The Lower Depths

The Hungarian Sinologist Etienne Balazs once remarked that in imperial China, “History was written by officials for officials.” The dynastic chronicles were monopolized by emperors and their ministers, by statesmen and literati. The common folk hardly appeared at all in these records, other than as an abstraction: “the peasants,” “the hundred surnames,” “the black-haired masses.” And even if they could have recognized themselves as individuals on the histories’ pages, most commoners would not have been able to understand the classical language in which the accounts were written. History was thus expressed and dominated by the imperial presence and its Confucian mandarinate. The perspective was set by the Forbidden City, where the emperor looked down upon his subjects beneath him. Rural China and its inhabitants, the poor and nameless, existed somewhere in the lower depths, under the gentry and bureaucrats who connected the ruler with the ruled.

This top-heavy image of a brooding imperial presence has by now become a cliche, but it is one not easily avoided. It is very difficult, for instance, even to see the real person of the emperor behind his own facade of rule. This was partly because the emperor was his own mythmaker. The K’ang-hsi Emperor (reigned 1661-1722), who completed the Manchu conquest of China and consolidated the rule of his Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911), not only altered the historical records to minimize the barbarian characteristics of his ancestors; he also carefully cultivated the manners of a Confucian sage-ruler, often appearing in a series of carefully selected poses before his subjects. All men play roles, but the Chinese emperor more than most rulers possessed a repertoire of stereotypes to draw upon, and consequently seemed to contemporaries more a persona than a person.

One of the first scholars to expose the individual ruler behind the imperial presence was Jonathan Spence, professor of Chinese history at Yale University. Spence’s first book Spence did even more to reveal the person beneath the dragon robes of state. Culling singular comments by K’ang-hsi from a selection of public edicts, testamentary rescripts, and private letters, Spence boldly combined these individual statements into collective discourses that reflected the emperor’s own thoughts about statecraft and moral philosophy, about riding to the hunt and commanding troops in battle, and about raising children and enduring old age. This technique of composing a single set of verbal reflections from snatches of writings scattered here and there was …

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