Qianlong (1711-1899) was the emperor of China and an ideal Confucian ruler during the height of the last dynasty, the Qing (Ch'ing).

Qianlong (Ch'ien-lung, Hung-li) was born into the Aisin Gioro clan of the Manchu people, a seminomadic race living in Manchuria. During the closing years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the Aisin Gioro clan, led by the great warrior Nurhaci (1559-1626), consolidated power in Manchuria and northern China. Weakened by corruption and economic decline, the Ming presented an irresistible target to the Manchus, and in 1644 they conquered the Ming capital at Beijing (Peking) and proclaimed the last of the Chinese dynasties, the Qing (Ch'ing; 1644-1911).

The Chinese political system was dominated by an all-powerful emperor who passed on the throne to his descendants. Each period occupied by one such family is termed a "dynasty." The Manchus had long lived in close proximity to the Chinese and understood Chinese culture and political practices. Because the Manchus could present themselves as Confucian rulers, and because the Ming had been so corrupt, the Manchus were accepted by the Chinese people as legitimate rulers.

The early Manchu emperors faced a number of significant problems, consolidation of their rule against Ming loyalists, and creation of political institutions which were acceptable both to the Chinese people and to the Manchu clans upon whose support the throne would depend for some time. The Manchus were fortunate in that the first several emperors were very capable men, strong in the warrior virtues of the Manchus and able to hold the throne, but intelligent enough to see the changes which were necessary to consolidate their rule. The fourth emperor (actually he was the second, but the Manchus proclaimed two of their early leaders emperors posthumously, to honor their achievements in preparing for the founding of the dynasty), the emperor Kangxi ( K'ang-hsi; r. 1662-1722) was particularly capable. Kangxi lived a long life; he reigned for a longer period than any other Chinese emperor, the first of whom sat upon the Chinese throne in 221 b.c. During the reign of Kangxi, most of the outstanding problems of the new dynasty were solved, the Manchus were fully accepted by the Chinese people, and the institutions which would bring China to its highest level of cultural and political achievement were created.

The Kangxi emperor, like all Chinese emperors, had a harem of wives and concubines. The harem was primarily a political institution which strengthened the throne by ensuring the support of the powerful families whose daughters were invited into the harem, all of whom hoped to become the mother of an emperor. These women sometimes numbered in the hundreds, and many of them rarely saw the emperor. But emperors often had a series of primary and secondary wives as well as numerous concubines. The Kangxi emperor had 56 children. He was succeeded by his son, the emperor Yong Zheng (Yung-cheng; r. 1723-35), father of Qianlong.

Qianlong's mother had entered the harem of the future Yong Zheng emperor in 1704 while Kangxi was still on the throne. Entering the harem at the age of 11, she was a member of the powerful Niohuru clan, which had been close to the Aisin Gioro clan since the days of Nurhaci. Such an early entry was not unusual as girls of good families were often raised in the harem. In 1711 at the age of 18, she gave birth to her son Qianlong, who grew up at the court of his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor.

It is difficult to ascertain the truth of many stories and tales which circulated at the court, most of which were intended to glorify the achievements of emperors, sometimes out of all proportion to reality. But it is evident that many of the stories told about the future Qianlong emperor were true, as he was a capable boy—both strong and intelligent. One such story said that while he was only 12 years old he accompanied the royal court on one of the favorite pastimes of the Manchus, a mounted hunt. The hunt was not only a recreation which permitted the Manchus to celebrate their roots as mounted archers, but it was also practice for war, requiring the coordination of thousands of men over vast distances as the game was driven for days to a selected area before the killing began. In this hunt, the 12-year-old Qianlong reportedly sat on his horse calmly while a bear charged him before an archer could kill it. Kangxi himself observed the incident and was genuinely impressed with the bravery of his grandson.

As emperors were very busy and often had many children, they rarely had a close relationship with their children. The young princes and princesses were educated by tutors and grew up in the imperial harem. Their relationship with their mother was usually a close and intimate one as the two shared not only the common bond between mother and child, but also common interests in the intensely political atmosphere of the royal court, riddled with rumors, gossip, and intrigue. Qianlong was particularly close to his mother and showered her with honors in his years as emperor, often going to unusual lengths to spend time with her, such as taking her on imperial trips which were designed primarily for her pleasure. Taken from C.B. Malone's book, History of the Peking Summer Palaces under the Ch'ing Dynasty, Qianlong's regard for her shows in this poem he wrote to commemorate a visit to a Buddhist temple which he had built for her:

My mother's benevolent heart sincerely honors the doctrines of Buddhism. She is charmed with the scene, she claps her hands in devotion, and her face beams with joy, a joy which comes partly from what I have done for her.

One of the major problems facing the imperial institution was succession to the throne. While the emperor could in theory select any of his sons, the assumption was always that it would be the eldest son if he were capable. But for an emperor to name his successor before his own death invited trouble as cliques would invariably form around the future emperor and self-interested men would try to gain his ear. If an emperor lived for a long time, heirs might even grow impatient and plot to kill or imprison the emperor so that they might succeed him. But the alternative, to not name an heir, was hardly preferable as this option created the same cliques around all possible successors who were tempted to plot and intrigue against each other to clear their own way to the throne.

The Kangxi emperor, because he had ruled for more than 60 years, had a number of such problems and made and unmade several heirs. In his old age, these problems became critical, and he entered his decline without naming an heir. Qianlong's father seized the opportunity, organized supporters and shouldered aside other possible heirs, ascending the throne in 1723, though he cloaked his actions in Confucian respectability. Perhaps because of the problems of the Kangxi succession, Yong Zheng named his heir secretly and early: Qianlong. Raised in an unusually secure atmosphere (a series of early deaths of other children made him the obvious heir), Qianlong was systematically trained and educated from a young age to be the future emperor of China. He particularly loved the study of history, one of the foundations of Confucian learning. He was also interested in Western science, which had been brought to China by a series of Jesuit missionaries who hoped to win the soul of the Chinese emperor for Christianity. Including Jesuits among his teachers, Qianlong also had a high regard for Western technology.

The most important part of any emperor's education was the classical studies of Confucianism. Confucius (c. 551-479 b.c.) was an early Chinese philosopher who became the inspiration for later Chinese values and political institutions. Elite status in Chinese society depended in part upon a good foundation in the classical works of Confucianism, and all boys of good family were expected to be fully grounded in a study of them. Qianlong was an adept student and fully appreciated the importance of Confucian stereotypes in creating the public aspects of the imperial institution. He presented himself throughout his life as an ideal Confucian ruler who loved his parents, study, and Confucian wisdom, based his conduct on the values of the Confucian tradition; respected historical precedent; took a strong paternalistic interest in the welfare of the common man; and appreciated the fine arts of calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Harold Kahn, who has written the most comprehensive study of the monarchical institution under Qianlong, Monarchy in the Emperor's Eyes, argues that Confucian models were so strong that it is impossible to separate out the character of the Qianlong emperor from them: he made himself the ideal Confucian emperor.

Qianlong's father was a competent emperor who inherited the strong and stable foundation created by the Kangxi emperor. Furthering the process of improving upon the traditional Chinese political institutions, Yong Zheng created a stable and wealthy country. When he died in 1735, Qianlong succeeded him without incident.

Like that of all Chinese emperors, Qianlong's personal life was complex. He married before ascending the throne, to the Empress Xiao-Xian in 1727. She bore him a son who lived for only eight years. He took a second wife, a Manchu woman Ula Nara who bore him additional children. She broke with him in 1765 to become a Buddhist nun for reasons which are unclear. Ultimately fathering 17 sons and ten daughters by several wives and concubines, Qianlong does not seem to have been particularly close to any of his children save as the usages of the monarchy required. This is very much within the Confucian family tradition, where relationships between fathers and children are distant and frequently troubled.

Qianlong had a long and prosperous reign. His success was in part the result of the cumulative contributions of his predecessors. With the strong financial base created by the reforms of Kangxi and Yong Zheng, Qianlong was able to finance a series of military campaigns which saw the Chinese empire expand in all directions to reconquer lands claimed by earlier dynasties, raising the empire to its greatest extent. These campaigns included wars against Burma, Annam (Vietnam), Taiwan, Turkestan, the Zungars, and the Ghurka. His victories in the north against Turkestan and the Zungars were truly significant, bringing vast areas under Chinese control and destroying the power of the northern nomads, a constant threat to Chinese security. Although Qianlong sometimes claimed to be, like his forebears, a military genius, the evidence suggests that his ability lay in selecting and rewarding men with true military talent.

This military power was equalled by the brilliance of Chinese culture. Qianlong patronized poets and painters; his palaces became a series of great buildings stuffed with riches from all over the world, and resplendent in gilt, precious gems, and metals. In 1793, the British ambassador to the Chinese court, Lord McCartney—cited in Wakeman's study The Fall of Imperial China—wrote: (The buildings are). … furnished in the richest manner, with pictures of the Emperor's huntings and progresses; with stupendous vases of jasper and agate; with the finest porcelains and japan, and with every kind of European toys and sing-songs; with spheres, orreries, clocks and musical automatons of such exquisite workmanship, and in such profusion, that our presents must shrink from comparison.

Like the ideal Confucian monarch, Qianlong was a competent if uninspired poet who wrote over his lifetime hundreds, perhaps thousands of poems. He collected famous works of art and curios, and his collection, originally housed in the palace in Beijing, is now the heart of the collection of the world's greatest storehouse of oriental art treasures, The Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

But if he had the strengths of the ideal Confucian monarch, Qianlong also had his weaknesses. Confucianism was an extremely hierarchical and authoritarian system which permitted those with power to oppress those without it. The emperor of China was all-powerful, and as a result difficult to criticize or reproach. While he posed as a patron of scholarship and art, Qianlong also undertook a systematic purging of the Chinese literary corpus in 1773, setting censors to scrutinize all existing written works for their attitude toward the Manchu line and the rule of the emperors. Works deemed satisfactory were assembled into a great imperial collection which is still a major tool utilized by those studying China. But works deemed unsatisfactory were destroyed and their authors punished, in some cases executed or sold into slavery for some real or imagined slight of the dynasty.

Qianlong's administration, like that of previous emperors, also suffered from problems created by clique struggles and corrupt favorites who so enjoyed the protection of the emperor that they could abuse all accepted standards of ethical conduct. One of these men was Heshen (Ho Shen), a young and physically attractive Manchu guardsman at the palace who caught the emperor's eye in 1775. Qianlong was then 65. Heshen rose rapidly in the emperor's favor, some say, because the two enjoyed a homosexual relationship of the type not at all uncommon in Chinese history and culture. Whatever the nature of their relationship, Heshen took full advantage of it and placed his supporters in key positions at every administrative level in the empire. Heshen engaged in systematic theft and corruption at which he was so successful that at his death in 1799 his personal fortune was greater than the imperial treasury itself.

The Qianlong emperor, conscious as always of the necessity to respect tradition and his ancestors, decided that his own reign should not surpass in its length that of his imperial grandfather, the Kangxi emperor. In 1795, he decided upon an action almost without precedent in Chinese history and stepped down from the throne of his own accord, without threat or pressure, in favor of his son Jiaqing (Chia-ch'ing; r. 1796-1829). This created a very awkward situation however, as he kept the reins of power firmly under his own control, while Jiaqing was restricted to ceremonial observances, lacking real power. As Heshen continued to take advantage of Qianlong's support, the accumulated costs of military campaigns and a greatly enlarged army, coupled with the thefts of Heshen, seriously damaged the fiscal health of the country.

The imperial institutions do much to cloak the personal life of an emperor and it is particularly difficult to distinguish the fine line between bad judgment and senility in an aging emperor. We cannot be certain as to the cause of the problems of the last decade of Qianlong's rule. Some feel that he had grown senile and Heshen cleverly used that decline to increase his own depredations, others simply see the evil tendencies inherent in the Chinese imperial institutions carried to an extreme.

On February 7, 1799, Qianlong died. The direct causes were a severe cold, but he was simply old and infirm. Jiaqing waited a scant five days before arresting and executing Heshen.

Qianlong was a talented and strong emperor, and he had inherited stable institutions, but the closing years of his reign saw the final decline of imperial China. China was soon to face a variety of challenges, from within as rapid population growth began to overwhelm traditional institutions, and from without, as the ambitious Western powers led by Great Britain began to cast covetous eyes on the wealth of the empire. During these gathering crises, the throne, like the Qianlong emperor himself, was isolated by custom and tradition, prevented by its own past successes from perceiving the need for rapid and revolutionary changes necessary to confront those challenges. It might be said that the strengths of the Qianlong emperor were his own: he was intelligent, diligent, and conscientious. His faults, perhaps, were those of the Confucian system. He lived and died the ideal Confucian monarch, the last which imperial China would ever see as it entered upon its final decline.


Further Reading on Qianlong

The standard biography of Qianlong in English is in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese and the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912 (2 vols., 1943-1944). A good study is Luther Carrington Goodrich, The Literary Inquisition of Ch'ien-lung (1935). Background material on Chinese foreign relations and trade can be found in Earl H. Pritchard, The Crucial Years of Early Anglo-Chinese Relations, 1750-1800 (1936); John K. Fairbank, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast (2 vols., 1953; new ed., 1 vol., 1964); and John K. Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order: Traditional China's Foreign Relations (1968). Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 1: East Asia: The Great Tradition (1960), offers a general discussion of Chinese civilization, while Sven Hedin, Jehol: City of Emperors (trans. 1933), and Carroll Brown Malone, History of Peking Summer Palaces under the Ch'ing Dynasty (1934), treat specific aspects of the culture. See also Sir Edmund T. Backhouse and J. O. P. Bland, eds., Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914).


Additional Biography Sources

Hummel, Arthur W. Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943.

Kahn, Harold L. Monarchy in the Emperor's Eyes. Harvard University Press, 1971.

Spence, Jonathan D. Emperor of China. Knopf, 1974.

Wakeman, Frederick A., Jr. The Fall of Imperial China. The Free Press, 1975.

Backhouse, E., and J. O. P. Bland. Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (from the 16th to the 20th century). Houghton Mifflin, 1914.

Shuhan, Zhao, trans. Inside Stories of the Forbidden City. New World Press, 1986.

Spence, Jonathan D. Ts'ao Yin and the K'ang-hsi Emperor. Yale University Press, 1966.