The def­er­ence and dili­gence of a royal heir

In Em­peror Qian­long’s 60 years on the throne he looked to his mother, his late fa­ther and his grand­fa­ther as guid­ing lights

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By ZHAO XU

Em­peror Qian­long was un­like most em­per­ors in Chi­nese his­tory, and in par­tic­u­lar his fa­ther Em­peror Yong Zheng, who had to wait for 44 years be­fore as­cend­ing to the throne, with bit­ter po­lit­i­cal strug­gles that ul­ti­mately ended in the demise of more than one of his brothers.

For Qian­long, the road to power could not have been smoother. When he was 12 he met his grand­fa­ther, the revered Em­peror Kangxi, for the first time. (Lit­tle sur­prise there, given that Kangxi had 24 adult sons and 97 grand­sons.) En­dear­ing him­self with the old man through a com­posed dis­po­si­tion rare in a teenage boy, Qian­long, by then known as Hongli (Qian­long was his reign ti­tle, and his birth name was Hongli Aisin-gioro, with Aisin-gioro be­ing the royal fam­ily’s sur­name), be­came the de facto crown prince af­ter the coro­na­tion of his fa­ther, Em­peror Yongzheng.

Yongzheng was on the throne for 13 years, dy­ing when he was 57. Qian­long suc­ceeded him, with ab­so­lutely no op­po­si­tion. And his mother, who started as one of Yongzheng’s low-level con­cu­bines, be­came the king mother, the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful woman.

The ex­hi­bi­tion at the Zhe­jiang Mu­seum closely ex­am­ines Qian­long’s six trips to south­east­ern China and sheds warm light on the re­la­tion­ships be­tween mem­bers of the royal fam­ily, re­la­tion­ships of­ten marked by ten­sion rather than ten­der­ness.

In fact, the trips were pos­si­ble mainly be­cause of the em­press dowa­ger, at least ac­cord­ing to Em­peror Qian­long. “In 1750, the year be­fore Qian­long’s first trip to Jiang­nan, he talked in pub­lic about his costly de­ci­sion, giv­ing four rea­sons, one of them be­ing to ful­fill his fil­ial duty.

“Qian­long de­fined his reign as ‘rule with fil­ial piety’. For 41 years, be­tween his as­cen­sion to the throne in 1736 and his mother’s death in 1777, he acted out his role as a son dili­gently and whole­heart­edly,” says Ma Sheng­nan of the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing. An ex­hi­bi­tion now on at the Zhe­jiang Mu­seum in Hangzhou, or­ga­nized in con­junc­tion with the Palace Mu­seum, of­fers a glimpse into the mother-son re­la­tion­ship.

On dis­play is a paint­ing by the em­peror him­self, de­pict­ing mag­no­lia and peach blos­soms. The images are sim­ple and the colors quiet. A few lines penned by the em­peror on the up­per right side say the paint­ing was made dur­ing his tour of Longjing in Hangzhou, cap­i­tal of what is now Zhe­jiang prov­ince. “Mother saw it and loved it. So I have had it mounted for her,” Qian­long wrote. That was in 1762, dur­ing his third trip to the south, a trip the em­press dowa­ger also went on.

The em­peror also tried to mem­o­rize the deeds of his fa­ther, Em­peror Yongzheng — or to em­u­late them in his own way. Yongzheng, to­day re­garded as the hardest-work­ing Qing em­peror, seems to have made “All work and no play” his per­sonal motto, sleep­ing no more than five hours a day, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial record.

And Yongzheng, like his fa­ther Em­peror Kangxi, paid great at­ten­tion to the build­ing of lev­ees along the Qiantang River that runs through Hangzhou. But it was only dur­ing the late reign of Qian­long that the nag­ging is­sue was put to rest.

Also dur­ing that third trip of his in 1762, Qian­long wrote a long ar­ti­cle of­fer­ing his own thoughts on build­ing lev­ees, based on field trips. Later he or­dered the in­scrip­tion of this ar­ti­cle on a stone stele stand­ing in a tem­ple ded­i­cated to the wa­ter god in Hain­ing county, about 60 kilo­me­ters from Hangzhou.

“By that time, the other side of the stele bore an­other in­scrip­tion, of an ar­ti­cle penned by Em­peror Yongzheng, also about build­ing lev­ees,” Le says.

To­day the stone stele is still there, with the writ­ings on both sides telling a story about con­tin­u­ous ef­fort and last­ing mem­ory.

How­ever, no one could take the place of Em­peror Kangxi, the grand­fa­ther who, af­ter see­ing Qian­long for the first time, de­cided to take the boy away and put him un­der his tute­lage, a tute­lage widely in­ter­preted as an ini­ti­a­tion into fu­ture king­hood. Kangxi died in 1722, eight months af­ter see­ing Qian­long for the first time in March that year.

Kangxi was 67 when he died, af­ter hav­ing been em­peror for more than 60 years. His grandson Qian­long en­joyed a much longer life, dy­ing when he was 88. How­ever, in a rare ges­ture to pay trib­ute to his grand­fa­ther, Qian­long ab­di­cated three years be­fore his death, in 1796, af­ter be­ing on the throne for ex­actly 60 years.

“What is not so well known is that Qian­long trav­eled to south­east­ern China six times and no more, pos­si­bly be­cause Em­peror Kangxi had been there six times,” Le says.

“It seems that Qian­long de­cided he was not go­ing to sur­pass his grand­fa­ther, in any con­trol­lable as­pect. He had taken upon him­self to make Kangxi the great­est em­peror of Chi­nese his­tory.”

Some­times the jour­ney seemed to have been ru­ined, at least in part. Qian­long’s fourth trip in 1765 saw the em­peror get­ting fu­ri­ous with his em­press: the un­for­tu­nate lady, who was made an em­press three years af­ter the death of Qian­long’s first wife, fell out of his fa­vor once and for all. (She was sent back to Bei­jing that very day, while the em­peror and his en­tourage jour­neyed on.) The em­press died the next year, fol­lowed by her son 10 years later.

No of­fi­cial record re­counts what hap­pened. Qian­long blamed the em­press for “cut­ting her hair and break­ing a na­tional taboo”. But for what? No one knew ex­actly. A wide­spread ru­mor was that the em­press alien­ated her­self from her hus­band by try­ing to stop him from tak­ing on more ro­mance on the road. This was never ver­i­fied, of course.

The em­press dowa­ger died in 1777, af­ter hav­ing ac­com­pa­nied her son four times dur­ing his south­bound jour­neys. For the last two trips, in 1780 and 1784, the em­peror was alone, with­out the mother whose death he mourned for the rest of his life, and with­out the wife he never for­gave. Of course there were many con­cu­bines, but none claimed a place in the em­peror’s heart in the way his mother and first wife did.

Dur­ing his sixth and fi­nal trip, the 73-year-old Qian­long wrote: “My travel ends here. Ev­ery­thing I am ex­pe­ri­enc­ing to­day will be mem­o­ries for to­mor­row.”


Clock­wise from top left: The tem­ple ded­i­cated to wa­ter god in Hain­ing county, Zhe­jiang; a stone stele in the tem­ple, its two stones in­scribed with ar­ti­cles writ­ten by Em­peror Qian­long and his fa­ther Em­peror Yongzheng, both on levee con­struc­tion;...

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