The Yongzheng Emperor

Qing Shizong/Yinzhen (The Yongzheng Emperor)

The Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723–35) was the son of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1661-1722), and the father of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-96). The period of the 18th century was significant in establishing the relationship between the emperors and their bureaucracies, while marginalizing the power of the aristocracy. Despite his short reign, the Yongzheng emperor’s greatest contribution was consolidating the power of the monarch within the bureaucracy, thus ending the serious threats to power posed by the Manchu princes. He ran his own intelligence and command network and adapted a military command office called the “Grand Council” to streamline control over many areas of governance. Historical studies point to the existence of two court bureaucracies, those of an “inner” and “outer,” which continued under the Qianlong reign. The “outer” bureaucracy was found in the statutes of empire, which were resurrected from the Ming, while the “inner” bureaucracy was a series of extra-statutory innovations that preserved a direct line of imperial power against that of the bureaucracy.

As seen in previous dynasties, religion and ideology played important roles in the ruling of empire. Numerous historical studies on the Qing era have shown their willingness to entertain and employ different religious and ideological frameworks for their diverse polities. The Yongzheng emperor’s contributions to Buddhism and Confucianism may be viewed in the context of an ongoing struggle between court literati as well as the emperor to define the basic tenets of emperorship, and thus the normative interpretations of different ideologies. Thought to be partial to Chan Buddhism, the Yongzheng emperor established a Buddhist publishing house and prepared a nineteen-volume anthology of what he regarded as model Buddhist writings in Chinese, entitled Yu xuan yu lu (御选语录) in 1732. He also showed support for Tibetan Buddhism by donating the Yonghegong Monastery to the dGe lugs pa sect in 1722 (in which his son, the Qianlong emperor was born). While the Qing emperors were generally hesitant to proclaim themselves as Buddhist kings or reincarnations, especially to their Chinese constituents, an inscription erected in 1744 by the Qianlong emperor honors his father by hinting that his father achieved buddhahood, not through reincarnation, but through his own spiritual piety.

The widely-distributed, multilingual “Sacred Edicts,” Shengyu guangxun (圣谕广训) of 1724 may be an example of the Yongzheng emperor’s attempt to negotiate and align the diverse ideologies of his empire. It contained the imperially-sanctioned view of universal doctrines of state, society, and morals, which were to be taught to and obeyed by all subjects in the empire. The famous “Lecture on Heterodox Doctrines” (VII) in the Chinese version, states:

From ancient times, three religions have continued in propagation, that is, the school of Confucianism and besides this, those of Taoism and Buddhism. The philosopher Zhu Xi says that Buddhism does not bother with the material universe but considers only the subject of the mind, and that Taoism merely aims at the preservation of the spiritual essence of man. This fair statement from Zhu Xi clarifies the fundamental objects of Buddhism and Taoism. But a class of loafers, with neither livelihood nor abode, has since come forth to usurp the name of these religions and corrupt the practical use of the same…

However, the Mongolian version points out that this clarification of the roles of Buddhism and Taoism targets Chinese Buddhism and pre-Buddhist religions, demonstrating the use of language in the filtering of imperial communications.

Of note is the reference to Zhu Xi (1130-1200), whose Confucian ideologies were declared “orthodox” by the Yuan in 1313 in response to petitions from Chinese literati. Zhu Xi’s attraction as an imperial ideology may be found in his rhetorical “dualism” that enabled a construction, upon moral grounds, of a subject-object relationship between the emperor and his domain. However, Zhu Xi’s claim that any person endeavoring toward and achieving sagehood could become such a moral ruler was contested particularly by Qianlong. This reflected the differing views on rulership held by the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors. The Yongzheng emperor promoted the idea of emperorship as found in the “Great Righteousness Resolving Confusion” where civilization was absolute and the emperor was the personal embodiment of civilization. The goal of the ruler was the erosion of cultural differences and achievement of a morally correct world. However, the Qianlong emperor later repudiated this view, putting forth his own emphasis on the identity of the emperor as absolute, not civilization. In this framework, the emperor was the single consciousness that transcended all civilizations and the goal of ruler was the clarification of cultural differences, which would confirm the universal competence of the emperor.


Pamela Kyle Crossley.1992. The Rulerships of China. The American historical review, 1468-1483.
David Farquhar . 1978. Emperor as Bodhisattva in the Governance of the Ch’ing Empire. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 38 (1): 5-34.
Pamela Kyle Crossley.1999. A translucent mirror: history and identity in Qing imperial ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 221-246, 262-273.

Entry by Eveline S. Yang 3/20/07

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