An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming Political System - Princes

Dec 3, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

The imperial house of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) was the family Zhu 朱. Kinsmen of the dynastic founder Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Emperor Taizu 明太祖, r. 1368-1398) were invested as imperial princes (qinwang 親王) and were thus ennobled and conferred an estate (fengjue 封爵). These princely territories or estates, also called "princedoms" (zongfan 宗藩) were distributed all over the empire and had the same status as districts (xian 縣). The estates of princes were managed as princely establishments (wangfu 王府). Emperor Taizu bestowed enormous privileges to the members of his family. They reached from well-sounding, long titles and residence privilege in the Eastern Palace (Donggong 東宮, a designation usually reserved for the heir apparent only), caps, robes, carriages and banners to military power over personal fighting units. They could communicate with the sovereign in terms of private family customs. Princes were formally invested by a patent (ce 冊).

The status of prince was hereditary, but only the heir apparent (taizi 太子, legally the oldest son of the main consort, di zhangzi 嫡長子; in the following sentences simplified to "oldest son") could inherit the princedom, while other sons were invested with ranks of prince of lower degrees. The oldest son of an imperial prince (qinwang) was called "son of the princely lineage" (wang shizi 王世子, official rank 1), and the latter's son received the title "lineage grandson" (shisun, also rank 1). All other sons were invested as commandery princes (junwang 郡王). The oldest son of a commandery prince was invested as a "son of the lineage of the commandery prince" (junwang shizi 郡王世子, rank 2), and the latter's son as "oldest grandson" (zhangzi 長孫, also rank 2). All other sons were invested as ""defenders-general of the state" (zhenguo jiangjun 鎮國將軍, rank 1B), while younger grandsons were invested as "bulwark-generals of the state" (fuguo jiangjun 輔國將軍, rank 2B). The following generations of non-successors were given the ranks of "supporters-general of the state" (fengguo jiangjun 奉國將軍, rank 3B), "defenders-commandant of the state" (zhenguo zhongwei 鎮國中尉, rank 4B), "bulwark-commandants of the state" (fuguo zhongwei 輔國中尉, rank 5B), and all coming generations could keep the title of "supporter-commandants of the state" (fengguo zhongwei 奉國中尉, 6B).

The administration of the princely establishment (wangfu) was headed by a counselling mentor (xiangfu 相傅), and princes had all civil, military, and judicial rights in their territory. They could even compete with provincial administrations and had the right to visit the provincial administration commissioners (buzhengshi 布政使) and the regional military commissioner (du zhihuishi 都指揮使) on their own initiative. These two high functionaries were even obliged to pay twice a month a visit to a prince residing in the provincial capital. Princes were also exempt from corporal punishment (see five punishments). In this way, the princes helped the emperor to supervise and control high-ranking officials in the provinces. In worst case, the emperor could order the princes with their armies to support him in the capital. Only the highest members of the administration of princely establishments, namely the Administrator (zhangshi 長史, who had an office of his own, zhangshisi 長史司), grand-defender commanders (zhenshou zhihui 鎮守指揮) and the princely escort guard commander (huwei zhihui 護衛指揮) were appointed by the central government, but the rest of the princely staff could be hired by the princes themselves.

The only restriction put on the princes under the reign of Emperor Taizu was that the imperial instructions (Zuxunlu 祖訓錄) forbade that several princes appear at court at the same time. The time they could reside in Nanjing (at the time the capital city) was also restricted to ten days. Another means of controlling them was that princely sons had to remain in the capital as "court gentleman", but in fact, as a kind of hostage. Later on, the office of the counselling mentor (xiangfu) was abolished. The military counsellors (wuxiang 武相) were deprived of their peace-time command, and also of judicial powers. Emperor Taizu also laid more responsibility on the shoulders of Princely Administrators, which had the censorial function to control and supervise the princes, and directly report to the court. In the Huang-Ming zuxun 皇明祖訓, the imperial control over the princes was intensified. Their estates became smaller, appanages lower, and judicial rights were curtailed by central-government counter-checking in serious cases. In practice, however, these plans to check princely power failed, and ended in the co-called Jingnan Incident (Jingnan zhi bian 靖難之變) of 1399, when Zhu Di 朱棣, the Prince of Yan 燕, whose princedom was in Beijing, rebelled against Emperor Hui 明惠帝 (r. 1398-1402) and usurped the throne.

Heaving learnt from his own military and political power, Zhu Du (Emperor Chengzu 明成祖, r. 1402-1424) strictly controlled the activities of the princes in their state (fanwang 藩王) and did not shy away to demote the one or other to the status of commoner or to have persons executed. Progressive modes of disempowering individual princes were to take away their privilege of an own escort guard (huwei 護衛), a staff of functionaries, or military command, or to transfer them to estates closer to the capital where they could be better observed. Emperor Chengzu also decided that princes must not be given government offices, and were thus not allowed to interfere into government decisions. Moreover, the princely staffs of administrative functionaries were directly subordinated to the Ministry of Rites. Princes were strictly forbidden to enter the capital region accompanied by armed forces. This decision was not changed even when the Mongols threatened Beijing in 1449 or when the Manchus entered the Shanhai Pass 山海關 in 1644.

Princes had to take seat in their estate when they became of full age, and were not allowed to come to Beijing unless ordered to do so. Princes were even not allowed to leave their estate, not event their residence, without imperial order, and were not allowed to meet other princes. Government officials were expected to immediately report transgressions of these rules. Princely marriages were in the hand of the sovereign, as was the official bestowment of a personal adult name (ming 名).

Du Wanyan 杜婉言, Fang Zhiyuan 方志遠 (1996). Zhongguo zhengzhi zhidu tongshi 中國政治制度通史, Vol. 9, Mingdai 明代 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe), 58-69.