Zhu Youjiao, the Tianqi Emperor
In May 1626, a series of incidents took place whose details even today remain obscure. It is important to note that few people in the imperial court of Beijing were fond of Wei Zhongxian. A eunuch, apparently of dissolute background, he had clawed his way into becoming the right hand of the emperor. It was through him that orders were transmitted to the Jinyiwei, or Embroidered Uniform Guard, the ornately clothed secret police force that was responsible for arresting and torturing political dissidents. Wei Zhongxian was at once the most powerful and most hated man in Beijing.
The official record, approved hundreds of years later and somewhat suspect in terms of chronology, reads as follows: one beautiful spring morning, a handful of suspicious-looking men were discovered in a gunpowder storeroom at the Wanggongchang Armory. Their presence was certainly unauthorized, and under the authority of Dong Kewei, Minister of Works, who happened to be present that day, they were immediately seized and confined elsewhere in the city. Under interrogation, the men confessed to being saboteurs in the pay of Wei Zhongxian, who had desired the destruction of Wanggongchang Armory in a fiery explosion.
Why the emperor’s hatchet man should be involved in such a plot is up for debate. Indeed, it is possible that the alleged “saboteurs” had given contradictory confessions while being tortured, with the most lurid one finally accepted as genuine. Some more heterodox scholars are convinced that the plot was entirely imaginary and that Dong Kewei had orchestrated the whole thing to unseat a rival; they point to the continual diminution in prestige accorded to the Ministry of Works and possible conflicts that Dong Kewei may have had with Wei Zhongxian that might have prompted such a power play. Others accept that the conspiracy existed in some form but question the degree to which Wei Zhongxian was involved. The “Affair of Wanggongchang” (王恭廠案) is one of the “Three Mysteries of the Ming” (明宫三案) alongside the “Wooden Staff Assault” (梃擊案) and the “Case of the Red Pills” (红丸案).
Upon learning of the plot (or so the official history goes), Dong Kewei made immediately for the Tianqi Emperor to present his concerns in person. Folklore has him taking extraordinary measures to evade potential eunuch spies within the palace, with one popular tale describing him scrambling across rooftops and climbing through windows. More practical chroniclers simply note that the Minister of Works had sufficient influence to be admitted expeditiously to the emperor’s presence, and that a hefty bribe or two may have lubricated his path. Regardless of his exact methods, by mid-afternoon he had secured a meeting with the Tianqi Emperor.
The Tianqi Emperor has always been a curious figure in the historiography of the Ming dynasty. He was unimpressive intellectually, almost certainly illiterate. While his father had received only a rudimentary education due to court intrigues, the Tianqi Emperor may well have had a learning disability. He could not read or write, but apparently possessed staggering expertise with woodworking, and would send servants to surreptitiously sell his masterpieces in the marketplace to gauge his talent. It may have helped that education was not exactly a requirement for running the empire. For example, while some of the court eunuchs who ran day-to-day affairs were undoubtedly from educated backgrounds, Wei Zhongxian was himself illiterate and of peasant origins.
Rather, the Tianqi Emperor’s major failing during the early part of his reign was a general disinterest in the business of running a government. The eunuch Wei Zhongxian and the emperor’s former wet nurse Madame Ke wielded tremendous influence on the emperor’s behalf (occasionally murdering their political enemies) while the young emperor contented himself with his woodworking. In truth, this was not unusual either; he was not the only scion of the great Ming to neglect his imperial duties. His grandfather, the mostly competent Wanli Emperor, had all but retired from the court halfway through his 48-year reign, delegating what responsibilities he could and neglecting those he could not. His grandfather, the Jiajing Emperor, was a reasonably clever young man who spent much of his 45 years on the throne ensconced with Daoist sorcerers trying to become immortal.
A common theme in many modern pop-culture depictions of the Tianqi Emperor’s life is that of a young Machiavelli, laying low and quietly biding his time. Certainly, when presented with a real crisis for the first time in his life, he acted decisively. The sudden appearance of the Minister of Works may have startled him, but he listened as Dong Kewei explained the conspiracy that had just been uncovered. Before nightfall, Wei Zhongxian and Madame Ke had been arrested by the Embroidered Uniform Guard. Before the end of the week, they would both be dead.
Beijing was rocked by the scandal, but the news soon faded into the background of dusty chronicles. To the north, the frontiers of China proper were being tested, and though the charismatic chieftain Nurhaci lay wounded and dying, his powerful armies, the Eight Banners, loomed worryingly in the Jurchen homelands. In the provinces, famine and drought continued to disrupt the rural peasant classes. If the Tianqi Emperor had just executed some court officials, what of it? Everyone still remembered the rumors of conspiracy that had swirled around the death of his father six years ago.
For his part, the Tianqi Emperor issued a proclamation thanking Dong Kewei for unspecified services to the state. The Minister of Works was granted several tokens of the imperial favor and would assume greater responsibilities within the bureaucracy. In mid-June, the young emperor made a public appearance in Beijing to fulfill some minor ceremonial duties. His infant son, Zhu Cijiong, accompanied him, and poets composed verses wishing health to the Crown Prince and his mother, the Imperial Noble Consort Rong. Absent was Empress Zhang, the primary wife of the Tianqi Emperor, who was suffering from a mysterious illness, and her death the following month was attributed to a final plot of Wei Zhongxian. Consort Rong was shortly afterwards raised in status to take her place.
Thus did the Tianqi Emperor begin a truly remarkable reign, one of the most consequential in the history of the Ming dynasty.
 This is the Point of Divergence. IOTL the Wanggongchang Armory exploded with terrific effect on May 30, 1626. The cause has never been conclusively determined. While simple negligence in gunpowder handling was accepted at the time, some modern scholars suggest deliberate sabotage or airburst meteorite as plausible alternatives.
 Dong Kewei has had a lucky escape. IOTL he broke both his arms in the explosion and was forced to retire from politics. ITTL he is uninjured and able to continue his career.
 The Wooden Staff Assault refers to an incident whereby a madman was executed for attempting to assassinate the future Taichang Emperor with a wooden staff after breaking into the prince’s residence, possibly as the catspaw to a larger conspiracy. The Case of the Red Pills refers to the sudden death of the Taichang Emperor after taking medicine presented by a minor court official. The Taichang Emperor reigned for less than a month before dying and was succeeded by his teenaged son, who became the Tianqi Emperor.
IOTL the third of the mysteries was the “Case of Palace Removal” (移宫案), referring to political maneuverings in the aftermath of the Taichang Emperor’s death to marginalize his former consorts. It has been supplanted ITTL with a far more interesting mystery.
 As previously noted, some years ago the future Taichang Emperor had narrowly escaped being attacked by a random guy who had somehow managed to break into his palace. The story of a court official sneaking into the Forbidden City is a little far-fetched, but not extraordinarily so.
 All of this is OTL. The Jiajing Emperor’s obsession with immortality potions prompted at least one assassination attempt, which he survived. He did not survive the long-term mercury exposure (consumed in various alchemical elixirs) which eventually killed him.
 Machiavelli’s life predates the Point of Divergence and thus he retains his OTL reputation in certain cultures.
 IOTL Wei Zhongxian and Madame Ke both outlived the Tianqi Emperor. Upon the accession of the emperor’s brother as the Chongzhen Emperor, he ordered both of them arrested by the Embroidered Uniform Guard. Wei committed suicide before he could be apprehended and Ke died during interrogation.
 This is OTL. Nurhaci, after unifying the Jurchens under his rule, was badly wounded during an unsuccessful attempt to take Ningyuan in February 1626, and would eventually die in September. Following the 1644 death of the Chongzhen Emperor amidst civil war and strife, Nurhaci’s grandson would be proclaimed the Shunzhi Emperor in Beijing as the first of the Qing dynasty to rule over China proper. Needless to say, none of that is going to happen ITTL.
 IOTL Zhu Cijiong, the only surviving son of the Tianqi Emperor, died as a result of the Wanggongchang Explosion. Consort Rong outlived her husband and the fall of the Ming dynasty, eventually receiving a pension from the Qing regime and retiring to obscurity.
 IOTL Empress Zhang, later known as Empress Yi’an, survived her husband and was instrumental in securing the succession for her brother-in-law, the Chongzhen Emperor. She committed suicide along with the Chongzhen Emperor in 1644. It is speculated that the Tianqi Emperor’s failure to produce an heir was due to Wei Zhongxian and Madame Ke poisoning his consorts to induce miscarriage or otherwise arranging for their deaths. ITTL the death of Empress Zhang may have been a random complication of such a lingering poison or else the work of one of Wei’s surviving agents.
 IOTL the Tianqi Emperor died in September 1627 at the age of twenty-one, having contracted an illness following a boating accident. Although Wei Zhongxian was apparently present when the emperor’s boat capsized, it appears to have been a genuine accident; as previously mentioned, the emperor’s death led to Wei’s immediate downfall, and Wei would have been well-served in keeping the young emperor alive. ITTL because of Wei’s death, the boating accident is conveniently butterflied away.