Portrait of an Emperor

Perhaps no emperor in all of China’s history was more conscious of his own image than Qianlong. Suitably enough, he loved to have his portrait painted, and scores of those renderings have survived: we can see him as a prince, taking over control of the country from his shrewd and hardnosed father Yongzheng; we can see him as an alert yet decorous young ruler, shortly after succeeding to the throne in 1736; we can see him in the company of his beloved horses, either receiving them as tributary gifts from the nomadic peoples of the steppe or out riding in the full panoply of embroidered robes and gleaming armor. In somewhat less-public images, he appears in a lakeside pavilion escorted by his entourage of beautiful palace women, the erotic possibilities of the moment underlined by the horned stag and the shy doe, at which the emperor is thoughtfully gazing; or shown from different vantage points in a trompe l’oeil montage of screens and portraits in his imperial study. And we can see him in the grandest contexts of empire, reviewing the serried masses of his troops while out on maneuvers, traveling with a mighty retinue to inspect the cities in the center of China, or enshrined as a self-reflective Buddhist saint in the midst of a holy mountain.

It is suitable that Qianlong has left us such a plethora of images, since he did in truth play a multiplicity of roles in his long reign between 1736 and 1796. By dint of ten protracted military campaigns, fought at enormous cost in treasure and in casualties, he almost doubled the size of the already vast Chinese empire. To make manifest his power over the recently conquered Muslim peoples of Altishahr, he relocated many of their leaders to spacious dwellings in Beijing, near to the imperial palace, and selected one of their young women to join his cohort of high-ranking consorts. Recent documentary finds show that Qianlong honored her Muslim dietary restrictions, that she bore him a daughter, and that after her death he had her buried in a stone casket, inscribed with passages from the Koran in Arabic.

Open PDF