Kangxi, again


On the Ordos, where there were many hares

Hunting on the Ordos, the Hares were many

Open country, flat sand,
Sky beyond the river.
Over a thousand hares daily
Trapped in the hunters' ring.

Checking the borders,
I'm going to stretch my limbs;
And keep on shooting the curved bow,
Now with my left hand, now with my right.

Kangxi's literary output isn't Nobel Prize material, but let us give the man a break: even the Nobel Prize material is often not Nobel Prize material. Unlike much Nobel Prize material, though, Kangxi's writing is, at least, always worth reading.

Spence's Emperor of China: Self Portrait of Kang-hsi is as close to an autobiography of any Chinese emperor as we will ever get. Culled from his various edicts, rescripts, and letters, all of which Kangxi wrote personally, and in which he famously, and unusually for a Chinese ruler, maintained a very personal note, the various fragments have been assembled here into chapters with titles like Traveling, Ruling, and Aging, and Sons.

Out of the book there emerges a very likable figure: a sensible and practical man, unceremonious, and forthright; one taking great pleasure (and, with age, pride) in physical activity -- during the Galdan campaign in Outer Mongolia he writes "I travel strenuously 30 or 40 li each day, eat no more than once a day, sometimes once every two, and the cold is very bitter, but I have never been happier in my life" -- and in simple food -- in Ningxia, he writes, the noodles are delicious, better than any ever served at court, and cheap, too; wise, unprejudiced, and fair. The Manchu's are braver than the Chinese, he writes, and often unruly, but they can make good scholars; the Fujianese, he writes, are turbulent and love acts of daring, but surely one cannot say that they are all worthless. To rule men, one must be neither too soft, or they will get cheeky, nor too hard, or they will be paralyzed with fear; it is OK to demote and exile men for a trifle, but death penalty should be dealt most carefully because it is irreversible; when evaluating men, look into their eyes: often a cloud in the pupil can give you a warning; and it is good policy to try to look for the good in them and to discount the bad.

The San-fan war, or Rebellion of The Three Feudatories, came close to overthrowing Kangxi's rule. I have caused it, he says in one of his edicts, no one but me bears the blame. In my decision to demote the three generals and to move them to Manchuria, I have failed to foresee that they may resist, and I have failed to listen to my ministers' advice. If I did, the whole disaster would never have happened.

At one point there is a lengthy description of his personal ministrations at the death bed of his grandmother, the Empress Dowager. For forty days he slept on the floor, by her bedside, preparing her medications, keeping her favorite foods at the ready. It may sound like a typical account of a Chinese confucian extolling his own filial piety, except that he mentions his grandmother in passing on many occasions: orphaned in his childhood, emperor at eight, Kangxi was raised by his grandmother. At fifty-seven, dreams of her will still seem significant and prophetic to him.

Unlike most men of his time, Kangxi is not superstitious; when governors report to him the appearance of the magical zhi fungus on a mountaintop under a purple cloud, a sure proof of the Emperor's virtue and promise of long life, he replies that history books are full of all kinds of magical omens, but such omens are of no use at ruling the country, and the only good omens are good harvests and contented people. Cut it out, he says in so many words.

All his life he was a student of the Tao, reading, mediating on, and discussing the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) with his tutors. But his remarks on Taoist sages are acerbic; they are all either fools or charlatans (like the Archpriest Chonouphis who said he translated the tablet from Alcemene's grave), he says, none has attained immortality, how could anyone ever believe such a thing?

But at one point, perhaps the most tragic point of his life, he came near to believing in magic. His beloved son, Yinreng (Yinjeng) -- every parent, he writes, has sons whom he loves deeply and sons whom he loves not deeply -- his fourth son, whom, unlike all the others, he educated personally, grooming him for succession from the first, had to be deposed. There were various accusations against him: that he bought children for sexual pleasure, that he compromised palace security by admitting all sorts of undesirables, that he had people -- some of them ranking officials -- beaten, that he spoke wildly of his father's death and plotted his father's overthrow, etc., but the real cause for his removal was not legal, but practical: Yinreng proved emotionally unstable, wild, unpredictable and dangerous; his wives feared him and his servants fled from him; no one of his personal retinue would lament his fall, writes Kangxi. We read the subtext: as an emperor, Yinreng would not last a year. He could not be trusted with the job.

After Yinreng was deposed, a charge of magic was brought against another imperial prince, the first son, that he had employed a Mongolian witch-doctor to cast a spell on Yinreng. An investigation discovered a malignant fetish buried under Yinreng's threshold; on the day on which it was dug up, Yinreng suffered an epileptic attack, but recovered soon after and began to give the impression of having suddenly improved. Then Kangxi fell sick and Yinreng ministered by his side the way Kangxi had once ministered by his grandmother. Then the Empress Dowager came to Kangxi in his dream and she was strangely aloof, refusing to speak to him, as if she were upset with something he had done. To me, this is the moment of supreme tragedy in the emperor's life, a moment of such pain as drives men into witlessness: out of love for his beloved son, Kangxi was prepared to believe in magic and dreams. He reinstated Yinreng to Heir Apparency.

But that did not last. Soon Yinreng began to show signs of mental instability again -- mental disease often manifests itself in cycles, creating false hopes of recovery; an accusation of a coup d'etat plot was brought against the prince. Yinreng was again deposed and placed under house arrest. Until his dying day Kangxi refused to name another Heir Apparent; perhaps out of fear that he may have to depose that one, too; but perhaps because he had loved Yinreng too much. "Every parent has sons whom he loves deeply", he writes; "too deeply" we are inclined to read between the lines.

Kangxi died in 1722, after 60 years' reign. In his valedictory edict he wrote the following words, words which exemplify the simple, personal tone of all of his writings:

Over 4,350 years have passed since the first year of the Yellow Emperor to the present, and over 300 emperors are listed as having reigned, though the data from the Three Dynasties -- that is, for the period before the Qin burning of books are not wholly credible. In the 1,960 years from the first year of Qin Shihuang to the present there have been 211 people who have been named emperor and who have taken era names. What man am I, that among all those who have reigned long since the Qin and Han dynasties, it should be I who have reigned the longest?


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