The short reign of Zhu Changluo

Zhu Changluo (1582-1620)

Zhu Changluo (1582-1620)

William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, is famous in American history for being the last president born a British subject. At 68, he was also the oldest president to be sworn in (before Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980). And, of course, he was the first US president to die in office, having served just 31 days from March 4, 1841, to April 4, 1841. That’s a short time at the helm, but in the Ming Dynasty, there was an emperor who trumps President Harrison for brevity of office.

On this date (August 28) in 1620, Zhu Changluo ascended the throne as the new Ming emperor, ushering in the Taichang era. Unfortunately, the era would be short-lived. Less than a month after his ascension, Zhu Changluo would be dead, having pooped himself to death under mysterious circumstances.

Zhu Changluo’s father, the Wanli Emperor, ruled China for 48 years, some more significant than others. In the last years of his reign, Wanli seemed to withdraw from court affairs and matters of state, in part due to the constant infighting and squabbles over his choice of heir.

In theory, choosing the heir for a Ming emperor should have been simple. The founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, had decreed that the first son of the emperor (or, if he were deceased, his first son) would be the presumptive heir.* The problem was that the Wanli Emperor did not care much for his eldest son. Wanli was infatuated with the Lady Zheng, his favorite consort. Zhu Changluo was not a product of this union. He was born of another member of the palace harem — the Forbidden City version of a random hookup. All of his life he had to compete with his half-brother, Zhu Changxun, the son of Lady Zheng and Wanli.

When Wanli’s officials told him that Wanli had to accept Zhu Changluo as the heir, Wanli fumed and pouted and eventually went on strike…for nearly 15 years. Lady Zheng, not wanting to leave anything to chance, conspired to have Zhu Changluo assassinated in 1615. She escaped blame, but her co-conspirators among the palace eunuchs were executed for their role in the plot.

When Wanli died in 1620, it was Zhu Changluo, according to dynastic law, who took the throne. What happened next is a matter of  debate. Lady Zheng, who outlived her paramour the Wanli Emperor, did not abandon her schemes for her son. According to one account, she bestowed on the new emperor a gift of eight beautiful and nubile maidens to try and drain Zhu Changluo’s essence. When that didn’t work, she seems to have tried a more direct approach.

According to unofficial histories, Zhang Changluo became unwell with severe indigestion and asked his officials for medicine. One of these officials, Li Kezhuo, gave the emperor two pills. The first seemed to cure the emperor, the second taken a little later did not. The next day, Zhu Changluo was found dead from a severe attack of diarrhea. The emperor had literally shat himself lifeless after only 28 days in power.

As bad as this was for Zhu Changluo, and it’s hard to imagine it ending worse, the result for the Ming Dynasty was nearly as disastrous.

Zhu Changluo’s heir and eldest son, Zhu Youxiao, was 15 at the time and may or may not have been developmentally disabled. Ruling as the Tianqi Emperor, Zhu Youxiao was a weak and ineffective monarch who allowed power at court to fall into the hands of eunuchs, especially the notorious Wei Zhongxian. Opposition to Wei’s usurpation of power would lead to a major political crisis which pitted the officials against the court and weakened the central government at a critical time for the dynasty. Li Kezhuo, who was blamed for prescribing some seriously bad drugs to the emperor, was nearly executed for his troubles. Eventually, Li was exiled to the frontier as punishment.


*It should be noted that this went sideways almost immediately. Zhu Yuanzhang’s first son, Zhu Biao, predeceased his father. When Zhu Yuanzhang died in 1398, the throne went to Zhu Biao’s first son, Zhu Yunwen. Zhu Yuangzhang’s fourth son, the formidable Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, had little patience for the rules of succession and refused to accept his nephew as the new ruler and did what any loving uncle would do in this situation and launched  a coup in 1399. Zhu Yunwen’s reign ended when his palace caught on fire during his uncle’s assault on the imperial capital at Nanjing, and while no body was ever found, his reign as emperor had come to an end. His uncle, Zhu Di, moved the capital to Beijing and declared himself the emperor. As the Yongle Emperor, he became one of the most famous and energetic rulers of the Ming era, responsible for the construction of modern Beijing, rebuilding the Great Wall, and launching the Zheng He expeditions to Western Asia and Africa.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences throwing shade at The New Qing History

The idea of Manchu Sinicization is a hobgoblin unlikely to die anytime soon in China. Historians affiliated with what has become known as the “New Qing History” have been attempting to complicate this narrative for nearly three decades, and while scholars overseas — and even a few within China — are starting to come around, the dominant narrative inside China remains that the Manchus succeeded in ruling because, unlike earlier non-Han dynasties, they assimilated and adopted Chinese styles of rule and other cultural values. Indeed, according to the most strident adherents of “Sinicization”, the Manchus couldn’t help but assimilate once they encountered the vastly superior civilization of China.

Earlier this month, I came across an article in the China Daily on the study of Manchu language in China today and how this “archaic language is helping historians to solve Qing mysteries.” Sadly, after a few mentions of Manchu-language sources on the architectural and material culture of the Forbidden City and other imperial sites, the article descends into hoary and outdated old tropes:

According to Tong Yue, a Qing history expert from Shenyang, in northeastern Liaoning province, where the Manchu originated, the decline of the language started the moment this ethnic people sought to rule over the entire land of China, in the early 17th century.

“The Manchu people, similar to the Mongols 400 years before, came from the northeast to sweep the country by sheer military might, at a time when Han rulers – from the Chinese majority group – had become corrupt and weak,” he said. “Dutiful students of history, the Manchu had from the very beginning tried to avoid the fatal mistake committed by the Mongols.

“Instead of imposing on their subjects everything Manchu, the Qing rulers, awed by the much more sophisticated form of civilization they encountered in Central China, borrowed enthusiastically from this newfound cultural wealth, including the language.”

It’s a notion which obviously had great appeal to Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century who were faced with writing a history of an era during which a ‘barbarian’ conquest dynasty not only ruled China for nearly three hundred years but also pushed the boundaries of the Chinese world further than any Han-ruled dynasty had ever achieved. In the rush to lay claim to China’s exceptional qualities as a nation (5000 years of history, 5000 years of continuous history, inventor of everything), it made sense to explain away Manchu success as a result of their thorough inculcation and internalization of Chinese values and civilization.

The Manchus also conquered vast areas in what is today Western China, including Tibet and Xinjiang. They were the first state on the mainland to consolidate their control over the island of Taiwan. This makes the issue of Manchu cultural identity politically problematic as well. Separating the Manchu-ruled Qing Empire from the post-imperial governments of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China not only complicates modern Chinese attempts at establishing the extent of the Qing Empire as “inherent territory,” it also recalls bad memories of Japanese and British attempts to use the “Manchu-ness” of the Qing Empire to wrest control over Manchuria and Tibet respectively.

Which partially explains why the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences this week loaded up for the academic equivalent of a drive-by shooting, spraying exclamation points and vitriol at Qing historians Pamela Crossley, James Millward, and Mark Elliot. The article charges them as imperialists, revisionists, splittists…the usual epithets hurled when a Chinese scholar can no longer take the cognitive dissonance pinging around his brain like a meth-addled gerbil and finally decides to go apoplectically patriotic.

In this case, the apoplectic patriot is Li Zhiting, a Qing scholar with quite the fetish for exclamatory punctuation, and the article appeared earlier this week on the website of CASS and was then published in the official journal Chinese Social Sciences Today.  (The always excellent China Media Project has a rundown on Professor Li and partial translation of the first page of the article here.)

(It’s fair for me to state from the beginning, that I’m pretty firmly in the camp of New Qing History. My love of learning about Manchus has long been a running joke among my students and friends who accuse me, not unfairly, of having an unhealthy man-crush on The Kangxi Emperor.)

The litany of charges against the New Qing historians is a long one, but mostly they have come under fire for having the temerity to destabilize the idea of a historically-fixed China and reject the teleological narratives which so many Chinese historians love to cuddle up with at night to keep the bad feelings away.

It is clear that separating the notion of “Qing” from “China” is a good way to make Professor Li grumpy: Of course China=Qing, it always has! This is obvious! Anyone who says otherwise is an evil imperialist! Why am I shouting! I don’t know!

If the Chinese language had a version of writing in CAPS LOCK, I think this article is it.

On the issue of whether the Qing was an empire, and in particular an expansive empire, James Millward—who, full disclosure alert, is one of my favorite historians—comes in for a bit of a drubbing:

“New Qing History” obscures the truth about “Empire.” The essential characteristics of Imperialism are aggression, expansion, and plundering of occupied territories. For example, from the beginning of the 16th century, first Spain and then especially England, extended their power from Europe to North and South America and eventually to Asia and Africa. Wherever their ships landed there was blood and fire! Then an occupation of the land and the enslavement of local people. France, Germany, Russia similarly expanded and invaded foreign lands. In the 19th century, there was the rise of Japanese militarism and an especially frenzied form of aggression. After the conclusion of the Civil War in the United States, the tentacles of American Imperialism reached toward Asia. Ask: Which of the five continents has not been invaded and enslaved by these powers? Which of these countries did not invade China? 200 years ago, what was the United States? It was White people from Europe plundering, killing,  and annihilating the Native Americans to take their land and build the United States. THAT is real Imperialism!

During the century between the Opium War and 1945, when Japan surrendered [Ed Note: To whom, I wonder?] European powers and Japanese bandits came to China and brutally massacred Chinese people of all nationalities. They plundered China’s resources, with Russia and Japan seizing huge swaths of territory. The powers carved up the land of China into spheres of influence. Is this not the basic characteristics of Imperialism? The Western powers and Japan imposed humiliation on the Chinese nation and the Qing government was unable to resist and had to sue for peace. How can this become Imperialism? The Qing Dynasty was corrupt, backwards and never on a par with Western or Japanese imperialists, how can we use the same language to describe it?

Even though obviously, Modern China clearly suffered at the hands of the Western Powers, James Millward says: “Modern China is a part of the story of Imperialism.” How arrogant! How wildly presumptuous! We can see how the absurdity of these American scholars is a kind of pathology!

Mark Elliott–okay, another Granite Studio fave–also receives a fair amount of criticism, especially for promoting the idea that Manchus are different from Han, Manchuria is different from China, and for arguing that the Manchu conquest of Ming China constituted an invasion. This is of course a pretty simplistic reading of Professor Elliott’s work, although by the end of Professor Li’s article one wonders if he actually did his own close analysis of Crossley, Millward, and Elliott or if he simply cribbed the notes from one of their less attentive undergrad students.

They are claiming that Manchus were “foreign” and so not a part of the Chinese nation and are not inherently a nationality of China. therefore, Manchu and Han, and Manchu and China are not related. As Mark Elliott said: “The Manchu people conquered ‘中原 Zhongyuan’ (Ed Note: The word is a little ambiguous because while it can mean China, it also specifically means the central provinces of China) to establish the Qing Empire…and used overwhelming military force to conquer the Ming Dynasty…and was a foreign invasion against China’s sovereignty.”

The New Qing History clearly declares: Manchus are “alien.” They entered through the pass and seized power. They destroyed China’s sovereignty, and further slander Manchus as foreign invaders. These arguments abound in the writings of scholars from Europe and America…These scholars equate the Qing Dynasty as if it were Japanese militarism!

Yeah…that was totally Elliott’s point in “The Manchu Way: How the Qing Emperors were really Hideki Tojo in Pigtails.” No wonder I got that question wrong on my comps.

If these things all seem like a spitball fight in the faculty lounge, then Professor Li’s final point is where arcane arguments of historiography intersect with the real fears of the Chinese leadership over territorial integrity. You can mess with the Kangxi Emperor and question what language he used to speak to his kids, but you don’t call him expansionist because…well, I’ll let Professor Li tell you why:

Did the Qing Dynasty unify the frontiers (Ed Note: Refers to Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, etc.) or invade them? The New Qing scholars insist on the latter point of view: The Qing consolidated their control over these regions through military force….The fact is however that the Qing Dynasty inherited the unity of past dynasties including the unity of these regions. How can this be an invasion? Mongolia,Τibeτ, Χinjiang are China’s inherent territory, how can the Qing reunification of these areas be a military conquest? There is no need to refute the arguments [of these scholars]. How are they different than the splittists who cry out for “Τibeτan Ιndependence” or “Μongolian Ιndependence” (Ed Note: Uh…Mongolia is independent, or at least most of it…) and “Easτ Τurkesτan Separaτisτs” or that these places are “not part of China” and bang the drum of “independence”?

It’s clear that by introducing ideas and evidence at odds with accepted and cherished narratives, the New Qing History and its associated scholars have hit a nerve in the academic community. 

I also agree with China Media Project’s David Bandurski who argues: “Most readers of the piece could not fail to note the clear political bias at work — not to mention the unwarranted (in academic discourse) aggression. The essay, in fact, is not about historical scholarship at all, but about China’s current ideological climate.”

The concluding paragraph — and here I’m being lazy and using CMP’s translation —descends into a veritable orgy of righteous indignation and exclamation points:

“New Qing History” is academically absurd, and politically does damage to the unity of China. It is necessary to stir all scholars with a sense of righteousness to fiercely oppose it. We entirely reject “New Qing History.” Moreover, we expose its mask of pseudo-academic scholarship, eliminating the deleterious effect it has had on scholarship in China!

Fortunately, China has many academics who are neither as angry or absurd as Professor Li. One of my favorite researchers, Ge Jianxiong, wrote an essay a few years ago entitled “To exaggerate the size of China’s historical territory is not patriotic.”

First of all, “China” (Zhongguo) only officially became the name of our country with the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. Before this, the idea of China (“Zhongguo”) was not clearly conceptualized. The concept of “China” has continued to expand. From referring specifically to the central plains of China, the concept has since grown to now refer generally to a whole nation. Even during the late Qing, “China” would sometimes be used as a name to refer to the Qing State, including all the territory with in the boundaries of the Qing Empire, but other times it would only refer to the “18 Interior Provinces” and not include Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Therefore, if we want to understand the extent of ancient China’s territory, we can only speak of how large was the actual territory controlled by a particular dynasty at a particular moment. For example: How big was the Qin Dynasty? How big was the Tang Dynasty? How big was the Qing Dynasty? If you want to say how large was “China” at a certain time, you need to explain how “China” is conceptualized, including explaining which Dynasty or regime is being discussed…

Until now, there are those people who feel that the more they exaggerate the territory of historical “China” or China’s successive dynasties and kingdoms the more patriotic they are. Actually, it is exactly the opposite. If China really wishes to rise peacefully, we must understand the true facts of history, only then will we be able to know the sum of our history, learn from our experiences, and so be on a solid footing to face the future.

Earlier this month, historian Yao Dali launched a broadside against tired old notions of Manchu Sinicization, arguing that these narratives are more a reflection of nationalist wishful thinking than based on any evidence.

So clearly not all members of the historical community have completely lost their minds. I also think that many (most?) of the younger generation of Qing historians — quite a few of whom did their graduate training outside of the PRC — would roll their eyes at Professor Li’s vitriol. But it’s clear that the ideological retrenchment which seems to be the new normal is reaching into even arcane corners of the Sinological universe. 


Update April 24: An earlier version of this post had this paragraph:

A colleague of mine, a PhD student at Beijing Normal University, recounted on twitter yesterday how Mark Elliott was once “nearly got chased out of a class at Beijing Normal for using 侵略 (“invade”) to describe Qing in Xinjiang.”

According to Professor Elliott, he’s never actually given a talk at Beijing Normal, so this sounds like an apocryphal  story.  

Speaking purely hypothetically, however, I would guess that using the words “Qing” “Invade” and “Xinjiang” in a lecture at a local university would be, academically speaking, a little like slathering oneself in bacon grease before addressing a room full of rabid poodles.


Confucian Confusion

“Fight the people’s war to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius.”

“Fight the people’s war to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius.”

Last week, China named Cuban strongman Fidel Castro the latest recipient of the Confucius Peace Prize, the country’s answer to the Nobel Prize in the same category.

The award was created hastily in 2010 when dissident and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in spite of threats and histrionics on the part of the Chinese government. The Confucius Prize has been awarded five times, most notably to the peace-loving Vladimir Putin. Castro, who in 1962 arguably brought the world closer to nuclear holocaust than at any time before or since, is nonetheless praised for “important contributions on eliminating nuclear war.”

But the Peace Prize isn’t China’s only wholesale commandeering of her most famous sage, known for his philosophy of ethics and morals. His imprimatur has also been pressed into service since 2004 in the government’s “Confucius Institutes,” a soft-power initiative devoted ostensibly to promoting Chinese language and culture abroad. As scholar Perry Link recently told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, however, the Institutes also constitute a not-so-subtle and distinctly non-scholarly effort by China to offer “a false image of itself and of Chinese history.” Only the Party’s version of the past is presented, and discussion of troublesome topics is highly discouraged.

For anyone whose memory goes back to the 1970s, what may be most difficult to swallow about all this is the colossal cheek involved in appropriating Confucius’ good name. It wasn’t so long ago that China’s best-known teacher and philosopher was the last person on earth the communists would have chosen as a proxy. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, he was shamelessly maligned by the very Party that hoists his banner today. Although dead for two millennia, he was singled out for his own personal smear campaign.

The slogan, “number one bastard” is  plastered over an effigy of the great sage.

The slogan, “number one bastard” is plastered over an effigy of the great sage.

The “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius Campaign” (批林批孔运动, Pilin Pikong Yundong) was launched in 1973 by Mao and his wife Jiang Qing as a re-examination of Chinese history through a Maoist prism. It incorporated the denunciation of Vice Premier Lin Biao, who two years earlier had allegedly launched a coup against the Chairman. Used by the leftist Gang of Four as a weapon against “modern-day Confucians” – moderates like Premier Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping – it ushered in one of the most violent periods of the Cultural Revolution, lasting until its end in 1976.

Confucius, whose principles had enjoyed a coveted place in Chinese history, was suddenly held up as a symbol of all that was bad about the old society. Although he was a stand-in for enemies then very much alive, he took a severe drubbing in his own right. He was denounced as China’s “number one bastard” (头号大混蛋, touhao dahundan) and his writings were parsed and criticized. Temples built in his honor were pillaged and his statues decapitated. His grave was leveled and the corpses of his descendants defiled. And in comic books and posters he was depicted as a wizened old geezer, flailed mercilessly by righteous workers, peasants and soldiers.

In the 21st century, China’s premier teacher and scholar has once again become useful to the Party, this time as hero rather than villain. His reconstructed tomb is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And in a September speech long on Confucius and notably short on Karl Marx, President Xi Jinping praised the sage’s teachings as “the historical roots of the spiritual world of the present-day Chinese.” He added that “Confucianism has morphed with the times, and evolved in accordance with corresponding conditions.”

What has actually evolved is not Confucius, but rather the Party’s stormy, on-again, off-again relationship with him. The real question is when the next change in his fortunes is likely to occur. When it does, it will probably find China’s “number one bastard” braced for the next spin around the merry-go-round – if he hasn’t succumbed to a severe case of whiplash by then.

Censoring History

Excellent article on the China File blog by uber-historian Joseph Esherick on the somewhat awkward process preparing his most recent book for Chinese publication.  Published in 2011, Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History is a personal work following nearly six centuries of his wife’s family and looking at how the Ye family (Get it? Ancestral leaves?), many of whom are not unknown to Chinese historians, navigated the vicissitudes of China’s more turbulent periods.

Fine as far as it goes when published in English, but getting the book ready for a Chinese pressing proved a little more difficult than anticipated. First, his wife’s family requested some small changes in the Chinese version to help put the family in a better light.

Then there were questions of history itself. Did Sun Yat-sen oppose class conflict? Can you quantify the number of people who died as a result of the Great Leap Forward as “millions” in a particular province or would it be better to simply say “quite a few?” To what extent did Deng Xiaoping’s legacy repudiate that of Chairman Mao?

The book’s treatment of the Qing Dynasty also caused problems.  This is a subject on which Professor Esherick has written many times and is a noted authority. The post recaps the hilarity which ensued when he tried to publish in China an earlier essay on the transition from Qing Empire-Chinese nation-state.  In the case of Ancestral Leaves:

Members of the Ye family had been officials in China’s last dynasty, the Qing, and one had served as governor of the northwestern province of Shaanxi as it recovered from a massive and destructive rebellion by the local Muslim population, much of which had been wiped out in the process. The press admitted that the narrative could not ignore this rebellion, but all mention of its ethnic dimension had to be cut.

The same principle guided discussion of the Qing dynasty itself. The Qing was ruled by Manchus from the north, and their armies had conquered the previous dynasty and greatly expanded the empire to include Mongolia, Tibet, and the Turkic Muslim regions that are now Xinjiang. But the Manchus are now one of the 56 official “nationalities” that make up the Chinese people, so the Manchu conquest had to be rephrased as nothing more than one (implicitly Chinese) ethnic group coming from beyond the Great Wall to rule the rest of China.

Fortunately on this and many other points, Professor Esherick stuck to his guns and although the book was published with edits, these edits did not significantly alter the narrative of the original nor did they ignore or re-write historical evidence.

The Chinese translation of Autumn Leaves is now selling very well inside the PRC.

One wishes that more international authors showed the same backbone when working with Chinese publishers.



And All My Words Come Back to Me…

by Scott D. Seligman

GangjiuAs police move to take control of Queensway and city workers with power tools are dismantling the barricades, it’s worth remembering that the PRC government was not always so threatened by unrest in Hong Kong. When it was Britain’s ox that was getting gored, China actually encouraged it.

It was probably inevitable that the turmoil that was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution would spill over into the then-British crown colony of Hong Kong. In 1967, not long after it began, leftist riots that got their start as a labor dispute in a Kowloon artificial flower factory morphed into a full-blown protest against British In contrast to recent demonstrations, those protests were quite violent. Police clashed with demonstrators, who detonated home-made bombs throughout the colony. There was even a brief border skirmish in the New Territories, where mainland militias actually fired on the Hong Kong police.

Fifty-one people were killed in the melee, and more than 800 were injured before Premier Zhou Enlai ordered the leftist groups to desist. The bombs added a new word to the Cantonese lexicon: thenceforth bolo – a term meaning pineapple – was also used to refer to home-made explosives.

Propaganda left over from that era carries some highly ironic messages in 2014. One poster from 1967 is captioned, “Millions of Red Guards in the motherland firmly support the compatriots in Hong Kong and Kowloon in their patriotic anti-British uprising.” The sign urges them to “resolutely counterattack British imperialism.” A second placard is even more pointed: “Kowloon and Hong Kong compatriots are not to be bullied!”

Food for thought?


Scott D. Seligman is a writer, a historian and a retired corporate executive. He is the author of The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo, Three Tough Chinamen and Chinese Business Etiquette, and co-author of the best-selling Cultural Revolution Cookbook and Now You’re Talking Mandarin Chinese. He lives in Washington, DC.