Microbiographia | Issue 25

Microbiographia | Issue 25

The Rise and Fall of Heshen – Part One

Heshen was a corrupt Chinese official who lived during the second half of the 18th century. Corrupt officials, one might think, are a dime a dozen. What separates Heshen from the pack is his remarkable success. Though estimates are conflicting, it is believed thatwhen he died aged 48, Heshen’s wealth exceeded the 18th-century equivalent of US$42 billion. Highlights from his treasury include: 1200 jade charms, 24 highly decorative solid gold beds, 550 fox hides, 7000 sets of fine clothing (for all four seasons), and 600 women in his harem. Some quick calculations give us an idea of Heshen’s lifestyle: it looks like he switched beds twice a month, each bed slept 25 girls from his harem, and each girl was equipped with 2 jade charms and 92% of a fox hide. Meanwhile, Heshen changed clothes 19 times per day. Sound like your kind of life? Fear not, here’s “Heshen’s guide to amassing inappropriately large stashes of treasure”.

Step one: be clever and good-looking. As a young man, Heshen is reported to have been an excellent student. Plus, he was hot. Or rather, he was noted for his smooth, fair skin and luscious red lips. As a result of these talents, Heshen was able to gain employ in the Forbidden City as an imperial bodyguard.

Step two: get insanely lucky. When the Qianlong emperor was young, before Heshen’s birth, he had an encounter that would shape the rest of his life. Being a roguish young lad, the emperor burst in on an imperial concubine (who had been putting on make-up), hoping to surprise her. Alas, his skills were too awesome – she was so shocked that she lashed out and hit him. Since hitting the emperor is generally frowned upon, the concubine was promptly demoted. Consumed with shame and regret, she hung herself. Now, the emperor was understandably a bit cut up about this. In fact, he marked her corpse with his blood so that he could recognise her in the next life and make amends.

How does all this relate to Heshen? Well, the emperor first took note of him because he resembled the concubine. What’s more, he had a red birthmark on his neck, just where the emperor had marked the her with his blood. To cap it off, he was born on the day that she died. Convinced he was a reincarnation of her spirit, the emperor bestowed gift after gift on the lucky chap. Among these gifts were numerous official appointments – many of them dealing with finances. This concludes the rise of Heshen. Tune in next week for his dramatic, bone-chilling fall.
This article first appeared in Issue 25, 2012.
Posted 4:25pm Sunday 23rd September 2012 by Toby Newberry.