For as long as there has been politics, there have been corrupt politicians. Politics and corruption are inseparable concepts, like “Sex” and “Pregnancy.” According to independent estimates, Indonesian President Suharto bilked his government for nearly $20 billion. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote that US President Richard Nixon was “so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.” Four out of the last seven governors in the US state of Illinois have served prison time.
All are total amateurs compared to the Qing official Heshen, who hanged himself in Beijing on February 22, 1799.
Heshen’s career as the most corrupt and twisted official in 5,000 years of history began when the then 25-year old member of the imperial bodyguard was picked out of a crowd by an elderly Qianlong Emperor. Heshen, handsome and witty, caught the eye of the 64-year old monarch and began a meteoric rise to power. Not long after their first meeting, the Qianlong Emperor began promoting Heshen to ranks and titles far beyond his years or experience. He was made a lieutenant-general, a vice-president of the board of revenue, a Grand Councilor, and a Minister of the Imperial Household. Heshen was allowed the privilege of riding a horse inside the Forbidden City, an honor usually reserved for senior and aged officials too infirm to walk the long corridors of the palace. Later that year, he was put in charge of the capital gendarmerie and given control over transit dues and customs at the Chongwenmen Gate.
Never one to forgo an opportunity, Heshen worked hard, stayed late, and never missed an appointment. After all, the first rule of stealing is being there to grab the cash. Nobody could explain how or why Heshen held such powerful influence over the emperor. Rumors drifted from behind the palace walls of a sexual relationship between the winsome and charming courtier and his much older patron. Jonathan Spence’s Search for Modern China relates an anecdote where a Korean tribute mission to Qianlong’s court met with Heshen and described him as “elegant in looks, sprucely handsome in a dandified way that suggests a lack of virtue.”
There was also a persistent story that the Qianlong Emperor saw Heshen as the reincarnation of one of his father’s concubines. When the Qianlong Emperor was just a young princeling, he became enamored with this concubine and was fond of teasing her. One day he took his teasing too far and she struck the young prince (some say it was accidental and that she was not immune to his princely charms). Either way, it didn’t work out too well for her as she was demoted and ultimately committed suicide. According to legend, when the emperor first saw Heshen, the emperor was struck by the physical resemblance between the young man and his childhood crush. Heshen’s rise to prominence was a way for the emperor to assuage his guilt over his role in the concubine’s demise.
Whatever the reason, for over two decades, Heshen became the emperor’s closest aide and confidant. Throughout the empire, Heshen was known as the emperor’s eyes and ears and was treated accordingly. It was said that when Heshen left his mansion by Houhai in Beijing (the palace known today by the name of its later occupant, Prince Gong), the road to the palace was lined with sycophants and officials looking to curry favor with the emperor’s pet.
In 1790, the emperor and his minister consummated their relationship the old fashioned way when Heshen’s son married the Qianlong Emperor’s tenth daughter. By all accounts, she was the emperor’s favorite, and he once remarked that had she been a male, he would have chosen her as his heir. As it would turn out, Heshen would have been much better off if his new daughter-in-law had been the one to inherit the throne.
Heshen’s relationship and influence with the throne made him nearly untouchable. He soon became openly corrupt, extorting fees from other officials and using his positions to embezzle spectacular sums of money from the royal treasury. Despite persistent ill health (Heshen reportedly had chronic rheumatism and developed a severe hernia) the Qianlong emperor entrusted him to help lead field campaigns in Yunnan and Gansu.
Heshen was a disaster as a military officer but knew a boondoggle opportunity when he saw one. Heshen and his cronies fixed inventories, skimmed payrolls, misreported supplies, and used the imperial military coffers as their personal mint. At the time, the Qing Empire was increasingly beset by rebellious secret societies and frequent armed insurrections. The emperor fretted about the inability of his troops to handle the growing emergency but what the emperor saw as a crisis of rule, Heshen saw as an opportunity to line his pockets and those of his followers.
Despite these activities, the emperor continued to shower Heshen with honors and rewards. Even when Heshen’s henchmen were convicted of embezzlement and ordered to commit suicide, Heshen remained in power. For as long as the Qianlong Emperor sat on the throne, Heshen was safe to do as he pleased.
But unfortunately for Heshen, nobody lives forever. In 1796, the Qianlong Emperor retired and named his son Yongyan (1760-1820) as emperor. Heshen knew he was in trouble. A few years earlier, Heshen and Yongyan’s tutor, the official Zhu Yugui, had become embroiled in a petty squabble over a poem. Heshen used his influence to have Zhu Yugui dismissed from his post and earned Heshen the lifelong enmity of the young prince.
Now reigning as the Jiaqing Emperor, Yongyan bided his time. His father was still alive and remained the power in the palace. But on February 7, 1799, the Qianlong Emperor died. Within a week, the Jiaqing Emperor ordered the arrest and trial of Heshen. On February 19, the emperor sentenced Heshen to execution by a thousand cuts. It was only the timely intercession of the emperor’s sister, the 10th princess who had married Heshen’s son, that saved the prisoner from a ghastly death. Instead, on February 22, 1799, the emperor sent an attendant to Heshen’s cell with a silken cord. Heshen took the message.
That year, February 22 was also the 15th day of the new year. Heshen composed a poem to the moon. “The walls are high,” he lamented. “And I cannot see the Spring.” He then took the cord and hanged himself in his cell.
As it turned out, the death of the Qianlong emperor was a turning point also for the empire. For over 130 years, dating back to 1662, the empire had been ruled by the Qianlong emperor, his father, and grandfather. It was a remarkable period of stability and prosperity. But in the last years of the Qianlong era, it was clear that all was not well in the empire. The Jiaqing Emperor was not a bad emperor, but he was not the same caliber as his ancestors and the problems he faced were much greater. It would be tempting to blame Heshen for the long slow decline of the empire in the 19th century. His venality and subornation were enormous. After his death, court investigators made an accounting of all of his ill-gotten gains. They tallied silver, gold, goods, priceless artifacts, and other treasures worth billions of dollars in today’s terms.
But Heshen was not cause of the decline of the Qing Empire, he was a symptom of a much larger problem. The rot had set in. In an era of low official morale and rampant corruption, Heshen had seized his opportunity to take as much as he could. And, for as long as he had his patron, he succeeded. In the end, he was the fair young man who was loved by an emperor, and took advantage of that love to try and steal an empire.
Cover image from 猫崽子