Ming Emperor overseas?
On 24th June 1398, Emperor Hong Wu, 洪武皇帝, founder of the Ming dynasty passed away. His name was Zhu Yuan Zhang, 朱元璋, and he was the first and only commoner in the history of China to become an emperor when he defeated the Mongols in 1368 to establish the Ming Dynasty, 明朝. In popular culture, it was said that he drove the Mongols out of China using messages slipped into moon cakes.
Six days later on 30th June, his grandson ascended the throne as Emperor Jian Wen, 建文帝, the second Emperor of the Ming dynasty. Emperor Jian Wen’s father would have been the new emperor but had passed away in 1392 and Emperor Jian Wen, the grandson of Emperor Hong Wu, became the Crown Prince instead of his uncle Zhu Di， 朱棣.
Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, 燕王, in present day Beijing was naturally unhappy. In 1402, Zhu Di rebelled and marched towards the Ming capital in Nanjing. Emperor Jian Wen and his Empress perished in the palace fire and Zhu Di proclaimed himself Emperor Yongle 永乐皇帝, the 2nd Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He was able to do this by extending Emperor Hong Wu’s reign by 4 years and eradicating any records from Emperor Jian Wen’s reign.
Emperor Yongle is best known for building the Forbidden City in Beijing as the new Ming capital and for sending Admiral Zheng He, 郑和, (Cheng Ho) on various maritime explorations. Between 1405 and 1433, Admiral Zheng He made 7 voyages and visited Middle East, Africa, India and South East Asia.
Admiral Zheng He was supposed to establish relationships with foreign countries and to exhibit the Ming supremacy. However, it was also rumored that a hidden reason for Zheng He’s voyages was to capture Emperor Jian Wen who did not die in the Nanjing palace fire but fled overseas. It was suspected that he was hiding in Nanyang 南洋(South East Asia).
Zheng He’s voyages only 3 years after Emperor Yongle’s ascension to the throne fueled speculations but despite 7 voyages, Zheng He did not find Emperor Jian Wen. Although Zheng He’s mission to capture the emperor failed, he was remembered and celebrated in history as one of the greatest maritime explorer.
The whereabouts of Emperor Jian Wen remained a mystery and his history was suppressed during the Ming dynasty. It was only after the fall of the Ming Dynasty that a Southern Ming Emperor restored Emperor Jian Wen to his rightful place in history by giving him a temple name Huizong, 惠宗.
To this day, the mention of Zheng He inevitably raises the question about Emperor Jian Wen whose whereabouts we will probably never know.