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Emperor Qianlong (reigned AD 1736-95)

The Qianlong emperor was one of the longest-reigning and most enlightened rulers of the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The Qing were Manchurian horsemen who, like other foreign rulers, absorbed the culture and administrative system of China. They were enthusiastic patrons of all forms of Chinese arts.

Qianlong was the grandson of the Kangxi emperor, who also ruled for sixty years (1662-1722), and who greatly fostered cultural and intellectual life. Qianlong's reign in particular has been termed one of China's golden ages, during which the economy expanded, and China was the wealthiest and most populous country in the world. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were 200 million Chinese.

Qianlong was determined to expand the Chinese empire even further than the Tang (618-906) had done. Under his reign, Tibet became a protectorate, Ili and Turkestan were conquered, and Burma acknowledged Chinese suzerainty, as did the Gurkas of Nepal. Only in the last decade of his reign, when Qianlong delegated many decisions to a powerful eunuch, did corruption and inefficiency weaken the empire.

Qianlong is particularly known for his scholarship and patronage of the arts. He published catalogues of the royal collections, which he expanded greatly (he had, for example, 30,000 jades). He wrote thousands of poems in beautiful calligraphy. He was a painter himself and attracted painters to court (including the Italian Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Castiglione). He commissioned magnificent palaces and temples. He often inscribed his name and sentiments on paintings, ceramics and jades in the imperial collection.

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British Museum collections, £12.99

British Museum collections, £12.99