How many white-haired emperors have there been in the past? If my hair and whiskers whiten, won't that be a splendid tale...

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EMPEROR OF CHINA: Self-Portrait of K'ang-hsi

How many white-haired emperors have there been in the past? If my hair and whiskers whiten, won't that be a splendid tale for later generations?"" . . . from the second Manchu ruler of the Ch'ing Dynasty (b. 1654, r. 1661-1722) letters, documents, fragments, hastily scrawled notes locked away and forgotten, found in 1911 when the dynasty fell, now structured into a kaleidoscopic pattern by a Yale scholar. . . a work of enormous scholarship. . . aesthetic, poetic, evocative. Spence has assembled the whole into five categories through which K'ang-hsi reveals himself in public action and private thought, a mind open and flexible, a sovereign responsive to the responsibilities of power. Scurtinizing each minute detail as he journeys across his domain, K'ang-hsi formulates equitable standards for taxation, analyzes the execution laws, is mindful of religious omens and symbols yet is sophisticated enough to realize that although events seem predetermined there are ""ways in which man's power can develop heaven's work."" Craftily K'ang-hsi adapts Western technology learned from the Jesuits (who also taught him to play the harpsichord) -- but unlike his contemporary Peter the Great K'ang-hsi does not assume foreign ways are superior. A prosperous period in China's development although not without tragedy: there was to be a long devastating war caused by K'ang-hsi's bad judgment, also turmoil and heatbreak from the intrigues of the heir-apparent, the only son born to the Empress among K'ang-hsi's 56 children sired by 30 consorts. We enter totally into 17th century China, into the sensibilities of that long-ago ruler, a life about which, as K'ang-hsi himself writes, ""one can say it is happy. One can say it's fulfilled. One can say I've got what I wanted."" A unique publishing event.

Pub Date: May 30, 1974

ISBN: 067972074X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1974