Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thursday in History: Changing Hands

Government powers rise and fall. Kings pass on their crowns to their sons (and in some cases, their daughters), and tyrants are toppled to be replaced by leaders who sometimes plague the people even more.
On this day in history in 1429, Charles VII was crowned king following a great victory over England during the Hundred Years’ War. At the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1762, Catherine the Great took the throne of Russia when her husband Peter was assassinated. A revolution in 1968 caused the reins in Iraq to be passed from the Arabic Socialist Union Party to the Ba’arth Party. And the last King of Afghanistan, after ceding much of his power to parliament, was in Italy for eye surgery in 1973 when his cousin stepped up and declared a republican government. He chose to remain in exile rather than fight for his throne, and about a month later, formally abdicated.
But perhaps the most interesting of all the July 17th crownings and usurpations was during China’s Ming Dynasty. On this day in history in 1402, the Yongle Emperor was crowned Emperor of China, but his rise to power was both a usurpation and, as he believed, a hereditary right.
His father, the Hongwu Emperor, did not want his fourth son Zhu Di to inherit the throne. The first son had died during his reign, and what the Emperor really wanted was for his grandson to have the crown. He gave specific instructions that his fourth son be allowed nowhere near the palace when he died, even to mourn him, so that his chosen heir could establish himself before facing his uncle. These orders were carried out, and the only thing that kept Zhu Di away was the fact that his sons had been “visiting” their grandfather when he died and were now used by his nephew. “You wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to my cousins, would you, uncle?”
But Zhu Di was tricky. He waited until his nephew was busy with summer campaigns, fighting to cement his position as Emperor by getting rid of all of the other people that might appear to claim the throne. Zhu Di avoided the fate of many of his brothers (exile, forced to suicide, demoted to the position of a commoner, etc) by pretending first to be deathly ill and then faking an attack of the crazies.
It was perhaps this indisposition (or the convincing portrayal, anyway) that gained Zhu Di his first major victory: his sons came home to see him. After that there was nothing to be done but to make a quick and amazing recovery, claim that his nephew was under the influence of “evil counselors” and to begin a conflict to “save” his poor, naive nephew from their power-hungry ways.
Zhu Di in his imperial regalia
(via wikipedia)
Military victory, a wealth of traitors ready to report on his nephew’s supply lines, and a steady stream of propaganda allowed Zhu Di to take advantage of a fire at the palace: he claimed that three of the burned bodies were his nephew, the queen, and their son. Amid a crowd of yes-men, he agreed to take control of the government, and to celebrate the occasion, visited his father’s grave.
And though Zhu Di’s takeover and first several years of rule were shadowed by a violent “kill all of my political rivals”-style terror, the rest of his reign was prosperous and his legacy impressive. He ordered the building of the Porcelain Tower. He moved the capital to Beijing and constructed the Forbidden Palace. He received visits and envoys from many surrounding countries, establishing peace with many of China’s neighbors. He stimulated the economy and cleansed the land of many foreign influences. He was a devout Buddhist, encouraged his people to follow the teachings of Confucius, and even allowed religious freedoms to Daoists and Muslims.
Government powers rise and fall. Some follow long, established dynasties, and some are taken in bloody revolutions or quiet military coups. Some are prosperous, and some fail utterly. Some begin with glorious victories, and others are won only through trickery. Only time can tell us the success or failure of any rulers or regimes.

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