Jiaqing (Chia-ch’ing)

Emperor Jiaqing (Chia-ch’ing)
Emperor Jiaqing (Chia-ch’ing)

Jiaqing was the name Yongyan (Yung-yen) took as the fifth emperor of the Qing (Ch’ing) or Manchu dynasty. He was the fifth son of Emperor Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung) and was secretly designated as his heir in 1773 because of his character and diligence.

The choice was not made public until 1795, when Qianlong announced his intention to abdicate. Although Qianlong abdicated on Chinese New Year’s Day in 1796, he continued to hold the reins of power until his death in 1799, relegating the new emperor to ceremonial duties.

Qianlong ruled too long for the country’s good, sowing seeds of decay in his declining years and allowing massive corruption to go unchecked. Jiaqing began his actual rule with the arrest and execution of Heshen (Ho-shen), his father’s favorite who had abused power and looted the treasury for a quarter century. The inventory of his confiscated holdings equaled about $1.5 billion.

Heshen, however, was the symptom of decay in an empire where corruption had become pervasive. Popular revolts had broken out in several provinces, some organized by religiously inspired secret societies (for example, the White Lotus Rebellion) that the Banner army units, the once-crack army that had conquered the empire, were unable to put down.

The population had doubled during the 18th century to about 300 million, putting unbearable pressure on the available land, leading to food shortages and sometimes famines. The Yellow River flooded 17 times during Jiaqing’s reign; relief efforts exhausted the treasury and reduced the national income.

Jiaqing was not a dynamic leader, but he was frugal and hardworking and labored to reduce corruption and waste. For example, he reduced the expenditure of the imperial household and reduced state support for the huge numbers of his relatives and retainers, resulting in an assassination attempt by a disgruntled former recipient of imperial largess in 1813. His policies were at least partially successful, restoring peace and balancing the budget during his last years.

By Jiaqing’s reign, Great Britain had become China’s major trading partner, accounting for between 70 and 80 percent of all foreign trade through Guangzhou (Canton). In 1793 Great Britain had sent an embassy led by Lord Macartney to obtain better trading conditions, without success.

In 1816 a second British mission under Lord Amherst arrived in China to announce Britain’s victory over Napoleon I and to reopen negotiations. It again failed, due to a mix-up over Amherst’s credentials and his refusal to kowtow (prostrate) before the emperor as Chinese court protocol required. Twenty-six years later the issue would be settled by war.

Jiaqing tried to stem the decline of the Qing dynasty, with limited success. He was well educated, a conscientious ruler, and a patron of learning who sponsored the compilation and publication of many works.