In the first week of November 1728, China’s Emperor Yongzheng (who reigned between 1723 and 1735) ruled over something like 200 million people and the vast territory that Beijing today claims as the People’s Republic. He had plenty on his mind. He was only the third ruler since 1644, when his non-Chinese forebears, the Manchus, seized Beijing from the Ming dynasty, established the Qing dynasty, and with the collaboration of many Chinese, but by no means all, set about conquering China.
When Yongzheng, at age forty-five, came to the throne, succeeding hiscelebrated father, Kangxi (who reigned from 1661 to 1722 and about whom Jonathan Spence wrote a fascinating earlier book), the stability of the empire was uncertain and Manchu rule itself seemed perpetually threatened by millions still longing for a resumption of Ming, or at least Chinese, rule. Most of the people in central China, in the regions watered by the Yangtze River, were regarded by the Manchus as disloyal, if not treasonous. Artists painted gnarled trees and jagged rocks, which were understood to symbolize the endurance and defiance of Chinese intellectuals. Some nationally respected writers stated openly in their essays that it was the moral duty of the civilized Chinese to slaughter all barbarians. A vigorous rebellion by three generals who had earlier helped the Manchus seize power had been finally crushed only forty years before, and there were rebellions and uprisings in Taiwan, the south, and the southwest. Christian missionaries, opium growers, silk workers, and the Russians all were seen as threats to Manchu authority. Kangxi had left the government in financial doldrums; taxation and even the currency itself required urgent attention. The emperor, Yongzheng, constantly frightened of disloyalty, imprisoned and killed some of his many brothers and trusted only one of them.
In Jonathan Spence’s general history, The Search for Modern China, but not in this new book, there is a full-length portrait of Yongzheng, dressed in a simple scholar’s robe. He is holding an open book. The Emperor, wan, patient, looks directly at the artist. One foot, in soft riding boots, is poised under the hard couch on which he sits, as if he could spring up at any moment to attend to his world of duties. Into this emperor’s life in late 1728 came news of a challenge to his power so alarming that he spent much of the rest of his life dealing with it. It is to this story that Jonathan Spence, professor of history at Yale, once again applies his exceptional skills as a document-hunter, historian, and storyteller.
The story itself concerns the attempt by Zeng Jing, an unimportant provincial teacher, to instigate a revolution against the Manchus. It is well known in China and has been explored before, as Spence acknowledges. Although Spence adds relatively little to what was already known about a curious and brief episode, he recites it in his customary clear prose. He writes, as he usually does, in the present …