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The withdrawal of a book about the ill-fated Chongzhen Emperor is believed to be linked to Xi Jinping’s parallel actions.
The withdrawal of a book about the ill-fated Chongzhen Emperor is believed to be linked to Xi Jinping's parallel actions.

The withdrawal of a book about the ill-fated Chongzhen Emperor is believed to be linked to Xi Jinping’s parallel actions.

On October 16, it was reported online that a recent reprint of the historical biography “The Chongzhen Emperor: Diligent Ruler of a Failed Dynasty” (ISBN 9787549640775) had been recalled by the book distributor Dook Media Group. The distributor stated that the book was being recalled from all online booksellers, Xinhua bookstores, and private bookstores due to a “printing problem.” Currently, the cover image of the book is no longer visible on online platforms and the hashtag #Chongzhen has been censored on Weibo, with only content from verified users appearing in searches.

The topic of “Chongzhen” is currently restricted on Weibo. Any searches for “Chongzhen” will only display results from verified Blue V users, and other related topics have also been removed.

The image displays a query for #Chongzhen which prompts the message “Due to applicable laws, regulations, and policies, the content for this topic cannot be shown. The following results are from a text search.” [Chinese]

The late Chen Wutong (陈梧桐, 1935-2023), a renowned scholar on Ming Dynasty history, authored the original historical work. Recently, on September 1, 2023, the Wenhui Publishing House under the Shanghai United Media Group released the first reprint of the work since the author’s passing on May 31 of this year. It is worth noting that an earlier edition of the book, which was published by the Forbidden City Publishing House in 2016 with a different cover and title, did not face any issues.

Some people are speculating that the recall of the latest version may have been influenced by the new title and cover design, which could be seen as criticizing Xi Jinping. The text on the new book cover and wrapping states that the Chongzhen Emperor’s repeated mistakes were caused by his own incompetence, leading to the downfall of the dynasty. The blurb on the cover urges readers to learn about how the emperor’s missteps ultimately led to his own downfall. The cover art also depicts a noose around the first character of Chongzhen’s name, referencing the legend that the emperor hanged himself in shame after Beijing was captured by rebels. This is said to have occurred at Jingshan Park, a former imperial garden located north of the Forbidden City.

An eye-catching black, white, tan, and red book cover features bold calligraphy, evocative quotations, and an image of a noose wrapped around the first character in Chongzhen’s name.

The striking new design of the book “The Chongzhen Emperor: A Diligent Ruler in a Failing Dynasty.”

A tamer book cover features a red seal, black Chinese characters against a lighter background, and a sepia-tinted historical photograph of people walking toward an ornamental gate, with a square-sided, tile-roofed pagoda towering at left.

The previous version of the book had a cover that was seemingly less offensive.

After the Chinese constitution was revised in 2018, allowing Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely, there have been numerous references to him as an emperor. Certain terms such as “crooked-neck tree,” “my emperor,” “ascend the throne,” “proclaim oneself emperor,” and “inept/incapable ruler” have been blocked from posts and searches on social media platforms like Weibo. Comparisons between Xi and past emperors who were incompetent, failed, or power-hungry are also subject to censorship. One popular comparison is to Yuan Shikai, who was a warlord during the Qing Dynasty, then became the first president of the Republic of China, and briefly declared himself the Hongxian Emperor. In recent years, articles critical of past dynasties have also been censored, as they may be seen as indirectly criticizing Xi Jinping. CDT Chinese editors have saved many of these deleted works, some of which are listed below.

  • A piece discussing China’s voluntary isolation during the Ming and Qing Dynasties in 2022.

  • A 2021 essay discussing the severe forms of punishment implemented by the Hongwu Emperor, who was responsible for founding the Ming Dynasty.

  • In a 2020 publication, a comparison is made between the bureaucratic inaction caused by Xi’s cult of personality and the stagnation that plagued Chongzhen’s court due to his courtiers’ fear of taking independent action.

  • A 2018 publication attributing the cause of a trade conflict between the United States and China to Xi’s implementation of the “Chongzhen model.”

  • In a written piece from 2016, the author discusses how the authoritarian behavior of the Chongzhen Emperor contributed to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty.

Many of Xi’s critics believe that comparing him to the Chongzhen Emperor is appropriate. Like Chongzhen, who had high ambitions but lacked the skills to achieve them, Xi also became entangled in palace politics, became increasingly paranoid, and removed numerous political rivals, including important military leaders. In October 2022, there were rumors online that a steamed bun had been hung from the ancient pagoda tree in Jingshan Park, where Chongzhen is said to have hanged himself. Whether or not the rumors were true, it only strengthened the association between “steamed-bun Xi” and the doomed Chongzhen in the minds of many people.

After the book “The Chongzhen Emperor: Diligent Ruler of a Failed Dynasty” was recalled, the introduction page on a literary website stated that the book’s rating was temporarily unavailable. Many readers commented with pessimistic remarks, some subtly wishing for Xi’s downfall.

I wish you were here with me at Jingshan Park.

You only have limited time left: Your days are numbered.

The Ghost of Fish Bones: Examine the past to comprehend the present.

Fish Head Star: I wish for him to visit Coal Hill in the near future.

A screenshot from a literary site with a green background, white text, several five-star book reviews, and reader comments wishing Xi Jinping ill.
A screenshot of the book’s introduction page from a literary site, and some of the bleak anti-Xi comments from readers.

The Chinese editors of CDT have gathered feedback from X (previously known as Twitter) regarding the sudden removal of the book from shelves.

bitex2047:Censor: “Do you think I don’t know who the phrase ‘repeated mistakes were the result of his own ineptitude’ refers to?”

It seems that he [Xi] does possess some level of self-awareness, after all.

Following this, Chongzhen will no longer be part of the Ming Dynasty.

It is understandable why people are upset. Can you guess who comes to mind when looking at 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.]

Is it possible that they believe recalling a single book will prevent the country from being destroyed?

I am reminded of the tune of “Fragile” (also known as “Glass-Hearted”) in my mind.

The Chongzhen Emperor has been reborn in a new form.

Jeffry Takashi: The book is being intentionally censored, a strategy that is likely to fail and have negative consequences.

I am concerned about what will happen to the bent tree on Coal Hill.

Wouldn’t it be a compliment for him to be referred to as “Emperor”?

Abjcddx: He quickly runs away whenever he can – calling him Chongzhen is a compliment.

Although Chongzhen may have lacked in moral character, he was not completely ignorant or incompetent.

Can he match Chongzhen’s bravery? Chongzhen ruled for 17 years and issued six repentance edicts. Despite being a feudal emperor, Chongzhen understood the importance of being accountable to the public. What about Xi? The zero-COVID policy, Xiong’an New Area, Belt and Road Initiative, and other endeavors – he is not even worthy of being compared to Chongzhen. If he had even a fraction of Chongzhen’s abilities, China would not be facing its current state.

Unfortunately, Chongzhen was far more skilled than Winnie the Pooh. His main issue was his stubbornness, whereas Winnie lacks intelligence and knowledge – this is the fundamental contrast between the two. Winnie may be leading the fight against communism, but his most significant impact has been as an “accelerator-in-chief.” He struggles to complete tasks and fails at all his attempts. Can you recall any accomplishments of Winnie’s?

AaronSkywalkerM:[Xi’s] absolutely drenched in sensitive words. [Chinese]