Yongzheng Emperor Ying Zhen — Founder of the Most Autocratic Agency in History of China

Ying Zhen (1678 — 1735), respected as Yongzheng Emperor or Emperor Shizong of Qing was the most creative sovereign of the Qing Dynasty.

He was a remarkable monarch that brought his people wealthy and stable lives, a real fighter that bravely battled with the entire ruling class, a sovereign with many discredits and a controversial ending and a playful person that liked to cosplay. 

Meanwhile, as the founder of the most autocratic agency, the Grand Council of State, he probably was the most powerful emperor in the history of China.

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

An Alienated and Well Experienced Prince

Ying Zhen was the fourth son of the Kangxi Emperor, but he didn’t get much attention from his father, who spent more time parenting the current crown prince.

Ying Zhen’s mother was not noble enough to take care of him (in Qing’s royal palace, only honorable queen or imperial concubines with high status had the right to take care of their sons on their own), so he was raised by another superior consort. 

However, when Ying Zhen was ten years old, his mother gave birth to his younger brother and gained the right to take care of this baby boy on her own, which made her always favored his little brother a lot. 

Like other princes, Ying Zhen went to school early and started to participate in politics as a teenager.

He had traveled to many places in China and obtained some first-hand information about the civilians’ daily lives, and he respected Taoism and Buddhism since then.

Cyan Glaze Flask Produced Under Yongzheng Emperor's Reign — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Perfect Disguise and Scheme in Contention over the Throne

After the first time that his father abrogated the crown prince, Ying Zhen and many of his other adult brothers started their intense competitions over the throne. 

Ying Zhen seemed not very aggressive or outstanding among his brothers, but he was a smart double-dealer, who made his father and other brothers believed that he was only a loyal and capable prince that never had the wishful thinking about the throne.

He also secretly achieved support from two important officials, one was in charge of the security of the royal palace, and the other was an excellent general who could protect the kingdom. 

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

Ying Zhen finally won the throne when he was 44, though many rumors were saying that he was not the one that his father assigned.

After Ying Zhen became the Yongzheng Emperor, he demoted or imprisoned all his brothers that had competed over the throne with him, including his little brother who had the same mother as him.

Yongzheng Emperor’s birth mother, however, never felt happy for his success. Instead, she was very upset about him having expelled his little brother, who had been a very strong competitor.  

So, she refused the title of empress dowager and passed away a few months after Yongzheng ascended to the throne.

Afterward, Yongzheng Emperor used around three years to perish all of his competitors’ political groups. His two important supporters were also demoted and imprisoned until death, for some controversial reasons.

Yongzheng Emperor's Comments (Red Characters) on Officials' Reports — Palace Museum

Yongzheng Emperor as the Most Powerful Monarch in History

When Yongzheng Emperor ascended to the throne, he took over from his father a government full of partial conflicts and corrupted officials, and a relatively empty exchequer, because of some long-term wars.  

Consequently, the Yongzheng Emperor became not only a diligent monarch who cared about his people but also a brave and a real fighter.

Besides his tough and complete defeating of those political parties, Yongzheng Emperor also sternly and equally punished and executed those corrupted officials, no matter how noble these people were. 

He then established an administrative office (the Grand Council of State) that only reported to himself, which strongly enhanced his centralized power and made him the most powerful emperor in the history of China.

Yongzheng Emperor's Seal, Carved with "Diligent and Affectionate" (Qin Zheng Qin Xian) — Palace Museum

Epic Fighting Against the Entire Ruling Class

At the beginning of Yongzhen Emperor’s reign, he implemented a series of innovative reforms that jeopardized almost the entire ruling classes’ benefit, while beneficial to those poor and humble civilians.  

Since then, Yongzheng Emperor led a few of his loyal officials to fight against the entire ruling class.

One of the most influential policies was that he required everyone to pay for the tax.

Before, the noble class, political officials, and the knowledgeable people who achieved scores in the Imperial Examination didn’t need to pay for tax, when knowledge was an influential privilege in ancient Chinese culture.

After Yongzheng Emperor's new policy, except for royal and few extremely noble Manchu families, everyone needed to pay the tax.

This displeased almost the entire ruling class, though increased national income.

Part of Painting "Yongzheng Ji Xian Nong Tan Tu", About Yongzheng Emperor Worshiping the Deities of Agriculture in the Temple of Agriculture (Xian Nong Tan) of Beijing to Pray for Harvest — Palace Museum

Therefore, he had been frequently discredited by literate people in history; and his son Qianlong Emperor abolished this policy right after Yongzheng passed away.  

As for civilians, his new tax system, in which people pay tax based on numbers of lands they own, instead of numbers of people in the family, efficiently eased the civilian’s financial pressure and encouraged agriculture.

On the other side, those rich landowners needed to pay much more money. 

Hence, besides those unhappy powerful people from the ruling class, the Yongzheng Emperor had displeased those rich people as well.

Part of Painting "Yongzheng Shier Yue Xing Le Tu", About Yongzheng Emperor and His Family's Daily Lives in the Old Summer Palace, By Artist Giuseppe Castiglione — Palace Museum

The Invention of New Inherit System and Fan of Cosplay

Yongzheng Emperor highly respected Confucianism; additionally, many of his powerful and trusted officials were Han people, which made him the only monarch in the Qing Dynasty who realized race equality in his government.

However, he also implemented the Literary Inquisition and suppressed the business trades, as his father did.  

Moreover, to avoid intense and cruel competition over the throne as he and his brothers had done before, Yongzheng Emperor wrote down the name of his chosen heir in two sealed envelopes and hid them in two different places.

After he passed away, people would open those envelopes together and welcome the new emperor.

This then became the inheritance system of the Qing Dynasty for a long time.

Golden Box of the Qing Dynasty Decorated with Gems — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

To many people’s surprise, Yongzhen Emperor was a big fan of cosplay. He left many pictures of him wearing different types of clothes doing various things.  

As an extremely busy and diligent emperor, it’s quite unlikely that Yongzhen had worn, posed, and done those things. Maybe this was a means for him to experience things that he wanted to do, maybe he was just a fan of cosplay.   

Those paintings are well preserved in the Forbidden City, also named the Palace Museum, to show the world the fun side of the Yongzhen Emperor. 

Some Yongzheng Emperor's Different Cosplay Figures in "Yongzheng Xing Le Tu", By Court Artists of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Controversial Death of Yongzheng Emperor

Yongzheng Emperor's death was very sudden, and the official document regarding it was quite simple. Hence, there were a lot of gossips about his departure, including assassination, stroke, poison, etc.

His frequent travels when he was young, and his intense fights against the entire ruling class after he became the emperor, all brought him many possible assassins and reasons. Till today, his death is still an unknown mystery. 

During the 13 years of Yongzheng Emperor's reign, his kingdom improved significantly.

He was very famous for his extremely diligent and efficient works and severe means of fighting against corruption.

Yongzheng Emperor was a rare monarch that implemented policies that robbed the ruling class and the rich, to feed the poor.

As a brave fighter for civilians and a big “traitor" of the ruling class, he was, like his comment, just a brave and straightforward man. 

After Yongzheng Emperor left the world, he passed to his son a stable kingdom with a very rich exchequer, little corruption, and no partial conflicting nor powerful clans that can manipulate politics.

Kiln Transformed Glaze Wine Container (Zun) Produced Under Yongzheng Emperor's Reign — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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