Lecture Twenty-Six

Kangxi to Qianlong

Scope: From 1661 to 1795, China was ruled by just three emperors; Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. Kangxi and Qianlong each occupied the throne for 60 years, giving this period almost unparalleled stability. It was largely an age of peace and prosperity for China, though warfare continued on Inner Asian frontiers almost throughout these reigns. Chinese people, whether members of the educated elite or simple farmers, had to adjust to life under the Manchus, who imposed some of their own particular cultural practices on their new subjects. The requirement to wear the queue, the long braid characteristic of Manchu warriors, was imposed on pain of death as a sign of China’s submission. Yet during the long Pax Sinica of the late 17th and 18th centuries, a Manchu-Chinese symbiosis developed that provided a strong and durable basis for the dynasty and allowed Chinese scholars and officials to make major political and cultural advances.


I. The Kangxi emperor oversaw the stabilization of the dynasty and its early expansion.

A. Kangxi came to the throne as a young boy in 1662.

1. He was not the eldest son of the previous emperor but had survived a bout with smallpox and was seen as the strongest.

2. His uncle Oboi and a council of regents guided his early years, but in 1667, he took power into his own hands.

3. He reigned until his death in 1722.

B. In the 1670s, he faced the only serious challenge to Qing power until the middle of the 19th century.

1. Wu Sangui, who had aided the Manchus in their initial conquest and been rewarded with a large grant of territory in southern China, led a rebellion against the Qing.

2. Other Chinese generals in the south joined him.

3. It took the Qing eight years to suppress the rising, but the main Chinese armies remained loyal to the dynasty, and the Qing emerged stronger in the end.

C. Once peace was restored in China proper, Kangxi turned his attention to Inner Asia.

1. The main objective was to bring all the Mongol tribes into the empire.

2. Eastern Mongols had shared in Manchu power from the first.

3. Western Mongol groups resisted incorporation, some fleeing as far as southern Russia.

4. Kangxi’s campaigns did not resolve this problem but did extend Qing power into what is now Xinjiang (New Frontier) province.

D. Kangxi also established a new fiscal basis for the empire.

1. In 1712, he issued an edict fixing tax rates on land throughout the empire.

2. This was based on a survey carried out to determine who actually owned and farmed specific plots of land.

3. The edict decreed that these tax rates would remain in effect in perpetuity, laying the foundation for later fiscal problems.

II. Kangxi died in 1722 and was succeeded by one of his sons, who became the Yongzheng emperor.

A. Yongzheng came to the throne in questionable circumstances.

1. The edict naming him emperor was believed by many to have been forged.

2. He was the 13th son of Kangxi, far from first in the normal line of succession.

3. He imprisoned or exiled several of his brothers.

B. Yongzheng set out to reform the finances of the dynasty.

1. Already the adverse effects of the 1712 taxation edict were being felt.

2. Yongzheng attempted to increase the flow of taxes to the central treasury, while regularizing the financing of local administration.

3. This move was resisted by an alliance of local elites and officials, who wanted to retain control of revenues and informal income, sometimes seen as corruption, in their own hands.

4. Eventually, Yongzheng had to abandon his reforms.

C. He did, however, succeed in streamlining some aspects of government.

1. He simplified the central policy-making bodies and began the process of creating the Grand Council, which became the main organ in the imperial government.

2. He also carried out important reforms in domestic policy, such as ending discrimination against certain groups of “inferior” status.

III. Yongzheng reigned for 13 years and was succeeded in 1735 by the Qianlong emperor, one of the greatest rulers in Chinese history.

A. Qianlong continued the long age of peace and prosperity in the empire.

1. He managed the government and the economy in a pragmatic way, relying on the advice of his Confucian officials but always paying close attention to the day-to-day workings of government.

2. China’s population approached 400 million by the end of the 18th century.

3. China was the richest country in the world, and Chinese products flowed around the planet in the ever-expanding global economy.

B. Qianlong completed the process of bringing the Mongol tribes into the empire.

1. In a series of military campaigns through the 1760s and 1770s, he subdued vast territories in Central Asia.

2. He pursued a policy of honoring defeated leaders with titles and riches and, thus, won the loyalty of many.

3. He extended Qing authority into Tibet and pushed the empire’s borders to their greatest extent.

C. But by the end of his reign, new problems began to develop.

1. Given existing technologies and patterns of land tenure, the growth of China’s population began to push against ecological limits.

2. Standards of living stagnated in the later 18th centuiy.

3. China began to feel new pressures brought on by changes in the outside world.

4. The rise of an aggressive, expansive system of state-sponsored capitalism in the West began to lead to a conflict between the Atlantic world and East Asia, the background to which we will discuss in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Jonathan Spence, K’ang-hsi, Emperor of China.

Supplemental Reading:

Susan Naquin and Evelyn S. Rawski, eds., Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century.

Philip A. Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768.

Questions to Consider:

1. Given the harshness of the conquest, how were the Manchus able to win the support of the Chinese in the middle decades of the 17th century?

2. The tax edict of 1712 effectively prevented later emperors from adjusting the fiscal system of the dynasty. Why would Kangxi have thought this was a good or reasonable thing to do?

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