Getting a gift for the emperor who has everything: Paying individual tribute (進貢) in the Qianlong period

It is hard enough to get the right present for a relative or friend. Imagine the difficulties of picking out the right gift for an emperor.

Whether it is a red-envelope full of cash at a wedding or some combination of cigarettes and alcohol to help grease the wheels of the bureaucracy, gift giving is an important part of life in China today. Likewise, in Chinese history, tribute missions from other areas of Asia presented gifts to the throne, a ritual that cemented a dynasty’s symbolic supremacy.

However, the natural tendency to look at the workings of the tributary system and the moments that challenged it, like the Macartney mission of 1793, draws our attention to the interaction between China and the rest of the world when there was another type of individual tribute that was more frequent and not only revealed an emperor’s desire to receive gifts but also his desire not to appear too covetous.

In a ritual that started in the Kangxi reign, reached its height in the Qianlong period and was attacked by the Jiaqing emperor, high-ranking ministers regularly presented gifts to the emperor as a way to further the bond between the emperor and his top bureaucrats (shangxiazhiqing上下之情). If a minister was favored or fortunate the emperor might bestow a gift on his servant (shangci 賞賜).

Not just any official was allowed to pay personal tribute to the emperor. According to Dong Jianzhong, a scholar at Renmin University, six types of people qualified: members of the imperial clan, high-ranking officials in the central government, Governors and Governor-Generals of provinces, officials in the salt administration, high-ranking officials now in retirement and descendants of Confucius. However, as with any regulation, there were exceptions. The official ledger of who gave what gifts to the Emperor at what time, (gongzhong jindan 宮中進單) is replete with names that don’t fall into the these six categories: the Dali Lama, other prominent figures in Buddhism and foreigners (洋人).

What did one get for the emperor who had everything? Governors and Governor-Generals of provinces usually presented the Emperor with a local product, usually tea or fruit. Ministers could also give various tools for writing (文放四事): brushes, paper, ink and inkstones. Lamps, flowers, fireworks, precious stones, wares from abroad and wild animals were also options. This sounds straightforward enough but imagine all the planning that must have went into preparing these gifts. In the 49th year of Qianlong’s reign, two Manchu noblemen presented him with an assortment of flowers: roses, orchids and hydrangeas. Those flowers had better not be wilted when they were presented to the Emperor but making sure they arrived when in full bloom must have been a logistical headache.

On top of all the logistical challenges there was a more abstract but still very real worry: the emperor did not accept all the gifts that were given to him as tribute. Though many of the presents represented a key part of the emperor’s and Imperial Household’s consumption, the ruler did not wanted to present the appearance of being too covetous. In general the Emperor accepted all gifts that came from local areas (fangwu gongpin 方物貢品) but could still reject (bo駁)a large number of offering. In the 14th years of Qianlong’s reign, Li Shixiao presented the emperor with 90 types of gifts but the emperor accepted only 13. In the 60th  year of his reign, Qianlong received 45 types of presents from the infamous Heshen but accepted only five of them.

From time to time the emperor issued edicts about what he would and would not accept a gift. In the 31th year of his reign, Qianlong instructed that he did not want pearls as a gift, voicing a common sentiment that they were not really useful: pearls could not provide food when one was hungry or warmth when one was cold (夫珠寶飢不可食,寒不可衣,裕實用有何裨益?) Gold was another product that periodically drew the ire of the emperor.

Even though these orders were in place, Qianlong still accepted pearls and other gifts that were technically banned. This uncertainty surely increased the pressure on high-ranking officials as they mulled over the appropriate gift. The area between orders and action, regulations and reality highlights the tension between Qianlong’s desire to consume and the Confucian imperative that an emperor not appear too covetous. It is significant to note, however, that despite the shifting contours of regulations on gift giving—what the Emperor would and would not accept—during the Qianlong period officials were not punished for presenting the wrong gift at the wrong time.

According to Dong Jianzhong, the same cannot be said for the Jiaqing era, when the personal tribute system came under attack. Like many other worrying developments in the early 19th century, the disgraced minister Hehen received the blame for the lax enforcement on regulations concerning what was and was not an appropriate gift. For Dong, though, this judgment overstates the case: the regulations, rituals, flexibility and contradictions of the personal tribute system were already well established by the time Heshen presented his first gifts to the Qianlong Emperor in the 41st year of his reign.

The logic and imperatives of the personal tribute system in the High Qing don’t say as much about the evils of Heshen as they do about the personality of Qianlong and the challenges of how to satisfy personal desires and tastes while at the same time not acting as a greedy and covetous ruler in an age of prosperity (wangsheng 旺盛)

Information comes from:
-董建中 “清乾隆王公大臣官员进贡问题初探”清史研究, 1996 No. 1: 40-66.
-董建中 清乾皇帝禁贡初探(Unpublished manuscript but I can provide .pdf to anyone interested).

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