Kangxi Emperor — The Longest Reigning Monarch in the History of China

Kangxi Emperor (1654 — 1722), personal name Xuanye, respected as Emperor Shengzu of Qing, was a remarkable monarch of the Qing Dynasty, and the longest (61 years) reigning sovereign throughout the ancient history of China.

Under his ruling period, the whole of the nation was unified, and civilians lived stable lives when the economy and agriculture were increasing steadily.

Portrait of Kangxi Emperor, By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty

Portrait of Kangxi Emperor, By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Strong Teenager Emperor and His Aggressive Regent

Xuanye and his mother were not quite appreciated by his father, the Shunzhi Emperor (1638 — 1661). 

When his father Shunzhi was paying most of his attention to his favorite concubine Dong and their beloved son, Xuanye spent most of his time studying diligently. 

After Shunzhi Emperor passed away, Xuanye ascended to the throne as Kangxi Emperor when he was only 7 years old. Two years later, his birth mother passed away because of sickness.

This was a big pity for Kangxi, who had barely spent happy family times with his parents.

Luckily, his grandmother Empress Xiaozhuangwen (1613 — 1688), a remarkable female politician, loved and supported him since he was born. 

Portrait of Empress Xiaozhuangwen, By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty

Portrait of Empress Xiaozhuangwen, By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Besides his grandmother, the child emperor was assisted by four other regents to reign the empire. 

One of them was Oboi, a contributed, brave, but arrogant official, who obtained paramount power, and had done many illegal activities. 

Besides, when Kangxi turned 14 and started to take over authorities, Oboi refused to return any power, while keeping challenging the young emperor. 

One year later, Kangxi commanded his guards to ambush and capture Oboi during a meeting. Then, with the assistance of Empress Xiaozhuangwen, he brought Oboi to justice and perished his entire party. 

Afterward, the 15 years old emperor obtained all the centralized power.

Chair Decorated Using the Antlers that Were Hunted by Kangxi Emperor Himself

Chair Decorated Using the Antlers that Were Hunted by Kangxi Himself — Palace Museum

Unifying of the Nation

Four years later, despite strong opponents from his officials, Kangxi insisted to abolish three kings, by commanding them to hand over all authorities of their independent fiefs, reorganizing their private elite troops, and migrating to remote places.

This then caused the Revolt of the Three Feudatories (San Fan Zhi Luan).

Three kings including Wu Sangui in Yunnan and Guizhou, Geng Jingzhong in Fujian, and Shang Clan in Guangdong, allied and rebelled, in the name of recovering the Ming Dynasty.  

Led by excellent general Wu Sangui, they occupied half of China and kept expanding. 

Kangxi offered the amnesty policy to other forces, and only attacked Wu Sangui, firmly. 

The differentiation policy turned out to work well, after which some forces surrendered to the emperor.

This war lasted for eight years until Wu Sangui passed away and his grandson committed suicide.

Part of the "Dong Weiguo Ji Gong Tu" that Described Qing's General Dong Defeating Wu Sangui's Rebellion, Painted by Artist Huang Bi in 1677

Part of the "Dong Weiguo Ji Gong Tu" that Described Qing's General Dong Defeating Wu Sangui's Rebellion, Painted by Artist Huang Bi in 1677 — National Museum of China

After this success, large numbers of cities in southern China were included in the Qing Empire’s absolute control. 

At the same time, the king of Taiwan, who dedicated his entire life to recovering the Ming Dynasty, passed away, and his weak son inherited the title.

Kangxi then sent his army to attack them, and two years later, Taiwan was officially under the Qing Empire’s reign.

Till then, the last powerful force that was still loyal to the former Ming Dynasty complied with Qing. 

Afterward, Kangxi spent the next decades further extending territory in the northwest and northeast of China; he even led the Qing army and participated in some battles himself to make sure the final success. 

Under his reign, the whole nation was finally unified.

Calligraphy of Kangxi Emperor "Liu Tiao Bian Wang Yue"

Calligraphy of Kangxi "Liu Tiao Bian Wang Yue" — Palace Museum

Beginning of Autocracy

 

Kangxi sometimes was criticized for having banned maritime trade and implemented the Literary Inquisitions.

Also, the system that imperial censors could freely criticize everything without being killed, which had been widely popularized in former dynasties like Song (960 — 1279) and Ming (1368 — 1644), was completely abrogated in the Qing Dynasty.

No one could criticize the powerful ruling class; writing or even just reading some “rebel books” (mostly regarding good memories of the former Ming Dynasty) would be punished, even sentenced to death. 

These strict policies set a foundation for the autarchy of the Qing Dynasty.

Despite these, Kangxi was still an excellent monarch that nominated many talented officials, again abolished the Enclosure Movement, and lowered many types of taxes.

Many public projects were completed during his reign as well, including constructing flood control systems, improving the water transportation system, repairing of Grand Canal, etc.

He respected Confucianism as the official ideology and commanded scholars to edit and publish calendars, maps, and a series of classics, such as the Kangxi Dictionary. 

 

As a big fan of western science, Kangxi had learned a lot from western Jesuit missionaries.

He had visited many places in China, trying to get first-hand information on people’s living conditions and to show civilians his determination to bring them wealthy lives.

Part of "Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour" (Kangxi Nan Xun Tu) that Describes Kangxi Emperor's Visit in Jiangsu Province

Part of "Kangxi's Southern Inspection Tour" (Kangxi Nan Xun Tu) that Describes His Visit in Jiangsu Province, Painted by Wang Hui and Yang Jin in 1691 to 1693 — Palace Museum

Contention Over the Throne Among Princes

Maybe because he felt sorry for having rarely spent family time with his parents, Kangxi tried his best to love and take care of his kids.

His first queen, also the love of his life, passed away after giving birth to their first baby boy. He then nominated this boy as the crown prince, and carefully educated him.

Kangxi also gave his sons many opportunities to get involved in politics. 

He intended to raise his boys as strong, brilliant politicians that would contribute to flourishing their empire. 

However, with them obtaining more power, their desires kept growing as well.

 

When many qualified princes were equally ambitious and resourceful, intense competition over the throne would arise. 

Porcelain Cups Produced under Kangxi Emperor's Reign, Decorated with 12 Flowers that Represent 12 Months of Traditional Chinese Calendar

Porcelain Cups Produced under Kangxi's Reign, Decorated with 12 Flowers that Represent 12 Months of Traditional Chinese Calendar — Hubei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Years later, he abolished his beloved crown prince, then re-titled him, then abrogated him again, and imprisoned him till death.

The irresolution in choosing his heir and the permission of all of his sons to participate in politics, in the end, gave most adult princes big hope to compete for the throne.

Consequently, nine of his adult sons and a large number of officials got entangled in the intense contention over the throne, which caused the empire some backslides in Kangxi's late years. 

After Kangxi passed away in his palace, his fourth son Yin Zhen immediately took control of everything and ascended to the throne. Those princes that were involved in the intense contention, were demoted or imprisoned by the new emperor. 

Despite the chaos and partial conflict in his late years, Kangxi has been widely respected as an excellent and decisive emperor of China with remarkable achievements.  

Jadeite Censer of the Qing Dynasty

Jadeite Censer of the Qing Dynasty — The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)