3. The Nutty Emperor Into Role Playing
Zhu Houzhao (1491 – 1521) became China’s emperor at age 14 in 1505. Perhaps making a teenager supreme ruler was a mistake: Zhu was uninterested in governing, and disregarded state affairs. Instead, he dove headfirst into a profligate lifestyle. Marked by lavish spending, bizarre behavior, and poor choices that set the stage for the Ming Dynasty’s downfall. The 14-year-old emperor entrusted governance to trusted eunuchs. He devoted himself to pleasure seeking. With governance left entirely in their hands, palace eunuchs became China’s most powerful class. Without checks or oversight, corruption became endemic and public offices were openly bought and sold. Taxes soared to pay for the emperor’s pleasures and to feather the nests of courtiers and officials. In the meantime, Zhu took to learning foreign languages and traveling incognito.
An Alter Ego
He began creating 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. But he possessed less innocent habits. He took his companions on thrill raids. Bursting into the homes of wealthy citizens, they violently seized and kidnapped their daughters, holding them for ransom. Officials who criticized the emperor’s erratic and irresponsible behavior were arrested, tortured, and executed by the hundreds. He eventually drowned in 1521, when his pleasure barge capsized. This finally brought his reign to a merciful end. Although he left the scene, the damage he left behind proved permanent. During the years of his reign, without oversight from the throne, palace eunuchs went too far. They achieved such power within the government’s structure, subsequent emperors were unable to dislodge them.