The Yongzheng Emperor (13 December 1678 – 8 October 1735), born Yinzhen, was the fourth Emperor of the Qing dynasty, and the third Qing emperor to rule over China proper, reigned from 1722 to 1735.
A hard-working ruler, the Yongzheng Emperor’s main goal was to create an effective government at minimal expense. Like his father, the Kangxi Emperor, the Yongzheng Emperor used military force to preserve the dynasty’s position.
Although Yongzheng’s reign was much shorter than that of both his father (the Kangxi Emperor) and his son (the Qianlong Emperor), the Yongzheng era was a period of peace and prosperity.
The Yongzheng Emperor cracked down on corruption and reformed the financial administration. His reign saw the formation of the Grand Council, an institution which had an enormous impact on the future of the Qing dynasty.
After ascending the throne in December 1722, Yinzhen adopted the era name “Yongzheng” in 1723 from his peerage title “yong” and “zheng”. It has been suggested that the second character of his era name was an attempt to cover up his illegal claim to the throne by calling himself “justified”.
Immediately after succeeding to the throne, the Yongzheng Emperor chose his new governing council. It consisted of the eighth prince Yinsi, 13th prince Yinxiang, Zhang Tingyu, Ma Qi, and Longkodo. Yinsi was given the title “Prince Lian” while Yinxiang was given the title “Prince Yi”, and these two held the highest positions in the land.
Like his father, the Yongzheng Emperor used military force in order to preserve the Qing Empire’s position in Outer Mongolia. When Tibet was torn by civil war in 1727–1728, he intervened. After withdrawing, he left a Qing Resident (the amban) and a military garrison to safeguard the dynasty’s interests.
For the Tibetan campaign, the Yongzheng Emperor sent an army of 230,000 led by Nian Gengyao against the Dzungars and their army of 80,000. Due to geography, the Qing army (although superior in numbers) was at first unable to engage their more mobile enemy.
Eventually, they engaged the Dzungars and defeated them. This campaign cost the treasury at least eight million silver taels. Later in the Yongzheng Emperor’s reign, he sent a small army of 10,000 to fight the Dzungars again. However, that army was annihilated and the Qing Empire faced the danger of losing control of Mongolia. A Khalkha ally of the Qing Empire would later defeat the Dzungars.
Following the reforms of 1729, the treasury’s income increased from 32,622,421 taels in 1721 to about 60 million taels in 1730, surpassing the record set during the Kangxi Emperor’s reign; but the pacification of the Qinghai area and the defence of border areas were heavy burdens on the treasury.
Safeguarding the country’s borders cost 100,000 taels per year. The total military budget came up to about 10 million taels a year. By the end of 1735, military spending had depleted half the treasury, leaving 33.95 million taels. It was because of the cost of war that the Yongzheng Emperor considered making peace with the Dzungars.
The Yongzheng Emperor ruled the Qing Empire for 13 years before dying suddenly in 1735 at the age of 56. Legend holds that he was assassinated by Lü Siniang, a daughter or granddaughter of Lü Liuliang, whose family was executed for literary crimes against the Qing government.
Another theory was that Lü Siniang was the Yongzheng Emperor’s lover, and the real mother of the Qianlong Emperor, but he refused to let her become the empress. It is generally accepted that he died while reading court documents, and it is likely that his death was the result of elixir poisoning from an overdose of the elixir of immortality he was consuming in the belief that it would prolong his life.