The 3 Great Qing Emperors
The Qing emperors (1644 to 1911) formed the last of the successive dynasties of China. As “alien” rulers, the Manchus inherited and adopted the cultural norms and political institutions of the previous Han Chinese Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), at the same time maintaining their own Northeast Asian military organization, customs, and language. After consolidating their power within the former Ming boundaries, the Manchu emperors extended the territory of the empire to include Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan.
During the 18th century, China experienced almost unprecedented peace and prosperity. The population expanded, and the agricultural and commercial economies developed. In the 19th century, however, internal unrest was compounded by foreign aggression. The strong emperors of the 17th and 18th centuries were succeeded by less able descendents who were unable to cope with the cataclysmic events that followed in quick succession.
Three great emperors presided over the high period of Qing rule: the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662 to 1722), the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723 to 1735), and the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736 to 1795). Together their reigns spanned a century and a half.
(r. 1662 to 1722)
(r. 1723 to 1735)
(r. 1736 to 1795)
|The Palace Museum, Beijing
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The Kangxi emperor (r. 1662 to 1722) was the second emperor of the dynasty, but was in fact its consolidating founder. He was a man of energy and vision, possessed a great intellectual curiosity, and embodied both the literary and the martial qualities that were valued in a Chinese emperor. As a martial emperor, he put down remaining internal rebellions in the southwest in order to secure Qing rule. He was untiring in the effort to overcome the menace of Mongol tribes in the area to the northwest of the Great Wall, personally leading troops into battle as late as the 1690s.
In order to familiarize himself with the central and southern parts of China, Kangxi made six royal tours to the Jiangnan area, the center of literati culture, beautiful scenery, and abundant agriculture. These tours also served the purpose of winning the allegiance of the Han Chinese elites of the south. After the second tour in 1689, Kangxi commissioned a series of 12 immense scroll paintings to commemorate his travels and each of the major cities and sites he visited.
Kangxi also took care to present himself as a literary emperor, well-educated in Chinese culture. He was diligent in his study of Chinese literature and classics, sponsored the collection of a great library, and liked to have himself painted as a scholar in his studio. The court artists of such portraits, formal and informal, were usually unidentified.
Although the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723 to 1735) ascended the throne under circumstances that aroused suspicion, he nevertheless proved to be an extremely diligent and able ruler. Unlike his father, who liked to ride and hunt, Yongzheng devoted himself to administration of the empire. Historians consider that his greatest accomplishments were in the realm of strengthening governmental institutions and practices.
Following the examples of his illustrious grandfather and strong father, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736 to 1795) further strengthened the empire. In the first half of his long reign, he achieved good governance of the provinces and witnessed unprecedented economic prosperity. His last decades, on the other hand, were characterized by internal disturbances, bureaucratic corruption, and his own personal failings that allowed power to fall into the hands of a palace guardsman, He Shen, who amassed tremendous wealth.
The Forbidden City
The Qing emperors established their capital at Beijing and ruled from the Forbidden City, the palace complex that had been built by a Ming emperor in the 1420s at the same location where the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279 to 1368) had built its palace and capital. Today, the Forbidden City is run as a national museum that symbolizes both the present-day power of Beijing and the imperial past. The Forbidden City was the center of ceremonies and residence of the imperial family and servants including eunuchs. It was the innermost city of a series of nested cities, each defined by a set of walls. Surrounding it was the Imperial City, with government offices and the residences of some princes and officials. Surrounding this was the remainder of the Inner City, where the Manchu bannermen had their separate headquarters. South of this entire Inner City complex was the Outer City, where ordinary Han Chinese resided and worked, and where commerce and entertainment flourished.
The many walls and gates that surrounded each of these “cities” delineated the segregation of society by rank and function. The imposing formal reception halls of the Forbidden City were located at the front of the complex, while in the rear the space was divided into numerous complexes housing the empresses, imperial women, and servants.
Entry to the Forbidden City was highly restricted. Its vast spaces, massive public halls, and multiple gates were meant to inspire a sense of awe. Envoys or high officials approaching the Hall of Supreme Harmony could not fail to understand their subordination to imperial authority. Even today the distance tourists must walk from the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the south to the northernmost gate or exit conveys an overwhelming impression of what imperial power meant.
The Qing Emperors as Builders
The private courtyards, pavilions, gardens, and residences were constantly expanded, renovated, or redesigned under the successive emperors. The Qianlong emperor was an avid builder within the Forbidden City and elsewhere in Beijing and the capital area. The Empress Dowager Cixi, who held a great deal of power in the late-19th century, resided there when she served as regent for her nephew and grandnephew, and oversaw new construction and decoration. Although they tirelessly built new temples, private residences, and other structures within Beijing, the emperors also sought to leave the confinement of the Forbidden City and the unpleasant summer climate of the capital. Each summer, for example, Kangxi escaped north of the Great Wall to the Mulan hunting grounds in Manchuria—the Manchu homeland—where he hunted, engaged in archery and other competitive activities, and generally enjoyed the fresh air of the mountains.
In 1703, Kangxi began construction of another palace and garden complex at Chengde (also known as Rehe or Jehol) named “The Mountain Resort for Escaping the Summer Heat”—Bishu shanzhuang—and development of this imperial retreat continued throughout the 18th century. At Chengde, as at the Yuanmingyuan, landscape scenes were designed to resemble famous Jiangnan temples or vistas. 
Although Kangxi’s son, the Yongzheng emperor, had no interest in hunting, all the other Qing emperors regularly summered at Chengde when possible. The Qianlong emperor, Yongzheng’s son, spared no expense in expanding the gardens, pavilions, libraries, and residences there. The mountain resort also served a diplomatic function, receiving Central Asian and other foreign emissaries.
Original publication:MIT Visualizing Cultures.