Thursday, March 7, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 12: The Kangxi Emperor Launches the “High Qing”

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5 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff wraps up the reign of China's storied Kangxi emperor (r. 1661-1722) who ushered in the middle kingdom's last imperial golden age.

Ming vs Qing Dynasty territories at their peaks (1750's regions
added after Kangxi and error: the Ming did not control Taiwan)

In the last installment we discussed the opening decades of the greatest emperor of China’s last dynasty, the Qing. 

Kangxi (pronounced "kahng-shee") would occupy the throne longer than any emperor in Chinese history at 61 years. At age 22 he found himself opposed by five simultaneous rebellions which he skillfully put down.

He ousted the last Ming dynasty loyalists from Taiwan, making him the first Chinese sovereign to ever possess and govern the island. And he solidified foreign Manchurian rule over China’s much larger ethnic Han population.


It’s worth noting that Kangxi also brought prosperity to the Chinese, something they hadn’t experienced for a very long time. Historians record the late 1600’s as the beginning of the “High Qing” or “Prosperous Era of Kangxi and Qianlong” (his grandson).

In the era leading up to the Qing conquest (1644) China's economy had endured a lengthy upheaval under the decaying, corrupt, and generally apathetic Ming dynasty. The “Little Ice Age” had reduced crop yields in the mid/late 1500’s and led to famines by the early 1600’s. A historic plague was the final nail in the Ming’s coffin, breaking out in the late 1630’s.

Shortly afterwards China was wrecked by rebellion and civil war with a peasant army eventually fighting its way into Beijing, just before the Manchurian Qing took advantage of the situation and successfully invaded from the northeast, taking all of China for themselves.

Decades of internal resistance followed including the “Revolt of the Three Feudatories” (1673-1681) that pitted Qing armies against rebelling and highly organized Ming loyalists in the south.

By the time Kangxi finally pacified China (1683) the country had suffered through one calamity after another for well over a century. Hence prosperity, which no one alive by then could remember, was a welcome change for suffering Chinese.

How did Kangxi deliver economic good times? While details from the Qing’s late 17th century economic policies aren’t as plentiful as, say… America’s Ronald Reagan era, historians universally focus on three major reforms.

First, Kangxi opened four trading ports to the outside world.

The Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) had encouraged foreign trade, but when the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) overthrew the Yuan its Chinese emperors turned inward and closed Chinese commerce off from the world. One Ming emperor famously kicked the Dutch traders out of mainland China and told them to set up shop in Taiwan instead.

The Qing reopened commercial trade with foreigners (at first) leading to far more markets for its products.

Second, Kangxi enacted reforms against corruption. The emperor was a workaholic about stopping shady officials from squeezing the public and he implemented land reforms that ended the arbitrary government seizure of farmers’ property. He also worked tirelessly to reform the bureaucracy and reduce opportunities for graft as much as possible.

Third, Kangxi enacted significant tax cuts.

Yes, you heard that right, tax cuts. And that part is cited more frequently in the history books than any of his other reforms.

Even more incredibly a near unanimity of historians credit Kangxi’s tax cuts for the giant economic boom that followed—which is strange considering how many historians, being the intellectuals they are, love left-wing socialist policies while so despising tax cuts that they curse Ronald Reagan as America’s Great Satan for the sin of lowering taxes. 

Kangxi’s tax cuts, open trade, and anti-land seizure reforms collectively exemplify the diametric opposite of big-government socialism, yet historians still credit “all of the above” for ushering in China’s lengthy era of Qing prosperity. Go square that circle.

Not only that, the Qing's treasury swelled with tax revenue; from 14.9 million silver taels in 1668 to 50 million taels by 1709.

And here I thought free marketers who claim tax cuts actually increase government revenues were supposed to be flat-earth, voodoo economics neanderthals?

Incidentally the Qing treasury’s reserves did decline somewhat by Kangxi’s final year—to 33 million taels, still far higher than in 1668—due to wars he waged near the end of his reign.


In the middle and last decades of Kangxi’s reign several frictions with foreigners arose. 

The first would initiate two centuries of northern border disputes with imperial Russia. In 1685 Qing forces confronted Russian Cossacks who set up settlements in what the Qing considered Chinese territory. The Qing army set siege to and eventually destroyed the settlements but were merciful to the defeated Russians. However, one year later a larger Cossack force returned leading to another battle followed by diplomatic negotiations (by which time nearly all the Russians had died) whereby Russia recognized Qing territorial claims and withdrew all its settlements.

As the Qing weakened in the 19th century the Russians would return to seize huge tracts of Manchurian land which they still hold today.

In the 1690’s a civil war between Mongol tribes to the northwest pushed the losing side into China where they agreed to serve as Qing vassals. The victorious tribe, the Dzungars (who would reappear over and over in ensuing decades), pursued their rivals deep into Chinese territory sparking war with the Qing.

In 1696 a large Qing army led by Kangxi himself made the long trek deep into barren Dzungar territory and defeated the Mongol army which retreated further west, as far as present-day southern Kazakhstan. Kangxi annexed what was left of western Mongolia as well as pieces of eastern Xinjiang and southern Siberia.

Two decades later the Dzungars returned, this time invading Tibet (1717). Kangxi sent his army on another long trek into the remote and inhospitable region where they joined forces with local Tibetans. After driving the Dzungars out Kangxi installed the seventh Dalai Lama who was friendly to the Qing, and he left a garrison in Lhasa since Tibet was now effectively a tributary state.

Prior to the Qing, the Ming dynasty’s territory had encompassed land from Beijing southwards through most of eastern China. But when adding Qing victories over Taiwan, Mongolia, eastern Xinjiang, Tibetan deference, and its original Manchurian homelands Kangxi had more than doubled the size of China’s territories to their greatest extent ever—although his grandson would enlarge China even further to an all-time peak.

Finally there was internal friction with Jesuit missionaries or more precisely the Catholic Church.

Up until the early 1700’s a succession of Yuan and Ming emperors enjoyed good relations with Jesuits who they relied upon for expertise in science, mathematics, and astronomy. The Jesuits in turn adopted some Chinese customs, studied Confucian ideas and eastern philosophy, and sent a great deal of information about the Far East back to Europe. It was a mutually beneficial relationship and over many centuries both sides respected and even admired the other. Kangxi was no exception.

Things changed when the Dominican position of Pope Clement XI led to a change of policy from the church. A representative of the Vatican was sent to Beijing who advised Kangxi that Confucian rites and ancestor worship were heretic and missionaries and converts would be banned from partaking. Clement also decreed any missionary or convert partaking in Confucian ceremonies, building ancestral shrines, and observing Confucian holidays would be excommunicated.

Kangxi didn’t take well to the changes and assumed a new distrust of Christianity in general. By 1721 Kangxi outlawed Christian preaching and closed missions, and his own decrees on the subject fully reversed what had been his overwhelmingly positive written opinions of Europeans in 1692 (excerpts from both in postscript).

From 1721 onwards western religion would undergo a tense on-again, off-again presence within China through the end of the Qing dynasty, followed by a brief revival under Chiang Kai-Shek (who himself converted to Christianity in 1930), before being squelched under the always-atheist communists.

Postscript: Kangxi's changing views on Europeans and Christianity.

Kangxi on westerners in 1692: 

“The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone. They commit no crimes and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false sects of the empire. Nor has it any tendency to excite sedition.”

Kangxi in 1721, after reading Pope Clement XI's order banning all Chinese converts from partaking in Confucian rites, ancestor worship, or holidays: 

“Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, westerners should not be allowed to preach in China to avoid further trouble.”

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