Reign of Wanli Emperor: The 13th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty

The Wanli Emperor (4 September 1563 – 18 August 1620) was emperor of China (Ming dynasty) between 1572 and 1620.

His era name means "Ten thousand calendars". Born Zhu Yijun, he was the Longqing Emperor's son. His rule of forty eight years was the longest in the Ming dynasty and it witnessed the steady decline of the dynasty. Wanli also saw the arrival of the first Jesuit missionary in Beijing, Matteo Ricci.

Wanli ascended the throne at the age of 9. For the first ten years of his reign, the young emperor was aided by a notable statesman, Zhang Juzheng (張居正). Zhang Juzheng directed the path of the country and exercised his skills and power as an able administrator. At the same time, Wanli deeply respected Zhang as a mentor and a valued minister. However as Wanli's reign progressed, different factions within the government began to openly oppose Zhang's policy as well as his powerful position in government and courted Wanli to dismiss Zhang. By 1582, Wanli was a young man of 19 and was tired of the strict routine Zhang still imposed on the emperor since childhood. As such, Wanli was willing to consider dismissing Zhang but before Wanli was able to act, Zhang died in 1582. Overall during these 10 years, the Ming Dynasty's economy and military power prospered in a way not seen since the Yongle Emperor and the "Ren Xuan Rule" from 1402 to 1435. After Zhang's death, Wanli felt that he was free of supervision and reversed many of Zhang's administrative improvements. In 1584, Wanli issued an edict and confiscated all of Zhang's personal wealth and his family members were purged.

After Zhang Juzheng died, Wanli decided to take complete control of the government. During this early part of his rule he demonstrated himself a decent and diligent emperor. Overall, the economy continued to prosper and the country remained powerful. Unlike the 20 years at the end of his rule, Wanli at this time would attend every morning meeting and discuss affairs of state. The first eighteen years of Wanli's reign would be dominated by three wars that he dealt with successfully:

1. Defense against the Mongols. In the outer regions, one of the leaders rebelled and allied with the Mongols to attack the Ming. At this time, Wanli sent out Li Chengliang and sons to handle the situation, resulting in overall success.

2. Toyotomi Hideyoshi of Japan sent 200,000 soldiers in the first expedition to invade Korea. Wanli made three decisions. First, he sent a 3,000 man army to reinforce the Koreans. Second, if Koreans entered Ming territory, he gave them lodging. Third, he instructed the Liaodong area to prepare and be vigilant. In actual combat, the first 2 battles were defeats since Ming troops under Li Rusong were outnumbered and ill-prepared to fight the 200,000-strong Japanese army. Wanli then sent a bigger army of 80,000 men, with more success. This resulted in negotiations that favored the Ming. Two years later, in 1596, Japan once again invaded. However, that same year, Hideyoshi died and the Japanese lost their will to fight. Combined with the leadership of the Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin and the bogging down of Japanese forces in the Korean mainland, the Ming Dynasty defeated the demoralized Japanese army.

3. The Yang Yinlong rebellion. At first, Wanli was engaged in war with Japan and sent only 3,000 troops under the command of Yang Guozhu to fight the rebellion. Unfortunately, this army was completely annihilated and Yang Guozhu was killed. When war with Japan ended, Wanli turned his attention to Yang Yinlong, sending Guo Zhizhang and Li Huolong to lead the offensive. In the end, Li Huolong defeated Yang's army and brought him back to the capital.

After these three successful conflicts, Wanli stopped going to morning meetings, going into his later reign and his final 20 years on the throne.

During the latter years of Wanli's reign, he seldom attended state affairs and for years at a time would refuse to receive his ministers or read any reports sent to him. Wanli also extorted money from the government, and ultimately his own people, for his personal enjoyment. One example was the close attention he paid to the construction of his own tomb, which took decades to complete.

The Wanli Emperor then became disenchanted with the moralistic attacks and counterattacks of officials, becoming thoroughly alienated from his imperial role. Throughout the 1580s and 1590s, Wanli yearned to promote his third son (Zhu Changxun) by Lady Zheng as crown prince however many of his powerful ministers were opposed to the idea. This led to a clash between sovereign and ministers that lasted more than 15 years. Emperor Wanli eventually gave in October 1601 and promoted Zhu Changluo - later Emperor Taichang as crown prince. Although the ministers seemed to have overpowered the emperor, Wanli finally resorted to vengeful tactics of blocking or ignoring the conduct of administration. For years on end he refused to see his ministers or act upon memoranda. He refused to make necessary appointments, and eventually became so obese he was unable even to stand without assistance. The whole top echelon of Ming administration became understaffed. In short, Wanli tried to forget about his imperial responsibilities while building up personal wealth. Considering the emperor's required role as the linchpin of the state, this personal rebellion against the bureaucracy was not only bankruptcy but treason.

Finally, the future threat of the Manchurians developed. The Jurchen area was eventually conquered by Nurhaci. Nurhaci would go on to create the Later Jin Empire which would now become an immediate threat. By this time, after 20 years, the Ming Dynasty army was in steep decline. While the Jurchens were fewer in number, they were more fierce and powerful. In the grand battle of Nun Er Chu in 1619, the Ming Dynasty sent out a force of 200,000 against the Later Jin Empire of 60,000, with Nurhaci controlling 6 banners and 45,000 as the central attack while Dai Shan and Huang Taji each controlled 7,500 troops and one banner attacked from the sides. After 5 days of battle, the Ming Dynasty had casualties over 100,000, with 70% of their food supply stolen. From this point on, the Ming Dynasty would lose its advantage to the Jurchens, setting up the eventual downfall of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty.

Emperor Wanli is Emperor Longqing's eldest son. He was born in 42nd year of Emperor Jiajing's reign (1563 AD), and died in 48th year of his reign (1620 AD).

During his early reign, because of his minister Zhang Juzheng's assistance, political situation was stable, and the country was flourishing. But later, because he was avaricious, the government of Ming Dynasty was extremely corrupt: eunuchs tyrannized; the taxes and levies exorbitant. The masses had no means to live. But he wallowed in debauchery in the palace.

Ming Dynasty greatly declined during his reign, and came closer and closer to the perdition.