The years under study in this chapter are often retrospectively called the high Qing or middle Qing era. Following the sixty-one years of the Kangxi reign (1662–1722) was a relatively short rule by the Yongzheng Emperor (1723–1735), which in turn was followed by the Qianlong reign (1736–1796), an era as glorious and almost as long as the Kangxi reign. In 1795, the eighty-four year old Qianlong Emperor decided to abdicate the throne, so as not to surpass the record length of his grandfather’s rule. The accession of the Jiaqing Emperor brought a change of reign title but little else; Qianlong continued to rule behind the scenes, though with less vigor and interest, until his death in 1799. His last years, however, proved crucial to the future of the Qing empire. Historians often remind us that the 1790s saw an acceleration of the slide toward chaos, from which the two ensuing reigns – Jiaqing (1796–1820) and Daoguang (1821–1850) – never managed to recover.
The familiar drama of a dynastic cycle coming to an end this time concluded with two cataclysmic events. In 1840, the first Opium War broke out. With modern weaponry, Great Britain blew open the doors of the Qing empire in the name of protecting British citizens and their property. The war brought to the fore problems that can be traced back to the Qianlong years, when the British opium trade began to disturb the balance of currency exchange by creating shortages of silver and produced a large population of opium addicts. Qing’s defeat in this war, however, was much more than a military, commercial, and economic event; its profound impact on Chinese political, intellectual, and literary life would become apparent only in the years to come.