Jiaqing Emperor Yong Yan — Monarch that Followed The Doctrine of The Golden Mean

Yong Yan (1760 — 1820), respected as Jiaqing Emperor or Emperor Renzong of Qing, was a caring, ambitious person, and an ordinary monarch of the Qing Dynasty.

 

He had experienced the most flourishing peak epoch and witnessed the gradual decline of the Qing Empire. 

Therefore, Jiaqing Emperor spent most of his reign period trying to deal with arising problems nationwide, and to recover the prosperity of his kingdom. 

He was a diligent, qualified monarch to maintain his kingdom, however, not an innovative one that could make big changes or solve social problems thoroughly. 

Portrait of Jiaqing Emperor Yong Yan, By Court Painter of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Talented, Polite Prince Yong Yan

Yong Yan was the 15th son of his father Qianlong Emperor, who loved the young Yong Yan but only treated him as a smart, adorable little prince. 

With his growing up, half of his older brothers passed away, while others were either too weak or disrespectful. Among them, prince Yong Yan was smart, brave, diligent, righteous, and benevolence.

Hence, when he was 13, Yong Yan started to be considered and educated as to the heir of the Qing Empire.

Besides learning to be a good monarch, prince Yong Yan was also a big fan of Beijing Opera. He loved watching and directing performances, include selecting actors and music, setting stages, and guiding rehearses.  

A few decades later, Yong Yan got the throne from his father when he was 36 years old, but achieved actual power until his father passed away three years later. 

Gem Decorated Gold Ceremonial Wine Cup (Jin Ou Yong Gu Bei) of the Qianlong Emperor — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Diligent and Frugal Jiaqing Emperor

After Yong Yan, now the Jiaqing Emperor, obtained centralized power, he soon realized that his father left to him an empire with a fancy outfit, but an empty and corrupted inside.

Sometimes, repairing a rotted empire was as difficult as building a new one. 

Unlike his father, Jiaqing Emperor was quite frugal and caring. He finally stopped Literary Inquisitions and released many officials that were imprisoned, during the Qianlong Emperor's reign, because of their sayings.

Jiaqing Emperor worked hard from the day he ascended to the throne, to the day he left the world, and barely held any luxury events or tours.

Also, many documents recorded his caring behaviors and words to officials and civilians, especially the elders. 

New Year's Congratulatory Blessing Written by Jiaqing Emperor — Palace Museum

Jiaqing Emperor’s Fighting Against Corruption

 

Jiaqing Emperor was another monarch in the history of China who fought against corruption during his entire ruling period.

As soon as his father passed away, he eliminated the most powerful prime minister Heshen (1750 — 1799). 

Heshen was an extremely successful businessman and capitalist, who built a whole financial empire that included countless shops nationwide, as well as profitable, large scale international trade.

Therefore, Heshen was Qianlong Emperor’s favorite official, for being excellent at earning money for the Office of Imperial Household. Thanks to him, the Qianlong Emperor always had enough money to live his luxurious life in his late years.

Part of "Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour" (Qianlong Nan Xun Tu), Described Luxurious Tours of Qianlong Emperor, Painted by Xu Yang in 1751 — National Museum of China

However, he also committed many illegal activities and was considered a treacherous, corrupted official.

As the richest person in the 18th century, Heshen obtained property that equaled about 15 years of the Qing Empire’s revenue. 

But Heshen’s fall didn’t put an end to embezzlement.

 

In the following decades, Jiaqing Emperor diligently dealt with corruption, like a fire extinguisher; however, his kind personality and his father’s administration system already set some unbeatable obstacles.

Consequently, he had never fundamentally solved corruption as his grandfather Yongzheng Emperor did before.

Jade Seal of Jiaqing Emperor with Dragon Decoration — Palace Museum

Endless Rebellions and Ridiculous Assassination

Another big problem that the Jiaqing Emperor had been dealing with was the endless, large scale rebellions.

In his father’s late years, many types of uprisings showed up frequently, and the situation had gotten even worse since the first year of Jiaqing’s reign.

Just like corrupted and incapable officials, new rebel armies kept rising while old ones were defeated. 

The most unbelievable rebel was initiated by a religion-oriented organization.

One day, when the Jiaqing Emperor was outside of Beijing and holding a hunting ceremony, around only 200 people, supported by some eunuch believers, rushed into the Forbidden City and almost occupied this big royal palace.

Forbidden Palace in Beijing City — Royal Palace of the Qing Dynasty

His oldest son Min Ning fought bravely and led his soldiers to defeat the invaders. Soon, this organization, also defined as a “cult”, was cruelly perished.  

Then, the Jiaqing Emperor published an article on self criticizes, claiming that he was responsible for those chaos and unprecedented, ridiculous incidents.

In a stable dynasty, having the royal palace being invaded by 200 civilians was quite shocking; this was a farce that had never happened in the previous history of China.

Another slapstick was an unemployed civilian who freely walked into the Forbidden City and tried to assassinate the Jiaqing Emperor all by himself. 

 

However, hundreds of imperial guards just stood there, until the emperor's brother in law and three brave guards captured this assassin. 

Carved Porcelain Stand (Guan Jia) to Place Hats of Jiaqing Emperor — National Museum of China

Sudden Death of Jiaqing Emperor

Jiaqing Emperor's sudden death was another mystery, which happened when he was living in another palace outside of Beijing.

 

There were many uncanny versions, including sickness, struck by lightning, or attacked by a mysterious fireball.  

He left no will regarding the heir, so his queen assisted his oldest son Min Ning, the prince who bravely protected the royal palace in a previous rebellion, to ascend to the throne.

Jiaqing Emperor was an ambitious, hard-working, and caring emperor who was stuck in a frame, even a cage that his father and the system set for him.

Famille Rose Porcelain Cup Produced Under Jiaqing Emperor's Reign — Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo by Dongmaiying)

He wanted to make his empire better but had been afraid of jumping out of the middle-of-the-road.

Besides having stopped the Literary Inquisitions and fought against corruption, he followed most of his father’s systems and policies.

When one couldn’t think out of the frame, then probably he couldn’t achieve more than this cage. 

Therefore, the Jiaqing Emperor didn’t make any obvious improvements to his empire, though he had diligently implemented many repair works.

The Qing Empire kept rotting inside, while the fabulous outside kept fading away. 

Exquisitely Decorated Weave Fan Produced Under Jiaqing Emperor's Reign — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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