How important the emperors as individuals really are as a factor in Chinese history can be endlessly argued. The arc leading from the forceful First Emperor to the baby that was dethroned in 1912 seems to encompass every possibility, from totalitarian state-building to total insignificance. More to the point, the question of the balance of power between the Heaven-appointed dynast and the administrative apparatus supposed to be his executive arm has given rise to varying interpretations. Most striking is the way incompetent, capricious, or uninterested emperors, in the second half of the Ming notably, did not prevent state institutions and personnel from continuing year in and year out to administer the realm with relative and sometimes surprising efficiency. Even in the case of highly committed and well-trained monarchs it has been possible to claim that they were ruled by their bureaucracy rather than that they ruled it—or at the very least, that the emperor and his ministers shared power in a sort of diarchy.1
But even when seen as either irresponsible or tied by institutions, or both, emperors still were important, if only as symbols—or perhaps, "instruments." Emperors were the keystone of the constitutional structure of the imperial state: they embodied the dynastic legitimacy and institutional construction established by their ancestors, and they were the ultimate source of every sort of legislation and personnel appointment insofar as no decisions could be made without an imperial rescript, however routinized the procedure might be in many cases.2 As a consequence, who the emperor was as a person—how knowledgeable he was about the land and about government, how committed to his functions, how he related to the bureaucracy, how he behaved at court and in the inner palace, how eager he was to learn about the outer world—all of this made a difference.
As far as the Qing are concerned, the contrasting personalities of the eigh teenth-and nineteenth-century Manchu emperors are well-known—or at least, we think that we know them well. To Kangxi and Qianlong, the imperial heroes of the so-called "high Qing," with all their brilliance and prestige, and even to the more difficult but no less competent and energetic Yongzheng, we tend naturally to oppose the somewhat colorless and passive nineteenth-century rulers—Jiaqing, Daoguang and Xianfeng. (After Xianfeng actual power was wielded by the dowager Cixi, who was anything but colorless and passive.) But what exactly can be safely said of their individual qualities, or lack thereof?
Part of the problem is that Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, each in his own way, were very good at talking about themselves and at making their own promotion, to the extent of encouraging what came close to a personality cult (in the case of Qianlong especially—and we can still see the consequences today in China).3 It was certainly different with their nineteenth-century offspring, who as individuals remain rather shadowy figures. Besides the fact that Daoguang and especially Xianfeng (the two emperors discussed in this essay) were not prone to grand pronouncements and self-advertising, their image afterwards has suffered from the fact that they presided over a regime that was confronting dreadful problems—the Opium Wars and the Taiping rebellion, to name only the worst—for which they were not ultimately responsible, but which they proved inadequate to face up to efficiently. As a result, we tend to see Daoguang and Xianfeng, each with his own peculiarities—and their backgrounds, experience, and histories were extremely different—as somewhat pathetic figures who were subject to what happened to them and their empire and had little control of events they were unable to grasp correctly in the first place.
My point here is not to revise this image altogether. It is, rather, to try to get closer to the persons that were Daoguang and Xianfeng the rulers, by letting them speak. But then, how could we have any idea of such people's real speech? In the published record Qing emperors express themselves in highly formalized and coded ways, even when they pretend to be relaxed, or close to the people. They did not leave anything like diaries...