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Chinese History – Emperor Kang-hsi

Emperor K’ang-hsi ruled China from 1661 to 1722 and his reign is captured by
Jonathan D. Spence’s book Emperor of China. The different chapters of the book deal
with certain aspects of the Emperors life. Aspects that the history books to normally deal
with. The information in Spence’s book is based on Emperor K’ang-hsi’s
correspondence, his own writings. This writing maybe biased towards himself, but no
other piece of information could provide insight into his mind. The book is divided into
six parts; In motion, Ruling, Thinking, Growing Old, Sons, Valedictory. The book
follows Emperor K’ang-hsi’s life as Emperor in chronological order.

In the first part, ?In Motion,” the main emphasis was on Emperor K’ang-hsi travels
though his kingdom. He wrote a letter to Ku Wen-hsing stating that he had traveled
1000’s of miles in each direction. He had traveled to the provinces of Shansi and Shensi in
the west, to the provinces of Manchuria and Ula in the east, north across the Gobi to the
Kerulean River and south to the Yangtze River. On his travels, Emperor K’ang-hsi, liked
to collect and compare different plats, animals, birds that he came across. He loved to
hunt with bows and guns during his travels. Emperor K’ang-hsi hunting practices were
not just meant for joy and exercise, it was also an exercise in military preparedness. He
took thousands of his troops on many of his trips to train them in shooting, camp life, and
formation riding.
The second part of the book emphasis on the historiographically part of the
emperors rule. The authors’ facts were based on the thousands of imperial documents that
came from the emperor. The author was able to piece together the kind to government
that existed. The central bureaucracy of emperor K’ang-hsi’s China was composed of a
metropolitan division and a provincial division. The metropolitan division was supervised
by four to six Grand Secretaries and were directed by the presidents and vice-presidents of
the Six Boards. The provinces were divided into six province blocks, controlled by s
governor-general. Each province was divided into prefectures and each prefecture was
subdivided into counties controlled by a magistrate. Ruling to Emperor K’ang-hsi meant
he had compete control for his economical and educational structure. He also felt that he
was responsible for the life and death of subjects.
The third part of the book is ?Thinking,? that deals with Emperor K’ang-hsi
perspective on his life and of his subjects. Emperor K’ang-hsi believed in Neo-
Confucianism and often refereed to it as the Confucian Classic. In different parts of the
Emperors life he was interested in geometry, astronomy, cartography, medicine, and math.
He took advantage in the free time a ruler has to expand his mind.

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The section ?Growing Old? showed that Emperor K’ang-hsi recognized that the
human body was fallible. He tried to prolong his life with an awareness into his diet,
medicine and memory. He tried to obtain public sympathy with his openness towards his
health, thus gaining the there trust and support in hard times. K’ang-hsi recognized that
admission to his physical weakness was the ultimate honestly but preventing physical
weakness was the ultimate common sense. Practicing medicine under Emperor K’ang-hsi
was a highly specialized practice. He had large groups of men for diagnosis and
treatment. In the end, K’ang-hsi knew that death was enviable, but he tried to live forever
though his children. K’ang-hsi had fifty-six children in his life time, but only one was born
to his first wife. This son was to be raised as the heir to the throne, he received the most
care and love that the Emperor could give.

From an early age, K’ang-hsi eldest son knew he would inherit the throne. Many
officials also knew that the son would inherit the throne and thus tried to gain favors with
the son. Different officials also tried to jockey for position with the government.
Emperor did not look kindly towards this. This political theme is the basis for the chapter
named ?Sons.? Thirty years after Emperor K’ang-hsi was helped into power by his uncle
Songgotu, he had Sonnggotu executed. Shortly after Sonnggotu was killed, Emperor
K’ang-hsi had his sons killed also. In 1712 the garrison commander of Peking was put to
death in fear of the commander gaining to much power. Emperor K’ang-hsi was very
protective of his sons. When he suspected that his son Yin-jeng has indulging in
homosexual activities, K’ang-hsi had three cooks and the serving boys put to death. He
suspected that the cooks and servers were engaging in homosexual activities with his son.
In conclusion, the book achieves in its purpose, to give new insights into the
Emperors life. Spence’s book goes into greater detail about Emperor K’ang-hsi life then
any history book could have. Spence is able to do this by emphasizing on K’ang-hsi’s
writings, and not on other sources. The book was divided into six sections that described
different aspects of the K’ang-hsi life and times. The most interesting chapter in my
option was the chapter ?Sons.? In this chapter Spence describes the Emperor’s protective
nature towards his sons. He went to great lengths to protect his sons and their heir to the
kingdom. Spence’s summary of the data he collected was a little too short. Spence did
not go into great detail over many facts. In addition, Spence did not address issues
outside China that effected it. By this time in history, China had foreign intervention and
influence. Yet Spence did not address the issue of foreign policies that K’ang-hsi made
during his reign. In the end Spence did achieve his goal of gaining new insights into
Emperor K’ang-hsi and wrote a good history of the Emperors life.


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