WHAT WITH his dozens of concubines, his obsession with collecting precious jade, and his penchant for inscribing his own (not so good) poems on ancient paintings, Emperor Qianlong makes an unlikely hero for the Chinese Communist Party, especially the one led by Xi Jinping, a severe ascetic. Qianlong was a man of formidable intelligence and willpower, whose long reign from 1736 to 1795 marked a culmination of the Qing Dynasty. But he was also a conservative aristocrat, from his passion for genealogy to his love of bow hunting on horseback, an archaic pastime already at the time.
Chaguan was therefore surprised to hear an official historian praise Qianlong in terms that would make a Politburo member blush. The scholar, Wang Xudong, heads the Palace Museum in Beijing, as the Forbidden City is officially known. During a government-sponsored press tour, Wang described the former emperors as hardworking statesmen who “wanted their empire to be stable and prosperous.” Unsolicited, Wang denied that the geomantic design of the Forbidden City, with a hill behind it and a river in front, was a form of superstition. Feng shui is a tradition of common sense, he argued: everyone wants to shelter from the wind and have water nearby. As for the palace temples dedicated to ancestor worship, “China is a country devoted to families,” he appeased, as if he had a duty to minimize any contradiction between imperial wonders and the modern power of an atheist party. Your columnist asked about two very popular drama series set in the Qianlong court, which were launched by state television channels in 2019 after state media complained about the “negative impact” of the media. Imperial sagas filled with poisonings, betrayals and extravagant life. These so-called Qing dramas are “cultural pollution,” Mr. Wang snorted. Why can’t they show examples of good governance by the emperor, or that princes and princesses were diligent and studious, he asked? “These are lessons our children can learn. “
Tributes to favored emperors are nothing new. As the party replaced Maoist fervor with Chinese nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s, Qianlong was rehabilitated as a nation builder. Through a mixture of diplomacy, wars and campaigns to crush distant rebellions, Qianlong added vast territories to his empire, notably in Tibet and Xinjiang. His reign was declared the height of the Qing Dynasty before, as the textbooks say, the empire fell into decline, subjected China to a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, and collapsed in 1912. Recalling the shame of the past remains useful for official historians, who praise the party for finally making China strong. But accounts of late Qing weakness are increasingly offset by tributes to earlier glories. Today’s party sees the benefit of presenting itself as the heir to a particularly wise – and typically Chinese – civilization that dates back 5,000 years. For Mr. Wang, a vice-ministerial official, the Forbidden City is the proof, in wood and stone, of this cultural exceptionalism. “If you did not have 5,000 years of civilization, you would not have a socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he said, calling the party “a faithful heir and protector” of this glorious past.
On August 24, the party’s supreme leader Mr. Xi visited a dear site in Qianlong, an imperial summer retreat in Chengde, in the cool, wooded hills north of Beijing. Mr. Xi visited the Puning Temple, a Buddhist complex built in a mixture of Tibetan and Han Chinese styles. This architecture celebrates Qianlong’s crushing of a revolt by Mongol nomads who practiced Tibetan Buddhism. While inspecting the red pillared halls of Puning, Xi stressed one of his priorities, the need to “sinise” religions, that is, to make them Chinese in their orientation so that, according to his words, they are more consistent and serve the needs of a socialist society. Next, Xi explored a new exhibit at the Chengde Museum that praised Qianlong in language that could have come directly from the People’s Daily. The museum’s panels explain that Qianlong “improved the management of Tibet by the central Qing government, quelled multiple episodes of conflict between separatists in Xinjiang, and further united this multi-ethnic country.”
Chaguan visited the museum a few days later. He presents Qianlong as the embodiment of a virtuous Chinese ruler, whether it is honoring ancestral rites by organizing autumn hunts or introducing policies to “unify all ethnicities”. There are reproductions of his Mandarin calligraphy and images of him in Chinese imperial robes. In fact, Qianlong was a member of the Manchu nationality, like all Qing emperors. The Qing won the throne by overthrowing a Chinese dynasty, the Ming. Qianlong wanted her hunt to preserve the traditions of her nomadic warrior ancestors, calling it “the best way to train the Manchus.” It was open to Manchu nobles and soldiers, as well as some Mongol allies. Like many sacred Qing institutions, hunting was primarily closed to Han, the majority Chinese nationality. The Han Chinese lived as subjects in a Manchu-ruled empire, prohibited by law from marrying Manchus, and often living in separate quarters of the city.
Rename the Manchu multiethnic empire to “China”
Such ethnic divisions and hierarchies complicate the boasting of about 5,000 years of continuous Chinese civilization. Official historians respond by saying that the Qing admired Han culture so much that they immediately assimilated into it, becoming the latest in an unbroken line of Chinese rulers. The imperial records in the Manchu language clearly show that it is too careful: the Qing have retained a hybrid identity.
The exhibition in Chengde is a puzzle. Important enough to attract Mr. Xi, it has an easily debunked story. The solution lies in another wall panel, which praises Chengde as a monument to the Qing Dynasty’s “historic feats” of “pacifying and consolidating the border regions”. Two intensely political ideas are hidden in this scholarly statement. First, the term “consolidation” reflects the party’s assertion that Tibet and Xinjiang have always been Chinese and therefore were reclaimed, not conquered, by the Qing. Second, for the security-obsessed tough men who rule China, pacifying the troubled regions is a supremely patriotic act. This makes Qianlong a model worker. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The Model Party Emperor”