Emperor Qianlong was the fourth ruler of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty. He abdicated after 60 years on the throne so that his reign would not be longer than that of his revered grandfather Emperor Kangxi (K’anghsi). The Qing dynasty reached its zenith under him, as he was a brilliant and hardworking ruler, but many problems developed during his later years that forebode dynastic decline.
Born in 1711, the fourth son of Emperor Yongzheng (Yung-cheng), he was named Hongli (Hung-li) and was rigorously educated in the Confucian classics, history, literature, rituals, administrative techniques, and military skills. His school day lasted from dawn to midafternoon, with only five holidays per year.
He was taught that a good ruler must have “the ability and desire to discover, select, and use ministers of high talent ... and to exhaust their talent in the service of the state.” Age 24, when he ascended the throne, he inherited a prosperous empire at peace, a full treasury, and able counselors who had served his father.
Qianlong traveled widely on six tours of inspection to the south, four to the east, and five to the west. He had a splendid military record and led several campaigns personally. In the 1750s his army finally and conclusively ended independent nomad power in Central Asia, and he annexed all lands in what is now China, plus present-day Mongolia, the Ili Valley of Kazakhstan, and parts of Siberia.
This was a feat comparable with the achievement of the most successful previous dynasties. The distance his armies traveled exceeded the distance of Napoleon’s failed march to Moscow in his Russian campaign. The Qing dynasty moreover continued to control these extensive territories for over a century by maintaining large garrisons and administrators throughout the pacified territories.
His other campaigns, though less momentous, included the subjugation of Burma, Annam (Vietnam), and the Gurkhas in Nepal, bringing into or retaining these areas in the Qing tributary system. Dozens of states in addition, ranging from Korea, Siam, and Central Asian khanates such as Bokhara, Khokand, and Badakshan, also paid tribute.
The domestic achievements of the Qianlong reign were equally striking. He was a great patron of all the arts and learning, which he demonstrated in many ways. In addition to the regular exams for recruiting civil servants he held special examinations to recognize men of great learning and invited famous scholars to join the government.
He was also an avid collector of paintings, calligraphy, and fine works of many genres of art. Thousands of pieces of art in the national museums of both Taipei and Beijing were collected by Qianlong. His lavish patronage of art and crafts stimulated high quality workmanship throughout the empire. Qianlong was also a calligrapher, painter, and poet and spent his spare time in literary pursuits. He boasted of composing a grand total of 43,000 poems in his lifetime.
More important, Qianlong sponsored great literary projects, including the compilation of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries that contained 36,000 volumes arranged into four categories as follows: classics, history, philosophy, and belles lettres. Its catalog listed 10,230 works. Seven complete sets of the Four Treasuries were printed and deposited in libraries in different parts of the empire.
Qianlong also had an ulterior motive in sponsoring this project—to exercise censorship over works that he considered derogatory to the Manchus, which he then destroyed. As many as 528 titles met that fate. The social and political stability that he inherited and prolonged produced a significant population increase, to approximately 300 million by his reign’s end.
New crops introduced from the Americas, promotion of irrigation, and the opening up of virgin lands increased food-producing capacity, feeding the increase in population. He also reduced land taxes and maintained granaries that relieved famine.
For all his splendid achievements, historians have not judged Emperor Qianlong kindly, in part because his reign was the watershed between the successful era of the early Qing and the precipitous decline that set in during the 19th century. The very success of his reign brought problems, the most difficult being the unprecedented expansion of Chinese agriculture and population.
Pressure for land led to internal colonization by Han Chinese of land held by minority ethnic peoples that would lead to tribal rebellions and peasant unrest. Large-scale commercial expansion and export-oriented enterprises begun during the early Qing initially resulted in very favorable balance of trade for China.
However, by the late 18th century, Great Britain, China’s major trading partner, had found an item that would redress its unfavorable balance of trade: opium. Initially a legally imported medicinal item, opium later became popular as a recreational drug. While addiction to opium was at its infancy during his reign, it would later explode to cause a national and international crisis.
Qianlong’s judgment became seriously flawed as he got older. Around 1775 he met a young, handsome guardsman named Heshan (Ho-shen) whom he rapidly promoted to the highest offices of the empire; he even married his youngest daughter to Heshan’s son.
Heshan was openly and massively corrupt and promoted cronies who colluded with him to extort money. Although Qianlong retired in 1795, he nevertheless continued to exercise power behind the scenes. Thus it was not until Qianlong’s death in 1799 that his son and successor Emperor Jiaqing (Chia-ch’ing) could arrest and execute Heshan and confiscate his ill-gotten wealth, estimated at $1.5 billion.
Qianlong’s long reign began brilliantly and proceeded on a steady and successful course. The personal decline that set in during his old age would become the beginning of dynastic decline. In 1793 Great Britain’s first ambassador, Lord Macartney, arrived in China, coinciding with the emperor’s birthday celebrations. Macartney’s account noted the emperor’s remarkably fit physical condition for a man of his age, but assessed the outwardly magnificent Qing Empire as decaying from within. His words proved prophetic.