In imperial China, merchants generally ranked at the bottom of the social hierarchy. No matter how much wealth was amassed, being rich rarely warranted an entry in the history books.
Yet if you Google “the world’s richest men of all time”, a man called Heshen often pops up. Researchers have calculated his net worth to be in the same bracket as the likes of John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Mayer Amschel Rothschild.
Who was Heshen?
Born in 1750, Heshen began his career in the Forbidden City as an imperial bodyguard. His looks and wit impressed Emperor Qianlong. Within a year Heshen had emerged as the monarch’s favourite courtier and he started to assume a number of the Qing empire’s senior ministerial positions.
In fact, when George Macartney led Britain’s first diplomatic mission to China in 1793, he first had to navigate several uneasy encounters with Heshen, who was in charge of arranging his meeting with Qianlong. That included a spat about how Macartney must kowtow before the emperor, a customary ritual to which the Briton objected (in a compromise, he bent a single knee).
How rich was Heshen?
Heshen is remembered in Chinese history not only as one of the richest men but also as the most corrupt official of all time. With Qianlong’s favour (and probably his knowledge) he enjoyed almost complete freedom of action. Two key posts were the biggest source of his illicit income. As minister of hubu, he was effectively the finance minister, overseeing the Qing’s state income. And as minister of neiwubu, or “household affairs”, he dealt with the royal family’s personal finances.
Heshen would regularly and openly siphon money from the funds that he managed. Historians are yet to reach a definitive conclusion on how much money he amassed. Yet when he was eventually executed by Qianlong’s son (Emperor Jiaqing) and all his wealth was confiscated – a week after Qianlong’s death – his personal worth was estimated at more than 15 years the Qing empire’s annual income. Other records have suggested that he owned more than 3,000 houses and that mountains of gold, silver and valuables were recovered after he was purged.
How could Qianlong allow this to happen?
Qianlong is portrayed as one of the most capable emperors in Chinese history. When he first met Heshen, he was already 65 and he had ruled for four decades. By that stage he should have been worldly wise, so it was strange that such an experienced ruler should pluck a 25 year-old from nowhere and give him such an important role.
The fact that the emperor then allowed Heshen to get away with such rampant corruption is even more of a puzzle.
That’s why the relationship between Heshen and Qianlong has been a topic of some interest. George Macartney, the British ambassador, described Heshen as the only person that Qianlong entirely trusted.
Many historians believe that Qianlong knew of Heshen’s corruption, and that Heshen knew Qianlong knew as well. However, by helping himself to such riches in plain view of the emperor, Heshen might have intended to convey a message that he was only interested in wealth and had no political ambitions.
More likely is that Heshen was a ‘white glove’, dutifully taking on the jobs that his imperial master wanted to avoid. For instance, Qianlong made six famous ‘inspection tours’ of southern China during his reign. These extravagant trips required huge spending but Heshen organised them, providing Qianlong with everything he needed to ensure these trips were to his liking. And while Heshen became a hated figure for his unscrupulous behaviour, Qianlong was able to keep his own reputation largely intact, sidestepping any taint that he might be the most corrupt emperor or the harshest tax collector.
In the name of anti-corruption…
One of the major income sources from Heshen’s role in neiwubu was from confiscating assets owned by convicted officials or individuals. So at the end of the day, Qianlong’s decision to allow Heshen’s behaviour was not quite as reckless as it sounds. Qianlong’s successor, Emperor Jiaxing, waited only a few days before demanding that Heshen kill himself, and in turn secured a handy financial windfall in the properties he then seized from the former top official. Politically too this helped to deliver the new ruler some instant popularity by purging a hated figure from the court.
Of course, graft is still a major problem in contemporary China. In the first seven years after President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, his investigators netted an estimated 1.3 million corrupt officials.
Little wonder that memories of Heshen are fresh in the collective psyche as a symbol of one of the most pernicious issues plaguing the country.
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