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|Grand Secretary of the Wenhua Palace|
4 July 1786 – 10 March 1792
|Preceded by||Liang Guozhi|
|Succeeded by||Wang Jie|
|Minister of Personnel|
4 September 1784 – 16 September 1786
|Preceded by||Wumi Tai|
|Minister of Revenue|
26 April 1780 – 4 September 1784
|Preceded by||Feng Yinglian|
1 July 1750
|Died||22 February 1799
Zhizhai, Beijing, China
Lady Chang, concubine
|Relations||Gurun Princess Hexiao (daughter-in-law)
|Children||Fengshen Yinde, 3rd class duke
|Noble titles||1st class baron→3rd class earl→1st class duke|
Heshen (Chinese: 和珅; pinyin: Héshēn; Wade–Giles: Ho2-shen1; Hesen; Manchu: ; 1750 – February 22, 1799) of the Manchu Niohuru clan, was an official of the Qing dynasty who was favoured by the Qianlong Emperor. Born Shanbao (Shan-pao; 善保), his given name was later changed to Heshen. His courtesy name was Zhizhai (Chih-chai; 致齋). He was a member of the Plain Red Banner, and known as the most corrupt official in Chinese history. Heshen was born as the son of a Manchu military officer and was selected to go to the most privileged school for Manchu aristocratic 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 including Mandarin, Manchu, Mongolian and Tibetan. In 1772, he began work in the Imperial Palace, assigned as an imperial bodyguard and was stationed at the gates to the Forbidden City.
Interaction with the Qianlong Emperor
Heshen came to the attention of the Qianlong Emperor when he became a member of the royal guard of honour. On a pleasure trip outside the Forbidden City, Qianlong asked his retinue a question after he had received some bad news about border security. His question cited a sentence from the Analects of Confucius that nobody was able to understand or answer until he suddenly heard Heshen speak the answer with a further quotation from the Analects. Qianlong then tested Heshen with additional profound questions on the Analects and was surprised and delighted when they were all answered correctly - he had found a man of both martial and literary talent. Heshen was immediately promoted to the emperor's personal guard, from which point his career took off and catapulted him into other many important government positions.
Reports suggest that Heshen had an attractive appearance, with fair skin and thick, red lips. This invoked rumours of the reasons behind the emperor's fascination with this man. It was said[by whom?] that when the Qianlong Emperor was still a young prince, he accidentally ran into the room of an imperial concubine as she was putting on her make-up. As a young prince with a childish nature, Qianlong decided to play a prank on the imperial concubine, tiptoeing up from behind then scaring her. The concubine jumped at the sudden shock and as she turned and hit Qianlong (some say with her comb, some say with her fist). This was a direct breach of imperial protocol, and the action was witnessed by a passing lady of the court. The imperial concubine was then demoted, and in the face of this sudden humiliation, committed suicide by hanging herself. Qianlong, in his guilt, bit his finger and left a bloody mark on her neck so he would recognize her even in her next life. The incident made a profound impression on Qianlong. It is reported that he found Heshen to be similar in appearance to the imperial concubine and believed the courtier to be her reincarnation, since he was born in the year she died and had a red birth mark on his neck. As a result, Qianlong attempted to assuage his guilt by indulging Heshen with gifts and promotions.
The Rise of Heshen
Within a year, Heshen was promoted to vice-president of the Ministry of Revenue, and two months later was made a Grand Councillor. Within three months, he was promoted even further to a minister of the Imperial Household Department, a post usually filled with the most meritorious officials. In 1777, at the age of 27, Heshen was given the privilege of riding a horse within the Forbidden City, a prestigious privilege given only to high-ranking officials of elderly age. It was not long before Heshen was given control of both the Ministry of Revenue and the Civil Council, allowing him to control the revenue of the entire empire, and appoint his own henchmen to important posts within the officials.
Heshen's hold on the Qianlong Emperor was further strengthened when in 1790, his son was married to the emperor's tenth and favourite daughter, Hexiao. Once secure of the Qianlong 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 supporters 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 led to many that simply starved to death. This widespread corruption and nepotism was the start of a century that led to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty.
In 1793, Heshen was responsible for hosting the Macartney Embassy to the imperial court.
Fall of Heshen
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 (Retired Emperor). It was not until Qianlong's death on 7 February 1799 that his successor, the Jiaqing Emperor, was able to prosecute Heshen. On February 12, Heshen was arrested along with military officer Fuk'anggan. Declared guilty by an imperial edict, he was condemned to slow slicing. The Jiaqing Emperor spared Heshen this horrible death out of respect for his half-sister Gurun Princess Hexiao, and instead ordered him to commit suicide (by hanging himself with a rope of golden silk) in his home on 22 February, sparing his family.
From the 24 years that Heshen caught the Qianlong Emperor's attention and favour, he had amassed an incredible fortune. In the Jiaqing Emperor's confiscation of Heshen's property, his wealth estate included:
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 pure 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 charged 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 the 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 later part of the Qing Dynasty.
Heshen in popular culture
For hundreds of years, and right through to the present, Heshen has been the stock villain role in theatrical, film and television productions. Chinese actors Wang Gang and Chen Rui are among the best known persons who have portrayed Heshen on screen: the former gave the character of Heshen a comical touch with his plump figure; the latter, who played Heshen in the 2004 television series Qianlong Dynasty, was said to resemble the historical Heshen more closely as compared to Wang Gang.
Alternative views on Heshen
The widespread view of Heshen as a corrupt official most likely originated from Qing Dynasty historical records, and only the Qing emperor had the authority to determine what content was to be kept in the documents, presenting a possible case of bias against Heshen.
The alternative argument states that whatever the emperor dictates becomes the content of the records. The many official positions held by 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 imperial 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, because Heshen still held a prominent position. It is uncertain whether Heshen yielded significant respect from the other officials during the Qianlong Emperor's reign or the administrations simply feared his power. The Jiaqing Emperor, whether acting from the threat of Heshen's overarching influence over the court or from jealousy, with the influence of 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[by whom?] that the majority of Heshen's wealth were originally from gifts of the Qianlong Emperor, not from money siphoned by corrupt actions.
Former residence of Heshen in Beijing
Several decades after Heshen's death, his former residence was later given to Prince Gong as the latter's official residence. The estate, known as the Prince Gong Mansion, is now preserved as a museum and a tourist attraction. It is located at 17 Qianhai Road West in Beijing.
- Maternal great-grandfather
- A La Na (阿喇納), Deputy General, Count of the Third Rank (副將軍三等伯)
- Maternal grandfather
- Maternal grandmother
- Lady Lingiya (劉佳氏)
- Changbao (常保), Banner vice-commander of Fujian (福建副都统)
- Lady Wumi (伍彌氏)
- Younger brother
- Helin (和琳) (26 August 1753 - 28 September 1796), father of Fengshen Yimian and two daughters
- Younger sister-in-law
- Lady Tatara (他他拉氏), daughter of Sulinga (蘇凌阿), mother of Fengshen Yimian
- Fengshen Yimian (豐紳宜綿) (1755 - 1813)
- Two daughters of Helin
- Feng Jiwen (馮霽雯), granddaughter of Feng Yinglian (馮英廉); mother of Fengshen Yinde, Heshen's second son, and Heshen's three daughters
- Lady Chang (長氏)
- Fengshen Yinde (豐紳殷德) (18 February 1775 - May 1810), married Gurun Princess Hexiao (固倫和孝公主)
- second son (1794-?)
- Three daughters
- Hummel, Arthur William, ed. Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644-1912). 2 vols. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1943.