Height of Qing Dynasty

The reign of Kangxi, the second longest in Chinese history, was a remarkable period of prolonged political stability and prosperity. Kangxi completed the Manchu conquest of China and effectively consolidated the nation’s borders. He also commissioned numerous scholarly endeavors, initiated large-scale public works projects, opened ports to foreign trade, and reduced taxes. During his reign, the arts flourished again and the Jesuits reached their peak of influence.

Summary of Event

Kangxi ascended the imperial throne of China when he was seven years old. He was the third son of the first Qing emperor, Shunzhi Shunzhi (Shun-chih; r. 1644-1661). Since Kangxi was too young to rule at first, four joint regents were appointed. One of them, Oboi Oboi (d. 1669), seized power. In 1669, however, Kangxi, with the help of his powerful uncle, Songgotu Songgotu (d. 1703?), and Grand Empress Dowager Xiao Zhuang Xiao Zhuang , arrested Oboi and assumed power. [kw]Height of Qing Dynasty (Feb. 17, 1661-Dec. 20, 1722)
[kw]Qing Dynasty, Height of (Feb. 17, 1661-Dec. 20, 1722)
Government and politics;Feb. 17, 1661-Dec. 20, 1722: Height of Qing Dynasty[2060]
Cultural and intellectual history;Feb. 17, 1661-Dec. 20, 1722: Height of Qing Dynasty[2060]
China;Feb. 17, 1661-Dec. 20, 1722: Height of Qing Dynasty[2060]
Qing Dynasty (Ch’ing, 1644-1911)

At the time Kangxi became emperor, the Qing Dynasty was in trouble. Although the Manchus Manchus had entered Beijing unopposed in 1644, the conquest and stabilization of the entire country proved to be a difficult. While the northern part of the country had by this time been effectively pacified, much of the south and southeastern regions remained a major problem. Most of this area was under the direct control of Wu Sangui Wu Sangui , a former Ming general, and two other former Ming commanders that had also allied themselves with the Manchus and fought on their behalf. These regions were like independent princedoms, as they had been given as rewards by the Qing government in return for the help these defectors had given provided in consolidating the Qing regime.

In 1673, a young but determined Kangxi decided, against the strong advice of his senior advisers, to order Wu Sangui and the two ex-commanders to leave their fiefs and move to Manchuria. This decision sparked a bloody civil war, known as the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories Three Feudatories, Rebellion of the (1673-1681) , which lasted for eight years. In 1681, the rebellion on the mainland was at last crushed, and the entire Wu family was executed. Two years later, in 1683, a Qing fleet conquered Taiwan Taiwan, Chinese conquest of . These military successes unified China and stabilized the Qing Dynasty.

Kangxi next turned his attention to several longstanding and pressing troubles on China’s borders. The first related to the Russian advance from the north Russia;Siberia . In the 1600’, the Russians had steadily expanded across Siberia Siberia and settled outposts along the Amur River. Kangxi considered this area part of China, and in 1685 he sent an army to attack the main Russian base, Fort Albaniz. The Russians then left, and in 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk Nerchinsk, Treaty of (1689) was signed between the two countries, the first treaty that China signed with a European nation. The treaty regularized relations and border trade between China and Russia and resolved frontier disputes.

The next border problem Kangxi had to deal with involved the Mongols. In 1675, the Western Mongols Mongols, Western (known as Khalkas and Tatars) rebelled in the North. Kangxi quickly put the revolt down and proclaimed himself ruler of all Mongols. Three years later, Galdan Galdan , a strong Eleuth (Western Mongol) chief, invaded what is today known as Outer Mongolia, hoping to create an independent Mongol territory, free from Chinese influence. The Eastern Mongols asked the Chinese for help, and Kangxi personally lead troops in three campaigns in 1696-1697, winning a major victory. Galdan in 1697 committed suicide and Outer Mongolia Outer Mongolia, Chinese conquest of became part of the Qing empire. Later in Kangxi’s reign, in 1717, Galdan’s descendants took over Tibet Tibet . Kangxi responded in 1720, sending an expedition that drove the Mongols out, and Tibet became a Chinese protectorate. By his skillful handling of all these crises, Kangxi was able to consolidate and expand China’s western and northern borders.

Another noted feature of Kangxi’s reign was the adroit way in which he gained the support of the Chinese ruling class. He believed that since the Manchu were alien rulers and their numbers were small, the most effective way in which they could retain control of the massive and populous Chinese empire was through cooperation with the scholar official class and the maintenance of Chinese social institutions and practices. He therefore worked very hard to establish and keep good relations with the native gentry (although a number of famous scholars scorned this attempt). He accomplished this by first leaving the Ming governmental establishment largely intact, although national power during his reign did become more centralized. He retained the Confucian civil servant tradition and examination system.

Kangxi adopted a Chinese approach to governance and cultural issues. He promoted Confucius: In 1684, he paid a visit to Qufu, Confucius’s hometown, to show his respect, and during his reign, he had Neo-Confucian Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism];China texts collected and printed. Another way Kangxi obtained the allegiance of the Chinese gentry was by commissioning compilations of scholarly works, projects in which many Chinese scholars were employed. These included a comprehensive dictionary of Chinese characters, a history of the Ming Dynasty, and the massive scholarly work, Gujin tushu jicheng
Gujin tushu jicheng (1726; Wade-Giles, Ku-chin t’u shu chi-ch’eng; synthesis of books and illustrations of ancient and modern times). This work consisted of ten thousand chapters and made up seventeen hundred volumes. There was, however, a darker purpose to these projects. In the process of collecting the material to be included, the Qing government destroyed works that they deemed to be objectionable or critical of the dynasty. The works’ authors and sometimes their entire families were executed. There is no doubt, however, that Kangxi did have a deep interest in Chinese culture. He could write good poetry and literary prose in Chinese, and during his reign, art, porcelain, fine printing, and lacquer manufacture flourished. Literature;China

Despite his embrace of Chinese culture, Kangxi knew that the preservation of traditional Manchu values was necessary if the Manchu wanted to keep their authority. Consequently, a sharp distinction was drawn during his reign between Manchus and Han Chinese in governmental posts, jobs, the military, and social life. Soon after Kangxi became emperor, Manchuria was closed to Chinese immigration in order to preserve Manchu characteristics. All the top metropolitan administrative posts and some provisional positions required that a Chinese official always be balanced by a Manchu, Mongol, or Chinese bannerman. Manchus were barred from having any position save for those in the state military or civil service. Manchus were not allowed to intermarry with Chinese people, and Manchu women could not bind their feet. Hereditary banner units provided military security in key areas in the country, and Chinese bondservants (slaves) were used instead of eunuchs for private tasks and administrating the imperial household.

During Kangxi’s reign, the Catholic mission thrived. In 1683, there were around 200,000 converts in the country. While these missionary activities were formally outlawed by the government, this law was often overlooked. The Jesuits Jesuits;China were highly favored by Kangxi, and many worked at the imperial court as astronomers, interpreters, artisans, and political advisers. Late in his life, Kangxi would turn against the missionaries over what he thought was an unlawful interference in Chinese matters of state by the pope: He ultimately issued an order banning missionaries from living in China without special permission.

Economically, Kangxi’s reign was a time of large-scale public and water control projects. The Huang He (Yellow River) was dredged to prevent flooding, and the Grand Canal, which transported food and goods from the south to the north, was extensively repaired. Taxes were reduced several times and ports were opened to foreign trade. Internal peace helped foster economic growth and lead to an increase in agricultural production, yet present during Kangxi’s time were the beginning of trends that would create major problems for later Qing rulers. These included a steady increase in the population, a keen competition for a limited number of government jobs that would ultimately lead to a large class of unsuccessful aspirants, and the inherently conservative ideology of the imperial court system. When Kangxi died in 1722, his fourth son, the Yongzheng emperor (Yung-cheng; r. 1722-1735), succeeded him.


Considered one of the golden periods of Chinese history, Kangxi’s sixty-one-year reign is remarkable for its prolonged peace and prosperity. Through his wise leadership, Kangxi established Manchu control over all China and secured the northern and eastern borders, thereby producing for China a rare period of extended peace that lasted for more than a century. Politically, Kangxi won the allegiance of China’s ruling class, and culturally he adapted to the Chinese system of governance, while at the same time carefully preserving his Manchu identity. He accomplished this without making most Chinese feel that their cultural traditions were threatened. He also made six famous tours of the nation to learn about local conditions, rather than staying isolated in Beijing.

For all of these reasons, Kangxi’s reign greatly solidified the Qing Dynasty. Economically, during his rule, several ports were opened to foreign trade, taxes were cut several times, agricultural production increased, and large-scale public works projects were initiated. Culturally, the arts began to thrive again, especially porcelain, lacquer, and fine printing. The Jesuits reached the height of their influence in the imperial court and within China as a whole. In retrospect, however, one may also detect as present during his rule the beginnings of trends that would haunt later Qing emperors: These include a fast rise in population and the increasingly conservative ideology of the imperial court.

Further Reading

  • Fairbank, John K., and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. A good general overview of the Qing Dynasty.
  • Rawaski, Eveyln. The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. An informative account covering, in part, how the Qing emperors attempted to keep their Manchu identity.
  • Spence, Jonathan. Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. A revealing collection in English of Kangxi’s writings.

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