Qianlong Emperor: The Worst Poet in Chinese History?
If you ask a Chinese person who was the most successful poet in Chinese history, the answer will most likely be someone from the Tang dynasty (618-907), the golden age of Chinese poetry. For example, the “poet-immortal” Li Bai, known for the fantastic themes and playfulness of his works; the “poet-sage” Du Fu, who wrote realistic poems about this chaotic time in history; or Bai Juyi, whose low-key, near-vernacular style made his verses understandable even to the uneducated, and whose works are enjoyed by readers in foreign countries like Japan and Korea.
But when it comes to being the most prolific poet, the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty (1616-1911) has all these Tang luminaries beat. One of the longest-lived monarchs in Chinese history, the Qianlong Emperor had 43,000 poems to his name by the time he died at the age of 88, meaning he allegedly wrote 1.3 poems each day on average (by comparison, the 18th century’s Complete Tang Poems, China’s largest collection of Tang poetry, contains around 49,000 poems by more than 2,200 poets). “Alleged” is the key word here, as it’s not clear the emperor penned a single poem attributed to him, and he was certainly more concerned with quantity than quality, to put it mildly.
It was not rare for ancient Chinese emperors to write poems. Li Jing, the second ruler of the Southern Tang state during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-960), and his son and successor Li Yu, are both recognized as great poets.
But unfortunately, hundreds of years on, no one could say the same of the Qianlong Emperor, except, perhaps, for the Son of Heaven himself. That’s because the emperor was very proud of his poetic achievements, once exclaiming in his late years: “At the age of nearly 90, I have created as many poems as that of the poets of the whole Tang dynasty. Isn’t that a legend in the literary world?” Qian Zhongshu, a renowned 20th-century literary scholar and writer, commented on the Qianlong Emperor’s poems in his On the Art of Poetry: The Emperor Gaozong of the Qing [Qianlong] wrote poems like he was writing essays, using many unnecessary auxiliary words. It makes people sick.”
From the emperor’s oeuvre, one poem called “On Flying Snow,” is included in primary school textbooks today. It goes like this:
One piece, another piece, and another piece;
Two pieces, three pieces, four, five pieces;
Six pieces, seven pieces, eight, nine pieces;
All fly into the flowering reeds and disappear.
If it weren’t for the last line, one wouldn’t know this was meant to be a poem. But this final line may not even have been written by the emperor himself. Some folktales say it was the official Ji Yun, a well-known Qing dynasty writer, who finished the poem after the emperor wrote the first three lines; others say it was official Li Yong.
Other readers found this poem very similar to a work by Zheng Banqiao, a painter and calligrapher alive during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign. Zheng’s poem was called “On Snow”:
One piece, two piece, three, four pieces;
Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten pieces;
One thousand pieces, ten thousand pieces, countless pieces;
All flying into the plum blossoms and cannot be seen.
Since Zheng and the emperor were contemporaries, it’s hard to say who wrote their poem first. But most people who subscribe to the plagiarism theory believe the emperor copied Zheng, as it would have been suicidal to plagiarize an emperor in ancient China.
Another of the Qianlong Emperor’s poems, describing cucumber, is famous for being unpoetic:
It is the best ingredient on the plate in Beijing;
I tasted it lately in February, but how can I give it a review?
Weighing down the trellis, and embellishing the fence, it looks so beautiful,
The rural landscape contains true feelings.
Besides bad writing and plagiarism, the Qianlong Emperor was also suspected of hiring ghostwriters. According to the Unofficial History of Manchu Qing, a collection of folk tales and anecdotes about the dynasty compiled by Tian Jia, a writer living in the late 19th and early 20th century, court official Shen Deqian ghostwrote a lot of poems for the emperor, and thus was favored by him. When Shen died, his executors found he had collected all the poems he wrote for the emperor into an anthology of his own. The emperor was furious and embarrassed, so he ordered a complete search of Shen’s estate and confiscation of all his property.
It’s not clear how much of the Unofficial History is true and how much fiction, but the emperor himself admitted he didn’t mind using ghostwriters. In the second year of his rule, the Qianlong Emperor published a volume of poetry named The Complete Works in Leshan Hall, and wrote in the preface: “From now on, even if I have new works, some might be created by officials.”
In ancient China, writing poetry was an important marker of being an educated man. The Qianlong Emperor, who was also an avid collector of art and calligraphy, seemed to be particularly keen to prove himself as not only a capable administrator but a man of talent and taste. Perhaps his writing ability wasn’t any worse than most other emperors in history — he just exposed himself to ridicule by writing a lot, and boasting about his poor attempts.
That then begs the question: couldn’t the emperor find any ghostwriters capable of writing better poems?
This is an original article from The World of Chinese, and has been republished with permission. The article can be found on The World of Chinese’s website here.
(Header image: A portrait of the Qianlong Emperor on display at the Shenyang Palace Museum, Liaoning province, 2019. Liu Baocheng/IC)