The Yongle Emperor

The Yongle Emperor / Chengzu

The Yongle emperor (1360 – 1424), born Zhudi, Chengzu or Cheng di, was the son of the founder of the Ming – the Hongwu emperor. Ascending to power in 1402 after a bloody civil war, in which he overthrew his own nephew, the Yongle emperor ambitiously commissioned public works projects for his new capital in Beijing and launched military expeditions far into Mongol territory and Southeast Asia. He is perhaps most well-known for commissioning eunuch and naval admiral Zheng He’s naval expeditions which reached the coast of Africa. One of his other most notable achievements was repairing the Grand Canal, which made Beijing directly accessible via waterway.

After winning the costly civil war, Chengzu was able to restore economic stability to the empire. His kingdom greatly benefited from the agricultural tax, and while his public works projects and diplomatic envoys began expanding and modernizing the kingdom, they eventually drained the country’s purses and led to economic instability after his death. The opening of the Grand Canal, the beautification of the Beijing capital (including the construction of the Forbidden City), grand maritime and military expeditions and other public works all took their toll on the government, specifically taxpayers, who found it hard to keep up with the government’s “progress.”

The Yongle emperor also promoted the use of paper currency –but confidence in it fell after his reign – and mandated an increase in mining quotas, which led to record and near surpluses of silver for the capital, but an economic crash when his successor scaled back mining practices.

Zhu Di died while on an expedition to what is now Inner Mongolia. He was the first emperor to be buried in the Ming Tombs, north of Beijing, and is entombed in the complexes largest mausoleum.

  • Atwell, William S. “Time, Money, and the Weather: Ming China and the "Great Depression" of the Mid-Fifteenth Century.” The Journal of Asian Studies. 2002.
  • Kapstein, Matthew T. “The Tibetans.” Blackwell Publishing. Cambridge, England, 2006.

Entry by Megan H. Chan