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The Great Emperor Kangxi

Kangxi’s 61-year reign was the longest during the Qing dynasty. He was remembered as a wise, open-minded, and benevolent emperor.

Kangxi was one of the longest-reigning emperors during China’s Qing dynasty. He came to the throne at the age of 8, was in charge of all affairs by the age of 14 and passed away at the age of 69. He reigned for 61 years.

Kangxi became emperor under peculiar circumstances. One year while China was still under his father’s rule (Emperor Shunzhi), a smallpox epidemic ravaged the palace and the emperor’s beloved concubine died. It caused him immense pain and he decided to become a monk. Amid the ensuing chaos, the grandmother decided to put the recovering eight-year-old Kangxi on the throne. China became a prosperous, strong nation under his reign.

Emperor Kangxi in the Eyes of Westerners

Jesuit Joachim Bouvet was born in France in 1656 and was sent to China by Louis XIV. Bouvet became Kangxi’s tutor for a period of time, teaching him Western subjects like the Julian calendar and calculations, chemistry, anatomy, and medicine.

On July 4, 1693, Kangxi contracted malaria. He recovered after taking the medicine prescribed by two Catholic priests, Bouvet and Jean-Francois Gerbillon. To reward them for their efforts, Kangxi granted them land in the west of the imperial city to build missionary dormitories. Bouvet was appointed Imperial Envoy to France the same day. Bouvet accepted with pleasure and soon set sail. When he returned to France, he presented his writing, Biography of Emperor Kangxi, to Louis XIV.

The following was part of his introduction of Kangxi to Louis XIV:

"Your Majesty had sent me to this emperor as a missionary a few years ago. I had the great fortune of meeting such a great figure we had never thought existed outside of France. Like you, my Majesty, he possesses the same noble character, remarkable wisdom and magnanimous mind that befit a king. He treats himself and the country in the same conscientious and careful manner. He is well respected by his people and neighboring countries. With what he has achieved, he is not only someone with an awe-inspiring reputation, but a real sage with solid strength. It is amazing to be able to see such a brilliant king as a neighbor.

He is a genius with unbelievable memory, knowledge, wisdom and observation. He manages the daily chaotic routine with stamina. He establishes, directs and carries out his plans with a will of steel. His habits and hobbies are elegant and in good taste, as a king’s should be. He has the qualities of submitting to the truth and exercising absolute restraint of his own emotions and desire. His good qualities are endless.{mospagebreak}

Kangxi is a fair person who proceeds impartially according to the law and appoints whosoever is able. These are the moral maxims of his rule. In addition, wherever a serious disaster arises, his exceptional apprehension tells of his strong sense of responsibility as the father and ruler of the country.

Kangxi takes time to travel around different provinces and inspect people’s living conditions and the administrative skills of his officials. While on these tours, he allows humble artisans and farmers to be around him and he treats them with friendship and kindliness. He asks people all sorts of questions, particularly about their satisfaction with the local government. When people complain about a certain official, that official will lose his job. But on the other hand, when a certain official is being praised, he does not necessarily get a raise.

Kangxi leads a simple life. His clothing is far from luxurious. This is not because he is stingy or mean. His personal frugality is subordinate to a generosity for the well-being of the people and his subordinates. He makes immense investments for the development of trade, canal and river conservation work and in businesses like bridge and ship building. It is not difficult to see that his simple life is a reflection of his true understanding of the meaning of thrift, as well as his will to be a well-loved ruler and father of the nation."

Bouvet looks back on his close contact with Kangxi in his book. He says:

"The Emperor personally asked us questions on Western science, stories and customs and many other things. He was so earnest that he asked us to sit on the floor next to his Emperor’s chair. Such extraordinary treatment is usually only granted to the prince!"

When Kangxi Consulted a Doctor

Kangxi contracted some strange disease. The imperial doctors used all the expensive, rare medicines at their disposal, but to no avail. He was so angry that he stopped taking them.

One night he dressed up as a commoner and went out of the palace for a walk alone. He came to a street and saw a small herb shop. It was late in the night but the shop was still lit and sounds of chanting were in the air. He thought, "None of the imperial doctors’ abilities were prudent. Well, as the ancient saying goes, ‘Ginseng is found in small herb shops.’ Why don’t I take a look?" Then he knocked on the door.

When he entered the structure he saw a middle-aged man reading by candle light. He guessed the man must be the herb doctor.{mospagebreak}

The doctor asked, "What can I do for such a late night visitor?" Kangxi replied, "Sorry to bother you so late. But I have a strange disease, which makes me itch all over and my body is covered in red spots. I have consulted many doctors, but to no avail. Can you check me out?" The doctor said, "Please take off your top to let me have a look." He did as he was told. The doctor took just one look and said, "You don’t have to worry. It’s nothing. It’s just that you have been eating too many delicacies and the chronic consumption of ginseng is like ‘oil to the fire,’ which causes the red spots and the itchiness." Kangxi asked, "Can it be cured?" The doctor replied with certainty, "Yes, the right medicine will do it." He then got a jar from a wooden shelf, put a piece of cloth on the table and emptied the contents of the jar onto the cloth. It was a heavy bundle weighing eight catties. (One catty equals approximately 16 ounces.)

Kangxi was surprised, "Doctor, how much should I use for one dose?" The doctor laughed, "This is not an oral medicine. After you get home, put this eight catties of herbs into 100 catties of water and bring it to the boil. Pour all of it into a tub, then bathe in it when the temperature is right. You will be cured after taking 3 to 5 baths."

Kangxi then thought, "None of the imperial doctors can cure me with their various prescriptions but your worthless looking herb can?" The doctor saw his doubts and smiled, "Don’t you worry. I am not after your money. You can take it home and give it a try. I won’t charge you if you can’t be cured."

Kangxi said, "All right. I will reward you greatly if I am really cured." He did as he was instructed after returning to the palace. Just as expected, once he was in the tub, he immediately felt relieved and refreshed beyond words. After three baths he no longer itched and the red spots disappeared.

He was thrilled and returned to the herb shop in layman’s clothes again on the fourth day.

When the doctor saw the smiling Kangxi, he knew he had recovered. He said on purpose, "Are you here to pay me for the medicine?" Kangxi replied, "Yes, sir. How much is it?" The doctor broke into laughter, "Please forgive me. Your doubtful look the other night prompted me to deliberately say that I would not charge you if you were not cured. Well, now that you are cured I am still charging you nothing; I am impressed by your airs and graces! And may I ask if we can be friends? Can you tell me your name please?"

Kangxi smiled, "My name is Huang Tianxing. I am a scholar." The doctor was happy hearing his reply and said, "I am Zhao Gueitang. I am also a penniless scholar. My father wished my name to be on the royal list of successful candidates of the civil service examination. He hoped I could honor our ancestors but I failed with my few attempts. Now I can only run this small herb shop here in the capital, seeing patients and studying at the same time and wishing that I could make the list one day."{mospagebreak}

Kangxi replied, "My friend, as people say, ‘There’s a way for everyone.’ With your expertise, I can recommend you to be an imperial doctor. Isn’t it as good as being on the royal list?" Zhao smiled and said, "You are wrong. A doctor should think on behalf of the common people and serve their needs. Although I may enjoy the fame and fortune as an imperial doctor, it’s my wish to serve the people. If I cannot do that, what good am I as a doctor?"

Kangxi was moved to reply, "I really admire your virtue and goals. But please excuse me for saying this, my dear friend. Since you have failed to become a select scholar, why don’t you settle on the medical path where you can excel?" Zhao said, "That’s what I thought too. But this path isn’t easy, either. Although I have the will, I don’t have the money to support myself. My friend, if you get wealthy one day, maybe you can help me build a big medicinal hall. See it as a repayment for your cure!"

Without hesitation Kangxi asked, "What should we name it if we are to build the hall? Ah, let us call it ‘Ton Ren Tan.’ What do you think?" Zhao smiled and said when he realized that Kangxi had taken his joke seriously, "I am just kidding. I don’t mean it. Anyway, to build a medicinal hall takes a lot of money. God knows when you will get it?" Kangxi said, "Let’s give it a try." He then walked over to the desk, picked up the pen, wrote a note and put his chop on it. He instructed Zhao, "My friend, take it to the internal affairs bureau tomorrow. I have a friend there who may be able to help you." With these words he left.

Looking at the hurried departure of his new acquaintance, Zhao Gueitang thought how strange this man was. The next day he took the note to the internal affairs bureau. He handed it over and after a while a eunuch arrived and led him inside. They went through a yard and came to a big house. The eunuch opened the door, pointed inside and asked, "Is this enough for your medicine, Mr. Zhao?" Zhao looked inside and was shocked. The house was full of money. He was stunned. The eunuch then said, "Mr. Zhao, his majesty has instructed us to give you a medicinal hall since you cured his illness and didn’t charge him anything. Isn’t it what you wished for?"

Zhao awakened: The man he did not mind befriending was actually the emperor. He regretted his ridiculous request.

A few days later, a big medicinal hall, Ton Ren Tan, was built. Zhao moved in and on the day of the opening ceremony he was surprised by Kangxi’s unexpected appearance. Kangxi smiled, "Don’t get all flustered! I have paid your fee. You will charge me nothing for the next consultation!"

From then on, Ton Ren Tan became a famous medicinal hall in Beijing to this day.