Robert John PERRINS

During Emperor Kangxi’s sixty-year reign the borders of the Qing dynasty’s empire were strengthened, Manchu rule in China was solidified, and China’s economy, culture, and population prospered.

The sixty-year reign of Emperor Kangxi, from 1662 to 1722, was one of the longest and most successful in China’s imperial history. In addition to solidifying Manchu rule in China and countering Russian and Mongol threats along the empire’s borders, Kangxi proved himself to be a cultured and able administrator who skillfully bridged the divide between his nomadic Manchu heritage and the agrarian civilization of his Han Chinese subjects.

In the winter of 1661 Emperor Shunzhi, the first emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), contracted smallpox. On his deathbed he named his third son, Xuan Ye, as his heir, possibly because the youth had survived a battle with the disease that shortly was to claim his father, and people believed that this survival was a sign that the child would have a long life. Twelve days after his father’s death, Xuan Ye was proclaimed emperor and took the reign name “Kangxi.” Because the young emperor was only seven years old, a council of four regents was appointed to rule while the child was in his minority. After an abortive first attempt to assert his authority, Kangxi managed at age fifteen, with the help of his mother’s uncle and a group of loyal Manchu officers, to take control of the empire, thus beginning a reign that would last for the next six decades and make him one of the most respected rulers in all of Chinese history.

One of the greatest problems facing the young emperor was the need to unify the empire under Manchu rule. To this end Kangxi ordered that a military campaign be conducted against the three Chinese generals who had directed the conquest of south and southwest China in the 1650s. These generals—Shang Kexi, Geng Jimao, and Wu Sangui—had earlier been named princes and had their sons married to the daughters of Manchu nobles as recognition of their loyalty to the Qing cause. By the early 1670s, however, Kangxi wanted to remove these generals, who were referred to as the “Three Feudatories” because of the high degree of independence they wielded over southern China. The campaign against these former allies was bitter and bloody, but after eight years of fighting Kangxi subdued the last of the Chinese resistance in the south. The emperor then turned his attention to conquering the island of Taiwan, where a large army under the command of the Zheng family had established itself in 1659. A fleet of three hundred ships, under the command of Admiral Shi Lang, whose father and brothers had been killed in the 1650s by the rebel leader Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), was assembled to capture the island. In the summer of 1683 Admiral Shi’s fleet dealt the rebels a fatal blow off the coast of Taiwan, and the last remnants of Chinese resistance surrendered.

Kangxi also worked to protect his empire’s northern and western borders against foreign threats. By the late seventeenth century the Russians had conquered most of Siberia and were exerting pressure along the Amur River in northern Manchuria. Kangxi attempted to remove this threat by laying siege to the Russian military presence at Fort Albazin in the mid-1680s. In 1689, with the assistance of Jesuit missionaries who served as translators, representatives of the Qing and Russian empires met at the town of Nerchinsk and signed a peace treaty—the first diplomatic treaty between China and a European nation. In the years that followed Russian embassies traveled to the Qing court at Beijing, and the two nations enjoyed cordial commercial and diplomatic relations.

Northern Border Stabilized

Kangxi had been anxious to solve his problems with Russia in order to focus his attention on the greater threat posed by the Eleuth king Galdan in western Mongolia. In 1699 Galdan’s armies invaded the territory of the Khalkhas, a nomadic people who lived in eastern Mongolia. The Khalkhas sought refugee in Inner Mongolia, and in 1691 their princes pledged alliance to Kangxi and accepted Qing suzerainty (dominion). Five years later Galdan’s armies again invaded Khalkha territory, and this time Kangxi himself headed an expedition to end this threat along his northern frontier. In 1697 Galdan’s forces were defeated, and the Eleuth king was forced to commit suicide. The northern border of the Qing empire was now stabilized, and all of the peoples of Outer Mongolia were under Manchu control. In 1720 Qing armies also established control over Tibet.

Domestically Kangxi was a conscientious ruler, and under his administration the empire prospered. He ensured that public works, such as maintenance of the dikes along the Huang He (Yellow River) and the navigability of the Grand Canal, were completed. He personally conducted six tours of the empire during his reign, during which he inspected conservancy projects and the work of his officials. While in Beijing he continued to keep a close watch on the work of the empire’s bureaucracy by reading secret reports compiled by teams of censors who were routinely sent to inspect the work of the officialdom. Having mastered classical Chinese, Kangxi was a great patron of Chinese culture and scholarship, and during his rule he sponsored court painters, imperial porcelain factories, academies of learning, and the compilation of works of philosophy and literature. In an effort to retain the traditions of his nomadic heritage, Kangxi also enjoyed periodic hunting trips with members of the Manchu aristocracy.

Kangxi exhibited great intellectual curiosity, and this was demonstrated by his use of Jesuit missionaries as advisers. Not only were the missionaries used as translators during the negotiations with the Russians at Nerchinsk, but also they were used as cartographers and charged with running the Imperial Board of Astronomy because of their mathematical knowledge and ability to correct the Chinese calendar.

A Portrait of Emperor Kangxi.

Power Struggle

Kangxi had twenty sons and eight daughters who lived to adult age, but only one of these—the prince Yinreng—was born to the first empress. The young prince was named heir-apparent at a young age and was left to serve as acting ruler when his father was absent from the capital during the military campaign against Galdan and the inspection tours of the south. Yinren, however, proved to have a cruel personality, and after years of reading secret reports documenting the prince’s abusive behavior, Kangxi finally revoked Yinren’s status as heir-apparent in 1708 and ordered him arrested. When Kangxi died in December 1722 he had failed to fulfill an important responsibility by not publicly naming an heir, and, in the power struggle that followed his death, his fourth son took the throne under the reign name “Yongzheng.”

Despite his failure to name an heir, Kangxi is recognized, along with the emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736–1799), as one of the two greatest emperors of the Qing dynasty. The empire’s borders were strengthened by his military campaigns, and China’s economy, culture, and population prospered because of the new stability.

Further Reading

Crossley, P. (1997). The Manchus. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.

Fang Chao-Ying. (1943). Hsüan-yeh. In A. W. Hummel (Ed.), Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing period (1644–1912) (Vol. 1, pp. 327–331). Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Offi

Kessler, L. (1978). K’ang-hsi and the consolidation of Ch’ing rule, 1661–1684. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oxnam, R. (1975). Ruling from horseback: Manchu politics in the Oboi regency, 1661–1669. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spence, J. (1966). Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi emperor: Bondservant and master. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Spence, J. (1974). Emperor of China: Self-portrait of K’ang-hsi. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wakeman, F., Jr. (1975). The great enterprise: The Manchu reconstruction of imperial order in seventeenth-century China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wu, Silas H. L. (1979). Passage to power: K’ang-hsi and his heir apparent, 1661–1722. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Perrins, Robert John. (2009). Kangxi, Emperor. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1237–1239. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Kangxi, Emperor (K?ngx? huángdì ????)|Kangxi, Emperor (K?ngx? huángdì ????)

Download the PDF of this article