Emperor Zhu Houzhao Liked Playing Shopkeeper, General, or Kidnapper
Zhu Houzhao (1491 – 1521), ascended the Ming Dynasty’s throne and was crowned as the Zhengde Emperor in 1505, at age 14. Unsurprisingly, the teenager had little interest in the boring work of governing an empire, and disregarded state affairs. Also unsurprisingly for a teenager suddenly thrust in a position of absolute power, and given access to untold wealth, he went nuts. Leaving the business of running China to his courtiers and officials, Zhu dove head first into enjoying life and living it up, like only a teenager who could do whatever he wanted could live it up. His extravagant and profligate lifestyle, marked by lavish spending, bizarre behavior, and poor choices, set the stage for the Ming Dynasty’s eventual downfall.
As soon as he ascended the throne, the 14 year old emperor turned over the running of the empire to trusted eunuchs, and devoted himself to pleasure seeking. With the levers of power 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, while taxes soared to pay for the emperor’s pleasures and to feather the nests of courtiers and officials.
In the meantime, the young emperor took to learning foreign languages and travelling incognito around China – although most of the time it was obvious just who he was. He was into make believe in a big way, and one of his favorite hobbies was creating elaborate alter egos for himself. One such was a general Zhu Zhu, upon whom the young emperor 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 bandit and kidnapper for ransom alter ego. In that guise, the emperor would take his companions on thrill raids, during which they would burst into the homes of wealthy citizens. There, they would violently seize and kidnap the household’s daughters, carry them off to a hideout, and hold them for ransom. Those who criticized the emperor’s erratic and irresponsible behavior were arrested, tortured, and executed by the hundreds.
Zhu eventually drowned in 1521 when one of his pleasure barges sank, finally bringing his reign to a merciful end. Although he was dead and gone, the damage he left behind proved permanent. During 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. Their endemic corruption wrecked the Ming Dynasty’s effectiveness, and was a major cause of its eventual collapse.