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The Yongle Emperor

The life and times of the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who moved the imperial capital to Beijing and wanted to conquer the world.

The Yong-le Emperor was the third of the Ming Dynasty and he reigned from 1402-1424. He is remembered as one of the greatest of the Chinese emperors and, in particular, the he last emperor to look systematically to extend the borders of the Chinese Empire through the absorption of various small principalities in the southern Yunnan province, the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to assimilate the Dai Viet state in what is now Northern Vietnam and, perhaps most importantly, the various fleets dispatched under eunuch admirals such as Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) through the eastern seas and west as far as Arabia and the African coast. A campaign was launched against the island now known as Sri Lanka, for example. Yet Yong-le ultimately turned against expansionism and China thereafter looked inwards.

The future emperor was born in 1360 as the fourth of 26 princes to the Hung-wu emperor, the founding Ming emperor, who had brought himself up from the peasantry to the most powerful person in the world through determination, hard work and leadership ability. The apple does not fall far from the tree, as the saying goes, and the son appears to have inherited similar characteristics. He achieved the position of Prince of Yen (the area which now includes Beijing) and, once he ascended to the throne, he changed the imperial capital to that city from Nanking and had the Forbidden Palace built.

As a boy, he was known as Chu Ti (Chinese emperors had a number of different names at different stages of their life) and he was brought up in the transition from the Mongol Yuan Dynasty to the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty. The excision not just of a hated ruling family but a whole upper class of perhaps barbarous foreigners meant that all institutions and customs had to be reconstituted and placed under different systems and managers. The need to suppress possible corruption and mismanagement would have provided powerful training for an interventionist emperor.

In 1392, the heir apparent died and this led to a particularly violent series of rebellions at the end of which Chu Ti was victorious: he made it so that his predecessor Chu Yun-wen and all of his family and associates had never been born. This was Chinese tradition to put an end to any possible vendetta by murdering anyone who might have a sufficiently powerful incentive to seek revenge. Nevertheless, stories that Chu Yun-wen had actually escaped from his burning palace and might one day return to seek vengeance pursued Chu Ti throughout his reign.

As a self-made man in the image of his father, Chu Ti placed less emphasis on high culture and rather more on the sword and the bellowed instructions. He grew self-aggrandizing in nature and less willing to accept reverses – perhaps it was this tendency that explained his ultimate refusal to continue with external expansion, which ultimately led to a centuries-long period of introspection that meant China fell from its position as the most powerful and advanced state in the world to the playground of opium-peddling adventurers and missionaries it has become by the nineteenth century.

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