The Kangxi emperor who ruled China from 1662 to 1722 was the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). A remarkable ruler, he launched the flourishing age known as the “Glorious Era of Kang (Kangxi), Yong (Yongzheng), and Qian (Qianlong)” that lasted through the next two reigns.
Ascending the throne at the age of eight and taking full control at fourteen, the Kangxi emperor (1654–1722) enjoyed a reign of sixty-one years, longer than any other Chinese monarch. Actual power was initially held by four regents as the newly enthroned emperor was too young to handle state affairs himself. One of the four regents, Aobai (Oboi, ca. 1610–1669), with total disregard for the child emperor, not only built up a clique both within and without the imperial court, but also had many of his opponents murdered. Kangxi planned to get rid of Aobai, but bided his time and hid his intentions lest informers betray him. He selected a group of trusted teenagers to wrestle with him in the palace every day. Getting used to the playful scene, the regent was unaware that the young emperor was training his own bodyguards. One day as Aobai entered the court as usual, the boys sallied forth at the command of the emperor and apprehended him. Immediately, the emperor announced Aobai’s crimes.
Shortly after his enthronement, Kangxi was asked by the Grand Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang (1613–1688) about his political aspirations. “I wish for peace over the realm with no war, no disaster, and felicity for all.” This answer, which pleased his grandmother, foretold the extraordinary achievement of the ambitious emperor.
When Kangxi ascended the throne, the Manchus had reigned in Beijing for eighteen years, yet the regime was still volatile. The emperor quelled social and political instabilities one after another. Experienced in warfare, he believed that benevolence was invincible, and that the best military strategy was to care for his subjects. To gain the support of the people, he enacted a military decree of seventeen articles which prohibited harassing the people. Kangxi required his soldiers to read books and to study military tactics. He also emphasized adapting to changing circumstances. During his reign, the Qing armies put down Wu Sangui’s revolt in the south, resumed control of Taiwan, defeated the rebellious Mongolian aristocrats, and drove Russian invaders out of China. Manchu imperial power, once vulnerable to various threats, was consolidated after all these efforts.
For decades before the Kangxi reign, China’s economy had declined and people faced destitution. The Kangxi emperor well understood the old tenets that people were the foundation of a nation and that to them food was regarded as the most essential want. He regarded agriculture as being of exceptional importance. The emperor repeatedly decreed tax reductions and tax exemptions. The total levies reduced during his reign exceeded 140 million taels of silver. On many of his tours to the south, he inspected waterway maintenance and management to ensure agricultural development. The emperor also lifted the ban on maritime trade which greatly promoted economic growth. After forty years on the throne, he had steered China’s course towards revived agriculture, an enriched state treasury, and significantly improved livelihoods for the people.
At its establishment, the Manchu regime was faced with hostile resistance from the Han people. Realizing that the Han could not be conquered by mere force, the emperor raised the status and remuneration of Han officials, and prohibited the enclosure of land or houses owned by the Han. He also endeavored to study Han culture and implemented Confucian concepts in his governance. These policies gradually lessened the Han’s antagonism towards the Qing empire.
The Kangxi emperor is credited for his promotion of culture and science. He ordered the drawing of a detailed Chinese map and organized groups of scholars to compile dozens of classic works, such as the Kangxi Dictionary and the Complete Tang Poems. He was nicknamed the “emperor scientist” for having studied mathematics, physics, astronomy, and medicine, among other subjects with Western missionaries.