Restoration of the Great Ming: A Tianqi Timeline


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.[1] 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.[2] 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).[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.
[5] 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.
[6] Machiavelli’s life predates the Point of Divergence and thus he retains his OTL reputation in certain cultures.
[7] 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.
[8] 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.
[9] 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.
[10] 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.
[11] 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.
Last edited:
Very interesting, watched. With Wei Zhongxian out of the way, is there a chance the emperor could fall under the influence of the Donglin movement, or not?
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).[3]​

[3] 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.

Okay right off the bat, great details already, impressed by the level of research and depth of history.
Very interesting, watched. With Wei Zhongxian out of the way, is there a chance the emperor could fall under the influence of the Donglin movement, or not?
We'll see those folks eventually! Right now there's any number of problems that China faces, and cultural trends will respond accordingly.

My sincere thanks to all the kind words thus far! Next installment will be posted tonight, and I'll do my best to keep a regular schedule thereafter. This is my first TL so any feedback is greatly appreciated.
We'll see those folks eventually! Right now there's any number of problems that China faces, and cultural trends will respond accordingly.

My sincere thanks to all the kind words thus far! Next installment will be posted tonight, and I'll do my best to keep a regular schedule thereafter. This is my first TL so any feedback is greatly appreciated.
Feel free to reach out to me for any advice on scheduling and self-pacing. I began my first TL in September and it took a while before I settled on the posting frequency I have now with trials and tribulations. It’s a big step to go from a reader to writer and maintaining self-care is always important, so yeah if I can be of any help in that regard.
As someone of Chinese descent I'll be watching this with great interest, let's see how you deal with a dynasty which has been in a constant decline for near a century, has gone through multiple major natural disasters in last few decades as well as a slugfest with Japanese in Korea and don't forget that Manchus are still out there watching.

Yuan Chonghuan, Marquis of Ningyuan

The next year would be a quiet one for the Great Ming as its emperor consolidated control over the imperial court. To the north, the Later Jin, as the Jurchen state had styled itself, was in a similar position. Hong Taiji, eighth son of the late Nurhaci, had secured for himself most of his father’s power, outmaneuvering his many brothers and other dynasts of the Aisin Gioro. While the Tianqi Emperor conducted a thorough purge of those officials recruited or promoted by Wei Zhongxian, Hong Taiji was reinforcing his loyal banner armies and persuading the rest of the dynasty to go along with his plans.[1]

Of course, Hong Taiji was fully aware that an excellent way to gather domestic support is a quick war. Thus, in February his forces crossed the Yalu River in an invasion of Joseon, led by his kinsman Amin. The invasion, ostensibly in support of Gwanghaegun (who had been deposed as king by the Joseon nobility in favor of Injo) was a great success, and the royal court quickly fled to an island fortress. Matters were not helped when Mao Wenlong, a regional Ming commander, ordered a general retreat of his forces, essentially abandoning Joseon to its fate.

Fortunately for the Joseon king Injo, who had already developed a reputation for vacillating weakness, Hong Taiji was willing to grant peace terms by which Joseon simply became a de facto tributary of the Later Jin. The subjugation of Joseon prompted a mild panic among some Ming bureaucrats and a flurry of memorials to the throne were drafted urging an immediate response. Loudest among the voices was that of Yuan Chonghuan, a commander at the northern frontier, whose army had defeated Nurhaci at the battle of Ningyuan last year. Yuan Chonghuan had been making a career out of meeting Jurchen armies and blasting them apart with cannon; he punctuated his reports with the account of a second battle fought in nearly the same place as the last one, where the Jurchens were turned back yet again.

Yuan Chonghuan’s military prowess was unquestioned, and his position carried the day. Before the end of the year, he was sending small forces to raid the Liaodong peninsula, which the Later Jin had seized some years ago.[2]

Mao Wenlong, meanwhile, was facing criticism for mishandling the situation with Joseon and allowing a Ming tributary to be invaded by another power. He received especially harsh criticism from Yuan Chonghuan, who sought to be rid of a potentially dangerous rival. This was helped by the worst of the allegations being pretty much true, and after Mao Wenlong refused to properly submit to emissaries of the Ming court he was arrested, flogged, and sent to a minor post in Gansu province to spend his days in internal exile.[3]

These events were monitored from afar by the Tianqi Emperor and his advisors. The venerable Sun Chengzong was now serving him in a ministerial post and was a steadfast ally of Yuan Chonghuan, his former protégé. Dong Kewei, in addition to his responsibilities as Minister of Works, had picked up the additional portfolio of minister-at-large and liaison to the Embroidered Uniform Guard, a quasi-official position that allowed him to more efficiently conduct a thorough security audit of all imperial armories and storehouses. A host of other new men were being promoted to replace the cronies and kinsmen of Wei Zhongxian.

The Tianqi Emperor sat quietly through it all, watching and waiting. And crafting sculptures out of wood, of course. Mostly, he seemed content to let his new courtiers administer justice and clear up the worst of Wei Zhongxian’s corruption by themselves. He also was spending more time with Empress Rong, the mother of his son Zhu Cijiong. Relatively few descriptions survive of his wife, but she appears to have been regarded by her contemporaries as “beautiful and cunning.” It would explain why she alone had succeeded in producing a son while the Wei / Ke cabal had systematically poisoned, marginalized, or murdered most of the emperor’s other consorts. The Tianqi Emperor, for his part, appears to have respected her abilities as a canny survivor. Whatever took place behind closed doors, we can only speculate; what is certain is that by December, the empress was pregnant again.

While the emperor continued to avoid direct involvement in imperial affairs (save for those of his family, and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering which is not typically written down), he did make an unusual acquaintance of certain individuals in the Jesuit mission. His illiteracy and general lack of traditional learning did him no disservice, and we are told that some among the Jesuits regarded with fascination the young emperor and his hyperfixation on carpentry. “He is like a fool, but a holy fool for Christ,” wrote Nicolò Longobardo, who had succeeded Matteo Ricci in leadership of the Jesuit community in Beijing. His optimism was perhaps a little premature; later, Longobardo would grumble in his journals about the emperor’s ability to “hear everything and say nothing.” The Tianqi Emperor remained ambivalent in his opinion towards the foreign missionaries all his life, yet managed to strike up an improbable friendship with Nicolas Trigault, a writer and translator among the Jesuits whose writings provide invaluable insight into the workings of the Tianqi Emperor’s imperial court.[4]

Their religion was mostly tolerated in Beijing during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor. Far from being solely religious in their activities, though, the Jesuits had also proven to be a reliable conduit between Portuguese weapons traders and the Ming court, who were very interested in making purchases. Cannons based on the Portuguese design had been used to great effect by Yuan Chonghuan in his victories on the northern frontier. The Jesuits themselves were more proficient in mathematical skills, predicting eclipses and contributing to calendar reform, but they were generally not reluctant to serve as middlemen in the weapons trade. Sun Yuanhua, an influential Chinese convert to Christianity, was foremost in advocating relentlessly for Ming purchases of European-style firearms. Though his cause went slightly awry with an 1623 incident where a cannon exploded during a test-fire and killed several people, by 1627 Sun Yuanhua was back in favor with the emperor.[5]

A brief note should be made on the logistics of Chinese weapons manufacturing. For centuries, China had manufactured cannon, and indeed had served as the ultimate origin for that technology as it spread into the Muslim states of central and western Asia and from there to Europe. When western powers produced early gunpowder artillery, they often used the “hoop-and-stave” method, by which metal bars were fitted around a wooden core and welded together surrounded by metal hoops (the wooden core was then burnt away to produce a finished cannon). While cannons cast out of metal were eventually developed in Europe, such technology had already risen independently in China, with cast iron especially being used extensively in China for a long time, and many weapons of Chinese manufacture continued to prove more resilient to bursting than European-made weapons. This was one factor in the consistent victory of Ming forces over Portuguese incursions as had been done in the previous century, when the Great Ming had exacted a bloody retribution for the Portuguese conquest of Malacca. That conflict had chilled relations for a considerable time. Regardless, the exchange between Portuguese traders and Chinese manufacturers further refined the design of the Ming army’s artillery pieces, much to the delight of commanders like Yuan Chonghuan.[6]

And so spring rolled into summer and fall, as the Ming court held its breath and the empire’s neighbors watched cautiously to see what the young emperor would do with his power...

[1] ITTL as in IOTL, the Aisin Gioro did not generally follow primogeniture but would determine succession via a combination of the previous leader’s designation and dynastic consensus. For example, IOTL Hong Taiji’s ninth son was proclaimed the Shunzhi Emperor following his father’s death, although the boy’s uncle Dorgon and cousin Jirgalang were named co-regents to prevent conflicts.
[2] IOTL Yuan Chonghuan was criticized by supporters of Wei Zhongxian for allegedly failing to adequately prosecute the war against the Jurchens and was removed from his post. His predecessor, Sun Chengzong, had refused to pay bribes to Wei Zhongxian and was removed from his post. It’s hard to be complimentary of Wei Zhongxian’s handling of foreign affairs during this period of time.
[3] IOTL Mao Wenlong continued in his command for several more years and was involved in considerable smuggling activity. He was put to death in 1629 on the order of Yuan Chonghuan, who had regained power with the accession of the Chongzhen Emperor. ITTL he has achieved a slightly less ignominious fate.
[4] These figures existed IOTL. Nicolò Longobardo lived into his nineties and died in 1654, after the Qing had solidified effective control over much of the former Ming territory in China proper. Nicolas Trigault became embroiled in the controversy over what Chinese names were permissible for the Christian god and, in a fit of depression, committed suicide in 1628.
[5] Sun Yuanhua and the cannon bursting are both OTL.
[6] All this is OTL.
Last edited:
Any impact of buddhism due to presence of Jesuits?
There will be at least one Buddhist character introduced eventually, if I don't get mixed-up. That being said, the presence of Jesuits within the late Ming / early Qing court (up until the Pope finally ruled against them re: Chinese rites in the 1700s) is OTL, so things aren't going to veer off-course just yet. (Although the emperor, being an amiable sort, might be able to have some input in certain doctrinal debates, assuming his new friends mention it to him.)
Considering Ming do survive, how much can Jin/Manchu conquer? Liaodong is already theirs,so Beijing is threatened. I wonder if the court will be moved to Nanjing?
Time for more replies!

Considering Ming do survive, how much can Jin/Manchu conquer? Liaodong is already theirs,so Beijing is threatened. I wonder if the court will be moved to Nanjing?
Personally, I hadn't envisioned the Ming moving their imperial court -- even IOTL they didn't really move the court all that much under much worse conditions (the Chongzhen Emperor killed himself, and then various Ming princes in different locales declared themselves emperor once they realized that everyone ahead of them had either been killed or compromised) -- and by the time you got individual claimants genuinely doing a lot of moving around, the war was pretty much lost. I'm simplifying vastly. But ITTL we'll just have to see how they do!

Hooray for Yuan Chonghuan! Hopefully he has a better fate than IOTL.
Hooray indeed. I don't think it'll be spoiling too much to say that he'll have a better fate this go-around. Although considering the circumstances, that won't be too difficult.

From another thread:
I would initially disagree with you(since there is not a proper timeline that involves the Ming dynasty in particular IIRC) ...but then suddenly @RexSueciae started a Ming Restoration TL with a POD in 1626 (,well I must apologised in advance since the likelihood for me typing a wrong comment in the wrong timeline is high considering where are we in this timeline, which is in the 1630s)....
yeah... I think I am definitely on board with your suggestion.
Thanks for the shout-out, and also, yeah, this TL is going to be focusing on the survival of the Ming. There remains the possibility of multiple Chinese states emerging -- a divided China is not impossible on its face -- and I won't rule anything out. But if, hypothetically speaking, any of that happens, it won't be because of Ming fracturing, not just yet. Part of the reason I chose this POD is to see just how late I could change things and have the Ming pull something out of the jaws of disaster.

And things look to be going okay for them so far, though we haven't gotten but a couple of years into the whole mess. I'm thinking of pacing myself when it comes to releasing new updates, so I don't exhaust myself. I hope biweekly sounds like a good schedule. [EDIT: upon consulting online style guides I think I meant to use the term "semiweekly" which is more explicit about my intended meaning]

Japan, for what it's worth, isn't being affected very much just yet -- their actions will mostly follow their OTL actions until the butterflies start in earnest.
Last edited:
Oh, you could definitely pull off a late Ming naval renaissance without killing off the Ming elite -- but you'd need to pull in groups not typically part of the Ming elite, or outsource a lot of the dirty work to others. just watch me
Oh definitely but it'd take a really good and talented emperor to pull all this off. I just think that it's unlikely and very hard to pull off.
I'll note that extensive modernization is probably not mandatory, at this time, for an Asian nation to defeat a European one -- the Great Ming managed to utterly thrash Portugal in the 1500s IOTL after the Portuguese conquest of Malacca (and bloodied the Dutch when they tried to elbow their way into China during the early 1600s), and this was after the dream of Zheng He was long gone.
I mean by the Ming dynasty yeah prob they could basically outproduce everyone at least. Like they have a lot more ppl just to make western style bronze iron composite cannons at least. But long term? I don't see china seeing the benefits of industrialisation until it's too late and they get humiliated before any attempt at industrialisation is made.