Yuan Shun (1711-1795): Witness of the High Qing Period


Yuan Shun was a general, strategist, Lamaist scholar, and architect during the High Qing period of said dynasty. He was a close Imperial Advisor of the Qianlong Emperor.

Yuan Shun was born in Chengdu, Szechuan in May 1711. His father was a famous martial artist who practiced kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in his early years, and later moved to Chengdu (a city not far from Tibet) to continue his Lamaist martial art studies. Yuan Shun’s mother was a daughter of the local governor in Szechuan. When his father founded a martial arts school in Chengdu, many people followed his name and came from all over the country to visit and study in that school. One of them, according to a story, was the fourth son of the Kangxi Emperor; the prince hid his name there and eagerly wanted to become a top martial artist.

At age four, Yuan Shun had already started to learn martial arts from his father. At age six, he began to study the Four Books and Five Classics (si shu wu jing) at a private school and performed very well. Since Yinzhen, the fourth son of the Kangxi Emperor became one of his father’s best students, the relationship between the student and his master became very close. When the prince disclosed his true status to his master one day after he passed the final level exam, the master felt extremely shocked. However, after the prince demanded that his master move with him to Beijing, the master had no other choice but to obey the student. So in 1719, when Yuan Shun was eight, he and his family moved to Beijing. Yinzhen liked the talented young boy because Yuan Shun was excellent in both martial arts and academics. Interestingly enough, Yuan Shun was the same age as Yinzhen’s son, Hongli, so the prince invited Yuan Shun to live with Hongli to be a study partner.

The two boys were like brothers. They studied poetry and practiced kung fu together. Very often, they also hunted together. Yuan Shun was four months older so he maintained modesty in case of any disagreements between the two. Hongli was very clever and was very much loved by his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor. Whenever Kangxi went hunting, he liked to bring both Hongli and his partner Yuan Shun. The Emperor believed hunting was a good exercise to train his grandson to be a good warrior like himself. In 1721, when he brought the 10-year old Hongli and Yuan Shun with him for hunting, a bear suddenly jumped out from the forest and threatened to attack the hunting group. Hongli quickly rode his horse to guard his grandfather Kangxi. At about the same time, Yuan Shun, who was right beside Hongli, shot an arrow at the bear’s heart. The bear cried and slowed down. The other guards rushed up and killed the injured bear.[1] Kangxi was very happy. Watching his grandson, who was brave and royal, calmly sitting on his horse, he felt that Hongli was just like himself in his earlier ages. He also called Yuan Shun to him and admired him like a hero while handing over his own bow as a gift to the boy. That was the highest honor anyone could ever expect to receive. The boy was only 10 years old.

Next year in 1722, Kangxi died, and Yinzhen became the Yongzheng Emperor.

Hongli was named the crown prince immediately. After a year, the crown prince started his special education in preparing him for the future throne, so Yuan Shun moved out of the palace. In 1724 he and his family were allowed to return to Szechuan. A year later, in 1725, Yuan Shun followed a high Lama who was a close friend of his father’s, the first time he journeyed to Tibet. The 14-year old boy was allowed to live in a famous lama temple to study the Tibetan Language, Buddhism, Lamaism, and their culture and history. Yuan Shun spent ten years in Tibet until 1735, when he became 24 years old.

In the year 1735, Hongli came into throne as his father, the Yongzheng Emperor, suddenly died. He was named the Qianlong Emperor. The young Emperor never forgot his old friend Yuan Shun and summoned people to find him. When he located Yuan Shun in Tibet, he found it amazing and invited him back to Beijing immediately. Like his father, the Yongzheng Emperor, the Qianlong Emperor was also interested in Tibetan Buddhism. When he learned that his close friend Yuan Shun had become a Tibetan expert, he was delighted and the two engaged in endless conversations about the topic. They would even talk overnight without sleep about it. Yuan Shun told Qianlong that Tibetan Buddhism shared basic Buddhist principles with Chan, but the two were about as different in modes of expression as two religions could be.[2] Later, the

Qianlong Emperor would make Yuan Shun a Tibetan affairs advisor.

The Qing government did not rule Tibet until Qianlong’s grandfather, Kangxi, sent an army to protect the Dalai Lama there in 1720. However the Qing army did not engage in governing Tibet. They only did their utmost to safeguard the Dalai Lama[3] because the Qing believed Dalai Lama had the real influence in Tibet. Yuan Shun told Qianlong: in order to rule Tibet, Qing had to defeat the Dzungar Mongols because the Mongols had too much influence over Tibet and its Dalai Lama. They also controlled enormous amounts of land in the north and south of the Taklimakan desert, the far west near Tibet and Mongolia. If the Mongols were defeated, Qing could also occupy a huge territory. Since the Kangxi Emperor and Yongzheng Emperor were unsuccessful in their campaigns against the Dzungars[4], it was time for Qianlong to develop a new strategy to fight them.

In 1738, the Qianlong Emperor appointed Yuan Shun as his imperial commissioner to visit Tibet and meet the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama to secure the relationship between Qing and Tibet. Yuan Shun traveled several times to Tibet in a few years. He put a lot of effort and gained the trust from the two top Lamas. In 1743, he accompanied the Panchen Lama on their way to Beijing. Qianlong met Panchen himself, and started to receive Lamaist instructions from the Panchen Lama, whom the Emperor had invited to live in Beijing. Since then, Panchen often lived in between Beijing and Tibet. He kept lecturing Qianlong until Qianlong’s later reign.[5]

The new strategy to fight the Dzungars began to be deployed in 1753. First, Qianlong sent general Zhaohui on a tour to inspect Tibet where he found that Qing controlled the place securely.[6] Then, when Qing prepared to deal with the Dzungars’ leader Amursana, he surprisingly surrendered to the Qing in 1754. When the Emperor felt so happy, Yuan Shun expressed his doubt about Amursana because Dzungars had proven themselves very deceptive in the past. So Qing’s preparation for the campaigns never stopped. Ultimately Yuan Shun proved to be correct in his assertion that Amursana soon rebelled.

In fall 1756, Zhaohui volunteered to lead large troops to fight the Dzungars. Because Yuan Shun knew the western front and Tibetan-Mongols affairs very well, Qianlong sent him as a deputy commander to Zhaohui. Zhaohui wanted to lead the troops far out in the Ili Valley to attack but Yuan Shun disagreed. He said to Zhaohui, “Winter is coming soon, and our supply base is very far from Ili Valley. If the general takes the large army to travel such a long way into the place mostly unknown to us but familiar to the enemy, it would lead us to great danger. If the enemy guards the valley with their geographical advantage or avoids fighting us, then once the campaign is pushed back into the harsh winter, we would be in trouble since the supply line is too long and easily cut down by the snowstorm. So I suggest that we guard the entrance of the valley and wait until the spring to attack the enemy.” Zhaohui laughed, “Our army is so strong and all of our soldiers are waiting for their victory to come. If we have traveled for several months to get here just to rest, our soldiers will complain and the enemy will think we’re weak. We should start fighting them and we will not let them survive before winter!” The successful general insisted that his strong army would destroy all enemies before the winter, so Yuan Shun could not stop him after trying to persuade him a couple of times. He knew that although he was quite close to the Emperor, Zhaohui, however, was a cousin of the Emperor’s.

The result was a heavy loss. Zhaohui and his army had to fight their way back to their supply base through the horrors of an Inner Asian winter.[7] He lost many people. Followed by the loss, the general now realized his mistake. He felt sincerely sorry to Yuan Shun and began to respect the wise deputy whose predictions were accurate. In 1757, under Yuan Shun’s advice, Zhaohui and Yuan Shun commanded the reinforced army to attack the Dzungars again. The victories came one by one. By 1759, the campaign against the Dzungars was successfully completed. When Yuan Shun and Zhaohui returned to Beijing, the Qianlong Emperor greeted them outside the gates, an extraordinary honor.[8]

Following the defeat of the Dzungars, Qianlong took Yuan Shun’s recommendation to send the army to conquer the oases surrounding the Taklimakan desert, including Turfan, in 1760.[9] Qing gained control of Xinjiang. After the successful campaign, Qianlong also took Yuan Shun’s suggestion in which Qing did not require Muslim residents to wear the queue, as a show of important respect to them. So Xinjiang remained peaceful most time throughout Qianlong’s reign. While the Qing showed their respects to Tibetans, Muslims, and other minorities in the country, they did not show enough respect to traditional Han Chinese beliefs, especially to Chinese Buddhism, in comparison to Lamaism. Although Yuan Shun addressed the issue several times to Qianlong, the Emperor was not interested, and so he could say no more.

In 1767, Yuan Shun was assigned by Qianlong to spearhead the construction of the lesser Potala Palace located in Chengde, the royal hunting residence 150 miles from Beijing. This was a replica project of the original Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s residence in Lhasa, Tibet. The Emperor wanted to build it for the Dalai Lama to live when he visited Chengde. Realizing it was the most important and the largest structures at Chengde, Yuan Shun took a trip to visit Lhasa with his team of architects and engineers. They spent about ten months to study the original Potala Palace and finally created a blueprint for the project. When they returned to Chengde, they began working on the building foundations and the surrounding projects immediately. The main building construction began in 1770, which stood 142 feet tall, a quarter of the original Potala Palace’s height. The massive building expressed the Emperor’s reverence for the Dalai Lama and his dependent status. It was completed by 1771 when it met the Qianlong Emperor’s 60th birthday as well as Yuan Shun’s.[10]

In the 1770s, Qing started to experience a small outbreak of open opposition to Qing rule in the core areas of the empire. In 1774, the White Lotus religious sectarians (Chinese Buddhists) in Shandong had created an uprising against the Qing rule.[11] Yuan Shun continued to warn Qianlong that he had to change certain policies to inspect and limit local governments’ powers over peasants as well as respect those people’s beliefs. If the government did not treat religious sectarians fairly, or didn’t show that the Qing government was their government, the uprising might happen again, because many of them still didn’t accept the Qing as the true Chinese government and would overthrow the Qing dynasty and restore the Ming dynasty.[12] Since the rebellion was suppressed within a month, Qianlong still didn’t pay attention to the matter.

Noticing that his opinions may not be weighed as usual, in 1776, Yuan Shun decided to resign from his Senior Imperial advisor job. Although the Qianlong Emperor wanted to keep him, he allowed him free time to study as a scholar. But the emperor did make a reserved right for himself — he would order his friend to stay with him for at least one day per year. And if his friend wished, he could visit the emperor anytime. That was a great honor, so Yuan Shun thanked the emperor, and began his career as a scholar. He thereafter did a lot of research on Buddhism and Lamaism as he had wished he could do, but couldn’t finish during his ten years in Tibet. One of his huge contributions to Chinese religious studies was his translation of many Tibetan Buddhist scriptures into Chinese during the remainder of his life. Ever since, more Chinese would learn Lamaism.

In May 1795, the 84-year old Yuan Shun became very ill when Qianlong visited his lifelong friend. Yuan Shun never forgot to remind Qianlong about treating the Chinese Buddhists fairly. Qianlong held his tears and promised he would make such changes. Soon, Yuan Shun passed away. However, Qianlong was not yet able to make those changes to Chinese Buddhists before retiring in 1796. Another large White Lotus rebellion began in the same year in eastern Szechuan. It spread so quickly and threatened the very existence of the dynasty. Qianlong told his son, the Jiaqing Emperor, “I made a mistake; I did not keep my promise to Yuan Shun”. The White Lotus Rebellion marked the end of the high Qing period.[13]


[1] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 234.
[2] Wills, 244.
[3] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800 (Second Edition). New York: Norton, 2000. Page 400.
[4] Ibid, 400.
[5] Wills, 251.
[6] Wills, 245.
[7] Ibid, 245.
[8] Wills, 246.
[9] Hansen, 401.
[10] Hansen, 402.
[11] Wills, 252.
[12] Hansen, 416.
[13] Hansen, 416-417.

Thumbnail: James Xie

JAMES XIE is a junior at the University of Rochester. In his spare time he likes to play table tennis, play piano, and draw. More by James