Zui haui – The ‘guilty’ pagoda tree

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Zui haui literally translates as ‘the guilty pagoda tree’ and it was so-named as it was from this tree that the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, was said to have hung himself in 1644. The tree was thence considered guilty for allowing the death of the emperor.

Zhu Youjian (1611–44) known as the Chongzhen Emperor, was the last emperor of the great Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). He came to power aged just sixteen after the death of his brother, the Tianqui Emperor, who had ruled from 1620 to 1627. Chongzhen inherited an empire in disarray and decline, and Tianqui was in part responsible.

Illiterate and uninterested in state matters, Tianqui had neglected his official role,

Tianqui Emperor

instead spending all his time on his passion – woodworking. Tianqui was a great craftsman and spent many hours perfecting his art, even asking his servants to secretly and anonymously sell his carpentry at the market to see how much they would fetch. While Tianqui lavished time on his hobby, a powerful court eunuch[1], Wei Zongxian took control of the Imperial Court, purging all those who opposed him and promoting those loyal to him, ensuring Tianqui was but a puppet-ruler.

In the resultant power vacuum, other self-serving courtiers saw their opportunity to further themselves. One such opportunist was Madame Ke, Tianqui’s beloved childhood nurse. Madame Ke wanted to make sure she stayed in the emperor’s good graces by preventing any other women from gaining his ear. To this end she imprisoned Tianqui’s concubines, starving them to death, and she supposedly poisoned the pregnant empress causing her to miscarry, leaving Tianqui heirless. Despite these Machiavellian dealings, Tianqui would not hear a word said against Madame Ke or Wei Zongxian, he ignored the numerous complaints against them and refused to curb their power.

Under Wei Zongxian conditions in the country worsened. Not only was there widespread social unrest, but the empire was beset with countless other problems, not all of them man made. The Manchu were launching incursions into the north of China, devastating flooding caused by inclement weather and a dip in the global economy saw the silk industry collapse, which caused food prices to rise and unemployment grew. With this uncertain backdrop Wei did not improve relations with Tianqui’s subjects instead he wielded his power to execute hundreds of Donglin Confucian scholars and their supporters who had campaigned for an end to oppression.

It was against this sorry background that Chongzhen came to power. Sixteen-year-old Zhu Youjian was given the official name Chongzhen (meaning ‘lofty and auspicious’) and

Chongzhen Emperor

at first he tried to maintain the status quo left by his brother and kept Wei as an adviser. However Wei’s excessive power and heavy-handed dealings meant that many complaints from officials came to light and Chongzen took action to have Wei arrested. Wei, learning of his imminent capture, took control of his own fate and hung himself from the rafters of the inn where he was staying. Madame Ke, meanwhile, was demoted to working in the palace laundry and before long she was found dead, having apparently been beaten to death.

Despite ridding the country of the pernicious influence of Wei Zongxian and Madame Ke, rebellions sprung up all over his empire and Chongzen was at first unable to pay or supply his army to quell the uprisings. In desperation, Chongzhen ordered his subjects to provide more conscripts and pay higher taxes. Unsurprisingly these demands on an already depressed and stretched population served only to turn more people towards rebellion. By 1644 Chongzhen had been betrayed by many of his generals and a rebel army led by Li Zicheng had begun to close in on the Forbidden City in Beijing.

A number of legends have sprung up regarding the last moments of Emperor Chongzhen, some more favourable than others. One tells that Chongzhen on seeing the advancing rebel army, fled to his palace where he rang a bell to call his ministers to his side for a council. As the bell rang out Chongzhen waited in vain for his ministers to arrive and he soon realised he had been abandoned. It being clear the rebels would soon enter the palace, Emperor Chongzhen was said to have told his family and concubines to assemble for a final banquet. But as they sat down to eat, Chongzhen appeared armed with a sword and slayed them all.

The Forbidden City

Another version has Chongzhen on realising all is lost, telling his three sons to escape to safety before exhorting his wife, the Empress Zhou, to kill herself. His consort and concubine Yuan heard his terrible request and tried to escape but Chongzhen took his sword and stabbed her in the back. Distraught, he then went to the palace of his daughters and confronted the princess, asking her how she had come to have been born into such an unfortunate family. With no answer to give, Chongzhen cut her down with his sword[2]. His final act before fleeing the Forbidden City was to send messages to his sister-in-law and mother, telling them too to kill themselves, ensuring all but his sons were dead.

With the blood of his family on his hands Chongzhen escaped the Forbidden City[3] as the forces of Li Zicheng closed in. In despair and disarray Chongzhen, leaving his crown behind, hiked up through the forests of Coal Hill[4], a man-made peak created when the moats for the Imperial Palace were excavated in the eleventh century. Chongzhen came to a Pagoda Tree and with his reign in tatters, his family slain and his support vanished, Chongzhen hung himself from its low hanging branches.

A number of contemporary annals reported that the devastated emperor left a note, to the following effect, written upon the robes he wore:

I, feeble and of small virtue, have offended against Heaven; the rebels have seized my capital because my ministers deceived me.

Ashamed to face my ancestors, I die.

Removing my imperial cap and with my hair dishevelled about my face, I leave to the rebels the dismemberment of my body. Let them not harm my people!

Chongzhen was perhaps not as alone as he thought, his most faithful eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng, followed him up the hill. On seeing his master’s lifeless body he too hung himself on a nearby tree. Wang Cheng ‘eng was not the only one to demonstrate his loyalty to his master in this way, as the rebels took hold of the city over 700 members of the Imperial household reportedly committed suicide in solidarity with their emperor.

For three days no one knew where the emperor was until a servant found his body under a pine tree on the hill. He was said to have been clothed in a blue silk robe, with red trousers and upon his robe in the emperor’s own hand were the characters ‘Tian zi’ – meaning son of heaven.

On taking control of the Forbidden City, Li Zicheng had Chongzhen and his empress quietly buried in the tomb of Chongzhen’s beloved concubine, Tian. In 1659 the new Qing dynasty, keen to imply their rule was merely a continuation of previous dynasties rather than the conquest it truly was, built a memorial to Chongzhen around the tomb. Unusually the eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng was afforded the honour of being buried just to the east of his master’s tomb, demonstrating the value placed upon his loyalty.

Pagoda tree – Sophora Japonica

The Pagoda tree and stone stela which marked the place remained as a memorial to Chongzhen’s death and the end of the Ming Dynasty, and it was said that as late as the 1900s a chain used by Chongzhen to hang himself remained visible on the branches of the diminutive tree. Unfortunately the original ancient tree was deemed an unacceptable link to feudalism by Mao’s government and it was destroyed at some point during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).

A replacement tree was planted at the spot in 1981 and today it survives as a tourist attraction, with an explanatory history board announcing its significance.

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[1] In Imperial China, eunuchs (men who had been castrated) were common at court as they were believed to be faithful servants because they could have no children of their own. Many poor families would have their young sons castrated in the hope of them gaining a position at the Imperial Court as a way to better the family. At the height of the Ming Dynasty some 100,000 eunuchs served the Imperial Court.

[2] In some versions of the story, one of Chongzhen’s daughters, Chang Ping survived the massacre despite losing her left arm as she tried to protect herself from her father’s blows.

[3] It was said that Chongzhen fled through the Shenwumen gate and so during the early part of the succeeding Qing Dynasty rule superstitions grew around the use of the gate and it was considered unlucky. Most people avoided using the gate, with only funerals passing through.

[4] Coal Hill is today part of Jingshan Park.

Picture sources:

Tianqui Emperor: From collection in National Palace Museum

Chongzhen Emperor: He Li: Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty, Asian

Art Museum San Francisco, 2008

Forbidden City: The Beijing Palace-City Scroll (北京宫城图), now held in the National Museum of China, Beijing. Painted in the mid-Ming Dynasty (c. 15th century), depicting figures including the chief architects of the Forbidden City.

Pagoda tree: Cyclopedia of American horticulture (1906)

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