Reign of Xiaozong Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the reign of Xiaozong, the struggle between the scholar-officials of the Hanlin Academy and the emperor’s private bureaucracy of eunuchs continued, as did military warfare along the northern frontier. Natural disasters also marked Xiaozong’s reign, and these were met with wise leadership that brought general stability.

Summary of Event

Xiaozong ascended to the throne of Ming China when he was seventeen years old. His father, the emperor Xianzong (temple name Hsien-tsung, given name Zhu Jianshen or Chu Chien-shen, reign motto Zhenghua, Chenghua; r. 1465-1487), allowed unworthy servitors great liberty, and their avarice weakened the state as they sold titles and collected precious metals and stones throughout the empire. Xiaozong acted immediately to dismiss two thousand irregularly secured posts, rid the court of one thousand of his father’s Buddhist and Daoist clerics, and slowed the growth of the eunuch bureaucracy. After issuing the dismissals, Xiaozong recalled from retirement the virtuous eunuch Huai En to head the eunuch organization. Huai En quickly selected Wang Shu as minister of personnel, an appointment that later brought many good officials into the bureaucracy. Xiaozong Huai En Wang Shu Xianzong Hongwu Xuande Yingzong Zhengde Xiaozong

During the second half of the fifteenth century, the eunuch Eunuchs, Chinese bureaucracy expanded its civil and military postings and took larger responsibilities in the management of imperial factories, in official building projects, and in the secret police. Three years before Xiaozong took power, an official of the censorate estimated that there were more than ten thousand eunuchs, who represented an increasing financial burden on the state’s resources. At the end of the Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);eunuchs in 1644, some estimates put the total number of eunuchs in the capital at seventy thousand. Many eunuchs grew wealthy, acquired land, and even had retainers. Their rise to prominence angered the scholar-officials, who saw themselves as the moral upholders of society and the eunuchs as inappropriate holders of authority. The opposition to eunuch power grew within their numbers. The eunuchs, of course, had an interest in enlarging the bureaucracy over which they presided, although it functioned in tandem with the civil service bureaucracy.

The Ming Dynasty’s founder, Ming Taizu (Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu emperor; r. 1368-1398), had unwittingly helped the eunuchs by insisting that his successors act as their own prime ministers to secure personal control over the three branches of government—the administration, military, and censorate. Realistically, however, imperial authority had to be delegated, since the demands of imperial office were too much for one individual, and so the eunuch bureaucracy continued grow throughout the Ming Dynasty despite many attempts to curtail it. Although emperor Xiaozong attempted to promote only honest individuals, others found fault in his understandable reliance on certain eunuchs charged with dispatching his many duties.

The Mongols Mongol Empire;China and remained China’s national enemy throughout this period, and the wars with the Mongols were persistent, costly, and dangerous. While Emperor Xianzong had followed his military-minded grandfather and father—the emperors Xuande (r. 1426-1435) and Yingzong (r. 1436-1449, 1457-1464) respectively—Xiaozong, a pacifist Confucian ruler, only reluctantly mounted military campaigns. Instead, he focused largely on defense. The “long walls” (chang cheng), known to the West singularly as the Great Wall Great Wall (China) , were fortified and integrated during his reign. Xiaozong’s only notable military expeditions were minor ones to Hami in 1495 to suppress small uprisings. He did, however, face banditry that threatened local order and safety, as well as rebellions that challenged the authority of the state, such as the one on Hainan Island, where the native Li people organized a resistance to villainous prefectural magistrates. These rebels were aided in their fight by the mountainous interior of the island, which afforded them places to hide, but the three-year uprising was finally repressed in 1503 with heavy Han losses.

From the 1490’s until the end of the Xiaozong reign in 1505, natural disasters occurred frequently and were severe. In an attempt to reduce flooding and increase trade through the country, the Chinese diverted the Yellow River Yellow River, diversion of from its path in 1495. The river subsequently entered the sea through the channel of the Huai River, thereby extending the Grand Canal from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north. Although confining the Yellow River to artificial channels required expensive maintenance and could not prevent flooding, the canal connected the south of China to the north and allowed easy movement of the tax grains on which the north depended. Floods did cause regular breaks in the dikes of the Yellow River, but the emperor granted relief to the affected population in the form of tax remissions, for Xiaozong adhered to the ancient Confucian belief concerning the correlative interactions between humanity and the cosmos. Unnatural events, such as frequent flooding, required self-criticism on the part of the ruler, as well as other measures, to restore cosmic harmony. Xiaozong took this Confucian ideal to heart. He earnestly strove to correct the weaknesses of this father, and there is evidence that his dedication to imperial duties shortened his life.

The Xiaozong reign saw the compilation of two important works: Da Ming huidian Da Ming huidian (pb. 1509; collection of official Ming Dynasty documents) and Wenxing tiaoli Wenxing tiaoli (pb. 1500; detailed rules of law), which contained 297 articles supplementing the code of the dynasty. Law;China The emperor was also fond of art and sponsored court artists such as Lu Zhi (1496-1576), a painter of landscapes and natural objects. The increased prosperity of wealthy families of the south during this period, particularly in the silk-production center of Suzhou, encouraged the flourishing of the Wu school of artists, including Shen Zhao and Tang Yin. Art patronage;China


By and large, the reign of Xiaozong marks a period of relative calm during which no great national crises occurred. Emperor Xiaozong generally made sound official appointments, such as that of Huai En, and was legitimately concerned about the welfare of the people. No doubt his punctilious attendance to his duties added stability to his reign. Xiaozong was also remarkable for being the only monogamous emperor in Chinese history. However, he was not without fault. He indulged Empress Zhang and her two brothers Zhang Heling (d. 1537?) and Zhang Yanling (d. 1546). These notorious brothers involved themselves in illegal activities in real estate, the salt trade, and usury, amassing fortunes by oppressive means with only mild reprimands.

Although Xiaozong initiated many reforms, most would be undone with the succession of his son Wuzong (reign name Zhengde; r. 1505-1521), who reacted against his father’s Confucianism and embarked on a life of leisure, filling the court with entertainers. Officials even tried unsuccessfully to remove Wuzong from the throne in 1506. Yet, even though the reforms of the ninth Ming emperor proved temporary, his modest, humble, and diligent manner of governing helped reduce the consumption of luxuries by the court, improve the financial basis of the dynasty, and eliminate abuses such as selling appointments and the creation of imperial estates through confiscation.

Xiaozong’s reign also saw the increasing development of fine manufactured goods, such as silks from Suzhou, which created a rich upper class who competed with the nobility in the procurement of fine art during a time of relative stability and harmony. Present during Xiaozong’s reign, however, were the beginnings of trends that contributed to the political ills of later Ming: the continued expansion of the eunuch bureaucracy, the increasing unrest on the northern borders, and the shift in wealth and culture to the lower Yangzi region, which led to an increase in large estates that displaced the peasant farmers and created a floating urban proletariat.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodrich, L. Carrington, ed. Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368-1644. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Contains useful biographies of Xiaozong and other prominent Ming figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Useful discussion of the mid-Ming period.
  • 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. In-depth overview of the reign of the emperor Xiaozong.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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 that provides historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsai, Henry. The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty. Albany: New York State University Press, 1996. The most complete account of the impact of eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty.

Feb. 11, 1457: Restoration of Zhengtong

1465-1487: Reign of Xianzong

1474: Great Wall of China Is Built

16th cent.: Rise of the Shenshi

16th cent.: Single-Whip Reform

1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

1521-1567: Reign of Jiajing

1550-1571: Mongols Raid Beijing

Jan. 23, 1556: Earthquake in China Kills Thousands

1573-1620: Reign of Wanli

1583-1610: Matteo Ricci Travels to Beijing

1592: Publication of Wu Chengen’s The Journey to the West

Categories: History