On this date in 1402, the Yongle Emperor cemented his seizure of the throne by purging Confucian scholar-bureaucrat Fang Xiaoru with a legendary extermination to ten degrees of kinship.
Our numerous executions on this occasion bring us to the close of a three-year civil war that ensued the death of the Ming dynasty founder, known as the Hongwu Emperor. In this conflict, the old man’s designated successor, a grandson who took the ironic regnal moniker of Jianwen Emperor (meaning “establishing civility”), was defeated and deposed by one of the old man’s sons, a prince whose name can be transliterated as Zhu Di or Chu Ti.
The uncle was much the abler commander while the nephew was plagued by defections. In July of 1402, Zhu Di’s forces captured the capital city of Nanjing; the Jianwen emperor vanished into history’s fogs — burned to death, Zhu Di would claim, citing an unrecognizable corpse charred in the blaze that consumed the imperial palace; rumors long persisted that he had occulted himself into the mountains in a monk’s robes.
Either way, Zhu Di had occasion now to announce himself the Yongle Emperor. “Perpetual happiness,” that one means. And to make sure that everyone would real happy with the new arrangements, Boss Yongle insisted on the immediate fealty of the capital’s intelligentsia. “Those who are guilty I do not dare to pardon,” he said of the late emperor’s ex-ministers. “Those who are innocent I do not dare to execute.”
Most of those presented with these alternatives chose judiciously, as attested by the Yongle Emperor’s subsequent 22-year reign.
But our principal Fang Xiaoru was the most famous among a number of scholars to stand athwart history yelling stop.* For malcontents like Fang, the Yongle Emperor offered a compelling dissuasion in the form of the ancient “extermination of nine agnates”: the collective execution of the traitor’s entire family, compassing nine different classes of relations.
The criminal himself
His children (and children’s spouses)
The criminal’s spouse
The spouse’s parents
The criminal’s aunts and uncles
The criminal’s cousins
We don’t know how all his cousins and in-laws felt about the matter but for his own part, Fang was undaunted: “Never mind nine agnates; give me ten!” And that’s just what they did, drafting the scholar’s own pupils into the hecatomb as the tenth degree, an extremity unequaled in the history of China or academia.
All told, the ten agnates numbered 873 people, among perhaps as many as ten thousand noncompliant officials and family members purged overall. Yet still as he died, hewed apart at the waist, Fang dipped his finger in his own gore and scrawled on the floor his own last verdict on the new emperor: the single Chinese character meaning “usurper”.
* Others include Huang Zicheng and Lian Zining. See “Venerating the Martyrs of the 1402 Usurpation: History and Memory in the Mid and Late Ming Dynasty” by Peter Ditmanson, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 93, Fasc. 1/3 (2007), pp. 110-158.