Reign of Jiajing Emperor: The 11th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty

The Jiajing (or Chia-ching) Emperor (嘉靖 IPA: [tɕjɑ́tɕîŋ]; 16 September 1507–23 January 1567) was Emperor of China from 1521 to 1567, the 11th emperor of the Ming dynasty.

Born Zhu Houcong, he was the Zhengde Emperor's cousin. His era name means "Admirable tranquility".

Custom dictated that an emperor who was not an immediate descendant of the previous one should be adopted by the previous one, to maintain an unbroken line. Such a posthumous adoption of Zhu Houcong by Emperor Zhengde was proposed, but he resisted, preferring instead to have his father declared emperor posthumously. This conflict is known as "The Great Rites Controversy." The Jiajing Emperor prevailed, and several of his opponents were banished or executed. Among the banished was the great Ming poet Yang Shen.

The Jiajing Emperor was known to be a cruel and self-aggrandizing emperor and he also chose to reside outside of the Forbidden City in Beijing so he could live in isolation. Ignoring state affairs, Jiajing employed incapable individuals such as Zhang Cong and Yan Song, on whom he thoroughly relied to handle affairs of state. In time Yan Song and his son Yan Shifan - who gained power only as a result of his father's political influence - came to dominate the whole government even being called the "First and Second Prime Minister". Loyal individuals such as Hai Rui and Yang Xusheng challenged and even chastised Yan Song and his son but were thoroughly ignored by the emperor. Hai Rui and many loyal ministers were eventually dismissed or executed. Jiajing also abandoned the practice of seeing his ministers altogether from 1539 onwards and for a period of almost 25 years refused to give official audiences, choosing instead to relay his wishes through eunuchs and officials. Only Yan Song, a few handful of eunuchs and Daoist priests ever saw Jiajing. This eventually led to corruption at all levels of the Ming government.

Jiajing's ruthlessness also led to an internal plot by his concubines to assassinate him in October, 1542 by strangling him while he slept. A group of palace girls who had had enough of Jiajing's cruelty decided to band together to murder the emperor. The lead palace girl tried to strangle the emperor with ribbons from her hair while the others held down the emperor's arms and legs but made a fatal mistake by tying a knot around the emperor's neck which would not tighten. Meanwhile some of the young girls involved began to panic and one ran to the empress. The plot was exposed and on the orders of the empress, all of the girls involved, including the emperor's favourite concubine, underwent execution by the slow slicing method.

The Ming dynasty had enjoyed a long period of peace, but in 1542 the Mongol leader Altan Khan began to harass China along the northern border. In 1550 he even reached the suburbs of Beijing. Eventually the empire appeased him by granting special trading rights. The empire also had to deal with pirates attacking the southeastern coastline; general Qi Jiguang was instrumental in defeating these pirates.

Jiajing on his state barge, from a scroll painted in 1538 by unknown court artists

A porcelain vase with glazed fish designs, from the Jiajing reign period.
Starting in 1550, Beijing was enlarged by adding the "Outer" or "Chinese City".

The deadliest earthquake of all times, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 that killed over 800,000 people, occurred during the Jiajing Emperor's reign.