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Un-Chinese Activities

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 book1), 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.2 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 tense, with such a meticulous sense of detail that even when he appears to surmise what his central character is thinking, he can cite a primary source. His account begins with General Yue Zhongqi, the governor-general of two vital provinces, being carried along in his sedan chair in Xi’an (where the famous terra-cotta warriors are now exhibited). Yue was an imperial favorite and a descendant of General Yue Fei, who six hundred years before had tried to mobilize his countrymen to defend themselves against the barbarian northerners, ancestors of the Manchus, who overthrew the Song dynasty (960–1279). As a Chinese general serving the Manchus, Yue Zhongqi knew that many loyalists hoped he might be a rallying point for yet another attempt to drive out uncivilized northern occupiers.

One day he was approached by Zhang Xi, a messenger from Zeng Jing, who hoped Yue might become a champion of a Chinese resurgence. Zhang presented Yue with a letter from Zeng praising Yue as a descendant of Yue Fei and calling upon him to “seize the chance to rise in revolt, and avenge the fates of the Song and Ming.”

This treasonous and inflammatory letter claimed that the Manchu barbarians had taken advantage of Chinese weakness, and made one of the oldest claims in China, about “ethnic minorities,” a claim which is still believed by many Han Chinese, the members of the main Chinese ethnic group that makes up most of the population. Zeng Jing, who did not sign his name to the letter, said, “The barbarians are a different species from us, like animals; it is the Chinese who should stay in this land, and the barbarians who should be driven out.” Only one person, the writer went on, “The Master of the Eastern Sea,” fully understood China’s tragedy and the path to salvation; but this master was not otherwise identified.

Yue immediately grasped that what he was holding was a treasonous document. He questioned the messenger, Zhang Xi, first with a show of false kindness and then by using torture. Even though his bones were cracking Zhang refused at the start to divulge the identity of the letter writer; but he finally claimed that six provinces were ready to rise against the Qing, the same provinces that had joined the great anti-Manchu revolt which had been put down barely forty years earlier. After a few days Yue sent a full report of the interrogation thus far to the Emperor in Beijing; his messenger, part of the remarkable imperial courier system which Spence describes vividly, made the 850-mile journey over difficult terrain in a week. Soon, Zhang Xi having been forced to talk, Yue sent the Emperor two more dispatches, enclosing a full account of the letter’s author, Zeng Jing, the names of twelve other conspirators, and identifying the Master of the Eastern Sea as Lü Liuliang, a famous scholar of the late Ming and early Qing, from whose writings the conspirators took inspiration.

The Emperor read all these materials. They made charges he had heard before: that he had usurped the throne, murdered his brothers, and was an avaricious man obsessed with sex. He had plenty of worries anyway, as Spence points out (although less plainly than in The Search for Modern China), about the legitimacy of the Manchu dynasty as Confucian rulers; he was concerned with the security of borders and the loyalty of non-Han tribes living within the borders. Suspicious of his own courtiers and officials, he also had doubts about the effects of foreign trade on China. He disliked foreigners, including Western missionaries. He was especially suspicious of men from Zhejiang province, which lies along the Yangtze and was the home of the dead scholar Lü Liuliang, who was beginning to look like a very dangerous man indeed.

The Emperor now made use of the Manchus’ astonishing web of secret communication and surveillance—which Spence masterfully describes. He wanted all the conspirators rounded up—some lived in almost inaccessible parts of rural China—and he asked for information about other possible dangers. But instead of ordering that Zeng and his immediate family be executed by “slicing,” a lingering agony, together with similar punishments for the other conspirators, Yongzheng decided that while Zeng Jing’s arguments and accusations may be “patent” to himself, “they are phrased in an oddly convincing way; and if he is not simply to ignore them altogether, it will be necessary to produce counterarguments.” The Emperor therefore initiated a long series of rebuttals; how he did so and what he said are the main subjects of Spence’s book.

Spence describes how Yongzheng, using the imperial vermilion ink and paper and employing his refined calligraphy, began a refutation of Zeng Jing’s allegations that would consume well over a year. He denied that he was a usurper; no one was more filial than he and no one had ever had so many disloyal brothers. He was neither voracious for money nor sexually depraved. Indeed, “I have often said of myself that there is no one in the country who dislikes sex as much as I do.” As for the Manchus being uncivilized and illegitimate barbarian rulers, it was not they but Chinese rebels who struck down the Ming dynasty and it was the Manchus who, with their new Qing dynasty, had restored Confucian rule, even performing sacrifices at the tombs of Ming emperors.

All this the Emperor set down in eighty-three pages, which were then read out to all the senior officials in Beijing. Within a few months the Emperor had arranged for hundreds of copies of his edict to be copied and thousands more to be printed so that his views could be “distributed so as to reach the fullest number of people possible, down to the poorest villages and meanest homes.”

This was an unusual thing to do, but there was a precedent in the early Ming, between 1380 and 1390, when the dynastic founder also spread his views widely. The Qing emperor was thus cunningly using a practice of the Ming rulers, said by Lü Liuliang’s followers to be “paragons of Chinese virtue,” to broadcast his own beliefs as the Manchu emperor.

By the spring of 1729 the Emperor’s agents were rounding up and interrogating suspects, their families, and their friends throughout central China. On December 4 the year before, a squad of soldiers arrested Zeng Jing. Brought to Changsha, the provincial capital, he readily admitted that the writings of Lü Liuliang had driven him to write to General Yue. He also told his interrogators that he has been in contact with travelers from many parts of China who passed on rumors and more rumors of disaffection with the Manchus, especially allegations of immoral misconduct against the present ruler.

In Xi’an, meanwhile, General Yue heard rumors that he had himself been plotting to overthrow the dynasty. The general was also reading some of the less well known works of Lü Liuliang. Lü’s commentaries on the basic Confucian canon were used in schools throughout China. They were certainly not subversive. But what Yue found alarming were Lü’s less famil-iar writings, which had ignited Zeng Jing’s anti-Manchu passions; it emerged that Lü, who had been born in the late Ming—in 1629—and died under the Manchus in 1682, despised all collaborators with the Manchus. He yearned for the “return of our rivers and mountains,” the famous (and perhaps apocryphal) rallying cry of General Yue Fei hundreds of years earlier.

In her searching study of ethnic rule and identity, A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology, Pamela Crossley, Spence’s doctoral student at Yale, now professor of history at Dartmouth and a leading scholar of the Manchu period, notes that Lü was one of the absolutist Chinese nationalists who

came close to unqualified assertion that there were virtually no historical forces capable of turning barbarians into civilized people. Instead, they saw civilization locked in a life-or-death struggle against its surrounding barbarities.

  1. 1

    Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi (Knopf, 1974).

  2. 2

    The first full account in English was by L.C. Goodrich, professor of Chinese at Columbia (and my first teacher of Chinese history) in 1935 in his The Literary Inquisition of Ch’ien-lung (Waverly). Then came the biography by Fang Chao-ying of Tseng Ching (now spelled Zeng Jing), Spence’s central character, in Arthur W. Hummel’s Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period (US Government Printing Office, 1943). Fang’s closely packed two-page account contains the essence of the story told in Treason by the Book. A full discussion of the Zeng Jing affair appeared in a 1974 Princeton Ph.D. dissertation by Thomas S. Fisher, “Lü Liu-liang (1629–1683) and the Tseng Ching Case (1728–1733).” Further accounts are to be found in Spence’s The Search for Modern China (Norton, 1990), pp. 84–89; F.W. Mote’s Imperial China, 900–1800 (Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 897–900; and Pamela Kyle Crossley’s A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (University of California Press, 1999), pp. 246–262.

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