The Qianlong Emperor
(r. 1736-1795)


 
When the sun stands at midday, it begins to set; when the moon is full it begins to wane. The fullness and emptiness of heaven and earth wane and wax in the course of time. How much truer is this of men, or of spirits and gods! [SMC, 99]
 

 
 
Expansion to the West
Qianlong’s most important achievement was the conquest and integration of huge areas of western territory — the region later known as Xinjiang, the “New Territories” — into the Chinese state. By doing this he doubled the territorial extent of China, finally ended the Zunghar troubles, and fixed a firm western border with Russia to go along with the northern borders settled by treaties at Nerchinsk and Kiakhta. The achievement of this vast task took much time and money, and was linked (as it had been in Kangxi’s and Yongzheng’s time) to the progress of campaigns in western Sichuan and northeastern Tibet. [SMC, 95]
 
 
Qing Confucianism
If questioned, Qianlong would surely have insisted that he presided over a Confucian system of government with Confucian means, and there were many ways in which he could have justified such a claim: the works of Confucius were regarded by the emperor and his officials as the key repositories of ethical wisdom; the Confucian Classics formed the basic curriculum in schools and were central to the competitive state examination system; Confucian values of loyalty and filial piety bonded officials to rulers and children to parents, just as lectures on Confucian topics by scholars and officials in the countryside were aimed at unifying the populace in obedience to the state. [SMC, 100]
 
 
To preserve the greatness of Chinese culture, Qianlong ... ordered a massive compilation to be made of the most famous literary and historical works of the past. Known as the Four Treasuries from its four main components of classics, histories, philosophy, and miscellaneous literary works, this was not just a selection of passages on given topics, as was the Gujin tushu jicheng, (the encyclopedia brought forth under Qianlong’s grandfather and father); rather, it was a complete anthology, with learned introductions, into which the works selected were copied in their entirety. The assembling of this collection, which ended up comprising 3,450 complete works and commentaries on 6,750 others, filled 36,000 manuscript volumes and took ten years to complete. It is one of the great achievements of Chinese bibliography. [SMC, 98-9]
 
Yet “Confucianism” was constantly changing as accretions were adopted or swept away. In the eighteenth century, the doctrine began to develop in new directions, paralleling changes in the society and the economy. ... By the time of Qianlong, many scholars had begun to find a new security not so much in particular texts as in a methodology. This methodology, which they called kaozheng, has been usefully translated as “practicing evidential research,” because it involved the meticulous evaluation of data based on rigorous standards of precision. Kaozheng scholars sought to get away from speculation altogether, to root their studies in “hard facts.” They devoted their energies to studies in linguistics, mathematics, astronomy, and geography, confident that these would lead to greater certainty about what the true words and intentions of China’s ancient sages had been and, hence, to a better understanding of how to live in the present. ... Yan Ruoju [applied such] techniques to collating the chronology and linguistic structures of part of the Confucian classic of historical documents. His conclusions, though circulated only in manuscript until the 1740s, had a shattering effect on many intellectuals of the time. Yan proved, with carefully marshaled evidence, that several sections of this major work (on which generations of state examination questions had been based) were a later forgery and thus did not deserve the reverence that scholars ascribed to it.

By the 1740s the examinations as a whole were coming under attack as sterile exercises that failed to select the finest scholars for office, and Yan’s work heightened this sense of state Confucianism’s weakness. Social tensions further undermined confidence in this system, for by the mid-eighteenth century the state had not increased quotas of examination candidates proportionately to the rise in China’s population. The consequent pressure on students and the difficulties of finding employment even if one passed the exams brought frustration and disillusionment to many members of the educated elite. [SMC, 100-1]
 
More and more often, magistrates kept the local taxation surpluses to themselves rather than forwarding them to the provincial financial commissioner. The old abuses of extra fees, payments, and illegal surcharges crept back in. The Ministry of Revenue slowly instituted a system by which every item of local expenditure had to be approved by members of its Peking staff before the money could be spent. This led to an avalanche of paper work and an absurd system in which trivial matters were held up for years and important ones never got done at all. One Ministry of Revenue document of this time from the capital province of Hebei shows that provincial officials had to clear such items as 48 taels to pay some guards on a bridge, 105 taels for sailors’ wages, and 12 taels as pension allowance for two widows. [SMC, 97]
 
 

A Tale of Two Novels
“Truth Becomes Fiction When the Fiction’s True”
The Dream of the Red Chamber, China’s greatest novel, was written in the middle of Emperor Qianlong’s reign. The author, Cao Xueqin, was descended from one of the Chinese bannerman-bondservants who had enjoyed wealth and influence as a favorite of Emperor Kangxi. But the Cao family, which had lived for years on a grand scale in Nanjing, was subsequently punished for dishonesty and incompetence by Emperor Yongzheng and suffered confiscation of most of its holdings. ... Cao has a serious purpose in writing the novel, ... [which can] tell us much about the grandeur of Qing society in the mid-eighteenth century, and about its underside. [SMC, 104-5]
 

In the realm of family structure, Cao Xueqin points to the immense power of the father over his children, especially on questions of their moral growth and education. ... So terrible is the father’s anger that the mere mention of it reduces the son to abject fear. ... Similarly, generational hierarchies give Jia Baoyu prestige over younger siblings or cousins, while forcing him to defer to those older than he.

In political terms, the Jias are powerful not just because a member of their family is a consort to the emperor, or because they hold high office in the bureaucracy and undertake imperial commissions. Their real power is local, in that they can use their prestige to bend the judicial systems to their advantage. Any county magistrate knows better than to prosecute one of the Jias or their friends — it would be more than his job is worth. The family is thus subject to a kind of corrupting influence, which leads its younger members to believe they can break the law with impunity, even to the extent of hushing up homicides in which family members have been involved. This political power is potentially self-perpetuating, since the web of princely friends and the patterns of examination success will propel the younger men of the lineage into positions of influence, and the young women of the family into powerful marriages.

Economically, the Jia family can call on resources that would be beyond the imagination of most Chinese families. Their home is full of silver bullion, bolts of silk, paintings, and scrolls. Their grounds and buildings are spacious, and their coffers constantly replenished with the rents brought by loyal bailiffs from urban holdings and from far-off farms that the Jias own as absentee landlords. They indulge in profitable business deals of great complexity, and gain additional income from carrying out imperial commissions and acquiring exotic goods from merchants who trade with Western countries. They also have scores of indentured servants, male and female, who perform all duties in the family compound and act as retainers whenever the Jias go outside the walls. ...

Finally, in the realm of sexuality, there are few limitations on the behavior of the Jia family members. ... Both men and women use their powers in the family hierarchy to obtain their sexual pleasures. Jealousy goes with adultery, love affairs lead to murders. Servants and bondslaves become sexual objects and are powerless to protest except by flight or suicide. ... Novice nuns or young male actors are also caught up in the patterns of seduction and deceit, and even in the schoolroom, where Confucian precepts are allegedly being internalized, homosexual liaisons flourish among the young male scholars. [SMC, 105-7]

The Scholars (Rulin waishi) was probably written between 1740 and 1750. An example of the mode of satirical realism in Chinese literature, the novel captures the moods and tensions of everyday life in Qing China. Like the contemporaneous works of Henry Fielding, The Scholars provides a witty portrait of the pretensions and hypocrisies of society.
       The author, Wu Jingzi (1701-1754), was the son of a noted family from Anhui. Despite repeated attempts for higher achievements, he succeeded only in obtaining the xiucai, the lowest examination title. In his own village Wu was apparently denigrated as a ne’er-do-well. In 1733 he left for Nanjing where in his middle and later years he lived in somewhat straitened circumstances, in the company of other “failed” scholars.
       Frustrated and disillusioned, Wu Jingzi drew upon his own experiences and those of his friends to attack the suffocating formalism and false social hierarchies produced by the examinations system. In “Fan Jin Passes the Juren Examination,” he shows how a scorned middle-aged scholar is drastically elevated in the esteem of his neighbors when he passes the provincial-level exam. This chapter of the novel is frequently anthologized because of the clarity of its style and the powerful swipes it takes at the myths and false ideals of the examination system. [DC, 54]
 
Commissioner Zhou sat in the hall and watched the candidates crowding in. There were young and old, handsome and homely, smart and shabby men among them. The last candidate to enter was thin and sallow, had a grizzled beard, and was wearing an old felt hat. Guangdong has a warm climate; still, this was the twelfth month, and yet this candidate had on a linen gown only, so he was shivering with cold as he took his paper and went to his cell. Zhou Jin made a mental note of this before sealing up their doors. ... “You are Fan Jin, aren’t you?”
       Kneeling, Fan Jin answered, “Yes, Your Excellency.”
       “How old are you this year?”
       “I gave my age as thirty. Actually I am fifty-four.”
       “How many times have you taken the examination?”
       “I first went for it when I was twenty, and I have taken it over twenty times since then.”
       “How is it you have never passed!”
       “My essays are too poor,” replied Fan Jin, “so none of the honorable examiners will pass me.”
       “That may not be the only reason,” said Commissioner Zhou. “Leave your paper here, and I will read it through carefully.”
       ... Commissioner Zhou picked up Fan Jin’s essay and read it through. But he was disappointed. ... Then he read Fan Jin’s paper again. This time he gave a gasp of amazement. “Even I failed to understand this paper the first two times I read it!” he exclaimed. “But, after reading it for the third time, I realize it is the most wonderful essay in the world 
— every word a pearl. This shows how often bad examiners must have suppressed real genius.” Hastily taking up his brush, he carefully drew three circles on Fan Jin’s paper, marking it as first. ...
 
 
Wei Haogu invited him to meet some other fellow candidates, and since it was the year for the provincial examination they held a number of literary meetings. Soon it was the end of the sixth month. Fan Jin’s fellow candidates asked him to go with them to the provincial capital for the examination, but he had no money for the journey. He went to ask his father-in-law for help. Butcher Hu spat in his face, and poured out a torrent of abuse. “Don’t be a fool!” he roared. “Just passing one examination has turned your head completely — you’re like a toad trying to swallow a swan! And I hear that you scraped through not because of your essay, but because the examiner pitied you for being so old. Now, like a fool, you want to pass the higher examination and become an official. But do you know who those officials are? They are all stars in heaven! ... You look like a monkey, yet you want to become an official. Come off it! Next year I shall find a teaching job for you with one of my friends so that you can make a few taels of silver to support that old, never-dying mother of yours and your wife — and it’s high time you did! ... The butcher went on cursing at full blast, till Fan Jin’s head spun.
       When [Fan Jin] got home again, he thought to himself, “Commissioner Zhou said that I showed maturity. And, from ancient times till now, who ever passed the first examination without going in for the second? I shan’t rest easy till I’ve taken it.” So he asked his fellow candidates to help him, and went to the city, without telling his father-in-law, to take the examination. ...
The day the results came out there was nothing to eat in the house, and Fan Jin’s mother told him, “Take that hen of mine to the market and sell it; then buy a few measures of rice to make gruel. I’m faint with hunger.” ... He had only been gone an hour or so, when gongs sounded and three horsemen galloped up. They alighted, tethered their horses to the shed, and called out, “Where is the honorable Mr. Fan? We have come to congratulate him on passing the provincial examination.” ...
 
 
When they reached Fan Jin’s house, Butcher Hu shouted: “The master is back!” The old lady came out to greet them, and was overjoyed to find her son no longer mad. The heralds, she told them, had already been sent off with the money that Butcher Hu had brought. Fan Jin bowed to his mother and thanked his father-in-law, making Butcher Hu so embarrassed that he muttered, “That bit of money was nothing.”
       After thanking the neighbor too, Fan Jin was just going to sit down when a smart-looking retainer hurried in, holding a big red card, and announced, “Mr. Zhang has come to pay his respects to the newly successful Mr. Fan.”
       By this time the sedan-chair was already at the door. Butcher Hu dived into his daughter’s room and dared not come out, while the neighbors scattered in all directions. Fan Jin went out to welcome the visitor, who was one of the local gentry, and Mr. Zhang alighted from the chair and came in. He was wearing an official’s gauze cap, sunflower-colored gown, gilt belt, and black shoes. He was a provincial graduate and had served as a magistrate in his time. ...
 
 
After a glance round the room, Mr. Zhang remarked, “Sir, you are certainly frugal.” He took from his servant a packet of silver, and stated, “I have brought nothing to show my respect except these fifty taels of silver, which I beg you to accept. Your honorable home is not good enough for you, and it will not be very convenient when you have many callers. I have an empty house on the main street by the east gate, which has three courtyards with three rooms in each. Although it is not big, it is quite clean. Allow me to present it to you. When you move there, I can profit by your instruction more easily.” Fan Jin declined many times, but Mr. Zhang pressed him. ... Then Fan Jin accepted the silver and expressed his thanks. ... True enough, many people came to Fan Jin after that and made him presents of land and shops; while some poor couples came to serve him in return for his protection. In two or three months he had manservants and maidservants, to say nothing of money and rice. When Mr. Zhang came again to urge him, he moved into the new house; and for three days he entertained guests with feasts and operas. [DC, 55-63]
 
 
In public pronouncements, Qianlong prided himself on his sagacity as a coordinator of military campaigns. ... But a campaign against Burma in the 1760s was badly mismanaged, in sharp contrast to the efficacy with which Wu Sangui had pursued the last Ming prince in the same region a century before. And the brief war that China waged against Vietnam in 1788 and 1789 throws a sharp light on the inadequacies of Qing policy. ... These long-range campaigns against foreign states were conducted in an unsettling context of indigenous rebellions, which began to occur in different parts of the Chinese Empire during the later eighteenth century. ...
Can one link these outbreaks to specific Manchu policies that alienated the people? The evidence is not clear on this, but it is certain that in the late eighteenth century many Qing government institutions began to falter: the emergency granaries were often empty, sections of the Grand Canal silted up, regular banner troops behaved with incompetence or brutality, efforts to stop ecologically dangerous land-reclamation projects were abandoned, the bureaucracy was faction-ridden, and corruption ran deep. [SMC, 109-12]