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K: Kangxi

Emperor Kangxi

A young Isaac Newton is said to have been inspired by an apple that fell from a tree and hit him on the head. That led him to come up with his laws of gravity later in life, as well as his landmark work Principia Mathematica in 1687.

Newton’s ‘aha moment’ came at the same time that a young Kangxi was ascending to the Qing empire’s throne in 1661. Kangxi became emperor aged just seven yet he survived the power struggles at court and went on to rule the Middle Kingdom for 61 years, a regal record bettered only by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 2015.

Besides becoming the longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history, some argue that Kangxi was one of the greatest as well. Such a verdict would class the Manchu monarch in the same league as two other greats: Emperor Wudi of Han (see W for Wudi of Han) and Emperor Taizong of Tang (see L for Li Shiming).

Why is Kangxi considered great?

One of his contributions is indisputable: under Kangxi’s rule the Qing empire grew to more than 13 million square kilometres in land area, effectively becoming the world’s largest country.

Kangxi’s military campaigns extended the empire’s control to Outer Mongolia, Tibet and to the northwest. In the northeast Kangxi added areas north of the Heilongjiang River (alternately called the Amur River) after border conflicts with Tsarist Russia. He even absorbed Taiwan, when his navy overran the last stronghold of the previous Ming regime on the island in 1683.

How did the economy do under Kangxi?

A key parameter in measuring an emperor’s greatness is social stability. And apart from fighting wars to put down rebel Han Chinese generals (traitors who had helped the Manchu overthrow ­­­­the preceding Ming Dynasty), the Qing empire was largely stable under Kangxi’s six-decade rule.

This helps to explain the explosion in population in the early stages of the Qing Dynasty. Official records put the number of people at 21 million in 1700, with the total jumping to nearly 80 million by 1713, and surpassing 100 million around 1720.

Other reasons for the incredible boom in headcount have been debated. Some believe the main factor was the spread of higher-yielding foreign crops such as potatoes and corn. Others have credited Kangxi’s decision in 1711 to cap the number of adults – perpetually – paying head-tax, and thus exempt those produced by any future population growth from taxation.

Of course, the official census during the Qing era was never entirely accurate. Families may also have been hiding away their children to avoid paying tax. In this respect, Kangxi’s tax relief merely brought China’s ‘grey market population’ back into the official records.

What about his cultural achievements?

It was estimated that there were only about 200,000 or so Manchus in 1644 when they overran the Ming empire – meaning the Han Chinese outnumbered their invaders by 100 times. Kangxi then established a lasting powerbase for the Qing, laying the foundation for an empire that would last more than two and a half centuries.

One of the secrets of his success was treating Han officials much better than the Ming emperors had done. Many of his closest aides were senior Confucian scholars and these “Han traitors” (from the perspective of the Han Chinese who were loyal to the Ming rulers at the time) were key figures in the regime. Kangxi won them over by setting himself up as a good example. He was a hardworking Sinologist in his own right: in 1710 he ordered the compilation of a complete record of all the characters in the Chinese language, a mammoth project that became known as the Kangxi Dictionary.

Are there bad reviews for Kangxi?

Kangxi also embraced a large number of foreign officials including Jesuits (see G for Giuseppe Castiglione). Joachim Bouvet, a French Jesuit, was another of his admirers. In letters to King Louis XIV, Bouvet recounted how Kangxi was fascinated by the scientific and mathematical instruments brought by foreign missionaries to China. The emperor even wrote a preface to a translated version of some of Euclid’s mathematical works.

That meant that the Qing emperor was also aware of the scientific revolution taking place in Europe – conditions that later made possible the industrial revolution.
Critics in the modern day have argued that Kangxi should have done more to push the Qing to keep pace with European advances. Instead, he sowed the seeds of the Middle Kingdom’s decline during this “golden age”. By the time that Kangxi’s great-grandson took over, the empire was starting to suffer incursions from smaller but industrialised Western powers, primarily Britain (where the Industrial Revolution was born).

That’s a painful lesson the government bears in mind today. Beijing’s ‘Made in China 2025’ technological push is an avowed effort to take the lead in new technologies rather than play catch-up.


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