Suzhou, Jiangsu: The largest fleet in the world
On July 11, 1405, the largest fleet in world history sailed out of the port of Suzhou. Headed by legendary admiral Zheng He, the fleet of 317 ships and 28,000 crew was the first of seven epic, global expeditions that would turn China into the world’s supreme sea power. It was also the start of early overseas Chinese settlement in southeast Asia. Who could imagine the rallying of forces on such a scale would be done to search for a single man, presumed to be dead?
The Jianwen Emperor
That man was the Jianwen Emperor. He was only 21 years old when he entered a Ming court bursting with intrigue and deceit. First, the brothers of his deceased father were vying for the throne. Second, there was bitter rivalry between two opposing factions in the court: the eunuchs, cunning intermediaries between the emperor and the outside world, and the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats, who achieved their positions after endless years of arduous study. The Emperor restrained the eunuchs and gave the scholar-bureaucrats more influence. As for his uncles, the Emperor either demoted, arrested, or instigated their suicide.
However, one uncle proved harder to beat. Zhu Di raised an army, won the support of defecting generals and Mongolian tribes, and tipped the court’s fragile balance of power in his favor by engaging disaffected eunuch spies. In 1402, Zhu Di entered the capital Nanjing and torched the imperial palace.
The Yongle Emperor
When the dust had settled, Zhu Di declared himself Yongle Emperor and presented three unrecognizable charred bodies, claiming they were the Jianwen Emperor, his consort, and his heir. Thousands of opposing scholar-bureaucrats were executed, while eunuchs such as Zheng He were given extensive power.
To this day, rumors abound that the Jianwen Emperor disguised himself as a monk and escaped, leading the Yongle emperor to send his admiral on the largest manhunt in history.
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