Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Chu Yu-chien

CHU Yu-chien 朱由檢, February 6, 1611–1644, Apr. 25, fifth son of Chu Ch'ang-lo [q. v.], was the last Ming emperor to rule in Peking. His reign-title was Ch'ung-ch'ên 崇禎 (1628–1644). He inherited from his grandfather, Emperor Shên-tsung, who ruled from 1572 to 1620 under the reign-title Wan-li, and from his elder brother, Emperor Hsi-tsung (see under Chu Yu-chiao), a government that had reached the last stages of disintegration. Among the forces of disruption was the excessive power wielded by empresses, concubines and eunuchs within the palaces. When Chu Yu-chien was four years old his mother was put to death by order of his father who had ceased to care for her, and his upbringing was entrusted to an ambitious concubine known as the "Western Li" (see under Chu Ch'ang-lo). A few years later his father who, through the intrigues of Emperor Shên-tsung's favorite, the secondary consort Chêng, had for a long time been debarred from his rightful position as crown prince, ascended the throne with the reign-title, T'ai-ch'ang. He died after a month, the victim of the "red pill" given him by an official—an episode known in Chinese history as the second of the "three cases" (see under Chu Ch'ang-lo). The guardianship of Chu Yu-chien, then nine years of age, was transferred to another concubine, called the "Eastern Li" (東李), who died not long after as a result of the persecutions of Wei Chung-hsien [q. v.]. The misgovernment of the latter was at its height when, in 1627, Emperor Hsi-tsung died, leaving no heirs. Chu Yu-chien, then little more than sixteen years of age, succeeded to the throne. Although he did not begin immediately to oppose the eunuch party, his intentions seem to have been clear, for at the end of one week Wei Chung-hsien tried to resign. Two months later Wei was sent into retirement and committed suicide on the way. Chu Yu-chien eliminated some of the more vicious officials, but his indecision and lack of confidence prevented the formation of a strong government. The chaotic state of affairs can be seen from the frequent changes in personnel. During the twenty-four year period from 1621 to 1644 the presidents of the Six Ministries changed 116 times, or an average of almost one change a year for each position. In 54 instances the occupants were dismissed from office, and in 20 of these they suffered death or confiscation of property. In the corresponding twenty-four years of the preceding century there had been only seven cases of dismissal and five of punishments inflicted on presidents of the Six Ministries.

More chaotic still was the situation in the Board of War when it was faced with the steady advance of the Manchus in the northeast. During the dictatorship of Wei Chung-hsien capable generals like Hsiung T'ing-pi, Yüan Ch'ung-huan, and Sun Ch'êng-tsung [qq. v.] had been persecuted or removed from their posts. The new emperor reinstated Yüan and gave him full powers in Liaotung where he undertook to recover the whole of the lost territory. In 1629 Yüan put to death Mao Wên-lung [q. v.] who had successfully carried on guerilla warfare against the Manchus. On January 13 of the following year Yüan himself was arrested (see under Abahai) and was later executed at the instigation of former partisans of Wei Chung-hsien. From this time onward no effective resistance was offered to the Manchus. In 1629 Manchu forces penetrated the Great Wall and reached the gates of the capital (see under Man Kuei). A year later Sun Ch'êng-tsung succeeded in driving them back beyond the Wall, but he himself soon fell a prey to partisan jealousies within the government. The Manchus consolidated their position in Inner Mongolia where they defeated the Chahar nation, and from 1632 onward had easy access from the north to the provinces of Chihli and Shansi.

Much of the military weakness of China at this time is attributable to the impoverished condition of the country. From the beginning of the Wan-li period (1573) people suffered from constantly increased taxation designed to supply luxuries to the palace. Chu Yu-chien inherited an empire too poor to stand the expense of maintaining the armies needed at the front. His failure to send supplies resulted in wholesale desertion of soldiers who either joined the enemy or returned as bandits to their native districts. The collapse of China was due more to the desolation wrought by these bandits within than to attacks of enemies from without. The center of these uprisings was in the province of Shensi where border warfare and a severe famine in 1628 had reduced the people to starvation. A further incentive to banditry was the dissolution of the courier-post system in 1629. Inaugurated at the time of the First Emperor (third century B.C.) this system developed particularly during the Yüan and Ming dynasties. Nominally it was concerned with the transmission of official dispatches, but in mountainous regions where roads or waterways were lacking it became in reality a state-owned system of transport of all forms of freight by human labor, and was dependent on conscription. In 1629 Chu Yu-chien decided to abolish this service which cost the treasury several hundred thousand taels annually. The ensuing disorganization was especially serious in Shensi, and ironically enough the bandit, Li Tzŭ-ch'êng [q. v.], who dethroned Chu Yu-chien in 1644 was a former post courier. From 1630 onward China was ravaged, from Hunan to Shantung, by desperate hordes, and though individual uprisings were often successfully checked by the government, the country was never given the breathing spell necessary to effective recovery (see under Li Tzŭ-ch'êng and Chang Hsien-chung).

By 1642 the Manchus were only a few miles from Shanhaikuan. The armies of Li Tzŭ-ch'êng had taken Honan-fu, and after killing Chu Yu-chien's uncle, Chu Ch'ang-hsün (see under Chu Yu-sung), were moving toward Peking. These bandit troops were the first of the rival forces to reach the capital, surrounding it on April 23, 1644. After rejecting the proposals sent to him by the rebel chief, Chu Yu-chien mounted Coal Hill to mourn the approaching doom of the city, and then returned to the palace to make disposition of his three young sons. Most of his consorts committed suicide as the city fell. Writers differ as to whether or not he attempted to flee to the south. At any rate he was unsuccessful, and on April 25 he rang the bells to assemble his ministers. When none of them appeared he once more climbed to the top of Coal Hill and hanged himself, leaving a last message, written for the most part in the usual self-deprecatory style, attributing his misfortunes chiefly to the bad advice of his officials.

It is questionable whether a mediocre emperor like Chu Yu-chien could have done much, even with the best advice, to stem the approaching disaster. From April 25 until June 4, 1644, Peking was in the hands of Li Tz'ŭ-ch'êng. The bodies of Chu Yu-chien and his chief consort, Empress Chou 周, were put in rough coffins, supported on clods of earth, and deposited outside the palace gates. On May 8 the coffins were sent by a small convoy to Ch'ang-p'ing, where Chu Yu-chien's favorite concubine, T'ien Kuei-fei 田貴妃, had been interred two years earlier. Here a petty official named Chao I-kuei 趙一桂 raised 340 'strings' of cash from philanthropic friends and hired laborers to open the tomb in which the remains of the former consort were interred. Her coffin was moved to the right of the central dais, that of Empress Chou was placed on the left, and on May 9 that of Chu Yu-chien was placed between them. Less than a month later Li Tz'ŭ-ch'êng evacuated Peking, and the Manchu armies entered the city. On June 8 the regent, Dorgon [q. v.], decreed a three day period of mourning for the deceased emperor, and ordered the erection of suitable memorials at the mausoleum. The Manchus conferred on him the posthumous title Chuang-lieh Min Huang-ti 莊烈愍皇帝 and named his tomb Ssŭ-ling 思陵. By adherents of the defunct dynasty he was variously canonized as Ssŭ-tsung 思宗, I-tsung 毅宗, and Huai-tsung 懷宗.

Chu Yu-chien had seven sons but only three lived to the close of the dynasty. The eldest was the crown prince, Chu Tz'ǔ-lang 朱慈烺 (1629–1645), who was executed early in 1645, by order of Dorgon, as a "pretender"—not to the throne but to the title of crown prince of the defunct dynasty. Another son, Chu Tz'ǔ-huan 朱慈煥 (the Prince of Ting 定王, 1633–1708), escaped with his life in 1644, and for many years lived under assumed names as a teacher of children or as a secretary in well-to-do families. Later certain opportunists made use of his name to foment rebellion in Chekiang, proclaiming him as "the third Crown Prince Chu" (Chu San T'ai-tzŭ 朱三太子). Although he was then residing in the home of a retired official of Wên-shang, Shantung, he was identified, captured and executed. His sons were likewise executed and the women of the family committed suicide.

In 1724 Emperor Shih-tsung selected a certain Chu Chih-lien 朱之璉 (d. 1730), to represent the Ming Imperial Family at Court and to take charge of the annual sacrifices at the tombs of the Ming Emperors. This Chu Chih-lien was given the hereditary rank of a marquis, to which was later added (1749) the designation, Yen-ên 延恩. But his ancestry, and therefore his right to these privileges, are open to question.


[M.1/23, 24; M.2/23–26; M.3/18, 19; 明季北略 Ming-chi pei-lüeh, 3, 4, 20; M.59/4; H attori, Unokichi, 明の莊烈帝 Min no Sōretsutei in 燕塵 Enjin, vol. IV, nos. 9, 10 (1908); W.M.S.C.K., 4; China Review, IV, 1875-76, pp. 294–96; Mêng Sen 孟森, 明烈皇殉國後記 Ming Lieh-huang hsün-kuo hou-chi in 國學季刊 Kuo-hsüeh chi-k'an, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 1–56.]

George A. Kennedy