Sitting on Top of the World

Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was circumscribed by the village pump and the market place; their vision was local, concerned with how to make ends meet, or, infrequently, millennial, concerned with how to meet the End. The emperor’s world was circumscribed only by the universe; it was made palpable by architecture and geography (the imperial city and the great Asian frontier), made mysterious by ritual, ceremony, law, and orthodox morality. His vision was cosmopolitan and historical, embracing the known world, a familiar past, and a future that might pronounce him a sage or a tyrant but never promise him salvation.

Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress
Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress.

These two worlds, mutually remote, were mutual in nothing else. They met only through the impersonal mechanisms of exploitation—imperial taxes, labor services, military levies—and, periodically, through those mass expressions of misery and hope, peasant rebellions. Civil wars and foreign invasions often changed the size of the Chinese empire and its rulers but did not radically alter the purpose of the state or its material reliance on the expropriated surplus of its farmers. Technology and science, trade, commerce, communications, and craft industry transformed post-medieval Chinese society, changing the relations of peasants and craftsmen to their fellows, their products, their property, their debtors and lords. But while city and countryside drew closer together, society and state—peasant and emperor—kept their distance, aloof in a contradictory and imbalanced relationship that was parasitic yet sometimes protective on the emperor’s side, defensive and usually indifferent on the peasants’.1

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The Chinese monarch was remote for reasons of statecraft too. From ancient times his armed might and ability to arrogate to his hereditary house the wealth of the realm were clothed in a civic and cosmic myth that softened the realities of brute force while conferring on the throne absolute authority. Mediator between nature and man, he was Son of Heaven; ruler of all civilized men, he was paterfamilias to an empire. It was a good place to be—so long as the natives and nature kept their places.

But the price of being exalted was high. By the time the K’ang-hsi emperor, subject of Jonathan Spence’s book, came to the throne in the middle of the seventeenth century, the monarch’s men—counselors, bureaucrats, augurers, astronomers, philosophers, aristocrats, ambitious commoners, censors, eunuchs, soldiers, and scholars—had over nineteen hundred years of practice and precedent on which to call to keep the emperor hidden and august. And they had good reason for wanting to do so. By mystifying exploitation, they legitimized their own quest for spoils and a place in the sun. The contest between throne and bureaucracy for the most prominent share of the social resources of the empire may often have been muted but it was always joined. For as the late Joseph Levenson showed us, they both needed each other to stay apart.2 And as moralists and strategists among them built real and metaphorical walls around the throne, the emperor became not only distant but abstract. He became a generalized embodiment of virtue and cosmic harmony, deprived of individuality precisely as he embraced all humanity.

The contradictions were formidable: the monarch was at once the most anonymous and most distinctive of living beings, undifferentiated in his authority, particular in his power; he was both universal and Chinese. And for all the public displays of his grandeur—imperial progresses, sacrifices at the great altars and temples, court receptions, the distribution of favors, honors, pardons, amnesties—the emperor was not a public figure. Timeless perfection, it is generally agreed, does not wear well in public. Neither, unfortunately, does lacquered historicity. The real Chinese ruler, perhaps the preeminent executive in all history, was not allowed to wear his warts for posterity—unless, of course, he was all blemishes: perfectly evil, still perfect. No wonder, then, that only a very few in those long centuries from 221 BC were able to transcend the inherited attitudes of the office and make a personal mark on their times.

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The Kangxi Emperor in the Traditional Dress of a Manchu Warrior
Wikimedia Commons

The Kangxi Emperor in the traditional dress of a Manchu warrior.

Still, this most inaccessible of humans was without question the most written about, ever. The combined archives of the Vatican and all the courts of Europe pale before the gargantuan accomplishments of Chinese official historiography. An army of bureaucratic archivists collected and sorted everything left in the wake of the emperor’s actions and thoughts; official diarists scurried after him like plumed voyeurs, recording his every public act (his more private ones were left to a thriving fiction); editors and senior historians compiled and edited and re-edited his “veritable records”; encyclopedists filled volumes with his administrative, legal, military, sacerdotal pronouncements; court artists painted his excursions, and the paintings were accompanied by miles of print about his travels; genealogists embalmed the family in words. And what the officials did not write down the emperor himself was supposed to have written—for example, the 43,000 poems and 1,260 prose pieces attributed to one long-lived eighteenth-century monarch. The mind reels before this mountain of data, and the historian, if he has any sense, staggers off to easier subjects.

Jonathan Spence clearly has no sense. Like Arthur Waley, the great translator, he has understood that inaccessibility is relative. Two generations ago when Waley set out from Bloomsbury to discover Chinese poetry, he was politely informed that there wasn’t any. “You will find that the Chinese are very weak in that line,” he was told by the custodian of the old School of Oriental Studies library in Finsbury Circus. “They have their ancient Book of Odes by Confucius, but that is all.” The claim, Waley found out, was exaggerated, and he spent the next fifty years introducing us to a vast and rich poetic tradition. Spence’s problem was the converse: too much intractable material about emperors and no autobiographical tradition to accommodate it. Over the past five years he has worked to create autobiography for us. The results are contained in his remarkable and visually beautiful “self-portrait” of the K’ang-hsi emperor who reigned from 1661-1722.

Emperor of China is not biography or, strictly, autobiography. Rather it is memoir—darting reminiscences of events and thoughts that touched a man’s heart over a career that was too long and while he was in a position that must often have felt too high. Chinese emperors, with the exception of the pathetic, improbable Henry Pu Yi3—last of the imperial line, Japanese puppet, ultimately Peking gardener and commoner—did not write memoirs. Nor, in fact, did the literate ruling classes, except in the annoying, charming form of jottings. So Spence in discovering a man behind the mask has also constructed a new genre for the telling of high Chinese history. The reverberations are with Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, a book he admires, or with Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

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What Spence has done is comb the records for shards of imperial self-reflection and then with patient audacity reconstruct that Proustian time effect he is so fond of: “a vase full of perfume, sounds, projects, and moods” (p. xxv). The technique is novel and novelistic: historical time gives way to psychological time, to isolated moments and uneasy, brilliant juxtapositions that permit, for example, the emperor to recall almost in one breath the taste of frontier foods—”the large sour cherries, perfect in color and taste,…mountain walnuts roasted over an open fire;…tea, made from fresh snow on the little brazier slung between two horses”—and the taste of frontier victory against the great Zungar chieftan, Galdan. The memories are from different times and different places: the moment, however, as montage, rings true. Sense and sensibilities are here allowed to unify disparate, though not always conflicting, truths.

Five “landscapes,” unexpected and original, frame the emperor’s reflections. He moves first across the physical landscape of empire, a sensuous, restless man testing his body in the chase and at war (the last Chinese emperor personally to lead his troops into battle), gorging himself on the sights, smells, tastes, sounds of his abundant and diverse realm.

The political landscape is more formal and forbidding. It is a world of ruthless strategies (K’ang-hsi had excellent timing as an executioner) and knee-jerk despotism. “I’ve already reached Pai-t’a,” K’ang-hsi writes to a eunuch favorite, “and have specially sent Liu Hou-erh to take my greetings to the Empress Dowager; there is no other job for him to do. This man is peculiar and his gall is great. How can he be my personal attendant? He’s really loathsome. Don’t have him sent back here. Lock him up in the Chingshih-fang, keep him there and don’t let him go home” (p. 164). More affecting, however, and more surprising in this remorseless political environment are strange interludes of contrition when the emperor admits to living men, not dead ancestors, that he has been wrong: “…this war [against rebel generals in the 1670s] …resulted from my miscalculations, and the responsibility for it—for all of it—was mine…. All my officials…have to see that I couldn’t claim the name of victor in good heart, since the victory sprang from so much error” (p. 37).

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The third landscape is that of the mind. I have never been much impressed with the philosophical or historical speculations of great Chinese monarchs. They had others to do their heavy thinking for them. K’ang-hsi was no exception. Exceptional, however, was the indiscriminate energy of his intellectual curiosity. “It’s my nature to enjoy asking questions,” he once said, and we must believe that he did not stop till he died. He badgered resident Jesuits on matters of technology, mathematics, music, manners, customs; he learned to play a tune on the harpsichord; he fancied himself a connoisseur of Chinese medical wisdom and read voraciously in the subject and in history too; the social origins of pirates and merchants intrigued him.

In fact so eclectic were his tastes that it is impossible from the reading given here to discern either a system or any direction to his thinking. He lived uncomfortably in an age which was beginning to probe gingerly at empirical inquiry while still bound by fabulous superstition. K’ang-hsi, the man of reason to the Christian propagandists, relied in the crunch on the old cures: diviners and divination texts, auguries, spells, the laying on of curses, fortune telling, horoscopes, shamanistic prayers, soothsaying. And in the end his splendid curiosity seems to have been an idle thing, a luxury with no other purpose than its own satisfaction.

The Kangxi Emperor at the Age of 45, Painted in 1699
Wikimedia Commons

The Kangxi Emperor at the age of 45, painted in 1699.

K’ang-hsi traveled two other realms, those of old age and family. Spence opens the private cupboard of an old man’s despair and lets us watch hope and a tired body decay. Surrounded by a pack of treacherous, fratricidal sons, he wondered at his failure as a father, became suspicious of intrigue and intriguers, and buried both those he loved and those he killed with increasing frequency. One suspects that he must have felt as Richard II did in that unwise monarch’s one wise moment: “throw away respect, tradition, form, ceremonious duty, for you have mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, how can you say to me I am a king?”

K’ang-hsi emerges, then, complex and believable, coherent in his inconsistencies, subject to real emotions, fallible and whole. Yet he does not lose imperial scale even as he is reduced from monument to man: “I keep only three hundred women around the palace,” he tells his sons while admonishing them to “avoid too much sex when you are young” (p. 123). (He did not tell them that he fathered the first of his own fifty-six children at age thirteen.4) Or, reminiscing about the hunt: “Since my childhood, with either gun or bow, I have killed in the wild 135 tigers and 20 bear, 25 leopards, 20 lynx, 14 tailed mi deer, 96 wolves, and 132 wild boar, as well as hundreds of ordinary stags and deer…. Most ordinary people don’t kill in a lifetime what I have killed in one day” (p. 9). This is no megalomaniac speaking. In fact, by the standards of Chinese history K’ang-hsi was almost modest. Still, one understands the historian’s yearning for lesser men—Mussolini, for example, or Louis XIV.

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Spence’s accomplishment is a genuine tour de force. He says that he has let the emperor speak in his own voice, adding nothing. This is both accurate and deceptive. Certainly there is no improvisation outside the record, which is impeccably and unobtrusively documented. Nor, with a minor exception, is there a false note in the translation. Spence has given an often frank and searching ruler the dignity and honesty he deserves. The exception will bother only purists: the author’s use of colloquial contractions—”don’t”s, “they’ve”s, “can’t”s—in rendering passages from that most rigidly formal of all documentary forms, the imperial edict. This deprives the emperor of solemnity, a distasteful characteristic, no doubt, but one that even a man of K’ang-hsi’s grace and wit required in his public posture as ruler of all men.

K’ang-hsi speaks in his own voice. He does not, however, always speak in his own words, and therein lies the deceptive quality of Spence’s modesty. This is a matter that goes beyond translation and touches on the use of historical data. The exceptionally fragmented nature of the material he uses confers an autonomy on the author that is almost autocratic. He needs to and does make transitions that are neither there in the sources nor necessarily in the emperor’s mind, for his interest is in ambiances not historical sequence. It is to his credit that he does not abuse his authority; it is useful to remember, however, that there is as much Spence as K’ang-hsi in the emperor’s reflections. Take, for example, the following typical passage:


And Chang P’eng-ko, whom I praised so often and kept in the highest offices, could write a memorial so stupid that I ordered it printed up and posted in major cities so that everyone could read it—for he claimed that the drop in the river’s level was due to a miracle performed by the spirit of the waters, when the real reason was that no rain had fallen for six months in the upper reaches of the Yellow River. [Page 40]


This perfectly straightforward statement does not exist in the sources. Rather it is a montage constructed of at least four entries in the court records over a period of twelve months. Three of them acknowledge Chang as one of the most trusted officials in the realm, hence Spence’s “whom I praised so often.” The fourth reads roughly like this:


This year there has been no steady rain for the first six months, and the level of the Yellow River has fallen by over twenty feet. Chang P’eng-ko and the other river-conservancy officials claim that the fortunate flow of water out of Ch’ing-k’ou [on the flood plain of the Yellow River in Shantung] into the river has been due to the efficacy of the river gods and to their own efforts. Really it has nothing whatever to do with their efforts; rather it is due alone to the low level of the Yellow River. What kind of conduct would it be if the ruler of the world were to sit around and fail to help his drought-stricken people? Chang P’eng-ko’s memorial is muddled beyond belief. Let my edict and his memorial be printed together and displayed in the major cities for all to see.


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I admire the felicity of Spence’s prose (though not always its infidelity to the texts) and the originality of his method. I hope in fact that he will be persuaded some day to publish his working drafts, for we have much to learn from them about a strategy for overcoming the rigid stereotypes of classical Chinese biography. But I worry too that the literary strengths of the book are its historical weaknesses. It succeeds only by removing the emperor from historical process: nothing happens, nothing has antecedents, connections, direction, purpose. Its generosity is made motionless, above history and beyond its nagging contradictions. The expansion of the frontiers and the population, the consolidation of the court against insurgent generals, Central Asian dynasts, and Russian expansionists, the rise of merchant capital and bourgeois fortunes, the appearance of absentee landlords and a broader tenantry are all lost to sight.

All those events—the Galdan and San-fan wars, the succession dispute; all those moments—with companions in the field, with friends and sons, with books and ideas—are shorn of historical significance as they are appropriated for personal experience. There are problems but no questions, and one wonders uneasily whether K’ang-hsi after all might not be interchangeable with Hadrian—or Alexander or Augustus or even another Chinese monarch—touched by different fragrances, perhaps, but still in the same garden of universal empire. So long as the element of time is absent—or compressed into those beautiful, burnished moments—the tension between reality and reflection is missing and we have not a man thinking but only, touchingly, a man remembering.

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There is an irony here worth pointing out. Emperor of China, the work of a historian, gives literary and psychological credence to the man on the throne. Dream of the Red Chamber, the work of a novelist whose family were for a time confidants of K’ang-hsi, gives historical and temporal credence to that age. For years obscured by oafish and piecemeal translations, this great novel of manners is finally receiving its due in a breath-taking translation by David Hawkes,5 and for the first time we can get a glimpse of the inner world of aristocratic, ruling-class life under the middle Ch’ing emperors. To understand K’ang-hsi’s world it will be necessary to read the novel; to understand what Spence has done to the emperor it will be necessary to see what the emperor did to society. Hawkes’s ducal aristocrats, cowering before the reflected light of the throne in the person of their own daughter, an imperial concubine, would not, I suspect, have recognized Spence’s introspective giant. They would have recognized the consequences of his wrath and of his pleasure; they would not have dared or wished to look into his mind.

Great princes and kings, always bigger than life, seem better suited to fiction than to history. There their destinies are more poignant and the consequences of their actions do not hurt so much. As Huck Finn said of the pore disappeared Dauphin, Looy the Seventeen, son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette: “It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it’s the best way; then you don’t have no quarrels, and don’t get into no trouble….”

  1. The most readable and controversial recent attempts to explain the unique and lasting nature of this relationship are Mark Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (Stanford, 1973) and Leon E. Stover, The Cultural Ecology of Chinese Civilization (Mentor, 1974).
  2. Joseph R. Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate, 3 vols. (University of California Press, 1958-1965).
  3. Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, From Emperor to Citizen, 2 vols. (China Books, 1964, 1965).
  4. Infant and child mortality rates were apparently much higher among Chinese royalty than among their European and British contemporaries if K'ang-hsi's case is at all representative. Twenty-four of K'ang-hsi's children died before the age of six, four before the age of twelve. Thus exactly half died before reaching maturity, a figure roughly 20 percent higher than comparable rates in Europe and England according to the work of Peller and Hollingsworth.
  5. Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, The Golden Days (Penguin Classics, 1973).