3. An Emperor Who Took Make Believe to Extremes
As his realm went to ruin, the teenaged Zhengde Emperor took to learning foreign languages and travelling incognito – although most of the time it was obvious just who he was. He was into make-believe in a big way, and created an alter ego for himself, a generalissimo Zhu Zhu, upon whom he lavished praise and rewards. He also built a city block within the imperial palace so he could pretend to be a shopkeeper. Less innocent and more harmful was his habit of taking his companions on thrill raids.
During those excursions, the emperor and his cronies often burst into the homes of wealthy citizens, violently seized and kidnapped their daughters, and held them for ransom. Officials who criticized the emperor’s erratic and irresponsible behavior were arrested, tortured, and executed by the hundreds. The Zhengde Emperor eventually drowned in 1521 when his pleasure barge capsized, an accident that finally brought his reign to a merciful end. Although he exited the scene, the damage he left behind proved permanent. During the years of his reign, without oversight from the throne, palace eunuchs achieved such power within the government’s structure that subsequent emperors were unable to dislodge them.