Sitting on Top of the World

Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi

by Jonathan D. Spence
Knopf, 218 pp., $8.95

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.

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’.

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 …

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