Kangxi Emperor

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  • Born: 1654
  • Died: 1722
  • Reign: 1661-1722
  • Other Names: Aisin Gioro Xuanye; 聖祖 (Shengzu)
  • Chinese/Japanese: 康熙帝 (Kāngxī dì / Kouki tei)

The Kangxi Emperor was the fourth emperor of China's Qing Dynasty, and the second to rule over China proper (i.e. following the fall of the Ming Dynasty). His lengthy reign is often described as a period of the consolidation of Qing rule.

The Kangxi Emperor was a son of the Shunzhi Emperor by a consort later known as Empress Xiaokang, who was originally from one of the Tong lineages (surname 佟) of Liaodong.[1]

Kangxi ruled for sixty years, from 1661 when he was seven years old, wielding actual power from the age of 13 until his death in 1722 at the age of 68. He is said to have woken up early every day to read memorials to the throne, before meeting with officials, presiding over palace examinations, and engaging in other obligations. The emperor is said to have been an extremely knowledgeable scholar, and a great supporter of scholarship, supporting the compilation of a new dictionary, a vast 5,000 volume encyclopedia, and the official History of the Ming (Míng shǐ), the last of which was begun under his predecessor, the Shunzhi Emperor, and was completed under the Qianlong Emperor in the 1730s.


In the first years of his reign, government was dominated by a group of four regents, led by the Manchu general Oboi. Armed with a document they claimed was written by Kangxi's father, expressing regret for many of his policies, these regents forced through a series of wide-ranging reforms. Seeking to restore power to the Manchus, they stripped many Chinese scholar-officials of their scholarly qualifications, executed the top palace eunuch and abolished the eunuch offices, imprisoned Jesuit scholar Johann Adam Schall von Bell, and promoted a number of Manchu officials to higher positions, while demoting their Chinese counterparts. Expanding on the qianjie policy put into place in 1657, the regents also in 1661 pulled all Chinese twenty miles inland from the East China Sea coast, a move aimed at protecting them from pirate raids, but which caused considerable suffering.[2]

The young Kangxi began vying against the regents to wield power for himself in 1667, at age 13, and two years later, with the help of his grandmother and a number of Manchu guard officers, he managed to have Oboi arrested; the regent later died in prison.


Kangxi was hale and hearty of body, and skilled at horseriding, hunting, and so forth, and thus had little difficulty maintaining the support of his Manchu officials and subjects. At the beginning of his reign, however, the Qing still faced considerable difficulties in having the support of the Chinese people. Many Chinese scholar-officials killed themselves following the fall of Beijing, took up arms against the invasion, or simply resigned their posts and refused to serve the new "barbarian" dynasty. In 1673, the entire southeast & southwest, Wu Sangui and two other Chinese generals given extensive lands as their personal fiefs in thanks for their subjugation of those regions, now led those regions in rising up against the Qing, earning considerable popular support. This Revolt of Three Feudatories was not quashed until 1681, and loyalists based on Taiwan continued to harass the coast, and maritime shipping, until the Qing took the island in 1683.

In the face of such popular opposition, Kangxi took steps from as early as 1670 to show his support for Confucian philosophy and statecraft. The Six Courses in Morals reissued by his predecessor in 1652 were now expanded to Sixteen and reissued again by Kangxi in 1670 as a "Sacred Edict" emphasizing Confucian hierarchy, frugality, diligence, and other Confucian values. Kangxi also made a show of studying the Chinese classics and practicing calligraphy, and offered additional, special forms of the civil service exams aimed at attracting the service of those who otherwise refused to sit the exams for a "barbarian" dynasty. Kangxi and his ministers also recruited scholars for specific projects such as the compilation of official histories, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, and sponsored scholars to tour the country and/or work on their own projects. This brought many scholars into the fold, and also spurred a considerable outpouring of cultural production in late 17th century China, despite the recent or ongoing armed conflicts in many parts of the country. Finally, by the 1690s the Court began to allow or even embrace nostalgia for the Ming, and lionization of those who fought for it. Historian Jonathan Spence gives the example of the playwright Kong Shangren, whose play The Peach Blossom Fan takes place in a Ming loyalist pretender's court, and yet Kong and his play were much welcomed at the Qing court.[3]

The emperor also made six tours of the southern provinces, in 1684, 1689, 1699, 1703, 1705, and 1707,[4] and oversaw the renewal of dikes on the Huai and Yellow Rivers, the dredging of the Grand Canal, and the opening of four ports to foreign trade. He maintained Jesuit astronomers in his court and encouraged the continued adoption of elements of European science.

He enforced continued policies of ethnic separation aimed at ensuring that Manchus, and not Han Chinese, retained superiority and control of the state. Though clearly devotedly engaged in pursuits of Chinese scholarly cultivation, the Kangxi Emperor also practiced and performed his Manchu identity, building a summer palace on the Mongolian steppe, where he often engaged in falconry and hunted on horseback. However, he also took various steps to earn the support of the Chinese scholar-bureaucrats, and of Han Chinese more broadly.

Kangxi strengthened the borders of the empire through agreements with the Portuguese, a treaty with the Russians, and military campaigns against the Zunghars, and established in 1668 a "willow palisade" blocking off Han Chinese access to large portions of the Manchu homelands. He also improved official communication networks (including those for covert state information). Kangxi's reign also saw considerable agricultural and commercial expansion, but the Court failed to revise its tax codes appropriately to best capture state revenues from these developments.[5]

He had his first son, Yinreng, in 1674, and moved quickly to have the boy named heir apparent, in order to avoid the problems of domineering regents that he himself had to deal with early in his reign. By the 1690s, when Yinreng was in his 20s, the emperor even considered abdicating in his favor. By the last years of that decade, however, the emperor began to hear rumors at court as to his son's erratic and cruel behavior. He instituted a "palace memorial" system which would allow for more direct and confidential communication than the regular memorial system, such that he could exchange messages with officials without the intermediaries reading them, or entering them into the official record. Through this system of reporting, as well as other channels, the evidence against Yinreng mounted up, and in 1708, Kangxi had the boy stripped of his status as heir, and placed under house arrest; he relented the following year, but then ordered the boy's arrest once more in 1712 after hearing of assassination plots against him. For the next ten years or so, Kangxi refused to name another heir, and harshly punished officials who suggested he do so.[6]

Preceded by
Shunzhi Emperor
Emperor of Qing
Succeeded by
Yongzheng Emperor


  • Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 115.
  1. Crossley, Pamela Kyle. A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology. University of California Press, 1999, 56.
  2. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 43-44.
  3. Spence, 60-63.
  4. Chang, Michael G. A Court on Horseback: Imperial Touring and the Construction of Qing Rule, 1680-1785. Harvard University Asia Center, 2007, 3n12.
  5. Spence, 4-5.
  6. Spence, 69-71.