Other Notable Historical Characters of the Forbidden City

Wei Zhongxian

(February 27, 1568 – December 1, 1627)

  • Wei Zhongxian was a eunuch who served Emperor Tianqi, but he was as powerful as the emperor.
  • It was expected that he would seize the throne after Emperor Tianqi’s death, but a coup never happened.

Wei Zhongxian was a very powerful eunuch who served in the court of Emperor Tianqi. He began his life as the son of a poor man in Heibei, and grew up illiterate, and also a habitual gambler. To escape from the petty thugs after him for gambling debts, when Wei Zhongxian was twenty-one years old he voluntarily had himself castrated. Through a relative’s connections, he was able to enter service at the Forbidden City as a eunuch, and for over thirty years Wei Zhongxian worked in the imperial stable, in palace construction, and at various Inner Court storehouses. During his service Wei Zhongxian acquired a cursory knowledge of written Chinese. Slowly, he gained the favor of various palace officials, and then in 1605 was tasked with serving meals to the infant prince (who would later become Emperor Tianqi). Wei Zhongxian’s devotion to the young prince helped formed a strong bond between the two men. In the process, Wei also formed an alliance with Madame Ke, Emperor Tianqi’s wet nurse, who wielded great influence over the prince.

After Tianqi became emperor, Wei Zhongxian grew into the role of Tianqi’s de facto guardian. Since Tianqi was more interested in carpentry and construction projects than governance, Wei Zhongxian’s close relationship with the emperor enabled him to deliver imperial edicts on Tianqi’s behalf. By 1625, he became the minister of the Eastern Depot, a force of over 1000 uniformed policeman stationed in the Forbidden City. It was said that Wei Zhongxian utilized this position for vendettas, removing those he deemed undesirable.

When Emperor Tianqi died in 1627, leaving no heirs, Tianqi’s younger brother ascended the throne as Emperor Chongzhen. Wei Zhongxian did not attempt to seize the throne; instead, six days into Chongzhen’s reign, Wei Zhongxian tendered his resignation, which Chongzhen refused to accept. Over the next few months, calls for Wei Zhongxian’s impeachment came before the emperor. After several of these calls, Chongzhen called for evidence of Wei Zhongxian’s crimes, and on 8 December 1627, the emperor issued an edict sending Wei Zhongxian into exile.

However, one of Chongzhen’s commissioners warned the emperor of a possible rebellion by Wei Zhongxian, along with other demoted officials of the deceased Emperor Tianqi. Chongzhen then ordered the arrest of Wei Zhongxian. When he learned about the order, Wei Zhongxian committed suicide by hanging. In early 1628, his corpse was dismembered and displayed in his native village as a warning. By 1629, hundreds of his associates were either punished or executed.