Emperor Kangxi: Consolidation Through Sinicization

Culture | by Miller Wey
Posted: August 17th, 2012 | Updated: August 3rd, 2014 | Comments

He ascended the throne at age 7, ousted his regent by age 13, reintegrated rogue provinces in the southwest, formed the foundation of expansion that led to the borders of modern China, helped save West Lake and became of of China's most revered emperors along with his grandson. Not bad for the second emperor of the non-Han Chinese Qing Dynasty. He also had a pet lion. Xuan Ye, who took the reign name Emperor Kangxi (Kāngxī Dì, 康熙帝), was born on 4 May, 1654 as the heir to the throne of a dynasty of outsiders.

Previously known as the Jurchen, a northern tribe that earlier founded the Jin Dynasty that forced the Han-Chinese Song Dynasty south, the newly-christened Manchu people united behind Nurhaci, an ambitious chieftain, to throw off the yoke of the Ming Dynasty they owed patronage to and conquered the ailing country after rebellions brought down the Ming. While claimants to the fallen Ming throne had been eliminated by Kangxi's time, the country's southwestern region operated almost independently while Ming loyalists developed a trade empire in Taiwan.

Although Kangxi sat on the throne in Beijing, the Han Chinese population was still not sitting entirely well with Manchu rule. Emperor Kangxi's immersion into Han Chinese culture, his military victories and his travels through the country's most influential regions helped to cement the dynasty's power, making the period of his reign and his immediate successors one of the most important in Chinese history....

The Delicate Balance of Ruling as a Conqueror

Kangxi's father had been the first of the Qing rulers to sit on the throne in Beijing, but the third of the young empire starting with Nurhaci. While Emperor Shunzhi and his regent Dorgon before him had tried to further integrate themselves to Han culture, Kangxi's regent Oboi reversed the trend—a post-mortem declaration was even made, supposedly by Emperor Shunzi but more likely coming from Oboi or other officials, apologizing for some of his policies. The young emperor had a delicate task of public relations ahead of him—pacify and assure the Han populace without alienating the Manchu.


While Kangxi was careful to show his Manchu pride through his diligence in observing Manchu religious ceremonies and trips back to the homeland, he also took on a heavy regimin of study to learn more about Chinese culture. His skills in riding and archery, along with his survival of smallpox—the disease believed to have killed his father—during childhood were enough to prove the man in his Manchu, but it was his careful study of science, math and Chinese classics along with skills in art, poetry and calligraphy that appealed to the more numerous Han of the empire.

Many scholars, particularly those in the influencial Jiāngnán (江南) region to the south of the Yangtze River, openly or subtly opposed the non-Han regime. Numbers for those sitting for the imperial exams that appointed officials, among other things, were low as scholars didn't take the exam in protest. To counteract this, Kangxi established a "special" exam that he used to choose scholars to include in projects like the compiling of the History of the Ming. He also ordered the creation of the Kangxi Dictionary, which was organized by the 214 Kangxi radicals—components of Chinese characters.  While many of the words compiled are no longer in common usage, the radical system remains important. To appeal to the common Han person, Kangxi released the "Sacred Edict" in 1670. A series of sixteen maxims taken from Confucian teachings, the edict emphasized the traditional Confucian ideas of morality while also working to Sinicize the Manchu emperor in the eyes of his Han subjects.

The Strong Arm of the Throne

When Kangxi ascended the throne, a massive section of southwest China—covering what is today Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong as well as parts of Guangxi, Hunan and Sichuan—was only nominally under imperial authority.  The "Three Feudatories" (Sān Fān, 三藩) were each run by powerful generals and operated relatively independently of central authority while receiving massive amounts of silver from Beijing to assure their loyalty.

After two of the generals passed their reigns to their sons, the status quo began to worry Kangxi. Their requests to retire to their northern homelands were met with enthusiasm by the throne and in response the generals threw off their loyalties to the Qing Empire and began the Revolt of the Three Feudatories (Sān Fān Zhī Luàn, 三藩之乱). Kangxi refused their demands for the Manchu to return to their homeland and rallied the imperial army against them. Unable to coordinate their efforts or drum up sufficient support against the Qing, however, the rebelling armies were crushed and the southwest reintegrated.

A different problem was happening on China's southeastern side. Taiwan was a base for anti-Qing pirates before Kangxi took the throne. The family of legendary pirate Koxinga, who defeated the Dutch at their fortress at Zeelandia in Taiwan, had continued his trade empire and anti-Qing activities. Not a naval power, the Qing relied on a former ally of Koxinga's father to take back Taiwan. While the island was garrisoned with 8,000 Qing troops, it remained a rough frontier on the fringes of the empire.

The powers on the other side of the Chinese border proved another difficulty. To the north, Russian settlers were moving steady south passed a murky China-Russia border. To the west, Galdan of the Dzungar tribe, with the prestige of Lhasa's Dalai Lama behind him threatened Mongolians the Qing kept under their protection as a sort of buffer to protect their own borders. After the second of two raids against a Russian outpost met with strong opposition, the Qing recognized the need to work out an agreement and established a firm border a treaty negotiated with the translation help of Jesuits living in the Forbidden City. Qing forces were, however, able to overcome the Dzungar and placed a Qing-friendly Dalai Lama in Lhasa. While Tibet was not incorporated into the empire, this was an important event in the relationship between Beijing and Tibet.

Kangxi on Tour

The imperial tour was a long-standing tradition, dating back to Emperor Qin Shi Huang, that went into decline after the Tang Dynasty. Kangxi restarted the tradition carefully, using it as a means of expanding imperial prestige but without overdoing the prestige part. A common thread in Chinese accounts of dynastic history usually ends each chapter with emperors more interested in leisure and ladies than matters of state. Historians of the time even approved of the decline of West Lake in Hangzhou, formerly a place high regarded for its beauty, during the Yuan Dynasty because it showed that the rulers weren't interested in the decadent pleasures that saw the end to so many before.


Tours north into traditional Manchurian territory as well as Shandong were a start. The emperor visited sites along the wily and silty Yellow River, which was prone to flooding and changing course if not properly maintained. In Qufu, home of Confucius, he visited the Confucian Temple and made prostrations and wrote out an accolade that was placed in one of the temple's halls that the emperor had restored. It not only helped the emperor's reputation, but the places he visited as well. The water of Baotu Springs in Jinan received the emperor's praise which sticks even today.

His trips south to the Jiangnan region were of particular importance. While there, he trained with scholars and artists, improving both his knowledge of Chinese culture and his reputation among Chinese people. Although he carefully controlled his appearance to make his travels not appear too leisurely—he made sure no special routes or lodgings were built and was careful to keep his schedule busy—his visiting of scenic spots managed to stay a part of his travels. The island of Putuo Shan and West Lake in Hangzhou both owe much to his imperial praise. While Putuo Shan had been home to Buddhist temples since the late 16th century, Kangxi formally dedicated the island to the enshrinement of Guanyin, the Buddhist deity of compassion. West Lake, which had degraded from lack of dredging and farming in the area, returned to favor when the emperor duly noted his list of the Ten Scenic Spots of West Lake. Its cousin, the Slender West Lake in Yangzhou, also touts his imperial visit as part of its claim to fame.

Work hard, play hard

In addition to the splendor behind the walls of the Forbidden City, had an imperial retreat within Beijing. Destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion by British and French troops, the splendor of the Old Summer Palace was legendary—three gardens stocked with elaborate buildings, including Western-style buildings designed by Jesuits residing in the imperial capital, and recreations of famous scenic spots around the empire. Outside the city, Kangxi could escape to the Mukden Palace in Shenyang, a retreat whose construction was started under Nurhaci himself. Mukden Palace once served as the Qing throne until the Ming fell and they were able to move into Beijing. Kangxi summered in the grand Imperial Summer Villa in Chengde to get away from the oppressive heat between the walls of the Forbidden City. The Manchurian-style complex sits among green hills beside a lake and was added to by Kangxi's son and grandson.


During Kangxi's 61-year reign—one of the longest of any ruler in history—China was one of the largest and most prosperous nation on earth. His reputation would be built upon by his son and especially his grandson, the Emperor Qianlong—whose name is also placed together with his grandfather who he sought to emulate during his rule and expanded the coutry's Western border even farther. Ironically, these outsiders established the borders that the People's Republic of China declares traditionally Chinese.

The isolationism that marked the later Qing Dynasty wasn't as evident during Kangxi's reign, but with the exception of military excursions west, Kangxi kept his travels around China's north- and southeast. Kangxi, and later his grandson, valued the work of Jesuits residing in the capital who brought technology and scientific advancments from the West (also a lion) including the equipment at the Beijing Ancient Observatory and provided a connection to Western powers.

That comfortable relationship came to a halt after a Papal Bull declaring Chinese ancestor veneration a heresy. This was a split from the previous arrangement dating back to the time of Jesuit Matteo Ricci that accepted these traditional practices as different from worship. This would taint the relationship between the Jesuits and Qing court and sever the lines of communication and trade that they had established. Despite his origin as an outsider, Emperor Kangxi made himself an integral part of Chinese history and built a legacy that helps to define China even today.

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