We usually remember historical figures for what they do, but what about Wanli—the emperor of China who became famous for what he didn’t do. Wanli went on strike for 15 years, leaving his country like a ship without a sail, while he ate and drank the house down. The infuriating thing was that, for many years, no one knew why the heck Wanli stopped doing his job—and when they found out, things got even worse. But, as we’ll see, even that was nothing compared to his dark and disastrous end…
1. He Had A Bad Education
Wanli came into this world on September 4, 1563, as Zhu Yijun. His parents weren’t exactly equals. His father was the Longqing Emperor of the Ming Dynasty—the 13th emperor of China. Mom, on the other hand, was a maid. Because mom had no experience with courtly life, the job of educating Wanli went to dad. It turned out, however, that dad was the absolute worst choice for teaching Wanli anything.
2. He Needed Direction
Wanli’s father had an utterly terrible reputation. He was less interested in being emperor and more interested in…let’s just say…pursuing his earthly desires. Because dad spent most of his days chasing skirts, he didn’t really have much to teach his son about all things royal. But, as luck would have it, he didn’t end up spending too many days as a teacher.
3. He Suffered A Tragedy
Wanli was just 10 years old when he faced a devastating family tragedy. His father suddenly and unexpectedly passed. His hedonistic father was only 35 at the time, but it turned out that he wasn’t as self-centered as originally thought. He had, in fact, prepared for his untimely demise—maybe he knew his lifestyle left him with a short shelf life.
So he did, indeed, prepare for his untimely end…but it was in a weird way.
4. He Received A Gift
Wanli became emperor at the tender age of 10, and would most definitely need some help with the heavy lifting. Wanli’s father had seen this coming and provided something to help his son. It was a replacement father. He’d commissioned Zhang Juzheng as a sort of mentor to Wanli, and also to take on the responsibilities of the emperor.
Juzheng stepped in as replacement emperor and left Wanli with an invaluable gift: loads and loads of free time.
5. He Lived The Life Of Riley
So while his mentor was controlling the country, Wanli led a pretty sheltered existence. His stomping ground was the very protected Forbidden City, and his mother doted on him excessively. When she was busy, he even had legions of eunuchs at his disposal. And, if that wasn’t enough, there were also women—multitudes of them. Miraculously, Wanli somehow managed to pick one woman out of the crowd that he fancied quite a lot.
6. He Had Friends With Benefits
At the tender age of 14, Wanli took a walk down the wedding aisle, but there was a dark side to this “young love.” For the young emperor, one woman was never enough. Wanli got the go-ahead to have a principal consort, associate consorts, and even consorts that they gave the not so flattering name “ordinary consorts.” Certainly, he was living every teenage boy’s fantasy.
Wanli was having no problem with the ladies, but he did, however, still have to prepare himself for the role of a lifetime: emperor of China.
7. He Got Taught
The fatherless Wanli was in need of mentorship and his replacement father Juzheng was ready and willing to fill the bill. Juzheng took Wanli under his wing, and taught him everything a young emperor needed to know: useful things like horseback riding, archery, and writing calligraphy. Juzheng was a tireless teacher, but it could be that he had an ulterior motive…
8. He Gave Up His Power
Juzheng took over Wanli’s role as emperor, and did what some may say was a little too good of a job. This placeholder emperor somehow managed to fix all the societal problems at the time, and do it staying way under budget. Juzheng also improved the economy, the military and even started a cultural renaissance—all under the name of Wanli.
You’d think that Wanli would be over the top in gratitude for his mentor and replacement dad. Well, if he was grateful, he had a really funny way of showing it.
9. He Had A Redo
In 1582, Wanli’s mentor died at the age of 57, which left him to take care of business on his own. Wanli was now 19 years old and ready to make his own impression as emperor. He looked around his country and saw all the great things his mentor had done. Then Wanli made a disastrous choice. He started undoing them. But why would Wanli want to undo his mentor’s good work? What had Juzheng ever done to him?
10. He Discovered A Sad Truth
After Juzheng died, Wanli got some upsetting news. It turned out that Wanli’s mentor hadn’t exactly practiced what he preached. On the one hand, his lessons for Wanli were about being frugal and taking responsibility for his actions. On the other hand, Juzheng was busy amassing great wealth, and something even worse: living an amoral lifestyle.
Wanli discovered this after his mentor’s sad end, and it did something to his young mind: it made him cynical. This would turn out to be catastrophic for his people…and for him.
11. He Purged
Because of his mentor’s betrayal, Wanli was ready to inflict a severe punishment, even if it was post-mortem. First, he went after Juzheng’s heirs. In 1584 he took away all the personal wealth that Juzheng had accumulated, leaving his heirs penniless. Then Wanli went a step further. He purged the entire family from China, leaving them without a home or a country.
But without Juzheng’s help, could Wanli even run the country by himself?
12. He Flourished
Wanli, without his mentor’s help, could have been a disaster as emperor. But, to everyone’s surprise, the country continued to do well with only Wanli calling the shots. The economy prospered, and the nation continued to keep its enemies at bay. For almost two decades Wanli was a successful emperor—and then, as we’ll soon see, he lost his grip.
13. He Waged Battle
During the first 18 years of his reign, Wanli was a busy emperor. First, he snuffed out a rebellion led by one of his generals. He then, in 1594, helped the Koreans with their battle against Japan. Next up, he had to face yet another rebellion—this time in southwestern China. He quashed that and then, for good measure, he executed the rebel leader and all of his family.
And how did he follow these spectacular feats on the battlefield? In a surprising way.
14. He Called It Quits
In 1600, and after nearly two decades of extraordinary service to his empire, Wanli made a devastating—and mysterious—decision. He simply just called it quits. He stayed on as emperor, but for some unknown reason, he stopped attending to his duties. This meant no more morning meetings, no sit-downs with the ministers, and if you sent him a message? Well, he might read it and then do absolutely nothing about it.
If this wasn’t bad enough, he then turned the court into a circus.
15. He Didn’t Take His Seat
Wanli was very serious about not taking care of any of his responsibilities. He went so far as to refuse to take the throne for any audience—even when foreigners were there. Strangely, they didn’t cancel the audiences but went ahead without Wanli. This led to a ridiculous sight: ministers and foreign visitors orating at length—all to an empty throne.
Wanli seemed bent on destroying the empire, but he was just getting started.
16. He Was A Big Spender
Not only was Wanli not taking care of his duties as emperor, but he was also spending like there was no tomorrow. Wanli had suddenly become obsessed with his own end and had decided he wanted to go big. It was at this time he began construction on a mausoleum for his tomb, which he gave a name whose gravity is somewhat lost in translation: Dingling.
But don’t let the name fool you, this Dingling was monumental.
17. He Went Big
Wanli’s Dingling was no ordinary tomb: it was a huge complex that he had built completely underground. It involved pieces of granite that were so huge that they required 1,600 mules to pull them. Let’s just hope there was more than one sad guy with a broom bringing up the rear. Wanli’s spending and laziness were quickly making him a very unpopular emperor. And the worst thing? No one seemed to know what had set him off.
18. The Truth Came Out
Everyone was trying to figure out what had changed Wanli’s behavior. Well, in my experience, whenever a man starts acting irrationally, you can usually be pretty sure it’s about a woman. Finally, the dark truth emerged. You see, Wanli had fallen in love—and it wasn’t with his wife.
19. She Was Different
Nobody expected Wanli to be faithful to the Empress. I mean, he had plenty of consorts for his extracurricular activities. But Wanli wasn’t really supposed to favor any of the consorts over his main one—yet that’s exactly what Wanli did. His crush was a consort named Zheng, and she was different from the rest. She was lively, gave her opinions, and she was something more: incredibly beautiful.
But the problem wasn’t only that he’d fallen in love, the problem was the promise he’d made to her.
20. He Promised
Around 1580, Wanli made a promise to his beloved Consort Zheng that would come back to haunt him. He told her that the son she’d had with him would be the next emperor. The only problem was another one of Wanli’s consorts—Consort Gang—had already given Wanli a male heir and the rules stated that he would be the next emperor.
These rules were not quite written in stone, but they may as well have been. Breaking them was not an option, but then again, Wanli was not your typical emperor.
21. He Was A Rule Breaker
Wanli’s refusal to follow the rules and make his firstborn son emperor made the people angry, disgusted even. Instead of aiming their anger at Wanli, they turned to Consort Zheng. Surely, it was her fault. She was obviously using Wanli to get her son in the top position. When Wanli heard people hurling insults at his beloved Zheng, he did what any guy in love might do: he shut it down.
22. He Went On Strike
So, the people finally knew the reason for Wanli’s strike: he wanted his son with Zheng to be the next emperor. He made it clear what he wanted, and the officials made it clear he couldn’t have it. The consequences were devastating. This stalemate didn’t last for just a few months. No, it went on for 15 years. This left China without an acting emperor, and you can imagine what that meant. Or can you?
23. He Didn’t Help
While Wanli was busy doing pretty much nothing for his country, a lot of things were happening outside the palace gates. In fact, during Wanli’s reign, there were great moves forward in terms of culture, economy, and technology. Somehow the country was thriving without an emperor to lead them. The truth was that Wanli wasn’t at all involved in these advances, but at least he wasn’t stopping them.
24. He Went International
With all these advances in culture, Wanli’s Ming dynasty drew the attention of other countries. The Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, reached out to Wanli to ask for permission to live in the capital and to experience the great advances in Chinese culture. Wanli was still refusing to do any work for his kingdom, but surely he’d abandon his strike for a European visit. Wouldn’t he?
25. He Snubbed Him
Wanli looked at the letter from Matteo Ricci and did what you’d expect a striking worker to do: nothing. He didn’t answer Ricci’s letters or even take the time to meet him when he eventually arrived. He did, however, offer him something: land for a church and a cemetery. In exchange, Ricci gave Wanli something he truly desired.
26. He Got A Gift
Matteo Ricci had brought many books with him for his trip to China—most of them were scientific ones. Getting your hands on a book back then was a little more difficult than just clicking on Amazon and waiting by your door. So, when a new book got into his hands, Wanli the avid reader quickly had it translated and printed.
But while Wanli was catching up on his reading, he was slowly softening on his position.
27. He Said Uncle
After more than 15 years of basically doing nothing as emperor, Wanli did something unexpected. He finally gave in. He reluctantly agreed to make his first son, Chu Zhangluo, the next emperor even though he wasn’t Wanli’s first choice. His consort Zheng was absolutely devastated that her son would not be emperor and began to prepare her revenge.
It looked like Wanli had lost his 15-year battle—but succession crises can be unpredictable…
28. He Went A Step Further
Once he’d given in to the ministers and allowed Chu Zhangluo to be next in line, Wanli put his strike into overdrive. Before this moment he’d only been derelict of his duties, but now he was actively stopping the government from doing its job. This caused serious problems in China and even more serious issues somewhere more vital—on its borders.
29. He Lost A Region
Manchuria, in northeastern China, was an important area to the Ming dynasty and during Wanli’s strike, it was left unprotected. It was a fatal mistake. Nurhaci, a Jurchen chieftain, caught them off guard and conquered it. Wanli’s army had deteriorated due to Wanli’s lack of interest in it, and was helpless to get Manchuria back.
This was a devastating loss for China, but there was even more revenge to come from Wanli.
30. He Went Cruel
Wanli had been against making Chu Zhangluo emperor and it was clear that the ruler still held a grudge against his son. In 1613, Chu Zhangluo faced a devastating loss: his number one consort passed. Chu Zhangluo simply wanted to bury his consort in a manner befitting her. Unfortunately for him, he had to ask Wanli, who was still emperor at the time, for his permission for the burial. For revenge, Wanli did something extremely cruel.
31. Permission Denied
Wanli’s son, Chu Zhangluo, just wanted to grieve the passing of his favorite consort, and burying her respectfully would help him get the closure he needed. Wanli refused to give him permission for the burial, and then did something even worse. He made his son wait two full years to put her in the ground at all. There was, however, even more trouble in store for Chu Zhangluo.
32. There Was A Break-In
In 1615, an intruder forced his way into the palace where Wanli’s son Chu Zhangluo lived. The intruder had a wooden stick as a weapon, and he was only apprehended when he was very close to his victim. When the authorities apprehended the intruder, they discovered his name was Zhang Chai, a local lunatic. But when they interrogated him, they discovered something rather chilling.
33. He Pointed The Finger
Once the intruder started talking, he revealed some rather startling information. It turned out he wasn’t just a lone stick-wielding nutcase. Someone had actually paid him good money to do the job. After some lengthy interrogation, Chai named two eunuchs as his employers for this attempt on Wanli’s son’s life. But who were the eunuchs working for? That was where the real scandal was.
34. He Got The Worst News
Eventually, Chai gave up the name of the person who was behind the attempted murder on Wanli’s son’s life—and it was a disturbing surprise. Chai named Wanli’s favorite consort, Zheng. She was obviously still upset that they hadn’t allowed her son to be emperor, and had been looking for revenge. The news got out to the public and they were beyond angry.
They wanted to know how Wanli would punish his consort, and they wanted to know immediately.
35. He Was Stuck
Wanli was between a rock and a hard place. Everyone now knew that his number one consort was guilty of attempting an attack on his own son. If he let her get away with it, it looked like he didn’t care about his son. If he made her pay for her crime, he’d lose his lover—and mother of his other son. Decisions, decisions. Heads had to roll, but whose would it be?
36. He Set Her Free
Wanli quickly decided on his plan of action, and it was about as corrupt as you’d expect. He planned to let the two eunuchs take the blame and let Zheng go free. But how could Wanli convince a judge that Zheng had nothing to do with the attempt on his son’s life? Well, to make this happen, Wanli came up with a drastic and unscrupulous plan.
37. He Appointed Himself
Wanli had the next to impossible task of finding a judge that would let his girlfriend get away with murder. When he came up empty-handed, he did something completely off the wall. Wanli made himself the judge. Yes, he presided over the trial personally, and the outcome was a surprise to pretty much no one: He found the eunuchs guilty and also threw in a guilty verdict for their little pawn: poor Zhang Chai.
After the trial came the sentencing. Here was an opportunity for Wanli to let these guys off easy. Surprise surprise: he didn’t take it.
38. He Didn’t Hold Back
Wanli, as judge, had found the two eunuchs and Zhang Chai guilty of conspiring to attack and end the life of his son. The three men stood before the emperor hoping for a lenient sentence. I mean, it was Wanli’s own consort who’d started the whole sordid affair in the first place. All three, however, got the same sentence: execution.
Wanli had solved his problem. It was now time to get back to his life of leisure.
39. He Expanded
Besides appointing himself as judge, Wanli still wasn’t performing any of his duties as emperor. Well, this inactivity was having ill effects on both his mental and physical well-being. It turned out that he replaced doing work with something else: complete self-indulgence. First, it was food he overdid it with, and then it was drink.
Wanli was soon an addict, and between the food and the drinks, he had gained a ton of weight.
40. He Couldn’t Stand
Wanli’s weight gain was as epic as his battles. In fact, he got so heavy that he couldn’t do something that most people take for granted: stand up. Even once he managed to get up on his feet, his humongous size made it so he couldn’t do it alone: he needed someone to support him. You’d think that being obese and immobile would have given his consorts a bit of a break from their daily grind. But no, Wanli was surprisingly still filled with lust.
41. He Managed With Help
Even though Wanli couldn’t stand up without help, he managed to develop yet another addiction. This time, it was to, ahem…making whoopee. I’m having trouble picturing this. I guess we can assume there were helpers involved. Can we add this to the “worst jobs ever” list? But don’t worry too much, this behavior was about to come to an abrupt and very final end.
42. He Took His Rest
Wanli soon paid the ultimate price for his overindulgence. He died in 1620 when he was just 57 years old. He had the longest reign of any Ming Dynasty monarch. Remember, back when Wanli was just 20 years old, he built his own tomb called Dingling. Well, now it was finally time for him to take his rest there…but who would join him for eternity became yet another controversy.
43. His Didn’t Get His Wish
Obviously, Wanli would have wanted his favorite consort, Zheng, lying beside him for eternity. But of course, there were rules, and they stated that it could only be the mother of the new emperor that could lay beside him. This meant that Zheng was left out of the tomb and Wanli had to spend the afterlife with his not-so-favorite consort: Lady Wang.
But, as it turned out, lying peacefully for eternity was not in the cards for Wanli.
44. He Came Back From The Grave
In 1956, many years after his passing, scientists excavated Wanli’s tomb. If you’re imagining a delicate and careful excavation, then you’ve got it wrong. The clumsy scientists did the work poorly and carelessly and this resulted in the destruction of many valuable and ancient objects. In spite of the amateurish attempt, some startling evidence came out of this excavation.
45. He Was A User
Two years after the excavation, scientists examined Wanli’s remains and made a disturbing discovery. They found that Wanli had been a morphine user. The evidence didn’t just suggest that he was an occasional user. No, it indicated that Wanli had been a heavy and habitual user of the substance. Didn’t this change everything? Wasn’t this a better explanation for his sudden lack of interest in being emperor?
46. He Didn’t Rest In Peace
During China’s Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard was fond of jeering at the past monarchs—even if they were already dead. In 1966, the Red Guard wanted to show their anger toward emperors like Wanli. They broke into the Dingling Mausoleum and removed the remains of Wanli and the Empress. What they did next was beyond horrifying.
47. He Felt The Heat
The Cultural Revolution’s Red Guard was all about the drama. So, in order to make it clear there would be no more monarchy in China, they lined the human remains of Wanli and his Empress up in front of the tomb. They took photographs of their skulls and made a very public denouncement of their reign. The last part of the ritual was the most brutal.
They struck a match and lit the bodies on fire.
48. He Was Humiliated
Wanli had spent 15 years protesting the choice of his eldest son as the next emperor. His long strike had a profound effect on the Ming dynasty—some even say it was the beginning of its end. The strike was a major humiliation for Wanli, because he didn’t get his way. But what happened to his son the emperor more than made up for it.
49. He Got The Last Laugh
After all the arguing and protesting, Wanli’s firstborn son did become emperor—but he only lasted a short time. A month after he became emperor, Wanli’s son unexpectedly died. Some sources attribute the early end to his carnal appetite. Like his father, he was one to indulge in the finer things in life—the kinds of things that make your life short.
There is, however, a more sinister theory about his early passing.
50. She Got Her Revenge
It may, in fact, have been an old enemy that brought on the illness that ultimately claimed Wanli’s son’s life. You see, some scientists have speculated that his fatal illness came from one of eight maidens that he used as playthings. And where had he got the maidens from? They were a gift from Zheng—Wanli’s favorite consort…and his son’s worst nightmare.