We walked into a part of the Forbidden City called the Qianlong Garden. A plaque at the entrance told us that this section was built for the use of the Qianlong Emperor after he abdicated. Not being terribly familiar with Chinese imperial history, I had to look this up after getting back to the hotel. It turns out that Qianlong Emperor abdicated in favour of his son after ruling for many years. This was a political move, a show of filial devotion, so that his rule did not exceed that of his grandfather. We read that in actual fact he continued to control the politics of the empire.
From our earlier visit to the Shanghai Museum we knew that the Qianlong Emperor’s time was one where the arts were encouraged and flourished. We entered this section of the palace fully hoping to see wonderful gardens and artifacts. We were not disappointed. Right at the entrance was a wonderful rockery, marred only by large signs asking people not to climb it. Further inside was a gallery lined with panels of beautifully carved deodar wood (see photo above).
Next to it was this gallery where the not-emperor-in-name would sit with ministers and generals. The channels on the floor (see the photo here) simulated a flowing river down which the company would sail cups of wine for each other. while composing drunken poems. One wonders what matters of state were decided during these parties.
From what I read, the Manchu Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) essentially constructed the modern Chinese nation by conquering a huge territory. He is also said to be responsible for genocide in some parts of his empire. He put the Dalai Lama in power in Tibet, subjugated Xinjiang, Uighurs, Kazhaks. Mongols and Gurkhas. He was unsuccessful in conquering Burma or Vietnam. In his later days, presumably when he spent his time partying, he became dependent on several extremely corrupt officials. This, and his earlier wars depleted the imperial treasury.
Maybe part of this depletion was also due to the fact that he was such a staunch patron of the arts. Museums are full of the creation of this time. The Qianlong Garden holds elegant marvels such as this deer. Apparently a large part of the jade on display in the Forbidden City was collected by him.
He commissioned a catalogue of all important works of Chinese literature. It is claimed that this compilation was a means of destroying or censoring work which objected to Manchu rule over China, or was otherwise critical of the Emperor. It is said that books which were published during the Ming dynasty have suffered especially major changes or destruction.
It is hard to do much research when you are travelling, so I cannot say whether all this information is one-sided. However, if all this were true, then the Qianlong Emperor would be an appropriate symbol of the interesting mixture which makes up China even today.