Daoguang Emperor Min Ning — A Stingy Monarch and The Beginning of Modern Chinese History Under His Reign

Min Ning or Mian Ning (1782 — 1850), respected as Daoguang Emperor or Emperor Xuanzong of Qing was a diligent monarch of the Qing Dynasty with great centralized power. 

He had been working hard to flourish the Qing Empire while living a quite stingy life himself. However, his great efforts seemed useless, because of systematic and political constraints, and his relatively ordinary ability. 

The Qing Empire encountered big failures to foreign invaders and started to sign a series of unfair pacts under his reign. 

Hence, the Daoguang Emperor’s ruling period was considered the beginning of modern Chinese history. 

Portrait of Daoguang Emperor, By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Brave and Talented Prince Min Ning

Min Ning was a smart, courageous prince when he was young, whose archery skill and braveness were highly appreciated by his grandfather Qianlong Emperor, and his father Jiaqing Emperor

Once, when his father was visiting in another place, hundreds of insurgents, led by some eunuchs, attacked and almost occupied the Forbidden City. Prince Min Ning bravely organized imperial guards and defeated them, he also had shot some invaders on his own. 

When he was 38 years old, his father passed away out of sudden. 

As the oldest, strong-minded, and courageous prince, Min Ning then was supported to ascend to the throne as Daoguang Emperor.

Afterward, Daoguang Emperor started dealing with continued corruption and endless uprisings just like his father.

Winter Picture (Jiu Jiu Xiao Han Tu) Written by Daoguang Emperor — Palace Museum
Winter Picture usually contains 9 Chinese Characters, each character has 9 strokes and written in red ink. People would write 1 stroke per day, to spend the coldest 81 days in winter.

Extremely Frugal Daoguang Emperor That Cared Civilians

As a monarch of a big empire with centralized power, Daoguang Emperor was quite famous for his extreme frugalness, even being stingy sometimes.

He didn’t use fancy and expensive furniture and usually asked his servants to buy dinner outside of his palace, only because the food in the civilians' market was cheaper.

He wore patched clothes and asked his imperial concubines to learn to make patches for him so that he didn’t need to spend money to hire others to do so.

His beloved queen, the Empress Xiaoquancheng (1808 — 1840), supported his frugal ideology completely. 

All of Daoguang Emperor’s imperial consorts, under the queen’s command, barely worn make-up, nor fancy clothes. They were mainly vegetarian and only ate well on big holidays, or important events.

Daoguang Emperor's Beloved Queen in the Painting "Xuan Gong Chun Ai Tu", Drawn By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Meanwhile, for products that stocked in the Imperial Warehouse that Daoguang won’t be using, he insisted to sell them to his officials for money.

Besides, Daoguang Emperor kept suggesting his officials live frugal lives as well. He believed that the luxurious lifestyle would wear out people’s ambitions and courage.   

But for civilians that suffered from natural disasters, Daoguang Emperor was quite generous. He for countless times exempted taxes of poverty people, and sent a great deal of money to civilians in need. Though, many of the money that he sent to the poor ended up in corrupted officials’ pockets. 

Other money that he saved had spent on defeating endless rebels.

Daoguang Emperor and His Kids in the Painting "Daoguang Xing Le Tu", By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

The Failed First Opium War

During Daoguang’s reign, though the Qing Empire banned international trade on the civilians' level, the export of Qing still surpassed the import.

Then, Britain started smuggling opium into Qing and achieved magnificent benefits.

But for civilians, using opium would be disasters for their health and stable lives.

Daoguang Emperor sent a brave official named Lin Zexu (1785 — 1850) to investigate the smuggling. Lin Zexu destroyed large numbers of illegally imported opium, expelled British smugglers, and soon cut off international trade with Britain. 

Daoguang Emperor's Praising (Red Characters) on Lin Zexu's Report Regarding the Eliminating Activity of Opium — National Museum of China

In the next year, Daoguang Emperor’s beloved queen passed away, and the First Opium War (1840 — 1842), also named the First Anglo-Chinese War, outburst.

After a series of failed battles and negotiations, the Qing Empire’s closed gate was opened by Britain using advanced weapons, by signing the unfair Treaty of Nanjing, which included cede of Hong Kong, a great deal of indemnity, and loss of many types of sovereign rights. 

Reasons for the Qing Empire’s failure of this war mainly include the backward weapons, chaotic organizations, insufficient information about the enemy, undetermined policies, incapable commands, so on and so forth.

British Fleet During the First Opium War, in the Painting "Second taking of Chusan" by Edward H. Cree — National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The Beginning of Modern Chinese History

When Daoguang’s grandfather Qianlong Emperor was having a luxurious lifestyle and implementing large scale Literary Inquisitions that executed large numbers of well educated and creative intellectuals and burnt down a lot of brilliant books, Britain started the First Industrial Revolution already.

From that time on, the Qing Empire started to lag behind the western world. 

In the next few decades, his father and Daoguang’s conservative, reparative policies made Qing lost the last chance to catch up.

Consequently, the First Opium War was between an advanced industrial kingdom and a far lagged agricultural empire.

After this war, the Qing Empire kept losing in battlefields and signing unfair treaties with advanced Western countries.

Hence, The First Opium War is considered the beginning of Modern Chinese history. 

Red Glaze Bowl Produced During Daoguang Emperor's Reign — Wuhan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Disheartened Late Years of Daoguang Emperor

In the last 10 years of Daoguang Emperor’s reign, the Qing Empire kept losing land and sovereignty, which made him widely criticized for being incapable and undetermined.

It was hard to quantify exactly how much responsibility that Daoguang Emperor should take for those huge losses, or whether the ending would be different if another great monarch was in charge. 

However, what made him an average emperor was that after a series of failures and unequal treaties, Daoguang Emperor did nothing to change the situation, nor at least make some efforts to catch up a little bit.

Probably, he was too disheartened to remember how brave, vigorous, and ambitious when he was young.

This extremely stingy and kind Daoguang Emperor witnessed his empire being invaded and defeated, but he let it keep rotting and left it to his heir to worry about.  

Daoguang passed the throne to the Xianfeng Emperor (1831 — 1861), the only son of his beloved queen.

Xianfeng Emperor's Painting Work — Palace Museum

However, Xianfeng Emperor only reigned for 11 years and passed away at a young age.


Afterward, his queen, the Empress Ci Xi (1835 — 1908) seized authority and ruled the last half-century of the Qing Dynasty.  

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