Zu Xiaoren (1712-1774): A Manchu Expert on the Dzungars and Tibetans

During the time of the Qianlong Emperor’s rule over the Qing Dynasty throughout the 1700’s, there was a massive period of change in China. The influx of new cultures and practices swept through the Central Kingdom, and with them came expansion, confliction, and ultimately, a redefined empire. The cultural and political achievements of the Qianlong Emperor could not have been accomplished without the unfaltering influence of Zu Xiaoren, who served as Qianlong’s primary imperial advisor. Many historians overlook the significance of Zu Xiaoren’s guidance, only noticing the illustrious achievements of the Qianlong Emperor on paper; however, it is undeniable that Xiaoren’s brilliance on and off the battlefield also contributed to Qianlong’s success and longevity. This paper will detail the rise and fall of Zu Xiaoren’s life, and shed light on his unexposed, yet profound achievements throughout the later Qing Dynasty.

“For every great emperor, there is an even greater man watching his back”
—Zu Xiaoren.

Zu Xiaoren was born on November 15, 1712, to a relatively wealthy household in Beijing. His father was a Manchu medical doctor for the Yongzheng Emperor, the father of Qianlong, and his mother was a textile artist who also worked in Beijing. Because of the family’s relationship between Xiaoren’s father and the emperor, Xiaoren was able to spend a lot of time with Qianlong throughout his childhood. Both Qianlong and Xiaoren spent time playing in the imperial garden, practicing archery and hunting, and learning from the same tutors. In 1733, Zu Xiaoren passed the civil service examination on his first try and became a civil official in Beijing. While in this position, he served as a low-level scholar official.

When Qianlong’s father, Yongzheng, died suddenly in 1735, Qianlong was devastated, as was Zu Xiaoren. During his period of mourning, Qianlong decided to promote Zu Xiaoren to the Grand Council. The Grand Council was established by Yongzheng in 1733, two years before he died. John E. Wills states in Mountain of Fame the purpose of the Grand Council:

Ostensibly set up to coordinate the secret planning and communication necessary for the great military campaigns that already had begun and would continue all through the Qianlong reign … it soon became a small central body very close to the throne that coordinated most important kinds of decision-making by the emperor; thus scholars writing in English call it the Grand Council. 1

Zu Xiaoren served as moral support and general adviser for the newly appointed Qianlong Emperor for the next 60 years, until 1796. Xiaoren’s primary duties in this role were to accompany Qianlong on any diplomatic or personal journeys, serve as a strategic and military adviser to Qianlong, and act as his primary scribe for legislative purposes. The two spent much time together, just as they had done in their youths. It was not uncommon to find Xiaoren teaching his expert archery skills to the Qianlong emperor in the courtyard of the Old Summer Palace, or riding on horseback to visit the southern provinces of the empire.

In 1751, the Qianlong emperor and Zu Xiaoren made consecutive tours of southern China. These tours took up to 6 weeks to complete; they became a well-documented, and important milestones in Chinese history. The purpose of these tours was not only to survey and show the emperor the spectacular, multi-ethnic kingdom over which he reigned, but also to show that the ‘ruler’ truly cared for his ‘subjects’. In total, eight trips were made by the two throughout the year; they visited locations in Jiangnan, which was the region south of the Yangtze River. During these visits, Xiaoren met his wife while in the Jiangsu province; her name was Zhang Yi, who was Han Chinese. Together, they had a total of four sons and four daughters. Qianlong was especially happy for his long-time best friend that he had found a Han Chinese girl, since it represented the culturally diverse empire that he sought to govern.

In the years from 1752 to1770, Xiaoren assisted Qianlong on his military conquests of the Dzungar Mongols and the Jinchuan Tibetan people. Xiaoren spent weeks analyzing previous military defeats of Qianlong’s father, Yongzheng, in order to prepare Qianlong’s military strategy against the notorious Mongol tribesmen. It was known that the Dzungar people were incredibly powerful, and that their leaders continued to claim to be khans, and so directly challenged the Qing emperor’s authority.2 Between 1754 and 1758, the Qing troops travelled far to the west and fought several battles, usually defeating the Dzungars, but never actually capturing the khan himself.

It was later discovered from uncovered scrolls found in the Grand Council office, that Zu Xiaoren had written a secret letter to Qianlong urging him to exterminate all the Dzungars, regardless of their rank or age. The letter emphasized that it was necessary for the Manchu people to show their strength through military victory and conquests of hostile enemies. Wills further supports this claim by stating, “A broader look at the ruling elite of this period would reveal that the Manchus were heirs of an Inner Asian political tradition that emphasized success in war and ruthless effectiveness in ruling.” 3 This shows that Zu Xiaoren had a powerful say in Qianlong’s decision to launch what would be known as the Ten Great Campaigns against the Dzungars. These campaigns demonstrated the strength of the Qing military, as well as enlarged the area of Qing control in Central Asia at the time.

Zu Xiaoren’s religious views were extremely accepting. He was a devout Buddhist, and had the goal to combine Chinese and Tibetan architecture styles. Often times, he would draw blueprints and sketches of what kind of temples he wished to construct at the summer retreat locations. The Qianlong emperor was often thoroughly impressed by the detail and execution of Zu Xiaoren’s blueprints. Zu Xiaoren demonstrated his intelligence not only in the political realm, but also in the math and science world. Throughout the following years, several Chinese-style Buddhist temples sprung up around Beijing, several of which were based off original designs made by Zu Xiaoren.

In 1771, the Qing underwent numerous projects with the goal of expressing multi-ethnic architectural styles. One example of a particularly splendid project was described in The Open Empire, “The most important structures, which were located in Chengde, and the largest, are the Eight Outlying Imperial Temples, which were built in the different architectural styles of the empire.” 4 In addition to these magnificent Mongol financed construction projects, Xiaoren also assisted in the completion of the lesser Potala Palace, a miniature of the Dalai Lama’s residence in Lhasa. Much of the building and construction designs that were used to construct the palace were implemented by Zu Xiaoren. Qianlong fully supported Xiaoren’s ideas to expand upon the traditional Chinese architecture at the time, and to add newly inspired and unique additions to the empire. Wills supports this fact by stating, “Buildings dating from the long Qianlong reign are frequently splendid, sometimes a little too richly ornamented, not as fine in proportions as the Tang palaces probably were, but all in all fitting reminders of China’s last great era of prosperity and cultural self-confidence.” 5 The great era of prosperity and cultural self-confidence was a period in history that Zu Xiaoren dreamed to uphold under the leadership of Qianlong.

In 1793, the Qing Empire was forced into a volatile encounter with Great Britain’s King George III.  The King had sent Lord George Macartney, an Irish official who would attempt to open up China’s system of foreign trade through diplomatic encounters. In response to Macartney’s request, Zu Xiaoren was furious. He immediately drafted a letter to Qianlong saying foreign relations were extremely risky for their growing empire; he was afraid that opening trade ports would hinder the economy and be disastrous to the already fragile period of peace the empire was experiencing. As a result, Qianlong proceeded to decline Macartney’s request, saying “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures.” 6 In reality, Qianlong’s claim that China had no need of foreign products was a rhetorical ploy; the real goal in refusing trade was in Xiaoren’s original warning. Immediately following Macartney’s departure from China, Qianlong appointed Xiaoren to help him draft a diplomatic letter to King George III, refusing to open trade borders with Britain. This letter would go down in history as a notorious reminder of China’s adamant stance towards foreigners at the time. This conflict between Britain and China showed that Xiaoren still regarded China as a “Central Kingdom”, and that China possessed incompatible views between Britain and China’s trading policies.

In addition to the important role Zu Xiaoren played in the government efforts to limit trade, he also found a way to improve Qianlong’s already indomitable military force through the addition of new and innovative weapons. One of the British gifts to Qianlong during their visit was a model of a steamship that had 110 guns on it.7 Zu Xiaoren took note of this very fascinating gift, and spent months researching and developing a lightweight cannon that they could transport into the mountains to fight the Taiwan Rebels. As an adept innovator and engineer, Xiaoren along with several other Jesuit and Qing engineers, were able to adjust the angle at which they positioned their cannon so as to hit more targets. In 1794, Qianlong awarded Zu Xiaoren the non-imperial title of Qingche Duwei for his courage and valor on the battlefield in addition to his innovations in weapon development. As such, Zu Xiaoren helped to design several new models of the cannon that revolutionized the Qing military firepower.

In the later years following the Macartney Embassy conflict, Qianlong’s life became more and more leisurely. Qianlong and Zu Xiaoren were constantly indulging in the arts, literature, and were mostly hunting. At the time, the Qing emperor had several different residences: the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Summer Palace, and their favorite hunting grounds in Chengde. These hunting grounds were located 150 miles north of the Great Wall, and laid at the meeting point of three very different environmental zones: Chinese farmland to the south, the Mongolian grasslands to the west, and Manchurian forest to the east.

The emperor and their entourage, including Zu Xiaoren and some thirty thousand people, would gather at Chengde to witness the impressive Qianlong emperor demonstrate his pin-point archery skills. These skills, even throughout the decades of the Qing Dynasty, was a key demonstration of their claim to be khan.8 Thousands of spectators would gather in the beautiful fields of Chengde’s Summer Palace to watch Qianlong and Xiaoren demonstrate their adept archery skills. Most of the impressed women were not aware that it was Zu Xiaoren who had taught the Qianlong Emperor how to shoot an arrow.

Tragedy struck in 1795, when Zu Xiaoren died saving the Qianlong emperor’s life during Qianlong’s last imperial hunt of his illustrious 60-year long reign. Zu Xiaoren and Qianlong were embarked upon a routine early morning hunt in the forest-covered areas on the Chengde hunting grounds. They were stopped at a stream to refill on water when a 300-pound Siberian tiger sprung out of the trees and onto the chest of Qianlong. Immediately, Zu Xiaoren tackled the tiger off Qianlong’s body and wrestled with it, demonstrating great strength. One of Qianlong’s squires recalled, “It was brutal. There was blood everywhere. But I have truly never seen an act of valor as great as that achieved by him [Zu Xiaoren].”

Xiaoren was able to kill the tiger, but later died due to his wounds. Xiaoren demonstrated great courage by giving his own life for the safety of the emperor’s, and as a result, Qianlong constructed an elaborate and glorious tomb for Zu Xiaoren. This tomb is located in Chengde, where the two spent the most time together. It has the inscription on the entrance, “For every great emperor, there is an even greater man watching his back”.

After Zu Xiaoren’s death in 1795, Qianlong was devastated, and fell into a period of depression. The resulting depression caused Qianlong to neglect his governmental position, and lessen his administrative power. Many historians argue that Qianlong’s later years were extremely rough because he started placing his trust in corrupt officials such as Heshen; however, the biggest reason is that he was suffering from the loss of Zu Xiaoren, his childhood best friend, adulthood accomplice and brother in arms. The corruption of the empire that occurred during Qianlong’s later years as emperor was something that Zu Xiaoren had no control over. It was unfortunate that Xiaoren died in 1795, when the full extent of long-term embezzlement and corruption by officials, such as Yu Minzhong and Heshen, had not yet been reached. Had Zu Xiaoren lived long enough to see the gradual demise of Qianlong’s rule, it is without a doubt that he would have done something about it.

Zu Xiaoren’s family legacy stretched through several generations. Above him, Zu Chongzhi (429-500 AD), was a prominent Chinese mathematician and astronomer during the Liu Song and Southern Qi dynasties. Chongzhi had made numerous advancements in calanders, approximations of pi, and calculations of numerous planteary constants.9 Below him, Ryan Zu (1995-?) is currently a student studying Chemical Engineering at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, United States. He was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Rochester, New York. He is studying rigorously in order to change the world just as much as his previous ancestors had.


1 Wills Jr, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Page 231
2 Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. New York: Norton, 2000. Second Edition. Page 400
3 Wills 237
4 Hansen 402
5 Wills 231
6 Hansen 411
7 Hansen 412
8 Hansen 403
9 “Zu Chongzhi” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. <http://www.britannica.com/biography/Zu-Chongzhi>.

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RYAN ZU is a third-year Chemical Engineering student at the University of Rochester. Ryan is from Rochester and has a sister who lives in Seattle. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing tennis. More by Ryan