The Madness of the Zhengde Emperor,
When the Hongzhi Emperor died in 1505, it was expected that his eldest son, Zhu Houzhou would continue his legacy of peace, prosperity, and good governance. However the newly crowned Zhengde Emperor quickly became a mad despot who was drunk with power and alcohol. As his empire decayed around him, the Zhengde Emperor cared little for matters of state, spending most of his time dining on fine foods, enjoying the company of various women, and living a life of resplendent luxury at the cost of the Empire. Throughout Beijing he order built numerous “bao fang” or special palaces filled with exotic animals and of course, women. One palace he accidentally burned down while playing with gunpowder. It wasn’t long before the coffers of China were empty due to the Zhengde Emperor’s excesses.
In 1519 a noble and imperial family member named Zhu Chenhao revolted against the Empire in Jiangxi Province, kicking off a short lived rebellion called the Prince of Ning Rebellion. The Zhengde Emperor raised a mighty army which he intended to personally lead against the rebels. However, his dreams of battlefield glory and grandeur were cut short when he arrived to discover that a local administrator had already put down the rebellion with local forces. Frustrated, he ordered Zhu Chenhao and the rebels rearmed and released, so that the Zhenghe Emperor could quash the rebellion again with his army. He then ordered the leaders of the rebellion executed by slicing. Zhu Chenhao committed suicide to avoid such a fate.
Perhaps one of the Zhengde Emperor’s most odd acts was to pretend that he wasn’t an emperor at all. It was not uncommon for him to dress as a commoner and attend the various brothels of Beijing. One of his oddest behaviors was to order the construction of a massive palace, the insides of which recreated the market and residential districts of Beijing. He ordered his ministers, eunuchs, guards, and servants to pretend to be merchants and ordinary people while he strolled the streets, also dressed as a non-assuming average Joe. Those who refused to play along were punished, removed from their posts, or even executed.
In 1521 the Zhengde Emperor was out on a drunken boating excursion on the Grand Canal when he fell in and almost drowned. He contract an illness from the waters of canal and died shortly afterwards. His legacy of neglect, childish behavior, and excess would become a standard for future Ming Dynasty rulers, which ultimately led to the dynasty’s collapse in 1644.