The Yongle Emperor Research Paper

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Zhu Di, son of the founder of the Ming dynasty, usurped the throne from his nephew in 1402 to become the Yongle emperor. During his reign he extended the power and influence of the dynasty, commissioned naval expeditions to the Indian Ocean, moved the imperial capital to Beijing, and oversaw important scholarly enterprises.

The Yongle emperor (reigned 1402–1424) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was one of the most dynamic and aggressive rulers of China. Committed to ventures on a grand scale, he influenced China and East Asia for generations to come. He extended Chinese power to Mongolia and Vietnam, dispatched great maritime expeditions to the Indian Ocean, launched massive literary projects that shaped the culture of the Chinese elite, reorganized the imperial bureaucracy, and constructed a new imperial capital.

Yongle (actually his reign title, though it is the name he is most frequently known by; the family name of the rulers of the Ming was Zhu and Yongle’s personal name was Di) originally was not destined for the imperial throne, however. His father, the Hongwu emperor (reigned 1368–1398), the founder of the Ming dynasty, designated his eldest grandson as his successor. But the Jianwen emperor (reigned 1398–1402), Yongle’s nephew, lacked Yongle’s shrewdness and military expertise. Within a year of Hongwu’s death, Zhu Di rebelled against Jianwen and led his troops to victory over the emperor’s forces. In all likelihood, Jianwen died when the imperial palace in Nanjing caught fi re. At the age of forty-two, Zhu Di ascended the throne on 17 July 1402 as the Yongle (Perpetual Happiness) emperor.

Historians generally agree that Yongle’s reign represents a second founding of the Ming dynasty, a significant transformation of policies established by Hongwu. Like his father, Yongle distrusted the Confucian scholar-officials who headed his bureaucracy; but, in the interest of stable rule, he restored ministries that Hongwu had abolished and allowed civil officials considerable independence in daily affairs. He moved the capital to Beijing, near his northern power base, and employed 1 million workers in its reconstruction, which included the building of the Forbidden City, now the principal relic from his reign. To bolster civil officials in the capital and provinces, Yongle ordered the compilation of two compendia of texts and commentaries of Confucian classics that became standard works for preparing for the civil service examinations. He also commanded more than two thousand scholars to produce The Great Encyclopedia, a compilation of accumulated knowledge that ran to about eleven thousand volumes (or 50 million words). Gargantuan in scale, it proved so expensive to reproduce that large parts of it were lost long after its completion in 1408.

In his government reforms and literary projects, Yongle performed as a traditional Chinese sovereign. But in his foreign policy, he employed military commanders and the burgeoning eunuch establishment. He was a warrior, matched only by Khubilai Khan (reigned 1260–1294), the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) in his militarism. Commanding armies some 200,000 men strong, he invaded the steppes repeatedly after 1410, inflicting defeats on Mongol khans three times though he was unable to duplicate certain successes. These campaigns wore him out, and he died retreating from Mongolia in 1424. Relying on his offensive policy, he withdrew military posts on the northern border that had been established by Hongwu, leaving China vulnerable to attack in the absence of an emperor as warlike as himself. To some extent, the defensive perimeter of the Great Wall, a late Ming construction, was a consequence of Yongle’s bellicose military strategy more than a century earlier.

In 1406, Yongle ordered an expeditionary force of two hundred thousand men to invade Annan (in present-day northern Vietnam), an audacious attempt to incorporate the area into the empire. Successful for a time, Chinese aggression eventually provoked native resistance, and Yongle found his armies harassed by guerrilla warfare. After twenty years of casualties and expense, the Chinese were driven out by 1427. At the same time as the Vietnam imbroglio, Yongle took the action for which he is now most famous: he dispatched the largest maritime expeditions the world had ever seen. From 1405 to 1424, six fleets, sometimes comprising two hundred ships and as many as twenty-eight thousand men, sailed to Southeast Asia, India, Iran, Arabia, and East Africa. Commanded by the famous eunuch-admiral Zheng He (1371–1435), the expeditions were simultaneously displays of Chinese majesty, attempts to impose Chinese suzerainty (especially in maritime Southeast Asia), and commercial ventures aimed at suppressing private Chinese seaborne trade.

On all fronts—Mongolia, Vietnam, the voyages of Zheng He, the reconstruction of Beijing—Yongle vastly overextended Chinese resources, draining the treasury and causing widespread discontent. He ruled with an iron fist, putting his extraordinary ventures in the hands of military men and eunuchs, groups repugnant to the Confucian elite. He left the empire weakened before Mongol attacks; he stimulated a Vietnamese nationalism that soon proved deadly to neighboring kingdoms; and he insured that no future emperor would seek to dominate the southern seas. Autocratic, resolute, and daring, Yongle had a brilliant reign but left his successors a troubling legacy.


  1. Chan, D. B. (1976). The usurpation of the prince of Yen, 1398–1402. San Francisco: Chinese Materials & Research Aids Service Center.
  2. Chan, H. (1988). The Chien-wen, Yung-lo, Hung-hsi, and Hsuan-te reigns, 1399–1435. In F. W. Mote & D. Twitchett (Eds.), The Cambridge history of China: Vol 7. The Ming dynasty, 1368–1644, part 1 (pp. 182–304). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Dreyer, E. (1982). Early Ming China: A political history, 1355–1435. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  4. Farmer, E. (1976). Early Ming government: The evolution of dual capitals (Harvard East Asian Monographs No. 66). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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