Chang Chü-cheng (1525-1582), grand secretary under the emperors Lung-ch'ing and Wan-li, was one of the most outstanding Chinese ministers of the Ming dynasty.
Aprecocious child from an impoverished family in what is now Hupei, Chang Chü-cheng achieved the highest academic degree, the chin-shih, in 1547, at the age of 22. At this time China was crippled by official corruption and court extravagance and endangered by the threat of Mongol invasion. The country was overdue for reform, but the time was not yet ripe for Chang. He served for 7 years in the Hanlin Academy, interrupted his career for 6 years, and then became vice president of the National University in 1560 and tutor to the future emperor Lung-ch'ing in 1563. In 1567 he was appointed assistant minister of rites and concurrently secretary of the Grand Secretariat. His initial proposal for reforms in government, however, met with negative responses, as he was not yet in a position of influence.
The accession of the Wan-li emperor in July 1572, then a 10-year-old boy, was the starting point of Chang's career; as a senior official of the previous reign and as imperial tutor, he received the mandate of adviser on government affairs. After reaching a compromise with the eunuchs in power as well as with the imperial relatives, Chang became senior grand secretary, then the de facto chief executive under the Emperor. In the following decade, during which he became the most powerful minister in the nation, Chang executed a vigorous program aiming to revitalize the state and strengthen the national defense.
Chang reorganized the official establishment, introduced a merit system for promotions, and carried out periodic evaluation of officials. He then strengthened the treasury through an increased inflow of revenue. To achieve this, he ordered a nationwide land survey to eliminate tax evasion, curbed the accumulation of landed domains by the official class and members of the imperial family, and reorganized the tax structure.
Official efficiency was improved, corruption was kept in check, and the government enjoyed a regular surplus of revenue. Meanwhile, under Chang's leadership two great generals reorganized the frontier defenses and the military establishments, making China strong and secure as never before. As a pragmatic scholar of Legalistic bent, Chang pursued his policy with vigor and determination, heedless of attack and scandal, even at the risk of being denounced as ruthless and despotic.
Chang's high-handed manner, however, antagonized not only the Emperor but also many of his colleagues. Shortly after Chang's death in 1582, his enemies gained their revenge. The Emperor ordered the confiscation of his property and banished the immediate members of his family, and many of the reforms he had introduced were rescinded.
Further Reading on Chang Chü-cheng
There is no full-length biography of Chang in a Western language. Chang's Confucian Legalism is the subject of a study by Robert Crawford in W. T. de Bary, ed., Self and Society in Ming Thought (1969). Aspects of Chang's administration are discussed in Charles O. Hucker, The Censorial System of Ming China (1966) and Chinese Government in Ming Times (1969). Recommended for general historical background is Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 1 (1960).