage of the reign of Yingzong, Xianzong’s father.
  • 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. Thorough and detailed history of the Ming Dynasty; mostly political history.
  • Paludan, Ann. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. London. Thames and Hudson, 1998. As the title suggests, concise accounts of the emperors; lavishly illustrated with maps and photographs, many in color.

Feb. 11, 1457: Restoration of Zhengtong

1474: Great Wall of China Is Built

1488-1505: Reign of Xiaozong

16th cent.: China’s Population Boom

16th cent.: Rise of the Shenshi

1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin