Hu Bailian (1380-1432): Daughter of the Last Chinese Chancellor

After ruling the country for less than two hundred years, the Mongols of Yuan were defeated by a peasant rebellion and one of them, Zhu Yuanzhang, rose to power and became the founder of the new Chinese dynasty, that of the Ming. Once again, Han Chinese ruled the country. Traditional Confucian scholars saw the hope of retaining positions in court as officials. However, the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, wasn’t quite the man they were looking for.

First several decades in early Ming had been hard for senior civil officials in court.  Zhu gained his power through a peasant rebellion, and as his reign name Hongwu, over-flowing martial accomplishment, indicated, he was much in favor towards the military officials through out his reign. Zhu Yuanzhang understood the importance of identifying himself with the tradition of legitimate Confucian political authority[i], which had been the core practice of traditional Chinese Emperors and their governments, but he approached it by cultivating the symbols, ceremony, language, and dress[ii]. Zhu banned all barbarian names and style of dress and modeled his court robes and ceremonies after the Tang. He was sincere in recruiting from the Confucian class[iii], and tried to promote the Confucian morality to general population, as he drafted texts to exhort them to follow a moral course, and required that all villager to attend readings of community compacts in order to remind them of their obligations[iv].

Meanwhile his attempt in civil service examination was more rhetorical than real. In 1370 a decree carried out by Wang Guangyang, assistant of the chancellor at that time, ordered that civil examinations be held and that routine promotions and transfers of officials were to be held triennially. Unfortunately, he was dismissed from the court in 1373 before the next exam could be held, and he was sent to be consultant of Guangdong province[v]. The civil service examinations were abolished by Zhu and weren’t reformed until 1384. After Wang fell from power in the court, Hu Weiyong was appointed as the chancellor. Unlike Wang, Hu made no attempt in reviving the exams. Recommendations, instead, became the new way of official recruitment, and Hu’s mansion was surrounded by swarms of job seekers holding bribes.

As Hu’s power grew in court, a purge was held against him in 1380. Hu was charged as a traitor and accused for plotting a murder of the Emperor as well as many other charges. Zhu executed him, and thirty thousand people ‘disappeared’ during and after his purge. The Grand Secretariat was dismantled, and the position of chancellor, created during the Qin, was demolished[vi]. In fact, Hu had to be in more than two places at the same time in order to fulfill all his charges. Hu, as a chancellor, was too ambitious for the Hongwu court, as Zhu preferred officials who worked as mere instrument and agents of his will. Hu became the scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong since his appointment as chancellor[vii]. Nonetheless Hu was the last chancellor of the Ming, and Zhu was able to centralize his power, and was directly in charge of the six Ministers. In the Confucian view, which prevailed under Song, the role of the Emperor was merely to approve proposals initiated by the chancellor, who supervised the conduct of government business[viii]. Zhu, like the Emperor, wished to create a hyper-Confucian society, but was actually a Legalist in practice[ix]. His annulation of Chancellor was another proof of his Legalist nature.

On contrary to his treatment towards civil officials, Zhu showed more favor towards his military officials. Most of them were promoted to nobles after the conquest of Mongols. Compared to the few civil officials who were made earls, dozens of military generals were given the positions as marquise, and were granted ten times more salary than that of an earl. Zhu also gave his sons a lot of military power. He titled them as the princes of blood, and granted them land and military troops in their own command. Zhu was evoked by traditions from Zhou Dynasty, which had established the practice of making the eldest son the heir to a royal authority conceived primarily in civil terms, and younger sons to act as military protector of the throne. He assigned Confucian scholars to tutor the crown prince, his eldest son, Zhu Biao, in civil and literary skills, and military generals to train his other sons[x]. After 1380, as Zhu trusted his military nobles less, he made the exercise of military command by the princes more systematized. The princes were in high military command, and as the emperor’s sons, they showed no threat to the throne as long as Zhu lived. However, this became extremely problematic after his death, and in fact led to the break out of a Civil War between his fourth son, Zhu Di, and his grandson, Zhu Yunwen.

Hu Bailian was the youngest daughter of Hu Weiyong and was born in 1980, the same year that her father was executed by the Hongwu Emperor. Her mother was pregnant at the time and she was degraded as a slave and given to Zhu Di, who was then the prince of Yan. She traveled with him when he was appointed the land in Beiping and gave birth to a girl. Zhu Di’s prime consort, Lady Xu, was the daughter of the great military general Xu Da, who was a personal friend of Hu. She took in the baby girl as an adopted daughter, and gave her the name Bailian, white lotus, in memory of the White Lotus Rebellion, from which Zhu Yuanzhang had gained his power. Bailian was well educated by Lady Xu as a girl. She was taught by Confucian scholars, and was able to read, compose poems, paint, and even dance. During her childhood in the Yan mansion, she encountered a eunuch named Ma He, who later on became the greatest maritime expeditor in Chinese history and their lives intertwined closely together.

In 1392, crown prince Zhu Biao died of illness, and the prince of Yan was eager to inherit the throne as the oldest son born by Empress Ma alive. However, in September 1392, the Hongwu Emperor made the decision of assigning Zhu Yunwen, the son of Zhu Biao, the next crown prince. This act aggravated Zhu Di. He decided to send someone to the royal palace to keep close track of Zhu Yunwen. Bailian became his best option. Shortly after her mother’s death in early 1393, Bailian was sent to the royal palace in Nanjing by Zhu Di as a gift to his nephew for becoming the new crown prince, but was in fact a spy of his, and was obligated to pass on important information to him. However, Bailian and Yunwen fell in love with each other. Only three years apart in age, the two young souls had a lot in common with each other. Both brought up under traditional Confucian education, they enjoyed composing poems, and discussing the classics together. Just having lost her mother, the thirteen-year-old Bailian sought comforts in Yunwen, who had also just lost his father recently. The six years in palace before the Hongwu Emperor’s death were the best years in Bailian’s life. Even though she still had to inform Zhu Di on issues occurring in palace, she and Yunwen enjoyed each other’s company in relative peace.

Her life changed dramatically after 1398, as the Hongwu Emperor passed away, and Zhu Yunwen became the new Jianwen Emperor. Since Zhu Di had no filial obligation towards the new Emperor, he brought a troop with him to Nanjing in name of mourning his deceased father. Bailian, who had long known Zhu Di’s ambition and capability, advised Jianwen to take actions and he was able to block Zhu Di’s troop in Huai’an before it could enter the capital. Jianwen, in return, freed the victims from the Hu Weiyong’s purge in 1399.

Nonetheless, the Jianwen Emperor was left in an awkward situation by his grandfather, namely that all his prince uncles had high a command in military, and were threats to his crown. Eliminating their power became his only choice. Bailian, spy of Zhu Di and lover of Jianwen, had to make a choice, and she chose the latter. She advised Jianwen that he should start with the prince of Yan, Zhu Di, as he was the most powerful of them all. However, Jianwen’s advisors in court, Qi Tai and Huang Zicheng, held different opinions, and thought they should start with the weakest. Jianwen eventually chose to listen to his advisors. He reduced his uncles to commoners and exiled them to boarder areas; however, his moves showed warning to Zhu Di. Zhu Di pretended to have lost his sanity in the later half of 1398 and first half of 1399, and was able to remain untouched by Jianwen. He was secretly gathering power to fight against the Emperor. In the end of 1399, Zhu Di started his two years rebellion against Jianwen. Bailian tried to help Jianwen, but her position as a woman in the imperial household made her opinions worthless compared to the male officials in court. Jianwen was eventually defeated in 1402 as a result of his incompetent military generals. His official Li Jinglong and relative Zhu Hui also betrayed him, and opened the gate for Zhu Di. Lady Xu, who was still very protective of Bailian and treated her as a daughter, managed to inform her of Zhu Di’s plan to burn down the palace. Bailian was able to escape the palace with Jianwen before the tragedy happened. They sailed away and settled down on a neighboring Southeastern Asian island.

Zhu Di crowned himself as the next emperor, and took the reign name Yongle, perpetual happiness. He launched a vendetta against Jianwen’s advisors, Qi Tai and Huang Zicheng, as they were rounded up and executed. However, other officials and local powers in Nanjing were still under the influence of the former Emperor, and Zhu Di was not well supported[xi]. As a result, he delivered a massacre in Nanjing to those who worked for Jianwen and were in favor of him. He also made the decision of changing the capital from Nanjing to Beiping, which was later named as Beijing, where he ruled for more than twenty years and had steady support. This decision shifted the political center to the north and Beijing remained the capital of China even until now.

Though Jianwen was supposed to have died in the fire, rumors of his survival circulated. Yongle ordered periodic searches for his missing nephew[xii], and one year later, in 1403, he was informed that Jianwen might have sailed toward the south east. He started the construction of fine boats, and sent his favorite eunuch Zheng He, who was formally Ma He, in 1405 to search for Jianwen and Bailian.

Zheng He was born in 1371 in the southern province of Yunnan and was from a central Asian Muslim family who had risen in the service of the Mongol Emperor. His father was killed resisting the Ming conquest, and Zheng He was then taken prisoner and castrated for service as eunuch[xiii]. After his castration, ten-year-old Zheng He was sent to the Yan mansion of Zhu Di and served the future Yongle Emperor ever since. He was a soldier on the northern frontiers and went on several military campaigns with Zhu Di in his early years. After Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor, he made extensive use of eunuchs[xiv] and Zheng He, as his favorite, was promoted as the grand director.

In 1405, he was given the mission of naval expedition towards the south Asian sea and was secretly looking for the Jianwen Emperor. He started his career as an expeditor, and visited twelve countries along the south Pacific and Indian Sea during his first trip. As the envoy of the Ming Empire, he formed diplomatic relationship with these foreign countries, dispended and received goods along his way. He was able to locate Jianwen and Bailian in Java, but decided to let them live in peace. His former experience as a war prisoner made him realize the harm and the tragedies caused by dynastic changes and battles for power. Furthermore, growing up together with Bailian in the Yan mansion, he had no intention of hurting her. In the year 1407, the Renxiao Empress, the former Lady Xu, passed away, and Bailian sailed back with Zheng He to mourn the woman who had always treated her as a daughter. After her brief stay in the capital, they sailed back again in the same year. Zheng He visited Java multiple times during his later voyages.

Though Zheng He’s naval expedition started as the secret search for the Jianwen Emperor, it left significant importance in the course of history. His practice of Yongle’s open policy towards foreign countries promoted the trade and his seven expeditions brought back to China many trophies and envoys from more than 30 kingdoms. In 1411, Zheng He’s man encountered an African giraffe, which was a gift from Kenya, and the Yongle Emperor greeted this exotic animal and held a grand welcome ceremony for it. This became the first record of a giraffe in Chinese history.

First several decades of Bailian’s life had been eventful and rather tragic, due to the Hongwu Emperor’s political decisions. Her father, Hu Weiyong, was purged and executed as the Emperor was trying to centralize his direct power in court. Chancellorship was demolished from court, and the power of the emperor was strengthened ever since. The Civil War, which she was force to participate in later, was an inevitable result of Hongwu’s distribution of military power to his other sons, which became threats to his successor. The Yan victory was rather surprising and a military upset as the imperial armies were much larger in the beginning, and the great majority of Chinese officials approved Jianwen’s legitimacy as the Emperor. However, the incompetent military officials of Jianwen’s court and inaccurate advice from his advisors instead of that from Bailian lead to his failure. It was a result of sad facts that the position and the voice of women were demeaned during the Ming, and that Confucian scholars emphasized more on the moral character of rulers and officials than giving practical advice to the Emperor. However, Hongwu’s emphasis on institution, and his Legalist opinion that society could and should reform by changing institutions[xv], which was the contrary of the Confucian orthodoxy, had created solid foundation for administrative institutions, and enabled later Ming courts to function with an autopilot system, even under incompetent Emperors.

Bailian’s later years were lived rather in peace after her escape from the palace with Jianwen, which led to the grand naval time expedition of Zheng He. Even though later emperors terminated the expeditions as financial burden, and minimized its importance, this peak time of Ming maritime exploration gave Chinese history a place in the oceanic narrative of exploration, trade, colonization, and exercise of sea power[xvi].


[i] Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History, J. Wills Jr., 203
[ii] Early Ming China: A Political History, E. Dreyer, 63
[iii] Dreyer, 98
[iv] The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800, V. Hansen, 351
[v] Dreyer, 99
[vi] Wills, 204
[vii] Dreyer, 104
[viii] Dreyer, 101
[ix] Hansen, 351
[x] Dreyer, 148
[xi] Hansen, 353
[xii] Hansen, 352
[xiii] Hansen, 354
[xiv]Wills, 204
[xv] Dreyer, 68
[xvi] Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, E. Dreyer, 165

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SOPHIA RUNXUAN ZHAO is a member of University of Rochester, class 2017. She is a Biomedical Engineering Major studying an Asian American History Cluster. Her major areas of interest in Ancient Chinese History are High Tang (Golden Plague Project) and Ming dynasty (Fictional Bibliography). More by Runxuan