Grand Strategy: The Kangxi Emperor

The odds were slim that the Kangxi Emperor’s dynasty would survive long in 1667. But the odds of surviving smallpox had not been so great, after all, and the boy who would become emperor had lived through that[i].

When Kangxi assumed the throne at the age of 14, however, the Qing dynasty faced not one threat, but threats from nearly every direction. To the west, barbarian tribes warred with each other in the mountains and grasslands and threatened to again disrupt the empire’s heartlands[ii]. To the north, traders and hunters from another vast agrarian empire probed at China’s frontiers[iii]. To the southeast, a pirate kingdom that had long defied imperial control roved the waters off their base in Taiwan, along with a new kind of seafaring barbarian, this one from the faraway European continent[iv]. And in the south and southwest, traitors-turned-lords who had once joined the Qing to topple the Ming bridled at attempts to constrain their autonomy and threatened revolt[v].

Taken alone, each of these weakened the Qing body. Taken together, such a disease-ridden body likely did not have long to live. So when the Kangxi Emperor took power at 14, he set out to cure his empire of its illnesses and strengthen its immunity, to annihilate those who would threaten it and harden it against future threats. The Kangxi Emperor’s grand strategy—want he wanted for his empire and how he would try to get it—used diplomacy where expedient and military strength where possible to unify a fragmented land, to consolidate Manchurian minority rule over the majority Han Chinese population, and to expand the empire’s borders to reinforce its security.

It was a strategy that required a combination of strategic triage, calculated patience, and decisive action. And when the Kangxi Emperor was finished, the empire would not only be whole and hale, it would be larger and stronger than it had been in centuries—even if a personal vendetta and rapid expansion would also leave the empire vulnerable in future generations.

Critical to the implementation of Kangxi’s grand strategy was his ability decide where to act and when, and then to act decisively. This was true even in the earliest years of his reign. Although the empire faced numerous external threats in the 1660s, it also strained under ethnic tension between the minority Manchu conquerors and their majority Han subjects[vi]. That tension would be especially dangerous it ruptured in the face of revolt by the Han general Wu Sangui and his compatriots, Chinese generals who wished to hold on to the authority and autonomy they’d earned by helping the Manchu conquer the Ming China decades before.

The initial steps, then, in Kangxi’s grand strategy were these: First, eliminate the internal threat posed by his harsh and nativist Manchurian regents, who had inflamed those ethnic tensions with their policies enforcing Manchurian racial superiority[vii]. And second, eliminate the threat posed by the Chinese generals who’d been granted feudatories in the south and southwest and who might ride racial tensions and their already sizable armies to an insurgency against the Qing[viii].

For two years after assuming personal rule in 1667, Kangxi waited, ruling within the constraints of his regency and heeding his advisors. Then in 1669, he suddenly arrested his chief advisor on a detailed list of crimes and purged the upper ranks of his government. With his political power unchallenged, Kangxi could move more freely against Wu Sangui and the other feudatories in the south and southwest. To test the new emperor’s will, Wu Sangui had in 1667 offered his resignation from service. Kangxi had then declined and delayed. In 1673, another general, Shang Kexi, offered his resignation. This time, Kangxi, his authority cemented, ignored his advisors and accepted. The generals revolted, and the Three Feudatories Rebellion ignited[ix].

Wu Sangui and his fellow rebels also found support among the pirates of Taiwan[x]. Previously under the leadership of Koxinga, the Zheng family’s “merchant” fleets had not only defied Qing attempts to bring them and their island under control, they had also defeated the Dutch and forced them from a colony at Taipei[xi]. But Koxinga was long dead, and leadership of the rebellion fell to Wu Sangui, who himself died in 1678[xii]. After Wu’s death, Kangxi’s forces crushed the devolving rebellion, bringing the southwest, south, and Taiwan back under firm imperial control and eliminating the major internal threats to Qing rule[xiii].

With the threat of major rebellion excised, Kangxi could turn his attention to the next greatest threat: Europeans. The European problem presented itself in two places, one by land in northern Manchuria and one by sea along China’s coast. Imperial China has frequently been accused of a continental bias. The accusation does not hold up[xiv]. Kangxi, specifically, worried about the Europeans on their boats and what their appearance might portend[xv]. But with Taiwan under Qing control and the pirates—who it would be noted had themselves beaten the Europeans—defeated, Kangxi decided to turn focus instead to his northern frontier, where Russian fur traders had been following the sable and other animals into China’s frontiers and where Russians had even won a first battle against Chinese forces in 1652[xvi].

In 1685, Kangxi ordered an attack on a wooden Russian garrison at Albazin on the Amur River but allowed the defeated defenders to flee back to Russia[xvii]. When the Russians returned as expected, Kangxi’s initial show of force had the desired effect. The Russians, more aware of Chinese military power, agreed to sit down with the Qing to demarcate borders and reach a deal on trade[xviii]. The resulting Treaty of Nerchinsk—the first of its kind between China Russia—gave everyone what they wanted[xix]. Both got a clear border demarcation at the Amur. The Russians got rights to trade[xx]. And the Qing got Russian neutrality in the war against Galdan[xxi].

It was another deft and crucial act of strategic triage. Even before Kangxi began dealing with the Russians, Mongolian tribes in China’s western hinterlands had again erupted in internecine violence[xxii]. Many tribes had united under the chieftain Galdan. His swelling Dzungar confederacy threatened to annihilate the Qing-aligned Khalkha, who had fled into Chinese lands[xxiii]. By 1688, this had become a serious problem, and Galdan also sought further support from the Russians[xxiv]. Kangxi feared an agreement would pull Russia into Central Asia and hinder his objectives there[xxv]. Russian neutrality was, therefore, worth territory and trade rights[xxvi]. So Kangxi expedited negotiations in Manchuria and secured the Nerchinsk agreement with Russia, blocking Galdan[xxvii]. Then, after years of failed diplomacy in Mongolia, Kangxi decided in 1690 to personally lead an expedition into the west to kill Galdan and bring the territory under Chinese control—to colonize Central Asia and finally end the Mongolian threat[xxviii].

It would take not one but three expensive and frustrating expeditions of stretched supply lines and stymied logistics to destroy the Dzungar power, each one of which hardened Kangxi’s hatred and determination to kill Galdan[xxix]. In 1697, an isolated Galdan at last died mysteriously on the steppe[xxx]. Kangxi never got the satisfaction of killing him.

With Galdan’s death, Kangxi’s grand strategy had largely been realized. He had brought the formerly Ming areas to heel and expanded his empire to include vast new tracts in the west. Using strategic triage, patience, and decisive action, Kangxi had crushed his enemies, unified and expanded his empire, and consolidated his authority. Through diplomacy and force, Kangxi had demonstrated that the Qing Dynasty did indeed deserve the Mandate of Heaven and had legitimized Manchurian rule. When Kangxi took the throne, Qing China was divided and sick. By the end of the 17th century, it was large, unified, and strong. Yes, Kangxi’s vendetta against Galdan had been wasteful and impractical—a departure from strategy—and the massive new territories gained by it would prove difficult to administer.

Those were failings of Kangxi’s grand strategy. But they were failings for future generations—generations that likely only had a chance to fail because the Kangxi Emperor’s grand strategy bestowed that chance upon them.

[i] Perdue, Peter C. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London  England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Westad, Odd Arne. Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 (New York, New York: Basic Books, 2012).
[iv] Khan, Sulmaan. “The Grand Strategy of Kangxi” (class lecture, The Foreign Relations of Modern China, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Medford, Massachusetts, September 12, 2018).
[v] Perdue. China Marches West.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Khan. “The Grand Strategy of Kangxi”.
[xi] Khan, Sulmaan. “The Qing Conquest of China” (class lecture, The Foreign Relations of Modern China, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Medford, Massachusetts, September 2018)
[xii] Perdue. China Marches West.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Khan. “The Grand Strategy of Kangxi”.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Ibid.
[xix] Westad. Restless Empire.
[xx] Ibid.
[xxi] Ibid.
[xxii]Khan. “The Grand Strategy of Kangxi”.
[xxiii] Perdue. China Marches West.
[xxiv] Ibid.
[xxv] Westad. Restless Empire.
[xxvi] Ibid.
[xxvii] Khan. “The Grand Strategy of Kangxi”.
[xxviii] Perdue. China Marches West.
[xxix] Khan. “The Grand Strategy of Kangxi
[xxx] Perdue. China Marches West

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