QIANLONG EMPEROR (ruled 1736–95)


Qianlong Emperor

Emperor Qianlong (1711-99, ruled 1736-1796) is regarded as China's last great emperor. He was a superb military tactician and lover of the arts. He ruled for 63 years, the longest of any Chinese ruler, and gave up the throne to his son at the age of 65 and lived as an retired emperor, ruling behind the scenes, until his death at the age of 88. The Qianlong Emperor is known in China as by the Chinese name Ch'ien-lung. His posthumous name is Kao-tsung. The Qianlong Emperor was a contemporary of George Washington (1732-99), who was president of the United States from 1789-97. Qianlong and Washington both died in 1799, at ages 88 and 67, respectively.

Under the Qianlong emperor, the Manchu empire reached its zenith. While the emperor's ambitious military campaigns in the far west extended Qing control over large portions of Tibet and Central Asia, the Chinese heartland enjoyed an extended era of peace and prosperity as the population doubled, farmlands expanded, and commerce flourished. The Qianlong Emperor reduced rents, cut taxes, encouraged new agriculture methods, implemented flood-control measures on rivers, secured China's borders, maintained peace and traveled widely. His approach to foreign policy was to lavishly welcome foreign diplomats and turn down all their requests.

In 1793, the British diplomat Lord Macartney came to the Forbidden City to discuss a trade treaty with the Qianlong Emperor. He brought gifts such as air guns, a 25-foot clock, hot air balloons, telescopes and a planetarium but the Emperor refused to talk to him because the lord refused to kowtow to him, feeling that do so would demean Britain's King George III. The Emperor gave him a note that read: “We have never valued indigenous articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures. Our Celestial Empire possesses all thing in prolific abundance and lacks no product with in its own borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. “

The Qianlong Emperor held a triennial inspection of xuinu (beautiful women) to find suitable brides for himself and his princes. When the Qianglong Emperor took the throne at the age of 25 he already had eight wives and several children. As he became older the Qianglong Emperor became more repressive and corrupt. He surrounded himself with advisors of dubious quality and presided over episodes of book burning and set the tone for the Qing dynasty's decline.

Qianlong died at last in February 1799, leaving the kingdom apparently prosperous, but in fact riddled with contradictions and problems that had never been properly solved. The largest Qing tomb belongs to the Qianlong Emperor. The tomb covers half a square kilometer and contains beamless stone chambers adorned with bodhisattvas and Tibetan and Sanskrit sutras. Construction started when he was he 30 (he died when he was 88) and 90 tons of silver was spent on it. After his death, China experienced a long period of decline, before reestablishing itself in the twentieth century as a great nation.

Also see Sections on China in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries

Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained drben.net/ChinaReport ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing learn.columbia.edu Ming and Qing Tombs UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Forbidden City: FORBIDDEN CITY factsanddetails.com/china; Wikipedia; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites World Heritage Site ; Chinese History: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu

Qianlong Emperor’s Early Life

Prince Hongli (future Qianlong) practicing calligraphy on a banana leaf

The Qianlong Emperor’s father was the Yongzheng Emperor and his grandfather was the Kangxi Emperor. The Yongzheng Emperor had fourteen children, and it was his fourth son, Hongli (the future Qianlong Emperor), who turned out to be the brightest and most diligent, thereby winning his favor. Not only did Yongzheng engage the best teachers to teach his son, he also carefully selected a beautiful bride to be his principal wife. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“In the 61st and last year of the Kangxi Emperor's reign, his son Yinzhen (the future Yongzheng) invited him to tour the Yuanming Garden, allowing Hongli (then 12) to meet his grandfather-emperor. All three generations cherished this gathering. Kangxi, finding favor with his grandson's talent and demeanor, took Hongli back to the palace. In fact, it is rumored that Kangxi was so impressed with Hongli that it was one reason why he decided to pass the throne to Yinzhen. In other words, Kangxi knew Hongli would make a wise ruler, so he chose Yinzhen to put Hongli in line for the throne. \=/

“After Yinzhen assumed the throne in 1722, however, he went through the bitterness of having to ruthlessly crush opposition from his brothers, making him determined to decide early on passing the throne to Hongli and prevent such problems in the future. To do so, Yongzheng created a method in which the future ruler's name was secretly written down, sealed in a case, and placed behind the high wall plaque "Fair and Impartial" at the Qianqing Palace. To be opened after the emperor's death and made public, this would establish a precedent for the smooth succession to the throne afterwards in the Qing dynasty.”“ \=/

After his father's enthronement, Hongli was made a qinwang (first-rank prince) under the title "Prince Bao of the First Rank". Like many of his uncles, Hongli entered into a battle of succession with his elder half-brother Hongshi, who had the support of a large faction of the officials in the imperial court, as well as Yinsi, Prince Lian. For many years, the Yongzheng Emperor did not designate any of his sons as the crown prince, but many officials speculated that he favoured Hongli. Hongli went on inspection trips to the south, and was known to be an able negotiator and enforcer. He was also appointed as the chief regent on occasions when his father was away from the capital. [Source: Wikipedia]

Qianlong Emperor’s Life

Qianlong hunting a deer

According to the Field Museum: “One of the most fascinating aspects of Qianlong was the amazing breadth of his interests and abilities: he was a classic scholar, a keen military strategist and martial arts expert, a poet who composed some 44,000 poems in his lifetime, a skilled huntsman, the only Chinese Emperor to speak four languages, a hands-on administrator, a deeply spiritual person and the patron of China’s diverse religions, and a restless innovator in the arts and sciences. [Source: Field Museum, Chicago, Exhibition, March 12—September 12, 2004 /+]

“As emperor, Qianlong was both patron and participant in these religions, which included the Manchu Shamanism of Qianlong’s ancestors; Tibetan Buddhism—a religion which he personally practiced; Han Buddhism, which was the majority religion of most Chinese; and Daoism, China’s indigenous religion. /+\

The Qianling Dynasty reigned officially from 1735 to 1796, when he retired so as not to exceed the reign of his grandfather, the Emperor Kangxi. Despite his retirement, however, he retained ultimate power as the Emperor Emeritus (or Retired Emperor) until his death in 1799. If you include the years after his retirement, the Qianlong Emperor was the longest-reigning de facto ruler in the history of China, and having died at of 87 was the longest-living.

Qianlong fathered twenty-six children, and was married to many wives. According to the Field Museum: “The emperor’s family lived in the most secluded areas of the palace, leading lives that were luxurious, but tightly hemmed in—by both the oppressive architecture of the Forbidden City itself, as well as by the endless rules and tradition that assigned everyone in the imperial household to a particular rank. /+\

Qianlong Emperor’s Rule

Qianlong entering Suzhou and the Grand Canal

The Qianlong, Emperor was such an effective ruler in part because he was skilled in a wide variety of disciplines, and was notably successful in almost all aspects of rulership.According to the Field Museum: “he was a keen policy maker who charged through mountains of paperwork, a skilled military tactician and commander-in-chief of China’s army, and a hands-on administrator who actively toured his realm to get a first-hand picture of everything from troop installations to irrigation projects. [Source: Field Museum, Chicago, Exhibition, March 12—September 12, 2004]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Qianlong Emperor ruled from 1736 to 1796. His reign lasted almost exactly as long as that of his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, and the Qianlong Emperor further emulated his grandfather by making six epic journeys to the South and commissioning a set of twelve scrolls (also titled Nanxuntu) to document one of his southern inspection tours, just as his grandfather had done. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn and Madeleine Zelin, Consultants, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]

“The Qianlong Emperor was the first Manchu ruler to not only feel completely at ease with both his Manchu and his Chinese identities, but also to begin to conceive of himself as a "universal ruler." Qianlong deliberately represented himself differently to each of the various constituents that formed his extensive, multiethnic empire. To the Tibetans, for example, Qianlong portrayed himself as a reincarnation of one of the most important bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism, Manjusri; for the Mongols he took on the role of a steppe prince who understood their steppe traditions; and to the Han Chinese he portrayed himself as a scholar and great patron of Chinese learning and art.

“Interestingly, Qianlong saw himself as the emperor of not only the Han Chinese, the Manchus, and all the other ethnic groups in his empire, but also all beyond the empire. Thus, the contingent of Jesuit missionaries who had come to China during the Kangxi Emperor's reign and still resided in Beijing were often incorporated into the activities of the Qianlong Emperor's court and deemed to be proper subjects of the "Universal Monarch."”

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Building on the foundation of his predecessors, the Qianlong Emperor expanded and utilized his vast imperial power to establish an era of thriving cultural activity. By combining indigenous Confucian heritage and tradition with the multifaceted cultures of China's periphery and promoting exchange with the civilizations of the West, the emperor led the Qing empire through sixty years of unprecedented achievement. While the emperor was indeed a guiding force behind the cultural accomplishments of the era, he did not act alone, but rather gathered and harnessed the energies of countless intellectuals throughout the empire.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Military Expansion and Forging a Multi-Ethnic State Under the Qianlong Emperor

The Qianlong’s ambitious military campaigns in the far west extended Qing control over large portions of Tibet and Central Asia. In 1792, the emperor publicly proclaimed his military power by recording his conquests in a manuscript entitled “Record of Ten Perfect Accomplishments.”

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Under the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the Chinese empire grew to a size unprecedented in Chinese history and included Tibet and a great deal of central Asia, including parts of what are today Russia. In addition, China extended its political control over some of the smaller states in Southeast Asia and Korea. At the height of the Qianlong Emperor's rule, China dominated East Asia militarily, politically, and culturally. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn and Madeleine Zelin, Consultants, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]

“In 1912, when the Qing dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China established, real questions arose as to what constituted "China." At this time many political thinkers and political actors said that "China" was for "the Chinese." Indeed, the Manchu Qing were overthrown partly as a movement of "China for the Chinese." Once the overthrow was accomplished, however, the new leaders had to confront the reality of a much smaller Chinese territory. What followed as a result was a political reevaluation of a consolidated national framework encompassing all the various peoples that had been brought into the Chinese administrative sphere under the Manchu Qing.

“It is only under the reign of the Qianlong Emperor that the image of a multiethnic Chinese empire began to emerge, comprising not only Han Chinese (the Han constitute the majority ethnic group and the dominant Chinese-language-speaking group in China), but also Mongols, Tibetans, and Manchus, among others, each with their indigenous religious traditions. For example, Tibetan Buddhism, the Manchu shamanistic cult, and the religions of the Mongols (who were largely Tibetan Buddhists as well) were all well supported during the Qianlong Emperor's reign.”

Military Campaigns Under the Qianlong Emperor

Qianlong in ceremonial armor

The Qianlong Emperor said: "The army may be unemployed for a hundred years, but it cannot be left unprepared for a single day." According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In 1755, the Qianlong Emperor dispatched an army to quell a Zunghar uprising. After occupying the town of Ili and establishing it as a base of operations, these troops moved on to vanquish the Zunghar army. For a short while, this silenced disturbances in the region. Three months later, the Zunghars revolted again, this time under the leadership of Amursana. Once again, the Qing army put down the rebellion and, by 1757, succeeded in pacifying all of Zungharia. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“In 1756, the brothers Burhan-al-Din and khozi khan, known as the big and little Hodjas, fomented a revolt among the Muslim communities to the south of the T'ien-shan Mountains. In 1758, the Qing court dispatched an army to suppress the rebellion. 1759, the Qing general Chao Hui put down a Muslim uprising at Mt. Hoskuluk. Next month, the warrior Ming-jui led a vanguard of 900 cavalry in a crushing victory over a force of 6000 Muslim troops, thereby quelling the uprising. \=/

“In 1786, Lin Shuang-wen staged an uprising against Qing authorities on the island of Taiwan. In the beginning of 1787, the Qing government sent reinforcements to the island. In the eighth month of that year, the Qianlong Emperor dispatched the famous general Fukanggan to lead the army in its campaign against the rebels. In the eleventh month, Fu broke the siege of Chu-lo (modern day Chiayi) and then led his army north to attack Tou-liu-men (Tou-liu), Ta-li-i (Tali township, Taichung), and other nearby rebel-controlled areas. By the first month of 1788, Fu had captured Lin Shuang-wen and pacified the northern regions of Taiwan. From there he turned south, swiftly vanquishing the army of Chuang Ta-t'ien and, by the end of the following month, restoring peace to the entire island. \=/

“After the victory, the Qianlong Emperor ordered the European court painter Lang Shih-ning (Giuseppe Castiglione) to produce a series of paintings commemorating the Qing campaigns against the Muslims and Zunghars. This series of sixteen works, known alternately as the Achieving Victory or Pacification of Xinjiang group, depicted the important battles, surrenders, and victory processions of the campaigns. After Castiglione and other court painters completed the drafts, the works were sent to France to be engraved on lithograph plates, after which both the plates and lithograph prints were sent back to Peking. After this it became customary for the court, upon the successful conclusion of a military campaign, to order court artisans to engrave commemorative lithographs themselves.

Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour of 1751

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Qianlong Emperor undertook six southern inspection tours, just as did his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor. The first tour was completed in 1751, when he had been on the throne 15 years, and like his grandfather, Qianlong commissioned a set of twelve monumental scrolls to document this journey. But the painting of these scrolls under the direction of the court artist Xu Yang (act. 1750-after 1776) did not begin until 1764. The scrolls were completed in 1770, in time to be presented to the Qianlong Emperor on his 60th birthday. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn, Consultant, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]

“Like the Kangxi Emperor's Southern Tour scrolls, the Qianlong Emperor's twelve scrolls were kept together in a special palace storeroom for imperial portraits and maps until the late 19th or early 20th century, when they were dispersed. The fourth scroll depicts the Qianlong Emperor's inspection of water control measures at the confluence of the Huai and Yellow (Huang) Rivers and highlights the importance of flood prevention in the low-lying lands of the South. In the sixth scroll the Qianlong Emperor is shown entering the city of Suzhou by way of the Grand Canal. (Both Suzhou and the Grand Canal were important sources of revenue for the Qing government.) Other scrolls from both the Kangxi and Qianlong sets are in public collections in China, Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Qianlong's Southern Inspection Tour

Qianlong’s Visit to Suzhou and the Grand Canal

On the handscroll “The Qianlong Emperor's Visit to Suzhou in 1751,” Columbia University’s Asia for Educators reports: “The sixth of the twelve scrolls recording the Qianlong Emperor's first southern inspection tour depicts the emperor visiting the city of Suzhou, just as his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, had done some 60 years earlier. Suzhou remained the cultural capital of China even into the 18th century, and both emperors' visits underscore the importance of Suzhou to the imperial household as well as to the rich commercial life of China under the Qing dynasty. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn, Consultant, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]

“Following the Grand Canal from the outskirts of Suzhou, past Tiger Hill, to a panoramic view of the walled city, the sixth scroll depicts the Qianlong Emperor entering Suzhou on horseback, in preparation for riding the final leg of his journey to the Silk Commissioner's residence, where he was to spend the night, just as his grandfather did. The sixth scroll also shows the imperial barge of the Emperor’s mother, who accompanied him on his tour, being pulled along the Grand Canal on the outskirts of the city. During Qing times the Grand Canal was a major conduit for grain, salt, and other important commodities. Any taxes that were paid in kind were paid in grain, which was shipped along the Grand Canal. Thus, control of the Grand Canal was of critical importance to Qing rulers.

“Scroll Six follows the Grand Canal past a number of commercial streets where various trades people, stores, and restaurants showcase local products. The scroll shows that a number of temporary stages were erected for performances held in honor of the emperor, in order to entertain him and his mother as they pass along the Canal. The scroll also depicts several gardens, for which Suzhou was renowned. During the Qing period, much of what Europeans learned about China came from the reports of Jesuit missionaries, who had lived in China since the late 16th century and were enormously impressed with what they found in China during this time. The European interest in Chinese naturalistic gardens of this time may have contributed to the transformation of gardening in Europe.”

Qianlong and the Empress

Qianlong Emperor's Inspection of Water Control Measures at the Huai and Yellow Rivers

On the handscroll “The Qianlong Emperor Inspecting Water Control Measures at the Confluence of the Huai and Yellow Rivers,” Columbia University’s Asia for Educators reports: “Throughout history management of the empire's vast network of rivers, canals, and irrigation systems has been a fundamental task of China's rulers, while the threat of floods has been the greatest threat to economic and political stability. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn, Consultant, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]

“During the Qing dynasty, insuring that the Grand Canal remained passable for the transport of grain taxes and commercial goods from Southern China to Beijing, the capital in the north, was a paramount concern. The fourth scroll in the series recording the Qianlong Emperor's first southern inspection tour of 1751 depicts the emperor looking over the confluence of the muddy, yellow waters of the Yellow (Huang) River and the clear waters of the Huai River, which was the critical point in the entire water control network of Southern China.

“Until 1860 the Yellow River flowed south of the Shandong Peninsula toward the ocean, and before reaching the ocean, merged with the Huai River. That point of convergence was the place where flooding was most likely to occur, for the Yellow River carried so much silt that it was constantly filling up the river bed and was prone to overflowing its boundaries. Flood prevention here was essential, for if the Yellow River overflowed, it would flood much of the arable land in Southern China. Thus, the confluence of these two rivers was the center of a great deal of attention throughout the Qing dynasty, and enormous stone dikes and a number of complex waterways were built during this time to prevent flooding in this area.

Culture and Arts Under Qianlong Emperor

Qianlong and his children on New Year's Eve

The Qianglong Emperor loved the arts and presided over a period when the arts flourished. He painted and did calligraphy, collected jades, porcelain and bronzes, played a zitherlike instrument called the qin and wrote 44,000 poems and thousands of essays. In between that he found time to make 150 lengthy public relations tours of China and sign off on every edict issued by his government.

The Qianlong Emperor collected 1,000 dramas and novels from around the country and sponsored projects to catalogue and copy all surviving Chinese writing, a task that took 300 scholars and 3,600 scribes 10 year to complete and contained 4.2 million pages. But at the same time he destroyed almost as many books as he saved by banning and ordering the burning of books deemed anti-imperialist or morally or politically unfit.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Qianlong Emperor was a man of learning, a skilled poet and essayist with a deep and abiding interest in the arts. Driven by his unique artistic opinions and aesthetic taste, the Qianlong Emperor utilized his imperial status to direct and redefine the efforts of artists and artisans serving in the court. The products of this new direction, in their multifaceted diversity and unprecedented intricacy, bear the unmistakable mark of the Qianlong era. The Qianlong Emperor also showed an abiding interest in scholarly innovation, sponsoring the first ever translation of the Buddhist canon into Manchu and taking the unconventional step of commissioning the biographies of rebellious officials. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei ]

Zhao Xu wrote in the China Daily: "In line with Qianlong's taste for the grandiose, art under him tended towards the delicate and decorative, leaving behind a more elegant, simple style that characterized the reign of his father, Emperor Yongzheng. Yet Qianlong, not unlike his grandfather, the open-minded Emperor Kangxi, also drew on the services of foreign missionary artists who had adopted the three-point perspective in painting. "What Qianlong did was to let the foreign artist paint the face - as in one of his own portraitures - while allowing the Chinese painters to finish the rest of the work, including the folded clothing and the scenery beyond," Tian says. "Qianlong appreciated a pinch of realism, without letting it undermine that soothing, poetic mood of Chinese painting." [Source: Zhao Xu, China Daily, December 19, 2015]

Image Sources: Qianlong Emperor, Columbia University; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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