Qianlong Emperor — A Lucky Monarch and His Autocratic Reign

Qianlong Emperor (1711 — 1799), named Aisin Gioro Hongli, respected as Emperor Gaozong of Qing, was one of the most excellent monarchs of the Qing Dynasty, and an extremely lucky person.  

He was quite confident, and smart, and obtained everything smoothly. The empire Qing reached to peak under his reign. 

Qianlong Emperor, a monarch with extremely centralized power, however, stayed more and more ossified and still put nomadic aristocrats’ interests before everything, and implemented many Literary Inquisitions that took away tens of thousands of lives and confined people’s ideas, while Industrial Revolutions were being implemented in the western world.

Hence, the Qing Empire embarked on the road of declination under his ruling period as well.

Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress

Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress, by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 — 1766) — Palace Museum

Qianlong Emperor and His Perfect Life

Qianlong Emperor’s life was nearly perfect since he got everything easily. 

Born as a royal prince, Hongli had a wealthy, carefree childhood, and had been taken good care of by his beloved parents. 

When he was 12 years old, his father the Yongzheng Emperor ascended to the throne and started to raise Hongli as the heir of the empire.

The most talented politicians, scholars, and generals were sent to teach Hongli, a brilliant prince that was excellent at politics, literature, archery, and calligraphy.

When he was 16, he married the love of his life Fu Cha, the future Empress Xiaoxian (1712 — 1748). They had lived happily since after and had some adorable kids. 

Empress Xiaoxianchun in Court Dress

Empress Xiaoxianchun in Court Dress, by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 — 1766) — Palace Museum

Hongli ascended to the throne as Qianlong Emperor smoothly at a mature age (24), when he could run the kingdom himself and didn’t need any manipulative regents or powerful clans.

His father left him a prosperous empire with a very rich exchequer, an efficient government with little corruption, as well as absolute centralized power.

His birth mother, Empress Xiaoshengxian (1693 — 1777), was a caring and longevous woman who always loved and accompanied him. 

Summer Palace, the fabulous royal garden in Beijing, was built under his command, as a birthday gift to his beloved mother.

Natural View and Buildings of the Summer Palace

Natural View and Buildings of the Summer Palace

Change of Policy and Recovery of Ruling Classes' Privilege

The young emperor, however, considered some of his father’s policies to be too strict. 

Hence, soon after he was enthroned, he released many officials that had been imprisoned by his father before and recovered the ruling class’s privileges by abrogating Yongzheng Emperor’s “Everyone Pays Taxes” policy.

Then, he burnt some of his father’s articles that include “too radical” ideas, and adjusted some other policies, to make sure that the ruling class was united and satisfied.

Besides, Qianlong Emperor was much more tolerant, compared to his father, of corrupt officials.

His changes in systems, however, made the government became decayed more and more.

Exquisite cloisonne Jars with Gilding Lid, and Jade Pieces of the Qing Dynasty

Jade Pieces in Exquisite Cloisonne Jars and Gilding Lids of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Reign of Qianlong

As a monarch of a feudal empire, Qianlong was quite brilliant and exceptional. 

Under his rule over China, the Qing Empire reached its peak, when agriculture and population were steadily increasing, and the exchequer was always filled with large numbers of gold.

Besides, he dealt with conflicting borders well as a brilliant military leader, and the current territory of China was mostly settled during his ruling period.

Gradually, he became quite satisfied with his empire’s prosperity and believed himself as a perfect monarch, even one of the best in the history of China. 

Exquisite Artifacts Produced During Qianlong Emperor's Reign  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Implementation of Large Scale Cultural Havoc

During his ruling period, England had finished The First Industrial Revolution, America announced independence, and the French Revolution erupted.

The western world was marching forward at a high speed, while the Qianlong Emperor, however, led his empire heading in a different direction. 

He commanded to compile of the Complete Book Collection in Four Sections (Si Ku Quan Shu), which includes approximately 800 million Chinese characters.

However, this turned out to be cultural havoc under the name of compiling.

The means of organizing and compiling ancient books were intriguing and advanced, however, the destruction was huge and irreversible.

Part of Replica of "Wen Yuan Ge" Version of The Complete Book Collection in Four Sections (Si Ku Quan Shu)

Part of Replica of "Wen Yuan Ge" Version of The Complete Book Collection in Four Sections (Si Ku Quan Shu) — Xihu Museum

His government collected as many books as they could, and then destroyed those disliked by the Qing Empire’s ruling class. 

As for many books that were not too “reactionary”, they falsified and deleted lots of contents, and then compiled them into collections. 

The banned and destroyed books were nearly as many as that were compiled in this huge collection; plenty of historical documents concerning the Ming Dynasty had been systematically perished or "decorated" as well.

This was a huge disaster for Chinese culture. 

Book Shape Lacquer Box of the Qing Dynasty

Book Shape Lacquer Box of the Qing Dynasty — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Unparalleled Literary Inquisition with Substantial Massacres

Qianlong Emperor also initiated the largest number of Literary Inquisitions in the history of China.

During his ruling period, there were over 130 Literary Inquisitions had been incriminated; each case took away tens of thousands of lives.

In former Chinese dynasties, such as Tang (618 — 907), Song (960 — 1279), and Ming (1368 — 1644), people wouldn’t be executed because of words. On the contrary, they would be praised when they criticized the emperor properly in the face.

In the Qing Dynasty, especially during the Qianlong reign, however, large numbers of people were sentenced to death only because they or their relatives memorized or grieved for the former Ming Dynasty, or even just kept some “reactionary” books. 

Weapons of the Qing Dynasty Decorated With Gems and Copper

Weapons of the Qing Dynasty Decorated With Gems and Copper — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Marks in Valuable and Historical Relics

Qianlong Emperor was a productive poet, and a big fan of art, who had shown his passion for those masterpieces in a special, controversial way.

He had over 1000 fancy seals, and he always stamped his seals or just wrote comments directly on many exceptional Chinese paintings and calligraphy works.

Unlike other collectors, Qianlong stamped and wrote in the middle and all the blank areas of those masterpieces.

For instance, on a great calligrapher’s masterpiece with less than 30 Chinese characters, he wrote his comment with over 60 characters and stamped using more than 80 of his seals, most of which were stamped among the great calligrapher’s written characters.

As for jade and porcelain vessels, he carved many of his comments on these extraordinary treasures. 

Many people criticize him for ruining those ancient, extremely valuable cultural relics, while others believe that he could do whatever he wants to his collections. 

Qianlong Emperor's Seals and Commentary Writing Characters in the Painting "Que Hua Qiu Se Tu" of Artist Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322)

Qianlong Emperor's Seals and Commentary Writing Characters in the Painting "Que Hua Qiu Se Tu" of Artist Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Taipei Palace Museum

Cutting Off From the Outside World

At the same time, Qianlong further and completely banned international trade and cut off communications with other countries on the civilian level. 

An important reason for the banning was to avoid national rebel forces to get connected with foreign forces, most of whom were still loyal to the Ming Dynasty and might threaten Qing’s ruling.

Under these policies, along with the encouragement of agriculture, and suppression of the commerce industry, the Qing Empire gradually lagged behind the western world.

Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour

Qianlong in Ceremonial Armour, by Giuseppe Castiglione — Palace Museum

Luxurious and Grand Tours

In 1751, after seeing his empire flourishing, Qianlong started his luxury imperial tours in southern China, six times, under the name of investigating southern cities, and assessing officials and irrigation projects.

Unlike his father who visited other cities with much less money and wanted to inspect civilians’ lives to make relevant good policies, let alone some emperors in the Ming Dynasty (such as Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao) who were strongly criticized for having planned or secretly visited other cities, Qianlong Emperor, on the contrary, was quite luxurious and welcomed, without any critics.  

Every time, he took with his queen and most of his concubines, his favorite officials, and large numbers of servants and guards. Cities along his journey needed to provide him and his huge team with high-quality food, exquisite daily necessities, countless treasures, and valuable specialties.

Millions of civilians were summoned to do labor to serve him.

With the corrupted system and greedy officials of Qing, plus the emperor’s huge expenses himself, those large-scale imperial tours cost large numbers of money.

Besides, because of the construction of many fancy palaces and suppressing of some uprising forces in his late years, Qianlong spent most of the money from the national treasury.  

Part of "Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour" (Qianlong Nan Xun Tu), Painted by Xu Yang in 1751

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

Abdication and Legacy

When he was 85 years old, Qianlong abdicated the throne to his son. Due to respect, he didn’t want to be a longer reigning monarch than his grandfather the Kangxi Emperor. But he still obtained absolute power, until he passed away three years later.

He left for his son Yong Yan a lagged behind and relatively poverty empire that had large numbers of corrupted officials and many uprising armies nationwide.  

Qianlong was a brilliant person and a very lucky monarch in the history of China, who gained everything smoothly: the throne, a rich empire, and long and healthy life.

Maybe it was not fair to let him take too much responsibility for Qing Empire’s lagging behind the western world in the 19th century. But in an empire where the emperor had absolute centralized power, the vision and action of the monarch were of great importance.

At least, he was not the “All Mighty and Perfect Emperor" as he claimed, and the Qing Empire indeed embarked on the road of declination under his reign.

Jade Seal of Qianlong Emperor, Carved with Exceptional Accomplishments that He Had Achieved

Jade Seal of Qianlong Emperor, Carved with Exceptional Accomplishments that He Had Achieved — Palace Museum