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The emperor treated everyone harshly—except one man

IT WAS EXTRAORDINARILY RISKY to be the brother of Yinzhen (胤禛), the fourth son of Emperor Kangxi (康熙帝).

Yinzhen wanted the throne really badly. A cold-blooded man, he imprisoned some of his 23 brothers and killed one who had the same mother as he did. He wanted to get rid of competition to become the third Qing emperor.

And even when he got the job he wanted, ruler with the title Emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝), the pain did not stop for the people around him.

Portrait of Emperor Yongzheng. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Yinzhen was hard to work for, a stickler for perfection. The brothers who survived the bloody competition were often severely reprimanded when they disappointed him in political affairs.

However, there was one exception. The Emperor, famous for never having a nice word to say about anyone, described his brother Yinxiang (胤祥) as “a perfect man in the universe”.

Portrait of Emperor Yongzheng’s brother Yinxiang. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

How did the young man manage to win such praise from such a difficult man? The answer is hidden in the 600-year-old Forbidden City in Beijing.


When Yinzhen and Yinxiang had been little boys, they were close, unlike the other siblings in the large family. After the older of the two, Yinzhen, became the emperor, the younger one maintained a good relationship with him and helped him deal with many important political affairs, such as managing the Grand Council (軍機處).

Today, if you walk through the Gate of Heavenly Purity (乾清門) in the Forbidden City, you can see the Grand Council, which is really a small meeting room next to a wall separating the emperor’s “Ting” (內廷), the imperial household; and his “Chao” (外朝), the government. Even though it was not a large chamber, the prime location of the Grand Council indicated its important position in the Qing political arena.

Officials held important and military meetings in the Grand Council. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Initially, the room was used for military or other urgent meetings during the period after Yinzhen’s accession when there were many wars. In the 7th year of Yongzheng’s reign, Yinxiang was assisting the Emperor to establish a detailed and complete system of governance, and in the meantime he himself began to form the core of the system himself with two other powerful officials.

Since then, this temporary institution evolved into a real “Office of Military Secrets” and played a role as the Qing leadership’s military and political centre for the next 200 years.

Inside the Grand Council, you see a setting which looks like a fairly basic study, with only adobe bricks on the floor, and tables and chairs made of cheap elm wood. On the wall hangs a wooden plaque carved with four characters “一堂和氣” written by Emperor Yongzheng, which means he hoped everyone in the Grand Council can be friendly and united when their opinions diverged. Also, the stationery and other decorations, such as the hat racks, are quite simple.

Emperor Yongzheng’s calligraphy.

Yet such an ordinary room was the gathering place for the highest-level ministers planning important military strategies to govern an empire of 300 to 400 million people.

Inside the Grand Council under Emperor Yongzheng’s reign. Image: Beijing’s Palace Museum.

In day-to-day affairs, the Emperor was very strict and demanding. He asked his ministers to submit their memorials (written royal communications) as frequently as possible, in order to give him deep knowledge of what was happening around the whole country. But the documents of each ministry were not allowed to be read in the Great Court. The ministers could only read the Emperor’s reply in secret and memorise the words, then go back to the Grand Court to write another memorial to answer the Emperor.

An imperial memorial was locked in a wooden box. Image: Beijing’s Palace Museum.

Emperor Yongzheng seldom praised the ministers when he replied to the memorials because of his high standards, and his scathing criticisms are still well known today.

But with Yinxiang it was quite different: he never replied negatively to any critical words in Yinxiang’s memorials. On the contrary, he encouraged his younger brother’s work, gave him good comments and expressed concern for his health.

In truth, Yinxiang did contribute much to the emperor’s role. As well as military affairs, he was also involved in hydraulic engineering, managing the imperial guard, the renewal of weapons, the court treasury, and the handling of furnishings of the emperor’s former residence. Therefore, Yinxiang was praised in the memorial as “a man who works in nine capacities” (身兼九職) .


Today if you visit the Palace Museum in Beijing, you can enter the Grand Council room, and look for traces of Yinxiang among the treasures displayed in the exhibition. You may notice a pair of glasses.

Spectacles were made by imperial craftsmen under Yinxiang’s order.

The hawksbill shell spectacles were delicately made by the “Imperial Workshop” (造辦處) and were one of Yongzheng’s favourite items. In fact, the workshop was a special department run by Yinxiang to create items for the emperor and the royal family. As a brother who grew up with the emperor, he was very aware of the emperor’s aesthetic tastes. The glasses won many compliments from the emperor, and later he even asked the workshop to make more pairs to gift to his ministers.

The brothers had the same hobby, too. Every autumn, tradition said that the emperor should take his sons and other royal members to Mulan (木蘭) for the imperial hunting. However, due to his busy schedule, Emperor Yongzheng rarely attended this annual event. Once Yinxiang took the princes to Mulan, and before he left, he submitted a memorial to his brother: “When I return, I may be much heavier and stronger. I’m afraid Your Majesty might not recognise me.”

The Emperor replied, “Never worry about that. Be as strong as you can and enjoy your hunting.”

A painting showed Emperor Qianlong was on a hunting trip. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But the happy years passed quickly. By the 8th year of the Emperor’s reign, Yinxiang was so ill that he seemed to be nearing the end of his life. During this time, the dying man always avoided meeting the ruler for fear of getting in the way of important royal affairs. By the time the younger brother was on his deathbed, news spread, and the emperor rushed to see him, But it was too late.

Yinxiang died in 1730 at the age of 45. The emperor was too sad to see the relics of his younger brother, so he ordered servants to collect all the relics they could find and lock them away somewhere. On the third anniversary of Yinxiang’s death, the Emperor wrote a personal speech in which he recalled the childhood years they spent together, such as teaching Yinxiang mathematical problems and writing calligraphy in the courtyard. He also added Yinxiang’s poems to his own album of poems, which was unprecedented in history.

The last poem in the album was written by the younger man, Yinxiang, before the summer of 1730 – while he was still busy making new items for his brother. In the poem, he described a scene in which a breeze was carrying the scent of lotus into his window, reminding him that summer was coming.

But the Emperor could no longer watch the elegant lotus flowers bloom with his beloved brother.

Image at the top from Jean Beller on Unsplash. The writing of this article was inspired by the TV show “Treasure in the Forbidden City.”

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