For those who are not familiar with Chinese history, Heshen (和坤, 1750-1799) was an official of the Qing dynasty who was favoured by the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆). However, what makes him famous (or infamous) was not how powerful he was, but the amount of wealth he collected through corruption during the years. Heshen probably is the richest man in the history of mankind (not counting the kings). Although the total amount of Heshen’s wealth are still being debated, the fact that the total value of confiscated property after his death exceeded the sum of 15 to 20 years’ tax revenue of Qing government is acknowledged by most historians. How rich is that? In the 18th century, China was the largest economy in the world; Chinese gross domestic product (GDP) accounted for about one third of the GDP in the world. Currently (as 2015), the US is the largest economy in the world, but its GDP is only about 18% of the world‘s. It is clear that China in the 1800s was more powerful than the present day US in terms of economic scale in the world. The total annual tax revenue of the US government is about 5 trillion dollars (it is more in the recent years), so if Heshen lives in today’s world, his wealth can easily exceed 75 trillion dollars (USD$ 75,000,000,000,000), that is a thousand times more than what Bill Gates has. Of course, this might not be the most accurate way to estimate Heshen’s wealth, but at least you get the idea of what kind of richness we are talking about here.

A rich and powerful man, like Heshen, deserves the best of the world. During that period, the upper class Chinese people collected western timepieces as fashionable toys, Heshen was no exception. Heshen allegedly had a custom made shirt that used exquisite western gold alarm watches as buttons. If the watches Heshen used were high quality ones (very likely), then that is like someone uses a bunch of small minute repeater watches from Patek Philipe as buttons for his cloth. A button that costs more than thirty hundred thousand dollars; the shirt would definitely be the hottest topic for quite a while. Despite the fact that the front of the shirt would probably be too heavy, the upstart behavior would also be ridiculed by the media. Heshen was well educated, but this type of behavior revealed the unique way of how Chinese people showing off their wealth.

A more interesting question would be: how much was a watch worth during that time? In the mid-18th century, a silver pocket watch was worth about 2 pounds sterling, that is about USD$180 in today’s value. In the 18th century, an ordinary English worker earned about one shilling per day, so the cost of a silver pocket watch roughly equaled to 40 day salary of a worker. How much was that in Chinese money? If you are familiar with Chinese monetary history, you would know this is a difficult question to answer because China used raw silver weight unit, tael (銀兩), as currency unit until the early 20th century. We, however, can convert that amount to the most popular international currency of the time, the Spanish dollar (real de a ocho). In the 18th century, two pounds sterling were worth about 74.8 reals, which equaled to 9.3 Spanish dollars. On the other hand, a Spanish dollar could be exchanged for about 0.7 taels of silver in China during that period. Therefore, the price of that silver pocket watch was worth about 6.5 taels of silver in China (just in case you are curious, the purchasing power of one tael silver in China in the 18th century is about present day 200 RMB). The annual salary of a six-grade Chinese government official in the Qing dynasty was 45 taels silver, so that watch would cost at least two month income of the official (without corruption). Let’s put aside questions like why a Chinese government official made less money than an English worker at the time, because we have not yet calculated the cost of transportation and import duties. Given the condition of transportation and English watches were highly sought during that period of time, the silver pocket watch would definitely be sold for more than 7 taels silver in China.

Another great contribution from Heshen toward Chinese timepiece history is the discovery of the novel: Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢). Dream of the Red Chamber would never have existed without Heshen. Some historians even argued that merely this redeemed Heshen from all his wrong doings in his life. When Heshen was the chief editor of Complete Library of the Four Treasuries (四庫全書), he discovered the scripts of The Story of the Stone (石頭記, the original title of the novel). Although the scripts were categorized as banned, he was fascinated by the story, and eventually got the ban lifted to have the book published. Although Dream of the Red Chamber is just a novel, the story accurately reflects the way of life during that period for historical references. In the chapter 39, Granny Liu (劉姥姥) revealed the fact that 20 taels silver were able to cover the expense of an ordinary family for one whole year. In the chapter 72, Wang Xifeng (王熙鳳) mentioned that a gold chime clock was sold for 560 taels silver. Just from the dialogs of those two characters, we were able to know that the value of a gold chime clock in the 18th century China can let an average family to live for over 20 years. Britain was already the world leader in the clock and watch industry in the late 17th century, so, by the early 18th century, high-end timepiece market in China was dominated by the British watch makers. James Cox (1723-1800) was one of them. After he entered Chinese market in 1765, he made over five hundred thousand pounds sterling (yes, that is 500,000 pounds in the 18th century) in just a few years. There is no doubt that export of timepieces to Chinese market was extremely lucrative at the time.

Due to the high profit margin, watch merchants from all over the world rushed to sell their timepieces to China, especially small items like watches. From captains to sailors, they all tried to carry one or two watches in their pockets so they can sell them or exchange for Chinese goods at the Guangzhou port. Because of the increase in supply and the raise of Chinese domestic watchmakers, western watches in Guangzhou were facing oversupply in the late 18th century. The traders were hit hard. According a report made by a translator in Dutch embassy in 1795, a particular gold watch that cost 120 livres (worth about 9 pounds at the time) were sold for only 22 taels (about 3.3 pounds according to previously mentioned calculation). However, even watches today have a wide range of prices. The timepieces at the time were all handmade; every single piece is unique. Also, many of them were traded for goods, or even for bribes, it is difficult to figure out the average selling price of a typical watch at the time especially when many of the historical documents did not mention the detail of the watches. One thing for sure is that the cost of a watch at least equaled to the annual household income of an average Chinese family, and sometimes even three to five times more.

When all of Heshen’s property were confiscated in 1799, the official record listed: 10 large chime clocks, 156 small chime clocks, 300 table clocks and 80 watches (another source indicated: 10 large chime clocks, more than 300 small chime clocks and 280 watches). At the time, the only Chinese port opened for foreign trading was Guangzhou port, while British East India Company was controlling most of the markets in the east. When Heshen were doing business with both East India Company and Canton Thirteen Factories (the thirteen authorized dealers at the Guangzhou port) over the years, he probably kept a lot of “goodies” for himself. From the above list, we can also notice one thing that is the number of clocks is more than the number of watches. That is very different from most timepiece collectors today, but the list truly reflected that fact that Chinese people in the 18th century favored clocks over watches. Clocks were hot commodity for paying tributes to the emperor or even bribing government officials, especially chime clocks or “singsongs” that have moving mechanisms with intricate details. Even now many Chinese people believes that gifting a clock is considered as an unlucky taboo because gifting clock (送鐘) and holding a funeral (送終) sound the same in Mandarin (and Cantonese as well). However, the superstitious people during the Qing dynasty completely ignored that. It is clear that the clock gifting taboo did not exist until the early 20th century when timepieces finally became affordable to common Chinese households. Think about it this way, if you received a clock with a value that can sustain your family for more than two decades, you probably would embrace the gift without thinking about any of the superstitious nonsense.
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