On October 16, it was reported online that a recent reprint of the historical biography “The Chongzhen Emperor: Diligent Ruler of a Failed Dynasty” (《崇祯：勤政的亡国君》Chóngzhēn: Qínzhèng de Wángguó Jūn, ISBN 9787549640775) had been recalled by the book distributor Dook Media Group (读客文化, Dúkè Wénhuà). A notice from the distributor stated that due to an unspecified “printing problem,” the book was being recalled from the shelves of all online booksellers, Xinhua bookstores, and private bookstores. At present, the cover image of the book is no longer displayed on online platforms, and the hashtag #Chongzhen has been search-censored on Weibo, with searches only showing content from verified users.
“The ‘Chongzhen’ topic is currently blocked on Weibo: searches there for ‘Chongzhen’ will only show results from verified Blue V users, and other related topics have also been cleaned up.”
Screenshot shows a search for #Chongzhen with the error message “In accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies, this topic’s content is not displayed. The results below are for a text search.” [Chinese]
The historical work was authored by the late Chen Wutong (陈梧桐, 1935-2023), an expert on Ming Dynasty history. It is the first reprint of that work since the author’s death on May 31 of this year, and was published on September 1, 2023 by Wenhui Publishing House under the Shanghai United Media Group. An earlier version of the book, published by the Forbidden City Publishing House in 2016 with a different cover and slightly different title, apparently encountered no problems.
There has been speculation that the recall of the latest version was due to the new title and cover design, which could be construed as critical of Xi Jinping. Text on the new book cover and wrapping reads, “The diligent ruler of a failed dynasty, Chongzhen‘s repeated mistakes were the result of his own ineptitude. His ‘diligent’ efforts hastened the nation’s destruction.” A blurb on the cover wrapping exhorts readers to “read about how, misstep by misstep, the Chongzhen Emperor brought about his own demise.” The cover art also features a noose wrapped around the first character in Chongzhen’s name: legend has it that, after the imperial capital Beijing fell to rebel forces, the emperor hanged himself in shame from a pagoda tree on Coal Hill in Jingshan Park, a formerly private imperial garden to the north of the Forbidden City.
Since the Chinese constitution was amended in 2018 to allow Xi Jinping to maintain power indefinitely, allusions to “Xi as emperor” have abounded. Some of the terms that have been blocked from posts and/or searches on Weibo and other social media platforms in the past include “crooked-neck tree” (歪脖子树, wāi bózǐ shù, an allusion to Chongzhen’s death), “my emperor” (吾皇, wúhuáng), “ascend the throne” (登基, dēngjī), “proclaim oneself emperor” (称帝, chēngdì), and “inept/incapable ruler” (昏君, hūnjūn), in addition to many other piquant nicknames for Xi. Content that compares Xi to inept, failed, or power-hungry emperors of old is also subject to deletion by censors. One popular comparison is to Yuan Shikai, who went from influential Qing-Dynasty era warlord to the first president of the nascent Republic of China to a short-lived stint as the self-proclaimed Hongxian (洪憲, Hóngxiàn) Emperor. In recent years, many historical or scholarly articles critical of past dynasties have been censored due to perceptions—real or imagined—that the subject matter is being used to obliquely critique Xi Jinping. CDT Chinese editors have archived many such deleted works, a selection of which are listed below:
- A 2022 piece on China’s self-imposed seclusion during the Ming and Qing Dynasties
- A 2021 essay on brutal punishments during the reign of the Hongwu Emperor, founder of the Ming Dynasty
- A 2020 article drawing a parallel between bureaucratic inaction arising from Xi’s cult of personality and the paralysis that afflicted Chongzhen’s court because his courtiers were terrified to act on their own initiative
- A 2018 article laying responsibility for a U.S.-China trade war on Xi’s revival of the “Chongzhen model”
- A 2016 essay describing how the Chongzhen Emperor’s dictatorial tendencies hastened the collapse of the Ming Dynasty
To many of Xi’s contemporary critics, the comparison to the Chongzhen Emperor seems apropos. Chongzhen, whose lofty ambitions outstripped his modest talents, got caught up in court intrigue, became increasingly paranoid, and eliminated so many of his political rivals—including essential military generals—that he was unable to counter the mounting external threats to his dynasty. In October of 2022, there were online rumors that someone had hung a steamed bun from the ancient pagoda tree in Jingshan park where Chongzhen purportedly hanged himself; whether or not the rumors were true, for many people, it only reinforced the mental connection between “steamed-bun Xi” and the ill-fated Chongzhen.
Following the recall of “The Chongzhen Emperor: Diligent Ruler of a Failed Dynasty,” the book’s introduction page on one literary site read, “Book rating temporarily unavailable.” Below that, readers left bleak comments, some of which expressed thinly veiled hopes for Xi’s untimely demise:
Hereac：I miss you here in Jingshan [Park].
風流就在身邊: Your days are numbered.
鱼刺亡灵：Study the past to understand the present.
魚頭星星：I hope he’ll go to Coal Hill soon. [Chinese]
CDT Chinese editors have compiled some comments from X (formerly Twitter) about the book being pulled from the shelves so abruptly:
bitex2047：Censor: “Do you think I don’t know who the phrase ‘repeated mistakes were the result of his own ineptitude’ refers to?”
dennyfung9：It appears he [Xi] does have some self-awareness, after all.
ijIztfKB5uRzF6Z：After this, Chongzhen will have been erased from the Ming Dynasty.
KevinW912981：No wonder people are angry. You tell me: who leaps to mind when you see this cover?
zjsh88：Not at all unexpected. When the pagoda tree is crooked, any mention of other trees will be read as an implicit criticism. [This derives from the saying 指桑骂槐, zhǐsāngmàhuái, literally “pointing at the mulberry to criticize the pagoda tree,” a metaphor for making an oblique criticism of one person by referring to another.]
Stardust05214：Are they actually stupid enough to think that recalling one book will save the country from destruction?
victory7271：A new incarnation of the Chongzhen Emperor.
jeffry_takashi：It’s the censors who are deliberately recalling the book, a “high-level black” tactic sure to backfire.
nickych62258720：I’m very worried about the fate of that crooked tree on Coal Hill now.
vme250：Shouldn’t he be flattered that he’s being called “Emperor”?
abjcddx：He scampers off at every opportunity—comparing him to Chongzhen is flattery.
duudu233：I feel like although Chongzhen’s moral character was lacking, at least he wasn’t ignorant and incompetent.
zhongguotese123：Does he have Chongzhen’s courage? Chongzhen reigned for 17 years and issued six edicts of repentance! Chongzhen may have been a feudal emperor, but even he knew he had a duty to answer to the public, but what about him [Xi]? The zero-COVID policy, the Xiong’an New Area, the Belt and Road Initiative, and all that other crap—he’s not worthy of even touching Chongzhen! If he had one iota of Chongzhen’s competence, he wouldn’t have brought China to the state it’s in now.
IngWeilai：But Chongzhen was much more competent than Winnie [the Pooh]. His biggest problem was his stubbornness, but Winnie is stupid and ignorant—that’s the fundamental difference between the two. Winnie is leading the fight against communism, and his biggest contribution has been as “accelerator-in-chief.” He leaves everything unfinished, and fails at everything he tries to do. Can you think of one successful thing Winnie has done?
AaronSkywalkerM：[Xi’s] absolutely drenched in sensitive words. [Chinese]