Sneak peek into Emperor Qianlong's private personality through rare imperial manuscripts

Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-1796) is famous for his literary productivity, with more than forty-thousand poems recorded as his compositions. A passionate art collector, Qianlong carefully kept these writings as well as other manuscripts and transcriptions in delicately designed lacquer boxes – most of these precious historical records are now well-preserved in the Palace Museum in Beijing, leaving only a few in private hands. 

Recently, Poly Auction Beijing has brought to the market the largest private collection of Qianlong’s manuscripts. While the lot was expected to fetch around US$5.9 to $7.4 million at yesterday's sale, it was withdrawn last-minute and went to private sale instead. Brushed and marked by Qianlong himself, this invaluable set of original, autographical imperial texts offers us a rare opportunity to take a glimpse into the Emperor in his private being.

Lot 5658 | An extremely rare set of sixty four sheets imperial poems and inscriptions
Qianlong Period, Qing Dynasty
In different sizes
Estimate upon request
Auction House: Poly Auction Beijing
Withdrawn (now goes to private sale)

Since the 9th year during his reign (1744), Qianlong began using exquisite custom-made lacquer cases to compile all his manuscripts. The imperial manuscripts are stacked neatly in chronological order, most with one pile of manuscripts and one pile of transcripts each year. Each of these texts is bound with a yellow-ribbon hoop, on which is written in ink and regular script “imperial poems”.

Composed in the later years of Qianlong reign, the imperial manuscripts offered by Poly Auction Beijing cover a wide range of subjects, including poems, commentary on books and history, opinions on political affairs, and appreciation of artworks – all provide us with insights into his personal and political lives.  

The Palace Museum in Beijing | A pair of lacquer boxes carved with clouds and dragons to store Qianlong's manuscripts

Bazheng Maonian Zhibao written by Qianlong, created in the 55th year during the Qianlong reign of Qing dynasty (1790)

Transcriptions by ministers and corrections marked by Qianlong Emperor

Transcriptions by ministers and corrections marked by Qianlong Emperor

From the above pictures, the red ink was the original draft written by Qianlong Emperor. The following black ink in regular scripts were transcriptions created by his ministers, where he corrected the wordings and elaborated on his ideas throughout the scripts. 

The year 1790 was an important year for Qianlong – being not only the 55th year of his reign, but also the year of his 80th birthday. According to the Emperor’s own practice, every 5th birthday was a milestone year and the occasion for a great celebration. And Bazheng Maonian Zhibao, meaning 'Treasure of concern over phenomenon at eighty’, is a text composed by Qianlong Emperor to commemorate this milestone.

The Palace Museum in Beijing | Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress

In the manuscripts, he indicated his desire to pass on the throne at 85, the 60th year of his reign, stated in the lines "I am now eighty and, there are still six years till I retire from the throne." When Qianlong succeeded as Emperor, he had promised to Heaven that if he were allowed to reign for a full sixty-year cycle, he would then abdicate the throne, for he dare not reign more years than his ancestors. 

After five years, it’s true that he had given up the throne and passed it down to Jiaqing Emperor. However, while he became an Emperor Emeritus, he was so actively engaged in state affairs – in the name of "giving advice" – that he was the real power behind the throne. Jiaqing Emperor had emained a puppet until Qianlong passed away.

His reluctancy to give up his power was in fact hinted in the manuscripts: I am now eighty and, relying on Heaven’s protection, am still in good health. Though in one day there are a thousand affairs of state, my mind is still up to the task, but I must exhort myself to do better. With this glorified excuse, he actually enjoyed the longest period of government among Qing emperors. 

An ode to the 80th birthday of Empress Dowager Chongqing, made in the 36th year during the Qianlong reign of Qing dynasty (1771)

Without corrections in red by Emperor Qianlong, this yellow folded album is the final draft of an ode to the 80th birthday of his birth mother, Empress Dowager Chongqing. This draft was then copied by himself in large regular script and framed in twelve screens, presented as a birthday gift to his mother.

Although Emperor Qianlong received mix receptions, that he served his mother with the utmost filial piety was unquestionable. Until her death at the age of 86 in 1777, the Empress Dowager enjoyed all the luxuries of the world.

When Qianlong ascended the throne in 1711, he elevated her as the Divine Mother Empress Dowager Chongqing. Holding her in highest regard, Qianlong also built the grand Shoukang Palace (Palace of Longevity and Good Health) for her and visited her every one or two days despite all the busy state affairs.

The Palace Museum in Beijing | Portrait of the Xiaosheng Empress Dowager

With profound emotional bond to his mother, Qianlong took Empress Dowager Chongqing on his excursions without fail. In her older age when she no longer fit to travel, Qianlong suspended all his trips until her health. 

And her birthdays, of course, were to be celebrated lavishly. On each of Empress Dowager’s milestone decade birthdays since 60, Qianlong presented her with Nine-nine Gifts – the most prestigious gifting ritual at the Qing imperial court, given only for the esteemed Emperor or Empress Dowager.

As the number 9 stands for longevity and eternality, every day she received 81 gifts – 9 kinds of treasures such as paintings, artefacts and calligraphy works, each included 9 items with auspicious symbols on them. On her 80th birthday, these Nine-nine gifts were given by Qianlong for 11 consecutive days, meaning she received a total of 891 gifts – including the framed calligraphy of the present album, which now graces the wall of the Palace Museum in Beijing.