Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Emperor of China: Kangxi speaks

I recently followed one of Kaiser Kuo’s recommendations and sat down to read Jonathan Spence’s work Emperor of China, which is unfortunately a bit difficult to classify. Is it best seen as a translation of documents left to posterity by the Kangxi Emperor? Is it best seen as a creative work of historical fiction, a stylised portrait drawn from fragments left in primary sources? Unfortunately, because it is presented as a free-flowing narrative rather than a direct translation of the documents Spence used to write it, the distinction is somewhat blurred.

But the result is a fascinating portrait of a unique world leader: a boy raised as a Manchu hunter who became the emperor of a country filled with people of a different tongue and ethnic belonging; a traditionalist who is fascinated by the modern learning introduced by the West; a spirited and energetic youth who battered by the responsibilities of his office and the intrigues around him into his old age; a forceful and strong-willed man who both excels in his duties and at the same time tries to make himself understood in spite of them. Spence certainly has an ‘aim’ in presenting Kangxi, the fourth Emperor of the Manchu Qing Dynasty and the ruler of China with the single longest reign, in a certain light. He portrays Kangxi as a strident personality who struggles against the straitjacketing forms of Chinese official culture and imperial expectations, and attempts to show the ‘real’, human Kangxi behind the state propaganda which does its best to elevate him to a divine status. I wonder if Chinese historians see in it something of a Western conceit consistent with ‘great man’ histories driven by personality, but as a project it is quite compelling.

The Kangxi that emerges from the pages of Emperor of China is an insatiably curious naturalist and empiricist who insists on seeing and experiencing things for himself. He revels in his travels around the country and makes notes about what he sees: the plants he collects, the animals he kills or captures. His meticulous observations, combined with a rambunctious and boyish personality (at least in his youth) at once call to mind images, at least for this American, of that other ebulliently-masculine outdoorsy commander-in-chief, Teddy Roosevelt. Kangxi’s accounts of his hunts and his military expeditions, as well as his fact-gathering excursions to other parts of his empire, are filled to bursting with an effervescence of energy and curiosity. (It’s little wonder that this fellow, who later in life prides himself on a certain degree of sexual continence, managed to father fifty-six children among an assortment of wives, concubines and court ladies.)

But there’s something of a tragic bent to his life as well. There are only a handful people in his life that he truly trusts, beginning with his grandmother – to whom, in his youth, he was particularly close. That affection is transferred later in his life, to the only surviving son of a favourite consort: his second son Yinreng. [A brief aside: the Romanisations in this book are all Wade-Giles, which may be frustrating to readers who are more used to Zhonghua Pinyin.] As Kangxi gets older and he has to deal with a number of court intrigues, the affections he lavishes on Yinreng begin to turn sour – as he finds Yinreng at the centre of these intrigues, with designs on subverting his rule. The Kangxi that emerges toward the end of the book is something of a pitiable shadow. Though he still retains his keen intelligence and is lucid to the very end of his life, he is weakened, aged, bewildered, disillusioned and angry – not knowing which of his sons to trust and not trusting any of his Chinese advisors or courtiers. He is very much a man alone. Spence aptly captures this sense of tragœdy in Kangxi’s life. For what it’s worth, I tend to think this representation ‘rings true’.

For me, there are other aspects of this book that are of particular interest. For one thing, Kangxi does dwell upon his campaigns against the Russians and recounts with satisfaction his humanitarian act of mercy toward the Albazinian Cossacks, feeding and tending the sick among the remnants of the beaten Russian Army, and resettling them south of the Great Wall: the distant progenitors of the Chinese Orthodox Church in Beijing and Tianjin. Kangxi also treats at length his campaign against the Oirats of Xinjiang under Galdan – the ‘stock villain’ of Kazakhstani period cinema who, at least from the Qing Emperor’s view, seems to have earned his reputation. The Galdan to whom Kangxi gives chase, is a cruel blackguard with an overconfidence in his own abilities and an overestimation of his own cunning, whose love of wine and women has alienated him from the Muslims under his rule. Even so, Kangxi is shown willing to take the surviving Dzunghars into his confidence as subjects and even officials.

The book also treats, from a Chinese point of view, the alternatively warm and cold relations between the Kangxi Emperor and the Jesuit missionaries who arrived from Portugal, Spain and Italy. Despite the protests of some modern Catholics that Communist-ruled China is uniquely repressive and has a particular interest in persecuting the Catholic Church, we can see from this portrait of Kangxi that the power-political dynamic between the Catholic Church and China’s rulers has in fact been going on for hundreds of years. Kangxi was actively invested in the Rites Controversy, and… did not react with particular favour to the Vatican’s resolution of the issue. From Kangxi’s perspective, the Confucian veneration for ancestors and the esteem in which the Sage was held were wholly reasonable and warranted. Further, the Pope’s attempts to command certain appointments and reshufflings of Catholic members in his court rankled and bewildered the Emperor, who could not understand why he would go over the heads of Jesuit officials who had lived and worked in China for years or decades. We may ultimately deplore his decision to force all Catholics to register with the court and expel all Catholics from the country who had lived in China less than a year, but that decision is rendered much more understandable when considered from the standpoint of an Emperor whose knowledge of the West came overwhelmingly from his contacts at court.

In addition to his expeditions, Kangxi dwells long upon his eating habits, his study habits, his troubled relationships with his sons. He also dwells on his approaches to administration and justice, which curiously blend a sort of tribal Tungusic preference for egalitarianism and directness of demeanour (something you see in, say, Dersu Uzala) with a thoroughly-Confucian desire to implement a reasonable and humane mode of justice through the hierarchy he has inherited. Kangxi is sensitive to the hypocrisies and personality flaws of many of his advisors, but is still forced to rely upon them and to trust them to varying degrees.

Spence also shows us how at least some of Kangxi’s late-life paranoias were justified, by giving us both versions of the valedictory address Kangxi gave at the end of his reign: the original draught written during his lifetime, and then (relegated happily to an appendix) the version that was published posthumously by official Qing court censors. Spence says of these two versions in their differences:
K’ang-hsi had originally presented himself as a man in pain and a man with doubts; he had also expressed scepticism about the value and honesty of the way (he guessed) he himself would be enshrined in the historical tradition. The ‘final’ valedictory edict shows how right K’ang-hsi was to be sceptical—he emerges only as a shadow, his platitudes enshrined and his forcefulness and anger and honesty and pain all—alike—removed.
As a work of historical fiction, as I believe this work must be treated, Spence has delivered a masterwork, delving deep into themes of religion and politics, as well as the commonplaces of literature: the loss of innocence, the fraught relationships between fathers and sons, the pains and sorrows of aging, the entirely understandable desire to be understood. Spence has succeeded in at least one of his aims. His Kangxi, the Kangxi that he has puzzled together out of the fragments he was working with, is indeed a vibrant and full human being, and it is a pleasure to read about him.
Kangxi in traditional Manchu hunting attire

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