Episode 18: Let China Sleep

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Despite seeming to the West as if it was “sleeping,” China in the 1810s was in fact experiencing the crucial transition of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty from its cultural and political zenith under the Qianlong Emperor to the ruin and chaos that would ramp up in the later 19th century. Ruled at this time by Aisin Gioro Yongyan, also known as the Jiaqing Emperor, China rebuffed not one but two British diplomatic missions and continued its policy of isolation and indifference to the West. But at the same time dangerous and dramatic events were brewing, including a rebellion in 1813 that almost toppled the dynasty, and a nefarious plan by British merchants to introduce addictive drugs into Chinese society. Overshadowed by his illustrious father, Yongyan was unable to arrest the cancers that were just beginning to eat away at the foundations of his country—but the evidence indicates he was fully aware of them. China, in fact, was not “sleeping” at all.

In this episode, historian Sean Munger takes you into one of the most mysterious places on the planet in the 1810s, right into the gilded halls and Alice in Wonderland surrealism of the Forbidden City where the “Lord of 10,000 Years” and a tiny elite ruled over nearly a third of the world’s population. You’ll meet some members of the mysterious “White Lotus Society,” rub shoulders with China’s most notorious embezzler, and learn how a British diplomat’s refusal to get down on his knees may have doomed millions of Chinese to a vicious cycle of drug addiction. You may not know much about the history of China, but after hearing this episode you may well come to understand some of the powerful forces that would eventually transform the world’s most populous nation into what it has become in modern times.

(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Additional Materials About This Episode

British diplomat Henry Ellis published his journal chronicling in great detail the failed 1816 British diplomatic mission to China. The entire book is online, for free, at Archive.org; here it is.

The header image for this episode is a portrait of Aisin Gioro Yongyan, the Jiajing Emperor.

(Above) Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor (Aisin Gioro Hongli), who ruled from 1735 to 1796. Yongyan was his 15th son.

(Above) Portrait of George Macartney, First Earl Macartney, who headed the 1793 mission to China.

(Above) Portrait of William Pitt Amherst, head of the 1816 mission.

(Above) Portrait of Lin Qing, leader of the Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813. He was apparently executed shortly after the rebellion.

All images are believed in to be in the public domain.

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