The Chinese emperor K'ang-hsi (1654-1722) was a man of enormous personal vitality and exceptional administrative and military ability. He was one of the greatest emperors of the Ch'ing period.
Born on May 4, 1654, K'ang-hsi was the third son of the sickly and weak emperor Shun-chih (reigned 1643-1661). K'ang-hsi's mother, who died in 1663, came from a family in southern Manchuria which had served under the Manchus since the early 17th century. As a youth, he was raised outside the imperial palace in the care of his grandmother, the dowager empress Hsiao-chuang and the mother of Shun-chih. Here K'ang-hsi received his tutoring, learning the Manchu language and acquiring enough ability in Chinese to deal efficiently with state documents. While still a child, K'ang-hsi suffered an attack of smallpox, leaving his face pockmarked, but also elevating his chances to become emperor since he was thereafter considered to be immune to that disease.
On Feb. 5, 1661, K'ang-hsi's father died and the 6-year-old boy was declared emperor of China. He was not to gain full control of the government, however, until 1669. In the meantime, four Manchu statesmen, led by the ambitious Oboi, forged Shun-chih's "Imperial Will" and thus took over as regents for the child emperor. Oboi and his coregents sought to reverse many of Shun-chih's policies, which they felt favored Chinese officials instead of Manchu officials. They relied primarily on Manchu bureaucrats for advice, while often disregarding Chinese officials and cutting back on the number of civil service examination degrees which would be granted to Chinese. They ousted the eunuchs and Buddhists who had been close associates of Shun-chih and persecuted several Jesuit missionaries who had received favorable treatment from him. In the provinces Oboi and his colleagues ruthlessly suppressed anti-Manchu sentiments.
Although K'ang-hsi was formally declared head of state in 1667, Oboi continued to dominate the court at Peking by rallying a faction to support his power-hungry policies. After 2 years of infighting, K'ang-hsi, then 15 years old, gained the support of several high officials who purged the Oboi faction, imprisoned the powerful regent, and finally placed the Emperor in a position of control. Confronted with a variety of perplexing domestic and foreign problems, K'ang-hsi boldly set forth in 1669 to resolve them in his characteristically vigorous fashion.
One of his most serious dilemmas was Chinese hatred for the Manchu regime, a hatred which had been intensified by the blatantly anti-Chinese actions during the Oboi regency. In 1670 K'ang-hsi began his campaign to win Chinese support by issuing his famous Sacred Edict (sheng-yü). The Sacred Edict consisted of 16 moral maxims admonishing the people to be filial toward their parents, to be frugal in their everyday lives, and to respect education and scholarship. K'ang-hsi was thus creating a self-image of the traditional Chinese benevolent emperor concerned for the well-being and morals of his flock. In 1679 K'ang-hsi announced a special civil service examination (po-hsüeh), in which eminent scholars who had formerly refused to serve the Manchus and who had remained loyal to the defunct Ming dynasty would be permitted to compete. Showing exceptional sensitivity to the feelings of the loyalist scholars, K'ang-hsi also declared that the successful candidates in this examination would be permitted to work on an official history of their beloved Ming dynasty.
K'ang-hsi was also cognizant of the Chinese belief that the emperor was the "first scholar of the realm," and thus he paid special attention to the patronization of scholarship. Among the more famous works compiled under his reign were the "K'ang-hsi Dictionary" (K'ang-hsi tzu-tien) and the "Complete Poems of the T'ang Dynasty" (Ch'üan T'ang shih). Many painters and calligraphers were invited to K'ang-hsi's court in Peking; one of them, Wang Yüan-ch'i, painted a scroll over 300 feet long in honor of the Emperor's sixtieth birthday.
K'ang-hsi also was very tolerant in dealing with the Jesuit missionaries, who had been persecuted under his regents. Jesuits were placed in charge of the Imperial Board of Astronomy, and they assisted the court in astronomical observations and in mathematical calculations. Jesuit fathers also directed a huge project to map the Chinese Empire, using modern Western techniques of cartography. In 1705 K'ang-hsi issued an "Edict of Toleration" concerning the Jesuits, one of whom had cured him of malaria by administering quinine.
But the Emperor also had a tough side to his personality, which was particularly evident in his role as commander in chief. In the early 1670s K'ang-hsi decided to suppress several former Chinese allies of the Manchus who had been reluctant to relinquish their positions as feudatory princes in South China. The most famous of these princes was Wu San-kuei, who, after offering the Manchus invaluable military assistance in 1644-1662, developed his own independent regime covering much of southwestern and central China. During the 1660s Wu began to appoint his own officials, levy his own taxes, and increase his already substantial army.
In 1673 K'ang-hsi, ignoring the advice of some of his cautious colleagues, precipitated the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories by indicating that he was willing to accept the retirement of one of the feudatory princes. A long and dangerous period of battle ensued which threw all of China south of the Yangtze River into civil war. At one point in 1674 it appeared that Wu San-kuei had the advantage, but he failed to press northward across the Yangtze and eventually died of dysentery in 1678.
After his successful operation against the feudatories, K'ang-hsi boldly committed imperial troops to a series of spectacular campaigns along the frontiers of China. Since the early years of the Ch'ing dynasty, the southeastern coast of China had been prey to the attacks of a large army and navy who refused to accept the Manchu government. Originally led by the colorful pirate Coxinga, these renegades retreated to Taiwan in the 1660s under the command of Coxinga's son.
While the Ch'ing were occupied with the suppression of the feudatories in the 1670s, these rebels sailed from Taiwan to the mainland and forced K'ang-hsi to use some of his best troops against them. By 1680 they had retreated from the China coast, but they still remained a potential threat in their island refuge of Taiwan. Once again K'ang-hsi took the offensive. He developed a large fleet and ordered it to sail for Taiwan in 1683. After a number of battles on the rough seas in the Taiwan Straits, the Manchu forces overwhelmed remnants of Coxinga's band, and Taiwan fell under Ch'ing control, where it remained until China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895.
Turning his attention to the northern frontiers, K'anghsi became alarmed at the growth of a Russian threat along the Amur River in northern Manchuria. Groups of Russian Cossacks, who had been a constant menace in the Amur region in the early years of the Ch'ing, began to launch new expeditions in search of game, loot, and settlement sites. In the early 1680s K'ang-hsi sent a strong contingent of troops to northern Manchuria, where they clashed with Russian forces in 1685-1686, driving the Russians into Siberia.
The Russians rallied and began a new offensive, and the Sino-Russian encounters of the 1680s might have reached enormous proportions had not K'ang-hsi and the Russian regent, Sophia, agreed to negotiations. Russian and Ch'ing envoys met at the town of Nerchinsk, where, with Jesuit missionaries serving as intermediaries and interpreters, several months of heated bargaining ensued. Finally, in 1689, in the Treaty of Nerchinsk the Russians agreed to recognize all territory south of the Amur as belonging to the Ch'ing. A subsequent agreement (Treaty of Kiakhta, 1727) brought all of Mongolia into Ch'ing hands in return for regular Russian trade along the northern Mongolian frontier.
A key reason why K'ang-hsi and the Russian court were willing to negotiate in the 1680s was the rise of a large western Mongolian tribal confederation which threatened both Russia and China. A dynamic leader of the western Mongols had emerged, Galdan, and by the time of the Treaty of Nerchinsk he had gained allegiance throughout western Mongolia, had obtained considerable support from Tibet, where he had been educated as a lama in his youth, and had marched his armies deep into western Mongolia (to within 400 miles of Nerchinsk itself).
In 1696 K'ang-hsi made a counterattack. Personally leading some 80,000 troops, he rapidly crushed Galdan's Mongol armies, and Galdan himself died in the following year (perhaps by suicide). K'ang-hsi had thus extended the Ch'ing frontiers as far west as Hami and had laid the framework for the final conquest of Chinese Turkistan in the 1750s.
Although K'ang-hsi's tough side is seen perhaps most clearly in his military operations, his domestic policies were also colored by a considerable dose of forcefulness. In order to bypass the slow and formalized system of transmitting official reports, K'ang-hsi allowed a select few provincial officials to send secret reports (tsou-che) by rapid horse express directly to the Emperor himself. Another of K'anghsi's techniques was to station trusted personal servants from his imperial household staff (bondservants) in key posts about the empire.
One of K'ang-hsi's bondservants, Ts'ao Yin, provided the Emperor a great service by overseeing lucrative government monopolies on textiles and salt and by sending him regular secret reports about local developments. K'ang-hsi also went on six southern tours, in the provinces south of Peking, in order to personally inspect his realm. Although these tours were highly formal affairs, involving hundreds of attendants, advisers, and bodyguards, K'ang-hsi is reported to have spent at least some of his time chatting with the common people about the crops and local affairs. On his tours K'ang-hsi paid special attention to the dikes on the Yellow River and the navigability of the Grand Canal; and on one occasion he publically berated the director general of river conservancy for negligence on the basis of his observations during a tour.
In spite of the fact that K'ang-hsi patronized Chinese art and literature (he even spent some leisure evenings on his tours reading the Chinese classics), he retained a great fondness for the martial traditions of the Manchus and revered the Manchu homeland. As early as 1668, K'ang-hsi prohibited Chinese emigration to Manchuria, largely because he did not want Chinese to dilute the ethnic and cultural purity of the homeland. He went on several hunting expeditions in Manchuria, taking with him thousands of troops. Rejecting the usual comforts provided for an emperor, he slept in a simple tent and often sat outdoors in cold and rain while cooking venison.
K'ang-hsi was a competent archer and enjoyed displaying his prowess with the bow while riding horseback. After 1683, when the domestic military problems had been largely resolved, K'ang-hsi began spending his summers in the southern Manchurian city of Jehol to the north of the Great Wall of China. In the early 18th century, as his age began to inhibit his enjoyment of the rugged hunting trips, he ordered the construction of a summer palace at Jehol for himself and his entourage.
Personally a frugal individual, K'ang-hsi endeavored to keep government expenditures to a minimum in spite of the costly military operations of the late 17th century. By systematizing the provincial financial reports and by cutting down on expenditures at the capital, particularly those in the imperial household, K'ang-hsi managed to accumulate a surplus in the imperial treasury. Because of these measures K'ang-hsi was able to reduce taxes. In 1712 he decreed that the per capita tax (ting) would be permanently frozen at the current level. Since during the 18th century the land tax and the per capita tax were gradually merged into one tax-paying unit, K'ang-hsi's decision had the effect of maintaining a relatively fixed rate for these traditional sources of dynastic revenue throughout the Ch'ing dynasty. The average Chinese peasant of this period, in fact, may well have been better off than his counterpart in the West or in Japan during the same period.
In political affairs K'ang-hsi diligently sought to select responsible and loyal officials for important posts. In general, K'ang-hsi was quite successful in this respect, and cases of government corruption were considerable less frequent than in the late Ming period and in the 19th century. Nevertheless, court factions, greatly feared by the Ch'ing emperors, emerged in the reign of K'ang-hsi.
Several high officials, among them many Chinese and Manchus who had been close associates of K'ang-hsi during his perilous rise to power in the 1660s, banded together in a series of shifting factional alliances. The primary motive behind such factions seems to have been political power and prestige for one's family and associates. K'ang-hsi spent considerable effort trying to eliminate court factions by reprimanding their leaders and in some cases degrading and even dismissing members of cliques.
The most flagrant case of factionalism and perhaps the most disappointing aspect of K'ang-hsi's career concerned his second son and heir apparent, Yin-jeng (1674-1725). Yin-jeng's mother, Empress Hsiao-ch'eng, who had married K'ang-hsi when the Emperor was only 11 years old, died in giving birth to Yin-jeng. Perhaps in remembrance of Hsiaoch'eng, K'ang-hsi designated the child heir apparent and personally taught him how to read. As Yin-jeng matured, K'ang-hsi devoted special attention to his education, selecting outstanding tutors, and assuring that he became a competent horseman and archer.
Unfortunately Yin-jeng began to associate with ambitious courtiers, and it was reported to K'ang-hsi that his son was engaging in immoral practices. Even the great Manchu official Songgotu, brother of Empress Hsiaoch'eng, developed overly close relations with Yin-jeng. Consequently, K'ang-hsi imprisoned Songgotu and executed a number of other officials who sought to use the heir apparent for their own ends. Eventually K'ang-hsi turned on Yin-jeng himself. Declaring that his son was insolent, that he was immoral and extravagant, and that he had plotted regicide, K'ang-hsi placed Yin-jeng in perpetual confinement in 1712 and refused to name another heir apparent.
After 1715 the Emperor's health declined rapidly and, perhaps suffering a stroke, he found it impossible to read and write. After several years of illness, he died in Peking on Dec. 20, 1722. Almost immediately after K'ang-hsi's death, his fourth son, Yin-chen, declared himself emperor with the support of the commandant of the Peking gendarmerie. It is entirely possible that K'ang-hsi did not want Yin-chen to succeed him, and it is remotely possible that Yin-chen murdered his ailing father in order to take the throne.
In spite of the fact that K'ang-hsi's reign ended on such a gloomy note, it was of paramount importance in the consolidation of Manchu rule in China. In almost every respect, militarily, politically, economically, and culturally, his reign laid the foundations for China's splendid 18th century.
The standard biography of K'ang-hsi is in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912 (2 vols., 1943-1944). An excellent monograph that deals with several aspects of K'ang-hsi's life and personality is Jonathan D. Spence, Ts'ao Yin and the K'ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master (1966).