Qianlong Emperor

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  • Born: 1711
  • Died: 1799
  • Reign: 1735-1796
  • Other Names: 弘曆 (Hónglì)
  • Chinese/Japanese: 乾隆帝 (Qiánlóng dì / Kenryuu tei)

The Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty ruled over one of the longest and most prosperous reigns of late imperial China. Comprising the better part of the 18th century, the Qianlong reign saw numerous significant political, economic, social, and cultural events.

He was born at the Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing, where his father the Yongzheng Emperor was resident at the time; this temple accordingly later gained considerable Qing patronage and rose in prominence and importance, becoming an alternate center for all of Tibetan Buddhism.[1]

Qianlong succeeded his father to the throne in 1735.

During his reign, he attempted to better unite the two Qing bureaucracies of the banners (Mongols, Manchus, and "military" Chinese) and Han Chinese, by requiring members of the banners to take exams in classical Chinese, and not only in Mongol or Manchu. Though deeply committed to Chinese scholarly and cultural traditions, however, Qianlong was also very active in championing Manchu identity, and embracing Tibetan Buddhism, expanding the Imperial compound at Chengde and transforming it into a religious center in the Tibetan mode.

Over the course of his reign, Qianlong also engaged in a number of military adventures, known as the Ten Great Campaigns. These included, in 1789, a Chinese intervention into Vietnamese succession disputes which ended in the Chinese being expelled from Vietnam. They also included six "tours" of the south, in 1751, 1757, 1762, 1765, 1780, and 1784, in emulation of those made by his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor. Though generally seen as a matter of political theater and spectacle, to allow the emperor to be seen, and to thus drum up feelings of support for the emperorship, some scholars of the "New Qing History" movement represent these tours as military expeditions, designed to awe southern peoples into submission through a show of (the threat of) force.[2]

On his 80th birthday in 1790, the emperor invited theatre troupes to perform at the palace. This occasion is oft-cited as representing the origins of jingju (Beijing opera).

In 1793, Qianlong famously granted an audience to British ambassador George Lord Macartney, leader of the first formal British embassy to China. Though it is commonly believed that Macartney refused to kowtow to the Emperor, and that for that reason the mission was unsuccessful in establishing more open trade relations, scholars have argued that the failure of the mission was more the result of competing and incompatible worldviews. In short, Britain was not willing to be a tributary state within China's Imperial system, and China was not willing to see Britain as an equal, or superior, in a world of nation-states.

Qianlong abdicated in 1796 in favor of his son, who then took the throne as the Jiaqing Emperor.

Patron of the Arts

He was an avid art collector, and can be credited for amassing a great many of the most famous treasures which today comprise the former Imperial collection.[3] Many of the most famous works in Chinese art history passed through his hands, and bear colophons (commentaries or poetic responses) by the Qianlong Emperor, along with his seals (with multiple seals often used on the same painting, marking not only his ownership, but his appreciation of the work).

He also patronized Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit missionary and artist, appointing him court painter, and encouraging experimentation with incorporating Western artistic techniques (e.g. perspective, realistic light & shadow, realistic detail) into traditional Chinese painting. He commissioned Castiglione in 1737 to design a number of pavilions for the Imperial gardens; with the help of other Jesuit artists, architects, and the like, he saw the Yuanmingyuan (aka the Old Summer Palace) dramatically expanded in 1736-1753. This expansion of the Old Summer Palace marked the first full realization at the Imperial gardens of Chinese gardens in the style of Southern China.[4]

Qianlong also commissioned 15,000 scribes to compile a collection of classics, history, letters, and philosophy known as the Four Treasures, a work which took fifteen years to complete.[5]

Preceded by
Yongzheng Emperor
Emperor of Qing
Succeeded by
Jiaqing Emperor


  1. Waley-Cohen, Joanna. “The New Qing History.” Radical History Review 88, no. 1 (2004): 199.
  2. Chang, Michael G. A Court on Horseback: Imperial Touring and the Construction of Qing Rule, 1680-1785. Harvard University Asia Center, 2007, 3n11.; Waley-Cohen, Joanna. “The New Qing History.” Radical History Review 88, no. 1 (2004), 201.
  3. Now divided between the Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
  4. Chi Xiao, Chinese Garden as Lyric Enclave, Center for Chinese Studies, Univ. of Michigan (2001), 77.
  5. Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 115.