Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Mystery of the Headless Emperor

Anybody who has been to the Tower of London will know that King Henry 8th chopped off the head of his wife Anne Boleyn because she did not produce a son for him. It is said that the ghost of Anne Boleyn walks at midnight the building known as the Bloody Tower, "with her head tucked underneath her arm," as the song says. Some people believe that you might see the ghost of the Qing emperor, Yongzhen, walking around his mausoleum, Tailing, at the Western Tombs, near Beijing, with his head tucked under his arm. If you are ever lucky enough to see this awesome spectre grab it quickly, for the head that he carries is made of solid gold.

However, in this article I am talking about mysteries, and the first mystery about the Yongzhen emperor is why, against tradition, he ignored time-honoured protocol and chose a tomb site 100 kilometres away from that of his grandfather, Shunzhi (Fulin), and his father Kangxi. One theory that seems feasible is, having unscrupulously manoeuvred himself onto the throne and mercilessly persecuted his royal brothers and insiders, Yongzheng was loath to face his forefathers in the nether world. Does that seem reasonable?

Yongzheng was the most controversial of all the Qing emperors. The circumstances surrounding his enthronement and death are still a mystery and a matter for conjecture. His father, Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), ruled for 61 years, and from more than 50 concubines had fathered 20 daughters and 35 sons, 24 of whom survived into adulthood. Kangxi's wealth of male issue made choosing a crown prince a difficult matter for not many of the 24 surviving sons seemed to be of the stuff that emperors are made of. Of these sons, only the second (the Crown Prince Yunreng), the fourth (Prince Yong) and the eighth (Prince Lian) and possibly the fourteenth were considered competent successors to the throne. Prince Yunren and Prince Lian actively formed their respective cliques, but Prince Yong maintained a modest stance and a low profile. He kept his distance from official circles, using spies to keep him up-to-date on his rivals' activities.

The first to fall in the struggle for the throne was the Crown Prince of the previous three decades. He had a strong clique to support him and was overly aggressive in his intent to succeed Kangxi, but he upset his father who eventually deposed him. It was then Prince Lian's turn to conspire, and he did so in a manner no less ruthless than his brother. Enraged, Kangxi put him under house arrest and executed his main conspirators. In an effort to contain the power struggle, he restored the Crown Prince, but was forced to depose him a second time. The old emperor then considered his fourth and 14th sons - both full-blood brothers - as imperial candidates.

Kangxi died in the Changchun Garden in western Beijing in December 1722. Seven days later, Longkedo, commander of the capital garrison, made an announcement claiming that Kangxi's last oral decree before expiring was that the competent character of the fourth prince, Prince Yong, made him suitable to be his successor and to rule the empire. Days later, he produced a written decree to the same effect, claiming that the deceased emperor had actually written the decree a few years previously. Hmm!

Beijing buzzed with rumours: some said that Longkedo had fabricated the imperial decree; others said that the fourteen son had been selected and that Yongzheng, or at least

Fig 26.2 The Yongzhen Emperor.
somebody, had altered the decree to read the "4th son," rather than "14th son." (Fourteen ?? shísì) to "to four" (?? yúsì).

This is doubtful especially considering that the character ? wasn't widely used on official documents during the Qing Dynasty. Instead the character ?  was used more often. Secondly, Qing tradition insists that the will be executed in both Manchu and Chinese, and Manchu writing is much harder, and in this case impossible, to modify. Furthermore, princes in the Qing Dynasty are referred to as the Emperor's son in the order which they were born. For example, "The Emperor's Fourth Son" Therefore, there is much doubt to the theory that Yongzhen changed the decree stating that he was the one to ascend to the throne. Even so, precisely how Yongzhen succeeded to the throne is still a mystery.

Immediately after his ascension, Zhongzhen imposed martial law, which forbade anyone from entering the capital. The 14th prince was thus unable to attend his father's funeral, or contest the accession.

It is not appropriate to discuss Yongzhen's reign here, but it is more appropriate to jump to his death, which was sudden and unexpected and occurred under mysterious circumstances. The imperial court did not specify the cause of his sudden demise, and consequently rumours were rife. Many of these suggested that he had been murdered. However, the most popular of these rumours was that because Yongzheng had ordered a considerable number of executions during his rule, he had made many enemies, one of whom being an old foe named Lu Siniang. A story arose that Lu had assassinated and beheaded the emperor. The rumour was a juicy one. However, it went further. It asserted that when the emperor was buried at the Tailing Mausoleum an artificial head had been placed on the mutilated cadaver so that he could enter heaven with a whole body. Furthermore, it was alleged that this artificial head was made of solid gold! If you are going to spread a rumour you might just as well spread a good one.

A survey of the Western Qing Tombs made in 1980 indicated that Yongzhen's burial chamber, Tailing, had been plundered. Relevant departments reported this to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, requesting restorative excavation. When digging commenced, reporters from various agencies excitedly gathered on the site, expecting an answer to the mystery of the "gold head." However, upon reaching a two-meter depth of excavation it was quite apparent that the tomb mound had not been touched. The digging was immediately stopped in order to conserve the underground palace. Therefore, the mystery of the "gold head" remains unsolved.

But what do modern historians think about the mysterious death of Zhongzhen? Extant historical documents suggest that Yongzheng died from accidentally or inadvertently taking poisoned medicine, probably Daoist elixirs of Longevity, and was neither murdered nor beheaded. However, the popular story persists, and many people are still convinced there is a gold head attached to the body of the Zhongzhen Emperor in his Tailing Tomb. As I said, if you see his ghost walking with his head under his arm, grab it. It is probably valuable.

[1] In London, England

Roy Bates has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

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