(born 1750, China—died Feb. 22, 1799, Beijing) Infamous Chinese courtier who abused his influence with the Qianlong emperor to assume high ministerial positions and control revenue disbursements and personnel recruiting. His embezzlement of funds intended for suppressing the White Lotus rebellion prolonged the fighting and drove the imperial troops to looting, consequently undermining the authority of the Qing dynasty. He was arrested by the Qianlong emperor's successor and forced to commit suicide.
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Heshen ((1750 - February 22, 1799), from the Manchu Niohuru clan, was a Manchu official of the Qing Dynasty, a favourite of the Qianlong Emperor. Born Shanbao (善保), his given name was later changed into Heshen. His courtesy name (字) was Zhizhai (致齋). He was a member of the Plain Red Banner. Heshen was born as the son of a Manchu military officer and received a basic education in a Qing government school for Manchu boys. He lost his mother when he was young and it was said he and his younger brother had a hard life under his stepmother. However, it was reported that Heshen was an excellent student, knowing several languages besides Mandarin and Manchu. In 1772, he began work in the Imperial Palace, assigned as an imperial bodyguard and was stationed at the gates to the Forbidden Palace.
It was said that when the Qianlong Emperor was still a young prince in the palace, he accidentally ran into the room of an Imperial concubine, just as she was putting on her make-up. As a young prince with a childish nature, the future Emperor decided to play a prank on the imperial concubine, tiptoeing from behind her and scaring her. The concubine jumped at the sudden shock and whilst turning around, touched the future emperor. This was a direct breach of Imperial protocol, and the action was witnessed by another court lady who was passing by. The imperial concubine was then demoted, and in face of sudden humiliation, committed suicide by hanging. This incident had a profound impression on Qianlong, and it was said that he found Heshen to be very similar in appearance to the imperial concubine. It had been hypothesised that Qianlong thought Heshen was the reincarnation of the imperial concubine, and thus he attempted to overcome his guilt through indulging Heshen with gifts and promotions.
Heshen's hold on the Emperor was further strengthened when in 1790, his son was married to Qianlong's tenth and favourite daughter. Once secure of the Emperor's favour and approbation, Heshen enjoyed almost complete freedom of his actions. He became openly corrupt and practiced extortion on a grand scale. His henchmen within the imperial system followed his lead, and his military associates prolonged campaigns in order to continue the benefits of additional funds. He abrogated powers and official posts, including that of Grand Councillor, and regularly stole public funds and taxes. Taxes were raised again and again, and this led to the suffering of the people. Unfortunately, their suffering was compounded by severe floods of the Yellow River - an indirect result of the corruption where dishonest officials pocketed funds that were meant for the upkeep of canals and dams. Rising prices of rice lead to many that simply starved to death. This widespread corruption and nepotism was the start of a century that lead to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty.
In 1793, Heshen was responsible for hosting the Macartney Embassy to the imperial court.
The shame of Heshen's corruption came to play when the Qianlong Emperor abdicated in February 1796, the full damage of the corruption was now in wide view. However, Qianlong continued to rule China behind the scenes under the grand title of Taishang Huang. It was not until his death on February 7, 1799 that the Jiaqing Emperor was able to prosecute Heshen. On February 12, Heshen was arrested along with military officer Fu Chang'an (福長安). Declared guilty by Imperial Edict, he was condemned to slow slicing. The Jiaqing Emperor spared Heshen this horrible death, and instead ordered him to commit suicide in his home on February 22, sparing his family, while Fu Chang'an was beheaded.
From the 24 years that Heshen caught The Qianlong Emperor's attention and favour, he had amassed an incredible fortune. In Renzong's (The Jiaqing Emperor) confiscation of Heshen's property, his wealth were as thus:
3,000 rooms in his estates and mansions, 8,000 acres (32 km²) of land, 42 bank branches, 75 pawnbroker branches, 60,000 taels of copper alloyed gold, 100 large ingots of pure gold, (1,000 taels each), 56,600 medium silver ingots, (100 taels each), 9,000,000 small silver ingots, (10 taels each), 58,000 livres/pounds of foreign currency, 1,500,000 copper coins, 600 lb of top-quality Jilin ginseng, 1,200 jade charms, 230 pearl bracelets (each pearl comparable in size to large cherries or longans), 10 large pearls (each the size of apricots), 10 large ruby crystals, 40 large sapphire crystals, 40 tablefuls of solid-silver eating utensils, (serves 10 per table), 40 tablefuls of solid-gold eating utensils, (serves 10 per table), 11 coral rocks (each over a metre in height), 14,300 bolts of fine silk, 20,000 sheets of fine sheep-fur wool, 550 fox hides, 850 raccoon dog hides, 56,000 sheep and cattle hides of varying thickness, 7,000 sets of fine clothing (for all four seasons), 361,000 bronze and tin vases and vessels, 100,000 porcelain vessels made by famous masters, 24 highly decorative solid-gold beds (each with eight different types of inlaid gemstones), 460 top-quality European clocks, 606 servants, 600 women in his harem.
His total property was ultimately estimated at around 1,100 million taels of silver, reputedly estimated to be an amount equivalent to the imperial revenue of the Qing government for 15 years. In his chief butler Liu Quan's quarters, a large quantity of treasures including 240,000 silver taels were also discovered. The Jiaqing Emperor labelled Heshen with 20 crimes, of which "defiance of imperial supremacy" and "power transcendence" accounted for half.
The influence of Heshen however did not end with his death, as corruption continued to spread through different levels in and out of the capital, among both civil and military personnel. Bannermen developed habits that made them useless as a military force. The Chinese Green Standard Army was beset with irregular practice and had lost much of its fighting spirit shown in early Qing Dynasty. The habits of luxury and big spending led to moral degradation and the general decline of the dynasty. The Qianlong Emperor's Ten Great Campaigns were completed at the cost of 120 million taels, against an annual revenue of some 40 million taels. The result of these massive spendings and increasing trend towards luxury set the path towards financial instability within the latter part of the Qing Dynasty.
In a 2004 blockbuster TV series, The Qianlong Dynasty (乾隆王朝), the 'good' version of Heshen is that played by Chinese actor Chen Rui. He is said to bear a closer resemblance to Heshen than Wang Gang. To compare the good and evil portrayals of Heshen, read the next section: Alternative View on Heshen.
The alternative argument states that whatever the Emperor dictates becomes the content of the records. The many official positions held be Heshen could have posed a threat to the authority of the Jiaqing Emperor, and produced a sense of jealousy to his power and influence over the royal court, as well as the more legitimate threat to the Emperor. Whether Heshen was an honest official that worked for the empire did not matter to the Emperor's eyes because he still held a prominent position. It is questionable to whether or not Heshen yielded significant respect from the other officials during the Qianlong Era or that the administrations simply feared his power. Emperor Jiaqing's feelings, whether the threat of Heshen's overarching influence over the court or merely jealousy, along with the influences other officials who disliked Heshen, could have brought charges against Heshen through legal pretexts that would condemn him to a death sentence.
It is argued that the majority of Heshen's wealth were originally from gifts of the Qianlong Emperor, not from money siphoned by corrupt actions, and that given the burdens of so many official positions made it difficult to commit any acts of corruption in the first place, ruling out the evil portrayal now popularized in the media.
From Emperor Jiaqing onwards, the Qing dynasty went into decline, but rather more from poor leadership than the actions of Heshen, and that most of the decline was blamed, through corruption charges, on Heshen.
Heshen may have in fact been a good man, who was capable and loyal to Emperor Qianlong. It is argued that rather than retire after Emperor Qianlong abdicated his throne, he chose to remain as instructed by Emperor Qianlong to assist his successor, Emperor Jiaqing.
The death of Heshen coincided with the beginning of the fall of Qing Dynasty, arguing that the empire lost a capable man of administration. The insecurity argument points out that Emperor Jiaqing surrounded himself with less capable officials whom he felt more secure with, and that doing so ushered the fall of the Qing Dynasty.
The former residence of Heshen, Prince Gong's Palace, is located at 17 Qian Hai Road West, now a tourist attraction in Beijing.