Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Yü Min-chung

Min-chung 于敏中 (T. 重常, H. 叔子, 耐圃), 1714–1780, Jan. 23, official, was a native of Chin-t'an, Kiangsu. He came from an illustrious family; his great-grandfather, Yü Ssŭ-ch'ang 于嗣昌 (T. 九扶, H. 毅庵, chin-shih of 1661, d. 1672), was magistrate of Hsiang-yüan, Shansi (1668–72), and his grandfather, Yü Han-hsiang 于漢翔 (T. 章雲, H. 岸峯, chin-shih of 1682), served as commissioner of education in Shansi. His father, Yü Shu-fan 于樹範 (T. 舫齋, d. 1756), was magistrate of Hsüan-p'ing, Chekiang. In his infancy Yü Min-chung was adopted by his uncle, Yü Fang 于枋 (T. 小謝, H. 午晴, d. 1758), a chin-shih of 1724. Later Yü Fang had sons of his own and Yü Min-chung returned to his own family.

In 1737, when he was twenty-four sui, Yü Min-chung became a chuang-yüan, or chin-shih with highest honors. Made a first class compiler of the Hanlin Academy, he served in that capacity for seven years, studying Manchu and learning the history and functions of government. In 1744 he was in charge of the provincial examination of Shansi and early in 1745 was sent to Shantung as commissioner of education. Two years later he was transferred to Chekiang. In 1750 he returned to Peking, but after several promotions was again sent to Shantung to direct education. In 1754 he was recalled to Peking to serve as a vice-president of the Board of War. Two years later he was allowed to return to Chin-t'an to mourn the death of his father but, in 1757, long before the mourning period was over, he was specially recalled to Peking and appointed acting senior vice-president of the Board of Punishments. Early in 1759 a censor charged him with failure to report the death of his mother in 1756—an event which would ordinarily have prolonged his mourning period. But the Emperor asserted that Yu's services were indispensable and ignored the charge. Later in 1759 Yü was made a vice-president of the Board of Revenue.

In October 1760 Yü Min-chung was ordered to work concurrently on the Grand Council, in which capacity he served continuously for twenty years. In the meantime he served as president of the Board of Revenue (1755–73), as an Associate Grand Secretary (1771–73), and as a Grand Secretary (1773–80). In 1773, after Liu T'ung-hsün and Liu Lun [qq. v.] had died, he became Chief Grand Councilor, and for the next six and a half years was the most powerful minister in the empire. He was intimate with the Emperor, who made him adviser on national affairs, and was skilled, moreover, in the formulation of edicts. He also undertook the tedious task of editing the Emperor's poems which the latter often composed at intervals during an audience and which Yü would write down later from memory. It is said that, even under these circumstances, he seldom made an error. His predecessors, Chang T'ing-yü [q. v.], Liu Lun, and Wang Yu-tun 汪由敦 (T. 師茗, H. 謹堂, 松泉, 1692–1758, posthumous name 文端, Grand Councilor, 1745–58), had exhibited the same ability, and likewise had assisted the Emperor in editing his poems.

Yü Min-chung was constantly with the Emperor in the capital or on a tour, and many important policies of the middle Ch'ien-lung period were decided by the Emperor in accordance with Yü's advice. He enjoyed a powerful position at Court, much as Chang T'ing-yü, O-êr-t'ai and Fu-hêng [qq. v.] had before him, and as Ho-shên [q. v.] did after him. However, he was not treated as respectfully as were his predecessors, nor did he enjoy the confidence of the Emperor as Ho-shên did. He was younger than Emperor Kao-tsung by three years, and was in office during the years when the Emperor was active and dominant. He was not above reproach in the matter of bribes, though in this he was far less culpable than the corrupt Ho-shên. In 1774 a eunuch, Kao Yün-ts'ung 高雲從, was tried for having divulged to several high officials the Emperor's private ratings of certain minor officials. The eunuch disclosed that he had once requested Yü Min-chung to help him in a lawsuit, and that on another occasion he had reported to Yü the Emperor's private criticism of an official. The Emperor, on hearing of Yu's connection with the eunuch, vehemently denounced him.The eunuch was executed, but Yü was allowed to remain in office. The Emperor said that Yü would in time have received an hereditary rank for his assistance in directing the Chin-ch'uan War (1771–76, see under A-kuei), but that a cancellation of it would now be his punishment. Nevertheless, after the war was concluded in 1776, Yu was commended for his services and was given the rank of a Ch'ing-ch'ê tu-yü with the rights of perpetual inheritance. His portrait was placed in the Tzŭ-kuang ko (see under Chao-hui), along with those of the generals in the campaign. He was also given the privilege of wearing the double-eyed peacock feather and the yellow jacket—honors which were for the first time bestowed on a Chinese civil official. Early in 1780 Yü died of asthma. He was canonized as Wên-hsiang 文襄 and his name was entered in the Temple of Eminent Statesmen. His portrait was painted by Father Joseph Panzi (see under Hung-li) and about 1781 it came into the possession of Jean-Baptiste Bertin (1719–1792) the French Secretary of State.

In the decade and a half after his death Yü Min-chung was several times posthumously denounced by the Emperor. In 1780, only a few months after his decease, a nephew, who had been in charge of his personal financial affairs, transferred many chests of goods from the house in Peking to Chin-t'an and secreted them with a view to keeping them himself. Yü's only son having died, his (adopted?) grandson, Yü Tê-yü 于德裕 (T. 惇甫, chü-jên of 1779), appealed to the authorities to help him restrain the culprit. The Emperor ordered an investigation, and on a vague charge of corruption directed that, with the exception of twenty or thirty thousand taels which were to be left to Yü Tê-yü, all the property should be used by the local authorities to defray the expense of public works. The investigation disclosed that Yü Min-chung had contributed farm land worth nine thousand taels to support his poorer clansmen. Since this was in the Emperor's view a laudable act, the land so donated was allowed to remain in the clan. But it was also found that Yü Min-ching had had a garden built for him by a former grain intendant of Kiangsu, and for this the intendant was cashiered and Yü was denounced for corruption. Nevertheless, in 1782, the Emperor permitted Yü Tê-yü to inherit the rank of Ch'ing-ch'ê tu-yü and appointed him secretary in a Board.

A second incident which came to a climax in 1782 was equally unfavorable to Yü's memory. In 1774 he had advised the Emperor to permit the authorities in Kansu province to sell, to those who could afford it, the rank of Student of the Imperial Academy—the revenue in grain and silver thus obtained to remain on deposit in the province. This policy brought on large-scale corruption, involving Wang Tan-wang (for further details see under Ch'ên Ta-shou) and numerous other officials. For the mistaken counsel he had received in this instance the Emperor laid full blame on his former minister. In the same year (1782) Yü's younger brother, Yü I-chien (see under Ch'ien Fêng), an official in Shantung, was executed for corruption, and this event also threw a shadow on Yü's name.

In March 1786 the Emperor wrote a poem in which he compared Yü Min-chung to Yen Sung (see under Juan Ta-ch'êng), a powerful and unscrupulous minister of the Ming period. Although he characterized him as having been neither as corrupt nor as powerful as Yen, he definitely placed on him the responsibility for the Kansu episode and ordered that his name should no longer be celebrated in the Temple of Eminent Statesmen. Finally, in 1795, shortly before his abdication, the Emperor scanned Yü's officially prepared biography and then declared that, in view of his activities as a minister, he should be further posthumously punished by being deprived of his hereditary rank. This rank, held by Yü Te-yü, was thereupon abolished.

Yü Min-chung left a literary collection, entitled 素餘堂集 Su-yü t'ang chi, printed in 1806. Some of the items seem to have been written by disciples or secretaries, among them Lu Hsi-hsiung [q. v.]. In addition to his official duties at Court, Yü also directed the compilation of a large number of official works of the Ch'ien-lung period, in particular the Imperial Manuscript Library known as the Ssŭ-k'u ch'üan-shu (see under Chi Yün). In 1787 the Emperor was apprised of many errors in that work—some made by editors, others by copyists. For these errors Yü was posthumously denounced, for he had a hand in framing the policies guiding this great compilation, and moreover, had recommended one of the offenders, Lu-fei Ch'ih [q. v.], who had charge of the copyists. These scribes received no salary, but were promised official ranks on completing a stated amount of work in a given time. It was an economical way to conduct so large an enterprise, but it could not prevent errors, which it took a long time to discover and eradicate. Recently fifty-six letters written by Yü to Lu Hsi-hsiung concerning the Ssŭ-k'u ch'üan-shu were published in facsimile (1933) under the title Yü Wên-hsiang lun Ssŭ-k'u shou-cha (論四庫手札). These letters show that Yü took more than casual interest in the selection and editing of the works which entered into that unique library,

Yü Min-chung's wife, Yü Kuang-hui 俞光蕙 (T. 滋蘭), studied under the artist Ch'ên Shu [q. v.], and achieved some skill in painting flowers. Their house in Peking, known as Yü-yü shu-wu 雨餘書屋, was famous for its wisteria.

[1/325/1a; 2/21/1a; 3/27/1a; 29/5/1b; Chang Hsüeh-ch'êng [q. v.], Chang-shih i-shu (1936), 7/16a; Chin-t'an Hsien-chih (1885) 14/12b, passim; ibid. (1923 ed.) 12/6; Wei Ch'ien-hêng 韋謙恆, 傳經堂詩鈔 Ch'uan-ching yang shih-ch'ao, 10/llb; Hu Chi-t'ang, P'ei-yin hsüan shih-chi (see under Hu Hsü) 2/20b, fu-lu, p. 8; T'oung Pao, 1920–21, p. 187, note concerning Panzi's portrait.]

Fang Chao-ying