The emperor summoned two young men to his chambers. They were half-brothers by birth, but had been raised together. The older brother’s mother, a Mongolian concubine known as Lady Borjigit, raised the younger brother after his own mother, the Empress, died when he was just 9 years old.
Now the two princes faced their father, Aisin-Gioro Min-Ning, who had ruled the Qing Empire as the Daoguang Emperor for over two decades. It had been a tumultuous and painful reign. Just a few years earlier, the Qing Empire had been forced to sign a humiliating treaty with the British. And then the French. And then the Americans. And then the Kingdom of Sweden and Norway. So many to remember, and the emperor wasn’t entirely sure that his officials had not just made the last one up.
There was a time when Min-Ning was a certifiable badass. At 15, he was called Mian-Ning. This was before he became emperor and changed his name to avoid making taboo a commonly used character in Chinese. It was at that age that he led the palace guard in a hastily organized defense of the palace when partisans of the Eight Trigrams secret society infiltrated the palace to assassinate the emperor. The son and the guards grabbed muskets from the armory and went full “Olympus has Fallen” against the intruders.
Now Mian-ning (or Min-ning) was the emperor, and his time was running short. Already in his 60s, he was tired. He had lived almost as long as his famous grandfather, the Qianlong Emperor, and his even more celebrated great-great-grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, who had settled the borders of the empire he now ruled. These borders now seemed to be caving in, as aggressive powers from across the steppe and over the seas used their military technology to exact concession after concession from the Qing.
The two young princes greeted their father. They were his most capable sons. The younger one, Yixin, born in 1833, was cerebral, bright, and articulate, with large bright eyes that sparkled with curiosity. The elder, Yizhu, born 1831, was also gifted. He was a student of literature, good with his pen, and had taken an early interest in the problems of administering the empire; perhaps not the intellectual force of his younger brother, but steadfast and unwavering.
The emperor turned and asked them both the same question. If you were to succeed me as emperor, what would you do first?
Yixin spoke first. He detailed a long list of policies he felt were needed to rebuild the strength of the empire in the face of new threats. He wanted to reform the military and the bureaucracy, and to find ways to develop a response to the technology the foreign powers had used in their military campaigns against the Qing. He was thoughtful and erudite, and his policy proposals were reasonable responses to the problems facing the empire.
The Emperor nodded.
Yizhu was to speak next, but he did not. Instead, he looked at his brother and then at his father and threw himself down on the floor wailing. The first thing he would do, upon being named emperor, would be to weep and mourn for his beloved father.
Min-Ning, the Daoguang Emperor, named Yizhu his successor.
The story, parts of which are from Stephen Platt’s excellent Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, makes sense from a Confucian point of view. Yizhu demonstrated that his filial devotion was more important at the moment than what he might do later as ruler.
Unfortunately for the Qing Empire, weeping and wailing for his father, if that is indeed what he did upon becoming emperor, was pretty much the extent of Yizhu’s plans.
The Daoguang Emperor died in the gardens of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing on February 25, 1850. His son Yizhu began his reign a few weeks later. Ruling as the Xianfeng Emperor, Yizhu faced even greater challenges than his father. During his reign, the immense civil war between the Qing Empire and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom would devastate large parts of central China. The “Arrow Incident” of 1856, in which Qing Marines seized a ship registered in Hong Kong off the coast of Guangzhou, would lead to a renewal of hostilities between the Qing and their foreign enemies.
During it all, the Xianfeng Emperor remained ensconced among the woods and waterways of the Old Summer Palace. His only policy was a stern refusal to surrender any more concessions to the foreigners. Even after a treaty to end the hostilities was signed in 1858, the emperor ordered his generals to continue to refuse the foreign envoys access to Beijing. In 1860, Qing troops kidnapped, tortured, and killed all but two members of a diplomatic convoy. The response by British and French commanders was to march on the emperor’s Summer Palace and burn it to the ground.
The emperor was not there. He had returned to the Forbidden City the day before to show his dedication to defending the city, but quietly fled the palace 24 hours later with his concubines and advisers, retreating north of the Great Wall to the imperial hunting palaces at Chengde. The Xianfeng Emperor never returned to Beijing. He died while in exile less than a year later on August 22, 1861.
Before he left, he entrusted the defense of the capital to his brother: Yixin. The two had an awkward relationship, with the emperor on several occasions stripping Yixin of his titles for offenses real or imagined. Perhaps the elder brother was jealous of the younger’s temperament and talent, something in short supply at the court.
Now, however, it fell to the 27-years-old Yixin to negotiate a truce and a new treaty with the foreign powers. It would be Yixin who would, in conspiracy with the Empress and the mother of the new Tongzhi Emperor, the Xianfeng Emperor’s heir, to take control of the court.
For the next four decades, Yixin would become an indispensable (although not always fully appreciated) member of the court. He was the de facto foreign minister, a counselor and mentor to two young emperors, and an on-again-off-again partner of the Tongzhi Emperor’s mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi. They too had a tempestuous relationship, and Yixin would often find himself the brunt of the Empress Dowager’s temper and capriciousness, but like her deceased husband, the Empress Dowager also relied on Yixin, particularly when it came to dealing with the foreign powers.
Yixin is known in history as Prince Gong, the title willed to him by his father, the Daoguang Emperor. Today his old mansion in Beijing is a teeming tourist mecca. Visitors tend to remember him as something of a toady to the Empress Dowager, or perhaps a little too soft on the foreigners, but looking at the historical record, Yixin likely would have made a great emperor. Maybe a little too cerebral, a little too eager to get started fixing his father’s empire, he had a moment, long ago, to take his father’s place. His father chose poorly.
Cover image from NetEase