Ch'ien-lung (1711-1799) was the fourth emperor of the Ch'ing, or Manchu, dynasty in China. His rule covered a span of 63 years, a reign longer than any other in the recorded history of China, dating back to the Shang dynasty, 1766-1122 B.C.
In the reign of Ch'ien-lung the Ch'ing dynasty reached its zenith and began the downward spiral that was to culminate in the Revolution of 1911, which marked the final demise of imperial China. The signs of impending collapse, however, were only dimly perceived during the late 18th century, and for the most part the Ch'ien-lung reign was characterized by courtly splendor, prodigious accomplishments in literary compilations, and vigorous expansion of the Chinese frontiers to the west and the south.
Ch'ien-lung was born Hung-li on September 25, 1711, the fourth son of the energetic and suspicious Yung-cheng and the grandson of the illustrious K'ang-his emperor. Ch'ien-lung's mother, the empress Hsiao-sheng, was descended from one of the most influential Manchu families and had been one of Yung-cheng's imperial concubines. Ch'ien-lung remained exceptionally devoted to his mother throughout her life, giving her the title of empress in 1735.
His Model and Training
Ch'ien-lung's great hero was his grandfather, K'ang-hsi. When Ch'ien-lung was still a boy, K'ang-hsi admired the young prince and selected a prominent scholar to assist Ch'ien-lung in his studies of literature. The Emperor is reported to have selected Yung-cheng as his successor partly because he hoped that Ch'ien-lung might eventually hold the throne of the Ch'ing dynasty. After Ch'ien-lung became emperor, he paid great respect to his dead grandfather, modeling many of his own policies after those of K'ang-hsi and even curtailing his reign after 60 years so that it would not officially exceed tht of K'ang-hsi.
Ch'ien-lung and his brother, neither knowing which would become emperor, were subjected to identical educations at the Palace School for Princes. Here, with the assistance of Chinese and Manchu tutors, they studied Chinese classical literature and philosophy, the reigns of the great Chinese emperors of the past, the techniques of administration, and the behavior expected of emperors. They also learned the martial arts of the Manchu tradition, and Ch'ien-lung is reputed to have been a competent horseman and archer. Ch'ien-lung also gained some practical experience in court affairs, occasionally substituting for his father in ritual functions.
Apex of Manchu Hegemony
Since the problem of imperial succession had caused severe feuds in the early 1720s and at other points in the early Ch'ing period, Yung-cheng wrote the name of his successor on paper and sealed it in a box not to be opened until his death. Ch'ien-lung therefore did not know that he was his father's choice until the box was unsealed.
On October 7, 1735, the day before Yung-cheng died, it was announced that Ch'ien-lung, then only 24, was to become emperor of China. He inherited the great Manchu dream for China: the expansion of the realm, the establishment of a harmonious Manchu-Chinese polity and society, and the creation of a stable and prosperous economy. Throughout his regime Ch'ien-lung relied heavily on high officials in the imperial bureaucracy, whom he selected as trusted advisers and informal confidants. Among his early aides were O-er-t'ai, a very competent Manchu official who had distinguished himself in provincial administration in South China, and Chang T'ing-yu, a Chinese bureaucrat of exceptional talents who had been a close associate of Ch'ien-lung's father and whose knowledge of Chinese politics proved useful to the young emperor.
Though he continued to depend on his advisers, Ch'ien-lung energetically took much of the administration into his own hands. Like his grandfather, Ch'ien-lung sought direct and personal information about affairs within the empire, and he thus received secret reports from provincial officials on matters relating to local disorder, famines and droughts, tax collection, and corruption in the local administration. He also followed his grandfather's example of making several tours of the empire to provide a break from the rigorous Peking routine, to impress the people of China with the Emperor's concern for their well-being, and most important, to check on local conditions in person.
Expansion of the Realm
Under the guidance of Ch'ien-lung several successful expansionist military expeditions were carried out along the western and southern frontiers. In the 1750s the Manchu general Chao-hui marched his troops deep into Chinese Turkestan. By this series of campaigns Ch'ing control was extended through the Tarim Basin to an area which encompassed Lake Balkhash and the Ili River and southward to the great Pamir mountain range. Ch'ien-lung also established a protectorate over Tibet, insisting that the Dalai Lama govern through four ministers under the supervision of imperially appointed Ch'ing officials and a garrison of Chinese troops.
During the latter half of the 18th century Ch'ien-lung inaugurated several other military forays into Burma, Nepal, and Vietnam. In 1788, for example, Ch'ing troops invaded Vietnam as far as Hanoi. Although the Chinese soon were ousted by rebel troops, Ch'ing influence in Vietnam remained strong during the 19th century until the French conquest of Indochina in the 1880s.
Patron of the Arts
Ch'ien-lung is well known in Chinese history as one of the greatest imperial patrons of arts and letters. The Emperor was a connoisseur of art and literature and often dabbled in painting and calligraphy as well as composing prose and poetry. He expanded the Old Summer Palace outside the city of Peking as a complex of architectural monuments, lavish gardens, and art museums.
Ch'ien-lung also initiated the greatest literary compilation project in Chinese history, "The Complete Library of the Four Treasuries." Comprising some 36,000 volumes of philosophy, history, and literature, it took almost 20 years to complete and involved thousands of officials and clerks. In creating the "Four Treasuries," Ch'ien-lung sought not only to preserve the best of the Chinese written tradition but also to weed out works which contained passages disrespectful to the Manchus. In Ch'ien-lung's "literary inquisition" of the 1770s and 1780s, over 2,000 such works were banned or destroyed.
Beginning of Decline
In the last two decades of the Ch'ien-lung reign, signs of internal decay began to appear in Ch'ing China. The Emperor, always intolerant of criticism, allowed his last chief minister, the corrupt and extravagant Ho-shen, to undermine court finances in spite of the protests of several officials. Secondly, the Chinese economy as a whole began to crumble in the late 18th century as the population rapidly increased to about 300 million, placing a great strain on the already heavily farmed arable land.
Thirdly, the dynamic military forces of the Ch'ing which had brought the Manchus to power and had consolidated their control over China, became effete as the soldiers turned to a more passive and sedentary existence with stipends from the government. When the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804) occurred, the dynasty was forced to turn to peasant soldiers to suppress the rebels in central and southern China, since the regular army lacked the necessary strength and morale.
One problem that seemed rather insignificant to the Chinese court at the end of the Ch'ien-lung reign was the growth of Western economic imperialism. In 1793, when the Earl of Macartney had an audience with Ch'ien-lung on the matter of expanding trade relations, the elderly emperor confidently dictated an edict to George III of England. He announced that the Chinese Empire was entirely self-sufficient and had no need for "any more of your country's manufactures."
After a "retirement" of three years (1796-1799), during which Ho-shen continued to dominate the imperial court on the emperor's behalf, Ch'ien-lung died on February 7, 1799, His son, Ch'ia-ch'ing, succeeded him; well intentioned, he was a far less competent ruler than his father.
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