The importance of succession ritual in China, then and now

Society & Culture

In the early hours of August 14, 1524, as many as 250 officials of the Ming dynasty staged a protest in the Forbidden City, a last desperate attempt to resolve what became known as the Great Ritual Controversy.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: August 14, 1524

It’s hard not to be awed by the Forbidden City. Especially early in the morning, before the crowds of tourists (at least pre-pandemic) choke the central walkway that was formerly trod only by the emperor, the complex’s scale and symmetry projects gravitas and order. In imperial times, when this was the center of one of the planet’s most powerful empires, the palace seemed determined to enforce order and propriety.

In this setting, therefore, it was all the more shocking when, in the early hours of August 14, 1524, as many as 250 officials of the Ming dynasty disrupted the serenity with a public protest against the emperor, perhaps the largest such protest to take place inside the walls of the Forbidden City, kneeling before an imperial pavilion and shouting in disapproval at their sovereign, who sat fasting just on the other side of the palace doors, in the Pavilion of Literary Brilliance. Commanded to disperse, the officials instead “ran forward to the doors of the palace with loud cries and began pounding on them,” in the description of historian Carney Fisher. Other protesters soon “sent up a violent wail, the sound of which reverberated throughout the palace.”

The root cause of the protest was what came to be known as the Great Ritual Controversy, and it surrounded the legitimacy of Shizong, the Jiajing emperor. Shizong was not directly in line for the throne, but his uncle, the Zhengde emperor, died at age 29 after reigning just two years and producing no male heir. Succession in the Ming had been stable for more than a century after several controversies early in the dynasty, but the sudden death of the Zhengde emperor was a dangerous moment. It was important for the new emperor — himself just 13 years old — to establish legitimacy and stabilize the dynasty.

It was unusual, but not unheard of, for an emperor to succeed a predecessor who was not his father. This was a challenge, however, because various rituals and ceremonies required the emperor to venerate his predecessor as his father (and vice versa). In cases like this, the accepted protocol was for the reigning emperor to be posthumously adopted by the previous emperor, ensuring that, for ritual purposes, the throne passed from father to son.

Shizong had a different idea.

His solution was to have his father, who had died two years earlier, posthumously enthroned. This would solve the problems of ritual — the emperor could still venerate his father — but it had other consequences. The usual practice preserved succession (formally) in the main stem of the royal family tree; by enthroning his father as emperor, and himself succeeding to the throne, succession was shifted to a collateral branch.

For two years, Ming bureaucracy and officialdom debated Shizong’s decision and, by extension, his legitimacy as a ruler. Scholars researched Confucian texts and historical precedents, going back thousands of years to find analogies and examples to justify the decision. For years, imperial officials protested in letters — called memorials — to the throne, explaining that the proper course of action was not to enthrone Shizong’s late father, but to record the posthumous adoption. The emperor never budged from his plan, even building imperial mausoleums to entomb his parents and erecting temples with the new succession.

Fisher’s book, The Chosen One, details how the Great Ritual Controversy exposed the true nature of power in the Ming: although the bureaucracy believed it had both a duty and a responsibility to oversee the emperor’s conduct, when push came to shove, there was little they could do. “Whatever the actual nature of Ming autocracy,” Fisher writes, “officials still liked to believe they held some part of the power balance.” Ignored time after time by the young emperor, officials finally decided they had no choice but physical protest.

The protest of August 14, 1524, went on for hours. At first, the emperor ordered officials to disperse the protesters, but the officials instead joined the demonstration. Eventually, imperial troops moved in and arrested more than 100 men, who were ordered beaten and their salaries confiscated. Eight of the protesters were sentenced to exile, never to return to the capital. Although these were considered the most severe punishments, 17 of those treated more “leniently” were tortured to death in the weeks that followed. The survivors were stripped of their rank.

On October 1, the posthumous elevation of Shizong’s father was made official. “The demonstration,” Fisher writes, “had failed miserably.”

The Ming’s succession was forever changed. The Great Ritual Controversy was used by Qing historians to justify their claim to the Mandate of Heaven, as proof that the Ming had deviated from the right path.

In the United States, political ritual has lately been at the center of public debate. Processes that were taken for granted — the consideration of Supreme Court nominees, the certification of election results, the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another — have been challenged with grave, still to be determined consequences. What has become clear is that while laws and rules are important, in many cases it is norms — a shared understanding of what should be done rather than a formal requirement of what must (or cannot) be done — that are often what we take most for granted. Only when they are violated do we see just how crucial they are, and when it is a ruler who seeks to breach the norms, we see just how fragile seemingly immutable institutions can be.

In China, too, leaders have cast aside rules and norms in order to centralize their power. Since Máo Zédōng’s 毛泽东 death in 1976, a two-term limit has restricted presidential tenures to 10 years, but this rule was eliminated in 2018, clearing the way for Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 to remain in office after 2023, when his second term expires. Similarly, the Communist Party has observed age limits — 65 for most officials, but 68 for those in the top levels — for those in power. This norm will be ignored if, as expected, Xi remains as CCP General Secretary in a third presidential term (he will turn 70 in 2023).

So it is in the 2020s; so it was in the 1520s.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.