Tuesday, March 19, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 13: The Great Qianlong Emperor and the Pinnacle of the Qing Dynasty

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments

6 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff discusses the peak and first declining years of China’s last dynasty: the Qing.
Modern China (black border) and the Qing dynasty's maximum extent
The Economics Correspondent has already written about the declines of several Chinese dynasties: the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Southern Song, Yuan, and Ming. But the decline of the Qing will take several posts… and for good reason.

Not only does the fall of the Qing take us into the early 20th century, not only does it foment the conditions that would produce decades of revolution, invasion, and civil war ending with communist victory in 1949, but the dark days of the Qing’s decline still linger in the minds of many Chinese (quite bitterly I might add).

And today, to stir the up the flames of nationalism and anger against the USA and UK, CCP propaganda openly blames China’s “century of humiliation” (approx. 1839-1949) entirely on western imperialism.
The Correspondent’s task, therefore, is not only to chronicle the details of the Qing’s decline, and not only to agree where the West played a part in China’s fall from power, but also to point out where the Qing dynasty brought both itself and China down—a subject that isn’t discussed very much within China and, whenever mentioned by westerners, frequently generates a lot of angry nationalist backlash and resentment.

But we’ll start with the historical record.


The dominant figure in the story of the Qing’s pinnacle is the great Qianlong emperor (pronounced “chien-long”).

Yes we've just discussed another great emperor in two previous articles, Kangxi, but the first half of the Qing was fortunate to have three consecutive great emperors—Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong—who collectively ruled for 138 years.

Kangxi held the throne for 61 years (1661-1722) and Qianlong for another 60 (late 1735-early 1796). However out of respect Qianlong abdicated one year short of surpassing his grandfather. Still, he held the real power for the three more years before his death while the crown prince ruled in name only. Therefore Kangxi officially held the throne for longer than any emperor in Chinese history, but Qianlong held de facto power even longer.

Between the two venerable emperors was Kangxi’s son, the Yongzheng emperor.

Serious Chinese academic scholars never tire of reminding the public “don’t forget about Yongzheng” because, at only thirteen years on the throne, his reign was relatively short and tends to be overlooked.
The Correspondent is not going to spend much time on Yongzheng because, while he implemented many important reforms, there aren’t many fireworks in his story.

In a nutshell Yongzheng was an extremely hard working emperor who focused ceaselessly on stamping out corruption and improving China’s economy. Scholars point out when Qianlong succeeded his father he was handed the perfect hand of cards: a smoothly running kingdom with a strong economy and low corruption. Ethnic Han Chinese even began to view the Manchus, initially hated as alien conquerors, as legitimate rulers of the empire.

Unfortunately Yongzheng made the same mistake with his health that the salient emperor Qin Shi Huang had made back in 210 BC: drinking an elixir of immortality that contained mercury. In the 1,945 years that had passed since Qin Shih Huang’s death medicine had still not yet recognized mercury’s dangers so Yongzheng died in 1735 at age 56.

One last Yongzheng reform was the creation of a new procedure to determine his successor. Yongzheng had seen disputes erupt over not only his own succession, but countless times throughout Chinese history where brothers assassinated one another, went to war, or forged wills to inherit power. Hence he developed the “Secret Designation of the Crown Prince” system whereby his choice for heir to the throne was written down on several documents which were locked in different sealed boxes, and the boxes were stored for safekeeping by trusted officials in different locations—as well as one kept by Yongzheng himself.

After Yongzheng died the secret designation boxes were opened and the documents all matched: Yongzheng’s fourth son would take the throne peacefully as the Qianlong emperor. 


As we’ve already mentioned Qianlong was handed the equivalent of a royal flush in poker when he took power. And for several decades he ran the empire quite effectively.

His most notable accomplishments included opening up land in the northeast Manchurian homelands to Han Chinese farmers who in turn ballooned food production to new heights. In the century from 1700 to 1800 the Chinese population increased by 106%, from 160 million to 330 million.

Qianlong also re-annexed the remote Xinjiang region into the empire. The Correspondent has already chronicled details of how China ruled over Xinjiang for nearly four on-again, off-again centuries during the Han (202 BC-220 AD), Tang (618-907), and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. Link to that entry at:


In the 18th century the Qing was actually invited into Xinjiang by a warring Dzungar Mongol khan named Amursana (1755). 

Amursana was losing a power struggle with a rival khan and promised to serve as a vassal governor to China if the Qing would help him win the conflict. The messy details of the Qing’s entry into Xinjiang are also in the comments link, but China has stayed in the region ever since. 

With the annexation of Xinjiang Qianlong expanded China’s already extensive borders to the widest expanse ever in the country’s long history.

A map is included with this article comparing present-day China’s geographic size (black border) to its Qing maximum (all dark and light brown regions). 

As the Qing’s decline accelerated in the 19th and early 20th centuries neighboring states began to chip away at China’s exterior, taking territories in what is now Mongolia, pieces of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Taiwan.


Hence the subject of border territories brings us to Qianlong’s first great blunder: he waged far too many wars at home and against his neighbors—known as the “Ten Great Campaigns”—which proved incredibly expensive.

Three of the great campaigns took place in Xinjiang (1755-59) which we’ve already touched on. There were two military campaigns in the western mountains of Sichuan province (1747-49, 1771-76), one suppression of an aboriginal Taiwanese revolt (1787-88), one campaign against Burma (1765-69), one in Vietnam (1788-89), and two against Nepal (1790-92).

Of the ten campaigns, only five could be considered successful with Burma and Vietnam being unambiguous military disasters. The Correspondent once read (but he can’t remember where) that China has fought wars with Vietnam 22 times and lost 18 of them, most recently in 1979.

After losing the Qing declared victory before packing up and going home. However the cost of the ten campaigns was enormous at an estimated 151 million silver taels. To put this into perspective Qianlong’s grandfather Kangxi had reformed the economy and boosted the imperial treasury’s reserves from 15 million taels in 1668 to 33 million taels in 1722. Qianlong burned through nearly five times that amount for wars alone.

To finance his military expeditions Qianlong ordered taxes raised steeply across the empire which created much resentment. Han Chinese who had tentatively accepted Qing rule due to the good economy reversed course after the burden of higher taxes. Many resumed hating the alien Qing when they were also squeezed by the return of corrupt government officials (a lot more on that in the next chapter).

Although many Han Chinese weren’t prepared to openly rebel, the final years of Qianlong’s reign marked the founding of many “secret societies” or underground resistance groups plotting to overthrow the Qing.

Although we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, once the Qing was overthrown in 1912 the secret societies lost their original raison d’etre and turned to organized crime, transforming themselves into the famous mafia “triads” of the 20th century. One famous secret society, the Green Gang of Shanghai, was frequently recruited by Chiang Kai-Shek to do his dirty work including the violent purge of Chinese communists in 1927.

After 1949 the CCP cracked down hard on the triads which continued to operate out of British Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. But once China reopened its economy the triads reestablished a mainland presence. There are even rumors of triads working hand-in-hand with CCP government officials today.

Nevertheless, an interesting piece of trivia is most of the notorious 20th and 21st century Chinese triads were started as anti-Qing societies during the earliest years of the dynasty's decline.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.