(Minghui.org) Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), the third emperor of the Qing Dynasty, led China to one of her greatest golden ages. His 61-year reign was known as the “Prosperous Era of Kangxi,” with extraordinary achievements in political and military affairs, frontier expansion, social stability, and economic prosperity. Many historical scholars regard Kangxi as one of China’s most successful rulers.

From childhood, Kangxi studied the Chinese classics extensively, and was able to grasp their core teachings at a young age.

“Confucian classics, historical records, philosophical writings and miscellaneous works, can be summed up in four words: benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom. Of all the teachings in the Cheng-Zhu philosophical school, the essence is no more than the course of nature and one’s conscience,” he once said. These principles would guide Kangxi’s conduct throughout his life.

His decisions about state affairs and the treatment of his subordinates were grounded in rationality, regardless of whether he chose to take a lenient or a severe approach. His benevolent and upright conduct won high praise and respect from both court officials and the common people at large.

Kangxi’s Benevolence

One of Kangxi’s epithets identify him as the “Emperor of Benevolence.”

According to Mencius, “The people are the quintessence, followed by the nation. The sovereign is the last in all things.”

Such thinking had a profound impact on later generations, including Kangxi. He loved his people and cared for them greatly. He was solicitous of their well-being and regularly thought of ways to improve their living conditions.

He believed that as long as the people were given the means and conditions to recuperate from any negative event that should occur, his aspirations for a peaceful and prosperous society would come true.

He opposed the policy of land enclosure and reduced taxes for the people, making it clear that “there will never be a capitation on people born in our prosperous society.” His successor and fourth son, Emperor Yongzheng, further unified the taxation system, effectively putting an end to the millennia-old poll tax in China.

One day, while on an inspection tour beyond the Great Wall in 1677, Kangxi’s entourage came across a man lying by the roadside. Normally, any person blocking an emperor’s path would be charged with a crime, but Kangxi asked his guards to find out what was going on.

As it turned out, the man was a laborer named Wang Sihai. He was away from home to make a living, but became so hungry that he passed out on his way back home.

Upon hearing this, Kangxi told his guards not to scare the man and asked them to make the man some hot porridge. When Kangxi learned that Wang’s family was destitute, he also gave Wang money for his journey and assigned one of his men to send Wang home.

An ancient Chinese saying goes: “Do not refuse to act out of goodness simply because the act is small; do not commit evil, even if the act is trivial.”

Kangxi loved his people, and his benevolence could be seen even in his daily conduct.

Kangxi’s benevolent governance also manifested in his clemency when punishing criminals. In 1683, the number of death row prisoners was less than 40 across the entire country.

He also adopted a leniency policy for officials who violated the law. For example, Oboi, a prominent Manchu military commander and a powerful and ambitious courtier, committed a serious capital felony. Yet, he was only put in prison instead.

High-ranking minister Songgotu, who too committed a crime worthy of the death penalty in the heir-apparent crisis, was also spared death and sentenced to imprisonment instead.

Yang Guangxian, head of the Bureau of Astronomy at the time, made false accusations to attack Jesuit astronomers serving in the Qing court, labeling them as an “evil religion.” As a result, a number of Christian Chinese were executed, and almost all Christian missionaries in the capital city were exiled to Macau. However, just a few years later, the case was reversed and Yang was sentenced to death. Again, Kangxi granted him clemency for his old age and exiled him to his hometown. Yang died on his way home the following year.

Kangxi once said to his courtiers: “I believe that since ancient times, in governance of people by kings and emperors, it is much better to inspire people with morality and virtue so that they become good and do not want to do bad things, instead of ruling by punishment and making the people feel scared of law, and only concerned with escaping punishment.”

Kangxi went on to remind his courtiers: “In the Book of History, it says: ‘When all nations live together peacefully, the masses of people will become kind and live in harmony.’”

“An emperor should make things clear and easy for his officials to implement, and be big-hearted and generous to the people,” was another one of his mottos.

“During the time of Yao and Shun, they ruled the land according to the wishes of their people, motivating the people like a gentle wind towards beneficial goals. The stability and prosperity of their societies is evidence for the success of this policy. I used to envy the prosperity in ancient times and have worked hard to promote moral education in our people to encourage their conscience so that we can walk a righteous path together.”

Repay Kindness, Not Revenge

Prior to regaining Taiwan, Emperor Kangxi sought opinions from his courtiers on what strategy he should take. Some believed that the court should engage Shi Lang, a surrendered general from Taiwan, because he was familiar with Taiwan’s specific conditions and had excellent command capabilities. Others argued that according to some reports, Shi Lang still had connections with Prince Zheng in Taiwan, and the reason he advocated a military attack on Taiwan was because he wanted to take the army for himself and defect to Taiwan.

Kangxi investigated the matter himself and deemed the accusations against Shi Lang untrue. The fact was that Shi Lang’s son Shi Qi and his nephew Shi Hai tried to submit to the Qing court, but their plan was leaked and all 73 members of their families were executed by Prince Zheng. Kangxi dismissed all doubts about Shi Lang and entrusted him with military power in the campaign, giving Shi his full support and backing.

Before the troops set off, Kangxi said to Shi Lang, “I’m not worried about you not being able to conquer Taiwan, but I do have a concern. Do you know what it is?”

Shi Lang did not know.

“Some of Prince Zheng’s men have helped you before, whereas others have done you harm, and things can get very complicated since there is never an end to taking revenge. If there are people who are willing to surrender, I have eight words for you to keep in mind: Only repay their kindness, but never take revenge!”

Deeply moved by the emperor’s trust, Shi Lang launched a successful offensive with all his might and treated the captives graciously regardless of their history with him. Seeing how they were being treated, all of the surrendered troops willingly submitted to the Qing court.

Much Ado About a Tael of Silver

Ye Fang’ai from Kunshan city was a successful candidate in the imperial examinations, and was regarded as a well-learned academic.

However, he was found to owe one tael of silver in tax during a tax inspection. Ye thought that one tael of silver was nothing, so he wrote to Emperor Kangxi and asked for clemency to have his wrongdoing absolved. However, the emperor was not swayed by personal considerations. He revoked Ye’s scholarly honor and rank, and punished him according to the law.

The reign of Kangxi promoted clean governance and had severe punishments in place for corruption and tax evasion. For example, when Ka Yongshi, a government official in Sichuan collected the national tax, he would secretly collect an extra 12 silver with every 200 taels collected. After giving the governor Nengtai more than 200,000 taels of silver from this corrupt practice, he kept the rest of the money to himself. Nengtai was later sentenced to death for corruption, and Ka Yongshi, who would have met the same fate, died from illness before he could be sentenced.

Prefect Zhao Fengzhao of Taiyuan, Shanxi was also executed for overtaxing people and embezzling nearly 200,000 taels of silver.

In 1697, Wen Bao, governor of Shanxi, and provincial administration commissioner Gan Du colluded with each other in corruption. They took bribes and twisted the law to exploit the people, “forcing many from Puzhou to flee into the mountains.” When things got worse, the people gathered together and rebelled.

Kangxi sent Wei Lun to reconcile with the rebels and told him to take the rebels in and treat them kindly if they refused to surrender. He also told Wei that he should execute Gan Du as soon as he got there, because “How can we possibly convince people of our integrity if such a corrupt official is spared?”

An Eye for Detail

Emperor Kangxi took a tour to the south in 1707 to inspect waterway repairs. After his observations on the first day, he asked the local officer, Zhang Penghe, about his view on the project.

Zhang said, “Your Majesty loves the people as his family—you do not hesitate to spend a million taels of silver to save the lives of people, and all the people sing Your Majesty’s praises.”

The emperor did not buy into such flattery and said to Zhang, “These are useless, empty words. I was asking you about the waterways project. You may elaborate when writing an essay, but you must be down to earth when talking about official affairs.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Zhang said, “I thought of going with the Liuhaitao plan drawn up previously, but then I felt it was a matter of such great importance, so I would beseech Your Majesty to inspect it in person and decide if we should open up a canal to divert water from the Huai River.”

Upon hearing this, Kangxi reprimanded him harshly and said: “I’ve seen today that the surveyor’s poles were erected in total disorder, and no one seemed to know what was going on. What else is there that deserves your attention more than this?”

The emperor then clearly pointed out the problems. Firstly, the canal dug out was too high in the location for water flow; secondly, many surveyor’s poles were erected in graves, which meant that all those graves would be destroyed.

He went on to explain why the Liuhuaitao plan would not work. For example, such a project would involve digging through mountains and hills, which would be extremely difficult, and even if it could be done, when floods strike, water would rush into Lake Hongze, or destroy the canal.

“So instead of constructing a useless channel like Liuhuaitao, you can extend the opening of Lake Hongze in both width and depth so that water could flow easily into Jiangjia and Tianran dam, where you could further widen the waterway for a smoother water flow,” said the emperor.

Kangxi also ordered the removal of all the surveyor’s poles erected based on the old plan. The local people were extremely happy that the graves would be safe and celebrated Kangxi’s decision.

Later, Emperor Kangxi reprimanded Zhang Penghe again.

“The officials you appointed to be in charge of the project were careless about their duty,” he said. “Also, you spent too much time in the government compound and go out for an inspection only once every two or three months. How could you possibly know what is actually happening?”

The emperor also pointed out: “The Liuhuaitao plan that you lot proposed showed me that not only did the local officials seek personal gain from it, but the construction officers were gunning for promotion through the project as well. How could we rely on such people to complete a project?”

Zhang Penghe felt really ashamed while listening to the emperor give such a detailed analysis of his work.

Not long after, Kangxi ordered to demote the officials who had neglected their duties, and instructed Zhang Penghe to “inspect the canal embankment regularly, rain or shine” to encourage him to better fulfill his.

From this, we can see that Emperor Kangxi was very even-handed in meting out rewards and punishments.

He believed that “one’s heart determines how one implements the law.” There are such lines in Kangxi’s Family Education Motto that “People have only one heart, and when it is at work, a thought is formed instantly, and one would know straight away whether it is right or wrong. If the thought is wrong, you must correct it immediately, then you would not be too far from the Tao [the righteous way].”

Being a great emperor, Emperor Kangxi had an extensive group of virtuous officials at all levels following the example of their sovereign. They aspired to temper their character, uphold integrity, care for the people, and endeavor for sound and clean governance. Together, they made their aspirations come true in this 61-year golden age, where “the world is at peace, and people live in prosperity and contentment.”

Chinese version available

Category: Traditional Culture