It was on this date that notoriously corrupt Chinese minister of state Heshen or Ho-Shen was forced to commit suicide in lieu of execution.
That Heshen rose above his modest station with this monarch’s favor was the source of no small resentment. Rumors circulated that the attractive young former bodyguard reminded the emperor of a lost, beloved concubine — with all that implies.
“Elegant in looks, sprucely handsome in a dandified way that suggested a lack of virtue,” a Korean diplomat described Heshen.
Whatever there might have been to the homosexuality angle, Heshen exploited the imperial protection to gorge himself on the state’s revenues; he’s reported to have filled the bureaucracy with clients who saw to it that Heshen got a yuan out of every tael that passed through state business in the last quarter of the 18th century. He even dynastically married his own son to one of Qianlong’s daughters.
It was the peak of the Qing dynasty’s glory, and the dawn of its imperial stagnation. Heshen — resplendent, omnipotent, and sunk in vice* — remains to this day its persona par excellence.
As long as the emperor lived, Heshen had a virtual free hand.
But as soon as the emperor died — on February 7, 1799, at the age of 87 — the successor** Jiaqing destroyed him.
My thoughts dwell ever on the Confucian precept: ‘For three years after a parent’s death none of his former surroundings should be changed.’ …
But as regards Ho Shen, his crimes are too grave to admit of possible pardon … Ho Shen is a deep-dyed traitor, lost to all moral sense, who has betrayed his Sovereign and jeopardised the State. As self-constituted dictator he has usurped supreme authority.
Seeing the man’s abrupt change of fortunes, Heshen’s people in the bureaucracy fell over each other to denounce him.
He was condemned to the horrific expiation of “slow slicing”; however, given “the undesirability of executing the chief Minister of State like a common felon in the public square,” Jiaqing “allowed him the privilege of committing suicide, as a mark of high favour and out of regard to the dignity of the nation.”
A principal accomplice was made to witness Heshen ceremonially hanging himself; then the accomplice was reprieved of his own death sentence and sent into exile.
The new sovereign found his nation’s dignity sufficiently upheld by the doomed man’s melancholy inventory of loot destined (of course) for the re-appropriation of the Qing … and sufficiently outraged that, upon discovering weeks after the some artifact Heshen had failed to enumerate,
Had these facts come to Our knowledge before the 18th day of the 1st Moon [i.e., February 22], we should assuredly have decreed Ho Shen’s decapitation, even if We had spared him the lingering death and dismemberment.
However, he has already been permitted to commit suicide, and thus luckily escaped the extreme penalty of public execution. We do not, therefore, insist on his corpse being hacked to pieces.
Jiaqing had better to worry about his own now-declining state, which was about to be hacked to pieces by encroaching European powers.
Having made an example of Heshen and a handful of his most visible allies, he was still saddled with the endemic structural corruption Heshen had fostered in the institutions of Qing governance.
“Historians have tended to see Jiaqing’s failure of nerve in purging the bureaucracy of all tainted officials as something of an original sin whose commission predetermined the dynasty’s steady decline,” writes William T. Rowe of this turning point. “But given the need for at least some continuity in routine administration, it is not at all clear that he could have acted otherwise.”
(Hey, at least he did make the few examples. Not everyone even does that much.)
And so Jiaqing struggled in vain to maintain China’s fading prestige; his reign would witness economic erosion and a burgeoning opium trade that eventually led it to war with the British and humiliating western domination.
Since a sclerotic bureaucracy at once crushing in its expanse, helpless in its effect, and riven with self-dealers, is a timeless theme (especially in China), Heshen persists as a lively emblem of corruption.
* It bears remembering that it is principally by the testimony of Heshen’s enemies that we know him.
** Technically, Jiaqing had been ruling since Qianlong symbolically “abdicated” in 1796; in reality, Qianlong continued to run the realm until his death.