The Prosperous Era of Kangxi – China’s Greatest Emperor

The Prosperous Era of Kangxi - China's Greatest Emperor

China enjoys a rich and illustrious history that has enjoyed a number of twists and turns. One of the most fascinating elements of Chinese history is the nation’s Imperial dynasties. Emperors ruled over China since before records were kept, right up until 1912.

For many, the greatest Chinese ruler of all time was the Kangxi Emperor. Kangxi (which loosely translates as, “peaceful harmony”) was the fourth Emperor of the Qing dynasty and ruled over China for 61 years.

The nation was recoiling from a period of unrest and chaos when Kangxi took the throne, but he managed to turn China’s fortunes around. Many historians refer to this reign as, “the prosperous era of Kangxi and Qianlong.”

The Early Life of Kangxi

Kangxi was born in the Forbidden City in 1654, the third son of the Shunzhi Emperor. At birth, he was assigned the given name Xuanye. To avoid confusion, however, we will refer to him as Kangxi throughout this article.

Kangxi suffered from smallpox as a child, which he contracted from his father. Smallpox killed the Shunzhi Emperor while Kangxi was just 7 years of age. Kangxi’s face was scarred by his sickness, but he survived and experienced no other permanent effects. He has been described as a tall, muscular and masculine figure that enjoyed hunting and sporting recreation.

The given names of Chinese women were not recorded at this time in history, so Kangxi’s mother cannot be identified in this way. It is known that she moved to the Forbidden City as a concubine for the Shunzhi Emperor however, and that she eventually became one of his 32 wives.

As you can imagine, with so many spouses coming and going, none of the Emperor’s wives were granted rank or title during his reign. Posthumously, however, Kangxi’s mother was granted the title of Empress Xiaokangzhang. What mattered most was that she was deemed to be of higher social standing than the mothers of the Emperor’s first two sons. This pushed Kangxi to the front of the line for the throne after the death of the Shunzhi Emperor, despite having older siblings.

The Shunzhi Emperor passed away in 1661. However, a popular theory at the time was that he never actually died. Some claim that, heartbroken by the death of his most trust regent and having lost his appetite for leadership, the Emperor retired to a monastery to live as a Buddhist monk.

Kangxi’s mother died two years after his father, leaving him orphaned. The mother of the Shunzhi Emperor, Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, raised Kangxi and remained a critical and trusted figure in his life until her death in 1688. In her final years, Emperor Kangxi personally cared for and tended to his beloved Grandmother, grateful for all that she had done for him.

Knowing that control of China could not be left in the hands of a child, Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang invoked the name of her son to provide Kangxi with four trusted regents. These men were to act as Kangxi’s aides and advisors, essentially ruling the land in his stead until he was ready to assume power.

Sadly, as so often happens in politics, differences arose and these men eventually fell out. One regent – a military commander known as Oboi – put his rivals to death and rose to power as the Emperor’s sole regent. Kangxi was prepared to accept this arrangement.

By 1669, Oboi’s power and influence had begun to spread beyond an acceptable level. Oboi was behaving like a dictator and superseding his boundaries. It was as though he had forgotten about the Emperor-in-waiting, and that he was merely keeping the throne warm. Action was necessary, and Kangxi assumed sole leadership over China.

This was earlier than Oboi had expected, and the regent was even more surprised when Kangxi had him arrested and sentenced to death. This punishment was later reduced to imprisonment, thanks to Oboi’s many military achievements in the name of China.

Oboi was eventually pardoned for his crimes, but things had changed. Emperor Kangxi was no longer a child, and regents no longer governed the country. The age of Kangxi was about to begin.

The Revolt of the Three Feudatories

The first major event of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign was the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, also known as the Rebellion of Wu Sangui.

In 1644, a decade before the Kangxi Emperor was born, a small army of barbarians invaded and conquered China. These soldiers identified themselves as Manchus. This military defeat was humiliating for the Chongzhen Emperor, who ruled over China at the time, and for the country’s native population, known as the Han.

Ashamed by his defeat, the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide. The Ming dynasty died with him, and the Qing dynasty was born. Rulers of the Qing dynasty – such as Shunzhi Emperor – led China under a Manchu banner.

This did not sit well with many of the Han. It was believed that a Han ruler should govern the Han people. The Shunzhi Emperor permitted three Generals of the Ming army – Wu Sangui, Geng Jimao and Shang Kexi – to rule over southern China. These Generals were permitted to implement their own laws and claimed taxes and silver from China’s central government. They were also each bestowed with the title of Prince.

Despite his tender years, the Kangxi Emperor was a stronger leader than his father. Upon coming to power, he acknowledged the influence of these three Princes. He was concerned that they enjoyed too much power – the men ruled over their respective fiefdoms as tyrants – and that they were draining the imperial silver resources. Roughly half of the country’s resources were paid to these three men in wages and taxes.

The Kangxi Emperor sought advice from his aides but found that views within Imperial circles were mixed. Some regents shared his concerns, but others felt that the situation should be left alone. It was feared that aggravating these Princes would be akin to kicking a hornet’s nest and creating trouble for the new Emperor, who was yet to prove his mettle as a leader.

Eventually, the decision was made for the Emperor. Wu Sangui requested retirement from his duties. He claimed to be unwell, but the Kangxi Emperor knew the real reason. If Wu Sangui no longer held status or a title, he owed no loyalty to the Emperor. As a Ming loyalist, this could only mean one thing. Wu Sangui planned to depose the Kangxi Emperor, and by extension the Qing dynasty.

The Emperor initially rebuffed this request. He understood that a conflict was inevitable, but at this stage he was not ready for a test of strength against an experienced military leader. By 1673, this had changed.

Wu Sangui’s request for retirement was accepted at this point, and he immediately forsook his allegiance to the Qing dynasty. Geng Jimao did the same. Interestingly, Shang Kexi opted to remain loyal to the Kangxi Emperor. Alas, the Prince’s son Shang Zhixin showed no such loyalty. Shang Zhixin overthrew his father, imprisoning him, and joined up with Wu Sangui and Geng Jimao.

Wu Sangui became the leader of what would become known as the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. The aim was simple – the Qing dynasty was to be overthrown, and Ming rule restored to China. This would have placed the entire country back in the control of the Han people. The Kangxi Emperor was offered leniency if he would agree to surrender his title and live out his days in Manchuria. Wu Sangui planned to become the new Emperor of China and launch the Zhou dynasty.

The Kangxi Emperor had no intention of accepting this offer, and an uprising became inevitable. This was the first real test of Kangxi’s leadership credentials, and he passed it with flying colours. Although the Revolt of the Three Feudatories lasted for some eight years, the result was a victory for the Emperor and his army.

Despite their military records and an impressive beginning to their war effort, the rebels failed to launch a coordinated, successful campaign. They made inroads in China, and claimed a great many cities early in the conflict. Wu Sangui even declared himself Emperor in 1678.

Ultimately, however, Wu Sangui inexplicably stopped his marches upon the land. While he had claimed much of southern China, he stalled on marching north. Seizing upon this opportunity, the Kangxi Emperor united the nation. He demonstrated long-term planning that impressed and galvanised his troops.

As the Imperial army grew in strength, that of the rebels began to fall away. The most ardent supporters of the Ming dynasty with military experience were dubious about the cause. The fact that the three Princes had previously made peace with the Qing rulers diluted their message of Ming rule over all else.

What’s more, Wu Sangui was cursed with a range of personality flaws that prevented him from becoming a great leader. He was arrogant and power-hungry. This led to him attempting to overthrow his own partners in rebellion to claim their territories for himself, as well as engaging in opulence and luxury when he could have been coordinating a successful war effort.

Geng Jimao was the first to surrender, admitting defeat to the forces of the Kangxi Emperor in 1676. Sick of Wu Sangui attempting to usurp him and steal his territory, Shang Zhixin quickly followed suit. Both men were executed for their role in the rebellion. Wu Sangui fought on for two more years, but died in 1678. His grandson, Wu Shifan, continued the rebellion until he was captured. Rather than face trial for treason, Wu Shifan committed suicide. Shang Kexi had previously died of natural causes in 1676, at the age of 72.

In the aftermath of quashing the rebellion, the Kangxi Emperor demonstrated his credentials as a strong but benevolent leader. Senior military officials and followers of Wu Sangui were executed for treason. Indeed, the name of Wu Sangui is still associated with treachery in Chinese culture today.

However, any peasants that were enlisted in the rebel armies were granted clemency. The Emperor understood that these foot soldiers were given the unenviable choice of fighting or seeing their families slaughtered by the Princes that ruled their land. All prisoners of war were also released and permitted to return to their homes in southern China.

The reign of the Kangxi Emperor was well and truly underway. This was just the first chapter of a long and illustrious history, however.

Further Military Victories of the Kangxi Emperor

Perhaps buoyed by his success over Wu Sangui and the crushing of his rebellion, the Kangxi Emperor enjoyed a number of successful military campaigns throughout his reign. Kangxi was no gratuitous warlord with a lust for combat, though. He intended to expand the Chinese Empire for the greater good of the nation.

In 1683, the Kangxi Emperor began to look toward Taiwan. This country was host to a number of Ming dynasty loyalists that had not taken part in the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. The Emperor’s army allied themselves with the Dutch military in order to reclaim Taiwan, which was previously an outpost owned by the Netherlands.

Suspicions toward the Dutch began to arise, as China began to suspect that the Dutch intended to turn Taiwan into a colonial outpost. Admiral Shi Lang – a trusted ally of the Kangxi Emperor – offered to claim Taiwan in the name of the Qing dynasty. Alongside some 300 ships, the invasion was successful. Once again, however, the Kangxi Emperor proved himself to be graceful in victory.

The leader of the opposition, Zheng Keshuang, surrendered to the Qing fleet. Rather than be executed or imprisoned, however, Zheng Keshuang was granted a new title – Duke of Haicheng. The Duke’s forces joined the Emperor’s military forces and fought alongside Qing soldiers in the conflicts to come.

There were seventeen Ming Princes remaining in Taiwan. Most of these were permitted to return to China, albeit as private citizens stripped of their regal titles. Zhu Shugui, the Prince of Ningjing, found this to be disagreeable. The Prince committed suicide in favour of surrendering to the Emperor. The palace in which he had lived became a temple, memorialising the success of the Ming invasion of China.

The Kangxi Emperor also frequently tangled with Russia, with the countries engaging in skirmishes over territory. Distinction of the borders of Russia and China were blurry, and both countries wished to stake their claim to particular lands. In 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk was signed. This granted a great deal of the disputed land to China. This was a substantial victory for the Emperor, who had gained yet more territory for his nation.

Mongolia was another territory that clashed with China under the Kangxi Emperor. Since 1634, the Inner Mongolian royal family had enjoyed close ties with the Qing dynasty. A small sub-group however, dubbed Chahars, felt they should be freed from any Chinese influence. The Chahars joined forces with Wu Sangui in the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, but were soundly defeated. After this, Chahar was placed under the rule of the Kangxi Emperor. The rest of Inner Mongolia remained independent.

Outer Mongolia, meanwhile, was a trickier proposition. Previously, this territory had always conceded to leadership of the Qing dynasty. A sub-group of rebels disagreed with this, and did not take kindly to China’s ownership of Tibet. This led to a decade-long conflict between the two nations. Once again, however, the Kangxi Emperor emerged successful. Interestingly, the Emperor personally led his troops into battle during these battles.

If there is one blot on the copybook of the Kangxi Emperor’s military record, it is the expenses incurred. While China was considerably wealthier following the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, no longer forced to release half the nation’s economy to Wu Sangui, Geng Jimao and Shang Kexi, multiple wars inevitably took their toll on the Imperial finances.

The Kangxi Emperor was not blind to this, however. He spent a great deal of time advising his future successors on how to make the country’s wealth go further. Kangxi is considered to be one of the most financially successful rulers of Imperial China, however. He managed to freeze taxes, and even offer remissions, during his reign.

The Cultural Impact of the Kangxi Emperor and Relationship with Jesuits

The Kangxi Emperor is not only celebrated for his military record. He also brought a range of cultural changes to China. For a start, he was the first Chinese emperor to play a western instrument.

Having employed a Czech court musician named Karel Slavíček, the Emperor became fascinated by the sinet – a small, keyed instrument, similar to a harpsichord or piano. The ruler thus learned to play this himself. In addition, the Kangxi Emperor also created the Kangxi Dictionary. While less than 25% of the characters from this dictionary remain in use today, it was a hugely important development in China’s history.

Han scholars, who had previously rejected the leadership of the Kangxi Emperor, compiled the dictionary. These Ming loyalists initially resisted the task, but were invited to complete their work without swearing fealty to the Emperor. Over time, they took on more and more duties on behalf of the Qing dynasty ruling classes. Old animosities were eventually smoothed over.

The Emperor achieved many of these ambitions with the aid of Jesuits. These westerners were permitted to enter the Forbidden City and work alongside the Emperor in the Imperial Court. The Jesuits knowledge of astronomy fascinated and enthralled the Emperor. In addition, their advanced knowledge of western science ensured that the Qing military benefited from their expertise.

The Emperor also called upon their services as translators and mediators where dealing with western counterparts and military opponents. Were it not for the assistance of trusted Jesuits, the Treaty of Nerchinsk would likely never have been agreed. The French missionary Jean-François Gerbillon and Portuguese scientist Thomas Pereira are most commonly linked with this pivotal moment in Chinese history.

These Jesuits endeared themselves to the Emperor through their respectful appreciation of Chinese customs. China has always been a proud country with a rich cultural heritage, and in the 17th century, western visitors were rare.

Rather than insulting their guests by rejecting Chinese customs, however, Jesuits embraced the Chinese way of life. They learned the language and spoke it fluently, and dressed in the silk robes associated with Imperial royalty. This led to an understanding between the two cultures, and an appeal for tolerance of the teachings of Christ within China.

The Emperor was prepared to acquiesce to this request. He issued the Edict of Toleration, which commanded his subjects to permit Christians to practice their faith without opposition or attack. This was a first for China, which was strictly a Buddhist country until this point.

Unfortunately, this religious tolerance was destined to fail. Pope Clement XI, then leader of the Catholic Church, was opposed to Chinese nationals practicing Christianity. This was because Chinese followers of the Christian faith also wished to honour their own religious customs. These included the worship of ancestors, and following the teachings laid out by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. In the eyes of hardline western Christians, this was blasphemous. They claimed that Chinese nationals were worshipping false idols and placing other Gods above their own, thus violating the Ten Commandments.

Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon, an Italian cardinal, was despatched to China under instruction of the Pope in 1715. He delivered a Papal decree that banned any Chinese Christian from engaging in non-Catholic rites. This meant that, if a Chinese individual wished practice Christianity, they would need to renounce their own ancient traditions. This was simply abhorrent to the Chinese, who had observed their own cultural and religious beliefs for centuries.

This soured the relationship with the Kangxi Emperor and Jesuits. Christian missionaries were banned from China, and following the Christian faith was outlawed throughout the nation. The Emperor believed that Christianity was causing more harm than good in his country, and needed to be eradicated. China’s dalliance with this faith was concluded.

The Death and Succession of the Kangxi Emperor

As he had enjoyed a reign of unprecedented length and success, the matter of succession to the Kangxi Emperor became a matter of some controversy. This is now known as the Nine Lords’ War.

The Emperor had long intended his second son, Yinreng, to be his successor. Yinreng was named the Crown Prince of China, and the Kangxi Emperor took a personal interest in the upbringing of the child. This was rare in this era. The rearing of royal children was frequently left to a dedicated team of Imperial staff.

Unfortunately, Yinreng was unworthy of such status. The young man was driven by base instincts, indulging in wanton acts of violence and illegal pleasures of the flesh. By 1707, the Emperor could no longer overlook his son’s inadequacies. Yinreng was stripped of his title and placed under house arrest, supervised by the Emperor’s eldest son Yinzhi.

Yinzhi knew that he had no real chance of becoming Emperor. As a result, he championed the cause of the Emperor’s eighth son, Yinsi, and recommended that Yinreng be executed. This enraged the Kangxi Emperor. While his relationship with Yinreng had deteriorated, he had no intention of committing filicide. Yinzhi lost his own regal titles, and the Emperor commanded that all debate over succession to his throne should cease.

Doubts nagged at the back of the Emperor’s mind following Yinzhi’s behaviour, however. He began to wonder if Yinreng had actually been framed for his crimes. Yinreng regained his title of Crown Prince in 1709, with the Kangxi Emperor claiming that his son’s misdeeds had been committed under the influence of a now-conquered mental illness.

Sadly, Yinreng could not help but fall into old habits. He was placed in temporary charge of the state in 1712, while his father toured the south of China. While the Emperor was occupied, Yinreng allowed his supporters to plot a coup that would force the Emperor to abdicate the throne upon his return. The intention was to hand control of China over to Yinreng ahead of schedule.

Bitterly disappointed by his son’s betrayal, the Kangxi Emperor once again stripped Yinreng of his Crown Prince title and placed him under house arrest. This led to new factions forming, each supporting a different son of the Emperor and claiming that they had a stronger claim to the throne.

The Kangxi Emperor eventually announced that none of his sons would ever carry the title of Crown Prince while he continued to reign. Instead, he named his successor in his Imperial Valedictory Will. This was locked in the Palace of Heavenly Purity in the Forbidden City, and the will was only to be read upon the Emperor’s death.

The Kangxi Emperor died in 1722, at the age of 68. It was revealed that Yinzhen, the fourth son of the Emperor, had been named as his successor. The remains of the Kangxi Emperor were laid to rest in the Eastern Tombs of Zunhua. Yinzhen, meanwhile, accepted his ascension and became the Yongzheng Emperor.

The Kangxi Emperor left a legacy as one of China’s greatest, wisest and most competent rulers. He enjoyed great success in war and battle, ruled over a period of economic stability, and introduced a number of cultural changes to China.

His reign remained so revered that his grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, voluntarily abdicated the throne in 1796. Had he remained in power, the Qianlong Emperor would have been China’s longest-serving ruler. He had no intention of ruling longer than the Kangxi Emperor however, who had changed the face of China during his own tenure.

To this day, the Kangxi Emperor is an omnipresent figure in Chinese culture. His legacy has never been tainted or forgotten, and nor is it likely to be in the future. The world will always need heroes, and the Kangxi Emperor fulfils this role for Chinese people of all generations.