Chongzhen Emperor

Chongzhen Emperor
16th Emperor of the Ming dynasty
Predecessor Tianqi Emperor
Successor Hongguang Emperor (of the Southern Ming)
Reign 2 October 1627 – 25 April 1644
Born (1611-02-06)6 February 1611
Forbidden City, Beijing, Ming dynasty
Died 25 April 1644(1644-04-25) (aged 33)
Jingshan, Beijing, Ming dynasty
Burial Ming tombs, Beijing, China
Spouse Empress Zhuangliemin
Noble Consort Gongshu
Noble Consort Yuan
Consort Shun
Consort Shen
Consort Wang[1]
Consort Wang[2]
Consort Liu
Consort Fang
Issue Zhu Cilang, Crown Prince Xianmin
Zhu Cixuan, Prince Yin of Huai
Zhu Cijiong, Prince Ai of Ding
Zhu Cizhao, Prince Dao of Yong
Zhu Cihuan, Prince Ling of Ding
Zhu Cican, Prince Huai of Dao
Prince Liang of Dao
Princess Kunyi
Zhu Meichuo, Princess Changping
Princess Zhaoren
Full name
Family name: Zhu (朱)
Given name: Youjian (由檢)
Era name and dates
Chongzhen (崇禎): 5 February 1628 – 25 April 1644
Posthumous name
Emperor Zhaotian Yidao Gangming Kejian Kuiwen Fenwu Dunren Maoxiao Lie
Temple name
Ming Sizong (明思宗)[3]
House House of Zhu
Father Taichang Emperor
Mother Empress Dowager Xiaochun

The Chongzhen Emperor (6 February 1611 – 25 April 1644), personal name Zhu Youjian, was the 16th and last emperor of the Ming dynasty in China, reigning from 1627–1644. "Chongzhen", the era name of his reign, means "honorable and auspicious".

Early years

Zhu Youjian was the fifth son of Zhu Changluo, the Taichang Emperor. His mother, Lady Liu, was a low-ranking concubine of the Taichang Emperor. When Zhu Youjian was four years old, his mother was executed by his father for reasons unknown and was buried secretly. Zhu Youjian was then adopted by his father's other concubines. He was first raised by Consort Kang, and then by Consort Zhuang after Consort Kang adopted Zhu Youjian's eldest brother, Zhu Youxiao.

All of the Taichang Emperor's sons died before reaching adulthood except for Zhu Youxiao and Zhu Youjian. Zhu Youjian grew up in a relatively lonely but quiet environment. After the Taichang Emperor died in 1620, Zhu Youxiao succeeded his father and was enthroned as the Tianqi Emperor. He granted the title "Prince of Xin" (信王) to Zhu Youjian and posthumously honoured Zhu Youjian's mother, Lady Liu, as "Consort Xian" (賢妃). Fearing the court eunuch Wei Zhongxian, who controlled the Tianqi Emperor, Zhu Youjian avoided attending imperial court sessions under the pretext of illness until he was summoned to court by his brother in 1627. At the time, the Tianqi Emperor was gravely ill and wanted Zhu Youjian to rely on Wei Zhongxian in the future.[4]

When the Tianqi Emperor died in October 1627, Zhu Youjian, then about 16 years old, ascended the throne as the Chongzhen Emperor.[5] His succession was helped by Empress Zhang, despite the manoeuvres of Wei Zhongxian to keep dominating the imperial court.[6] From the beginning of his rule, the Chongzhen Emperor did his best to salvage the Ming dynasty. His efforts at reform focused on the top ranks of the civil and military establishment. However, years of internal corruption and an empty treasury made it almost impossible to find capable ministers to fill important government posts. The emperor also tended to be suspicious of his subordinates, executing dozens of field commanders, including the general Yuan Chonghuan, who had directed the defence of the northern frontier against the Manchu-led Later Jin dynasty (later the Qing dynasty). The Chongzhen Emperor's reign was marked by his fear of factionalism among his officials, which had been a serious issue during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor. Soon after his brother's death, the Chongzhen Emperor immediately eliminated Wei Zhongxian and Madam Ke, as well as other officials thought to be involved in the "Wei-Ke conspiracy".[7]

Meanwhile, partisans of the Donglin Academy faction, which had been devastated under Wei Zhongxian's influence, established political organizations throughout the Jiangnan region.[8] Chief among these was the Fushe, or Restoration Society, whose members were a new generation of scholars who identified with the old Donglin faction.[9] They succeeded in placing their members into high government posts through the imperial examinations of 1630 and 1631. The reversal of Wei Zhongxian's fortunes resulted in a renewal of the Donglin faction's influence at court, arousing great suspicion from the Chongzhen Emperor.[10] The nomination of Donglin favorite Qian Qianyi for the post of Grand Secretary led to accusations of corruption and factionalism by his rival Wen Tiren. Qian Qianyi was imprisoned on the emperor's orders. Though he was soon released, his status was reduced to that of a commoner and he returned to Jiangnan. Wen Tiren would later become Grand Secretary himself.[11]

Peasant rebellions and Manchu invasion

In the early 17th century, persistent drought and famine driven by the Little Ice Age accelerated the collapse of the Ming dynasty.[12] Two major popular uprisings swelled up, led by Zhang Xianzhong and Li Zicheng, both poor men from famine-hit Shaanxi who took up arms in the 1620s.[13] At the same time, Ming armies were occupied in the defence of the northern border against the Manchu ruler Huangtaiji, whose father, Nurhaci, had united the Manchu tribes into a cohesive force. In 1636, after years of campaigns against Ming fortifications north of the Great Wall, Huangtaiji declared himself emperor of the Qing dynasty.[14]

Through the 1630s, rebellion spread from Shaanxi to nearby Huguang and Henan. In 1641, Xiangyang fell to Zhang Xianzhong, and Luoyang to Li Zicheng. The next year, Li Zicheng captured Kaifeng.[15] The year after that, Zhang Xianzhong took Wuchang and established himself the ruler of his Xi kingdom.[13] Court officials offered a number of unrealistic proposals to stop the rebel armies, including the establishment of archery contests, the restoration of the weisuo military colony system, and the execution of disloyal peasants.[16] Li Zicheng took Xi'an in last 1643, renaming it Chang'an, which had been the city's name when it was the capital of the Tang dynasty. On the lunar New Year of 1644, he proclaimed himself king of the Shun dynasty and prepared to capture Beijing.[17]

By this point, the situation had become critical for the Chongzhen Emperor, who rejected proposals to recruit new militias from the Beijing region and to recall general Wu Sangui, the defender of Shanhai Pass on the Great Wall. The Chongzhen Emperor had dispatched a new field commander, Yu Yinggui, who failed to stop Li Zicheng's armies as they crossed the Yellow River in December 1643. Back in Beijing, the capital defence forces consisted of old and feeble men, who were starving because of the corruption of eunuchs responsible for provisioning their supplies. The troops had not been paid for nearly a year.[18] Meanwhile, the capture of Taiyuan by Li Zicheng's forces gave his campaign additional momentum; garrisons began to surrender to him without a fight. Through February and March 1644, the Chongzhen Emperor declined repeated proposals to move the court south to Nanjing, and in early April, he rejected a suggestion to move the crown prince to the south.[19]


The Chongzhen Emperor Slays One of His Daughters, from Martino Martini's De Bello Tartarico Historia (1655)

In April 1644, the Ming imperial court finally ordered Wu Sangui to move his army south from his fortress at Ningyuan to Shanhai Pass.[20] It was too late, however, and Wu would not reach Shanhai Pass until 26 April.[21] Word reached Beijing that Shun rebels were approaching the capital through Juyong Pass, and the Chongzhen Emperor held his last audience with his ministers on 23 April. Li Zicheng offered the emperor an opportunity to surrender, but the negotiations produced no result. Li commanded his forces to attack on 24 April. Rather than face capture by the rebels, the Chongzhen Emperor gathered all members of the imperial household except his sons. Using his sword, he killed Consort Yuan and Princess Kunyi, and severed the arm of Princess Changping. The empress hanged herself.[22]

A modern replacement of the tree from which the Chongzhen Emperor was said to have hanged himself

On 25 April, the Chongzhen Emperor was said to have walked to Meishan, a small hill in present-day Jingshan Park. There, he either hanged himself, or strangled himself with a sash. By some accounts, the emperor left a suicide note which said, "I die unable to face my ancestors in the underworld, dejected and ashamed. May the rebels dismember my corpse and slaughter my officials, but let them not despoil the imperial tombs nor harm a single one of our people."[23] According to a servant who discovered the emperor's body under a tree, however, the words tianzi (Son of Heaven) were the only written evidence left after his death.[24] The emperor was buried in the Ming tombs.

The Manchus were quick to exploit the death of the Chongzhen Emperor: by claiming to "avenge the emperor," they rallied support from loyalist Ming forces and civilians. The Shun dynasty lasted less than a year with Li Zicheng's defeat at the Battle of Shanhai Pass. The victorious Manchus established the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing dynasty as ruler of all China. Because the Chongzhen Emperor had refused to move the court south to Nanjing, the new Qing government was able to take over a largely intact Beijing bureaucracy, aiding their efforts to displace the Ming.[25]

After the Chongzhen Emperor's death, loyalist forces proclaimed a Southern Ming dynasty in Nanjing, naming Zhu Yousong (the Prince of Fu) as the Hongguang Emperor. However, in 1645, Qing armies started to move against the Ming remnants. The Southern Ming, again bogged down by factional infighting, were unable to hold back the Qing onslaught, and Nanjing surrendered on 8 June 1645. Zhu Yousong was captured on 15 June and brought to Beijing, where he died the following year. The dwindling Southern Ming were continually pushed farther south, and the last emperor of the Southern Ming, Zhu Youlang, was finally caught in Burma, transported to Yunnan, and executed in 1662 by Wu Sangui.


While the Chongzhen Emperor was not especially incompetent by the standards of the later Ming, he nevertheless sealed the fate of the Ming dynasty. In ways, he did his best to save the dynasty. However, despite a reputation for hard work, the emperor's paranoia, impatience, stubbornness and lack of regard for the plight of his people doomed his crumbling empire. His attempts at reform did not take into account the considerable decline of Ming power, which was already far advanced at the time of his accession. Over the course of his 17-year reign, the Chongzhen Emperor executed seven military governors, 11 regional commanders, replaced his minister of defence 14 times, and appointed an unprecedented 50 ministers to the Grand Secretariat (equivalent to the cabinet and chancellor).[26] Even though the Ming dynasty still possessed capable commanders and skilled politicians in its dying years, the Chongzhen Emperor's impatience and paranoid personality prevented any of them from enacting any real plan to salvage a perilous situation.

In particular, the Chongzhen Emperor's execution of Yuan Chonghuan on extremely flimsy grounds was regarded as the decisively fatal blow. At the time of his death, Yuan was supreme commander of all Ming forces in the northeast, and had just rushed from the borders to defend the capital against a surprise Manchu invasion. For much of the preceding decade, Yuan had served as the Ming Empire's bulwark in the north, where he was responsible for securing Ming borders at a time when the Empire was suffering humiliating defeat after defeat. His unjust death destroyed Ming military morale and removed one of the greatest obstacles to the eventual Manchu conquest of China.


The Chongzhen Emperor's father was the Taichang Emperor. His mother was Lady Liu (劉氏) (d. 1615), a concubine of the Taichang Emperor and a daughter of Liu Yingyuan, the Duke of Ying (瀛國公劉應元), and Lady Xu (徐媪), who was posthumously honored as Empress Dowager Xiaochun (孝純太后).


Formal Title Maiden Name Born Died Father Mother Issue Notes
Empress Xiaojie
Family name: Zhou (周) 10 May 1611
Suzhou, Jiangsu Province
24 April 1644 Zhou Kui
Zhu Cilang, Crown Prince Xianmin
Princess Kunyi
Zhu Cixuan, Prince Yin of Huai
Zhu Cijiong, Prince Ai of Ding
Noble Consort Yuan
Family name: Yuan (袁) 1644 Yuan You (袁祐) Princess Zhaoren
Noble Consort Gongshu
Family name: Tian (田)
Given name: Xiuying (秀英)
Shaanxi Province 1642 Tian Hongyu
Zhu Cizhao, Prince Dao of Yong
Zhu Cihuan, Prince Ling of Dao
Zhu Cican, Prince Huai of Dao
Prince Liang of Dao
Consort Shun
Family name: Wang (王) 1629 Zhu Meichuo, Princess Changping
Consort Shen
Family name: Shen (沈)
Consort Wang
Family name: Wang (王) Different from the below
Consort Wang
Family name: Wang (王) Different from the above
Consort Liu
Family name: Liu (劉)
Consort Fang
Family name: Fang (方)


Number Name Formal Title Born Died Mother Spouse Issue Notes
1 Zhu Cilang
Crown Prince Xianmin
26 February 1629 unknown[27] Empress Zhuangliemin Lady Ning
(daughter of Ning Hong (寧浤))
none Created Crown Prince in 1630
2 Zhu Cixuan
Prince Yin of Huai
15 January 1630 15 March 1630 Empress Zhuangliemin none none Created Prince of Huai
3 Zhu Cijiong
Prince Ai of Ding
1631 unknown Empress Zhuangliemin Created Prince Ding in 1643; posthumously demoted to Duke An of Ding (定安公) under the Shun dynasty; title of Prince of Ding restored under the Southern Ming dynasty
4 Zhu Cizhao
Prince Dao of Yong
unknown unknown Consort Gongshu Created Prince of Yong in April 1642; Granted the posthumous name "Dao" (悼) under the Southern Ming dynasty
5 Zhu Cihuan
Prince Ling of Dao
1633 1708 Consort Gongshu Lady Hu
Zhu Heshen (朱和兟)[28]
Zhu Heren (朱和壬)
Zhu Hezai (朱和在)
Zhu Hekun (朱和堃)
three daughters
Went into hiding since the fall of the Ming dynasty; captured and executed by the Qing government in 1708[29][30]
6 Zhu Cican
Prince Huai of Dao
1637 5 May 1639 Consort Gongshu none none
7 none Prince Liang of Dao
unknown unknown Consort Gongshu none none Died at the age of three


Number Title Name Born Died Date Married Spouse Issue Mother Notes
1 Princess Kunyi
Family name: Zhu (朱)
(personal name unknown)
1630 unknown none none none Empress Zhuangliemin Died young
2 Princess Changping
Family name: Zhu (朱)
Given name: Meichuo (朱媺娖)
1629 26 September 1646 1645 Zhou Xian
Consort Shun
3 Princess Zhaoren
Family name: Zhu (朱)
(personal name unknown)
1639 1644 none none none Consort Yuan Was killed by her father along with other members of the imperial household when Li Zicheng invaded the Ming capital of Beijing



  1. Different from the below
  2. DIfferent from the above
  3. In 1644, Zhu Yousong, who had proclaimed himself the Hongguang Emperor of the Southern Ming dynasty, gave the Chongzhen Emperor the temple name "Sizong". In historical texts, "Sizong" is the most common temple name of the Chongzhen Emperor, even though the Southern Ming rulers had changed "Sizong" to "Yizong" (毅宗) and then to "Weizong" (威宗). During the Qing dynasty, the Chongzhen Emperor's temple name was changed to "Huaizong" (懷宗).
  4. 至是八月熹宗疾大漸十一日命召帝帝初慮不為忠賢所容深自韜晦常稱病不朝承召乃入問疾熹宗憑榻顧帝曰來吾弟當為堯舜帝懼不敢應良久奏曰臣死罪陛下為此言臣應萬死熹宗慰勉至再又曰善視中宮魏忠賢可任也帝益懼而與忠賢相勞若語甚溫求出 (崇禎長編 卷一)
  5. Mote 2003, p. 777.
  6. 及熹宗大渐,折忠贤逆谋、传位信王者,后力也。 (明史 卷一百一十四)
  7. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 87-90.
  8. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 111-115.
  9. Mote 2003, p. 779.
  10. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 119-122.
  11. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 125-126.
  12. Fagan 2000, p. 50.
  13. 1 2 Mote 2003, p. 798.
  14. Wakeman Jr. 1986, p. 206.
  15. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 226-227.
  16. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 236-238.
  17. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 233-234.
  18. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 234-240.
  19. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 240-247.
  20. Mote 2003, p. 808.
  21. Wakeman Jr. 1986, p. 290.
  22. Wakeman Jr. 1986, pp. 259-263.
  23. Mingji beilüe, quoted in Wakeman Jr. 1986, p. 266
  24. Wakeman Jr. 1986, p. 266.
  25. Wakeman Jr. 1986, p. 257.
  26. 古代碑石墓志的宝库
  27. 京師陷,賊獲太子,偽封宋王。及賊敗西走,太子不知所終。 (明史 卷一百二十)
  28. Father of Zhu Cengyu (朱曾裕)
  29. 戊午,山東巡撫趙世顯報捕獲硃三父子,解往浙江。(清史稿卷八)
  30. 丁巳,九卿議覆大嵐山獄上,得旨:「誅其首惡者,硃三父子不可宥,緣坐可改流徙。巡撫王然、提督王世臣俱留任,受傷官兵俱議敘。」(清史稿卷八)


Chongzhen Emperor
Born: 6 February 1611 Died: 25 April 1644
Regnal titles
Preceded by
The Tianqi Emperor
Emperor of the Ming dynasty
Succeeded by
The Hongguang Emperor
Emperor of China
Succeeded by
The Shunzhi Emperor
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