Promulgation of the Sacred Edict Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Qing emperor Kangxi decreed the Sacred Edict in 1670 in order to regulate the behavior of his subjects, impose social order throughout China, and provide political legitimacy for Manchu rule. The edict was publicly read on the first and fifteenth day of every month in every village and town in the country.

Summary of Event

In 1670, Kangxi Kangxi , the sixteen-year-old Qing Qing Dynasty (Ch’ing, 1644-1911) emperor of China, issued an edict containing sixteen moral maxims he wanted his subjects to observe in their daily lives. This document is referred to as the Sheng yu guang xun, or Sacred Edict. It was believed that the principles proclaimed in the Sacred Edict would set the norm for behavior, instill social order, and create unity among the different regions and ethnic groups of China. The edict was also intended to provide political legitimacy for the Manchus Manchus , whose Qing Dynasty had governed China since 1644. Although this edict was drafted for Kangxi by his Chinese advisers, he was quite familiar with orthodox Chinese political and moral philosophy, based upon the teachings of the sage Confucius, which formed the ideological basis for this decree. Kangxi was a remarkably strong-willed individual even at this young age. He became emperor at the age of seven and began making his own decisions when he was thirteen. In 1669, the year before the issuance of the Sacred Edict, he took control of the government from the regent Oboi (d. 1669). [kw]Promulgation of the Sacred Edict (1670) [kw]Sacred Edict, Promulgation of the (1670) Government and politics;1670: Promulgation of the Sacred Edict[2390] Laws, acts, and legal history;1670: Promulgation of the Sacred Edict[2390] China;1670: Promulgation of the Sacred Edict[2390] Sacred Edict (1670)

The Sacred Edict was issued at a time when Manchu control of China was tenuous. The country had yet to be brought under complete control, and large areas of the south, known as the Three Feudatories Three Feudatories , were held by three former Ming Dynasty generals who had helped the Manchus seize power in 1644. Because of the unstable situation and the fact that the Manchus were alien conquerors and small in number, the Manchu elite, especially Kangxi, realized that if they were to retain power and rule effectively, they had to obtain the support of the Chinese scholar official class (mandarins) who formed the backbone of the traditional ruling class.

One central long-standing political problem that the Manchus had to solve concerned local control of the population. China at this time had a population of around 120 million, while there were only 2 or 3 million Manchus, and the total number of government officials was an inconsiderable thirty to forty thousand at best. Consequently, imperial authority did not extend below the county (xian) level. Therefore, district magistrates, the lowest ranking civil officials, had to rely upon the support of local elites (gentry) to maintain stability and order; the relationship between the two was frequently rocky.

To deal with this difficult problem, the Manchus reached back to a technique employed by the first Ming Dynasty emperor, Hongwu. Like the Manchus, Hongwu realized (albeit grudgingly) that to rule properly, he needed the support of the Chinese ruling class. Hongwu also saw that Confucian ethics could serve as a useful ideological tool for controlling populations. In 1397, he ordered posted in all villages in China a mainstream Neo-Confucian decree called the Six Maxims (Liu yu), which consisted of six simple moral injunctions. Village elders were required to read the maxims publicly six times a month. The maxims stressed filial piety, keeping harmonious relations with neighbors, moral instruction, respect for elders, and the importance of working hard and not committing bad deeds.

In 1652, the new Manchu government adopted this Confucian approach and also promulgated the Six Maxims. It assumed that the best way to ensure social order was through a broad educational effort, stressing morality, rather than simply relying upon compulsion. In 1659, an Imperial Edict improved dispersal of the maxims throughout the general population. Eleven years later, this Neo-Confucian Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] ideological campaign was widened and strengthened with Kangxi’s promulgation of the Sacred Edict.

The Sacred Edict was publicly read on the first and fifteenth day of each month in every village and town in China, including the remote Pescadores Islands. All citizens were required to attend these readings. The edict consisted of sixteen moral maxims, and each maxim was written in seven Chinese characters. The original version of the edict was succinctly written in classical Chinese. Like Hongwu’s six rules, Kangxi’s Sacred Edict began with general principles of good behavior and finished with specific, concrete injunctions about advisable or undesirable behavior.

Unlike Hongwu’s six rules, however, the Sacred Edict primarily emphasized self-cultivation instead of the observance of conventions. Self-cultivation (hsiu shen) referred to the Confucian belief that humankind’s basic nature is good and embodies jen (humanity, benevolence) that can be intuited by the mind. This method required a person constantly to practice self-scrutiny (fan-sheng), use teachers as guides and models, and employ the mind’s innate ability to distinguish between right and wrong to guide behavior.

The first three principles of the Edict, as well as the ninth, were concerned with social order. Maxims six, seven, and eleven dealt with proper learning, the avoidance of false beliefs, and the importance of elder family members being moral educators and models in their families. Since orthodox Confucianism was officially considered the only true doctrine, the seventh maxim was specifically directed against Christianity, geomancy, popular superstitions and religious sects, secret societies, witchcraft, and certain forms of Daoism and Buddhism.

Injunctions four, five, and ten referred to employment and subsistence. Rule four mentioned mulberry trees because they were grown as food for silkworms, which made clothing. The remaining maxims, twelve through sixteen and eight, emphasized strict obedience to the law and explained how the public peace was maintained. The edict revealed the influence of the idealistic Neo-Confucian school of Sung Learning, which served as the official state orthodoxy during Kangxi’s reign as well as much of the rest of the Qing Dynasty. This school accentuated the importance of positive example and moral education.

Soon after the appearance of the decree, numerous detailed commentaries appeared, written in the Chinese vernacular, to ensure that all Chinese were fully able comprehend the document’s message. In the early eighteenth century, Zhang Boxing Zhang Boxing (Chang Po-hsing; 1652-1725), a scholar and governor of Fukjian (Fukien), composed three versions of the edict: one illustrated with popular sayings for “people of average intelligence,” one with classical allusions for the literati, and one utilizing rhymes for people in the countryside. The Sacred Edict was also expanded by two later Qing Dynasty emperors, and several supplementary edicts relating to it were issued. In 1724, Kangxi’s son, Emperor Yongzheng (Yung-cheng; r. 1722-1735), who thought the edict was too short and concise, greatly enlarged the expositions in a lengthy text, the Amplified Instructions of the Sacred Edict (Sheng-yu kuang-hsun). Kangxi’s grandson, Emperor Qian-long (Ch’ien-lung; r. 1735-1796), also issued an ancillary decree to the edict.

Significance

While the Sacred Edict was relatively effective in curtailing the rapid spread of Christianity and secret societies, helpful in solidifying Confucian values, and a useful tool for imposing ideological control on the grassroots level of Chinese society, the ritual of reading the edict later frequently degenerated into an empty ceremony. The successful implementation of the edict was dependent upon the local gentry taking the maxims seriously and assuming overall responsibility for public morals and civic conduct. Some did, but many did not.

Recently, historians have argued that the Sacred Edict was also important because it provided the basis for Chinese village compacts or community covenants (xiang yue). In fact, several researchers investigating village regulations in the south of China in the early 1990’s were surprised to find that a large number of compacts in use were heavily influenced in wording and ideas by Kangxi’s Sacred Edict. The influence of the edict also extended beyond China. The famous 1890 Japanese Imperial Rescript on Education, which had a very important effect upon the development of the Japanese educational system, was influenced by the Sacred Edict.

The 1670 promulgation of Emperor Kangxi’s Sacred Edict helped provide the ideological basis for Manchu rule, which was quite unstable at the time; imposed social order at the local level of Chinese society; and popularized and reinforced core Confucian values such as filial piety, propriety, moral education, respect for scholarship, and self-cultivation, thereby providing a norm for proper conduct. It enforced a sense of unity across the fifteen hundred districts of imperial China, whose borders greatly expanded during Kangxi’s reign. It also implicitly warned members of the literati to not deviate from the reigning Confucian orthodoxy in their writings.

In addition, the Sacred Edict generally lessened the spread of Christianity, secret societies, and unorthodox doctrines. It contributed to the development of village compacts, an influence that was still present in some village regulations in southwest China as late as the early 1990’. The edict was later amplified by Emperors Yongzheng and Qian-long. It also had an influence upon the composition of the Japanese Meiji emperor’s celebrated 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education. The edict was still publicly read after 1900, but by this time the only people who attended the ceremony were those who were obliged to do so.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Confucius. The Analects of Confucius. Translated by Simon Leys. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. The most famous book of Confucius’s teachings, which had a major influence on the writing of the Sacred Edict. This translation also contains useful essays and notes on Confucius’s philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rawski, Evelyn. The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. An interesting account of how the Qing emperors, including Kangxi, maintained their Manchu identity while adopting a Confucian model of governance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, John. “The Kang-Hsi Reign.” In The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 9. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A good overview of Kangxi’s reign.
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