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Emperor of China

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        Royalty. The word makes us think of so many things; power, riches, and longstanding traditions come to mind. The Chinese empire was slightly different from the typical European royal family. Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi, by Jonathan D. Spence, explains the values, beliefs, and structure that the Chinese use in their government. It was a completely different world than Europe, and reading this book helped me realize this. In addition to having different ideals, the Chinese also had a different mindset towards the world around them. This bibliography is important to history for a couple of different reasons, including showing Chinese activity in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and how they viewed the rest of the world.

        Emperor of China was written by K’ang-Hsi, who became the emperor in 1661 when he was only 6 years old. This book is a collection of written works by K’ang-Hsi himself; later the writings were translated into English by Jonathan D. Spence in 1974. K’ang-Hsi written these passages throughout his reign as emperor, which was about 1661-1722. In Spence’s book, we follow K’ang-Hsi as he records his policies, personality, wisdom, and much more. It is divided up into five sections plus two final announcements, one written by him and one by his scribes. Throughout all of K’ang-Hsi’s works, he stuck to some key themes. While reading, I noticed that he constantly learned about his people and surroundings. Whether he was out hunting and found an exotic plant or was talking with the Western Jesuits who lived in his court, K’ang-Hsi never dismissed a single new piece of information. In “Thinking,” a prime example of this is when the Jesuit Adam Schall and a Chinese critic about western mathematics drew the attention of the emperor, and no one else. He learned it and applied it to building waterworks in his kingdom. The Jesuits also taught him about using math in geography to pinpoint latitudes and longitudes. He in turn, taught it to a few of his sons and the court If one wished to understand what life was like in China during K’ang-Hsi’s rule, Emperor of China is very useful for insight into Chinese culture and customs with matters like foreign missionaries for example. From the text, we know that the Chinese followed the same religion as the pope and the Jesuits became very close advisers to K’ang-Hsi. By having the text being told from the emperor himself, we also learn how and what K’ang-Hsi thinks towards his fellow countrymen, “Yet some of their words were no different from the wild or improper teachings of Buddhists and Taoists and why should they be treated differently?” (84). In this portion of the text, K’ang-Hsi is referring to the Westerners when he mentions “their”. This one quote tells us that the Chinese had strict values of equality for all people. K’ang-Hsi also studied his country’s history and past emperors’ reigns. He often criticized them, especially emperors from the Ming dynasty. Besides learning, K’ang-Hsi also frequently mentioned his people. He appeared to care about them and their wellbeing. The language used in Emperor of China reveals how K’ang-Hsi viewed matters of any scale. His wording showed that K’ang-Hsi was not the type of man who would deceive his fellow officials, in fact he always spoke his mind. When speaking to the pope over the conflict of the westerners returning, K’ang-Hsi said, “You insist they be sent back, but I refuse to send them back alive. I’ll cut off these Westerners’ heads and send those back” (81). The wording of this quote illustrated K’ang-Hsi’s ability to speak his mind honestly and crudely even to someone like the pope. This is a clear example of how the Chinese dealt with people who were ignorant to their own customs. This quote also might have been worded quite differently in Chinese, but because it was translated to English the original meaning may not be present.

        In the chapter entitled “In Motion,” he noticed his hunters getting hurt when trying to flush out tigers, so instead of wasting human lives, K’ang-Hsi decided to use dogs. Also, in his early life, from which we see from K’ang-Hsi’s perspective, he was a warrior, hunter, and eventually became a general, and throughout these occupations he strived in every aspect. “Most ordinary people don’t kill in a lifetime what I have killed in one day” (9). His skills with a bow were nothing short of excellent, and his intellect in battle stratagem was far more superior than any of his comrades. To achieve his skill and expertise, K’ang-Hsi never assumed his family status would carry his weight. He valued hard work and diligence above all else and made these ideals a part of him, and his laws, while being emperor.

        Another example is located in “Ruling.” He was very specific on crimes and punishments in his kingdom. In fact, every year he reviewed the capital punishment list to see if anyone was wrongly sentenced to die. Besides trying to save lives, K’ang-Hsi tried to gain his people’s trust. He made an effort to never reveal secrets that citizens have told him. These two themes are very prevalent in the text, and help the reader get a feel for what K’ang-Hsi was like.

        As we saw in this book, K’ang-Hsi's life was not always easy. He tried his hardest to rule with honor, integrity, and with a healthy dose of his Manchu traditions. We repeatedly saw the themes of learning and compassion in the text. And it is a shame he is nothing more than a footnote in history. We hear much more about the European courts and rulers than the Far East emperors. K’ang-Hsi becomes real through this book instead of just being another page in history.

        There were many trials and tribulations that K’ang-Hsi went through as an Emperor. He describes that “giving life to people and killing people – those are the powers that the emperor has.” (29) K’ang-Hsi was an emperor who did feel bad about certain things that an emperor had to do like executions because he knew that even though he did not like it, he had to do it to keep order in the kingdom. A good example is on page 30 where he talks about this man Hu Chien-ching who was a subdirector of the Court of Sacrificial Worship. His family terrorized their native area in Kiangsu, seizing people’s lands and wives and daughters, and murdering people after falsely accusing them of being thieves. The Board of Punishments recommended that Hu is dismissed from his job and sent into exile for three years. K’ang-Hsi thought that wasn’t enough so instead he ordered that he will be executed with his family, and in his native place so that everyone can see how the emperor takes such behavior.

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