The Jiajing Emperor

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Did you know that there are at least 21 ways to tie shoelaces? For neckties, there are anywhere between 85 and 177,147 methods. The oldest knot on record dates to about 13,000 BC. Of all the knots you've ever tied in your life—have you ever tied one that won't tighten? I have. It's kind of a pain, too, when it happens. You think you've got it right, go to draw it tight, and are met with a mess that takes a while to untangle so you can try again.

In 1542, one of those stuck knots resulted in 17 executions by slow slicing, 10 beheadings, and 20 enslavements. There's a lot to unravel here, so let's jump right into it.

During China's Ming Dynasty, the Zhengde Emperor unexpectedly died at the age of 29, shortly after he drunkenly fell off a boat and contracted something fatal from the Yellow River. He had no sons, so no heir and the throne passed to his first cousin Zhu Houcong. Zhu Houcong became the Jiajing Emperor after a political conflict called "The Great Rites Controversy" involving his unusual succession.

Zhu Houcong turned Jiajing Emperor, resolved the controversy with a few hundred banishings, floggings, and executions. He wasn't brought up to succeed the throne and made it a point to shirk his duties, leaving decisions to his Grand Secretary Yan Song—who became so corrupt that he openly sold government positions for cash. Meanwhile, the Jiajing Emperor went to live in isolation, away from the typical residence of emperors, the Forbidden City. He only took audiences with a few eunuchs, Taoist priests, and Yan Song.

Jiajing (Chinese: 嘉靖帝) means "admirable tranquility," by the way.

Artistic rendition of the Jiajing Emperor sitting on the throne.
Just look at that admirable tranquility.

If the Jiajing Emperor wasn't managing state affairs, what did he spend his time doing?

Tormenting his concubines, of course. What else would he do?

He was obsessed with divination, alchemy, and longevity. His primary goal was to achieve immortality, which he sought through the use of all sorts of concoctions. One of his elixirs was an alchemical substance known as "red lead" (Chinese: 红铅). It's unclear now how to make the exact red lead elixir the Jiajing Emperor used, but one key ingredient is known: menstrual blood of virgins.

The Jiajing Emperor kept girls around the age of 13 and fed them only mulberry leaves and rainwater to ensure the purity of their menstrual blood. Any of the girls who became sick were beaten or sometimes thrown out. As part of the girls' daily life, they woke early and collected dew from the garden's banana trees, taking it to the Jiajing Emperor to drink, another of his methods for longevity. Many of the girls fell ill from cold and were punished for becoming sick.

After twenty-one years of his reign and hundreds of girls treated in this way, including over 200 girls beaten to death, sixteen of his concubines hatched a plan to assassinate him. One night, while in bed with his favorite concubine, Consort Duan, sixteen girls burst in and attacked him. The group held down his arms and legs as one of them removed a ribbon from her hair, wrapped it around his neck, and pulled the silk cord until he lost consciousness. She tied a knot around his neck, but it stuck, making it impossible to tighten completely.

Zhang Jinlian, one of the concubines involved in the attack and ribbon strangulation, lost her nerve and ran to the empress to confess. Empress Fang took swift action, saving his life and ordering the attackers rounded up. The Jiajing Emperor was in a state of shock, and Empress Fang acted on his behalf. All sixteen girls, plus Consort Duan, were executed by slow slicing. They were tied up in public, and knives were used to methodically remove portions of their body until they were dead. Some records during the Ming Dynasty show that this might be around 3,000 incisions over three days or so. Sometimes the flesh of victims was also sold as medicine. In addition to the girls being killed by knives, Empress Fang ordered 10 of their family members beheaded and 20 other family members enslaved.

This whole ordeal became known as The Palace plot of Renyin year (Chinese: 壬寅宫變), also known as the Palace Women's Uprising (Chinese: 宮女起義).

So, what did the Jiajing Emperor do in the aftermath of the assassination attempt? He tightened up restrictions on his virgins, brought in 300 new girls after Empress Fang died in 1547. A few years later, in 1552, he lowered the age and brought in 200 eight-year-olds. Three years later, in 1555, he brought in an additional 150 girls under eight years old. All for making more of his "red lead" elixir.

Empress Fang never shared a bed with the Jiajing Emperor, as they met when she was 15—too old for him to be interested in her. She died at age 31 when the Jiajing Emperor refused to order her saved from a fire. Even though she saved his life from the assassination attempt, he was still mad at her for executing his favorite concubine.

In 1567, after 45 years on the throne, the Jiajing Emperor died at 59 years old of mercury poisoning from one of his elixirs. That's the second-longest reign during the Ming Dynasty.